Nitpicking is the lowest form of criticism

In general, pedantic nitpicking isn’t one tenth as insightful as it might seem. In a pointed critique, it’s best to think holistically about big, central ideas and refute on that level.

It’s harder work, since it requires a close reading to truly grapple with and comprehend the idea one aims to dismantle. It’s also more risky, because there’s more “skin in the game”; big-picture theses necessarily depend on advancing certain generalisations, summations and interpretations of opposing positions, exposing the critic to accusations of having failed to properly understand what they’re assailing.

As with many gambles in nature, however, there’s a risk-reward ratio here. Fortune favours the bold. Engaging at a high level is lot more efficient, effective and persuasive, but you’ve got to put yourself out there. That is why taking small pot shots at ideas from the sidelines is a more popular sport; guerilla warfare from a sniper position, ensconced in the foliage, is a lot safer. It’s a common refuge of intellects too feeble or cowardly to wrestle with the main corpus.

However, not everyone whose criticism operates on technicalities is feeble or a coward. Some simply don’t understand that it’s not generally insightful. I’ve commonly encountered this in two areas.

One is in academic disciplines in the humanities, where bright-eyed, bushy-tailed graduate students, often young, uninitiated and not capable of much original thinking in their field, fall prey to great institutional pressures to “publish or perish” into the sizzling carousel of spam cite-able research work. A seductive, intellectually lazy cop-out for them is to bring a little of the quantitative “rigour” of the hard sciences to the reputedly equivocal headspaces of their fields by “troubling” broad claims with pedantic caveats. And so, conference papers and entire dissertations are built on the dubious notion that there’s something meaningful to be illuminated in demonstrating that yes, Virginia, there do exist exceptions to generalisations!

Another bastion of notionally insightful pedanticism is techies, and more broadly, technocrats. The kinds of left-brained–if you’ll excuse the pop psychology–people who are stereotypically drawn to mathematics and computer science often seem to have an axe to grind with the humanities and “soft” sciences. Many programmers get into software in part because they are powerfully drawn, at an aesthetic and psychological level, to disciplines with finite, deterministic, and self-consistent systems of deductively logical rules. Such systems are not only elegant in their eyes, but appeal strongly to their sense of justice and fairness. Clear, distinct, binary, black-and-white right and wrong answers leave little to whims, tastes, customs and habits.

And so, aggrieved and slighted by the “subjectivity” of some literature, arts, history or philosophy professor in their past–fields for which they did not show exceptional aptitude–they find in pedantry a personal vehicle for restitutive vindication. If they can just show that not all truisms in sociology apply to everyone, they’ll expose the whole field for the colossal tower of bullshit that it is! There are powerful currents of vicious contempt circulating in the technocracy for anything not “user-friendly”–that is, problems which threaten to burden the thinker with consideration of relative meaning and varied interpretation. As most crystal balls into future of private sector employment in the developed world prophecy demand for human thought processes and skills that are complementary to machine intelligence, I do worry about what this means for the already imperiled state of the liberal arts.

Anyway, there are certainly some claims where small details matter or whose foundations can be invalidated by singular exceptions. Such quality control is table stakes for the design of satellite guidance systems and aircraft engines, for the teaching of open-heart surgery, and the certification of medications for sale. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Still, before being “that guy”–ever quick on the draw with the “actually…”–it’s wise to ask onesself in an honest and open-minded way: if I pull this block out, will the whole tower collapse? Or have I spun my wheels, emitting a lot of heat and light into the cold emptiness of space, in committing a disposable, utterly forgettable act of superficial vandalism?

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