Monday, October 08, 2012
It's always frustrating when someone in a debate thinks they've made a good point when they haven't.
Recently, in the Jon Stewart / Bill O'Reilly "Rumble 2012" debate, the following:
O'Reilly: No one begrudges people who needed a safety net, but right now we have this mindset, "You know what? Times are tough, I'm going to take what I can take." Let me ask you this: do you know what federal disability is now, under President Obama? It's almost double, alright... So is the workplace that much more dangerous since he came into office?
(We don't need to know whether or not O'Reilly's statistic is accurate. He believes it is, and I'm only interested in the conclusion he's drawn from it.)
Stewart: But that's a ridiculous statistic...
Stewart is intuitively on the right track, but he needs to attack what O'Reilly is extrapolating from the statistic, not the statistic itself. If the statistic is true, and he attacks the statistic, then O'Reilly will misread it as Stewart choosing to not believe the statistic. Which is why O'Reilly quickly responds:
O'Reilly: No it isn't [ridiculous]!
In other words, he's standing by the statistic.
Now Stewart tries to make a point:
Stewart: [Obama] hasn't expanded your ability to get [disability]. He has not made it easier...
Stewart "asked" the wrong question ("Has Obama expanded your ability to get disability?") This is a good question for someone who hasn't already made up their mind, but it's the wrong one for someone who has. In fact, it's one of the worst things you can say in this instance. O'Reilly never said it was a change in policy that caused the increase. He said that more people were applying for disability under Obama because of a shift in mindset. Hence O'Reilly's response:
O'Reilly: No, but more people are applying for it. In other words, it's the mindset.
Having thought of no change in the previous four years that might explain why many more people are applying for disability, Obama becomes the change. So when Stewart states that Obama hasn't made it easier to get disability (ie, not his policies), it's one of the worst things he can say because he's unwittingly helping O'Reilly tell himself that he was right all along. If it isn't policy that has changed, and he assumes that nothing else has changed, then it must be the mindset under Obama that has changed. O'Reilly's statistic is what "proves" the mindset explanation to him because that's what he wants it to prove.
O'Reilly: It's the Zorba the Greek mindset.
Stewart: We're getting old.
Now Stewart is getting somewhere. That's one of the essential questions. Is there a larger group of people over 60 in America—let's call them "Baby Boomers"—than there was four years ago? (And if yes, then how do we know that this doesn't account for the increase in disability?)
O'Reilly immediately continues:
O'Reilly: "Here we are. The government will give it to us." That's what it is.
Stewart: Here's the statistics on that. The statistics on that are, 40 and 50 year olds, that has stayed steady. The largest increase in disability is people ages 60 and above, and it's not people dropping bowling balls on their foot and not wanting to work anymore, it's arthritis. Let me ask you a question...
Now Stewart goes off track and makes a huge mistake by trying to diagnose the precise cause of the increase himself. He implies that the change in disability is due to there being more sickness (which intuitively doesn't make sense). And he doesn't in any way suggest that there is more sickness because there are more old people (which would make more sense intuitively). O'Reilly picks up on this immediately:
O'Reilly: But wait. There's a lot more arthritis now then there was four years ago!?
Stewart: Hell yeah!
O'Reilly: Did a plague just come in of arthritis?
Whoops. Because Stewart, like O'Reilly, made a silly-sounding diagnosis, he put himself in a position where he couldn't even retort with: "Did a plague just come in of 'shift in mindset'? Such a thing would leave them at a draw, both with their own diagnosis and nothing to back either of them up. ("Yes, it's a shift in mindset. What else could it be, Stewart? An arthritis epidemic? Come on!") Stewart went wrong because he never asked the right questions, at least not directly. He might not have asked because he didn't know the answers. But he didn't need to. He only needed to ask the questions.
After hearing about arguments or debates certain friends or relatives of mine have gotten into, I sometimes hear them say things like, "I wish I'd known X, Y or Z at the time." But it's important to remember that you don't need to be a walking encyclopedia to debate someone who makes quick, unfounded assumptions and stands by them as the only possible explanation for something. Stewart didn't need to know whether or not there had been a large increase in population of people over 60 under Obama, he only needed to ask O'Reilly if he knew. If O'Reilly knew, then Stewart could follow up by asking O'Reilly why this fact didn't weaken or outright disprove his conclusion. And if O'Reilly didn't know, (people rarely bluff in these spots because they don't know what you know), then Stewart wins. He wins because O'Reilly is shown to have jumped to a conclusion when there were other, more probable and logical explanations that were never explored. He could then force O'Reilly into admitting he had made a false assumption, and even probe further by asking what else this says about him and the way he forms his opinions. (The other important question Stewart didn't need to know the answer to was whether or not there had been an increase in people retiring at a later age.)
The only way to debate people who are constantly making unfounded assumptions in order to support their view is to walk them through very slowly and carefully, something like: "No, it's highly unlikely that the workplace is that much more dangerous now than it was four years ago. So then, what other causes might there be for an increase in disability under Obama? What else do we need to know before we can draw any conclusions?" Don't try to prove to them that you're right; focus on explaining to them why they're wrong. There's no real reason to even bother trying to advance your own point of view. I've replayed many (informal) debates I've had with people only to realize that both of us—when we were making specific points—were talking about different things entirely. It's possible that this is what happened when Stewart made his point about arthritis; he gave O'Reilly credit for following his logic (that is, if his logic was something like: if there is more arthritis under Obama then that means there are more old people now, because otherwise such a statement would be absurd).
If someone thinks there's a shift in mindset under Obama (brought on by Obama), then the disability statistic O'Reilly cites will "prove" it to them. And many of those people will even cite it later on as the reason they arrived at their conclusion, not realizing that they had already arrived at their conclusion long before seeing the statistic. (How do I know? Because the statistic itself does not allow for such a conclusion to be drawn.)
For the record, here are some of the other statistics O'Reilly needed to inquire about before jumping to his worldview-enforcing conclusion:
"In 2010, Baby Boomers will begin reaching age 65, swelling the 65 and over population in the United States from 13.0 to 20.0 percent by the year 2050. Each year more than 3.5 million Boomers turn 55. Their swelling numbers predict that, by 2012, America's 50 and older population will reach 100 million. And according to the UN Population Division, 1 in 5 people are expected to be 65 or older by 2035." [X]
"IN 2009, THE GLOBAL POPULATION OF PEOPLE AGED 60 AND OVER was 680 million people, representing 11 percent of the world's population. They have increased by 10.4 million just since 2007—an average increase of 30,000 each day." [X]
Largely due to the bad economy, many older Americans are now postponing retirement (via Bureau of Labor Statistics Data):
And of course more people who are 65+ in the workplace = more disability. (There sure is a big jump from 2001 to 2012. Almost double, in fact...)