Policy rhetoric, or fallacy-hunting?

When someone makes an argument or does a study that has a policy implication you dislike, it’s natural to attack the argument or the study to show either that it’s wrong on its own terms or that it doesn’t support the policy inference.

(Of course, the argument might be right and the inference valid so far as it goes, but there might be reasons to pursue some different policy due to considerations the argument doesn’t address.)

It’s also natural to make the reverse inference: that someone who criticizes an argument or a study must oppose whatever policy the argument seems to support: that the critique is simply a trope of policy rhetoric.

If the critic is a politician or an advocate, that inference-to-motive is likely correct: criticism of arguments is part of the stuff of policy debate. But if the critic is an academic or a policy analyst, the inference-to-motive might be wrong.

I teach policy analysis for a living; blogging is an adjunct to that enterprise, as well as to my political activity. I have a bunch of strongly-held political beliefs and policy opinions, but I also have a strong commitment to rational discourse about public affairs. Like GBS’s imagined democratic citizen, I actually resent a fallacy as much as I do an insult.

So when a marijuana-legalization advocate says “Cannabis kills no one” and I respond by calling bullsh*t, it’s not because I hate the idea of marijuana legalization. And when a drug warrior says, “Marijuana use reduces IQ” and I point out that the underlying study only applies to very heavy and very persistent cannabis use starting in mid-adolescence – that there’s absolutely no evidence of IQ loss from the marijuana smoking of 90% or more of all marijuana smokers – it’s not because I want to see free commerce in marijuana.

I also know, from bitter experience, that passionate advocates find this completely impossible to believe. Projecting from their own behavior, they are convinced that no one makes an argument merely because he or she thinks that argument true. On this view, if you’re not engaged in rhetorical battle – offering all arguments, true or false, on one side and rejecting all arguments on the other – then you must be engaged in some low form of personal positioning for career advantage. And the claim that there is relatively dispassionate analysis, as distinguished from advocacy, strikes true-believing advocates as the ultimate in bad faith: if not deception, then self-deception.

So there are people who sincerely believe (and others who pretend to believe) that I’m a closet drug warrior pursuing a sadistic and authoritarian agenda, and merely pretending to be a careful analyst of the consequences of alternative policies in order to deceive he unwary into taking my arguments seriously. And there are people who believe that, in my heart of hearts, I’m a full-on legalizer, making occasional prohibitionist noises just to maintain my political currency and access to funding.

And there’s not a damned thing I can do about it, except to say that it ain’t so, and to argue with particular ferocity against false arguments offered in support of the policy positions I actually hold.

[This has a slightly different twist in straight politics. No sane person thinks that when I criticize particular attacks on conservatives it’s because I’m a closet conservative, but the accusation of disloyalty and careerism is always available to those who think that the dirtiest political rhetoric is always the most effective and that those who criticize their own side’s dirt are over-fastidious.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

51 thoughts on “Policy rhetoric, or fallacy-hunting?”

  1. Do you think it should be lawful for adults to buy and sell cannabis, opium, coca etc?

    A simple yes or no answer will suffice.

    1. I really hope you see the irony in you posting this comment as a response to this post. I really, really do.

      1. In turn, I hope both you and Mr. Kleiman see the irony in both the OP and your answer when the following quote from Mr. Kleiman is still on the front page: “Footnote And can we hear some more about how it’s only the dumb drug laws that convert the purely personal, medical problem of drug abuse into a criminal-justice problem?”

        I absolutely agree with this post’s point about rational policy rhetoric and toning down personal insinuations/attack. For a question such as drug legalization policy analysis cannot make policy choices however; that can only be done by the polity. And policy analysis can only proceed when there is an honest enumeration of the options and the differing opinions of segments of the polity. Torching straw men doesn’t lead to less heating rhetoric.


        1. Doesn’t the presence of irony in Dr. Kleiman’s statement depend on which straw man he was torching? What if he did not mean to torch a pro-legalization straw man but instead meant to torch an activist with tunnel-vision regardless of which side the activist was on? Torching the straw men on both sides of the issue was sort of the point of the post. It would make sense to for him to use the pro-legalization argument as the example because this is a left-of-center political blog as well. When was the last time you saw the drug warrior straw man show up and start posting comments around here? When straw men show up in the comments section on the rbc, they are almost always pro-leg.

    2. There are lots of people who can give you one-word answers to that question if that’s all you’re looking for. Why on Earth would you go looking for someone who’s known to offer much more complicated answers and then demand short ones? It comes across as some kind of sneering anti-intellectual pose.

    1. Right; as in Fellini’s “8 1/2” where a journalist asks in English (with an American accent of course) “Do you or don’t you believe in God?”

