Search This Blog

Monday, November 30, 2020

Bad arguments #7 - equating correlation with causation


'In my last Maths test I got 90%, my best ever result. I also wore red socks that day. I’ve got another Maths test tomorrow. How should I ensure I get 90% again? Obvious! Forget revision - just wear red socks!'

What’s wrong with that argument?

It’s equating correlation with causation, that’s what.

Equating, correlation and causation are long words, and you may not know what they mean (or maybe you do).

In case you don’t:

  • Correlation means one thing following another.
  • Causation means one thing causing another.
  • Equating means assuming two things are the same.

This bad argument can be summed up thus:

The fact that A is followed by, or happens at the same time as, B does not prove that B is caused by A.

Of course, most people aren’t stupid enough to think that Maths test results depend on sock colour. But you do see variations on this bad argument used in debates.

For example, in a debate on the motion ‘This house would ban violent computer games’, the proposition argue:

‘Violent computer games have never been more popular. At the same time, levels of knife crime amongst young people have never been higher. We need to ban these games now to keep our children safe!’

Knife crime is indisputably a bad thing. Its growth may be happening at the same time as a growth in downloads of violent computer games. But that doesn’t, in itself, prove that violent computer games cause knife crime. To do that, you would have to find specific examples of acts of violence that were directly inspired by computer games.

So what should you say to rebut this? You can start by pointing out the logical fallacy:

‘Horrific though knife crime is, you have not provided any evidence that it is connected with the use of violent computer games.’

Or, you can turn the connection between the two factors round so that the correlation works in your favour:

‘Millions of young people play violent computer games every day, and only a tiny minority engage in acts of violence; this is surely compelling evidence that playing these games is harmless.’

To sum up:

  •  One thing being followed by, or happening at the same time as, another thing does not mean that the second thing is caused by the first.
  • If your opponent tries to use this argument, expose the lack of connection between the two factors.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Free speech #2 - what if it's not true?

Some lies are fairly harmless. Some, such as ‘That hairstyle really suits you’, ‘Father Christmas is coming tonight’, or ‘It’s so nice to see you!’ might actually be acts of kindness.

Other lies, though, can cause serious damage. If someone accuses a person of a crime they have not committed, or says something else untrue to harm the reputation on which they depend to make their living, they have done them a serious wrong.

This is known as libel, if it is published in print or online, or slander if it is spoken, and there is a law against it.

This law should prevent people from making damagingly untrue statements. However, there are problems with the law of libel.

In nearly all cases, a person can only be prosecuted for libel as a civil case; that is, the person who believes they have been libelled (known as the plaintiff) must pay for their own lawyers. If they lose the case, they will face a very big bill, which they may not be able to afford. If the libel is committed by an organisation with a lot of money to spend on lawyers, such as a newspaper or broadcaster, they may be able to hire clever lawyers who are more likely to win the case. Even if they lose, the cost may be relatively small for them, and the damage done by the lies may already have been done.

The law of libel can also be used by people who are either very wealthy or very determined (or both) to threaten or silence anyone who tries to expose their misconduct. An example of this is David Irving, a writer who denied that the Holocaust (the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis) had happened. An American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, published a book in which she revealed the ways in which Irving had falsified evidence. In 1996, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel. Lipstadt eventually won the case, and Irving was bankrupted as a result, but it could have gone the other way. Even being a successful defendant in a libel case can be an extremely stressful experience (the 2016 film Denial, based on the Irving case, dramatises the effect the case had on Lipstadt’s personal life). This is exacerbated by the fact that, under UK law, the burden of proof in a libel case is on the defendant; that is, if someone sues you for libel, it is your responsibility to prove to the court that what you published was substantially true.

So, free speech is complicated by the fact that unrestricted free speech could allow someone to publish lies that could do great damage, and also by the fact that the legal process for challenging those lies is often expensive and stressful, and can itself be used as a means of silencing people who call out lies or misconduct.

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would abolish the law of libel
  • This house would move the burden of proof for libel cases to the plaintiff
  • This house would make libel a criminal offence
  • This house would provide legal aid for plaintiffs in libel cases

Monday, November 16, 2020

How to debate #13 - the status quo

 The rock band Status Quo, famous for, among other hits, ‘Rocking All Over the World’, have been going a long, long time; they were founded in 1962. And they’re still going: a 2020 tour was all set up until Covid-19 forced its cancellation. It feels like they’ve always been there.

