Tuesday, August 11, 2009

False Equivalence on Emotion

Marc Ambinder has an amusingly convoluted false equivalence on the appeal to emotions in the debate on health care reform. Before you click on the link, you should be warned; this is professional quality false equivalence construction. Do not try this at home!

The reason it interests me is the misuse of research on cognitive neuroscience on the role of emotions in reasoning. Perhaps the prime mover on this research is Antonio Damasio. Damasio has argued that properly functioning emotions must be integrated with pragmatic reasoning in order for that reasoning to be successful. Ambinder concludes from this that "cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason". (You can follow Ambinder's link but the most relevant article is about emotion being necessary for reasoning.) This is clearly not Damasio's conclusion. To say that X is necessary for Y is not to say that there is no distinction between X and Y.

Ambinder's point is to derive an equivalence between people on both sides of the health care debate: on the one side are opponents of reform driven by anger and fear, on the other side are proponents of reform driven by an emotional satisfaction with good reasoning and reaching rational outcomes. And Ambinder himself is driven by his own smug self-satisfaction. The lack of a distinction between reason and emotion does not prove this point. What he needs is the claim that there is no rational difference between different types of reasoning since all reasoning must be motivated by emotion.

Since both sides of the health care debate rely on emotions, then, there is no difference in the rationality of the sides. The beauty of this reasoning is its self-justification. If one is emotionally-motivated to accept an emotionally-driven conclusion, then that conclusion is justified. This is just like Stephen Colbert's claims about following his gut. How do you know your gut is right? Your gut tells you.

Unfortunately for Ambinder, his conclusion does not follow from the trivial fact that people need emotions in order to act. Nor does it follow from the neuroscientific research on the role of emotions in reasoning; in fact, this directly contradicts the assumptions of that research. The classic case Damasio discusses is that of Phineas Gage who suffered damage to his frontal lobes and who thereby suffered an inability to successfully reason practically. But Damasio's reasoning assumes that there is a difference between good and bad reasoning. If Ambinder were correct, since Gage was motivated by emotions, it would follow that Gage's reasoning was as good as anyone else's. In particular, Gage's reasoning after the accident should have been as good as his reasoning before the accident. But researchers assumed that his reasoning had become worse; there is a clear difference, recognized by the researchers, between the effectiveness of his reasoning before and after the accident.

Ambinder's reasoning is pure subjectivism. Any side is equally good if it is driven by emotions. To the contrary, some application of emotions are relevant and reasonable and others are not. And the emotional desire to reason well is about as rational an emotion as one can have. If, indeed, the emotional desire to be right is appropriately connected to actual reasons, then it is relevantly applied. Ambinder might himself be driven as much by a desire to be rational as he is by smug self-satisfaction. In his case, this desire is not appropriately connected to reasons. There is, on the other hand, nothing intrinsically irrational about fear or anger, or letting them drive your actions, but it is irrational when fear or anger do not provide any relevant motivation for action. The emotion would be irrelevant if, as they are in this case, they were motivated by fear of provisions for involuntary euthanasia that are demonstrably not part of the health care reform bill.

More generally, Ambinder's proposed subjectivism would undermine his own "reasoning" and the research on neuroscience. If any position is equally supported because equally motivated by emotion, then he need not read about neuroscience research, and neuroscientists need do no research. All anyone need do is feel emotion and reach conclusions based on that emotion. My disgust for Marc Ambinder makes me just as justified as any research or argument he might present for his conclusion.

I'm not sure if this next passage is supposed to notice, ironically, the fallaciousness of his own argument.

My trendy, journalistic equivocation kicks in now: the right is obviously appealing to anger and fear, and the Democrats are mostly appealing to solidary cohesion. . . .

Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right. In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any perscribed way. When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made -- the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more -- they focus on the link that I won't then make -- the link that I have no expertise to make -- the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy -- the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be.

Honestly, I cannot make head or tail of this argument (aside from the equivocation about appeals to emotions as the "same tactics" when those emotions are not equally related to rationality). No one would object if he did not draw a conclusion about the need for healthcare reform, how that should be effected, but I think he's worried that people might expect him to draw normative conclusions about the rationality of the two tactics. I'm not sure exactly what criticisms he has received, but pointing out that fear-mongering based on demonstrably false assertions about a bill should not also require that he note the irrationality of this approach. One would think that this would go without saying. ("So, Mrs. Lincoln did not have a good time at the theater.") The problem here only comes in when he claims that one who bases conclusions on reasoning and true assertions about a bill is equally irrational as the other method. Aside from the absurd pretention of the language, that's the very problem with his conclusion. One cannot rationally simply assume the equivalence between any two means of arriving at a conclusion. To do so would, at the least, undermine the point of journalism itself.

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