Monday, January 20, 2014

Embarrassing Tricks of The Mommy Wars

The Mommy Wars – the mythical battle to ascertain who has the biggest parenting-penis. It’s bloody, it’s gory, and it features a hella lot of faulty logic. Let's take a look at the 15 most common badly-thought-out tactics that mothers resort to in their fight for maternal supremacy.

Trick #1 Ad hominem move

This Latin phrase means ‘to the person’. It involves shifting attention from the point in question to some non-relevant aspect of the person making it. A common flavour of this approach is to question the speaker’s mental health. Attacking the character of the person with whom you are arguing rather than finding fault with his or her argument is a technique of rhetoric. As a debating strategy it is an epic fail because discrediting the source of the argument usually leaves the argument itself intact.

Trick #2 Anecdotes

Ahhhh the humble anecdote. The temptation to over-generalize on the basis of a potentially misleading particular experience seems to be irresistible in the Mommy Wars. However, the problem with anecdotal evidence is that you cannot generalize from situations where there are known to be considerable variations in how people respond.

There’s also another problem with anecdotes: the assumption that the case generalized from actually has the characteristics you think it does. Here's the snag, anecdotal evidence is often clouded by wishful thinking. Such wishful thinking is dangerous as it puts a veil between us and the truth. Your child is perfectly healthy? How are you defining ‘healthy’? How are you measuring it? What proof do you have that he is ‘perfectly’ healthy? Is such determinate proof even obtainable?

Trick #3 The correlation =/= causation safety net

If all else fails, recite the mantra “correlation does not mean causation”. Yup, this tactic was also utilised by the tobacco industry: Prove beyond any doubt that tobacco directly causes lung cancer!

Trick # 4 “Most people do it”

If “most people do it” (whatever “it” may be), the assertion is that the aversiveness of the act should somehow be lessened and standards yoked to prevalent behaviours. Many mothers use this excuse to make the action in question (be it formula feeding, spanking, circumcision or whatever) seem acceptable. Saying ‘most people do it’ amounts to saying that such actions are socially acceptable. However, just because something is socially acceptable it does not follow that it is morally acceptable, or even logically acceptable.

Trick # 5 “It’s not child abuse”

Here, the mother attempts to excuse her own wrongdoing by picking out companions in guilt who are far guiltier than herself. This ploy is known in psychology as ‘contrasting’ or ‘defensive projection’. Examples include: “Formula is not poison”, “It won’t kill him”, “A light smack on the hand is different from a beating”, “Better to circumcise now than later when he’ll remember it”, and so on. Take the formula example for instance, just because poison is worse than formula, does not mean that formula is healthy. It is sheer wishful thinking to suppose that other people’s bad behaviour in some way legitimises your own.

A popular double wammy: formula contrasted with poison and starvation.

Trick #6 The ‘good parent = martyr’ assumption

The argument goes: If you don’t always put your own interests first, the only alternative is to be a martyr. This, of course, is a false dichotomy because there are in fact many more options than the two extremes given here. For example, you might decide to devote your time to your baby during their infancy when arguably they are in great need, but when they are older, spend more time on yourself.

Trick #7 ignoratio elenchi

Ignoratio elenchi is the Latin name for missing the point. Sometimes it’s intellectually easier and more self-serving to miss the point, than to expend effort in understanding it.

Trick #8 Irrelevance

Irrelevance is the sister of ignoratio elenchi. Shifting discussion away from the point at issue by bringing in matters which don’t relate directly to it. When used as a ploy this turns the debater into a quasi-politician where she avoids giving straightforward replies to direct questions. Other forms of irrelevance involve introducing a red herring or ad hominem (getting personal) or introducing anecdotal evidence. More often mothers do this due to a lack of mental focus: the result of failing to appreciate exactly what is at issue.

Godwins Law bonus. Nice touch.

