[Content note: An elaboration of something I’ve tried to describe before. I didn’t even try to avoid serious political issues this time. Welfare, death penalty, generational conflict, religion.]
This is a follow-up to “Speculations of my inner gadfly“.
In my earlier gadfly-related post, I tried to describe an idea that had been buzzing around in my head for some time (pun intended? I’m not sure) which helps to describe how I view certain types of disagreements and bad arguments. I think it turned out to be one of my better-written entries for this blog and by some measures seems to have been the most popular. And yet, when I look back on it, I feel like I was mostly pointing out something already obvious to everyone (despite my repeated hedging of “I don’t mean only to point out the obvious here…”) and didn’t manage to really capture of the essence of the common role of “gadfly speculations” as I see it. This post will be in large part an attempt to clarify my ideas by taking the whole “gadfly” concept in a slightly different direction. (By the way, most of the terminology and metaphors I’ve come up with so far for expressing my thoughts on this blog make me wince, but I think I actually like the general gadfly metaphor, so I’m going to run with it as long as it doesn’t wear out.)
I. The inevitable truth of grand-scale speculations
Before really getting into the meat-and-potatoes of this post, I need to clarify one important point. In the other gadfly-related essay, I described inconvenient, perhaps ridiculous-sounding possibilities which may or may not turn out to be correct (and very often aren’t) but stressed that we have to face them anyway rather than brush them aside. I pointed out that you can always evaluate their likelihood later, but it’s important to at least let them enter your conscious consideration first. While this certainly wasn’t an invalid point for me to make, I’m afraid it may have been misleading in terms of conveying the way I usually think of “gadfly speculations”.
The fact is that most social controversies that we find ourselves considering involve large numbers of humans and their motivations, the effects that a certain course of action may have on them, and so on. In these situations, practically every possibility that realistically occurs to us regarding the way some humans might act is correct, but perhaps only for a small minority of the humans involved. In fact, as soon as such a speculation occurs to us, unless it’s completely bonkers at the level of lizardmen conspiracy theories, it must be true at least occasionally or at least for a few people. In fact, it would seem very strange if it were never true.
For a real-world example, take the constant debate over government-provided welfare. Fiscal conservatives tend to argue, or at least insinuate, that a number of citizens on welfare are using these government programs to game the system in some way. And regardless of our political affiliations, when we stop to objectively consider this, we have to agree that in a certain literal sense this is correct. The key phrase in the proposition mentioned above is “a number of”. It’s not clear exactly how many people are gaming the welfare system. Maybe they are so few as to be irrelevant when the benefits of having a social safety net are taken into account. But if we have a country where millions of citizens are on welfare, and the welfare system is pretty complicated, then it stands to reason (or at least common sense) that there is a feasible way to abuse it and that some of those citizens are in fact abusing it. It would really be astounding if nobody were abusing it.
Similarly, if we all assume for the sake of argument that certain sufficiently heinous criminals “deserve” the death penalty (I put “deserve” in quotes because I don’t really know what that means, but that’s a topic for another post), then we all have to admit, regardless of our stances on the death penalty, that the proposition “Some defendants will be wrongly convicted” is correct. The key word is “some”. This is a weaker example than the last one, since far fewer humans have been sentenced to death in modern history than are on welfare, but I still suspect that the forensic science involved is so complex and still imperfect enough even today that there must be wrong convictions at least occasionally. I would be astonished to find out that there have been zero wrong convictions in the last several decades.
Now I realize that there are far more outlandish suggestions out there regarding every controversy that affect so many people’s lives, and maybe it’s plausible that some of the most extreme ones don’t hold for any of the humans involved. For instance, I seriously doubt that a single one of the millions of individuals on welfare is secretly trying to trying to aid a band of extraterrestrials bent on taking over the earth through weapons which can be powered only by government-signed welfare checks. However, most speculations this far out in left field aren’t pervasive in the common discourse and generally don’t enter our minds (even subconsciously) in the first place.
So these uncomfortable thoughts that gadflies persistently whisper to us generally don’t have a chance of being completely false. In fact, as soon as we hear them, we are obliged to admit that it would be quite shocking for them to be entirely false. Evaluating them becomes a question of to what degree and on how great a scale they are true.
I reiterate what I said in the other post: we tend to dismiss these inconvenient ideas out of hand because acknowledging them means more work for us in our assessment of any situation, and our brains are lazy. If we acknowledge that at least a few folks will abuse the welfare system, then that obligates us to go through a tricky cost-benefit analysis when arguing in favor of it, which is considerably more difficult than emphasizing more and more stridently that welfare provides necessary aid to many citizens. And yet, if we at least attempt to argue that abuse of the welfare system is sufficiently rare, then that obligates our opponents to rebut that with an attempt to show that such abuse is unacceptably frequent (rather than argue against welfare simply by complaining that it can be abused), and a potentially productive discussion ensues.
