Saturday, February 12, 2011

How does one deal with dumb arguments?

(This comic is from the amazing xkcd. It is called "Duty Calls.")

My wife informed me yesterday that she had just read “the stupidest letter to ever appear in the Grand Forks Herald.” (Which is, one must admit an impressive achievement). It reads as follows:

STRATHCONA, Minn. — There is a new documentary by Rick Stout called “Demographic Winter,” and Part II is called “Demographic Bomb.”

It’s well worth the viewing for those who think President Barack Obama’s health care plan — which is geared for more family planning and abortion funding — doesn’t hurt the economy.
In fact, the two go hand in hand: the higher the abortion and family planning rate in countries, the more likely those countries will be faced with problems in their economies due to no new workforce replacement as their populations are aging.

Stopping abortion and the massive funding of family planning is directly related to a healthy economy.
According to the new documentary, the alternative is a “demographic bomb,” which already has begun to explode in countries such as Japan, Russia and many European counties where there now are government incentives to repopulate. Source here.

Here is the author's argument summarized: planning when one wants to have a baby and when one doesn’t (through birth control or otherwise), combined with abortion, will lead to such a tremendous population drop that there will be no workers to replace the elderly. Obama’s health care plan is a disguised attempt to encourage pregnancy prevention and abortion, and as a result, it will cause the American economy to collapse.

For lack of a better word, this is dumb. First off, the new health care laws do a vast number of things ranging from raising the age of kids’ coverage on their parents plan (26) to removing the ceiling on insurance payments for chronic medical conditions. (Here is a useful site to clarify how the plan may affect you.) And while the plan may allow insurance companies to fund abortion if they choose, it does not encourage the procedure. One may be opposed to the plan because it might be wrong for government to get involved in health care funding, but that’s a whole different argument and one I’m not addressing here.

In fact, all of the above is actually irrelevant because the main problematic claim is that decreased populations are fatal to economic growth. This is just patently false. We know, of course, that the inverse is not true: the countries that are the worst off economically actually have the largest population growth; a large population does not mean economic success. We also know that limited family size is itself a result of economic prosperity. Economic security and predictability lead to smaller families and smaller families provide a great many economic opportunities for individuals and economies.  (Here is an informal but useful exchange about some of the issues, if you don't want to read the previous link.) And, incidentally, the amount of population reduction that would be required to do what the author suggests would have to be MASSIVE, perhaps catastrophic, to seriously effect replacement workers, and even if it did then (a) it would reduce unemployment along with it and (b) globalization would provide workers when needed.

Now, here’s the thing: if this letter were a comment in one of my classes, I would never call it dumb and I would use the opportunity to offer all of the information above to try to teach the student some basic economics. But the letter wasn't in my class and the letter isn’t really about the economy anyway. It's an anti-abortion, anti birth-control missive in disguise, and it is assuming a specific religious point of view that the majority of people in the world don’t subscribe to.

For more evidence of this bias, watch the trailer for the documentary the author references. In it, one sees not only all of the mistakes I explain above, but also the stoking of racist fears that “white” countries will be overrun by “non-white” countries. (There is a comment in the trailer about how current trends will lead to the absence of native-born French people in France, which is both wrong and a bizarre piece of propaganda because we Americans are supposed to hate the French.)

What all of this suggests then, is that there is nothing I could do or say that would ever change the author’s mind. She is fabricating arguments to defend a committed belief and bending reality to justify it. Her evidence is faulty and her argumentation is poor. She is steeped in confirmation bias and, frankly, ignorance

So, what does one do about an argument like this? One can rant, as I am doing. One can teach, as I am trying to do. And one can walk away, which I haven't been able to do. Unfortunately, I think the last option would have been the most effective since, again, this is in the public sphere, not in my classroom, and I will accomplish nothing by wasting my time on it instead of reading Carol Gilligan, which is what I'm supposed to be doing right now. But the letter has been eating away at me and I needed to get this out of my system. So, what do you think? How do you deal with dumb arguments, and how do you know the difference between a dumb argument and an argument that you just vehemently disagrees with? I would, as always, welcome your thoughts.

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  1. Yikes, this is a frighteningly ignorant letter. Of all the claims against Obama's Health Care plan, this may be the most absurd...although many are absurd.

    The difference between a bad argument and one that you just disagree with is facts that culminate to form a logical, or at least reasonable conclusion. This argument is bad because it is overly simplistic; failure to see the complexities of political issues leads to conclusions that fail to consider all appropriate dimensions. Teaching is the right response, but how do you teach someone who has, presumably, finished compulsory schooling?

  2. @Kathryn: That final question you ask is a really good one. How do you teach people who are not in school anymore? In a blog entry I wrote for a teaching blog, I remarked that "While many in the general public like to learn, very few of them feel comfortable being taught," and this is the problem. If I were in a position to meet the author of this letter, I would likely be met with hostility and anger, not just because I disagree with her, but she would resent my belief that I might be able to teach her something. She would think that I think I'm "better" than her, because that's a way of being defensive about what one needs to learn. I know that I have so much that I need to learn, and it is always baffling to me when other people don't think the same of themselves. (The link to that blog is here:(