Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

When Ideology is Blind to Truth

My friend Leah Libresco Sargeant is not a fan of guns and has never shot one. She's also a person who cares deeply about truth and understanding. And she helped with reporting for FiveThirtyEight's well done study on gun deaths in America a while back. (A new FiveThirtyEight piece today refers back to that study and talks about how mass killings are different from the vast majority of gun deaths in the US, and thus addressing one is not necessarily a way to address the other.)

For all these reasons I was stuck by this tweet from Leah yesterday:

Needless to say, as a gun aficionado I myself tend to find a lot of what gun control advocates say both unpersuasive and riddled with errors. But if someone like Leah who doesn't like guns feels that she was actively misled about the topic (while still not liking them and wishing people did not want to own them) that indicates a problem with a lot of what gun control advocates say.

This is not, however, a post about how gun control advocates are wrong. I think that would be a somewhat insensitive post to write at this particular moment, when a lot of the calls for immediate action are in fact calls of pain and emotion which should be treated as such. There is not much more aggravating than to express one's deeply felt emotions and have someone come back insensitively with a "Well, actually..." response.

What I'd like to think about here for a moment is why this is. Why is it that so many people who do indeed care deeply about reducing suffering and violence (and I honestly think they do -- I do not think that most gun control advocates are simply tyrannical gun grabbers out to take away people's freedom because they dislike it) say things about guns and gun laws that are factually untrue, and do so repeatedly when the answers are not even that hard to find?

I think the answer has to do with the tendency to distrust and discount the humanity of our opponents on highly contentious issues. Leah's husband Alexi Sargeant wrote a good piece for First Things a few months ago entitled "Pro-Life, Pro-Truth" where he talked about the importance of those in the pro-life movement not allowing themselves to make and repeat arguments based on claims that aren't true or are at the least exaggerated.

We must treat truth, like an unborn child, as an innocent under threat. If we persist in the metaphor of “culture war” to describe the fights over abortion and related issues, then we must wage it as a just culture war, in which virtue is as indispensable as valor, and compassion for our opponents more important than rallying our allies with rhetorical overkill.

I am not talking only about avoiding flagrant fibs. Our responsibility to truth includes a responsibility to use statistics in a conscientious way, without being glib or misleading. Like any savvy debater using data, we should double-check statistics that seem too convenient for our cause, and triple-check any from a partisan source friendly to us.

Crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life women’s health care organizations do a lot of good work helping uninsured women get care. But they sometimes succumb to the temptation to overstate the statistical connection between abortion and clinical depression—rather than simply share stories of real women experiencing post-abortion grief, they exaggerate the pervasiveness of the condition beyond what mental health studies show.

Another example which occurred to me was Senator Kyle's famously "not a factual statement" that abortion is more than 90% of what Planned Parenthood does. Of course, people often throw around terms like "ninety percent" in a colloquial fashion, but it was particularly unfortunate to have such a high profile stumble on this topic because Planned Parenthood does indeed routinely misrepresent how large a portion of their services abortion represents.

I don't think that pro-lifers intentionally pass on misleading information. However, because we know that abortion is evil, when some study or quote comes along that seems to agree with our belief that abortion is evil we are inclined to believe it without checking much. Additionally, because we believe that abortion is evil, it's easy to see the people who support abortion as evil or dishonest, and so if rebuttals to a claim we see that reflects badly on abortion mostly come from people who are pro-abortion, we're not likely to take them as seriously. If they're evil people out to support evil actions, why should we listen to what they say?

Needless to say, this problem is hardly restricted to one side. Why is it that obvious untruths like the claim that an unborn baby is "just a clump of cells" rather than a separate living individual are so easily passed around on the pro-choice side? Again, because the claim is heard from people they trust and the opposite claims (when the heart begins to beat, when brain activity is detected, etc.) are most often heard in the political arena from those who are anti-abortion.

The gun debate, and likely many others if we sat down and thought up a list, is subject to these same dynamics. People who are in favor of gun control are often prey to simplistic and just plain wrong claims about how guns work, what the current law allows, or what sort of gun deaths could be prevented by various "common sense" gun measures that have been proposed. People who know and use guns can easily see through these claims, but so could people who don't like guns if they took the time to do basic research rather than repeating whatever sounds true. It's necessary for people to listen to the other side in these contentious debates and do basic research if they are to avoid undercutting their own beliefs by repeating obvious falsehoods.

UPDATE: Leah expanded on her thoughts in a WaPo opinion piece that just went up.

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