AGW and Logical Rudeness
At Cato Unbound, we’re discussing Michael Shermer’s fascinating new book The Believing Brain. Shermer himself gives a short introduction to the emerging neuroscience of political belief. And Eliezer Yudkowsky, whom I consistently find one of the most interesting people in the world, has written what amounts to a fairly scathing critique. (Have you ever wanted to be scathing? Like, good and properly scathing? Go forth, read, and learn how it is done.)
Next up is Joe Carter. I’ve read his essay, and it’s one of the small pleasures of my job that I get to read such things first. Very interesting stuff, and it’ll go live tomorrow.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Yudkowsky writes:
There’s a technique we use in our local rationalist cluster called “Is That Your True Rejection?”, and it works like this: Before you stake your argument on a point, ask yourself in advance what you would say if that point were decisively refuted. Would you relinquish your previous conclusion? Would you actually change your mind? If not, maybe that point isn’t really the key issue. You should search instead for a sufficiently important point, or collection of points, such that you would change your mind about the conclusion if you changed your mind about the arguments. It is, in our patois, “logically rude,” to ask someone else to painstakingly refute points you don’t really care about yourself.
My sense is that when liberals read conservatives on the subject of anthropogenic global warming, this is exactly what they see — logical rudeness. An annotated dialogue, with inferred True Rejections:
Conservative: There isn’t a scientific consensus. [True Rejection: If there were a scientific consensus, we would agree to your proposals.]
Liberal: Well, there wasn’t one fifteen years ago. But there is one now, at least if by “consensus” you mean “overwhelming agreement.” [Which is true; scientists agree on the reality of AGW about as much as they ever agree on anything.]
Conservative: The data is faulty, and the researchers are corrupt. [True Rejection: If the data were reliable, and the researchers were honest, we would agree to your proposals.]
Liberal: No data set is perfect, but what we have is very clear; it’s getting clearer by the day; and no, the researchers are not corrupt. [This is true, you know. As in, not a lie.]
Conservative: Well, your policy proposals wouldn’t work anyway. [True Rejection: Show that your proposals would work, and we’ll agree with them. Much harder than the former, but certainly not impossible.]
Or, much more often:
Conservative: There’s this fellow over here who doesn’t agree. Can you convince him? [True Rejection: Convince a person whose mind is not open to convincing, but who for some reason counts for more than the overwhelming majority of scientists combined.]
Say what you will, but the conservative in this dialogue was drawn true to life. Was he being logically rude? Or was I improperly inferring that some or all of his True Rejections stood alone? Being cagey about a well-hidden True Rejection is something we do all the time, but in a better world, maybe we wouldn’t. And while you’re certainly allowed to formulate a complex True Rejection, one with many different propositions to it, anyone who includes the very last item in the dialogue is almost certainly being logically rude. Because there’s always some other crank to fall back on.
Either way, much argumentative goodwill has been expended to no purpose in debates like the above. It’s certainly true that over a period of years, people’s positions may evolve. They may begin with a complex True Rejection, with several points that must be demonstrated before they give in. But if, in the dialogue, the last point was the only True Rejection all along, then why didn’t they hunt up Dr. Skeptic H. Denialist and bring him out at the getgo? (Answer: Because at that time, he was not the True Rejection after all.)
Logical argument isn’t about haggling. It’s not about starting high so that in the worst case you end somewhere in the middle. But of course, that is precisely what politics is about. Alas.