Thursday, October 15, 2015

When The Data Matter And When They Don’t

     The previous piece started my thoughts along a track they often follow briefly, but seldom to a usable conclusion. Perhaps it’s time to elaborate them for general discussion.

     There are two legitimate ingredients to an argument over anything:

  1. Facts.
  2. Logic.

     In a typical political argument, one side or the other will introduce data he claims are pertinent to the subject under discussion. As most such discussions are premised on the idea that one particular public policy, whether proposed or already enacted, would be better than its alternative, you’d naturally think that any data that might bear on the proposition would be valuable. Yet seldom does the insertion of such data into the discussion have any effect on the positions of the parties to it. Why?

     The possibility that springs most swiftly to mind is that whoever’s position is disfavored by the data has a natural incentive to argue that it should be ignored. There are several ways to do that:

  • Claim that the dataset is incomplete;
  • Claim that it’s been shown to be mistaken;
  • Claim that it’s fraudulent;
  • Claim that it doesn’t support the adversary’s position;
  • Claim that it’s irrelevant because:
    • It’s not pertinent to the adversary’s position, or:
    • It’s not pertinent to one’s own position;

     There may be others.

     Note that a claim of any of the above kinds might be sincere and correct. A polemicist must be aware of that possibility whenever he enters the arena of argument. However, it’s often the case today that the claim is both insincere and incorrect – that it’s merely a tactical stroke that can itself be falsified. Leftists caught on the wrong side of the data usually go straight for the jugular: they accuse the adversary of evil motives, thereby implicitly tainting any and every argument he might make.

     A striking case of this maneuver arises in the debate over the individual right to keep and bear arms. The data are both plentiful and unambiguous: more crimes per capita are committed in regions that restrict the right than there are in regions that don’t. Worse yet for the proponents of “gun control,” more crimes per capita are committed with guns in anti-gun-right districts. Worse still, the trend lines in such crimes support the contention that the relaxation of restrictions against the right causes such crimes to decline in frequency.

     The anti-gunners cannot dispute the evidence by any of the abovementioned means. So they attack the motives of the pro-gunners, e.g.:

  • ”You don’t care about kids;”
  • “You want more inner-city blacks to die;”
  • ”You’re in the pay of the gun manufacturers’ lobby;”

     ...and so on. In other words, the Leftist has said that the data aren’t relevant, but your feelings and motives are.

     And far too often, they get cleanly away with it.


     Data can, of course, be disputed, incomplete, misleading, or tendentiously edited. But one who has staked out a position on some subject of importance is usually presumed to have “taken the vow:” i.e., that he will participate as an honest combatant. Arthur Herzog, in The B.S. Factor, puts it thus:

     A politician purporting to relate facts must not tamper with the evidence; must not scramble reality and make-believe; must not introduce convenient fictions for the sake of good dramatic effect or a so-called “higher” truth; must not take advantage of the ignorance of his audience in order to outwit them as a polemicist.

     Imagine that aspirants to public office were required to swear to an oath to that effect. What would it do to the interminable and endlessly trying charges and counter-charges they hurl at one another, and to the “debates” they inflict upon us? For surely we have enough means today to verify or falsify their factual claims. Equally surely, there are enough of us skilled with logic to test their contentions about what the data “really mean.”

     In 1988, in a televised debate with William F. Buckley about the War on Drugs, the Dishonorable Charles Rangel claimed that legalizing recreational drugs would be "in violation of our treaties."

     Buckley, surprised at the statement, asked, "Which treaties?"

     Rangel replied, "The Psychotropic Substances Treaty of 1980."

     After the show was over, Buckley had occasion to speak to an aide, who informed him that there was no such treaty. Buckley immediately braced Rangel, who roared laughter, turned to one of his entourage, and said, "Hey, he demanded a treaty, didn't he?"

     It was a perfect example of a polemicist taking advantage of the ignorance of his audience – except that in this case, “the audience” was Bill Buckley, an unusually bright and erudite man who commanded a far better argument than Rangel. Politicians once did this sort of thing more often than they do today. Of course, the existence of the World Wide Web has made it possible to fact-check them far more swiftly and expeditiously than was possible in 1988, which is why fake data and provably false contentions are less common than ad hominem attacks intended to invalidate the opponent himself. Nevertheless, such situations do still occur.


     There are times the opponent is determined upon his conclusion and is uninterested in what the data suggest. This is usually a case of divergent goals. In the case of weapons rights, one participant in an argument might be sincerely focused on reducing the incidence of violent crime, and might assume – incorrectly – that his opponent has the same end in view. But what if the opponent is merely fixed upon disarming the citizenry regardless of the effect that would have on the crime rate? No data pertinent to the frequency of violent crimes would be relevant to him. The only way to cope with him would be to force him to admit to that inconvenient fact...and to divulge his true agenda.

     In his polemic-tools presentation The Essence of Political Persuasion, Michael Emerling stresses the importance of isolating the issue: i.e., insuring that the participants to an argument agree on what end is to be sought. For when agendas diverge, there cannot be data relevant to all sides. Just as with men, no dataset can serve two masters.

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