On arguments, straw mans, and cherry picking tweets
|Nov 18|| 4|
Noah here. By way of Tyler Cowen I read this Reason piece about how the majority of opioid deaths don’t come from prescription drugs. “A recent study of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts underlines this crucial point, finding that prescription analgesics were detected without heroin or fentanyl in less than 17 percent of the cases,” the article explains. “Furthermore, decedents had prescriptions for the opioids that showed up in toxicology tests just 1.3 percent of the time”
The point being made? “The focus on pain pill prescriptions is clearly disproportionate given their actual role in opioid-related deaths, and it has led to policies that deprive bona fide patients of the medication they need while pushing nonmedical users toward black-market substitutes, which are far more dangerous because their potency is unpredictable.” In other words, the article’s author believes that all this reporting about the dangers of opioid prescriptions is missing the point because the vast majority of people are dying from illegal drugs, not the doctor-approved stuff.
Patrick Radden Keefe, who wrote the best piece on the opioid epidemic I’ve read, and is now working on a book about the subject, dispatched with this argument in his 2017 New Yorker piece:
Since 1999, two hundred thousand Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids. Many addicts, finding prescription painkillers too expensive or too difficult to obtain, have turned to heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers. The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that a hundred and forty-five Americans now die every day from opioid overdoses.
Why is this interesting?
First off, it’s good to have the correct data, and I have Radden Keefe and the New Yorker fact-checkers here to provide the accurate number of people who started with prescriptions, since the Reason piece skips over that point entirely. To that end, the whole “people aren’t dying directly from prescriptions and it isn’t being reported” line of reasoning stinks of straw manning: A fallacy where you present a counterpoint to a non-existent argument. I’ve read a fair amount about the opioid epidemic, and nowhere have I seen journalists suggesting that people dying from overdose are being killed directly by the pills. As friend of WITI Felix Salmon put it when I shared the piece with him, the typical argument goes “(1) you have pain, (2) you’re prescribed opioids, (3) you become addicted to opioids, (4) you overdose on opioids. You don’t go straight from (2) to (4), so there’s no reason to believe that you’re going to overdose on the opioids you were originally prescribed.”
But really the point of bringing all this up is to talk about a cousin of the straw man that’s been on my mind a lot lately. An unfortunately common phenomena in media these days is digging up a Tweet to embed in a news story as a way to argue or refute a point. In 2015, writer Dan Brooks calling this “egg manning” (for the uninitiated, eggs are the default icon for a new Twitter account), which he defined as “the practice of finding a terrible argument from an unknown Twitter user in order to disagree with it.” From his blog post on the practice:
It’s unnecessary to refute an argument nobody believes. But with 316 million monthly active Twitter users and 500 million tweets a day, somebody out there believes whatever. It’s the old saw about monkeys and typewriters. If you want to be right for a few hundred words, just think of an awful argument and search for the Twitter user who expressed it.
Let us call this practice egg manning. The epistemological question is whether it differs significantly from straw manning. There’s something wrong with making up an argument to say it disgusts you, but is it just as bad when that argument has been advanced by an actual person?
The problem, of course, is that while straw manning is about making up an argument out of thin air, egg manning lets you point to a specific source of disagreement and make it seem credible simply for existing in the world. Like most things that pop up in social media, though, it’s unclear how widely held that belief is and almost impossible to calculate. (NRB)
Comic of the Day:
After WITI 10/23 on affordances and design I was reminded that hotel showers are some of the least intuitive designed devices in the world. A fact that’s perfectly illustrated by this New Yorker cartoon of “your friend’s shower”. (NRB)
What is the endgame of Disney+ (CJN)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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