Trick #9 “It never did me any harm”

A common and particularly irritating double whammy combining rash generalisation and anecdotal evidence. Basically, a mom defends an unattractive parenting practice on the grounds that they survived having the same thing done to them. The implicit argument goes like this:

  • You say that formula feeding is harmful.
  • I had was formula fed, yet I haven’t been noticeably harmed.
  • Therefore you have insufficient grounds for condemning formula feeding.

This trick is particularly omnipresent in the Mommy Wars. Simply switch ‘formula feeding’ with any of the following: incorrect car seat usage, smoking during and after pregnancy, circumcision, spanking, ear piercing or any other parenting practice which has been shown via reputable empirical evidence to be risky. It is entirely consistent with formula feeding et al causing damage to a child’s physiological wellbeing that some instances of it leave some children entirely unscathed: the claim is not that every instance of formula feeding causes serious harm. Rather, that in a large number of cases it can cause physiological damage. The fact that someone was formula fed and remained apparently unharmed in no way justifies the practice. In extreme cases, this style of arguing can be a crutch for morally disturbing wishful thinking. Indeed, sometimes the assertion “It never did me any harm” is simply false. Some harms are transparent (see Trick #10).

Trick #10 The schoolyard comparison

Common in debates of infant feeding, The Schoolyard Comparison involves the rhetorical question: “In a class of 30 kids, can you tell who was formula fed and who was breast fed?” To which the answer is - of course you can't bloody can't. That's what scientific studies are for. If the impact of lifestyle choices on health was so obvious, women wouldn't have been positively encouraged to smoke and eat liver in pregnancy for decades. Can you look at a group of adults and tell whose mother smoked when they were in utero?

Trick #11 Pedantry

A niggling and inappropriate concern with detail, often at the expense of what is really important in an issue. Slavish rule-following, particularly in the realm of grammar and syntax, is a typical mark of the pedant.

Trick #12 “Prove it”

A cousin of trick #3, ‘Prove it’, also known as ‘proof by ignorance’ or ‘OMG SAUCE’, is an informal fallacy in which lack of known evidence against a belief is taken as an indication that it is true. Often the user demands that something be proven beyond doubt that a certain parenting practice is harmful. However, as I explained in “The Art of Denouncing Breastfeeding”, absolute certainty is not possible in most spheres of human knowledge. Proof requires us to move only beyond reasonable doubt. It cannot require us to remove all possibility of doubt whatsoever.

Kudos to this multitasking feast. It combines tricks #1, #4, #8, and #12!

Trick #12 Sophistry

A display of cleverness which doesn’t respect the principles of good reasoning but smuggles in unlikely conclusions under a cloak of sham argument. It stems from the Sophists, ancient Greek teachers who allegedly taught their pupils how to win arguments by any means available; they were supposedly more interested in winning arguments than finding out the truth. Sophistry is a catch-all term for a whole range of dubious tricks including begging the question, circular arguments, equivocation, formal and informal fallacies and pseudo-profundity.

Trick #13 Shifting the Goalposts

Changing what is being argued for in mid-debate. Also known as ‘Threadjacking’, this is a very common move to avoid criticism. As soon as an arguer sees a position becoming untenable, she shifts the point of the discussion on to a related but more easily defended one.

Trick #14 Zig-Zagging

This is closely linked with Shifting the Goalposts. Zig-zagging involves hopping from one topic to another, typically from one relevant topic to another irrelevant one. This can be particularly frustrating in discussion because zig-zaggers never rest long enough on one topic for you to present your criticism; by the time you have started to put forward your objections, they are off on a different tack. Zig-zagging is often simply due to superficiality and not having the intellectual energy to follow any discussion through. This trick makes it almost impossible to engage in serious debate with the person because any criticism is likely to seem irrelevant to the topic currently under discussion.

Trick #15 Strawman

I have spoken extensively about this gem before. A strawman is a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position, created for the express purposes of being knocked down. You see, everybody needs a victory or two for purposes of morale. If real ones are nowhere to be had, the desperate debater will wallop out a straw man.

...Just another day on The Alpha Parent Facebook page...

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