There is an anolog of this notion in the context of small-scale conflicts — say, drama between two individuals — as well: many of the possibilities that try to latch themselves to our minds are almost certainly true on some level. For instance, if it occurs to you that the reason your friend didn’t show up to your party has something to do with an unintentionally rude remark you made to her the week before, then that is probably playing some role (however small) in her behavior, even if the primary reason for her absence turns out to be an unusually high level of work-related stress. But this doesn’t apply in nearly as absolute a way as it does for issues involving more people. And for the purposes of this post, it’s mostly large-scale debates that I’m interested in.
II. The inevitable use of grand-scale debate tactics
Now let’s kick it up a level: in debates which involve a large number of humans, pretty much any speculation about how the opposing side will argue must be correct.
A. The Boomer-Millenial Conflict for Dummies
Here’s a good exercise for considering how a given position might be argued: pretend that you’re an alien with no knowledge whatsoever about human history or problems but who wants to argue a particular side of a human controversy of which you know only the basic definitions of relative terms, with the minimum possible extra research.
Take, for instance, the constant rhetorical warfare between the baby boomer and millenial generations. Suppose you were an alien knowing nothing about American culture, generational subcultures, or any of the dynamics involved. You only know the definition of “baby boomer”: it’s a human born during the “baby boom” from the mid-40’s to the mid-60’s, which is so called because of a marked increase in the birth rate. How would you go about attacking baby boomers? Well, let’s see, the first thing that comes to mind is that because by definition there are a lot of them, they are to blame for what in some people’s minds might be a dangerously high population. But you can’t go far with this criticism, because nobody can be reasonably held to blame for having been born. So what occurs to you next? Well, again, tautologically there are a lot of baby boomers; they make up a disproportionately large portion of human population. So if there’s any fault that baby boomers are likely to be prone to, it might be… that they have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, or they behave as though everything is about them, or something.
And sure enough, it’s not hard to find articles like this one, or books like this (see Chapter 7). I also distinctly remember the preachy right-leaning political comic strip Mallard Fillmore characterizing baby boomers this way (clumsily paraphrasing from memory: “This just in: baby boomers have finally realized that society doesn’t revolve around them! Unfortunately, they now think it revolves around the federal government.”), but after half an hour of searching for old Mallard Fillmore strips with roughly those words, I can’t find it. And yes, if I google “baby boomers”, the first attack articles I find are ones which accuse baby boomers of ruining the economy for millenials, since a lack of jobs for young people is the biggest specific issue at play in the inter-generational war right now. But one has to admit that the hypothetical alien who knew nothing about our current economic woes did a pretty good job at coming up with an anti-baby-boomer talking point which is actually used substantially in the real world, given a bare minimum of knowledge regarding the baby boomer generation. The “think everything revolves around them” allegation isn’t the primary criticism nowadays, but it is still relevant in the discourse. That talking point may not usually be backed up by explicitly claiming the source of their perceived self-importance is that there are disproportionately many of them. But the fact that baby boomers comprise a prominent demographic certainly strengthens the credibility of the “think everything revolves around them” criticism.
So if one who is looking to defend baby boomers goes through the above exercise, the result is a gadfly speculation on opposing debate tactics rather than the facts of the generation-war issue itself: “But the opposition might try to frame things in terms of baby boomers thinking everything’s about them!” And this turns out to be true, to some extent. For any controversial issue about which many people are arguing in public from all different sides — or even when only two people are debating, but both are passionate and knowledgeable about many aspects of it — any hypothetical talking point that comes to mind in this way will play at least a minor role.
I like the baby boomer example because one can already come up with a possible criticism by considering only the definition of “baby boomer”. Usually it requires knowing more than basic definitions, but only a little more. For instance, if you want instead to attack millenials, and imagine yourself as an alien searching for a good anti-millenial talking point based on a minimal amount of research, one only has to learn about one of the main issues involving millenials today: they complain about a dearth of jobs and general broke-ness. Now forget the specifics of what they’re complaining about, and ask yourself, what’s the easiest route to discrediting someone who complains? By claiming that they feel entitled, of course (see below). Or how does one go about lampooning someone who
has trouble finding a job just generally falls into some kind of bad fortune? By portraying them as lazy, or irresponsible, or lacking in judgment or initiative, etc.
B. General examples
Here are some broad examples of opposing rhetorical tactics which are bound to show up, each of which applies to a variety of real-life debates.
