from the world's big
Should Psychologists Just Butt Out of Politics?
Strictly speaking, a "psychopundit" is William Saletan's term for a scholar who uses psychology to explain what's wrong with people who don't vote for Democrats or recycle or otherwise agree with the pundit's left-wing views. But why limit the coinage to liberal malcontents? "Psychopundit" could nicely denote anybody whose work relates psychological research to policy and politics. In that light, Saletan himself is a psychopundit (one of the best). So are David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell and, I suppose, yours truly. And, among researchers themselves, so are David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Haidt and Dan Ariely. What is the public supposed to make of all these guys?
One thing it could do is take the advice of Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, whose cover story rehearses the frequent right-wing complaint that plenty of liberal "social science" is just name-calling with bar charts. Ferguson says the thing to do with psychopundits is simple: Ignore them. The "science" on which they base their sweeping statements about human nature is feeble and rife with unexamined assumptions.
The familiarity of this accusation of left-wing bias doesn't make it wrong. It is, in fact, often correct, as Haidt outlines quite well in his new book, The Righteous Mind. It's also true that plenty of social-science studies use small samples of weird people to test hypotheses, and declare those hypotheses proven without considering alternative explanations (the prosecutor's fallacy). And they often leap to very broad general statements about human nature from very narrow foundations. You can fairly say that Ferguson cherry-picks some particularly absurd-sounding combinations of procedure and conclusion to ridicule. But you can also fairly say finding such studies is not a tough job.
However, what Ferguson wants to conclude from this state of affairs is that psychology and the other mind sciences have nothing to bring to the table when it's time to discuss politics and society. Even excellent, rigorous work that has been replicated (of which there is also plenty in social psychology) will not satisfy him.
Why not? Psychology seeks to find causes of behavior that are not apparent; by definition, it seeks explanations that are different from what people would say about themselves. To Ferguson that means "moral impoverishment." Politics is only meaningful, he writes, if it is discussed in terms that the participants themselves would recognize: "as a clash of interests and well-developed ideas." Otherwise, he writes, "if the appeal of one idea versus another is explained by a man’s biology (interacting with a few environmental factors) rather than its content, there’s really not much to argue about. Politics is drained of the meaning that human beings have always sought from it."
This is an old and familiar argument against any scientific investigation—those researchers will replace the beauty and nobility of yore with ugly, ignoble clockwork, "we murder to dissect," yadda yadda yadda. When science is strong, this sentiment cannot endure. The findings keep coming, building on one another. Eventually, practical people make use of the new insights, and more airy types like me find beauty in the new worlds that swim into our ken.
For example, the beauty of science—a sense of shrugging confusion replaced by lucid clarity—is in this paper by Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav and Liora Avnaim-Pessoa: It plotted judges' parole decisions against the time of day, to show that mercy was most probable right after a meal, and then declined to nearly zero until the next food break. Maybe that result dents the ideal of impartiality, but surely the loss of judicial dignity is a fair price to pay for a better parole system.
Ferguson's hostility to the whole project muffles an better point that's implicit in his piece: Attempting to explain why conservatives are conservative isn't enough. That's not because psychologists ought to leave politics to the politicians, though. It's because the engine of politics is not the fact that conservatives are conservative and liberals are liberal. It is, rather, that conservatives can and do become liberals. And liberals become conservatives. How and why do people change their minds, often enough and in numbers large enough that a country that elected Reagan in 1980 could also elect Obama in 2008? That's a question that demands more psychological research, not less.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.