by Carl V Phillips
The title is a reference to this post by Lee Johnson, in which he did something that I often do (though seldom in list form): He pointed out a handful of arguments that are often made in vaping advocacy but that should be avoided because they are misleading or out-and-out factual errors. He dared suggest that even if you believe in a particular conclusion, not every claim that ostensibly supports your position is right. For his trouble, Johnson received (a little) well-deserved praise and (a lot of) very predictable attacks. What struck me — and strikes me every time I am the target of those attacks, but it was more clear from the outside — is that the criticism of him was just as patently invalid as the fallacious claims that he was debunking.
That particular kerfuffle has already faded away, thanks to the news-cycle proclivities common in this space (another problem in itself, though largely unrelated), but this is a recurring theme, so is worth some reflection. Following Johnson, I present the common arguments in six points.
1. But it is important for us to win this fight!
This most common retort comes in countless forms, all of which are ultimately strawmen. Occasionally the strawman is presented explicitly (“you should not care more about telling the truth than about our important cause”). Usually it is even worse than that, though, with the critics implying that it goes without saying that pointing out fallacious arguments is bad for the cause. What really goes without saying, however, is that when a pro-vaping or pro-THR commentator calls out bad arguments, it is not because he does not want to win the fight. Indeed, in most cases, the debunkers make clear that their motivation is that because the cause is valid and important, we should avoid making sloppy or easily-refuted arguments. The strawman response is like neocons who respond to critics of indiscriminate bombing — who argue that it creates more enemies than it kills — by accusing them of wanting the terrorists to win.
It is, of course, possible to argue that a particular false or misleading claim — or perhaps even wanton disregard for the truth in general — is more effective at persuading people than any truthful statement, and enough so that it compensates for the harm caused by trafficking in dishonesty. That is an empirical claim, and thus it could be shown to be true or, absent evidence, someone could explicitly argue that would be the case. Upon making that case, he would then be obliged to make an ethical case that the net tactical benefits justify being dishonest. But I cannot recall any such claim being asserted, much less supported.
It seems nearly impossible that a fallacious argument would persuade many people who could not be persuaded by the good accurate arguments instead (and if it were the case, it would mean someone was being tricked into supporting a cause they do not actually support). Meanwhile those of us pushing back against fallacious arguments argue there is a very good chance they will hurt the cause, by undermining the credibility of accurate claims and giving opponent easy debating points. Again, you do not have to agree with that. But it is a strawman to pretend that this is not the motive of those criticizing the use of fallacious claims, pretending that they are advocating sacrificing tactical advantage due to ethical concerns. They may well also have an ethical concern about trafficking in disinformation, but if they did not think the honest arguments were sufficient to support the cause, they would be on the other side.
2. But the other side lies all the time!
I have some bad news for you: The real world is not a symmetrical chess game. Tactics that work for one faction may be counterproductive for their opponents. This is especially true when there are power imbalances so great that one side can get hordes of people reciting claims that are easily debunked with evidence or are even clearly impossible. Rather than suggesting that the weaker opponent can get away with the same, this imbalance tends to mean that the weaker opponents will be shredded if they become strongly associated with a fallacious argument.
Once again, there is room to offer a substantive argument to the contrary. Perhaps some pattern of successful lies by the other side suggests that a particular fallacious argument in favor of vaping or THR is promising. But this is not what is usually claimed. Rather, the implicit premise of this objection is merely that the other side does it and ipso facto it is a good idea for us. That is clearly wrong.
Sometimes this protest is motivated by a justice ethics claim rather than a practical one — not “they do it and therefore it must be useful for us” but rather “they do it so we are justified in doing it”. But even setting aside the ethical dubiousness of that line of reasoning, it misses the point. Even if someone can make that ethical case (and good luck with that), it does not change the practical situation.
3. You are just giving ammunition to the other side.
Seriously? First off, as just noted, the other side does not restrict itself to accurate retorts, so it is not as if they need someone to do the analysis for them. More important, those bickering with the other side’s useful idiots on Twitter may not realize that there are both smart and clever people in Tobacco Control Inc., but there are. If a fallacious argument is substantive and seems to get some traction, rest assured they have figured out how to debunk it. Consider Johnson’s point about “generally recognized as safe” food additives not necessarily being safe to heat and inhale. Vaping detractors have repeatedly made that point, as well as using the naive “don’t worry, it is all GRAS” claims to justify the need for government intervention, because such claims suggest vapers have no understanding of what they are doing. If the point is trivial (as with Johnson’s examples of PG not really being used in asthma inhalers or the error in calculating the ratio of diacetyl in e-cigarettes and cigarettes), opponents will rarely bother to mention it, but that is not because they could not figure it out it is wrong.
