Monday, March 9, 2015

don't argue from premises you know are false

People cling to any facts that help them argue their opinions, and they refuse to admit any downside to their opinions. But tradeoffs are ubiquitous and denying the existence of a gray area, while it may help you feel more confident in your opinion, it makes your argument less convincing. It obviously hurts your credibility when you bury your head in the sand, but more insidiously, it distracts from the fundamental, important reasons why you hold your view.

In other words, if you support X because of A, and someone else opposes X because of B, you can argue that A is more important than B. If you instead argue that you shouldn't oppose X because B isn't true, anyone who believes in B will ignore you completely and miss the more important issue of A. But people do this even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that B is true!

Examples:

  1. I suspect that making immigration to the U.S. will hurt the wages of some low-skilled Americans. But I favor freer immigration anyway because it's overwhelmingly clear that it will make people better off on average, and therefore it's the right thing to do if you care about humans equally. By fixating on small findings that show that in certain special circumstances, unskilled labor immigration helps unskilled American laborers, you allow yourself to be dismissed as soon as any contrary result (which will surely turn up) is found.
  2. I suspect there is probably some health cost to smoking marijuana. I support its legalization anyway, because I strongly believe people should be allowed do whatever the heck they want that doesn't hurt anyone else. Arguing that marijuana should be legal because it's safe undermines this more important issue and, if this argument becomes widely accepted, it will undermine other arguments for legalization of activities that pretty obviously do have (victimless) costs.
  3. I'm pretty sure that increasing the minimum wage will usually reduce overall employment. I don't support minimum wage increases, but for those who do, take note: I can't take you seriously when you claim that the law of supply and demand doesn't apply to labor. It may be true that in certain special circumstances minimum wage increases won't have this effect, but I'm guessing you don't want to restrict minimum wage increases to those scenarios, so stop fixating on those iffy findings as the basis of your argument.
  4. I have no idea what the nature/nuture breakdown is on homosexuality. Nor do I care, when it comes to politics. Equal rights for non-heterosexuals is the right thing regardless of whether sexual orientation is chosen or occurs from birth. Saying "I didn't choose to be this way, so don't discriminate against me!" gives your opponents an opening they shouldn't have: to fixate on any minor correlation between sexuality and upbringing as evidence of choice.
  5. I am an environmentalist not for economic reasons. When we figure out ways to thrive as a species without the natural ecosystem, I will still be a conservationist, because this (sort of, if you can call that a reason). So while in many situations conservation can be easily motivated by economics, I don't want to fixate on that logic because I also want biodiversity and wild lands and beautiful landmarks to be preserved purely for their own sake even if someone managed to argue that it would be worth more in dollars to convert one to a mine.
  6. I'm sure that global warming is happening and that it's causing major problems (already, yes). If you don't like certain political solutions to these problems, then argue why. Don't just deny the problem. It makes you sound crazy. It also immediately cuts you out of the decision making process because everyone trying to address it disagrees with your entire premise that the phenomenon isn't real.
  7. There are all kinds of nutty inconsistent things in the Bible. I couldn't care less. By arguing about them, I imply that I'm not religious because of some contradiction in a particular text, which allows any religious person to dismiss me immediately by coming up with an alternative way to interpret that contradiction (or an alternative text to believe in).
The list can go on infinitely of course.

I understand the temptation of these arguments. If someone objects to opening borders because it will hurt unskilled Americans, it's hard to change the topic entirely to fundamental human rights. We respond to immediate sub-issues. And why do we cling to facts that might be useful in those irrelevant side issues? Because we cling to any facts that make our views a lighter shade of gray.

The truly puzzling thing about this phenomenon is that we continue to do this even when we scoffingly dismiss people who do so on other topics. Democrats scoff at Republicans who claim that tax cuts increase tax revenue based on the Laffer curve, but then they claim minimum wages increase employment based on the equally tenuous finding that in some strange circumstances, however rare, that might be true. I guess I'm forced to conclude that motivated reasoning is so powerful that we don't even realize how selectively we interpret facts and how black and white we're pretending things are.

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