Gay rights, gun rights, polygamy and the slippery slope fallacy

In logic class, I was taught that the “slippery slope” argument was a fallacy.

And logically, it is. It’s essentially if x then y, with no supporting arguments.

From a practical standpoint, it’s true that one argument can open the door for another argument to be considered. Arguing about Obamacare, for example, might open the door to arguments on the single-payer system. (Even though Obama himself slammed that door in his interview with Marc Maron.)

And so we hear a lot about the “slippery slope” in politics. You hear it a lot in gun arguments. “Oh, if we register our guns, then the government will start rounding them all up.” (Those arguments also inevitably invoke Hitler.)

But with gun laws, we’ve already seen that we can block the slippery slope. The USA has some restrictions on the right to bear arms. I can’t take the Metro down to Northrop Grumman and purchase a fully loaded A-10 Thunderbolt, yet such limitations mean little to owners of hunting rifles. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was amended in 1968, which is bad news for grenade owners but hasn’t eliminated handguns for the country.

So with gay marriage, we’ve already seen the slippery slope question: What about polygamy? Naturally, Politico came out and trolled everyone with that argument, though I don’t know of a serious movement to legalize it.

You may not want polygamy – neither do I – but what you can’t do is argue that you can’t allow gay marriage because polygamy inevitably follows. As we’ve seen in gun rights, the next step on the slope isn’t inevitable.

What you have to do is much harder. You have to create the intellectual and legal argument against polygamy itself. 

And if you’ve taken any philosophy classes, you know that it’s difficult to make such arguments against actions that don’t have obvious victims. You can argue against pedophilia and bestiality using a “consent” argument. It’s much more difficult to argue against something that takes place among consenting adults. Today’s fashionable libertarianism would say people should be able to define a family however they want. I’ve been pondering polygamy for a while, and the only argument I can find about harm to society is that it would lead to fewer guys marrying more women, leaving a lot of guys out in the cold. And there’s nothing more dangerous to society than guys that can’t get laid.

(Remember the urban legends about how Bin Laden was radicalized? American women laughed at him, and off he went. That’s surely a joke, but I think there’s some truth to the notion that people who are content with their love lives are a little less prone to irrational violence.)

But seriously – the fact that I haven’t come up with a good argument against polygamy doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I’m sure someone smarter than me can come up with it.

And if we’re going with slippery slopes, consider this – putting “under God” on our currency, as we did in the 1950s, is the first step toward sharia law, Christian style.

music, philosophy

Rolling Stone and Rush mythbusting

On its 40th anniversary tour, Rush has officially broken down the last of the rock establishment’s resistance. They’re on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Even better, the article is terrific. It doesn’t just rehash the band’s history. It captures them as a vibrant group of human beings. They make mistakes in rehearsals and struggle to play their difficult songs. Geddy Lee gets clever revenge on Joe Perry.

The story should also drive the last nail in the notion that Neil Peart is a right-wing role model or even a good Ayn Rand disciple. He gives money to a homeless person and talks about regaining his generosity, which admittedly seems to run counter to the message of Anthem.

And he gets more explicit in his politics:

Peart outgrew his Ayn Rand phase years ago, and now describes himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian,” citing his trips to Africa as transformative. He claims to stand by the message of “The Trees,” but other than that, his bleeding-heart side seems dominant. Peart just became a U.S. citizen, and he is unlikely to vote for Rand Paul, or any Republican. Peart says that it’s “very obvious” that Paul “hates women and brown people” — and Rush sent a cease-and-desist order to get Paul to stop quoting “The Trees” in his speeches.

“For a person of my sensibility, you’re only left with the Democratic party,” says Peart, who also calls George W. Bush “an instrument of evil.” “If you’re a compassionate person at all. The whole health-care thing — denying mercy to suffering people? What? This is Christian?”

So perhaps the last decade of Rush going mainstream is simply a matter of seeing them as thoughtful, compassionate people. Not wind-up machines who play every note perfectly and pledge allegiance to libertarianism.


journalism, philosophy, politics

The Attack on Truth: Postmodernism and propaganda

In grad school, I worried that the same “postmodernist” tools that ivory-tower professors used to question reality were also being used by propaganda merchants to question climate change, evolution and so forth.

I hate being right. But this Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The Attack on Truth, confirms it.

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Granted, the seeds of doubt go back a bit farther than that:

Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign.

And to some extent, our discussions have never been about finding truth:

In a recent paper, “Why Do Humans Reason?,” Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, both of them philosophers and cognitive scientists, argue that the point of human reason is not and never has been to lead to truth, but is rather to win arguments. If that is correct, the discovery of truth is only a byproduct.

So we’re talking about deeply ingrained human nature. But we often fight against that human nature and come up with the occasional Age of Reason or Enlightenment, pushing our scruffy species a little farther up the road toward good government, good decisions, and technology. If our species could never agree on truth, Apple engineers would still be yelling at each other about how to make an iPod. We’d never have an iPhone.

The bad news today is that we have the means to amplify every crackpot, and the media business landscape makes shouting pundits more profitable than careful research.

An obvious solution might be to turn to journalists, who are supposed to embrace a standard of objectivity and source-checking that would be more likely to support true beliefs. Yet, at least in part as a result of the competition that has been enabled by the Internet, we now find that even some mainstream journalists and news media are dangerously complicit in the follies of those who seek to disrespect truth. There have always been accusations of bias in the media, but today we have Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left (along with a smattering of partisan radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh), who engage in overt advocacy for their ideological views.

Yet those are not the kinds of journalists we should be so worried about, for they are known to be biased. Another tendency is perhaps even more damaging to the idea that journalism is meant to safeguard truth. Call it “objectivity bias.” Sensitive to criticism that they, too, are partisan, many news sites try to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced by presenting “both” sides of any issue deemed “controversial” — even when there really aren’t two credible sides. That isn’t objectivity. And the consequence is public confusion over whether an issue — in the case of climate change or childhood vaccination, a scientific issue — has actually been settled.


A lot of this was written in some guy’s grad-school thesis in 2000:

With readers choosing the news they see, vital bits of information may not get to the people who need it. Readers may not hear that the food on their shelves has been recalled because of a possible salmonella contamination. Voters may believe erroneous reports about the economy; a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found this to be the case, with 53 percent of respondents saying they believed a recession lingered in the United States despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  Readers have new power to get around the gatekeepers, but journalists have less power to ensure that important messages get through the gates.

I hate being right.