September 2, 2008 § 2 Comments
If you were to read an article citing an epidemiological study that said, “Eating too many potato chips causes heart disease”, there’s a good chance you would take it as the truth and cut back (or cut out) your potato chip intake. I mean, why not, right? After all, the article’s conclusion aligns with your general observations of the world that people who eat a lot of potato chips tend to not be healthy people.
The problem, though, is that the conclusion isn’t always true. Heck, it may not even be true most of the time. Hypothetically, if 100,000 people eat potato chips every day and 20,000 get heart disease, it would be just as true to say that “80% of people who eat way too many potato chips don’t even get heart disease.” So the only thing that’s really true there—the moral, if you will—is that it doesn’t seem like potato chips are all that good for you and you shouldn’t eat them too often.
So how can epidemiologists (think: epidemic) declare such a cause-effect relationship? Crudely, the way they would have figured out the potato chip-heart disease link would be looking at a bunch of people with heart disease and a bunch of people who don’t have it and looking to see what was different about the people with heart disease. They looked closer and saw that those who ate too many potato chips got heart disease at a higher rate than those who didn’t eat many potato chips. And voila! We have cause.
On the other side, laboratory scientists do the exact opposite to establish cause: They go in to a lab, perform an experiment with a known set of variables and try to produce the same result over and over and over again until they can say, “We know, through rigorous experimentation, that this is true.” And this is how the entire world of public health studies pretty much works—a constant battle between population studies and laboratory science. (As a side note: Epidemiology wasn’t even considered a “science” until the 1960s when epidemiologists linked smoking to lung cancer.)
The potato chip example is true not only in scientific debates of all kinds, it’s also true in argument: One viewpoint comes from the top and looks for patterns (epidemiology), the other comes from the bottom and looks for exacting, direct evidence (lab science).
Take the issue of climate change. There are many people who look at climate change and don’t question the validity of it. Their general experience points them to the idea that, indeed, the weather seems to be changing and there is a great deal of carbon and other gases we’re spewing into the atmosphere that wouldn’t be there if not for us. So, humans are causing the climate to change because we know these gases cause these problems and we should curtail them to prevent all these hurricanes, fires, floods, and skin cancer.
These would be your epidemiologists, inferring cause from pattern.
On the other hand, those who deny climate change (or at least question how much we are responsible for it), say that, indeed, maybe those gases do have a greenhouse effect and interrupt some part of the ecosystem, but how much do those have an effect? Is it possible the earth is just going through a natural cycle of warming? What can we reasonably expect from the climate and atmosphere? And all those hurricanes and fires and floods? We just have better equipment to monitor them, better communication to alert of them, and the internet and 24 hour news to sensationalize them.
These people would be your laboratory scientists, inferring cause only from known variables and repeatability.
And for the people who believe in climate change, those who question it are morally reprehensible, close-minded, dangerous morons. And for those who question climate change, those who don’t question it are irresponsible, reactionary, touchy-feely, emotional nincompoops.
What a world, huh?
And what does this have to do with argumentation tactics in politics? Glad you asked.
In argument, the tactic of the laboratory scientist is to pull a problem apart, to expose flaws in an argument, belief, or policy. The tactic of the epidemiologist is to shorten a problem by finding overarching patterns pointing to factors that are either problematic or successful. And the politicians will use these tactics over and over again in the battle for your hearts, minds, and ultimately, your vote.
They will do it on health care. They will do it on foreign policy. Religion. Iraq. Energy.”Experience”. Age. Economic policy. Everything. A constant battle back and forth between epidemiology and laboratory science.
While it is tempting to say the Democrats are epidemiologists and Republicans are lab scientists, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, each party has its own unique mix of issues that they view “epidemiologically” or “laboratorally” and they will refute each other using whichever technique is most prudent at the time.
So, as you watch the debates, read quotes, and watch speeches, remember that just as a laboratory scientist caught up in detail might miss the big picture and the epidemiologist might miss the important detail that ruins a theory, so will politicians from time to time. They will then try to place each other in a position to either look like a morally reprehensible, close-minded, dangerous moron or an irresponsible, reactionary, touchy-feely, emotional nincompoop.
Don’t fall for it.