How to make a terrible argument, the Matt Steinglass way
Matt Steinglass has weighed in on the circumcision argument. (Judging from his picture, he also apparently chose the “Alpine” background on school picture day. I always preferred Laser.) I’ve enjoyed some of Steinglass’s stuff in the past, even when I disagree with him, so I’m a little confused: this is genuinely one of the five worst blog posts I’ve ever read, and I have read at least 40 a day for three years. It’s that bad. Let us count the ways.
1. Present information utterly shorn of context or importance.
Steinglass: “the CDC may recommend circumcision because it helps prevent AIDS” and “In the case of circumcision, the evidence shows that it prevents the transmission of HIV and other STDs.”
Well! We’re off to a fast start. As my posts on this issue have taken pains to point out, all of these studies have demonstrated that only certain demographics receive a reduced risk of infection through circumcision, and that the composition of these demographics is an essential element to understanding the public health policy ramifications of the studies. You’d never know that from Steinglass’s post, though, and indeed, there’s no evidence that Steinglass has read a single one of the studies or even a substantial recap in the popular press. It would be rather hard to miss the constant caveats that these results were observed only in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the benefits were seen only in female to male infection of heterosexual men. And, indeed, saying “prevents the transmission of HIV” is, well, a terribly incorrect way to parse the data. But hey, who needs to actually read the study you are basing your aggrieved ramblings on, am I right?
2. Pick the absolute weakest arguments for the other side you can find. Profit.
Steinglass quotes: “It’s my dick. It’s my dick. It’s my dick. It is no one else’s dick but my dick. And I should have the choice to circumcise it when I am old enough to make that decision.”
Sounds like the kind of guy you should be refuting! Why look around for someone making a sound argument? After all, you’ve got your mind made up! Nevermind that there are many places to find rational, statistical evidence-based arguments against your position, including in the archives of the blog that started this conversation in the first place. Clearly, “my dick” guy is the unquestioned spokesman for one side of a contentious issue.
3. Dispute empirical claims without really disputing them.
Steinglass: “There is some disputed evidence, on the other hand, that it reduces sexual pleasure;”
Uh, ok. What evidence? From whom? In what context? Who disputes it? What is the nature of the dispute? Why would a functioning intelligence not assume that these are maybe important questions?
4. Forget about what exactly people are objecting to, or don’t bother to find out in the first place. Steinglass: “Parents have the right to decide on medical treatment for their children, presuming such medical treatment is not actively harmful. And parents have the right to include their children in cultural rites and practices, again presuming no harm is done.”
They sure do. Luckily, no one is arguing that we should take away the parents rights to determine the medical treatment of their children, nor or they arguing that we should prevent people from taking part in religious practices. What we are arguing about, as Steinglass would know had he bothered to actually consider the content of the argument, is whether the CDC should be recommending as routine a surgical procedure with dubious health benefits for an entire gender, and at infancy.
5. Veer wildly from one argument to the next; act like they’re the same argument.
Steinglass: “Children are born into families. Those families have cultures and beliefs, and are entitled to make decisions about how their children will be treated, shaped, and raised.”
Well, yes, indeed. Again, dude– the CDC? Their recommendations? The medical side of a medical issue? Look, a lot of people are uncomfortable with forcible surgical alteration of newborns. As an atheist, I am not a big fan of religious practices being forced on children of any sort; it’s just that, as I don’t believe baptism, etc., actually do anything, I’m not all that ginned up about them. The point is that I don’t know anyone who literally believes that parents should not have the legal right to have their children circumcised. I do know that a lot more parents will do so out of an appeal to medical benefits if the CDC recommends it, even though, as I have argued the medical benefits appear negligible outside of sub-Saharan Africa. No one is forcing anything on parents. We are participating in a conversation and attempting to bring issues to light that parents without religious impetus to circumcise their children might want to consider. Confusing and conflating recommendations with enforcement, and culture with medicine, is unhelpful and unfair.
Steinglass: “In any case, this doesn’t have much to do with anything, because we’re talking about a medical recommendation.”
But… you just said… I… you were just arguing… he….
6. Assert! Assert as if your life depended on it!
Steinglass: “But the main point is that if the guy who wrote the email were circumcised, he wouldn’t have written the email.”
Oh! Well then! You’re right, nothing to see here. I’m sure “my dick” guy will be pleased to know that. If he asks what evidence you offer for that wild claim, I’ll tell him to put a sock in it.
Steinglass: “There may be some vanishingly small number of guys who are upset about the fact that their parents circumcised them.”
I’m gonna go ahead and guess that Matt Steinglass has not been out in the field taking some sort of foreskin census.
7. Beg the question as if that shit is going out of style.
Steinglass: “It’s a weird thing to be upset about. The whole issue of treating this as some kind of mutilation of a rights-endowed human being who should be allowed to decide for himself seems to me like an insane metastasis of the American fixation with individual rights-based ideology.”
You see, folks, it’s a weird thing to be upset about, so no one should be upset about it.
8. Pick an abusive, provoking title.
Steinglass: “The Foreskin Police”
Yes, that’s right; a couple of emails to Andrew Sullivan and a few respectfully questioning blog posts represent “the foreskin police”. Lord knows, there’s no lobby more powerful or pernicious than the vast anti-circumcision network who secretly pull the strings of the world’s political and medical apparatus. Why, they’re so successful, they’ve reduced the portion of American men who have been circumcised to only three quarters of American men! Truly, this juggernaut must be stopped.
9. Let your sense of grievance and certitude be in inverse proportion to your knowledge on the issue.
Steinglass: “the most amusing and hysterical reaction to the news that the CDC may recommend circumcision”, etc.
Look, this dude clearly hasn’t read the studies he briefly alludes to; he clearly hasn’t attempted to put them in an international or statistical context; he clearly hasn’t engaged the more powerful counter-arguments; he’s done no homework. I imagine that he read the post on the Daily Dish and let fly. This, sadly, is the Internet. I’m no expert and I have tried not to make myself out to be one. You can read my two posts on the issue and decide for yourself. What I have done is to read as much of the studies in question as I have had available to me online; read synopses when I can’t; looked at as much statistical information as I can; read a book by an eminently credentialed epidemiologist on the issue of HIV prevalence and risk factors; considered the best arguments I can find, pro or con; and presented all of my data and links to readers so they can evaluate my arguments for themselves. I’m sure I haven’t done a particularly great job. But I think I’ve made a structurally sound argument. And seriously, this is the weakest brew I’ve come across in some time.
Young bloggers, Matt Steinglass has done you a service, and you must not allow his efforts to go to waste. Print out his post, display it prominently, and learn.