Posts Tagged ‘Logic’

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How to Turn the Political Tide: Reward Rational Thought

06.26.10

From the blatant lies passed off as truths by Arizona’s governor to the Rolling Stone reporter whose article ultimately led to Gen. McChrystal’s forced resignation, the question raised by The Economist, Andrew Sullivan, and others seems more relevant than ever now: do intelligent arguments make a difference?

With so much of the blogosphere ripe with deeply partisan, harsh opinionators, and the populist movement in full force across the country, playing toward people’s emotions has seemed to trump rational arguments.  We’re living in a time when a journalist has to defend his reporting because it’s so vastly different from what gets passed off as news and journalism with outlets like Fox News, MSNBC, and the Washington Post dangerously blurring the lines:

“Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising. My views are critical but that shouldn’t be mistaken for hostile – I’m just not a stenographer. There is a body of work that shows how I view these issues but that was hard-earned through experience, not something I learned going to a cocktail party on fucking K Street. That’s what reporters are supposed to do, report the story.” – Michael Hastings

In a debate with other gubernatorial candidate, Matt Jette, who said that a lot of undocumented workers “are just trying to feed their family… They just want to work,” Arizona Governor Jan Brewer responded with:

“We are a nation of laws. And they are coming across our border illegally. And the majority of them in my opinion and I think in the opinion of law enforcement is that they are not coming here to work. They are coming here and they’re bringing drugs. And they’re doing drop houses and they’re extorting people and they’re terrorizing the families. That is the truth, Matt. That is the truth…”

Notice how her argument is based on her opinion, which at the end, she passes off as truth, as fact.  In her argument, there is no difference between what she believes and what is real.

Now, let’s just say for the sake of argument that she’s right: the majority of illegal immigrants are coming across the border to sell drugs and terrorize Americans.  If that’s the case, and the numbers (because there have to be numbers to prove something like this which is calculable) show this to be the case, then there’s no need to even bring up one’s opinion, or allude to the possible opinion of some third party.  There’s no my feelings versus your feelings; it’s just these numbers show this is happening, plain and simple.

The obvious reason that Gov. Brewer didn’t handle the argument in this manner is most likely two-fold:

  1. The numbers weren’t in her favor.  There are more than double the number of Border Patrol agents on the border now than six years ago, and the crime rates in border towns in Arizona haven’t changed much at all in the past decade.
  2. The masses aren’t interested in numbers.  Not to say that people are stupid, but when in large groups, it’s easy to play to emotions.  And emotions run high these days with nearly two years of unemployment near 10%, the housing market crashing, and broad anger toward those who are supposed to be the ones who can do something about it all.

To look outside of Arizona, let’s take the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  Outrage slowly built after the initial oil rig explosion when people realized just how grave the situation was and how difficult it was going to be to fix it.  That outrage initially went right at BP, for good reason; but, as the weeks flew by with oil churning out of the earth, blame shifted to President Obama and the government — he should be doing more; he hasn’t done enough; he hasn’t been putting enough pressure on BP; he hasn’t even met with BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward.

When you ask people what they expect Obama to do that hasn’t yet been done, no one can give an answer.  And no one has an answer because no one has the answer.  The only actual fix seems to always have been the relief wells that are currently being dug and won’t be finished until August; everything else has been done on a wing and a prayer.  Not to say that the different methods of stopping the leak shouldn’t have been attempted, only that the probability of their effectiveness was never all that high — the “top kill” method only had an admitted 60-70 percent chance of working, and that was being optimistic since it had never even been attempted at that depth before.

People don’t like feeling helpless.  It might be the worst feeling, up there with guilt and shame.  We don’t take it well when we’re told “there’s nothing you can do.”  Usually you see this happen in a movie, in a hospital, when someone is told that there’s nothing more anyone can do to save someone who is dying and they demand, hysterically and angrily, that the doctor do something, that there must be another option, something else they can try.  The raw facts of the situation won’t change the emotional response of the poor soul dealing with the reality of his futility.

This feeling of futility seems to be the source of the growing populist movement of broad, unfocused anger toward the establishment.  There must be a way to fix the economy, create jobs, solve the undocumented worker issue, stop global warming without it costing us a cent, find an everlasting geyser of oil, and plug the gaping hole in the Gulf — we just haven’t found it yet, haven’t tried hard enough yet.  And indeed there must be.  But the only way will be to look at the facts with a rational eye.  It won’t be quick.  It won’t be easy.  And there will have to be sacrifices.

