What philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ arises when ‘things or facts of one kind or category are presented as if they belonged to another.’ Put differently, it is a mistake to ascribe to some object a characteristic that belongs to objects of a different category. Such as, this piano has a pink sound, or these mice are neurotic. Or treating God as human or calling a symphony ‘socialist’ – or ‘capitalist’. Or using political values to evaluate science.
Some examples appear from the following piece in The New York Times, where reactions to the corona virus, an issue for the objective science of medicine, are treated as if the virus was an issue of partisan party politics and the financial hunger of Fox News.
What are some of the forces driving the split between those who prioritize the economy and those whose primary concern is the physical health of the population?
A W Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, emailed in response to my inquiry:
‘Progressives have grown more likely to embrace a culture of ‘safetyism’ in recent years. This safetyism seeks to protect them and those who are deemed the most vulnerable members of our society from threats to their emotional and physical well-being.’
In the case of Covid-19, he continued,
‘…progressives are willing to embrace the maximal measures to protect themselves, the public, and the most vulnerable among us from this threat’.
In contrast, according to Wilcox,
‘….many conservatives are most concerned about protecting the American way of life, a way of life they see as integrally bound up with liberty and the free market’.
Because many on the political right see the lockdowns as impinging ‘on their liberty, the free market’s workings, and their financial well-being,’ he continued, ‘many conservatives want the lockdowns ended as quickly as possible.’
In addition, Wilcox noted, ‘some (especially male) conservatives see the lockdowns and mask wearing as expressions of cowardice that they reject as unmanly.’
Labels are dangerous enough at the best of times, but when you take them from the wrong box, you get the kind of intellectual mayhem described in the article.
Of course, politics come into it when a government considers what powers it should invoke to deal with the pandemic. But the first thing to do is to get the best medical advice on how to deal with it.
Then there is the problem with experts. If a doctor is the only thing between you and death, you lap up his or her expertise as gratefully as you can – especially if you do not understand it but proceed on faith. But if the issue is one for the community at large, then many want us to place our faith on the basis of some ideological divide. That may just be the biggest category mistake of the lot.
One reason for the aversion of some to expertise is that they fear that it is the gateway to government intervention.
Another reason is, in my view, raw arrogance born of unnerving insecurity. In professional people, that reaction is lethal. Among the politically driven, it looks sadly inevitable.
And the worst offenders – serial offenders – are those rigid souls in think tanks clustered at an uncomely part of the spectrum. Their indoctrination, both emotive and intellectual, means that they see the world through their own made-to-order prism, and the result is that they are both predictable – nauseatingly predictable – and wrong.
I like this stuff. I really get it… People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said ‘How do you know so much about this?’
New York Times, 21 May 2020
The President knows best. Who needs doctors?