Rule of Argumentation 91: Agree about what you disagree about!
If you recall way back in Rule 32, I asked you to “Keep your eye on the ball!” when arguing, by which I meant that you should focus on the subject of disagreement and not get distracted by irrelevancies. That rule was mainly an introduction to and an attempt to convince you of the importance of relevance in argumentation, and I didn't give specific advice about how to be relevant. The current rule is a follow-up giving such advice, and I'll assume that you have read and remember rule 3 and don't need another pep talk.
"Agree about what you disagree about" is an ambiguous sentence, since it may sound as if I'm suggesting you should find out what you and your partner in argumentation3 disagree about, then change that disagreement to agreement. Instead, the agreement and disagreement I'm talking about are on different levels:
- First-Level: Agreement and disagreement on this level is about whatever has prompted the argument. However, an argument won't even start unless you and your partner disagree about something, or at least think that you do. Given that you do both think that you disagree about something on the first level, then the next level of agreement or disagreement becomes important.
- Second-Level: Agreement and disagreement on level two is about the first level, that is, you either agree or disagree about whatever you think you disagree about on the first level. The rule asks you to seek agreement on this level, so that both you and your partner understand the nature of your first-level disagreement in the same way. If you do not understand it in the same way, you will be arguing past each other.
In other words, this rule asks you to seek second-level agreement with your partner about the nature of your first-level disagreement. A further complication is that there are two types of first-level disagreement, namely, substantive and verbal:
- Substantive: If you and your partner disagree primarily about the facts rather than the language used to describe them, then you have a substantive disagreement. This type of disagreement is often harder to resolve than a verbal one, but you need to identify the nature of the disagreement in order to resolve it.
- Verbal: A verbal disagreement is one in which you and your partner primarily disagree about the language used to describe the facts rather than the facts themselves. Such disagreements may be real, since language is important, but less is usually at stake than in substantive disagreements.
In order to determine whether the disagreement is verbal or substantive, you need to identify the point of contention. There are two steps to doing this:
- State: Decide in your own mind what you and your partner disagree about, then formulate that point as a statement, or proposition―that is, a sentence that is either true or false. If you cannot do this, then you're probably too confused to continue with the argument. However, if you have trouble doing so, you might want to ask your partner to formulate it.
- Verify: After you've formulated in your own mind the point of disagreement, you should verify it with your partner. It's at this point that you're most likely to discover that you don't even agree on what you disagree about. If you disagree about the point as you've formulated it, then either you disagree about the words you've used to state it or about some other substantive issue. If so, you might want to ask your partner to formulate such a proposition, then see if you agree with your partner's statement of the first-level disagreement. This may reveal either that that disagreement is verbal, or that there is some other substantive point on which the two of you disagree. In either case, you're making progress.
In any case, before proceeding to try to resolve your first-level disagreement, you and your partner should achieve second-level agreement about it. If necessary, repeat the above steps until you have done so. If you can't achieve second-level agreement, there's not much point in trying to resolve the first-level disagreement, since you don't even know what it is. If you succeed in establishing such a second-level agreement, then you, and hopefully your partner too, will be able to keep your eyes on the ball and focus your arguments on the point of disagreement rather than on various distractions and irrelevancies.
Next Month: Rule 10
- Previous entries in this series:
- Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
- Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
- The current rule would have come earlier in the sequence of rules―probably as rule 4―except that I've been producing the rules as I think about them rather than in logical order. In a future entry, after the entire set of rules is complete, I intend to provide a more logical ordering.
- By "partner in argumentation", or "partner" for short, I mean the person with whom you are arguing. I use this phrase in preference to the more common "opponent" in order to avoid the suggestion that this is a conflict that only one of you can win.
Warren's Suicidal Stand
The fourth "debate" of Democratic candidates for president occurred two days ago, with twelve candidates instead of the now standard ten. While I don't relish the prospect of two debates, I think that ten candidates is already too many to have on one stage. So, the number of candidates is going in the wrong direction.
I've often pointed out the failure of candidates to directly answer questions in these forums, but this one contained a remarkable example. Here's how it begins:
Moderator Marc Lacey: Senator Warren, … you have not specified how you're going to pay for the most expensive plan, Medicare for all. Will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it, yes or no?
