There is no more important question when evaluating our personal beliefs, public policy, or science than, “What evidence would cause me to change my opinion?” If you can’t answer that question you are being, by definition, unreasonable.
Will Wilkinson on the Democracy in America blog at The Economist plays the game with some hot-button political issues in response to Charles Murray’s argument that says,
Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.
That’s as clear-cut of an admission of irrationality as I’ve seen.
I largely agree with Wilkinson so I won’t cover the topics above, but I think it’d be entertaining to go through some others:
Different approaches to argument work better or worse for different people. Some people need coddling, while someone else’s frontal cortex requires defibrillator shocks to jolt it into a logical rhythm. A few studies I’m aware of suggest that most people become harder to persuade if you insult them directly, however I’m unaware of the effect on an audience not directly subjected to the insult. Anecdotally, it seems plausible that making certain positions embarrassing can marginalize the belief. Regardless which approach works best, I’d like to dispel a misunderstanding about ad hominem fallacies.
Whenever faced with harsh criticism or mockery, many people seek to neutralize their opponent by entangling them in the fallacy. These modern retiarius gladiators often miss; the rete netting just isn’t as wide as they believe.
An argument isn’t logically invalid because it is harsh or because it utilizes mockery – it only breaks down if the argument irrelevantly links a personal attack to the validity of the argument itself. For example, I read Jonathan Chait’s blog and often enjoy his rhetorical stabs. In a recent post, he attacks “Paul Ryan’s Innumeracy” - the title itself insults Ryan’s personal abilities, but Chait seeks to demonstrate the erroneousness of Ryan’s numbers to illustrate Ryan’s “innumeracy.” In contrast, if he argued that Ryan is innumerate, therefore the numbers are wrong we’d have a fallacy. I’ve accused Paul Ryan’s opponents of using ad hominem against him before and where they tried to demonstrate why they see him as a “charlatan” I may have overshot even if I’m not convinced he’s deliberately deceitful.
Not every occasion calls for it, but I’m comfortable ridiculing religious and monetary cranks when their positions warrant it. Their arguments aren’t wrong because they are cranks; they’ve demonstrated their crankery through their beliefs. Labeling David Barton a “pseudo-historian” isn’t a flaw in my argument, it’s a well-earned moniker. If Ta-Nehisi Coates points that out the Tea Party or Donald Trump engaged in racism, he isn’t being fallacious, he’s providing an accurate description of their actions.
Glenn Greenwald explains the importance of personal focus:
When I criticize a specific idea, I usually do so not by examining it in the abstract, but by focusing on a particular person’s expression of that idea. That’s how one avoids fighting strawmen and ensuring accountability (I strongly prefer “X wrote” instead of “some say”). But the focus for me is always on the idea, not its personal advocate. The point of this post was not that Kevin Drum is a mindless, subservient follower of the President’s (the fact that I said I read him regularly and find it worthwhile should make clear that I don’t think that). The point was that Kevin Drum expressed an idea that I found worthy of criticism, both because it was wrong and consequential (consequential because I encounter it frequently enough to make it worthy of examination). That style of engaging arguments (“X said Y and it’s very wrong”) can sometimes appear more personal than it is (especially for the person whose idea is being criticized), but it almost never is about the person; identifying a specific expression of an idea is, in my view, the only way to criticize the idea honestly and rigorously.
If I were to argue that you shouldn’t believe what the Dalai Lama has to say on meditation because he holds wacky evidence-free ideas such as reincarnation, I’d be engaging in a fallacious ad hominem attack. But if I’m criticizing the Dalai Lama for holding wacky evidence-free ideas such as reincarnation, it’s not inappropriate to notice his superstitions.
Too often bigots, fools, and crybabies propel this flashy weapon to protect themselves from criticism by distracting the audience. Even if your attacker taunts you, standing above your argument’s vulnerable body, you must rebut the substance of his valid criticisms to prevent a negative pollice verso.
So if Dan Savage wants to remind people of the filth that Rick Santorum spreads about homosexuals by turning his name into a neologism (NSFW) that’s not an example of incorrect logic – Santorum policy views still must be judged on their merits. For those of you that find his policy views persuasive, here’s a campaign sticker you can print out:
Most of us are aware of the religious crank that wants to burn some paper in Gainsville, Florida. I think “Democracy in America” has the perfect reaction to the controversy.
What a great way to report objectionable or violent publicity stunts, right? What could be more frustrating for a publicity-seeking extremist than to have the media refuse to report their cause? “Men set off bomb to publicise their message.” “Youths insult people to publicise their message.” Or, more recently, “Group will burn texts to seek media hype.”
The lesson of that incident wasn’t that you can find some jerk somewhere who will disrespect what some group finds holy — that was trivial and uninteresting, and I actually had to ignore many of the elaborate suggestions for cracker disposal sent my way to emphasize the absolute triviality of tossing a cracker/piece of Jesus in the trash. No, the real lesson was that mobs of people will react with irrational freakish hysteria to the idea that other people don’t believe as they do.
The problem isn’t the desecrators. The problem is the people who have an unwarranted sense of privilege, that their beliefs wil not be questioned or criticized, ever, by anyone. What I was saying was that it was to believe a cracker turns into Jesus, and what all the outraged Catholics were doing is to an awesome degree just how mad their beliefs were, with their prolonged and excessive outrage.