- “This media outlet / group has a pro-X bias!” vs. “Reality has a pro-X bias!”: I’m starting with this one because I think it might be the most pervasive of all of my examples. If one party complains that the media or a particular outlet of it is biased in some way, then regardless of specifics, the most obvious strategy for rebuttal is to claim that its portrayal of the situation reflects how things really are. This is particularly visible in conservative criticisms of the media (or particular news outlets) as having liberal bias, which instigates the response that “reality has a liberal bias”. It is also a prominent feature of the evolution vs. creation debate, as well as other disputes between skeptics and defenders of academic consensus. When one party makes an accusation of bias, their opposition is pretty much guaranteed to counter that the source isn’t biased but right. The flip side of this is, of course “This high-profile source says X is true!” vs. “That source must be biased then!”
- “We have a legitimate grievance!” vs. “You’re just a bunch of whiners!”: This is the hallmark of debates that hinge on reverting to deterministic or free-choice explanations for a current unfortunate situation. Closely related is the inevitable attack of “your bad fortune is your own fault” aimed at the aggrieved. There are too many real-world controversies involving this for me to name here, and in fact I’ve tried to argue before that this is a component of all Left-vs.-Right political issues in America. Nowadays the concept of “privilege” and related terminology usually shows up throughout these disputes.
- “We got here by hard work!” vs. “You got there by unfair advantage!”: The flip side of the above rhetorical template. Also frequently seen in disputes over privilege and free choice vs. determinism.
- “We deserve better!” vs. “You’re just entitled!”: Also closely related to the grievance/whiners exchange. If one isn’t up for countering that the other party’s bad fortune is manufactured because they’re looking to complain or just their own fault anyway, then one can take this route. Whatever “entitled” even means.
- “Our lived experiences have made us wiser!” vs. “Your lived experiences have made you paranoid / naïve!”: I’ve seen this show up in a lot of more personal conflicts — by claiming experience as evidence of wisdom, one opens oneself up to suggestions that experience can distort one’s perceptions to one’s disadvantage as well.
- “Person/group X sounds overconfident / refuses to admit mistakes!” vs. “Person/group X is just really smart / hasn’t made a mistake!”: This is a variant of the example above. I remember it being a major theme of the discourse last decade during the Bush administration. A further variant is “Person/group X is closed-minded!” vs. “Person/group X just won’t put up with nonsense!” These stances are often taken by the “teach the controversy” anti-evolutionists versus the “creationism isn’t science” defenders of Darwin’s theory… although interestingly the roles were pretty much reversed back at the time of the Scopes Trial.
- “You’re afraid to debate!” vs. “We won’t descend to your level by engaging with you!”: Closely related to above. Another major component of the creation/evolution conflict (yes, creation/evolution provides many good examples). Epitomized by Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate the “ignorant fool” Ray Comfort. However, I’ve seen show up in the context of many other topics where one side sees itself as far more educated than the other.
C. Debating debate tactics: the “motte-and-bailey” debacle
Some of the common recurring themes mentioned above come close to describing not only potentially fallacious tactics used to debate an issue but even to debates over potentially fallacious debating tactics. It seems not uncommon in discussions between rationalists for one party to accuse the other of a committing a particular fallacy — say confirmation bias, or assuming a strawman — only for the other to point out that sometimes what looks like confirmation bias or a strawman happens to reflect the truth anyway. To show that I don’t always fail at finding cartoons posted online that I remember reading once, here is a relevant Calvin and Hobbes panel (apologies to Bill Watterson).
If someone argues using language that sounds overly-broad, it’s almost certain that their opposition will accuse them of the fallacy of black-and-white thinking. But in some way or another, the first party will very likely retort, like Calvin in the panel above, that sometimes that’s just the way things are. (By the way, Watterson has stated that this cartoon was inspired by his own struggles in a legal dispute in which he was accused of black-and-white thinking.)
To give a more interesting example of something that caused some disagreements within the rationalist community, in one of his more popular posts, Scott Alexander characterized certain types of rhetoric as relying on a fallacy that he calls “motte-and-bailey”, which refers to equivocation between one very convenient sense of a term (assumed most of the time) and a different but much more defensible sense of that term (adopted whenever challenged). The “motte-and-bailey” terminology was actually coined in an academic paper written years earlier, but Alexander’s article popularized it within the online rationalist movement.
Some months later, his fellow rationalist essayist Ozy banned the use of this concept on their blog Thing of Things, later writing this to further elucidate the potential pitfalls of using “motte-and-bailey”. Evidently the term was being abused a lot in Thing of Things comments sections. But here’s the conundrum: any new concept can be abused in some way. When introducing a new concept, even the concept of a certain logical fallacy to an audience comprised of rationalists, one should always be able to imagine the ways it will be abused and recognize that given a large enough audience, it will be abused in that way. In the case of “motte-and-bailey”, it is a good exercise to ask ourselves what might be the most convenient way to use it to attack any position one doesn’t like. Well, the substance of the concept is that a “motte” is a defensible definition of a term which can be quickly adopted when one’s ideas are challenged (“God is the feeling of purpose we perceive in the universe”), while a “bailey” is a convenient definition tacitly assumed otherwise (“God is the petty, vengeful main character of the Old Testament”). The point is to criticize one’s opponent for defending their ideas by using a defensible (“motte”) definition which they don’t assume the rest of the time. So it seems all too tempting to… criticize one’s opponent for using a defensible definition even when they do consistently assume it all the time. (Maybe you’re arguing against a very liberal theist who really does believe only in the “vague purpose” kind of God, and Old Testament fundamentalism is a strawman of their belief system.) So in other words, exactly the abuse that Ozy described having seen.
