Should you always cook with the stove on high? That question is as silly as dogmatic views on government and culture. Problems in Realworldia are rarely black-and-white and most slopes aren’t that slippery. Just ask the ancient aliens. (More)

Ideological Blinders, Part II: Slippery Slopes and Other Fallacies (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at common, flawed arguments that flow from dogmatic ideologies. Yesterday we explored the over-reliance on “fundamentals,” marked by a refusal to move beyond basic concepts to the complexity of real world cases. Today we conclude with slippery slopes and other logical fallacies that typify ideological blindness.

“Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.”

Thus spake Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the Affordable Care Act, in response to an argument supporting the individual mandate. The government argued that almost everyone gets health care at some point in their lives, thus the mandate did not force people to participate in a market they might otherwise avoid. Instead, Solicitor General Donald Vermilli said, the mandate requires everyone to pay into the insurance pool from which they will later benefit. Justice Scalia disagreed:

Everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food. Therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.

This was a classic slippery slope argument, as Nudge co-author Richard Thaler noted in a New York Times op-ed:

Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym. He and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. were asking the solicitor general to explain what the principle would be to stop the government from going so far. If the law stands, Justice Roberts suggested, “it seems to me that we can’t say there are limitations on what Congress can do under its commerce power.” He added, “Given the significant deference we accord to Congress in this area, all bets are off, and you could regulate that market in any rational way.”

Please stop! The very fact that a slippery slope is being cited as grounds for declaring the law unconstitutional – despite that “significant deference” usually given to laws passed by Congress – tells you all that you need to know about the argument’s validity. Can anyone imagine Congress passing a broccoli mandate law, much less the court allowing it to take effect?

“Slippery-slope arguments are about principles”

Predictably, ideologues rejected Thaler’s argument, proudly citing their dogmatism. Here is one example from the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon:

Good grief. Slippery-slope arguments are about principles. As in, “If you concede this principle because you don’t mind the result here, you will no longer have it to protect you against that bad result there.” Thaler’s thesis would lead, for example, to all manner of civil-liberties violations by the state because there simply isn’t enough political support to protect all the civil liberties of various minorities. But Thaler doesn’t want us to think about things like consequences or the future.

Not the slippery slope in Cannon’s argument in favor of slippery slopes: if you don’t stand on this principle – with no exceptions or adjustments for specific conditions – you step off the edge and begin the unstoppable slide toward never standing on any principle. If you are to have principles at all, by Cannon’s logic, they must be absolute.

Raw eggs or burned eggs, based on principle

By Cannon’s logic, you must always cook with your stove set to high. You need heat to cook, and Cannon’s logic permits no exceptions or adjustments. It’s always all or nothing. You can have raw eggs or burned eggs, and you must choose one or the other, based on principle.

Or, as Emeril Lagasse often reminded his viewers, you could note that “your stove has knobs!” If you want to boil water, turn the stove all the way to high. If you want to fry an egg, the low side of medium should be just fine. For your sausage, use the high side of medium.

In Realworldia, principles often conflict. You want your eggs done but not rubbery, your sausage cooked through but not burned. While we can’t calibrate public policy with the same precision a modern stove allows for cooking, we can and must balance conflicting interests.

For example, our principles of liberty demand that we don’t let our police search anyone, anywhere, anytime. But our principles of public safety demand that we don’t prohibit all police searches. In practice, we let police search some people, in some places, at some times, based on the Fourth Amendment provision that searches must not be “unreasonable.” Our courts apply precedents to the specific facts of specific cases to decide whether a specific search was “unreasonable,” and each such decision establishes a new precedent.

In so doing, judges adjust the knob on the search burner, hoping to get the most good outcomes and the fewest bad outcomes. We can and should discuss whether our courts have adjusted that knob to the optimal setting, but all-or-nothing slippery slope arguments do not move that discussion forward.

“Is it possible that…?

Dogmatic beliefs yield another common argument, similar to but distinct from the slippery slope. It is repeated most often and most glaringly in the History Channel series Ancient Aliens, and it goes something like this:

Was Thomas Jefferson inspired by beings from another world? His writings reveal that Jefferson thought astronomy was almost as important as architecture. Is it possible that ancient aliens taught him to link those topics? If so, might our nation’s capital have interstellar messages coded into its design? The strongest evidence may be halfway around the world, in Egypt, where the pyramids of Giza seem to be aligned with the heavens….

The opening question seems absurd at first blush. But then comes the seductive argument along a common formula. The first italicized phrase offers a true but irrelevant fact that attempts to establish credibility without offering any real evidence. Next comes “Is it possible that” – or “Could it true be that” – playing on our reluctance to declare that any idea is absolutely impossible. “If so, might” invites us to speculate on what that ‘possible’ claim could mean. And lest we notice that the speaker hasn’t yet offered any evidence for that claim, we get “The strongest evidence may be” another unproven claim about a superficially similar but factually unrelated topic.

When crackpots speculate about ancient aliens, this argument pattern is absurd enough to be interesting. But when a U.S. senator speculates about the patriotism of a nominee for Secretary of Defense, it’s seductive enough to be dangerous.

Policy decisions should be based on specific conditions and on evidence, not on dogma or speculation. When you see a slippery slope or ancient alien argument … ask yourself what dogma the speaker is pursuing, and what evidence he/she wants you to ignore.


Happy Saturday!