I find this discussion of a recent book on vaccination (at Gawker, of all places) fascinating. I mean the comment string actually, where the author is given a chance to answer direct questions from the readers.
To my mind, the author is far too light on the anti-vax crowd (and the readers let her know that). She’s uncomfortable with them being labeled as stupid, as the anti-vax crowd speaks from a multitude of different perspectives. A longish quote:
Well, first of all, what we’re calling the anti-vax position is actually a very diverse set of ideologies – thinking of it as one homogenous position is already robbing it of some of its complexity. One of the things that I’ve observed in my own thinking and in the thinking of other people who are vaccine hesitant is a tendency toward wide and sometimes loose association. For instance, we know a lot about the troubled history of paternalism in medicine and the ways in which the medical system has oppressed women – we associate the powerlessness we feel around vaccination with the powerlessness that has been forced on us historically. Or, we observe real and troubling problems in our current medical system, or in our system of government, or in our capitalist system, and we feel concern that those problems may bleed over into vaccination – may corrupt or pollute our vaccines. I think these concerns are legitimate – we have real, pressing problems with our medical system and with our government and with our economy. Do I think the best way to address those problems is to refuse vaccination? No, but I do think we (meaning those of us who care about the public health implications of vaccine refusal) need to be aware that significant social critiques are being made in the form of vaccine refusal. And if we want to enact change, rather than just self-righteously rant, we may even have to address the root problems of medical care, governance, and finance that are troubling some of the people who are refusing vaccination.
I appreciate the pragmatic impulse of the author (let’s worry about the public health issue, not the poor argument and misinformation). I think someone might write something significant about that notion, in fact. Nonetheless, this strikes me as a bit of an iron man: there’s obviously an implicit social critique (as there is whenever anyone does anything against prevailing norms), but that social critique might be (and is in this case) lame, ill-informed, held by very few people, and dangerous. It’s also probably not the point. The point is the science. And the objectors have, as the author believes, gotten that completely wrong.
Arguments from authority are typically third-person arguments: X says that p, so p is probably true. Saying, I say that p, I have qualifications q, so listen up, is less common. When you make an argument as an authority, you still cite reasons, they’re just reasons lay people don’t get.
Now comes Charles Krauthammer, quondam psychiatrist, who offers another twist on the argument from authority: the argument from ceded authority. It works like this: I have qualifications q, but I’m not going to invoke them because they would prohibit me from saying p, so I cede this authority, and assert that p. Here it is via TPM:
“So I decided when I left psychiatry never to use my authority. But let me just say as a layman, without invoking any expertise, Obama is clearly a narcissist in the non-scientific use of the word,” Krauthammer said during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” “He is so self-involved, you see it from his rise.”
I’m pretty sure that expertise is not the kind of thing you can just put aside, as you would if you were a pro tennis player playing an amateur. That expertise, once earned, pretty much stays. So Krauthammer has offered an interesting variation on the age-old “I’m not a doctor. . . ” it’s “I’m a doctor, but I don’t play one on TV.”
More tu quoque in the news. This time, again, perhaps for the nth time, Michelle Obama, advocate of healthy eating. This from Talking Points Memo:
Dr. Keith Ablow, a member of something called the Fox News Medical A-Team, doesn’t think First Lady Michelle Obama has any business promoting childhood nutrition.
“And how well can she be eating? She needs to drop a few,” Ablow said during Tuesday’s episode of “Outnumbered.”
The comment drew a collective cringe from the same four female panelists who had called the first lady “annoying” for her health initiatives only seconds earlier.
Despite the ridicule from his fellow panelists, the show’s “one lucky guy” dug in.
“Well, no, let’s be honest. There’s no french fries happening? That’s all kale and carrots? I don’t buy it,” Ablow said, adding that he would welcome nutrition advice from President Obama.
This guy makes my job too easy. By the way, this is my job.
