Nation of Beancounters

Megan McArdle on calling people stupid

Posted in On Discourse by Navin Kumar on August 13, 2014

I’m just going to excerpt the whole thing:

Most people get mad when you say they’re stupid, and when they’re mad, they’re not listening. Neither is anyone else who likes the person you just said was stupid. So congratulations: In one fell swoop, you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.

Ultimately, calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience. It’s a way that we can all come together and agree that we don’t have to engage with some argument, because the person making it is a bovine lackwit without the basic intellectual equipment to come in out of the rain. So the first message it sends — “don’t listen to opposing arguments” — is a stupid message that is hardly going to make anyone smarter.

The second message it sends is even worse: “If he’s stupid, then we, who disagree with him, are the opposite of stupid, and can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority.” Feeding your own arrogance is an expansive, satisfying feeling. It is also the feeling of you getting stupider.

I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here).” It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.

In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.

Drumbeat words

Posted in On Discourse, Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on June 22, 2013

Whenever the Delhi University administration does the kind of stupid things it is inclined to do, posters and flyers appear all over campus – distributed by assorted political/activist groups – urging students to protest against the action. Certain words appear often, including “neoliberal”, “corporate”, “establishment”, “fascist”, and “capitalist”. The word “hegemony” also turns up on some of the poorly written ones.

These words serve a purpose – they signal to students that what is being opposed here is not merely the shutting down of a photocopy shop, but the onslaught of the market. They are not merely protesting a fee hike, but the removal of education from the public sphere. They are not fighting a specific action, but waging a battle which is part of a larger war. The upside of this message is that students who are against (say) capitalism are more likely to show up to protest. The downside is that students who favour free markets are less likely to show up, even if they are otherwise against this move. I call such such terms drumbeat words*, for the drumbeats that (supposedly) invigorate soldiers as they march into battle. Writers do not necessarily intend to use them, but often end up doing so out of habit. Needless to say, every ideology has it’s share of such words; from the right-wing we have talk about the “social fabric” and the strength of a nation, and from feminists we have talk of “The Patriarchy.”

Drumbeat words are an example of loaded language – they influence people to take sides on an issue according to existing ideologies. There’s nothing wrong with using such words, if your aim is to rally the troops, if you believe that the number of people that you inspire exceeds the number of people you alienate, and if you believe that the short-run benefits of mobilization exceed the long-run harms of polarization. However, if your aim is to analyze an idea, or persuade a wide audience, it is best to avoid them. You will lose feedback from people who are on your “side”, and support from people who aren’t. The best way to identify such words is to ask yourself “would my opponents use this term?” If you wish to make a point about how an idea ties in with a larger issue, make it explicitly and clearly so that people can reject this point without rejecting the others. If you’re a reader, you may find yourself alienated by such words, which means that you will lose exposure to fresh ideas. It is best to develop a mental filter that deletes or modifies them as you read.

* It’s possible that another term for this already exists. If so, please let me know in the comments.

Is it okay to discriminate against a fair, heterosexual male Brahman?

Posted in On Discourse by Navin Kumar on January 28, 2013

I’ve noticed that people who oppose discrimination of women, dalits etc are split into people who think it’s okay for the “marginalized” group to mock the “mainstream” group and people who don’t . More generally, some people consider it okay for “oppressed” groups to behave towards their oppressors in a way that is unacceptable if it were the other way around, while others do not (“If this were the other way around, it would be a hate crime”). Where does this disagreement come from?

I believe that it comes from different views about why discrimination is wrong.

On the one end are people who believe that it is inherently wrong to discriminate against people for being of a different caste, gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality etc in fields where such matters are irrelevant, such as employment. Maybe it’s wrong for Kantian reasons (“how would it be if everyone did this?”) or because it damages the social fabric. In such a view, mean gendered/racial/whathaveyou statements and actions are bad regardless of who they come from, or who they target. Discriminating against men, in this view, is as bad as discriminating against women.

On the other end are people who believe that discrimination is bad because it harms marginalized groups, by excluding them from opportunities to live good, fulfilling lives. In such a view there is no harm arising from the members of marginalized groups discriminating against members of the mainstream group, since they cannot be unduly harmed by such actions/statements – indeed it might even be beneficial if the “higher” groups are taken down a notch.

