Saturday, October 4, 2008

Argumentation by Intimidation

What is Jenny McCarthy doing in my political blog? Being an example of deteriorating intellectual and political discourse in America through this quote run by Time online:

"[She] has a lot of balls to come forward and be on that side, because there is an angry mob on my side." - Jenny McCarthy, actress, on fellow thespian Amanda Peet, who said that parents who don't vaccinate their kids out of fears of autism are irresponsible

This kind of intellectual intimidation, a fallacy combining Appeal to Ridicule and Appeal to Belief, is a common part of political dialog today. It is an appeal to the ugly "tyranny of the masses" flipside of the currently popular "the wisdom of crowds" perspective.

Whether or not it is presented in an intimidating manner, a big problem is that "wisdom of crowds" is in and of itself fallacious grounds for drawing a conclusion about an issue. "The wisdom of crowds" is, when applied to argumentation (rather than, say, marketing research), simply a whitewash rephrasing of Appeal to Belief.

And celebrity pull-quotes in political discourse is a form of Appeal to Authority, an intellectual affliction which both muddle-headed pseudolefty acolytes of the Hollywood quote machine, and theircounterparts in the dittohead armies loyal to the shrill false pundits of the right-wing talk media empire. That these so-called authorities primarily gain their pseudointellectual street-cred by being grand masters of Appeal to Ridicule makes the situation all the more depressing.

I'd like to console myself that nobody cares what Jenny McCarthy thinks about vaccinations, but I'm not that naive. Famous peoples' one-liners can often carry far more weight than the most carefully reasoned newspaper or magazine article on a subject (never mind books, which mostly go unread). I think it is irresponsible of Time and similar news venues to present these sorts of pull-quotes without analysis.

We, as a nation, bemoan the insubstantial and mean-spirited political campaigns of recent years, but then refuse to take responsibility for our part in creating it. It's high time political discourse returned to substantial arguments about significant issues.

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