Bad arguments are easier to kill in an embryonic stage
Kevin Drum pulls the “ignore dumb arguments and they’ll go away” card. Anyone who was well-bullied in a pre-voting age educational environment knows that this strategy is to human psychology as the four humors are to medical science—sounds good on paper, but fails to prove itself in real world experiments basically ever. Matt Yglesias responds, pointing out that bad arguments are a cancer that has to be treated vigorously instead of simply ignored.
Sometimes I think that smart people actually spend too little time responding to the dumbest forms of arguments. It takes a certain kind of hubris to think that I’m going to persuade people who adhere to strong arguments that they’re mistaken. By contrast, I really do think I can persuade people that their bad arguments are wrong. You don’t want to waste too much time dealing with straight-up dishonesty, but plenty of well-intentioned people find themselves convinced by ideas that don’t withstand much scrutiny. And so I think there’s a case to be made for a kind of “discourse triage” where we attempt to purge the political system of the very weakest ideas as the preferred means of raising the level of debate.
I disagree with him on the “let lies stand” thing, because a lot of our political discourse is now run completely on lies that weren’t vigorously shot down because it’s so exhausting to point out, over and over, that someone is lying. (See: everyone pretending anti-choicers give two shits about fetuses, instead of accepting that they’re the anti-sex league.) But he’s right that dumb arguments can actually take off like mint in your garden and smother everything in sight, if you don’t uproot it early. The human brain isn’t a rigorous logic machine, as far too many wonky liberal bloggers like to prefer to think of it. It’s a pattern-seeking, emotion-driven machine, and that causes people to often prefer ideas that seem to hold up some grand principle rather than ideas that present the world as a complex place. Bad ideas that fit into what the human brain prefers will, if not vigorously resisted in early stages, take off like wildfire.
Let’s take the example Kevin trots out as too dumb to be responded to—the notion that no drug research occurs within the confines of Big Pharma, but that 100% of it is paid for by the government and then handed off to drug companies at no profit to the people who funded it. This is simply untrue. This does happen some times, but the reality is that research funding is a complex maze of public and private funds. But the bad argument is pitch perfect to take off in our world, since there’s a whole lot of people who want to believe in black and white worlds where everything Big Pharma does is evil, full stop. If you don’t think that this can get out of hand very quickly, look at how the anti-vaccination movement took off. For far too many people, the mere fact that someone like Merck might make a profit at some point in time off a vaccination is reason enough to believe that vaccinations actually don’t prevent but cause disease. The notion that profit can only happen if evil has been performed is ridiculous if you look at the evidence, but it provides people with an quick-and-easy shortcut to understand the world: if someone made money at it, it’s bad.
You see many other bad ideas take off from this. People believe that if you enjoy something, it’s probably sinful and will make you sick. (See: not just the anti-sex brigade, but the wide swaths of America that think there’s two kinds of food, those that are good for you and those that taste good, and never the two shall co-mingle.) People believe that everything has a purpose and a higher power is controlling everything. On the flip of the “all profit is evil” thinking, you have the wingnut “all profit is good” thinking, i.e. the “greed is good”. Ayn Rand basically proved that no matter how asinine an idea is, if it provides a black and white rule to apply to everything, it will take off—so even though it’s self-evident that her ideas about selfishness being a greater good are sociopathic and stupid, that idea has blown up and now the entire country has to live with the consequences.
And that’s why I think Kevin’s still wrong in his update where he modified his position somewhat:
Of course, in the political world lots of influential people really do make dumb, extreme arguments on a regular basis. And since they’re influential, they have to be responded to.
Once someone “influential” starts pushing a dumb argument, the patient is often already terminal, to keep with the cancer metaphor. The stupidity tumor has been quietly growing, taking over the masses of non-influential people, and it only rises to the attention of too-good-for-the-melee folks when one of those influential people—say, Newt Gingrich—decides to exploit the widespread sentiment in a power grab. Believe me, I know. Take the anti-sex league. Those of us who’ve been fighting the argument that all non-procreative sex is wrong are often told by the Smart People that we’re wasting our time and talents on a self-evidently stupid argument that is only believed by wack-a-loons. But we’re hearing this a lot less, because sad wack-a-loons kept quietly growing their base, and now we all get to see the benefits of ignoring them for so long: Republican politicians that have even been willing to suggest that masturbation helps the spread of HIV, assaults on common sense foreign aid spending to improve women’s reproductive health around the world, purity rings, the Sarah-and-Bristol show. Now those of us sounding the alarm about this particular dumb idea don’t look like we were overreacting, because this dumb idea has been blessed by the influential people. Of course, now it’s going to be a much, much harder dumb idea to put down.
It’s kind of funny to me that what inspired this debate was some kicking in defense of Big Pharma, approvingly linked to by fluff-for-brains Megan McArdle. If Kevin is serious in his mission to ignore dumb arguments right off the bat, then what he needs to do is immediately cease wasting his time reading McArdle, whose entire career is based on the principle that even dumbasses deserve well-paid writing gigs, as long as they shill for rich people. I’ve never seen someone so wrong, so often, and strictly due to the fact that she has shit for brains but thinks that it’s dark matter. Killing bad arguments by ignoring doesn’t work, but if it did, the person to stop listening to immediately is McArdle.