  2. Requiring a yes or no answer is an inquisitor’s trick, not the question of someone who actually wants to know or understand the mind of the person they are asking. Pretending that legalizing cocaine and opium is a no-brainer does nothing to promote your agenda, but functions admirably as a sign to others that your comments should be ignored. Maybe you should try another approach?

    1. Kevin,

      The question was:

      Should it be lawful?


      Is legalising cocaine and opium a no-brainer?

      Here’s another example:

      Q: Should it be lawful to buy and sell grapes?
      A: Yes

      See how easy that was?

      1. By the way, it should not be lawful to sell grapes that have been grown in contaminated soil and give people lead poisoning or to pass rotten grapes off as fresh grapes.

        So just in case of misunderstanding, when I ask the question:

        Should it be lawful to buy and sell grapes?

        And when my answer to that questions is ‘yes’, it does not mean I think it should be lawful to sell grapes under absolutely any circumstance.

        This should be blindingly obvious.

        1. Well so much for simple yes or no answers. Seems even the issue of grape sales has nuance and qualifiers. Whoda thunk.

      2. Do you have a brother who follows you around arguing with you on blogs or something? Because my name is not Kevin, nor has it ever been in my memory. I would be most surprised to find we had ever met in real life… Although I do remember you from a previous post on this same website concerning the same topic. I am aware of the fact that it is relatively easy to type a two or three letter word, but a yes or no answer could never be given to your question by a thoughtful person. The answer would depend on some intangibles which vary from person to person (importance of personal liberty vs. public health for example) and some tangibles which are not presently known by mortals (how much would the rate of use of substance x increase with the legalization of substance x). It is not a question that should be answered with a simple yes or no. People come here to read expert opinion concerning these issues and discuss that opinion. They do not come here to try to administer some sort of a litmus test to the blogger… or at least the rest of us do not.

        1. My question has absolutely nothing to do with rates of use and other tangibles which are not presently known by mortals. It is a philosophy of law question. A cost/benefit anaylsis can’t tell us whether truancy (for instance) ought to be criminal. Stastics can only tell us whether the rates of truancy change if the policy does and whether the policy meets its stated objective.

          Take the following question:

          Should same sex sex be lawful or unlawful?

          Can you answer that question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or do you feel the urge to qualify your answer along the lines of: “yes, as long as isn’t performed on stage in front of school students and as long as the prevalence of HIV doesn’t increase”.

          1. I find it extremely disturbing that you think consensual contact between adults and the distribution of heroin are similar activities. In the case of legalization of cocaine and heroin, the qualifying statements that you think are worthless garbage actually involve massive changes, many of them damaging, to our society. If you really want to try to sell people on the idea that there is as much right to appropriate sexual activity as there is to shooting up heroin, be my guest; just don’t hold your breath waiting for the applause. I think the government should hold a monopoly on the distribution of cannabis and that everyone over the age of 18 should be able to buy it, but I am not at all in favor of pretending that there will be no negative consequences (it makes us look stupid and petulant). You objected to my use of the term no-brainer to describe your view of legalization, and yet apparently you believe it is a philosophy of law question. It follows that you actually do believe it is a no-brainer; you apparently believe society has no place in regulating any transactional or sensation-seeking behavior that is not directly tied to violent crime. Am I wrong? And if not, why did you object?

          2. @Student

            I find it extremely distrubing that you don’t think the transaction between buyer and seller of heroin is not a consensual one. The fact that making this transaction ‘lawful’ may involve ‘massive change’ is good. Things should change.

            “you apparently believe society has no place in regulating any transactional or sensation-seeking behavior”

            No, I very much believe society has a place in regulating activities. I just happen to think that regulation and prohibition are fundamentally distinct regimes and I object to governments drawing a line between criminal and lawful acts wherever they choose (as has been the case re: cannabis, coca, opium etc).

          3. I thought it was obvious that I meant consensual sexual contact. And to use a phrase you are so fond of, yes it is blindingly obvious that the transaction between heroin dealer and buyer is consensual in the basic sense, so be not disturbed. However, your analysis here implies that homosexual sex is the same kind of thing in general as heroin dealing and heroin consumption, which is clearly absurd. If you do not think they are the same general kind of thing, bringing up homosexual sex as a counter-argument made no sense at all… so you sort of wrote yourself into a bind there. Consuming or distributing alcohol, on the other hand, is the same general kind of thing as consuming or distributing other intoxicants. Notice how bars have to obtain business licenses but homosexuals do not have to obtain homosexual licenses? That is because you are the only person in the world who would tie the right to shoot up heroin with the right to express oneself sexually. Once again, I recommend that you drop that line of reasoning as nobody is going to give a flying f**k what you say until you start being reasonable.

