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Psychiatrist Scott Alexander blogs at SlateStarCodex.com:
I remember one time one of my patients missed a session because his flight back from vacation was delayed. I told my supervisor this and he got angry with me, saying it was superficial to blame it on the flight instead of talking about which of my comments had triggered the patient and made him decide to miss his plane. I insisted that we’d had a perfectly good session the week before, that the delayed plane had just been a delayed plane, and me and my supervisor got angrier and angrier at each other for both missing what the other thought was the point. Finally I got on the Internet and managed to prove that my patient’s plane really had been delayed to the point where it was impossible for him to have made my appointment, at which point my supervisor switched the discussion to why it was so important to me to believe that his plane had been delayed that I would do an Internet search about it, and whether I was trying to defend against the unbearable notion that my patient might ever voluntarily miss one of our sessions. …
But this method also reminds me of something else. This is Christopher Hitchens:
“I think Hannah Arendt said that one of the great achievements of Stalinism was to replace all discussion involving arguments and evidence with the question of motive. If someone were to say, for example, that there are many people in the Soviet Union who don’t have enough to eat, it might make sense for them to respond, “It’s not our fault, it was the weather, a bad harvest or something.” Instead it’s always, “Why is this person saying this, and why are they saying it in such and such a magazine? It must be that this is part of a plan.”
The avoidance of object-level discussion in favor of meta-level discussion can get really nasty, really quickly. … This can be more insidious when complaints are less dramatic and less binary – I know a lot of psychiatrists who will respond to people saying their medication isn’t working (or is causing side effects), with analyzing their motives for wanting to piss off their psychiatrist or stay unhealthy. And finally, this is absolutely fatal to any kind of complicated social discussion – the thing where instead of debating someone else’s assertion, you bulverize what self-interest or privilege causes them to believe it.
The Bulverist assumes a speaker’s argument is invalid or false and then explains why the speaker came to make that mistake, attacking the speaker or the speaker’s motive. The term “Bulverism” was coined by C. S. Lewis to poke fun at a very serious error in thinking that, he alleges, recurs often in a variety of religious, political, and philosophical debates.
I get this all the time: What kind of horrible character flaw must have motivated me to have learned so many quantitative facts and have thought so logically about the topic that everybody agree is important: diversity?