This is appropriate, given their name. Status quo is Latin for ‘that which came before’; in English it now means ‘ the state of things as they are.’ The status quo can feel like the natural order of the world, something that has always been there, and always will be. A bit like Status Quo.

The point of debating, though, is to challenge the status quo (if not Status Quo); to question everything. Sometimes, though, a debater will have to defend the status quo. It all depends which side you’re on.
The proposition have to find and prove what is wrong with the status quo; the opposition have to find and prove what is right with it.

The status quo becomes particularly important in policy motions, ones which call for action to be taken to change a situation. Nearly always, the proposition will be attacking the status quo; the opposition will be defending it.

Let’s take an example.

The motion is ‘This house would make voting in General Elections compulsory.’ The status quo is that voting is voluntary. It always has been; no one is ever forced to vote; turnout is never 100%. The job of the proposition is to show that the status quo doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well enough. So, they argue that voluntary voting leads many people to disengage from democracy, to think that it doesn’t matter, that they don’t have to bother with it, and that as a result the government does not bother with them. The opposition, on the other hand, have to argue that the status quo works well; as long as anyone who wants to vote, can, there is no threat to democracy.

This is only part of the job for both sides, though. As well as attacking the status quo, the proposition have to outline how what they would replace it with will be better; how, as well as the Now being bad, the Then will be better (see our earlier post on how to build a proposition case). So with this motion, they have to paint a picture of a more engaged, healthier democracy with 100% turnouts. Similarly, the opposition have not only to explain how the status quo is working, they also have to point out the harms that would accrue from changing it. So with this motion, they have to describe how the element of compulsion would alienate voters from democracy.

The status quo, whether it is defended or attacked, remains an important component of almost all policy debates. It’s going to keep rocking on.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Recommended Book #4 - All The King's Men

Politics isn't like debating. It is not - at least most of the time - what it should be: a rational discussion about alternative views of the world. It is a deeply emotional business, which attracts people who have a compulsive need to live at a white hot level of intensity and drama. Actually, come to think of it, it is a bit like debating. No wonder both politics and debating are so compelling.

I know of few better depictions of the political life than Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All The King's Men, which seems more relevant than ever as the Trump era draws to a close. The main character is Willie Stark, based on the populist demagogue Huey Long, who served as Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, and then as Senator from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. Like Long, Willie is a foul mouthed, corrupt, womanising bully (remind you of anyone?); also like Long, he is a popular hero, acclaimed everywhere by his first name, worshipped by his followers for his generous handouts from the public purse. We see Willie, who in the mid-1930s becomes Governor of an unnamed American state - we must assume it is Louisiana - up close and personal through the eyes of the narrator, Jack Burden, who invariably refers to him as ‘The Boss’. Jack has been drawn into Willie’s inner circle as one of his closest courtiers. He is transfixed by Willie’s charisma, and is thrilled by an almost chemical addiction to the unceasing sense of conflict and jeopardy that surrounds the great man. He is at his master’s beck and call twenty four hours a day, ready to bribe those who need bribing, threaten those who need threatening, and dig the dirt on those for whom blackmail is the only solution (as Willie tells him at one point, ‘There’s always something.’).

Willie is a restless, driven character who can never sit still. He barely sleeps and lives on adrenaline, cigarettes and liquor. It feels exhausting to follow him and Jack on their perpetual odyssey to power through crowded diners, emotionally charged mass meetings, and brutal midnight confrontations in (literally) smoke filled rooms. The sub-tropical climate of Louisiana is like an extra character in the book. Heat and humidity are a constant presence, another enemy to be fought with on a daily basis, as sweat soaks through everyone’s clothes like guilt. The intense, febrile atmosphere is magnificently evoked in Penn Warren’s prose, which swerves giddily between sensuous lyricism and clear eyed realism.

