Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Fine-Tuning the Crap-O-Meter

My brother – who sometimes comments as “brother of dean dad” -- sent me an email yesterday about rhetorical moves that set off his internal crap-o-meter. I responded with a few of my own, and thought it might be fun to throw it open to my wise and worldly readers. First, the exchange:

From “Brother of Dean Dad”:

A few days ago I read an article about economics that set off a few red flags. Not being an economist, or even all that well versed in the field for a layman, I couldn’t be sure that the red flags indicated an actual crap argument or not. This got me to thinking: what are the common red flags? Ones that should trip anyone’s internal crap detector, regardless of political views or whatnot?

Here are the ones I can think of off the top of my head, a very incomplete list. Care to add any or expand on these?

1. The Lone Maverick

The article that inspired this list centered on an idea that challenged conventional understandings of a major issue. That’s fine. However, the article quoted and pulled information from basically one source. That’s a huge red flag. Yes, they laughed at Galileo. They also laughed at a million morons who were, in fact, wrong. Most “lone mavericks” are crackpots, particularly in the sciences.

2. The People Are Stupid

Any argument rooted in the idea, either explicitly or implicitly, that the mass of humanity is stupid and doesn’t know what’s good for itself. While the point itself is debatable, any argument that uses this as a presupposition will have massive flaws. People act for reasons; if you can’t figure out why people are doing what they do, the answer isn’t “because they’re stupid and/or don’t know any better.”

Perhaps there are details you don’t know about that explain their actions. Or perhaps their goals are different, and you’re judging behavior by the wrong metric. A more sophisticated take on this idea is that people’s goals are misaligned. That’s less of a red flag, but still very dangerous territory, because it assumes that people don’t know how to look out for themselves. If there’s anything people know how to do, it’s that.

This is why I’ve always hated hippies. “All we need is love?” Wow, nobody ever thought of that before! We should all just love one another? Yeah, that’s such a mind-blowingly original thought that it’s never been said or tried before. Why, we'll have a perfect world by lunchtime!

3. The People Are Brilliant

Any argument rooted in the genius of the masses. Masses have their bright spots and can get things very right. They can also get things very wrong. Is “American Idol” a better show than “Arrested Development?” Not on this planet. But to go by “The People,” yes, it is. Drivel succeeds not because the people are brilliant, but because drivel speaks to a lot of folks for reasons unrelated to "quality" or "value" or "ability."

4. All Will Be Well If We Just…

One of the most obvious red flags. A single action or simple approach that promises to fix a mess of ills is virtually guaranteed to be a load of crap. Usually it’s a fix for a handful of things that the speaker cares about that also happens to drag with it metric fuck-tons of unintended consequences, many of which may be worse than the original problem.

For example, supporters of the presidential candidate Ron Paul touted a return to the gold standard as a cure for a dozen major, unrelated problems with the economy. Like patent medicine labels, Paul-ites thought the gold standard would end deficit spending, inflation, unemployment, and your great-aunt’s gout.

This is a variation on the “people are stupid” flag, as the (sometimes) unspoken assumption is that the reason we haven’t done the Miracle Cure is because people are either dumb or dumb enough to be misled by fiends with power. It couldn’t possibly be because reality is messy and ideologies have to adjust and compromise when they collide with reality, could it? Of course not!

This is a common failing of extremists, like communists, followers of Ayn Rand, and the cripplingly devout. “All would be perfect with the world if we just [had a People’s Revolution / switched to laissez-faire capitalism and a libertarian state / loved Jeeeezus]!”

5. Everything You Know Is Wrong

Another subset of the “people are stupid.” Anytime you confront an article or argument challenging a widespread understanding of a field or an event in history, a key question to ask is why; why is everything we know about X wrong? If the answer involves the words “suppression,” “group-think,” or “discrimination,” you’re probably looking at a sack of poo. If the answer involves new data, there’s a chance it isn’t crap.

6. Appeals to Faith, Morality, or Patriotism

If they had a better argument, they’d use it. Falling back on one of these classic props is the hallmark of an empty argument, particularly in areas where hard data exists or money is involved. To paraphrase a lawyer cliche: When people have facts, they argue facts. When they have the law, they argue the law. When they have neither, they argue faith, morality, or patriotism.

A recent example was a prominent government official arguing that defaulting homeowners shouldn't abandon their houses but rather continue to pay off their mortgages. This is very much not in the best interests of the homeowners. Economically, it'd be stupid. So the official argued in terms of morality and patriotism, because that was all he had.

7. It’s a Conspiracy!

Not as popular an argument as it used to be. Now, conspiracies do exist. They exist in great number. However, any conspiracy that involves more than about six people is certain to be blabbed, and the bigger the situation, the more likely the blabbing. Also, divisions of opinion are common even among the like-minded. So if an argument requires a conspiracy of great size and power that's somehow managed to be totally secret...except for the few leaks the arguer presents...then you should be very, very suspicious.