            Neither opium nor cocaine is schedule 1, and so to argue that they are prohibited rather than regulated is to take the wrong end of a semantics argument. As for cannabis, everyone with a brain knows it should not be schedule 1, you are going to find no opposition to that here. Would it help you if I had said that you apparently believe that the government has no right to ban any sensation-seeking behavior if there is no non-self direct victim? You are dismissing the probable effects of legalization because you believe that it should be settled on morally before anyone even starts to think of the consequences. Some moral principles are worth a certain amount of practical damage and inefficiency, but is it always the case? Are you also for a flat percentage of income tax with no progressive features (one could argue that should be self-evident at the moral level and the consequences be damned)? Do you oppose the estate tax? Why apply libertarianism only to drug laws? Are you also against all aid to internal improvements?

          4. And I specifically said that many of the massive changes would be damaging. I do not think society should be damaged just to make you feel personally comfortable with the moral basis of our drug laws. History may well end up vindicating your position. The war on drugs is awful, the relationship between the police and the people is disgracefully hostile given the amount of freedom we do enjoy. It is horrible that drug users are put in jail. However, if you do end up being right, in my mind you will have arrived there for the wrong reasons. If legalizing cocaine is a good idea, it is because the rate of use would not increase enough to blot out the benefits we would see. Likewise with heroin. If you end up being right, it will be because of those tangibles that no mortal knows… and that is exactly what this blog is for. People come here to read guesses about the tangibles by experts, not to be told by a commenter that possession of absolute moral knowledge leads instantly to the legalization of all intoxicants.

      3. @Strayan

        Please recall Dr. Kleiman’s advice on another post

        We’re proud to have maintained an extraordinarily civil – though hardly conflict-free – comments section. That’s been much less true on drug-related posts, with a fairly high rate of bullying behavior from the pro-legalization side. There are plenty of places for anti-drug-warriors to vent in peace; Pete Guither runs one. But the RBC is not such a place.

        The web is a big place and Mark has made clear where the kid’s table is — please go there and stop bothering the grown-ups. Thanks.

        1. Armand

          So far, the only incivility that I can detect is being labelled simple-minded, likened to an inquisitor and a sneering anti-illectual.

          What about my posts offends you?

          1. Asking for a yes or no answer when you know the witness would want to give a fuller one IS an inquisitor’s trick, especially if your intent is to over-simplify the issue.

        2. @Armand: I’ve been active on both blogs for years. Pete Guither’s DrugWarRant.com is no more “the kid’s table” than the RBC is. Pete has very similar “play nice” commenting guidelines which he enforces, and which aren’t breached any more often there than they are here. I’ve seen folks from this community rebuked for poor behavior in the comment section there, as well as folks from the DWR community rebuked here. Pete is similarly committed to factual analysis of the issues. While they rarely agree on much, my take is that Pete and Mark are in far less disagreement over what drug policy should end up looking like than they are about how to get there from here, but both seem highly dissatisfied with the status quo and committed to advocating for improvements.

          You may not like the questions Strayan is asking or the way they were phrased, but I don’t think you can cite incivility, bullying, name-calling, or any of the “play nice” rules and reasonably say he has violated one. Simply saying “yes or no will suffice” is not the same as saying “I demand you reduce your complex analysis to a simple answer”, and Mark is free to choose to respond with a simple answer, a complex one, or as it seems he has chosen, not at all. The rest of us are free to ignore it, give our own answers, or criticize the structure of the question. I fail to see the problem here.

          1. it’s hilarious that you think drugwarrant and pete wtf his name is represents anything similar to what mark put together here, even though he can be annoying too

      4. strayan –

        Your initial simple question actually consisted of three parts (eliding the “will suffice” part which, too, struck me as a bit snide). Unless you truly believe functional / practical equivalency of these three substances, which I suppose is implied in the question but not explicitly stated. I imagine this is the reason for the negative reception your first comment received. And more importantly, why I think your regression to the vintner’s mean is specious.

        Let me ask what I think is more the functional equivalent:

        Should same sex, polygamous, & beastial marriage be lawful?

        1. Thinking further, I have another simple question for you:

          Should killing another human be legal? A yes or no answer will suffice.

          Sure there are complexities to consider (i.e., the difference between shooting a stranger in the back in a fit of pique and shooting an armed home intruder threatening your family), but the demand for an answer drawn from a binary palette renders them moot.