One could, of course, hold both views, and I think most people think of discrimination as both harmful as well as inherently wrong. I’m one of them and I agree with the first camp’s conclusions*.

The point of this post, as is the point of most of the posts I post in the “On Discourse” category, is to try to explain to opposing sides where the other is coming from. As usual, I urge peace and charity.

*I’ll be mean to you regardless of your gender, caste, race, etc.

Ad hominem analysis

Posted in Lists, On Discourse by Navin Kumar on January 26, 2013

There are two ways to respond to an argument one doesn’t agree with, e.g. “homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to become parents, because they’ll mess up their kids”.

The first is to negate the argument, by logically or empirically proving it false (or irrelevant) e.g. “The data shows that children with gay parents have life outcomes similar to those of straight parents.”

The other is to analyze the people who make the argument e.g. “You only think so because heteronormativity blinds you to the reality of how gay people are.”

1. Let’s start with the most obvious point: when you perform such an analysis, you haven’t actually responded to whatever point the other person is raising. You are spending time, energy and ink on this rather than a rebuttal. This is not, of course, a fallacy in the traditional sense.

2. No-one’s heart or mind is changed by such analysis. So it’s hard to see why it gets deployed during a debate, other than to get cheers from one’s own side.

3. This analysis might be true. Unfortunately, the analysis of one’s opponents motivations and intellectual origins is rarely unbiased or accurate. It is too tempting to attribute the most vile motive to others. e.g. pro-life individuals don’t really care about the fetus, they just want to return to a time where women stayed at home; they see women as baby making machines.

4. The analysis might be interesting and/or useful, such as this analysis of Macs vs PCs or this analysis of why Americans do not care about the disproportionality of Israel’s response or this analysis of economic issues in the left-wing and the right-wing. But (a) such analysis is the exception because (b) this is best done when one is genuinely thinking about the differences between people’s worldviews, not when one is responding to an argument.

5. The question “why do these people do these things?” is of less interest to readers than writers think.

6. I’ve gotten into the habit of skimming over such analysis. It is a skill worth acquiring.

7. UPDATE: There is a word for this – Bulverism.

Paul Krugman does a lot of this. “Check your privilege” is an example of such analysis.

This post was inspired by this exchange.

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The false alternative fallacy

Posted in On Discourse by Navin Kumar on January 12, 2013

X and Y are false alternatives if they aren’t either mutually exclusive or (more generally) if we can do one without it coming at the expense of the other.

For example, if we’re trying to boost school attendance, “more toilets” and “more textbooks” are true alternatives since they both cost money, monetary resources are limited and thus one comes at the cost of the other. In contrast, “less corporal punishment” and “more textbooks” are false alternatives – you can do both and one doesn’t come at the cost of the other.

If you claim that we ought be doing X instead of Y, you must support this statement by pointing to some mechanism that structures the two as alternatives. This usually, but not always, entails pointing out some budget constraint. It needn’t be a physical resource – political capital is as much a candidate as limited labour.

This fallacy (and I’m not claiming to discover it) is rather widespread. Rule of thumb: if you can respond to a statement with “why not do both?”, it’s suffering from the false alternative fallacy. Examples:

1. “Instead of telling your daughters not to get raped, tell your sons not to rape”. Why not telltell men to keep their hands to themselves and tell women to be wary of of the one’s who don’t?

2. “Instead of dismantling the poor, we should be lifting them out of poverty” Usually said in the context of organ markets. Why not continue to improve and implement anti-poverty programs and allow the poor to sell their organs if these programs aren’t working?

3. “Instead of bailing out banks, you should help out homeowners” Why not inject liquidity into banks and help homeowners struggling to repay loans?

Things that appear to be linked on the surface might not be. It might seem like banks vs homeowners is a true alternative (governments have a limited amount of money) but it isn’t – banks are far more likely to repay loans than homeowners.

Similarily, things that appear un-linked might be. In example #1 it might well be that by making statements such as “women shouldn’t be out at night”, you’re contributing to a culture where the woman is held responsible and not the man. This would also be an example of non-scarcity driven link.

All mechanisms must be proven empirically or logically – in economic parlance, microfoundations are important.

This fallacy is an example of fallacy of relevance, I think. If I’m wrong, please leave a note in the comments. If this fallacy is already well known under some other name, please let me know.

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