If you introduce a new rhetorical concept to a bunch of rationalists, there’s a pretty good chance of somebody invoking it unfairly to attack arguments they don’t like; then there’s also a pretty good chance that someone else will anticipate the possibility of this abuse and unfairly invoke that to attack arguments they don’t like; and the recursion goes on ad infinitum. Maybe “motte-and-bailey” also happens to be easily abusable to begin with.
But all that doesn’t mean that useful concepts like “motte-and-bailey” shouldn’t be popularized in the first place. And I guess that brings me to my usual “proposed solution” section of this essay.
IV. How to oppose opposing gadflies
I’ve tried first to make the point that when participating in discourse on certain types of broad issues (particularly social), almost any statement inconvenient for our position that might occur to us is probably true to some degree and moreover will occur to at least some people on other sides who will use it against us. This makes my view of success at discourse, or even being sure what one believes in the first place, sound pessimistic. And it is, somewhat. Becoming reasonably sure of something and being able to actually convince others of it in an intellectually honest way is (at least for me) very, very hard. But there are still ways of dealing with those gadflies that almost surely oppose us.
First of all, there’s one of the oldest debating guidelines in the book: anticipate opposing arguments. I spent a lot of time illustrating certain very general types of claims that are sure to be encountered (“your grievance is your own fault”, “so-and-so sounds confident because they in fact are always right”) because, despite the fact that they sound completely obvious when written down in this context, many people in the heat of argument often don’t see them coming because they’re not thinking enough from their opponent’s point of view. So anticipate them.
The second, and probably more difficult, tactic is to realize that these inevitable counterclaims are probably at least a little bit true and to readily acknowledge this. That’s not to mean that constantly bending over backwards to agree that every criticism and accusation is kinda-sorta valid is an effective way to win anyone over to one’s position (I err in this direction a lot, so I would know). But flatly denying that the offensive thing one’s opponent was bound to suggest is almost certain to make things worse.
So the best strategy is probably to admit that our opponent’s suggestion is probably correct for a few people, or just a little bit, and claim (and then make an honest effort to back up the claim) that our position is right anyway. “Yeah, any welfare system opens itself to the possibility of abuse by a few people, and that’s awful. But it’s far more important for honest people in need to be able to have a safety net of this kind, because X, Y, and Z.” Or, “yeah, that group sometimes whines a little more than justified, but they have a legitimate complaint even so because Y and Z.” Or even, “Yeah, I know that I can moan and be a little melodramatic at times, but that doesn’t mean that my feelings are invalid in this case, because X.”
This is particularly worthwhile, but particularly tough, when one is confronted (or anticipates being confronted) with a personal attack. There’s a common reaction, which I’ve observed in people close to me, of “On top of being completely wrong about [issue on the table], he has the nerve to keep bringing up such-and-such personal flaw of mine. He’s lost all credibility with me about [issue], so the personal attack is obvious nonsense.” (Here the personal fault in question is often something that many have criticized the speaker about and which maybe even the speaker has acknowledged in calmer moments.) In my opinion, this is almost always the wrong way to look at the situation. If I’m arguing with someone in my life about Big Important Issue on which I believe they’re totally mistaken and out of line, and they keep shoving in my face some criticism of me that others have made in some way or another, and which I’ve previously acknowledged is somewhat true then… I try to recognize that they’re probably right in their criticism. They wouldn’t be using the criticism as a weapon to argue their side of the Big Important Issue if it weren’t somehow readily available to them, and it wouldn’t be so available to them if it weren’t somewhat true. So my response should be to acknowledge immediately that “yeah, I sometimes can be that way” but argue that my faults still don’t imply their side of the Issue, or (in some cases) that they’re completely irrelevant and being used easily but unjustly as a weapon against me. Of course I still fail at this from time to time, but my successes have gradually made admitting my own faults in this way much easier.
The thing is that no matter how small of a gadfly is staring us down, our adversary can still hide behind as long as we dismiss it even while it tells just a tiny bit of truth. Engaging with the gadfly actually exposes our adversary and leads to a more productive outcome for everyone involved. And that is a bit more of my take on why it’s important to welcome gadflies into our minds.