Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Absolving Nader

Just a quick observation about this useful tweet:
As Sargent notes, causality is a concept that trips up even very intelligent people. I remember being very puzzled when I first ran across the following line of argumentation. The argument goes: "Democrats like to blame Gore's loss on Nader. But Gore didn't lose Florida because of Nader. He lost because he didn't campaign well enough in Florida, and therefore didn't get enough votes." There are various ways of "proving" that Gore ran a bad campaign, from the fact that he lost his home state of Tennessee to the fact that many self-identified Democrats in Florida voted for Bush.

The implicit theory of causality here is that there is exactly one cause for any phenomenon. Once you've identified that cause, all other possible causes have been logically excluded. So to prove that Nader was blameless for Gore's loss, all you have to do is identify a non-Nader reason that Gore lost.

(As a quick aside... I seem to remember that Matt Yglesias got into an argument with a fairly prominent leftist over this issue on Twitter. But either he deleted the tweets or Twitter's search functionality is poor. You'll just have to trust me that seemingly intelligent people make exactly the argument I've described, almost word for word. Oh... it might have been Matt Bruenig. He's deleted his old tweets. I can't say for sure who it was, but I distinctly remember there being more tweets from Yglesias on this issue that I cannot now find.)

Now in fairness there is a germ of a coherent idea here, which is that everything has infinitely many causes, and it is often useful to make judgments about the relative salience of them. And at that point there really is a certain amount of "rivalry," so that attributing additional salience to one cause tends to reduce it for others (though of course it is more complicated than that). But the thing to recognize is that if you take this approach, then you have to engage with the actual considerations that go into determinations of salience. There is no easy logical proof along the lines I outlined above. If you want to absolve Nader, you have to explain why we shouldn't attach blame to a person whose actions were an obvious and predictable but-for cause of the election of George W. Bush. Simply identifying other causes is not the category of argument that you need to make.

Anyway just an observation. I wish people weren't so unreasonable about things like this.


Post a Comment

<< Home