Outsourced to Scott Alexander
I read a ton of old Scott Alexander posts while vacationing in Florida. I was pleased to discover many topics I don’t need to address, because Scott’s already explained my views better than I could explain them myself. Choice selections:
Suppose I state “Professors who identify as feminist give twice as many As to female students as they do to male students.”
(This is true, by the way.)
It sounds like a big problem. So you dig through mountains of data,
and you figure out that most feminist professors tend to be in subjects
like the humanities, where twice as many students are female as male,
and so naturally twice as many of the As go to women as men. If I just
give you my best trollface and say “Yes, that’s certainly the mechanism
by which the extra female As occur”, you have every reason to believe
I’m deliberately causing trouble. Especially if colleges have already
vowed to stop hiring feminist professors in response to the subsequent
outrage. Especially especially if you know I am a cultural conservative
activist whose goal has always been to make colleges stop hiring
feminist professors, by hook or by crook.
If twice as many women as men take English literature classes, that’s
compatible with something about gender socialization unfairly making
men feel less able to study or less enthusiastic about studying
literature. That could be considered biased or discriminatory, I guess.
But phrasing it as “feminist professors give twice as many As to women”
is calculated to produce maximal damage.
2. The motte-and-bailey doctrine (or, as my teacher John Searle put it, “Moving from the preposterous to the platitudinous and then back to the preposterous”). Background: In a medieval castle…
…there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land
called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte.
If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity
in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat
to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and
went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you
wanted to be all along.
So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold,
controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim
you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are
clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the
argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial
The feminists who constantly argue about whether you can be a real
feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower
women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support
controversial policies like affirmative action or affirmative consent
laws (bailey). Then when someone says they don’t really like feminism
very much, they object “But feminism is just the belief that women are
people!” (motte) Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely
didn’t mean women aren’t people, the feminists get back to demanding
everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about
whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.
Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular
form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your
crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it
doesn’t work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo
solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for
(motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real
medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor
fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and
has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace,
they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their
treatments will cure cancer.
I’d add cryonics to Scott’s list.
The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them.
More important, it draws its strength from people’s usual failure to
debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I’m
debating “does quackery cure cancer?”, it might be easy to view that as a
general case of the problem of “is quackery okay?” or “should quackery
be illegal?”, and from there it’s easy to bring up the motte objection.
At risk of sounding smug, I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of playing motte-and-bailey.
3. The definitional war on “Nice Guys”:
Let’s extend our analogy from above.
It was wrong of me to say I hate poor minorities. I meant I hate Poor
Minorities! Poor Minorities is a category I made up that includes only
poor minorities who complain about poverty or racism.
No, wait! I can be even more charitable! A poor minority is only a Poor Minority if their compaints about poverty and racism come from a sense of entitlement.
Which I get to decide after listening to them for two seconds. And If
they don’t realize that they’re doing something wrong, then they’re
automatically a Poor Minority.
I dedicate my blog to explaining how Poor Minorities, when they’re
complaining about their difficulties with poverty or asking why some
people like Paris Hilton seem to have it so easy, really just want to
steal your company’s money and probably sexually molest their
co-workers. And I’m not being unfair at all! Right? Because of my new
definition! I know everyone I’m talking to can hear those Capital
Letters. And there’s no chance whatsoever anyone will accidentally
misclassify any particular poor minority as a Poor Minority.
That’s crazy talk! I’m sure the “make fun of Poor Minorities” community
will be diligently self-policing against that sort of thing.
Because if anyone is known for their rigorous application of epistemic
charity, it is the make-fun-of-Poor-Minorities community!
I’m not even sure I can dignify this with the term “motte-and-bailey
fallacy”. It is a tiny Playmobil motte on a bailey the size of Russia.
4. The best statistical guesstimates of false rape accusations you’ll ever see. Just one clever section:
The rate of false rape accusations is notoriously difficult to study,
since researchers have no failsafe way of figuring out whether a given
accusation is true or not. The leading scholar in the area, David Lisak,
explains that the generally accepted methodology is to count a rape
accusation as false “if there is a clear and credible admission [of
falsehood] from the complainant, or strong evidential grounds”…
Feminists make one true and important critique of these numbers –
sometimes real victims, in the depths of stress we can’t even imagine,
do strange things and get their story hopelessly garbled. Or they
suddenly lose their nerve and don’t want to continue the legal process
and tell the police they were making it up in order to drop the case as
quickly as possible. All of these would go down as “false allegations”
under the “victim has to admit she was lying or contradict herself”
criteria. No doubt this does happen.
But the opposite critique seems much stronger: that some false
accusers manage tell their story without contradicting themselves, and
without changing their mind and admit they were lying. We’re not talking
about making it all the way through a trial – the majority of reported
rapes get quietly dropped by the police for one reason or another and
never make it that far. Although keeping your story halfway straight is
probably harder than it sounds sitting in an armchair without any cops
grilling me, it seems very easy to imagine that most false accusers manage this task, especially since they may worry that admitting their duplicity will lead to some punishment.
The research community defines false accusations as those that can be
proven false beyond a reasonable doubt, and all others as true. Yet
many – maybe most – false accusations are not provably false and so will
not be included.
[T]he problem isn’t with Tumblr social justice, it’s structural. Every
community on Tumblr somehow gets enmeshed with the people most devoted
to making that community miserable. The tiny Tumblr rationalist
community somehow attracts, concentrates, and constantly reblogs stuff
from the even tinier Tumblr community of people who hate rationalists
and want them to be miserable (no, well-intentioned and intelligent
critics, I am not talking about you). It’s like one of those rainforest
ecosystems where every variety of rare endangered nocturnal spider hosts
a parasite who has evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize
that one spider species, and the parasites host parasites who have
evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize them.
By the way, Scott’s intellectual output is one of the best arguments I’ve seen against living in a (good) Bubble. If Scott didn’t routinely expose himself to painfully bad ideas, most of his best pieces would never be written.