Friday, June 4, 2010

Are Dirty Tricks Okay?

At my talk a few weeks ago, I asked the audience: when are "dirty tricks" in the name of reason okay? By that I mean any departure from rational rhetoric - at the very - emotional blackmail, social pressure, attractive spokesmodels if that even counts. What about financial and political and legal dirty tricks? If you can sue an anti-vaccine group over some unrelated technicality to ruin them financially and end their nonsense, should you? Would your answer to any of these questions change if it could be shown that rational rhetoric and ways of understanding the world would always be out-competed in short order by irrationality, unless it adopted the same dirty tricks to protect and propagate itself? (A similar argument was made by Sam Harris in the Buddhist publication Shambala Sun.)

Consider the approach of vaccine expert Greg Poland: "[Poland] has experimented a few times with using anecdote and appeals to emotion when speaking to lay audiences. 'I get very positive responses - except from numerates, who see it as emotionally manipulative,' he says." (Numerates are those who understand math and statistics.) The article I linked to about Dr. Poland (and others) is about the general features of denialism movements and is worth a read.


vjack said...

Good question. It seems to me that this would have to be decided based on the details of each specific case. I don't think most would say that dirty tricks are always okay, but I can see supporting them in certain cases.

Michael Caton said...

I think you're right. "Dirty tricks" isn't a very clear term. There's a general resistance among rationalists to confuse means with arguments. That is, people resist trying to "win" by any strategy other than correct argument. This tendency isn't usually addressed or justified explicitly and of course it's a potential challenge for us.

TGP said...

My take: The ends do not justify the means. The means must be justifiable on their own. We're not in a game with clear endpoints and starting points; that's a philosophy for doomsayers.

However, say there's an anti-vaccine group that's also laundering money and you have evidence. You are part of a pro-vaccine group. It's not a dirty trick to report them to the police. Consider, however, that it does not make their position on vaccines stronger (or weaker).

As rational thinkers, we've got to remember (and remind others!) that argument from authority is a logical fallacy. What we're really fighting for is critical thinking. Don't win a battle and throw away the war.

Michael Caton said...

No, the ends don't justify the means, but there's a difference between using a rhetorical approach that will win over a certain audience, vs. lapsing into irrationality oneself. There are a lot of folks who are just plain unreachable by the most solid rational argument ever made. Do we just write them off?

TGP said...

I think you're conflating two different things here:

1. Explaining a scientific/rational/atheist worldview.

2. Political progress for rational folks.

We can't be irrational or dishonest in #1. To do so undermines the whole shebang.

As far as #2 goes, we side with the best 51% of the population and work to improve that 51%. "Hey, you're right about this, but you're right for the wrong reason."

Michael Caton said...

So for #1 - how do you go about explaining to illiterate people in a Third (Fourth?) World country that their daughter is not in fact a witch and should not be boiled alive or whatever awful things they do? I'm okay with lying in the near-term to break that cycle and then explain later that the concept of a witch and the supernatural in general is incoherent.

TGP said...

Witch Burners: I'm not sure what dirty trick would work better as a counter there than the use of force.

If the witch burners are still talking about burning a witch, a rational person should be willing to argue rationally against it.

However, once the rubicon is crossed and the witch burners have sent someone to the store for some lighter fluid, it's reasonable and rational to use force to remove the witch to safety.

To cite Roadhouse:
Dalton: I want you to be nice until it's time to not be nice.