Senator Elizabeth Warren: So I have made clear what my principles are here, and that is costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations, and for hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down. You know, the way I see this is, I have been out all around this country. I've done 140 town halls now, been to 27 states and Puerto Rico. Shoot, I've done 70,000 selfies, which must be the new measure of democracy. And this gives people a chance to come up and talk to me directly. So I have talked with the family, the mom and dad whose daughter's been diagnosed with cancer. I have talked to the young woman whose mother has just been diagnosed with diabetes. I've talked to the young man who has MS. And here's the thing about all of them. They all had great health insurance right at the beginning. But then they found out when they really needed it, when the costs went up, that the insurance company pulled the rug out from underneath them and they were left with nothing. Look, the way I see this, it is hard enough to get a diagnosis that your child has cancer, to think about the changes in your family if your mom has diabetes, or what it means for your life going forward if you've been diagnosed with MS. But what you shouldn't have to worry about is how you're going to pay for your health care after that.1
I've included all of Warren's answer here, even though most of it is irrelevant to the question, in order to show her approach. The question was intentionally a yes-no one, but there's no direct answer in the reply. Instead, Warren goes off into what I assume is a canned campaign speech about how many "selfies" she's taken, some family's cancer-stricken daughter, and some young man with multiple sclerosis. Then she changes the topic from taxes to costs, which are not the same thing. As we'll see, this is Warren's way of dealing with questions about this issue, and nothing and no one is able to get a straight answer out of her.
To his credit the moderator, Marc Lacey, pressed her on the issue:
Lacey: Senator Warren, to be clear, Senator Sanders acknowledges he's going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare for all. You've endorsed his plan. Should you acknowledge it, too?
Warren: So the way I see this, it is about what kinds of costs middle-class families are going to face. So let me be clear on this. Costs will go up for the wealthy. They will go up for big corporations. And for middle-class families, they will go down. I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.
Again, Warren ignores the question and changes the issue from taxes to costs. Lacey then turns to another candidate to comment on Warren's replies:
Lacey: Mayor Buttigieg, you say Senator Warren has been, quote, "evasive" about how she's going to pay for Medicare for all. What's your response?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn't get a yes or no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. … No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for all plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in. And the thing is, we really can deliver health care for every American and move forward with the boldest, biggest transformation since the inception of Medicare itself. But the way to do it without a giant multi-trillion-dollar hole and without having to avoid a yes-or-no question is Medicare for all who want it….
The entire exchange is lengthy and involves multiple candidates, so I won't quote it all here but just snippets. However, it's worth looking at the whole thing to get a sense of just how long this ordeal went on. Warren continued reciting her talking points:
Lacey: … Senator, your response?
Warren: So, let's be clear. … Medicare for all is the gold standard. It is the way we get health care coverage for every single American, including the family whose child has been diagnosed with cancer, including the person who's just gotten an MS diagnosis. That's how we make sure that everyone gets health care. We can pay for this. I've laid out the basic principles. Costs are going to go up for the wealthy. They're going to go up for big corporations. They will not go up for middle-class families. And I will not sign a bill into law that raises their costs, because costs are what people care about. …
Lacey then turns to Bernie Sanders who tells us he "wrote the damn bill":
Lacey: … Senator Sanders? …
Senator Bernie Sanders: Well, as somebody who wrote the damn bill, as I said, let's be clear. Under the Medicare for all bill that I wrote, premiums are gone. Co-payments are gone. Deductibles are gone. All out-of-pocket expenses are gone. … At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health care bills. But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They're going to go up significantly for the wealthy. And for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less…than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
Buttigieg: Well, at least that's a straightforward answer….
Lacey makes one last attempt to get Warren to admit what is now obvious to everyone else, but she sounds like a vinyl record that skips:
Lacey: Senator Warren, will you acknowledge what the senator just said about taxes going up?
Warren: So my view on this, and what I have committed to, is costs will go down for hardworking, middle-class families. …I will not embrace a plan that says people have great insurance right up until you get the diagnosis and the insurance company says, "Sorry, we're not covering your expensive cancer treatments, we're not covering your expensive treatments for MS…".
That's the third time she's mentioned MS! Amy Klobuchar takes the opportunity to deliver the coup de grâce:
Lacey: Thank you, Senator. Senator Klobuchar.
Senator Amy Klobuchar: At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we're going to send the invoice….
That almost makes me feel sorry for Warren, except that she left herself open for this. I suggested in the most recent rule of argumentation2 that debaters should be willing to retreat from indefensible positions to more secure ones. Here, Warren has taken up a suicidal position, which in the above exchange is completely over-run, but she just won't give it up. It makes her look either stupid or pig-headed; I don't think she's stupid, but this is a stupid strategy.
The moderator, Marc Lacey, deserves credit for his persistence. No, he didn't get Warren to answer the question, but nothing short of water-boarding would have done it. Most moderators and reporters will let politicians get away with dodging questions and reciting memorized talking points, but Lacey made Warren pay a price for doing so. This may be the only way to change their behavior.
Why did Warren fall into this trap? I presume that it's because she's gotten away with it so many times in the past that she didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition3. Once she started in with her standard approach of answering the question she wished she'd been asked, instead of the one she actually was asked, she was trapped. If she suddenly confessed that, of course, taxes were going to go up on everyone, she would look bad. However, what she did made her look even worse.
