A “nuanced” position isn’t always correct

March 20, 2014

In discussion of Samuel Gershman’s rather good piece The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing, I got into this discusson on Twitter with David Mainwaring (who is usually one of the more interesting legacy-publisher representatives on these issues) and Daniel Allingon (who I don’t know at all).

I’ll need to give a bit of background before I reach the key part of that discussion, so here goes. I said that one of David’s comments was a patronising evasion, and that I expected better of him, and also that it was an explicit refusal to engage. David’s response was interesting:

First, to clear up the first half, I wasn’t at all saying that David hasn’t engaged in OA, but that in this instance he’d rejected engagement — and that his previous record of engaging with the issues was why I’d said “I expect better from you” at the outset.

Now with all that he-said-she-said out of the way, here’s the point I want to make.

David’s tweet quoted above makes a very common but insidious assumption: that a “nuanced” argument is intrinsically preferable to a simple one. And we absolutely mustn’t accept that.

We see this idea again and again: open-access advocates are criticised for not being nuanced, with the implication that this equates with not being right. But the right position is not always nuanced. Recruiting Godwin to the cause of a reductio ad absurdum, we can see this by asking the question “was Hitler right to commit genocide?” If you say “no”, then I will agree with you; I won’t criticise your position for lacking nuance. In this argument, nuance is superfluous.

[Tedious but probably necessary disclaimer: no, I am not saying that paywall-encumbered publishing is morally equivalent to genocide. I am saying that the example of genocide shows that nuanced positions are not always correct, and that therefore it's wrong to assume a priori that a nuanced position regarding paywalls is correct. Maybe a nuanced position is correct: but that is something to be demonstrated, not assumed.]

So when David says “What I do hold to is that a rounded view, nuance, w/ever you call it, is important”, I have to disagree. What matters is to be right, not nuanced. Again, sometimes the right position is nuanced, but there’s no reason to assume that from the get-go.

Here’s why this is dangerous: a nuanced, balanced, rounded position sounds so grown up. And by contrast, a straightforward, black-and-white one sounds so adolescent. You know, a straightforward, black-and-white position like “genocide is bad”. The idea of nuance plays on our desire to be respected. It sounds so flattering.

We mustn’t fall for this. Our job is to figure out what’s true, not what sounds grown-up.

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One Response to “A “nuanced” position isn’t always correct”


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