Bryan Caplan  

Outsourced to Scott Alexander

The Brooklyn Cop Killings: A N... Gruber and Henderson on Health...
I read a ton of old Scott Alexander posts while vacationing in Florida.  I was pleased to discover many topics I don't need to address, because Scott's already explained my views better than I could explain them myself.  Choice selections:

1. Interpreting coefficients in discrimination regressions:
Suppose I state "Professors who identify as feminist give twice as many As to female students as they do to male students."

(This is true, by the way.)

It sounds like a big problem. So you dig through mountains of data, and you figure out that most feminist professors tend to be in subjects like the humanities, where twice as many students are female as male, and so naturally twice as many of the As go to women as men. If I just give you my best trollface and say "Yes, that's certainly the mechanism by which the extra female As occur", you have every reason to believe I'm deliberately causing trouble. Especially if colleges have already vowed to stop hiring feminist professors in response to the subsequent outrage. Especially especially if you know I am a cultural conservative activist whose goal has always been to make colleges stop hiring feminist professors, by hook or by crook.

If twice as many women as men take English literature classes, that's compatible with something about gender socialization unfairly making men feel less able to study or less enthusiastic about studying literature. That could be considered biased or discriminatory, I guess. But phrasing it as "feminist professors give twice as many As to women" is calculated to produce maximal damage.
2. The motte-and-bailey doctrine (or, as my teacher John Searle put it, "Moving from the preposterous to the platitudinous and then back to the preposterous").  Background: In a medieval castle...
...there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

One example:

The feminists who constantly argue about whether you can be a real feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support controversial policies like affirmative action or affirmative consent laws (bailey). Then when someone says they don't really like feminism very much, they object "But feminism is just the belief that women are people!" (motte) Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely didn't mean women aren't people, the feminists get back to demanding everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.


Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it doesn't work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for (motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace, they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their treatments will cure cancer.

I'd add cryonics to Scott's list.

The meta-point:

The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you're thinking about them. More important, it draws its strength from people's usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I'm debating "does quackery cure cancer?", it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of "is quackery okay?" or "should quackery be illegal?", and from there it's easy to bring up the motte objection.

At risk of sounding smug, I don't think anyone has ever accused me of playing motte-and-bailey.

3. The definitional war on "Nice Guys":

Let's extend our analogy from above.

It was wrong of me to say I hate poor minorities. I meant I hate Poor Minorities! Poor Minorities is a category I made up that includes only poor minorities who complain about poverty or racism.

No, wait! I can be even more charitable! A poor minority is only a Poor Minority if their compaints about poverty and racism come from a sense of entitlement. Which I get to decide after listening to them for two seconds. And If they don't realize that they're doing something wrong, then they're automatically a Poor Minority.

I dedicate my blog to explaining how Poor Minorities, when they're complaining about their difficulties with poverty or asking why some people like Paris Hilton seem to have it so easy, really just want to steal your company's money and probably sexually molest their co-workers. And I'm not being unfair at all! Right? Because of my new definition! I know everyone I'm talking to can hear those Capital Letters. And there's no chance whatsoever anyone will accidentally misclassify any particular poor minority as a Poor Minority. That's crazy talk! I'm sure the "make fun of Poor Minorities" community will be diligently self-policing against that sort of thing. Because if anyone is known for their rigorous application of epistemic charity, it is the make-fun-of-Poor-Minorities community!

I'm not even sure I can dignify this with the term "motte-and-bailey fallacy". It is a tiny Playmobil motte on a bailey the size of Russia.

4. The best statistical guesstimates of false rape accusations you'll ever see.  Just one clever section:

The rate of false rape accusations is notoriously difficult to study, since researchers have no failsafe way of figuring out whether a given accusation is true or not. The leading scholar in the area, David Lisak, explains that the generally accepted methodology is to count a rape accusation as false "if there is a clear and credible admission [of falsehood] from the complainant, or strong evidential grounds"...


Feminists make one true and important critique of these numbers - sometimes real victims, in the depths of stress we can't even imagine, do strange things and get their story hopelessly garbled. Or they suddenly lose their nerve and don't want to continue the legal process and tell the police they were making it up in order to drop the case as quickly as possible. All of these would go down as "false allegations" under the "victim has to admit she was lying or contradict herself" criteria. No doubt this does happen.