There was a more defensible position that she could have taken, namely, the one that Bernie Sanders takes, which is that there's good news and bad news: the bad news is that under "Medicare for all" your taxes will go up; the good news is that your overall health care costs will go down even more. Warren tried to ignore the bad news and only talk about the good news. I don't know whether Sander's claim is true, though I'm skeptical, but at least it's a position that he can and does defend without looking silly.
Now, Warren, who already has credibility problems, has raised the following question: if she won't even tell us the truth about something that's obvious to everyone, will she be willing to tell us the truth as President?
- The Fix team, "The October Democratic debate transcript", The Washington Post, 10/16/2019. All subsequent quotes are taken from this source.
- Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
- Of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
How Charts Lie
Title: How Charts Lie
Subtitle: Getting Smarter about Visual Information
Author: Alberto Cairo
Quote: "Charts―even those not designed with ill intent―can mislead us. However, they can also tell us the truth. Well-designed charts are empowering. … Charts are often the best way to reveal patterns and trends hidden behind the numbers we encounter in our lives. Good charts make us smarter. But before that happens, we need to get used to perusing them with attention and care. Instead of just looking at charts, as if they were mere illustrations, we must learn to read them and interpret them correctly. Here's how to become a better chart reader.1"
The author of this new book, Alberto Cairo2, is a professor of communication and author of previous books on graphics. The book has rave blurbs from Jordan Ellenberg and Charles Wheelan, both of whose books I liked.
As is usual with "New Books", I haven't read the entire book yet, but I have read that part of it that is accessible through Amazon's "Look inside!" feature. What I've read is clearly if not excitingly written, and the author knows what he's talking about. As you might expect, there are a lot of examples of different types of charts and graphs, many of which are misleading, which is probably the best way to learn to understand them.
Judging more from the subtitle than the title, as well as the quote given above, the topic of the book appears to be graphical literacy3, that is, the ability to understand visual displays of information, such as pie charts, bar graphs, scatter plots, etc. After a prologue and introduction, there are six chapters, the first of which is on how charts work, and the remaining five on ways they fail. The five ways in which charts can "lie" are: being poorly designed, displaying dubious data, using insufficient data, hiding or downplaying uncertainty, and presenting misleading patterns.
One warning: surprisingly, at least to me, there is a short section of the introduction discussing a map used by the rapper Kid Rock which, perhaps unsurprisingly, contained a four-letter Anglo-Saxon expletive. I realize that standards of language use are changing, and I wouldn't have minded so much except that the whole section seemed of minor interest. Also, who expects that kind of language in a book on graphical literacy? Was it supposed to be funny? I didn't laugh4. In any case, teachers or parents considering using the book with their students or children should keep this in mind.
- Alberto Cairo, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information (2019), "Prologue".
- The Washington Post has a recent interview with Cairo discussing this book: Christopher Ingraham, "You’ve been reading charts wrong. Here’s how a pro does it.", The Washington Post, 10/14/2019.
- Cairo uses the ugly portmanteau words "graphicacy" and "graphicate", but I'll stick with the longer phrases; see the "Introduction".
- This is not strictly true: I did laugh when Cairo referred to him as "Mr. Rock".
Are you a healthy skeptic? By that I mean, do you have a healthy skepticism about what you read and hear?
What is a healthy skepticism? It's one that lies between an unhealthy skepticism and an even unhealthier gullibility. Both unhealthy skepticism and gullibility are all-or-nothing attitudes: in the case of gullibility it's "all" and it's "nothing" for the skeptic. An unhealthy skeptic tends to dismiss everything that he or she doesn't agree with, whereas a gullible person tends to believe it all, no matter how implausible.
Test the health of your skepticism on the following alarming headline1:
1 in 20 young Canadians are hospitalized every day for substance use2
If this headline doesn't cause your internal alarm to go off, then your skepticism needs a check-up. The first thing that should set that alarm ringing is a lack of clarity. What does it even mean?
The verb "to hospitalize" usually means to admit to a hospital, so in that sense the headline would mean that 5% of the population of young Canadians are admitted to the hospital each day. However, unless the hospital stays were very short, after a few days a large percentage of Canadian youth would be in the hospital. Surely, then, the hospitals in Canada would be overwhelmed. Have you read or heard any reports about hospitals in Canada being over-run by young patients? If they were, wouldn't you have? Moreover, given what you know about "substance use", is it plausible that so many Canadian youngsters have a problem severe enough to require hospitalization?
In addition to a lack of clarity, another basis for skepticism is implausibility. How do you check plausibility? You use what you already know: you know many things, perhaps more even than you realize. Ask yourself whether the headline fits with what you know.
