Friday, March 19, 2004

Meta-Fallacy

Matthew Yglesias praises Eugene Volokh’s excellent article on slippery slopes. But oddly, he still characterizes slippery slopes as a form of logical fallacy. “It's quite true, as people say, that the ‘slippery slope’ argument is a kind of logical fallacy. Nevertheless, it is often empirically true that a slight change in one direction leads to further change.”

Perhaps I’m focusing excessively on the definition of “fallacy,” but I think Yglesias is missing a major point of Eugene’s article – a point further developed in Mario Rizzo’s and my later article on the same subject (warning: Lexis-Nexis access required). A fallacy is an argument that is false, mistaken, or invalid. There is nothing inherently invalid about slippery slope arguments, just as there is nothing inherently invalid about (say) arguments that rely on judgments of probability. The argument can be valid or not, depending on the steps in the argument and the empirical claims made. When slippery slopes are indeed fallacious, it is most often because they include a non sequitur – that is, they fail to specify the mechanism or process that will allegedly lead from the initial decision to the “danger case.” But Eugene’s article presents several slope mechanisms (indeed, the word ‘mechanisms’ appears in the title), and Mario’s and my article specifies at least four slope processes.

One of the primary reasons that slippery slopes do occur is that decision-making often takes place in a social context. The current decision-maker is not always identical to the future decision-maker: future legal cases are decided by different judges, elections change the composition of legislatures, and so on. It is therefore unwise for a current decision-maker to think, “I’ll simply do what I think is the right thing now, and then I’ll just resist doing the wrong thing later.” Even if the current decision-maker could indeed resist the temptation to make a bad decision later, other (future) decision-makers might not be so resistant. A wise current decision-maker will therefore consider what effect her decisions now are likely to have on future decision-makers. The truly fallacious argument is one that asserts – without support – that there is not, in fact, a connection between present and future decisions in a social context.

To understand the slippery slope argument, you need to see it as a meta-argument. The maker of the argument claims that the acceptance of Argument A in the present case will make the acceptance of Argument B – which may be made in subsequent cases – more likely. Thus, a slippery slope argument is an argument about arguments. Inherent in the slippery slope argument is a claim to know something about people’s ideas, and how their ideas change in response to their environment (including both economic incentives and the ideas of others). Now, it’s certainly possible to be wrong about what ideas people hold and how their ideas are likely to change, but it’s also quite possible to be right. Characterizing all arguments of this general form as “fallacious” does the valid ones a disservice.

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Thursday, March 18, 2004

Congress: "Don't Blame Us, We Just Work Here."

So everyone knows now that the Medicare prescription drug program will cost at least $100 billion more than advertised ($550 billion and counting, instead of $400 billion). And the Bush administration knew this before the bill was passed, told the chief Medicare actuary to keep his mouth shut, and kept quoting the inaccurate lower number. And, as Mark Kleiman notes, it’s well known that the bill would not have passed if the correct figure had been revealed.

Of course, this means that the Bush administration is filled with lying rats. But we already knew that. Here’s what irks me almost as much: the Democrats, and many Republicans for that matter, are quite willing to point fingers at the administration, but what are the chances they will pass a bill to repeal the prescription drug program right now? It’s not too late, you know. The program hasn’t been around long enough to be fully implemented, let alone entrenched, though it will be soon. Congress could vote to repeal that baby this moment. Unless Bush actually dusted off the veto pen and struck down the bill to repeal (thereby putting himself on record as supporting the program even with the $550 billion figure), we would avoid what is widely regarded as a disaster in the making.

But that won’t happen, of course, because even with the exorbitant price tag, most members of Congress don’t have the stones to stand up to the special interests and do the right thing. And that, to my mind, makes them nearly as culpable as the Bush administration.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Why Do We Crucify Ourselves?

One thing I discovered in the course of my own research on suicide (for academic, not personal, purposes) is that suicides and attempted suicides are, for the most part, very different phenomena. People who actually intend to kill themselves usually succeed once they put their minds to it. Most people who try and fail are not really wanting to end up dead, but seeking attention.

Here’s further evidence for that proposition, courtesy of Radley:

A Hartland man was treated at a Pittsfield hospital after he nailed himself to a cross. The 23-year-old man apparently was trying to commit suicide Thursday evening in his living room, the Bangor Daily News reported...

...Lt. Pierre Boucher said the man took two pieces of wood, nailed them together in the form of a cross and placed them on the floor. He attached a suicide sign to the wood and then proceeded to nail one of his hands to the makeshift cross using a 14-penny nail and a hammer.

"When he realized that he was unable to nail his other hand to the board, he called 911," Boucher said.

It was unclear whether the man was seeking assistance for his injury or help in nailing down his other hand.
I wonder if he was listening to Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” album while he did it.

Do I feel bad for making light of the situation? Not really. I feel bad for people so unhappy that they want to be dead. I also feel bad for people so unhappy they’re willing to harm themselves for attention. But when we lavish positive attention on those who seek it by means of attempted suicide, we make it even more likely that other people (or even the same people again) will employ this destructive and expensive attention-getting method. They should be encouraged to actually speak up and ask for the help they need.