But the opposite critique seems much stronger: that some false accusers manage tell their story without contradicting themselves, and without changing their mind and admit they were lying. We're not talking about making it all the way through a trial - the majority of reported rapes get quietly dropped by the police for one reason or another and never make it that far. Although keeping your story halfway straight is probably harder than it sounds sitting in an armchair without any cops grilling me, it seems very easy to imagine that most false accusers manage this task, especially since they may worry that admitting their duplicity will lead to some punishment.

The research community defines false accusations as those that can be proven false beyond a reasonable doubt, and all others as true. Yet many - maybe most - false accusations are not provably false and so will not be included.

5. There are good Bubbles and bad Bubbles:

[T]he problem isn't with Tumblr social justice, it's structural. Every community on Tumblr somehow gets enmeshed with the people most devoted to making that community miserable. The tiny Tumblr rationalist community somehow attracts, concentrates, and constantly reblogs stuff from the even tinier Tumblr community of people who hate rationalists and want them to be miserable (no, well-intentioned and intelligent critics, I am not talking about you). It's like one of those rainforest ecosystems where every variety of rare endangered nocturnal spider hosts a parasite who has evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize that one spider species, and the parasites host parasites who have evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize them.
By the way, Scott's intellectual output is one of the best arguments I've seen against living in a (good) Bubble.  If Scott didn't routinely expose himself to painfully bad ideas, most of his best pieces would never be written.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Frog Do writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Joshua writes:

I don't see Bryan's arguments as motte-and-bailey at all. He may claim that principle A (be nice to your people) requires position B (open borders) as a consequence...but he never shies away form defending the consequence. He particularly never seems to pull the "you really agree with me, because motte" argument. If anything he seems to get a thrill in biting every bullet he comes across.

David Friedman writes:

"In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects."

Mark Twain defended Christian Science on the grounds that Christian Scientists know how to cure imaginary diseases, and since half the diseases people suffer from are imaginary ... .

Andrew_FL writes:

@David Friedman-I'm pretty sure that was satire.

I can see why you like to quote this guy, he's clearly pretty astute. That being said, reading the quip about To Kill a Mocking Bird as excusing disbelieving those who claim to have been raped, is really making an effort to be uncharitable.

Noah Siegel writes:

David Friedman once defined market failure as "situations in which individual rationality does not lead to group rationality."

It occurs to me that Scott's metaphysical concept of Moloch shares a lot in common with the concept of market failure.

Glen Raphael writes:

Bryan: can you be more specific about what positions you think the motte and bailey are in cryonics? Nearly everybody who commented on your cryonics post correctly pointed out that your argument seems to be with standard Philosophy of Mind conclusions and not with cryonics at all; it's not clear what you think is still salvageable from the original post.

David: I actually suspect that through Twain's lifetime Christian Scientists were much healthier than those who partook of modern medicine. For two reasons:

(1) modern medicine back then was TERRIBLE (antibiotics hadn't been invented yet, "bloodletting" was still considered a useful treatment option...)

(2) Mary Baker Eddy was a huge fan of CLEANLINESS so her followers were far more likely than most people to bathe and wash their hands regularly.

Brian writes:

Scott Alexander often has interesting commentary on current topics, but his posts are WAY too long. I generally find that he can make his points in much fewer words than he uses. That's one reason I prefer your posts, Bryan. You know how to cut to the heart of the matter.

Sean Mack writes:

His long posts don't bother me so much. The bigger problem is that while Bryan reads Scott, Scott evidently doesn't read Bryan.

…or any comparably good libertarian or anarcho-capitalist source.

It's sad to say because he's such a bright guy, but this makes Scott Alexander say some very foolish things.

In fact, he's using a variation of the tactic described above, which we might call the "Cute and Bailey". He'll wander into the pasture of anti-libertarianism to do some serious farming, but when he runs into a serious objection, he falls back, tactically, into being Cute…which he usually pulls off, in a smarter John Stewart sort of way.

But once he's joked his way out of the corner, he goes right back to the plow.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top