          In other words, choosing a (insofar as I know) non-controversial counter-example of the legality of commerce in grapes seems somewhat disengenous because it doesn’t really map to the more difficult policy questions in a relevant way.

  3. As an environmental advocate, the tendency to argue in bad faith is the thing that drives me craziest about both environmental advocates and our opponents.

    1. It’s not a bad faith issue, but along the lines of the OP, I’m concerned about all the emphasis of record heat in the continental US in 2012. I’m a committed believer in the climate science mainstream, but the lower 48 is a small part of the planet and one year is a short time period. People should be drawing conclusions from the much broader evidence than that one outcome.

      1. Brian, read the NYT article on this, nad note three things:
        1). This record was 1 full dgree over the previous record, set i. 1998.
        2). The difference between 1998 and the record low year (1917) was4.2 degrees; the difference between 1998 and 2012 was 1 degree. This is unprecedented.
        3) The gloabal temperatures are expected to give us the 8th or 9th highest year on record.
        4). 2012 was a La Nina year, which depresses global temps, including in the USA. This means that all of this happened at a *low* point in the cycle.

    2. This, (excuse me) *fucking* this.

      As a first-order effect of what Mark is describing, knowledgable, interested bystanders like me are driven out of the debate. You’re left with (when discussing pot) burn-the-hippies radicals one one side, and pot-will-cure-everything on the other.

      I have a demanding day job that has nothing to do with drug (or abortion, environmental issues, prison, or a host of other issues I care about) policy. I try to engage in discussion to stay informed and provide what I can, and the shouty people make that very difficult.

      Democracy seems to have a problem when division of labor reaches a certain point of specialization. Not that I have an answer.

  4. And the claim that there is relatively dispassionate analysis, as distinguished from advocacy, strikes true-believing advocates as the ultimate in bad faith: if not deception, then self-deception.

    What’s the strategy to try to ensure that it’s not self-deception?

    1. Before seeking new data, try to decide what facts would make your theory less trustworthy. If no facts could occur that would count against your theory, you are probably doing something wrong.

      For example, I don’t expect to see a duck have sex with an otter and give birth to a platypus, but if I did, I’d start to have serious concerns about Darwin’s theory of evolution.

        1. Sure. If you try hard enough, you can lie to yourself about just about anything. See: young-earth creationists.

          But you were asking about a strategy to ensure that it’s not self-deception, which would seem to indicate that you’re at least willing to consider the possibility that you’re fallible and are looking for a way to guard against that. And if you want that, the scientific method has a reasonable set of safeguards, e.g.:

          (1) The requirement that theories are falsifiable in principle.
          (2) The requirement that results are independently reproducible.
          (3) The requirement that result are based on measurable evidence.
          (4) Review of results by independent parties.

          This does not make self-deception impossible, but as the scientific method is designed to minimize the impact of subjective beliefs and biases, it also makes self-deception hard.

          1. Those criteria don’t apply neatly in drug policy which is the field of interest here – a combination of pharmacology, psychology/sociology/criminology and economics. Barring maybe the first of those constituent disciplines, the rest aren’t noted exemplars of the kind of rigour and empirical robustness that the scientific method implies.

          2. The problem is that recreational drug policy is based on choices that can’t be analyzed via policy analysis [1]. If one believes that moderate consumption of mood altering substances is “immoral” and that the awesome coercive power of the state should be used to prevent such consumption, and believes that the assumption of immorality of drug use is strong enough to override various personal liberty provisions of the Constitution, then you aren’t going to be much swayed by arguments about whether marijuana use is more or less dangerous to various cohorts (including teenagers, where my personal observation is that MJ is far less damaging that alcohol). If one believes that visitation of brutal punishment to transgressors is a fundamental goal of society, and a fundamentally good thing (almost regardless of what the transgression is), then one won’t care about cost/benefit analysis of incarceration rates. And of course if one’s livelihood depends on a privatized prison-industrial complex one is not likely to support even allowing onto the ballot the question of decriminalization of anything.

            One can argue that society should be presented with good policy analysis to help it make the fundamental choices, and I agree with that. But people disagree about stuff, and no amount of decision tree analysis will change that.


            [1] IIRC when we had the “printing date of your copy of _Primer for Policy Analysis_” here at RBC a couple of years ago mine was the second-oldest listed in the comments, so I’m by no means opposed to the concept.

          3. Cranky Observer is largely correct, it’s a point I’ve made many times.


            The implication though (apology if I am misreading) is that only one side in policy debates has morals. Everyone does, even though they may try to hide them by saying things like “Will we have science or ideology?” as if science could produce policy on its own without human actors and all the subjectivity that comes with them. To say that drug use is inherently bad is a moral stance, so is saying that government should not interfere in the lives of citizens.

