Thursday, July 23, 2009

Response to Article: How Not to Talk About Health Care By Randy Cohen

Original Article:


I came upon this article from an acquaintance who chimed in on an online discussion of an opinion piece regarding on the Public Option for Healthcare. His thoughts were clearly pragmatic (which is not a compliment). "I am not sure how we can have reasoned debate when we can't agree on really basic facts like quality and cost of healthcare here vs elsewhere, incentive structures, etc etc."

I read Cohen's article and I have to say that I was most displeased with what I found. Cohen uses the language of someone trying to create a perception that he is enlightened and above the fray. Public discourse, he says, must be conducted with "intellectual integrity". What is intellectual integrity? He doesn't take time to explicitly define this explicitly but makes a reference to "respect for logic" as being some part of his foggy notion.

I decided to outline the ways in which I consider Cohen's article to be intellectually dishonest. Let's define our terms. What do I consider to be intellectual honesty? Specifically, I consider it to be loyalty to relevant and essential facts in argumentation and there are two factors that are generally manipulated in an intellectually dishonest argument:
- context: whether all of the facts pertaining to the subject are fully represented, or in the case of comparisons, whether two things are similar in all essential aspects. This is crucial because logic divorced from all pertinent facts is meaningless and/or dishonest
- essentiality: whether the evidence presented in the argument essential or non-essential. Honest arguments are made on essential facts and fundamental principles. Anything less is an attempt to hoodwink the reader.

So let's look at Cohen's article.

Mr. Cohen begins by stating that what the government is attempting to do by providing a public option is "[not] unusual in its general approach". And, keeping his context narrow, Cohen proceeds to give examples such as private schools existing in the presence of public schools. This argumentation is meant to dismiss the notion that there is any danger in the government's move into the private sector. Cohen does not discuss the nature of rights, why they are a fundamental requirement of a free society, and whether such a government action undercuts those rights. He sets out only to debunk argumentation against what the government intends to do without any discussion of whether it has any right to do anything of the sort.

Cohen uses absurd examples that make you say: "UMass destroying Harvard? Of Course Not! How Silly!" "New York Public Library put Barnes and Noble out of Business? Ridiculous!" And the while it's hard to disagree with minor points in his article, you may or may not notice that your agreement is part of a well-laid trap. Cohen's logical groupings are rigged so that a person reading his article uncritically and agrees with his strawman examples might also, by packaging, find absurd the idea that there is a negative impact to having a public option. He never states that conclusion explicitly. Well of course not: "health policy is beyond my purview" he says. But economics is, it would seem.

How does Cohen close? He includes a quote by Orwell which, loosely paraphrased, says: all political reasoning is suspect. What does Cohen prescribe in response? Aggressive Skepticism. Which basically means: doubt worship. He suggests that people be vigilant of deception, not that they should rigorously apply reason and learn all of the facts and arguments so that they may be certain that their position is correct. He arms his readers only with skepticism and doubt so that they may dismiss immediately any argument they might disagree with in the realm of political reasoning. This is intellectual bankruptcy.

There is one sentence that I found that I particularly I agreed with. Writes Cohen, "the prevaricator who sincerely believes his lie transforms it, at least to himself and his confreres, from deceit to ideology". I believe this is a psychological confession on the part of the author. The entire article is an example of the methods and logic of the intellectually disingenuous. I get the impression that Cohen doesn't think of himself that way, otherwise he might have guessed that the lens of intellectual integrity would be turned on himself and his own article's argumentation.