Word count

As someone with a number of idiosyncratic opinions, and as someone who has extensively elaborated on my opinions, I think a great deal about length. If I take 2000 words to explain why X is wrong, then: A) how can I realistically expect anyone to read it? and B) how can I realistically expect anyone to go through the same thought process themselves, and end in the same place?

Realistically, I can’t expect any individual to read any of my writing. Most people don’t, you know. I have site statistics, I have the population of the world. I know a lot of people prefer different kinds of media… videos, memes, IRL conversations, collections of one-liners… I don’t judge. Or maybe they just don’t give a shit about whatever mother of all niches I have chosen to write about today.

And independent of whether people read what I say, it’s unrealistic to expect them to follow the same path. I’ve been blogging for long time, I know that not even I come to the same conclusions each time I address the same subject. I also like to think I put some sort of work and cleverness into forming my opinions. Well, if I’m so clever, how can I judge others for being less clever? Aren’t I kind of a high bar?

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One-sided dichotomies

“One-sided dichotomy” is a term I would like to coin to describe a common situation in public discourse.

My first example is the distinction between second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. Ostensibly, second-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 1970s, and third-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 2010s. But it should be obvious that feminists in the 1970s did not at the time make any such distinction. This is a dichotomy between two groups, but the dichotomy is only made by one of the two groups. Thus, a one-sided dichotomy.

One-sided dichotomies have a tendency to be unfair, because it is only one side controlling the narrative. The narrative goes that second-wave feminists were primarily focused on equality for wealthy white women, while third-wave feminism is intersectional. But closer examination should show that at least some feminisms of the 70s were intersectional, and some feminisms of the present day fail to be so. Does that mean the dichotomy is unfair, or am I nitpicking?  You decide.

I must emphasize that one-sided dichotomies are not necessarily unfair. A model example is the gay/straight dichotomy, which certainly started out one-sided. Straight people would have rejected the label (“I’m not straight, I’m just normal”) or simply wouldn’t have given it any thought. Now the dichotomy is broadly accepted. Another dichotomy currently following the same trajectory, is the cis/trans dichotomy.

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In the weeds with analogies

Sometimes I make an argument from analogy, and I deeply regret it. I say, “X is Y for the same reason A is B,” and commenters counter, “But X and A are different!” and I say, “I never said they were the same!” And so it goes back and forth, and into the weeds.

Arguments by analogy are terrible. They never convince anyone who wasn’t convinced to begin with. Never use them. Or so I say. But before I know it I’m using analogies again, because they’re just so darn effective for making a point.

But maybe I’m still right? Perhaps analogies really don’t convince people who aren’t already convinced, it’s just that I have an audience who is already convinced. Come on, readers! Think for yourselves!

I’d like to share my thought process about arguments from analogy, and the best way to do this is to discuss a specific case study with all its messy details. So I came up with a novel analogy for a subject that most readers are familiar with: the tone argument.

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Guns, terrorism, and distortion

Generally I prefer not to comment on “news”, and I will continue that trend here. But we all know gun violence in the US is bad, right? You don’t need to pay attention to the news to know that! You can just read Wikipedia. (And I’m being lazy in my research to demonstrate just how easy it is to find this stuff.)

In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 persons), and 33,636 deaths due to “injury by firearms” (10.6 deaths per 100,000 persons). These deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides, 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with “undetermined intent”.

This is vastly higher than it is in other wealthy countries, and it’s only gotten higher in recent years.  I used to think that the death rate by guns must be dwarfed by that of car crashes, but no, it’s actually quite comparable (although with a lower injury rate):

In 2010, there were an estimated 5,419,000 crashes, 30,296 deadly, killing 32,999, and injuring 2,239,000.

Here’s what’s not comparable: number of deaths by mass shootings. If you only pay attention to mass shootings in the news, this will vastly underestimate gun violence in the US.

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Don’t cite logical fallacies

In a cooperative argument, you should never* explicitly refer to logical fallacies.

*additional qualifications below

This is a point I’ve made several times before, especially in my How To Argue post.

In that post, I make a distinction between cooperative and competitive arguments.  In a cooperative argument, you are trying to find the truth, which involves coming up with the best arguments you can, but does not necessarily involve “winning” the argument.  In a competitive argument, you are trying to win the argument, which might involve coming up with truthful arguments, but not necessarily.  I don’t mean to say there is anything inherently wrong with having a competitive argument, I’m just not talking about them here.

In a cooperative argument, you don’t want to antagonize the person you are arguing with (“interlocutor” is the term I would use).  After all, your goals are aligned.  You’re both trying to figure out the truth.  And if you tell your interlocutor that they’ve just used a logical fallacy, I think there’s something inherently antagonizing about that.  It’s like telling them not just that they’re wrong, but that they’re wrong in a particularly predictable and trite way.

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Ethical review of academic hoaxes

I learned from PZ that Peter Boghossian is under ethical investigation for his “grievance studies” hoax.  Peter Boghossian was one of three authors of the hoax, but the other two (James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose) do not hold academic positions, so are unlikely to be sanctioned.

An institutional review board (IRB) concluded that by involving journal editors and reviewers, they were conducting research on human subjects, and per standard policy they should have gotten IRB approval before beginning.  Everyone–including Boghossian’s defenders–suspects that if he sought IRB approval, he would have been rejected.

Note, there are plenty of experiments that deceive human subjects and still get IRB approval, but I suspect this particular hoax would encounter problems beyond mere deception.  They were undergoing peer review, which is rather arduous labor to get from non-consenting subjects.  The hoax also involved fabricating data, and the IRB decision on that matter is still pending.  I would also say that the hoax did not have much scholarly merit, which is a legitimate consideration for these ethical reviews.

Boghossian’s defenders, of course, are spinning a “martyr for free speech” narrative.  If the target of his hoax were something more acceptable, would he still have been criticized on ethical grounds?

Well, actually…

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