          4. daksya, Cranky: Those are problems that are orthogonal to self-deception. Self-deception implies that there’s something that one can be objectively wrong about.

            If you want to point out that there are unfalsifiable aspects to drug policy (e.g., ethical concerns), I don’t disagree. But that’s something entirely different from self-deception. And, to get back to Mark’s bigger point: You can factor out metaphysical concerns and perform dispassionate analysis modulo those concerns. E.g., you could do an objective estimate that a given drug policy has a given effect with a certain probability and some margin of error, and then weigh that result by your subjective preferences (obviously, that subjective factor can be both positive and negative, too, depending on whether you think the effect is good or bad).

          5. Self-deception implies that there’s something that one can be objectively wrong about.

            No, just whether one thinks if one’s cognition is self-transparent enough.

  5. My issue with the good professor and this “I’m just a neutral policy analyst” thing is that

    “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
    ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

    Dispassionate policy analysis in the face of the American gulag supports the gulag system. THAT is the problem.

    1. Why force a choice between caring passionately about things and thinking carefully? I find our over-use of incarceration revolting, but I still want to respond intelligently, for example releasing people who don’t need to be in prison but not those who will rape and murder….you could say I suppose that I am therefore not passionate enough. But I think there’s a good case for NOT making hugely consequential public policy decisions entirely on the basis of passion, minds turned off. Many policies have been passed that way and produce worse results that what came before, even in the eyes of their advocates.

      More parochially, what would RBC be adding to public discourse by re-packaging itself as one of a thousand sites where people scream about drug policy, demean science, and are hostile to critical thinking? We have no comparative advantage there…if someone wants that, they can go to many places for it. People come here for something different: serious policy analysis and research evidence. And we are up front about that, so anyone who comes here signs up for what we are and can’t get mad at us for not being comfort food

      1. Take it a step further and remember that passion rather than reason is what caused the war on drugs and hence the “American gulag,” as you so colorfully put it. If you are familiar with the bulk of Dr. Kleiman’s advocacy of late, it has been focused on the benefits of moving eligible convicts out of locked down facilities and into community correction situations. If you are on of those people who took 1984 and the X-files too seriously you might be worried about the use of ankle-monitoring in America today, but those programs would have non-violent offenders working in their communities and spending their nights at home with their families. Sounds like HOPE and 24/7 and other ideas Dr. Kleiman advocates would be massive blows to the so-called American gulag. How many times does he need to write the words “punishment should be considered a cost” before you realize that he has been arguing that the entire time?

  6. Dear Professor Kleiman:

    For what it is worth, IMHO you are a very even handed and honest analyst of drug policy, and anyone who doesn’t recognize you as such is a fool, and likely not worth your time. My opinion is based upon both reading your written work, (both in your books and here on the blog), and also from the one time, many years back, when I called you at your office to ask a few questions and you patiently explained what the research showed.

    That said, I will repeat from my earlier comment that being even handed in this debate can itself a form of bias, because the harms from prohibition are (mostly) coercive, and the harms from legalization are (mostly) self-imposed. I do believe you suffer from this form of bias, but, admittedly, I have not read every word you have ever written or listened to every word you have ever spoken, so I could be wrong.

    If I am, I would love to see a post demonstrating the depths of my ignorance on the main blog where you directly address the distinction between self-inflicted harms and coercively inflicted harms, and whether or not you believe the distinction should inform and/or weigh upon the policy debate over marijuana legalization.


  7. Dan Kahan’s latest post at the Cultural Cognition Project describes some interesting research suggesting that “individuals who are high in political knowledge are especially likely to display motivated reasoning and thus to be especially resistant to a simple ‘sound information’ bombardment strategy” and in many of those cases “The effect of being exposed to the [factual] message on high knowledge subjects actually made those with pro-[position] sentiments credit […] false statements even more strongly than their counterparts in the ‘uncorrected” or control condition’, and in those cases “Responding to partisan misinformation with truth is akin to trying to douse a grease fire with water!”.

    It’s interesting to note that the effect seems to hold even in the “argue with particular ferocity against false arguments offered in support of the policy positions I actually hold” case.

  8. Very interesting observations. An enjoyable read. Sadly, any topic choice connotes an agenda. So even the most guileless and well-intentioned rhetorical analyst will be viewed as making a political statement irrespective of intent. All commentary is seized upon as the remarks of either a friend or foe. It raises the issue of whether all public discourse is doomed to partisanship and we are dragged into the fray and forced to defend ourselves regarding some illusionary allegiance.

Comments are closed.