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Good-Faith Reading vs. Adversarial Reading

In response to recent Cafe Hayek posts – here and here – on the appallingly mistaken reading of Leonard Read’s great 1958 essay, “I, Pencil,” Washington University economist Ian Fillmore sent to me the following excellent e-mail. I share it here, in full, with Ian’s kind permission.

Hi Don,

I’ve been thinking about this. I think there are (at least) two different kinds of “reading.”

The first, which I’ll call good faith reading makes a sincere attempt to understand what the author is trying to say. In good faith reading, the goal is to understand the author and the ideas he is trying to express. This will require some charity, since no one’s ideas are perfect nor does anyone express himself perfectly. Good faith reading assumes that the writer is doing his best to explain his thinking and avoids ascribing motives or views that the author does not explicitly endorse. When ambiguities, tensions or contradictions arise in the author’s writings, we try to reconcile them in a way that most faithfully hews to the author’s views more broadly.

The second, which I’ll call adversarial reading, asks “How can I use the words on the page to support the argument I already want to make?” The focus is not on understanding the writer and what he is trying to say. In adversarial reading, the adversary may be the author himself, or it may be some third party. Either way, the focus is on finding ammunition for an argument you are already determined to make. From this perspective, ambiguities, tensions, or contradictions present openings to exploit rather than opportunities to engage deeper with the author’s ideas. In adversarial reading, the reader often finds it useful to adopt an attitude of deliberate obtuseness, lest the actual message of the author interfere with the entire exercise.

When someone who has engaged in a thorough good faith reading of author A encounters someone who has engaged in an adversarial reading of author A, it can be quite disorienting. What’s more, to a debate audience the adversarial reader can often sound better informed about A’s views than the good faith reader (hence why so many people choose adversarial reading). But in the end, adversarial reading is just a shallow word game and is the antithesis of genuine scholarship. It mistakes cleverness for knowledge and wit for wisdom.

Ian Fillmore

DBx: Beautifully and wisely said.

Academic fora now are flooded with adversarial readers – people such as Nancy MacLean, Sandy Darity, and the ‘scholars’ who read “I, Pencil” as an account of the work of a deity.

A related point occurs to me. Adversarial readers frequently accuse persons with whom they disagree of doing “dog whistles” – messages supposedly meant to communicate the sinister ideas of the whistlers only with others in the whistlers’ ideological camp. “Dog whistles” on their face, or taken literally, are innocent.

But this habit of accusing others of “dog whistling” is subject to a well-known and correct criticism used to debunk conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists interpret the absence of evidence of the conspiracy as proof of the conspiracy’s reality. Of course, this move is epistemological nonsense. Likewise, those persons hurling accusations of “dog whistling” use the absence of any incriminating words as evidence that the ‘whistler’ is guilty of conveying a sinister message.