So I’m looking at this recent episode with Terry Jones — a fellow I don’t like at all, and I think he’s a fanatical goofball — and I see that the serious problem here isn’t Jones at all…it’s all the lunatics who are insisting that burning the Koran is a major international catastrophe. (my emphasis)
If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore. It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims. America was not attacked by Islam, but it was also not attacked by Jainism. Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are. Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.
The more we give into cultural blackmail which demands that we respect beliefs we don’t hold, that we yield to the sensitivities of Christians and Muslims, or that we embrace American conservatives’ convenient willingness to tout “the moral superiority of victimhood” the tougher our task will be to break the stranglehold these forces have on liberty, reason, and uncontrived peace. Real harmony will not be won through a cultural version of M.A.D. Be tolerant or else. Don’t criticize or else. Close your eyes to hypocrisy or else. Excuse away our immorality or else.
I promised my thoughts on Sam Harris’s TED talk - I also watched a longer version of the talk which he gave at Google containing a worthwhile Q&A session.
My thoughts below the fold.
Sam Harris always impresses me and I’m incredibly excited about this book. Although I don’t think he completely breaks through Hume’s “is/ought” barrier [update: see below], Harris adequately demonstrates that a science of morality is possible and objective facts can be known about moral systems. His major insight is to recognize that morality is really about answering questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Once that move is made it becomes clear that objective values exist – actions either correspond to promoting greater well-being or they don’t. No matter how you parse it, murdering innocent babies doesn’t lead to greater flourishing of human well-being.
Harris, wisely, doesn’t claim that he or science currently knows all the answers to our moral dilemmas, only that it is possible that discoverable truths exist and that we should admit that we know more then nothing. Furthermore, Harris paints us a picture of our potential moral universe where different answers to moral questions can exist. That does not imply that all responses are equally valid. If you imagine his “moral landscape” it has many peaks and valleys. His analogy to health helps the most: a practically unlimited amount of different types of food can all lead to greater health (itself a fussy concept) but that doesn’t mean that poison is food or that science can’t identify objective truths about health-related questions.
I assume most of my concerns will be addressed in his 300+ page book; I eagerly await. For example, I’m curious if he thinks science can help us adjudicate between different peaks – not just map them. It wasn’t obvious to me how that would be possible. If two peaks are equally tall is the choice just personal or societal preference? Also, he argues that science can inform us about the objective moral worth of different political systems, which seems true if you accept his premises. Of course, if one expands morality to more then just well-being the moral landscape’s bedrock might become more fragile. As soon as I started thinking about various political systems, I began wondering about how the concept of liberty would be viewed through Harris’s moral microscope.
Maybe the argument is invalid but it seems a strong case can be made that liberty is a moral value that doesn’t rely on well-being as its foundation. Sure, supports can be garnered to strengthen the moral case for liberty but humans, for example, could theoretically be worse off because of liberty and a strong case can still be made for its moral value. Kant, of course, made a strong moral case that humans are ends not means. Therefore, conscious beings as autonomous agents might make suboptimal decisions, but restricting their free choice through a benevolent paternalism might be less moral even if it leads to greater well-being. Robert Nozick like Harris argues that values exist (he argues they are independent of us) and makes a moral case for rights and liberty without a necessary appeal to well-being. I know Harris is familiar with Nozick and other philosophers who value rights and liberty, so I’m very excited to see how he deals with these issues. Does he believe that rights are just useful tools to achieving greater well-being or does he believe that they are valuable for their own sake? I hope to expand on this topic further – if anyone finds out Harris’s opinion on these issues or if you want to take your own crack at it feel free to comment.
[Update: Sam writes a lengthy response to a lot of the critiques of his lecture (including some issues I brought up]:
All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.
Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that wellbeing is what we can intelligibly value—and “morality” (whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be) reallyrelates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about wellbeing anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term “wellbeing” could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.
The New York Times reports:
In a further blow to the antivaccine movement, three judges ruled Friday in three separate cases that thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury, does not cause autism.
Thank goodness the science continues to trump the pseudoscience.
Those who (like me) oppose ObamaCare, need to understand (also like me, unfortunately) what it’s like to be serially rejected by insurance companies even though you’re perfectly healthy. It’s an enraging, anxiety-inducing, indelible experience, one that both softens the intellectual ground for increased government intervention and produces active resentment toward anyone who argues that the U.S. has “the best health care in the world.”[...]
Two of my favorite bloggers have a back and forth on the question of theodicy, or why evil exists in the world. I usually find Sullivan clear headed and direct but on questions of faith his thinking clearly muddles. Here’s the roundup:
One of my favorite science writers at The New York Times shares her thoughts on the Simon Singh libel case. She worries it is having a chilling effect on science journalism because science writers will be too worried to be too critical of someone.
The problem the libel laws create is not so much that critical stories can’t be written, but that they won’t be. As the conversations I had this summer show, for many journalists and their employers the potential for a libel case is a powerful deterrent to criticism: the pieces aren’t worth the hassle. Singh has commented that “if I successfully defend my article, I will have had to have put my career on hold for probably two years, and it will cost me perhaps £25,000 [about $41,500] because I am unlikely to recover all my costs. And if I lose my case, then it will cost me roughly £500,000 [$800,000]. Fighting and winning is bad enough; fighting and losing is catastrophic.”