Perhaps "hospitalized" just means "in the hospital", so that the headline means that one out of twenty young Canadians are in the hospital for substance abuse on any given day. 5% of the population of Canadian young people would be a large number of patients, though not so large as if 5% were admitted every day. For this reason, this interpretation is more plausible than the previous one, but is it plausible? If 5% are hospitalized, what additional percentage would have a "substance use" problem not so severe as to require hospitalization? Surely, for every person with such a severe problem there are several with less severe ones. If Canada were suffering from such an epidemic of "substance use", wouldn't you have heard or read something about it?
Given both its ambiguity and implausibility, it seems likely that something went wrong with this headline, but to find out what we need to read the article itself. The first sentence reads: "A new report that looked at Canadian youths aged 10-24 finds that some 65 of them are hospitalized every day for substance use issues.3" That 65 Canadian youngsters are admitted to hospital every day seems plausible, but not that that represents 5% of the youth of the country.
As Lawrence Mayes, who submitted this article, commented in an email to me: "I know Canada's population is small but I'm sure it's not that small.4" Here Lawrence was using what he knows to test the claim's plausibility: he knows that Canada's population is small, but it's large enough that there must be more than 1,300―20 × 65―young Canadians.
Another way to check claims for plausibility is through cross-checking, that is, checking related numbers against one another for consistency. For instance, in the next full sentence of the article we read: "Between 2017-2018, there were more than 23,500 hospitalizations5 among youth―or 1 in 20 of those ages 10-24―because of substance use." So, apparently 23,500 is supposed to represent 5% of the Canadian population aged 10-24, which is certainly more plausible than 65. However, these two numbers are inconsistent.
At this point, our plausibility checks have shown that something went wrong with this article, but we don't know exactly what. Given that 23,500 is 5% of the population of Canadian youth, the total population of young Canadians would be almost half a million. Is that plausible?
Now, if you are a Canadian or happen to know at least approximately what the population of Canada is, you could continue to check this against what you know. Unfortunately, as an American citizen, I don't know the population of Canada, though I do know that it's less than the United States. So, I had to do a little research.
According to Wolfram Alpha, the total population of Canada is about 37 million and life expectancy is over eighty years6. So, an age group of fifteen years should represent almost 20% of the total population, that is, around seven million people. So, a half million young Canadians seems far too low a number.
That exhausts what we can find out from this short article, so if we want to learn more we'll have to turn to the study that the article is reporting7. Among its "Key Findings": "1 out of every 20 hospital stays among youth age 10 to 24 in Canada in 2017-2018 were related to harm caused by substance use.8" It goes on to say:
In 2017-2018, there were 23,580 hospital stays for harm caused by substance use among youth age 10 to 24. This is the equivalent of 65 youth hospitalized every day in Canada.8
Apparently, this is the source for the headline. However, these claims refer to 5% of the hospital stays of young Canadians, not to 5% of the youngsters themselves. Given that people in that age range are usually healthy and seldom spend time in the hospital, no wonder only 65 a day were involved. The report also reveals the origin of this number: it's the result of dividing 23,580 by 365 days. So, the reality is much less worrisome than the headline: 23,580 is .3% of seven million9, not 5%.
This article is an egregious example, which is why I selected it as an exercise in healthy skepticism and plausibility checking. If you approach every news article you read with an alert mind, a healthy skepticism, and armed with the ability to apply what you already know, you'll seldom uncover such an extreme error. However, critical reading is not only useful when it uncovers errors: if an article passes your skeptical scrutiny, it should give you greater confidence in what you read.
- Shraddha Chakradhar, "Morning Rounds", STAT, 9/19/2019.
- This is not an entry on doublespeak, but notice the euphemism "substance use" in the headline and the article itself. As we find out later in the article, the substances were drugs, with marijuana and alcohol making up 65% of those used. The article doesn't say what the remaining 35% of the substances were but, according to page four of the report that was the basis of the article, they were other drugs―see note 7, below, for the citation. Why not word the headline: "1 in 20 young Canadians are hospitalized every day for drug use"? Other problems aside, this would be both more informative and shorter. See also: Close Encounters with Doublespeak of the Third Kind, 9/8/2019.
- Same citation as the first note. What does "issues" add to this, other than an extra word?
- Lawrence Mayes, private email, 9/19/2019.
- Notice that what is counted here is "hospitalizations", yet the article treats the number as representing the patients hospitalized. Given that there were probably some cases of individuals hospitalized more than once in the same year, the actual number of patients hospitalized would be lower than the number of hospitalizations. See note 9, below.
- "What is the population of Canada?", Wolfram Alpha, accessed: 10/3/2019.
- "Hospital Stays for Harm Caused by Substance Use Among Youth Age 10 to 24", Canadian Institute for Health Information, 9/2019.
- P. 5; see the previous note for the source.
- This is assuming, falsely, that every hospital stay is by a distinct young person. We learn on the same page: "17% of youth who were hospitalized for harm caused by substance use were hospitalized more than once for substance use within the same fiscal year." So, fewer than 23,580 youngsters were hospitalized in the year covered by the report.