7 Warning Signs of Bogus Politics (and Science)

An article back from January 2003, but still being linked to from various blogs, and with good reason. Robert Park presents 7 warning signs that a claim might be B.S. (instead of science).

Some of these signs revolve around how the scientist himself approaches the claim, such as whether he submits it to rigorous study and peer review or whether he issues press releases and runs paid advertisements. Obviously, just because a claim is mentioned in a press release doesn’t mean it’s bogus, but valid claims will usually be subjected to peer review, because most scientists want the badge of honor that comes after their discovery has been proven by their peers.

Other signs deal with the kind of evidence presented, the quality of the evidence, or whether the claim is consistent with already-understood science.

What struck me is that these signs also apply to political discourse. Briefly, you should suspect a political argument if:

  1. The media says (or implies) it’s a cut-and-dry issue, without debate among scholars. There is always debate among scholars. We see this, for example, in the non-debate over global warming. (Do scientists basically agree, supporting government policy? No, they don’t. Not even close.)

  2. The advocate says that powerful, government forces have conspired to hide the truth from the public. Okay… Sometimes this happens, but only in the short term. And when it does happen, the evidence is clear that the government is keeping secrets, because it refuses to hand over documents in court cases, for example, citing “national security” or some such. But when someone yells “conspiracy,” generally they’re paranoid.

  3. The benefits of a proposed policy are not compared to the costs, or the costs are hidden while the benefits are trumped up. This is frequently accompanied by an appeal to fear, focusing on a reputed evil and how a proposed policy will supposedly wipe it out, without seriously examining the costs. There are always costs, and the costs–not only economic costs, but also social costs–are often stratospheric. TANSTAAFL!

  4. No open system of information is available to judge whether a program is working or not. Rather, support for a program or policy is anecdotal. Unfortunately, this characterizes most government programs, even programs such as law enforcement. For example, new police are deployed to high-crime areas, and when crime decreases, the new policy is given credit, without considering whether crime was bound to rise anyhow, regardless of the policy. Or if crime instead continues to get worse, an appeal is made for tax hikes to hire even more police, in order to combat the worsening crime situation, without examining scientifically whether the policy itself is sound.

  5. The advocate defends a policy on the basis that it has been the norm for a long, long time. The argument was recently made to me, against gay marriage, that the traditional marriage has been the standard for 5,000 years. Well, first of all, it hasn’t. The so-called traditional marriage has been the minority world-wide for most of recorded history. But even if it had been the standard for 5,000 years, that doesn’t make it right. Acupuncture has also been around 5,000 years, that doesn’t make it superior to MRI machines and modern surgical procedures.

  6. The theory was developed without engaging with historic and current political debate, and without accepting the realities of current government. For example, those who say that there we have no constitutional obligation to pay federal income taxes, and therefore that you shouldn’t. Well, frankly, the real question is power. Does the IRS have the power to force you to pay? Don’t know about you, bucko, but I don’t feel like arguing with them.

  7. The advocate downplays widely accepted principles of government and justice. Again, unfortunately, many government programs do this, and many of those are not brought into the public debate. We lucked out, for example, in that the ACLU has been carefully following the Bush administration’s misadministration of justice at Guantánamo and elsewhere, because the government would not have brought these to our attention of its own accord. Yet many bad laws are passed by appealing to fear or emotion (e.g., antitrust, government welfare, the War on Drugs) without a detailed examination of “the bad guys” in the light of accepted principles of justice. This results in inequities in society and criminal penalties that are out of whack with the damage they purport to protect against.


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