In tu quoque news today:
“Obama has decimated the friggin’ constitution, so I don’t give a damn,” the Helmetta cop says on camera. “Because if he doesn’t follow the Constitution we don’t have to.”
Reminds me of this:
via Gin and Tacos, Reddit, etc.
We’ve been busy sorting our stuff out after a huge move–and it’s all still in boxes. In the meantime, as we get back up to speed here, please consider this piece in Slate about the general terribleness of arguments against marriage equality, etc.
The answer, it turns out, is that there are none—none, at least, that aren’t driven by animus. A review of the failed attempts here is instructive. At various points, conservatives argued that every child deserves a mom and a dad; that gay people simply make inferior parents; that marriage isn’t marriage without penile-vaginal penetration; that legalizing gay marriage would lower birth rates; and, best of all, that somehow, allowing gay people to get married would cause more straightpeople to have children out of wedlock.
We’ve talked about this topic quite a lot here. In fact, of all topics, it seems to have produced the most commentary.
Perhaps it’s time, as the author suggests (and I think as Colin had argued here a long time ago), to consider this argument over.
Nice little piece by Brendan Nyhan at the New York Times’ “The Upshot” about how ideology and factual beliefs collide. Here’s a taste:
Mr. Kahan’s study suggests that more people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction,health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.
So what should we do? One implication of Mr. Kahan’s study and other research in this field is that we need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican like former Representative Bob Inglis or an evangelical Christian like the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved – an outcome that is inevitable on high-profile issues. Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.
All of this seems right to me. The last point is especially interesting. It reminds me (somewhat tangentially) of a paper (by Marcin Lewinksi and Mark Aakhus) on polylogical reasoning I saw at ISSA last week. Though perhaps not the point of the research (I’m only vaguely familiar with it), the problem is that we have fora for dialogues (or di-logues), but none for the poly-logues that more satisfactorily represent the actual dialectical terrain. This forces ideological alliances such as the GOP one, where you’re pretty much forced to take positions on factual issues in order to belong to the club. I imagine the Democratic position then forms in contrast (or t’other way round). If you want to be in the game, you have to be on a team. Well, it’s a stupid game.
The war metaphor for argument is a dominant one. Here are some pertinent reflections by Dan Cohen, from Colby College in Maine.
Good stuff. And it was nice to see Dan at ISSA.
It’s time for another argumentation conference. This time in Amsterdam . I’m looking forward to the paper on whether there are arguments.
Perhaps there’s an academic paper in what we might call the “Doctor Analogy of Epistemic Competence.” The basic thought is to treat any epistemic claim as if it were a claim made by your medical doctor. You undeniably have a personal interest in the accuracy and competence of such claims, so a history of failure or incompetence in this regard is relevant to you. Here’s an example:
“The analogy I’d draw is the following: You go to a doctor, who diagnoses an ailment and prescribes drugs and surgery,” Landay said. “The diagnosis, however, turns out to be disastrously wrong and as a result, the drugs and surgery leave you crippled for years to come. Are you going to go back to that same doctor to diagnose your next illness? No, you aren’t. In fact, you probably sued him/her for malpractice after the first go-round. Unfortunately, we can’t sue Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith and the others for malpractice. But we can stop listening to them.”
Naturally, the virtue of Dr.Analogy is that it’s measurable: certain kinds of outcomes can be assessed very directly. Yet, somehow, the Doctors who predicted or diagnosed the Iraq situation correctly are virtually invisible, while the ones who got it wrong are everywhere.
In the Guardian, philosopher Jonathan Wolff argues that the Higher Education industry is creating the ideal conditions for the return of sophistry.
We may well have recreated the conditions that led to the rise of Sophistry. In just the last few years we have introduced significant fees for education; rapid opinion sharing in the form of the National Student Survey (NSS), repeated every year and widely publicised; and increasingly desperate competition between universities.
My anecdotal sense is that this has long been the case here in the US–where we have to battle not even with the instrumental value of logic, philosophy, etc., but with its perceived instrumental value.
Via the Leiter Reports.