20 March 2011

Unhealthful News 79 - Knowing when to say why

My Sunday sub-series about how to know who to believe when faced with contradictory claims from apparent experts seems to often circle back to a similar theme, paying attention to who is actually addressing others' arguments.  Obviously this is not always possible; in most forums we have to provide background points or even make our main points without responding to the arguments against those points, or even acknowledging them.  For example, in my post yesterday I alluded to synthetic meta-analyses being often terribly flawed without defending the claim, even though it is contrary to what most people think they know.  It was not central to my point, and I had explained it elsewhere.  Sometimes you cannot say why, but other times you need to do so.

Notice that the phrasing of today's title is grammatically analogous to the anti-binge-drinking message it derives from:  It is not when to ask "why?" but when to provide an explanation for your claims, because if you do not then any astute reader should infer that you are trying to trick them or do not know what you are talking about.

I was struck by the point this week when responding to the "rebuttals" to some of my recent testimony about wind turbines written by the other side's consultants.  Never were scare-quotes so appropriate, given that one of the three basically agreed with what I had to say (merely positing a specific variation on the causal mechanism) while the other two rebutted nothing.  It seems that after I spent many pages carefully explaining in detail why particular types of evidence are compelling, taking it down to basic principles so that the reader could follow the analysis rather than have to just accept my assertions, they just declared that mine is different from most analysis so it should be ignored.  That would have been a really good time for them to say why.

The problem was that they did not have a "why".  If they had, they surely would have provided it.  Lacking one, they both made lots of empty comments about the analysis not being of the standard type.  Again, the rather important logical step, "why that is a bad thing", was missing.  I suppose that hired-gun reports like this work when the decision makers are just looking for an excuse to take their side, as often happens in this area.  I trust that any serious reader can see right through the vacuousness of it.  (As an aside, I have to mention the worst and best bits of those criticisms of me was one of them describing my report as "commentary" and calling it "bombastic".  It never fails to distress me how often reviewers of any epidemiologic analysis that is beyond the first-year-class-level mistake it for commentary; as for "bombastic", I pointed out that it is one of those interesting words that is self-referential, like "sesquipedalian" or "misspeling".)

This example, of an obvious need to make one's argument rather than just asserting "my view is right", is so clear that it would seem like a cartoon if I made it up:  Someone carefully explained why, in that particular case, unusual evidence was available, and such evidence is particularly compelling; those tasked with refuting this claim replied "your evidence is unusual".  Um, yeah, I actually led with that.  For some reason, my memory flashed to the climactic scene in the movie 8 Mile where Eminem leaves his rap-battle opponent speechless by presenting everything the opponent was going to say about him, pointing out why it represented strength rather than being an embarrassment.  Except in this case, imagine that the opponent just went ahead and said what he planned anyway.  If the contestants had gone in the other order, the taunts directed at the protagonist might have sounding damning to the audience, having some sting at least until his response.  But when the protagonist led with the response to those very taunts, the opponent realized it would be pathetic to just recite the taunts.

A less one-sided example I have been thinking about is what the crisis at Japan's damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant should say to us about the future of nuclear power.  Opponents of nuclear power obviously have gained a powerful bit of evidence for their cause.  But, wait:  Those who support continued and expanded use of nuclear power can, and occasionally do, point out that the rate of about one crisis per decade across all the world's nuke plants needs to be compared to the human health and ecological damage that would be done over the same period by substituting fossil fuel plants or industrial wind turbines.  (Ok, I just threw that last bit in myself – most people have still not caught on.)  In the face of that claim, it is no longer enough for someone to just say "look at how bad that was, and it probably will happen again".  They need to explain why that risk is greater than the toll being compared, or why the comparison is not fair. 

I continue to look for an example where an advocate on either side of this issue acknowledges the opposing claims and explains why they are not compelling.  But I almost always find myself thinking, "do you, perhaps, know that there are many people who disagree with your position and have arguments of their own; how can you possibly think your arguments are compelling without telling me why they refute or trump the opposing arguments."

Another example from my own writing this week, in response to the question of whether the US FDA would ban menthol in cigarettes, people have said that this would cause more people to buy from the black market (undoubtedly true).  But some comments have suggested that this could cause an increase in total consumption.  This desperately calls for a "why", since as I posted, the claim is basically that making something costlier to acquire (that is what a ban does) will increase consumption.  Making an assertion that runs contrary to existing evidence, established theory, or conventional wisdom cries out for saying "this is why the previous belief is wrong".

I guess what I come away with is:  If you are making a point that is contrary to the conventional wisdom, you need to recognize the conventional belief and explain why you are right and it is wrong, or that it does not apply in the particular case.  Why is menthol so unusual that a ban could actually lead to increased consumption?  Providing that "why" is what I do in most of my overview writings about about tobacco harm reduction or wind turbines (yes, I know – I have detected the trend in my intellectual life).  I try to explain why the conventional wisdom is misleading, and if possible to do so in enough detail, starting with first principles, so that readers can see why they should believe it (apparently doing so is bombastic, but it is just the price I have to pay).

But the need is even more compelling, when someone is a part of a debate where an opponent has explicitly made a claim about why they are right, perhaps even acknowledging what might seem weak about their position in order to make their case about it.  It cannot be useful, in that case, to just recite one's stump speech again.  If that is all someone has to say, the reader really should conclude that they have nothing to say. 

Kinda makes me want to watch 8 Mile again.  Cue a beat.  Get seriously bombastic.  "Tell these people somethin' they don't know about me" (the protagonist's final line of the last battle) is a great way of saying, "if your only arguments are ones that I already presented and refuted, perhaps you might want to just be quiet."

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