I responded with a few of my own:

- In the 80's and early 90's, I used to see variations on "ironically, the proposed solution will actually make the problem worse." It was the usual laissez-faire objection to any sort of social welfare or transfer payment idea. I haven't seen it in a while, though.

- (Postmodern types used to use the same argument, usually from the left. "The essentialism of your program ironically reinscribes the very discourse..." Bleah.)

- Indignation is always a dead giveaway. If the response to a question is "How Dare You, Sir?," then you know you've struck gold.

- There's also the classic "lumping unlikes together." See "Islamofascism," or McCain's apparent confusion of al-Queda and Iran.

- My pet peeve is false common sense, often used in the context of a story of a Fall from a Golden Age that wasn't, really. "We have so much plagiarism because the kids don't have integrity anymore." Yeah, we were freakin' angels. "Politics has become so dirty." As opposed to when?

Now it's your turn...

Wise and worldly readers, what rhetorical moves get your crap-o-meter beeping?

The fTon is now my absolute favorite unit of measurement.
Ooo, ooo, I have an absolute favorite: problematize. Rarely do you see that word used well.

Normally, it signals "Here's something interesting I'm not going to take the time to really think through or get at, but I want you to assume I've done that work, so I'll just toss this word in like thus and we can just get on to the stuff I do understand."

I see or hear that word and I just feel like I'm being conned by the speaker.

Also, there was a while--though it appears to have reclaimed its dictionary meaning lately--where "hegemony" seemed to break loose and gallop across discourse meaning whatever folks thought it meant, which wasn't always clear in context.

And my favorite (and for the record, I'm as guilty of this as anyone my age), is sticking Foucault in to random things like some kind of talisman against criticism. Unless a person is specifically addressing something Foucault says, when I see or hear someone say "As Foucault says..." I start to think that we're reaching a place where the scholar isn't sure of his scholarship and so is trying to distract me.
I'm not sure this counts as a rhetorical move or not, but I'm freakin' sick to death of arguments from an N of one, especially with regard to babies and children. E.g., "I did X to my kid and Y happened, therefore X should be outlawed/mandated." Or alternatively, "X was wrong with my baby and I did Y and then the baby was fine, therefore everyone should do Y as well." And the close relative, "we all did X when we were kids and we turned out OK."

People, people, people. Correlation /= causation, remember?

Also, I am totally appropriating "metric fuck-ton" as a unit of measurement, and I'm going to try to find a way to work "break loose and gallop across discourse" into everyday conversation.
BofDD rightly points out:

"Usually it’s a fix for a handful of things that the speaker cares about that also happens to drag with it metric fuck-tons of unintended consequences, many of which may be worse than the original problem."

But DD himself later says:

"- In the 80's and early 90's, I used to see variations on "ironically, the proposed solution will actually make the problem worse." It was the usual laissez-faire objection to any sort of social welfare or transfer payment idea. I haven't seen it in a while, though."

Look above Dean Dad. "The proposed solution will actually make the problem worse" is just a variant of the idea that sometimes a solution has tons of unintended consequences, a number of which might make the problem-to-be-solved worse.

The idea that a proposed solution will make the problem worse is hardly something that need register on the "crap-o-meter." It can be, and often is, a pretty good piece of social science IF it's followed up with a decent argument about why.
--"I am the smartest person in the room," which I suppose is a variant on "people are stupid." Arguments that are basically based on "I'm too smart to be refuted by you peons" are usually crap.

--A total lack of understanding of historical context, which is often not that they're trying to scam you but are just wrong; "We should just get rid of the fed" without ANY UNDERSTANDING of why it's there in the first place. I'm always on my students about this: things are the way they are for a REASON. Not always a good reason, sometimes an insane reason, sometimes a shady or fraudulent reason, but there's a reason. And if you try to fix things without understanding the reasons behind their current state, you're almost certain to make things worse.

--Any argument that assumes human nature or biology used to be totally and completely different. "Nobody had teen sex before 1960!" Oh, like hell. Not unless HORMONES were suddenly invented in the sexual revolution.

--Failure to understand how laws work, in a very specific way: They usually don't make a law against something unless people are doing it. So the fact that the Bible/historical city of your choice/Alabama had a law against homosexuality/extramarital sex/sex toy sales tends to suggest that PEOPLE WERE DOING THOSE THINGS, not that the past was all super-moral (by your specific standard) and nobody had any interest whatsoever in whatever was forbidden by law.

