Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ferraro's Stupid Counterfactual

Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to appear on a Presidential ticket, has infamously said
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
What makes this counterfactual stupid is that, as David Lewis demonstrated in his book, Counterfactuals, one cannot, in attempting to determine the truth of a counterfactual ("If P, then Q", where "P" is false) simply alter the world in the single respect specified by the antecedent ("P" in our example) and see whether "Q" is true or not.

In point of fact, if you changed Obama into a White man, then he certainly wouldn't be in his current position because this is a state of affairs that began back when he, as a Black man, ran for the state assembly of Illinois. Its my understanding that he ran for that position while living in a predominantly Black legislative district. So, if you turned him into a White man, you will have put him in the very difficult position of winning a seat in a Black district against, presumably, a Black opponent. Now that could happen but it isn't likely. So, you would have to move him from that area to a White area. Of course, it would matter which area he was in. If you happened to make him Polish, you wouldn't want to put him in an Irish area or Italian area. As one can readily see, this way lies madness.

Scientists use counterfactuals in empirical research by controlling all of the parameters affecting the outcome of an event but for one, which they vary. In their hands, counterfactuals do not do harm. They are okay in the hands of other people trained in their use such as logicians, for instance, but shouldn't be used by the average, educated, even highly educated, person. This is specialist stuff. So, I hereby direct you not to make claims like, "If Hitler hadn't been born, Germany wouldn't have turned fascist." Or, "If I were better looking, Mary wouldn't have divorced me." You get the idea. Maybe the best rule is "NEVER USE A COUNTERFACTUAL." Nothing good can come from doing so.

One thing that pisses me off every time I hear it is when some White Middle-Class American Protestant male background makes some disparaging remark about the government providing support for poor Blacks or Hispanics or Appalachian Whites saying that they worked for what they have and these other people ought to have to do so too. I was born to White middle-class parents who did suffer economic setbacks, but my mother had an MA degree from Columbia and my father a BA from the University of Illinois. Already, I had one truly fundamental advantage over many of my peers -- all my life it was a given that I would go to college. And, indeed, I and my three siblings all got degrees from universities.

But I had another advantage, namely a rich uncle who said that if I could get into Rice University, I could stay for free at his home in Houston (one long block from River Oaks, the classiest neighborhood in Houston at the time. I got in, and my degree from Rice helped me get into MIT. I could go on and on specifying major advantages I had, some of which I had to work hard to exploit, but which wouldn't have been available to 95% (wild guess) of the American people. Oh, yes, we can add to my advantages that I was born in late 30's in the United States, rather than in Russia.

Ferraro had become addle pated. She needs to be ignored by everyone. One of the funniest aspects of this is that twice she tried to win a Senate seat but failed both times. Obama tried once and succeeded and he succeed in a state that is predominately White.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

That is exactly one of the main arguments we are getting from some people in a recent excessive use of force case we drew attention to, to point out the need for Police accountability. Our detractors reasoning often is, "If he hadn't resisted arrest he wouldn't have gotten his neck broken."

The trouble I find with those counterfactuals is people want to believe them.
What I mean is people so readily want to take the easy way out.

Unfortunately, I've found It's beyond my pea brain to intelligently explain the fallacy of counterfactual arguments to anyone, esp. if they don't want to listen.

I think you are right, the best way to counter it is to ignore it. Actually, in our case by focusing on Police accountability, I can counter it easily by saying, "What does this have to do with Police accountability? What does this have to do with the fact there were no witnesses & no audio or video tape of the actual arrest?"

3:26 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In a case like this you can say that perhaps the officer(s) might not have used force had he not resisted arrest but he didn't have to use a degree of force that caused his neck to be broken.

5:01 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

True. We have said that, unfortunately the victim had a bit of bone degeneration, he is almost 60 & not real healthy, he only weighed 140 lbs. at the time so in their minds it is still his fault.

I could counter by saying, "If officer W. hadn't quit teaching school to become a Police officer & officer B. stayed home sick that day, Mr. F. wouldn't of had his neck broken."

Or, "If a butterfly in Japan had taken a different flight path..."

11:48 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

You might point out that if an ordinary citizen dies of a heart attack during a home invasion, the perps would be charged with manslaughter at the very least even though they didn't know he had heart issues. The cops are culpable for something even though they didn't know he had spinal issues.

7:28 AM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I can't see why all counterfactuals should be considered so dangerous. What about claims like "If Jim had never tried cocaine for the first time, he would not have become a cocaine addict." I know it's almost tautological, but it is a valid conclusion.

The other thing about the statement on Obama is that it makes a claim of the form "if person X were not person X," which only makes good sense if you are a dualist. Similarly puzzling are wistful thoughts like "If only I were Her Majesty the Queen."

7:47 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

le vent, the problem with your counterfactual, "If Jim had never tried cocaine for the first time, he would not have become a cocaine addict" is that it is what you say it is -- a near tautology. Were it a tautology, it would be empirically empty. However, it isn't actually true.

Jim might never have tried cocaine but become addicted were someone to force him to take intervenous injections until he is addicted. Never mind why. He didn't in that case try cocaine -- it was forced on him. Now, you could revise your counterfactual until it got harder and harder for me to defeat by a counter-example but then you would be constructing just the sort of thing that empirical scientists do -- control for all but one of the variables and test it. You surely could do that in this case since there is probably a true conterfactual you are in the ball park off.

8:40 PM


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