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?