Creative Destruction

April 2, 2006

Calling Motive into Question

Filed under: Debate,Statistical Method — Adam Gurri @ 9:48 pm

From Brutus' recent post:

"His insistence that he has his numbers right misses the point of the argument. Plus, it reinforces my belief that numbers often do not show the truth behind an assertion."

"(…)He showed us what he wanted us to see. In some circles, that is called lying with numbers, and it is disingenuous."

My obsession, in the end, is with neither politics nor any particular specific field–but rather, with method.  And while I appreciate the fact that Brutus utilizes a solid methodological critique in his argument, I still believe that his approach to debating and analyzing this issue could be greatly refined.

First, his assertion that "numbers do not show the truth of an assertion."  Statements like this bug me.  People love to drop the "lies, damned lies, and then statistics" line, but it is wholly counterproductive.  If you can't aptly support a point that you're making with evidence, then why say anything at all?  How can you possibly qualify any thesis under any circumstances?

The fallacy of this argument, of course, is that the only way to demonstrate it is by showing how the numbers used by one's debate partner are inaccurate.  But in order to do that, you have to use more numbers, and show what they mean in their proper context.

Getting nihilistic about statistics (hey, I made a rhyme!) is completely counterproductive.  And calling someone "disengenous" or questioning their motives puts an unnecessary stain on the discussion.  It's easy to honestly utilize an inaccurate method of analysis, and it should be remembered that you yourself might be doing this when you're attributing your difference of interpretation to a flaw in their character.  It is nowhere written that the confidence you have in your conclusions means that you are correct.

Set your standard.  Look at long term trends, rather than a few specific moments.  And then explain why those trends mostly support the standard you set up for how to judge your thesis.

In this case, Brutus argued that tax-flattening had continued unabated since the 1960's.  If we look at Bazzer's comment,  it seems to me that we could break it down like this:

  1. Thesis: Tax flattening has not continued unabated
  2. Standard: If the top marginal rate is higher now than it was when Reagan left office, the thesis is probably true.
  3. Evidence: In Reagan's day it was 28%, now it's 35%
  4. Conclusion: "continued unabated" is an inaccurate analysis of the situation

I would break down Brutus' response as follows:

  1. Thesis: Bazzer picked out his numbers carefully to make a disengenous argument for what he believes, thus providing a good example of why numbers are bad evidence.
  2. Standard: If we look at the long-term trend since the 1960's and see that it is geared mostly towards a declining top marginal rate, the thesis is probably right.
  3. Evidence: This chart of tax rates since 1913.
  4. Conclusion: There has been a long term trend towards a flattening of the income tax, and Bazzer's decision to use a smaller timeframe demonstrates the folly of numbers as evidence for anything.

This is a very good methodological critique, when it comes to making a case for a long-term trend in our tax structure.  It falls short, however, when discussing the person he is debating with.

There are many reasons that Bazzer could have chosen Reagan as an example.  If you were simply to point out the inaccuracy of his method, that would be excellent–and the link you provided is a goldmine of useful information.  But to take the next step and call it "lying with numbers" makes certain assumptions about motives.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that this analysis of motives could be broken down into the following argument:

  1. Thesis: Bazzer has questionable motives for making the argument the way he did.
  2. Standard: If it can be demonstrated that Bazzer simplified the information in a way that made it appear more favorable to his interpretation, then he is lying with numbers.
  3. Evidence: Bazzer used two specific numbers in a twenty year timeline and they supported his point, even though a look at the longer trend shows the opposite tendency than what he is arguing.
  4. Conclusion: His character flaw has led him to support his analysis with inaccurate evidence.

Do you not see the frivolity of this?  You can't ever know why people do what they do.  You can know what they've said and done, however, and you can criticize and analyze their interpretations on the merits of their arguments.  In this way, information is shared and analytical standards are refined.

Since any evidence you use to support your argument about the person's motives can only be simplistic and inaccurate, the fact that you are making that argument about a person who you disagree with, on the merits of the very argument you're putting forward, calls your own motives into question.  This has no effect whatsoever except to help people rationalize why they ignore the people they disagree with.  And if you aren't ignoring them, then why on Earth would you want to make this sort of personal accusation which you can't at all demonstrate to be accurate?

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