But they can bring up even such trivialities when they want to portray pro-vaping arguments as inaccurate, scoring a quick debating point or building a more systematic indictment. That is the main concern of the in-house debunkers, that you give the other side ammunition when you make false claims, not when you debunk them. Consider the most fiercely attacked of Johnson’s points, about a popular cartoon that claims zero people have ever died from vaping. The claim is obviously false, for reasons explained in several of my Science Lesson posts from last year, in which I explained what “cause of a death” means. But even setting that aside, the cartoon’s claim is easily translated into, “vapers are trying to convince people that it is 100% harmless.” I trust I do not have to explain how much mileage the other side has gotten out of portraying that claim to be the bedrock of pro-vaping advocacy; it sets up the other side to imply that if they merely refute that claim, then their anti position must be right.
What strikes me even more about the “ammunition for the other side” claim is that it is made by people who do not seem to care when ammunition really is being provided to the other side. For example, those same critics often repeat the claim that vaping is 5% as harmful as smoking, which in addition to being just a made-up number (and thus sets up easy debating points for opponents) is a concession that vaping is still is quite harmful. Or consider the recent paper by Kozlowski and Sweanor which has been touted by a few vaping advocates, despite being an early contender for most harmful writing of the year for the THR cause. Those touting the paper seem to be awed by the its details about particular false claims (as if other people (ahem) have not been making the same observations, roughly weekly, for over a decade). But they miss the fact that the headline of that paper — that disinformation campaigns that keep people from learning about low-risk tobacco products can be thought of as a quarantine — is a gift to opponents. Not only is that a terrible analogy (the phenomena have very little in common) but imposed quarantine of people who pose an active infection danger is a very ethically-defensible and widely-accepted policy. If disinformation campaigns are really like quarantines, then they must not be clearly unethical or harmful.
It gets worse. The authors concede (inaccurately) that a case for disinformation can be made based on utilitarian ethics (it cannot) and by suggesting that the liars’ “moral” and “disgust” feelings provide ethical justification for lying (mistaking psychology or personal preferences for ethical principles). [For more details about these points this, see the discussion (mostly my comments) on my Facebook THR page.] The authors portray the issue as being a rights-based argument against disinformation versus other valid positions which support disinformation. While they express personal support for the former, that does not diminish the gift they (and those who endorsed the paper) handed to anti-THR liars. No one is ever going to say “see, even Johnson and Phillips agree that the GRAS and asthma inhaler claims are misleading” — what possible advantage could that offer them over just stating the facts? But I can definitely see them saying “see, even these vaping advocates agree that there is an ethical case for our disinformation campaign, and it is in a journal so every word must be true”, which could be quite useful for them given that their actions are actually unethical by any defensible ethical rule.
4. You are alienating supporters of the cause.
Have we all turned into Generation Snowflake? Should I have started this post with a trigger warning that by reading this you might encounter thoughts that differ from your own? (My god, that would get old fast. My sympathies to those of you who have stuck with university teaching.)
It is obviously a bad idea (for several reasons) to ridicule a newbie speaking up for vaping or THR when she repeats a trope that she heard somewhere. The same also goes for a random person doing that from the anti side; you never know when someone might be open-minded and genuinely misinformed, and thus persuadable. But simply impersonally pointing out an error is obviously much different from personal ridicule. When particular actors are identified with the erroneous claims it is almost always because they have intentionally tried to be opinion leaders. Anyone who publishes a journal article is asking for critical analysis (literally — peer review is part of the deal) and anyone making claims intended to persuade their readers is volunteering for a public response. If they are trying to be right but err, they should want to learn that. But if their attitude is, “you hurt my feelings by daring to suggestion anything I said was wrong, so I quit!”, is it really such a bad idea to alienate them?
