Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Objectivity Through Negativity

I recently came across this article on the ol' Facebook, and it's one of my least favorite types of arguments. To save you the read, it's about how liberals are becoming like Fox News because they sometimes share memes that aren't 100% accurate. It's not so much this particular article I have a big problem with (though it is a pretty poorly argued article), but the idea this just happens to be the latest variation of this really annoying rhetorical device a lot of progressives use: talking shit about other progressives to show that they're the Very Serious one, who totally gets it, not like all those other morons, amirite?

Really what they're doing is falling prey to the South Park version of objectivity, wherein if you treat all sides of an argument as equally wrong (regardless of the veracity of any of the claims) then you therefore must be objective, because you've dinged everyone! And of course, as everyone knows, objectivity doesn't mean getting things correct, it means making sure you don't appear as if you have any particular proclivities toward any particular idea. If you can meet that bar, then everything you say is ipso facto objective, regardless of how inane or empirically false it may be.

To bring it back to the article in question -- the author's saying lefties are becoming like Fox news because they'll believe stuff that fits their worldview that isn't always entirely accurate. Beyond the fact that the idea people are less critical of things that support their worldview and more critical of things that do not (something which has been both thoroughly empirically verified as well as just being so intuitively obvious), this is a dumb argument.

I clicked one link at random, in which he discusses misconceptions about the 1994 crime bill. Because he is a smart and critical thinker, not like all these other morons he's lumped in with, he spends awhile explaining that while the bill made some difference in our imprisonment rates, it wasn't single-handedly responsible for mass incarceration. A fair, if largely uninteresting, point.

Though here's the problem: the entire thing was premised on some unpublished review of data. You know what good unpublished data is? Absolutely none at all. With unpublished writings, we have no way of knowing whether they are worthwhile or just completely made up. In fact, the entire justification for why we have scientific journals is to avoid exactly this situation; by having a peer review prerequisite to publication, we can have some faith that the data in question has been analyzed in a meaningful way that leads to trustworthy conclusions. Without that process...well, here's some unpublished data analysis for you: the more you cite unpublished data analyses, the more likely you are actually a lizard person from outer space! I've got all this unpublished analysis here to prove it!

Anyway, not to pick too much on this one particular point I happened to click on, but if the entire premise of your article is to chide people for playing fast and loose with the truth, it's not a particularly good look to cite a study that has not at all been vetted for rigor or accuracy.

Besides, such fine-grained critiques don't really matter, as the underlying logic of this argument is terrible. It basically amounts to "There's no evidence Hitler ever killed anyone, so you're way off base if you think he merits being in a discussion about the Holocaust." Because, to stick with this one example, pretty much no one is saying the 1994 crime bill single-handedly gave us mass incarceration, or that by overturning it, suddenly our cjs would be completely fixed. Instead, every mention I've seen of it really just use it as a short hand, as one of the most recognizable pieces of official legislation to come out of a decade or two of public hand-wringing about urban crime and "super predators." So pointing out that the crime bill only had a modest effect on mass incarceration is so completely missing the point, it forces one to wonder if there isn't another reason this guy is getting so pedantic with this.

And my guess would be that it's because he's trying to show he's above the fray and has magically gained some sort of objectivity not available to anyone else. It makes him a Very Serious Person, unlike all those other immature people blinded by their ideology. Which is a dumb argument.

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