--This one isn't an argument, but I get a lot of (I'm sure everyone gets a lot of), "The world is going to hell in a handbasket morally" and "In the 1950s, American society was much more moral than it is today, we're in a moral decline." I used to explain that Ancient Greeks bitched about the same thing, but now I just say, very deadpan, "Yes. I too believe that all of our moral gains in racial and sexual equality since 1950 are entirely offset by boobs on television."
Any argument in which somebody gets compared to Hitler is a bad argument. I guess it's a variation on the appeal to faith/patriotism/etc. "If you agree with my opponent, then you agree with HITLER! Booga booga booga!!!"
I always have problems with deans and other administrators who cut short a substantive conversation by claiming cost prohibits such a conversation or that the people involved in the conversation (students, faculty, staff members, etc.) can't understand the effect it will have on finances. Again, this may be a version of "The people are all dumb."
Lack of concrete, specific, examples that show the claims being made working in action. Even hypothetical examples are okay.
In written text, whenever anyone replaces an S with a dollar sign in a proper noun, that's a pretty good sign to stop reading. Example: Micro$oft

Related: whenever someone refuses to use commonly accepted terminology and substitutes their own loaded terminology.

Also related to some degree: Scare quotes.
"I know it's not 'politically correct' to say this, but...."

Whether what follows is carefully worded racism, sexism, or a ringing declaration of the obvious that some jughead has convinced him/herself is a keen and controversial insight.
Any variation on "I don't know anything about _____ but [categorical statement]...." ;"I haven't read any of the comments, but let me Tell You What You're Doing Wrong" ; "I haven't read the text, but it's obvious...." sends me straight up a wall, especially when the text/context is easily accessible.

I mean, it's fine to talk about stuff you're not an expert on, as long as you acknowledge that up front. What bugs me is the categorical nonsense. If you don't know anything about a subject, then a little room for error goes a long way. "I think..." "It seems..." and "maybe..." are a good idea.

Also, Men* Who Tell You Things.

* People of any gender, but probably 90% of the people I've encountered who do this are male.
Simply throwing money at a problem won't fix it. This argument bothers me especially when it's applied to public education, and it bothers me even more when it comes out of the mouths of people who pay $25K every year to send their kids to private K-12 schools.

Throwing money at public education won't fix it? Gee, let's try it and see what happens.

Then there's the whole presupposition that our public education system is badly broken. If pressed, most people will agree that their kids' school isn't bad, it's those other public schools that are failing.

Argument by authority/halo effect; e.g. Nobel winning mathemeticians who must also obviously be climate change experts.

I am continually amazed (learning must not be ocurring) and amused at how so many very bright people can believe things that are absolutely ludicrous.

Just as "Rules are a substitute for Experience" "Values are [apparently] a substitute for Analysis."

The probelm creeps in when the Expert in A begins to mouth off about B . . . and it actually goes much deeper than arrogance or ego I propose. The reciever has to actually buy the argument; so it isn't just the arrogance of the Very Bright Person. The interesting thing is how often we (potentially Other Very Bright People) buy into the ruse.

(this entire thread is rapidly albeit asymptotically approaching a proof of the concept!)

Please, don't take my word for it of course!
Two of my favorite Crap-O-Meter signals:

1. Either/or statements. This is when someone falsely reduces a more complex situation into two propositions. We tend to do this with the liberal/conservative trope, but it also works with pro-life/pro-choice, free-trade/protectionism, etc. It's a variation of the old false dichotomy fallacy.

2. It's common sense. This is a variation of DD's last point, except that it's used by simpletons to---again---falsely simplify a complex situation. "Well, it's common sense that..." This one was used by a close relative for years, and it makes me cringe to hear it. - TL
Any statment that includes the term "brand", "branding", "branding opportunity".

I always feel like it's shorthand for saying "Let's promote our [pick your agenda, project, organization, active] in some way to [name your audience], without really doing anything that would make a meaningful, memorable difference to said audience, such that they want to remember who we are or be associated with whatever we're pusing at the moment."
I second Tim Lacy on "Common Sense."

As I warn students, if they see the phrase "Common Sense," they can expect the argument to be "data free."
The best way to judge a new 'theory' in the field of science - the Crackpot Index.

My favorite: 5 points for each mention of "Einstien", "Hawkins" or "Feynmann".
My metric is simple --

If I read a piece by someone which contains an outright provable falsehood which is central to its argument and is never corrected, I assume that the person in question is always trying to deceive me, and I never take their arguments as useful or meaningful.

Further, if they argue in favor of something, I view that as a presumption against.

It's stunning how much time you can save (and how consistently you can be right when others are wrong) by following this simple approach. At the end of the day, good ideas don't need lies to support them.

Can I assume you are arguing in favor of your approach? I presumptively now dismiss it, and assume the other position.

Hmm how about variations on:
"As I warn students" or "as I tell my students" or "I always tell my students."

Why is this proper for the Crap-o-meter discourse? Well (wait for it, here comes another one...)

"I will leave to proof for you to work through."
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