This will be a continuation from my previous post.
Daran’s response in particular deserves to be looked at here. In it, he argued that I was simply setting the standards so high that no amount of information could realistically meet them; that what I was doing was tantamount to what tobacco companies have done every time they argue that there is no “real proof” that smoking increases the risk of cancer.
I obviously have not presented my argument very accessibly. I will attempt to remedy that immediately.
I’m not arguing that we have to reach Godlike levels of certainty–what I’m saying is that we need to start with methodological questions before we can really make a case for anything.
Starting, of course, with what information is available. If there isn’t very much of it, then there’s not much you can do, of course–but if there isn’t all that much, then drawing strong conclusions from it and throwing out accusations with any certainty is simply irresponsible.
Now, if you do have some information, you have to ask yourself what to look at in particular–what one thing you can follow, and how trustworthy an indicator it is for the subject you’re interested in.
Once you’re reasonably certain of what the margins of error associated with what you’re observing are, that is when you can ask “what could this mean?” and explain why you believe it best to be interpreted in a particular way.
Yet look at this.
No, I’m mourning because eight-year-old Iraqi girls are getting kidnapped and raped, and it’s happening more often now than it used to.
Both Iraq pre-invasion and Iraq post-invasion are sick societies in which huge portions of the population have their substantive freedoms curtailed. However, there’s strong evidence that for girls and women in particular (but not exclusively), things have gotten much worse since we invaded – which is an incredible achievement, considering how horrible things were pre-invasion.
In this debate, Ampersand makes a powerful emotional appeal–young children being raped, women in general finding their situation more and more helpless. And to defend this appeal, he speaks of “strong evidence”.
The debate gets increasingly pointless:
If it was your own face with acid splashed in it, I doubt you’d say that what matters is that it happened to you in a liberal democracy.
If I am free to vote but not to walk the streets, I am not substantively free. If I am free to vote but the political system lacks the will to protect me from being kidnapped, raped and sold into sexual slavery, I am not substantively free. If my odds of being violently killed are high enough so I live in perpetual fear, I am not free.
again you show your utter refusal to hold your policy up to any standards at all
given the truly astonishing record of incompetence and stupidity your leaders have displayed in Iraq so far, why on Earth should I take your empty belief that improvement is just around the corner seriously?
And with Robert:
Those theories may be empty to you, but if so, it’s because you’ve had that governance and those rights so long that they seem like air and water – natural entitlements that are part of the universe, not something precious, painfully scraped out of nothing by the blood and sacrifice of past generations.
You and yours don’t have the stomach to see it done; noted, and not a big surprise.
There are obviously several dimensions to this debate; it’s quite good on a number of them.
Yet while Ampersand bemoans Roberts inability to “hold up to any policy standards”, he continues to lack any kind of standard to judge his own information.
He argues that “it appears that Saddam’s regime wasn’t as awful as the post-invasion regime.” And what is this based upon? What sort of comparison are we even capable of making?
I suppose you could argue that reported cases of abuse are up–though I don’t know that for a fact. But if that’s so, then what exactly does that mean–how many cases were ever made any kind of public knowledge under Hussein’s dictatorship?
It’s akin to arguments of “epidemics” in different diseases, because their reported occurances increase. Yet any serious statistical observation reveals that the more doctors learned about the disease, the more often they diagnosed it correctly–meaning that while the reported occurances might increase, that may be more a matter of improving measurement than anything else.
Moreover, I think it would be difficult to make the case that in a system which utilized various elements of kidnapping and torture in the night, including rooms where women were raped in order to extract information from their kin, and left many mass-graves in its wake–things were safer, and people more free, than they are today.
But that does not mean that Ampersand’s conclusion is wrong. It could very well be that women are being abused on a greater scale than they were in Hussein’s dictatorship.
If that is true, it is too important a matter to present so very haphazardly.
Perhaps I may seem obsessive on matters concerning method, but I find it very difficult to ignore all the people in my day-to-day life as well as in the online and written world who express outrage over the people who disagree with them, as if those who disagree are impeding progress. Yet the only ones impeding anything are the people who harp on issues of great importance without taking them seriously enough to get information beyond the anecdotal.
One should be moderated by one’s information. If all you have are anecdotal accounts, with no sense of actual proportions, then claiming there is a “Hidden War on Women” and then proceeding to harp on other people’s failures to “hold up” to “any standard at all” is simply self-indulgent.
What’s more, when the actual methodology of judging information becomes secondary, things deteriorate rather rapidly. Robert wouldn’t believe what he believed if he lived there, Ampersand and those who agree with him haven’t the stomach to see things through….and so on.
The first remark is pointless because it assumes that a certain factual conclusion has been reached–that things are definately worse, and so Robert’s opinion is heartless. It would be far more productive to discuss whether or not things actually are worse, than to condemn someone’s beliefs over a fact that has not been established.
Likewise, rather than talking about who has the stomach to do what, debating what the cost of Iraq has been, a subject of some controversy by itself, would probably be a better starting place. After addressing the question of what the cost has been, it would then make a great deal of sense to ask whether Ampersand or anyone else for that matter feels that it is worth it.
(EDIT: I originally oversimplified this, but for the purpose of this post, I’d just like to say there there’s some controversy over a Lancet Article dealing with casualties in Iraq–and that’s one example of why reasonable disagreement can occur on the subject)
Passion is an essential feature in a human life. But in debate, if one indulges in a righteous passion when they have not even bothered to seriously examine the information from a methodological standpoint, you are far more likely to devolve into ad-hominem attacks and talking past one another.
To return to Daran’s charge: the Tobacco company argues that you can’t prove smoking is risky, because you can’t prove anything 100%, so if that’s your standard, then everything will fall short.
On the flipside, if you’re using a handful of quotes, the sea of anecdotes that exist out there make it easy for anyone to support what they believe.
The only way to guard against either outcome is to make a serious examination of your own standards; to provide an open explanation of what your methodology is when you engage in debate. That allows the person you’re debating with to either try and meet your standard with counter-information, or to criticize your standard as being to either of those two extremes I mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
But without that, no amount of information has any meaning. Because unless you have a standard by which to judge information, it can mean just about whatever you want it to.