In any case, it seems really unlikely to happen. What does seem likely, however, is alienating potentially valuable supporters by sinking into making nonsensical claims. I cannot count how many times I have heard a potentially useful ally (e.g., a real scientist) for some popular cause express strong sympathy for the cause while also declaring they would never speak up and risk being associated with some of the nonsense that is expressed. I could probably count twenty of those for myself alone. I should note that I do not believe vaping advocacy has reached the point of motivating that strong a reaction, but there is a serious risk of it getting there.
As with the previous points, there is room here for making an actual argument. Perhaps a particular bit of debunking really does create a great risk of alienating people and the fallacious argument stands little chance of alienating anyone. But the simplistic assertion is once again indefensible; avoiding alienating people is, in fact, one of the main reasons debunkers worry about fallacious arguments.
5. We have to keep it simple so people get the message.
There is no reason that simple messages or even soundbites need to be wrong. Of course it is often impossible to capture all the nuances and uncertainties of a point in a simple message. That is what references to longer reads are for. But simplified — even down to the point that the statement is technically wrong if read as if it were precise — is quite different from blatantly false or utterly unsupportable. If a point cannot be accurately communicated in a soundbite then just leave it out of the soundbites: The whole premise here is that the target audience if offering only limited attention, and since there is plenty to say that is accurate and persuasive, just make some other point instead.
6. You are just criticizing and not offering any alternatives.
I was sorely disappointed when Johnson felt pressured into adding a series of “say this instead” paragraphs after each of his debunkings. There are volumes written on what is useful to say. There might be nothing similar to a particular debunked claim that can be accurately claimed. But so what? As I just noted, there is no reason that any particular point needs to be made. Tacking a half-assed proposed “solution” on to every observation of a problem is a behavior of public health people that I ridiculed in my previous post. Making a case that there is a problem and making a case that something is a good fix for it are entirely separate exercises that require equal depth and attention. Doing one does not mean you should do, or even could do, the other.
This list of attacks that are strawmen or otherwise misguided does not mean there is no possible argument in favor of making a fallacious argument, of course. The fact that some pro-vaping arguments are fallacious does not mean there are not good pro-vaping arguments, after all. However, the difference is that I have not found any of the anti-debunking arguments/attacks to be convincing. In this post, I was not identifying a few bad facile arguments amongst the good, but rather was characterizing just about every attack I have ever seen.
Perhaps a little bit of substantive argument can be found in the heated debates about the controversial titular claim of the “A Billion Lives” project. The claim — that vaping could save a billion lives over a century — is clearly false. This is both because the original Tobacco Control claim it is based on — that a billion people will die from smoking over the next century is nonsense (it is on that above-linked list of impossible things that tobacco controllers believe) — and even more so because most smokers will not be able to afford e-cigarettes anytime soon and only a minority of smokers seem to find them to be an appealing substitute. On the other hand, it is a catchy title and kind of a cute ploy to use tobacco controllers’ own junk claim, which they therefore cannot turn around and attack. On the other other hand, a different title could have been catchy (so really how much better was it than some alternative?) and the ploy, when used that way, endorses the junk claim. (It is a slick argument when you can say “well if you really believe that then you must agree that…”, but it is different to actually endorse the claim.) However, that endorsement, along with the endorsement of the “most smokers want to quit” trope (another on my list of the impossible things tobacco controllers believe) and claims about the harm from ETS that are associated with that project have alienated smokers’ rights advocates and created hostility toward vaping advocacy.
Ultimately, I believe that endorsing those fallacies was a rather harmful choice. But at least there have been arguments that could be beneficial. These contrast with the facile soundbite attacks on debunking that I noted above.
I get the impression that some of the facile attacks are motivated by people believing the portrayal of scientific thinkers common in formulaic fiction, that they are oblivious to the realities of politics and communication. Based on that cartoon fallacy, if a scientist is suggesting it is unwise to make a particular claim, he must just be some ASD savant who only understands that the claim is false, but is ignoring what value it might have. But to the contrary, when he is an advocate for the cause, he has probably thought it through (usually far more thoroughly than his critics) and concluded that the value is actually negative. It is true that serious scientific thinkers often choose not to bother with politics and communication, and also that within real scientific discussions we play by the rules of truth-seeking (e.g., if something is wrong, you just say it is wrong) rather than those of diplomacy. But the same skills that make someone a good scientist usually make them good at analyzing politics and communications, if they choose to do so. For tactical claims, as with simple factual claims, just because something feels like it ought to be true does not mean that it really is.