Willie becomes a father figure for Jack, whose own father left the family when he was six, to be replaced in his mother’s affections by a series of increasingly unsatisfactory boyfriends. We sense that Jack seeks from Willie the approval that he never had from his own father. This need to make up for something lacking in childhood is all too common a motive for those drawn to the political life; Jeremy Paxman estimates in his book The Political Animal that over half of British Prime Ministers grew up with emotionally or physically absent fathers. Willie is not the only surrogate father in Jack’s life, though. There is also Judge Irwin, a family friend who takes Jack hunting as a boy, and to whom he looks up as a figure of rock like integrity and devotion to public service. Early on in the book Willie and Judge Irwin clash, when the Judge refuses to endorse Willie as a candidate for Senator. We see Jack accompanying Willie to Judge Irwin’s house in the middle of the night to bully and threaten him; the Judge is unmoved and unmoveable. Jack looks on, painfully torn in this battle for his loyalties.

There is another substitute family in Jack’s life. Distanced from his mother from an early age, Jack adopts the Stanton family. Old man Stanton was Willie’s much admired predecessor as Governor, worshipped by his children Anne and Adam, who are Jack’s closest friends from childhood. Anne seems destined to be the love of Jack’s life. Adam becomes a doctor, and, like Judge Irwin, stands for an uncompromising devotion to virtue, driven by a desire to serve the common good rather than by the need to acquire wealth and power.

And yet all they all fall from grace in the end. The book is shot through with a bleak, Southern Calvinist notion of original sin. As Willie comments, in parodically Biblical style, ’Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud’. Willie himself begins as a well meaning but ineffective campaigner against corruption and inefficiency before he is pushed into deviousness and brutality by an early experience of betrayal. Jack starts out wanting to discover the truth, first as a history student, then as a reporter, but ends up using his investigative skills to bring down Willie’s enemies. Governor Stanton turns out to have had a less than perfect record in office, and the shattering of her illusions about her father drives Anne into the arms of Willie both metaphorically and literally, wrecking any hope of her finding happiness with Jack. Adam comes to the bitter conclusion that the only way that a much needed hospital will be built is for him to join Willie’s team, despite his contempt for Willie’s methods. When Willie gives Jack the Oedipal task of finding something on Judge Irwin which will destroy his rival, Jack uncovers a secret which is as damaging to him as it is to the Judge. The last pages are filled with the flapping of chickens coming home to roost in a succession of tragic climaxes, some of them violent.

All the King’s Men is not without its flaws. Jack’s internal monologue can at times veer towards a rather lush, overwritten romanticism. The racial politics is very much of the novel’s time and place, and will make a contemporary reader feel uncomfortable: the ’n’ word is used freely and without apology by all and sundry, and the only function of non-white characters is to open doors or pour drinks. However, despite the characters’ and the novel’s failings, this is anything but a cynical book. Rather, All The King’s Men dramatises the one, eternally recurring dilemma of politics down the ages, and doubtless into the future; when and where and how much do you compromise? Which matters more, purity or power? Willie is not an unmitigated monster; Penn Warren is too skilful a writer for that. There still lurks behind all that he does a sense that he truly wants to make people’s lives better. As he confides to Jack, ‘You got to make good out of bad. That’s all there is to make it with.’ But how much bad? For how much good? That is the question all politicians have had to wrestle with, from Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar onwards.

All The King’s Men is a long way from a glib anti-politics satire of the lazy ‘They’re All the Same’ variety. It is a much more interesting and much truer book than that. Its characters are intensely human, possessed by complex, contradictory desires, mixed of venality and heroism, of high idealism and low pragmatism, driven by both a noble sense of duty and their own restless, inescapable demons. As, it is important to remember, is almost everyone in politics. Even Joe Biden. Even, perhaps, Donald Trump.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Guest post #6: Who will win the US presidential election?


This post was uploaded on November 2nd, 2020, one day before the US presidential election.


Tomorrow, Americans go to the polls to elect a president to serve for the next four years. There are two candidates: Donald Trump for the Republicans and Joe Biden for the Democrats. People vote for one or the other. Whoever gets more votes gets to be President. Simple.

Well, no it isn't. In 2016, Donald Trump got almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but he still got to be President. That could happen again.

Why? How is the US president actually elected?

In our latest guest post, students from the flagship debating school Hackley School in New York have created a video to explain how the electoral college works. Keep this post by you in the early hours of Wednesday morning as the results come in; and you might need it for several days afterwards as an estimated 85 million Americans have voted by post, and these votes may take longer to process.