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There’s a nasty rhetorical trick I’ve been seeing lately, which involves making a (weak) argument, then stating that opposition to the argument will occur for a particular reason, and then attacking that reason.  For instance, here’s Matt Yglesias, after citing a study that alleges wage discrimination based on gender:

Some people are going to be very resistant to this conclusion. They’ll think that in a competitive labor market with many employers and many workers, employers who discriminate against women in their salary offerings will be at a disadvantage. No firm will want to disadvantage itself in this way, thus the discrimination shouldn’t exist. Consequently, this apparently [sic] effect is almost certainly due to some other variable that’s not accounted for. So it’s worth pointing out that by this logic, the gender disparity in employment that existed in 1961 wouldn’t exist either. But obviously it did.

Yglesias is being intellectually lazy here, and by prematurely denouncing his opponents as partisan hacks, he becomes one himself.  In order to have intelligent dialog, thinking liberals–a term I’d normally use to describe Yglesias–need to engage their thinking conservative opponents.  Arguments opposing Matt Yglesias’s position are not constrained by Matt Yglesias’s ability to imagine opposing arguments.  Indeed, it’s possible to resist the study he cites without relying on the neoclassical theory of labor markets in its purest form.  For instance, there’s this study, which pegs gender-based wage discrimination at 5-7%, rather than 17%.

I’m not arguing that gender-based wage discrimination doesn’t exist.  I’m confident it does.  And that’s a bad thing.  But it does a disservice to the cause to cite one study from amongst many and then cut off opponents by accusing them of bad faith.

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  1. […] about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which world problems are most worthy […]

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