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My Predictions Come True

Two weeks ago, I pointed out that the New York law being used to prosecute the mayor of New Paltz for performing same-sex marriages could, by one reading of the text, be used to prosecute clergymen for performing same-sex marriages as well – even if they made no pretense of the ceremonies having legal force. The key question was the interpretation of the word “solemnize.” In response to my question about the legal meaning of this word, MLS answered (in the comments box) that it does indeed have a more restrictive meaning in New York law that would restrict its application.

I’m relatively confident MLS’s interpretation is correct. But nevertheless, at least one New York prosecutor has chosen to prosecute ministers for performing same-sex marriage. The fact pattern is darn similar to the one I described. The prosecutors’ spin is that the ministers were arrested only for their acts as government officials, not their acts as religious leaders. But Eugene nicely deconstructs that argument: “[T]here's no danger that people will wrongly think the ministers have indeed exercised government power. Everyone knows that the ceremony is purely a combination of religious ceremony and political protest, and not the actual creation of a governmentally recognized marriage.”

What we have here is a nice demonstration of the danger posed by vaguely worded laws in the presence of prosecutorial discretion. Even if reason and precedent point toward a narrow interpretation, that won’t stop the authorities from harassing people using a broader one, at least until a clarification is made.

In any case, I think I deserve credit for having foreseen this kind of case before it happened.

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Monday, March 15, 2004

Sourcing: Doing the Old In-Out, In-Out

Others have already blogged it, but this is a point that bears repeating: Foreign outsourcing to America outweighs American outsourcing to foreign countries, at least with respect to white-collar jobs.

Aside on language usage: In a couple of places, I’ve heard people call outsourcing by foreigners “insourcing.” It sounds intuitive, but actually “insourcing” already has a meaning. It’s what we do when we don’t outsource: we make something in-house or, in the international trade context, buy domestic. And we also already have a different term for what Americans do when foreigners outsource to us. We call it “exporting” (which often, in the modern era, takes the form of “service exporting”). Let’s stop this particular linguistic confusion before it really gets rolling, okay?

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If You've a Date in Peking, She'll Be Waiting in Beijing

Bill Poser of Language Log has an informative post on why there are so many different names for the capital city of China – Peking, Peiping, Beijing, etc. The short version: different names for the same city, different dialects’ pronunciations of the same names, and different romanizations of the same names and pronunciations.

However, none of this answers my question, which is why American journalists and officials have felt the need to keep changing how we refer to this city. With respect to European places, English writers and speakers have felt no special need to update their names or pronunciations to achieve greater fidelity to the names and pronunciations used by the natives. We call Deutschland Germany, M√ľnchen Munich, Firenze Florence, and so on. We write Paris for Paris, but only the pretentious pronounce it “Pair-ee.” So there is a longstanding tradition of using Anglicized place names without apology or correction. But in the case of China, influential people decided to keep changing the name and pronunciation instead of sticking to just one. Why?

Given the perceived need to change the name, I’d also like to know why journalists felt the need to sneak the changes in without notice. I remember when news anchors started talking about some city called “Beijing” in the 1980s, and I remember wondering why this place was important, and whether it was anywhere near Peking. It was a good while before someone explained to me that they were the same place. Somehow I missed the memo. My parents said they could remember the previous change, when Peiping became Peking; they, too, never received notification. Couldn’t journalists at least institute a “phase-in” period during which both names are used?

UPDATE: Answers! But also more questions. Bill Poser emailed me the following:

That's a good question. I suspect that part of the answer is that using Peiping instead of Peking showed that you were a good anticommunist. Peking then resurfaced as virulent anti-communism died down. The change from Peking to Beijing seems less clear. There was, I suppose, an upsurge in interest in China triggered by the US recognition and all, but it didn't in other respects extend to people learning Chinese or becoming all that knowledgable about China, so I don't know why the change occurred.
And then he sent a follow-up:
I asked Bill Bright, a "retired" linguist who is interested in placenames, about the switch from Peking to Beijing. He says that it came about when the Chinese news service, Xinhua, announced that henceforth they would give all placenames in Pinyin romanization. The big western news services decided to follow suit, and so it trickled down. I'm guessing that it was a matter of convenience. If you get an item from Xinhua and want to use traditional names, you've got to have staff who recognize the Pinyin versions and can convert them into the familiar versions. You can't automate this since it isn't just a mechanical conversion from one romanization to another; it requires some fairly knowledgable people and/or reference books. So life is a lot easier if you go along with Xinhua.

On the other hand, it seems to me that news sources haven't done this with complete consistency, especially in the case of personal names. For instance, Sun Yat-Sen is always referred to as such, which is the Cantonese form of his name. A Xinhua item that mentioned him would presumably give his name in the Pinyin romanization of the Mandarin version, which is Sun Yi-Xian. But maybe Xinhua itself uses the familiar forms of the names of famous people in their English service - I'm not sure.
Aha! So there was a memo. I still want to know why American journalists didn't bother to clarify all this for us at the time. But I didn't (and still don't) watch the news every single day, so maybe there was an announcement and I just missed it.

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