The Legend of Ezekiel Bulver

BulverHere’s how the legend began: Ezekiel Bulver, at the tender age of five, once heard two people having a dispute. (I’ve modernized the story a bit.) The first person insisted that the sum of two sides of any triangle will always be greater than the length of the third side. The second person argued that the first person only believed that because he was a socialist.

“At that moment”, Ezekiel Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

You’ve never heard of Ezekiel Bulver? Astonishing! Anyone who wants to gain some measure of freedom from their all-too-human tendencies to use poor logic and to cut through the confusing clutter of contemporary media, needs to understand Bulver. Well, no worries–here’s a clever little doodle video to bring you up to speed . . .

*Thanks so much to the CSLewisDoodle YouTube channel!

You Too!

you too, tu quoque
U2, not related to logical fallacies

Since I know very little about political issues and immigration, I tend to stay out of debates. But what I do know is good debate. So, I won’t often weigh in on one side, but I will comment on the quality of the arguments. In the recent brew-ha-ha over separating children from parents at the border, people used whatever tactics they could to “win the argument.” But there was quite a bit of “tu quoque” (Latin for “you too”) going on. Using this tactic doesn’t get us any closer to knowing what’s true or right.

“You too” happens when side A says that there is something really bad about the policy of side B, and side B responds by saying, “Well, you’re just as bad!” Typically, side B resorts to this tactic because they know their policy is really bad. They don’t want to defend it. So, instead, they shift the focus off of whether the policy is bad and put it on something side A has done which is just as bad. This puts side B on better terms with an argument they can win. But the original argument about the policy of B is left unresolved. Even worse, resolution is now impossible because side A and side B aren’t even arguing about the same thing anymore. (See this post for other kinds of bad logic.)

Children At the Border

children, tu quoqueFor example, side A argued that the policy (held by side B) of separating children from their parents at the border is really, really bad. But instead of discussing the merits of the policy, side B accuses side A of being hypocrites because side A originated the policy years ago! “You’re just as bad as us!” But this, while perhaps true, misses the point completely. The original question is, “Should we continue separating children from their parents?” not, “Who is to blame for this bad policy?” What side B should have done, right from the start, is either defend the policy or admit that the policy is bad and change it, rather than try to return fire. This would be good, helpful conversation and debate. (Also, some people on side B did defend the policy by saying, “Well, it’s the law!” But this amounts to arguing that “this policy is the right policy because it is the current policy.” Try telling that to MLK!)

Please note that my point here is not about who was right. My point is about how one side argued badly. Who was correct is a completely different issue.

cake, tu quoqueBut I’m not letting side A off the hook that easily! When side B won a recent Supreme Court decision that made it (legally) permissible for a cake designer to refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding, side A was outraged. But then a new story came out: business owners on side A refused service to people who worked for the Trump administration. This unleashed a “You too!” tornado on social media. Both sides starting lobbing “you too” grenades at the other. Instead of debating whether it is right to refuse service, both sides said, “Your side did the same thing!” This simply avoids the actual issue.

It’s always a good idea to stop and think about the tactics you’re using to “win” a debate. Some tactics help us discover what is good, true and beautiful. Others only serve to distract, shut down, or silence our opponents.

The Rationality of a Flu Shot

flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemologyI don’t like shots, in fact, I avoid them. Ironically, I visited my doctor yesterday, and left with a band-aid on my arm. I didn’t plan to get a flu shot, in fact I’ve never had one and never wanted one, but he talked me into it. I thought the whole dialectic was interesting, so I’ll share it with you. I think it illustrates some valuable principles of rationality and good belief formation. (The doctor actually said some of these things, and some of them I said to myself during the conversation.)

The Conversation

“Have you considered getting a flu shot?”
“No, not really. I never get them.”
“Would you be open to the idea?”
“Isn’t the flu a whole range of viruses rather than only one virus?”
“But aren’t flu vaccines just aimed at one strain of the flu? That means that it protects you (imperfectly) against one strain out of many, which doesn’t seem very helpful. It would be like having an air bag that only inflates when I hit a red car.”
“Actually, the vaccine is aimed at multiple flu viruses, based on the most common ones from last year.”
“Ok, that’s good to know. But still, I hardly ever get sick or get the flu.”
“Well, even if you have a very low risk of getting the flu, the shot will lower the risk even more.” (The CDC website says that, “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population.”)
“Yeah, that seems right. But I’m still not sure it lowers the risk enough to make it worth it.”
“What’s the downside of getting one, especially if it’s free?”
flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemology“I don’t like shots. Yeah, that’s not a great argument, I suppose.”
“Consider this: Lowering your own risk also benefits family health and public health. If your chance is lower, that lowers the risk of your kids getting sick or anyone around you getting sick, like in your church. That’s just good for everyone in Columbia.”
“Ok, I’m starting to realize that I don’t have any good reason, or enough good reasons to justify not getting a shot.” (He did address the concerns many people have about the vaccine causing various side-effects or illness, though I wasn’t worried about it. The chances are negligible. He also explained that the vaccine they use is protein-based, which means it doesn’t contain the actual virus, so it can’t give you the flu.)

So, next thing I know, the nurse comes in with the syringe. I tried to relax and remember that this is a very fleeting pain. Happily, the nurse was quite skilled and I hardly felt it. The arm is a bit sore today, but that’s the only negative effect.

The Takeaway 

What’s the takeaway here? 1) Be open to dialogue. You might learn something. You also might discover that your reasons, once they are out on the table, turn out not to be very strong. 2) Irrational fears shouldn’t guide our actions. The fear of a shot, for us needlephobes, is generally way over-blown and not realistic. I.e., it isn’t as bad as you think. 3) Public health may not have occurred to you as a relevant factor, but it should. It isn’t just about *you*.

For the Flu Shot Skeptics

skeptic faith thinkingNow, I know people worry about certain dangers of vaccines or flu shots. But I researched it a little (perhaps inadequately), and I couldn’t find any documented sources citing scientific evidence about the dangers of today’s flu shots. Flu shots have been modified over the years to eliminate anything that was discovered to be harmful.

“But what about the dangers we have yet to discover?” True, we must always admit the possibility that we’ll discover a dangerous chemical  later, after the damage is done. But it simply isn’t reasonable or practical to live your life dodging mere possible dangers. There would be no way to avoid everything that could harm you. We should try to avoid probable harms — things that we have good evidence for. That’s the only feasible way to live. Right now, the research says that flu shots are safe. Also, if you avoid flu shots based on a few bad stories you’ve heard, you’re probably falling prey to the availability bias (I might be doing this as well) or the fallacy of probability neglect.

“But given that we’ve repeatedly found new dangers in some medicines and treatments, shouldn’t we expect that there are lots of undiscovered dangers lurking in these drugs?” That’s an inductive argument, and I think it’s weak. Here’s why: medicine isn’t progressing slowly, like repeatedly adding 1 to a number and watching it grow. It progresses more like multiplying. So not only do we detect and solve new problems every year, but our methods for detecting, solving and preventing problems gets better every year, multiplying the effectiveness of medicine. That’s my perception, but I could be wrong.


Persuaded? Let me know what you think. I’m open to hearing the arguments on the other side, provided you have documented evidence from reliable sources.