Tag Archives: facts

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

In marketing, the term, F.U.D., shows up from time to time. Those letters stand for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s a strategy used to keep people from accepting a new product or proposal by making people afraid to change from some old and settled way of doing things. But these days, this concept is used more generally to discuss attempts in a debate to sow F.U.D. against an idea without bothering to show any actual errors in facts and logic.

One example of this can be found in debates on-line about gun rights:

1.  What are you afraid of?

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Say that you carry a handgun for self-defense, and someone will ask you what you’re afraid of. It’s an inevitability, just like questions about penis size and other silly examples of ad hominem fallacies. But in addition to mocking a supporter of rights, the purpose of the question is to create fear in the minds of undecided people about those of us who are exercising our rights. The insinuation is that you wouldn’t want fearful and thus unstable people running around in public, now would you.

But let’s consider the data. Violent crime certainly does occur. The rate is down from years gone by, but attacks on good citizens do still occur. Preparing for a potential bad event is not fear. It’s a rational calculation.

On the other hand, carry license holders commit crimes at rates much lower than the average population. Consider these numbers on people who legally carry in Texas. Year after year, license holders represent a fraction of one percent of convictions. These data match reporting across the whole nation.

2.  But how can we know?

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How can we know that a person with a gun is a good person and not a bad person? We can spend endless hours debating epistemology, but specifically on this question, the essence of American values is the belief that human beings are good until proved otherwise. Asking how can we trust someone with the exercise of basic rights betrays the kind of attitude found in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a view that we must be strictly controlled to restrain our evil natures. That is a reasonable view to hold–one that I certainly don’t accept, though–but it is fundamentally contrary to the principle underlying a free society.

3.  What if I don’t believe you?

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In many discussions, there comes a point at which someone rejects not only interpretations based on judgements but facts as well. The facts about guns in the United States are mixed, leaving both sides the opportunity to have valid positions derived from their values–freedom or safety–without being compelled to choose one answer or another to be intellectually honest. For example, some 30,000 Americans die each year from gunshots, while something like 80,000 suffer non-fatal injuries. At the same time, hundred of thousands use firearms to defend their lives annually. But facts have an unyielding quality that creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of people not willing to ground their beliefs in reality.

So what do we do? We have to admit that we can’t reach everyone, but we can persuade those who are undecided, and we might persuade some who haven’t thought things through. My choice is to advocate for basic rights, a view I call eleutherianism.

Jaw, Jaw

Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

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He’s famous for leading Britain in the world’s most recent global war, among other things, and his comment came in 1954, after he had written his history of World War II, but presumably it recognizes the superiority of talking to physical fighting. More recently, the Dalai Lama, speaking of his nation’s occupation by the Chinese, expressed the idea that dialogue is the only way to solve human problems.

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Not that dialogue has done anything to free Tibet, but he’s sticking to his verbal guns.

These statements do raise the question of whether discussion solves any problem. How often have we heard people insisting that we just need dialogue, that we just need to listen to each other? And yet, anyone who’s been in an argument with a family member or followed politics or engaged in a conversation on Twitter should know that talking so often doesn’t reach agreement or cooperation on matters that people hold deeply.

As regular readers of my weblogs know, I support both gun rights and gay rights. I also accept the science of evolution and climate change. These things make for some interesting discussions on Twitter in which I find myself supported by my fellow Twitterati on one subject, while being vehemently opposed by the same people in other areas. It’s fascinating to watch someone make what looks like a good argument one day, then turn around and make a sloppy one the next.

Of course, it’s harder to spot the logical and factual errors on a position we support, since we tend to be much less critical of ourselves and our allies, and when given the choice to go after errors, it’s more comfortable to attack an opponent, rather than a supporter. But of greater concern is the fact that so many people develop a conviction about a topic and then become impervious to facts and logic.

What are we to do about this? One answer that I’ve addressed before is a slow but steady solution: education. The more ideas and information people are exposed to, the more open–it is to be hoped–they are to considering a variety of positions in a logical manner. Note that this comes from what we call a liberal arts education. The liberal arts are aimed at teaching the skills and knowledge a person needs to be a free person, rather than focusing on some specific requirement for a particular job.

But as I said, education is a slow process, and even educated people get caught up in the passion of belief. This leaves us with the question of why we should bother to debate ideas at all. I offer three answers:

1. Not everyone is decided on every subject

We must remember that for every infuriating true believer out there, many more people will be undecided on the subject. Make a good argument, don’t take crap tossed at you, and trust to the potential goodness in all of us.

2. Support freedom of choice

These debates remain theoretical and intellectually interesting so long as we don’t rush off to pass laws. This is the reason that I call myself an eleutherian. Whenever possible, and it’s possible much more often than we’d like to believe, leave people free to act on their own beliefs while we act on our own.

3. Consider the argument being made

That means keeping this open:

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and engaging this:

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Those, naturally, are the hardest part.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

I’ve raised the question of civility in discourse before, but it’s time to revisit the subject. Of late, I have been trolling the The Huffington Post–well, I say trolling, but really what I’ve been doing is expressing a minority opinion there. The editorial stance and the position taken by much of the commenters leans hard to the left. As my regular readers know, I’m a pogo stick on the traditional political spectrum. That’s because my core political philosophy is aimed at securing liberty for the individual, something I’ve taken to calling eleutherianism. Politics is best represented not as a spectrum, limited to one dimension, but as a multi-dimensional space.

Nevertheless, since at times the comments that I make feel to the right of many opinions expressed on the HuffnPuff, I get a chorus of replies intending to educate me on some point. The problem here is that said commenters have presumed that I don’t know what they do and thereby take it upon themselves to call me ignorant–and occasionally to correct the perceived deficiency.

What they apparently cannot comprehend is that people can have the same body of facts but arrive at different conclusions. They write comments in the manner that many of my students write argument essays by dumping a pile of facts into a posting and leaving. What they fail to understand is that facts don’t speak for themselves.

Let’s take the hot topic de jour, global warming. Some doubt the science, but rationally speaking, the facts are that the Earth is heating up, and human activity is the cause. But notice that those facts tell us precisely nothing about what we ought to do. There are a variety of responses that can be taken, from nothing at all to a radical restructuring of human societies. One can be fully aware of the facts and yet reach different answers regarding the appropriate action.

I’m not seeking consolation here. Politics, just like any other serious human endeavor, is a messy and occasionally ugly business. What I am suggesting is that we will all do better in arriving at solutions if we lay aside the urge to smugness and cease to presume that we know the facts of which our opponents must be ignorant.

Of course, there are some about whom we cannot escape the realization that they are willfully ignorant. Aye, there’s the rub. Separating the fools from the worthy adversaries is not easy. I’m asking here to give everyone a fair chance first before jumping to the conclusion that the person isn’t deserving of being heard.