Archive for February, 2015

In Beverly Hills 90210, Donna Martin responded to critics of a plan to have condom machines in the high school:

It’s like if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you can tell your children not to go in it, you can even build a fence around it, but if you know that they’re going to find a way in to that water, don’t you think you ought to teach those kids how to swim?

And Donna Martin drops the mic.

How can one respond to that? You don’t want to take a chance that kids will drown, do you?

The analogy is powerful because everyone has heard about kids who drowned in pools. It is really disturbing to think about, especially given our desire to protect children. It hits the right emotions that prevent most people from being able to look critically at it. For this reason it’s both an effective strategy, if well-executed, and harmful to those who hoped the debate would lead to better policy. I feel like this strategy is so effective and so awful that Schopenhauer should have featured it in his list of ways to win an argument.

However, there are effective ways to respond to these cheap emotional analogies.

Send an analogy back in return

One strategy is to use the same analogy to make a different argument — one that is unpopular. That will show flaws in the argument.

For example, when I was in high school there was an official school-sanctioned ‘smoking area’ on school grounds. The Principal argued that kids will smoke anyway, but if they’re not allowed to smoke outside they will smoke in the bathroom and damage school property. You don’t want school property damaged, do you? Sure, you can tell kids not to smoke, but we know that they will anyway. If you know they’re going to swim, shouldn’t you give them a safe place to do it?

Another strategy is to come up with an absurd example that follows the same line of logic. In this case you could argue:

We can tell kids to not use pot. But we know many of them will anyway. And if they are buying it from their friends, who knows what it will be laced with. Therefore, there should be marijuana dispensers at school.

Finally, you could use exactly the same argument, but change one thing to make it seem absurd. You could in this example argue for condom machines in restrooms at businesses.

It’s against company policy for people to have sex in their offices. However, we know office sex takes place anyway, and STIs are a real problem. Shouldn’t we at least make it easier for people to be safe? It’s like if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you can tell your children not to go in it, you can even build a fence around it, but if you know that they’re going to find a way in to that water, don’t you think you ought to teach those kids how to swim?

Pick it apart

Another, but probably less effective, strategy is to point out specific (hidden-ish) assumptions. It’s helpful if you can relate it to the analogy.

For example, you could argue that a condom machine doesn’t teach kids how to have safe sex, so it’s not like teaching kids to swim. It’s more like making a life preserver available at a location far away from the pool (since most kids don’t have sex at school).

You could also point out that the analogy is based on the assumption that making condoms available will decrease the number of instances of unprotected sex. However, condoms available in schools could feel like an endorsement. That could affect the total number of sexual encounters in a given year (either positively or negatively). Even if condom availability increased the rate of condom use, if it also increased the number of sexual encounters then it’s possible there could be more instances of unprotected sex. In other words, if it lead to an increase in the number of sexual encounters, that’s like building more pools.

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Communication is sometimes primarily tribal, sometimes primarily social (in other ways — e.g. friendly small talk, conversations about family), and sometimes primarily about knowledge (academic, logistical, etc). If you respond to a primarily tribal sentence with a primarily knowledge point, your sentence will be interpreted tribally (because it has already been established that this is a tribal conversation). If you start a knowledge conversation and somebody responds tribally, their tribal language will likely be judged based on its accuracy.

For example, if terrorists are described as cowards, that’s a tribal conversation. If you respond by saying “terrorists are terrible people, but I don’t necessarily think they’re cowards,” it will be interpreted as you defending terrorists (because it was a tribal conversation, so everything you say will be interpreted as either with or against).

If your liberal friends excitedly tell you about the ‘bold’ speech at the academy awards, that’s a tribal conversation. If you respond by questioning whether it is really bold to express liberal ideas to a liberal audience, in tribal language that means “I don’t support the cause.”

Now imagine that you were having a very non-tribal discussion about the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage, with the goal of really coming to a better understanding about the topic. If someone responds with a joke about how democrats just want to make sure that no one is rich, it would be interpreted as “I’m not smart enough to contribute anything meaningful to this conversation.”

Most people, whether consciously or not, know what type of conversation is taking place and interpret everything in that context. In general, however, I think it’s always easier to shift the conversation from knowledge->social->tribal than in the other direction. Jumping from tribal to knowledge is the worst offense.

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Outrage speed

tl;dr Getting outraged quickly has more social reward and less risk than patiently withholding judgment while waiting for evidence

Consider the recent tragic event in North Carolina, where an atheist murdered 3 muslims. When essentially the only facts we knew were that an atheist shot and killed 3 muslims in their home, people were very quick to let everyone know (a) that the victims were murdered strictly because of their religion (I saw it compared to the Charlie Hebdo attack); (b) that all of the people who have been saying Islam uniquely inspires violence have been proven wrong and need to apologize; and (c) the media are biased against muslims and their lack of coverage of this proves it.

Now that more evidence is in, it looks like the murder was at least partially over a parking dispute. It is certainly possible that religion played a role, perhaps a major one. That is something I don’t know. But from the beginning it was always possible that this wasn’t motivated by his dislike of religion. And if that turned out to be the case, wouldn’t the people who rushed to judgment look bad? So why would they do it?

I’ll provide an answer to that question in a minute. But first, I just want to point out that people do this all across the political spectrum. Politically charged outrage flies across twitter the minute we hear of some event that, if the facts pan out, would be outrageous to some group of people.

So why rush to judgement?

If you are the first person in your social group to find the story and express outrage, you really stand out as being passionate about this cause. If, instead, you try to plug the outrage megaphone by suggesting that people wait for more facts, you look way less committed.

Consider the two scenarios:

1. The facts end up backing up the story. In that case, the first person to express outrage really wins. They showed passion and commitment, and they were right. The hesitant person can try to join the crowd, but they just don’t seem as devoted.

2. The facts do not back up the story. The first person to express outrage will say something like “well, in this particular case it might not have been true, but my main point still holds.” The hesitant person sort of has a minor victory, but who is going to celebrate with them? Their in-group isn’t happy about this outcome, because it made them look bad.

The risk-reward really seems to favor expressing outrage quickly and decisively.

As an aside, this argument reminds me a lot of a point Scott Alexander made about pedophilia

..you gain the most status if you go the furthest attacking pedophilia, if you can separate yourself from the pack by attacking it more, if you can say “My opponents think this marginal case is okay, but I am so against pedophilia that I oppose even the marginal cases” so on even further into the margin. And it’s really hard to say “Okay, you’ve gone too far with the attacks on pedophilia“, because then the other person can just say “I notice my worthy opponent is trying to defend pedophilia” and you lose whatever debate you were having.

There is gain and not much penalty in being outraged the fastest. Who in your in-group is going to say “I think you got outraged too quickly?”

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