It’s easy to throw tantrums, point fingers, and react with our emotions, but there’s a reason why that didn’t work as kids, and why we need to be strong now and realize why it can’t help now that we’re adults.  Rational arguments can make a difference.  But it means having to face reality, as difficult as it may be, and rewarding those who give logical explanations for ways to solve problems and dismissing the ones who don’t.  It’s up to us.

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Political Blogging: The Power of the Premises

06.19.10

What’s more important to an argument — a solid set of premises leading up to a logical conclusion, or the conclusion itself?

The political blogosphere is mainly just opinion writing, most often by non-professionals — myself included.  People take a stance on a law, bill, event, political figure – anything at all, really – and have an opinion on the matter.  So they then write a blog post explaining why they feel that way and why that way is the right way to feel about the topic.  Opinion writing is argumentative writing.  And yes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions; but, when it comes to arguments, there are sound arguments and there are unsound arguments.

A recent comment from one of my older posts began a conversation about this very topic that I thought it was worthy of its own post.  This notion of arguments and logic is something that I find extremely interesting and will be exploring even more in-depth on a consistent basis with a new project of mine coming soon (shameless teaser, I know — but get ready for it).

Something I always try to do with this blog is present my opinions as thought-out arguments, not merely rhetoric spewed onto the page to either rile up those who already agree with me or to infuriate those who don’t see things quite the same way.  There’s enough of that out there already.  I’ve definitely had moments of weakness and failure in this aim, to be sure; and I’m sure that looking back through my archives, I’d find those moments happened more frequently when I began.  And while I know that I will write both solid and weak arguments going forward, they will all be written from the perspective and intention of providing logical rationale to support my conclusion.

Many people read blogs that already cater to their tastes.  If you’re liberal, you probably don’t read Andrew Breitbart.  If you’re conservative, doubtful you frequent the Huffington Post.  (Although, it’s become trendy for some to follow those with whom they disagree just so they can leave extreme comments announcing their disgust through name-calling and other pointless commentary.)  In fact, many with opposing viewpoints are not welcome in the comments section of some blogs — not always by the bloggers themselves, but as evident from the response by the fellow commenters.

Perhaps it’s this chasm between the liberal and conservative blogs and their readership that causes most bloggers to not feel the pressure of forming logical arguments for their opinions — they don’t need them because they have the power of their already-devoted followers to lend their support to any dissenters, should any happen by.  Regardless — we have enough of those blogs out there that merely mimic the thoughts of their political faction and treat dissent without any intellectual respect whatsoever.  I’d like to hold myself to a higher standard and think that we should all demand the same from those bloggers we follow.

It’s true that one can accidentally arrive at the right conclusion despite having a total mess of inaccuracy in the preceding premises.  But that doesn’t lend much confidence to the one behind that opinion.  The commenter on my previous post that got this whole thing started brought up the notion that if one’s conclusion was “2+2 = 4,” it wouldn’t matter what kind of nonsense made this person arrive at that answer because it’s a true statement.  For that I have two rebuttals:  one, the premises do matter, as I recall from my days in high school algebra.  If you happened upon the right answer but didn’t get their the correct way, you lost points.  It’s not always about the answer; it’s also about how you get there.  And secondly, political discourse lives in the gray area and doesn’t always have a right or wrong answer like arithmetic — which makes your supporting evidence that much more important.

I’d argue that the basis for your opinion is more important than your opinion itself.  Think about it.  When someone gives you their opinion, the first thing you most likely will ask is: “Why?”  This invites the person to explain the reasoning behind their opinion.  Unless you blindly follow someone else’s stance on everything without a second thought (and I strongly recommend not doing this), you’re going to want to hear more than a response of: “Just because.”

So, the lesson to be learned from all of this is that we should take care to note the argument’s premises – if there are any – the next time you’re reading an opinion blog rather than only focusing on the conclusion.   You might be surprised.  You might find that while you thought you agreed wholeheartedly with the opinion at first,  after seeing the support being mainly comprised of empty rhetoric and other meandering opinion instead of rational evidence, you’re not so sure after all.

It’s always nice to read something that completely validates how you’re feeling — but it’s even better when you can be sure that you have a factual leg to stand on when people question your opinion and you can respond with more than “just because.”