Psychoanalysis as a Debating Technique - Island of Sanity

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Public Debate

Psychoanalysis as a Debating Technique


There's a debating technique that is totally worthless, but that is nevertheless used all the time: psychoanalysis of one's opponent.

I saw an example recently where the subject is relatively non-controversial: An automotive website had an article that said that most Americans change the oil in their cars more often than necessary. (Stop Changing Your Oil) (I don't think this stirs the emotions like political and social issues.)

The most convincing argument on this subject that someone could make to me would be to do an experiment where they took cars of the same model and age and drove them side by side for many many miles, changing the oil at different intervals in the two cars. If the car with the less frequent oil changes broke down more often and had a shorter total life span, then that would be strong evidence that more frequent oil changes are necessary. If the two cars had similar rate and severity of failures, that would indicate that the frequency of oil change made no difference.

But the writer didn't discuss any such experiments. He briefly gave some theoretical arguments: Modern motor oils are chemically different from the motor oil of decades past and are designed to last longer and car engines are now designed with features intended to reduce friction and thus the need for lubrication. Okay. A theoretical argument like that is valid grounds for suspecting that something may be true, but it is not proof.

The bulk of the writer's argument was to discuss the motivation and psychology of people who disagree with them. Basically this came down to two arguments:

One, auto mechanics encourage their customers to get more frequent oil changes because it brings in business. They have a selfish motive. Well, okay, that's likely true, but it tells us nothing about whether the advice they give is true or false. Any product I buy results in income to the seller, and that seller has reason to encourage me to buy it. That's good reason to take the claims in their advertisements with a grain of salt, but it doesn't prove they're lying. A business can be giving me advice that's good for me and good for them at the same time.

He then pointed out that the owners manuals printed by the car manufacturers recommend less-frequent oil changes. But need I point out that, just as auto mechanics have a selfish motive to recommend frequent oil changes, car makers have a selfish motive to recommend less frequent oil changes: It lets them advertise their cars as requiring less maintenance. And after all, if the car does break down, you're going to buy replacement parts, possibly from them. If it shortens the life of the car, you'll buy a new one, thus giving them even more money. By suggesting less maintenance, they can appear to make their product cheaper (you spend less money on oil changes -- money that goes to someone else) while actually making it more expensive (you spend more money on replacement parts or even a new car -- money which goes to them).

We see this same type of argument in many political and social debates. If someone who disagrees with me is making a living out of this subject, that makes him biased. If someone who agrees with me is making a living out of this subject, that makes him an expert. If someone agrees with me, we should take whatever he says at face value. If someone disagrees with me, we must carefully examine his motives. He must have some secret, ulterior motive that makes everything he says suspect.

And then he said this: "Part of the blame for this over-servicing lies in our insecurities about increasingly complicated engines that are all but inaccessible to the average driver. ... Vehicles are so sophisticated that oil is one of the last things that customers can have a direct influence over." That is, drivers change their oil frequently, not for any rational reason, but because they have a psychological need to feel in control in a world that is growing too complicated for them to understand. Give me a break. I do many maintenance jobs on my car other than changing oil. I do not feel that my masculinity is being called into question when my car has a problem that I do not know how to fix. My self-esteem does not depend on my ability to fix car problems.

I hear this sort of argument all the time in public debate. If someone disagrees with me, it must be that he has some pathetic psychological weakness and he takes this position to justify himself or boost his crumbling ego or compensate for childhood trauma. It can't possibly be because he has rationally examined the facts and simply come to a different conclusion.

Even if it is true that some particular advocate of a position holds it for some irrational psychological reason -- he opposes Senator Smith's policy just because Senator Smith is a woman and he hates all women because his mother abandoned the family when he was 10 years old, or whatever -- so what? If he can present persuasive evidence that X is a good idea, whether his "real reasons" are the logical arguments he presents or some psychological problems he suffers may be very important to him and family, but they aren't relevant to me. Whether someone believes in the theory of gravity because he has carefully studied the theoretical physics behind it, because of a lifetime of pragmatic observations that things tend to fall when you drop them, or because he gets emotional satisfaction out of the idea that the Earth loves him and wants to hold him close, whichever way, the theory of gravity is still true.

If you think an idea is wrong, give me logical arguments or experimental evidence why it's wrong. Don't expect me to reject it just you can imagine possible ulterior motives on the part of your opponents. Certainly not because you can think of ways that belief in this idea might be a symptom of mental illness.


The point of this article wasn't to discuss oil changes, but to use an article on that subject as an example. But I can't help but make one side comment on oil changes. Namely: Until I see solid evidence that frequent oil changes are a total waste of time and money, I will continue to change my oil every 3000 miles, based on simple risk analysis. Suppose I am changing my oil more often than is necessary. What do I lose? When I change my oil myself, it costs me about $15. If I take it to a garage, it costs maybe $30. I do this four times per year. So the worst case is that I'm wasting something under $120 per year. On the other hand, suppose I started changing my oil less frequently. This could result in shortening the life of the car, or even causing a sudden dramatic failure. Given that a car today costs, what, $20,000 or so?, we're talking about wasting $120 versus wasting $20,000.

© 2012 by Jay Johansen


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