Tu quoque

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[2], [3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

Now let’s look at the tu quoque in a bit more detail. First, there’s the claim that the left is just as anti-science as the right. Of the three examples, anti-vaxerism can be dismissed most easily. US presentations of this argument (it’s rarely made in Oz) invariably focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is indeed an anti-science loon. But the only notable thing about RFK jr is that he happens to share his name with his famous father. He’s never held, or even stood for, elective office of any kind. By contrast, prominent Republican politicians included Michelle Bachmann and Dan Burton have pushed anti-vax rhetoric. At one time, the generally leftish Huffington Post ran a lot of anti-vax stuff. But they came under sustained pressure from the pro-science left, and have now abandoned this almost entirely. The only recent anti-vax piece I could find came from Lawrence Solomon, a right wing climate denier (more on this later) And survey evidence suggests that anti-vaxerism, like other conspiracy theories, is more prevalent among Republicans. A PPP poll reports that 26 per cent of Republicans believe that vaccines cause autism, compared to 16 per cent of Democrats.

Next, there’s nuclear power. As we’ve discussed, policy choices regarding nuclear power raise a wide range of issues, few of which can be answered by referring to peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The right wing claim (usually implied rather than spelt out) is that the left is opposed to nuclear power because of unjustified fears about health risks and accidents. The standard straw person here, filling the role of RFK Jr in the antivax debate, is Helen Caldicott. The problems with the right wing claim are numerous

* First, the left as a whole does not take any unified view on this question. Most obviously, the Obama Administration in the US has promoted nuclear power as part of an “all of the above” approach to climate change, and has received little in the way of pushback from the broader US left (compare the intensity of the campaign against Keystone XL with the handful of desultory protests against nuclear plants currently under construction)

* Second, while some on the left may have opposed nuclear power for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny, they at least got closer to the correct answer on the broader question of whether nuclear power is a sensible solution to our energy problems. It is the political right who have proved immune to evidence on this question. Despite the fact that no country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period, and that investors everywhere have abandoned the technology, the belief that nuclear power is a solution to our problems, being blocked only by crazy greenies, remains a cornerstone of rightwing tribal identity.

* Finally, even on the narrow question of accident risks, it’s hard to reach a conclusive answer. Nuclear meltdowns are rare but extreme events. No one can say for sure that the worst accidents we’ve seen so far (TMI,Chernobyl and Fukushima) encompass the worst that can possibly happen. These are complex engineering questions on which science doesn’t have a lot to say. Alleged experts who claimed to know for sure (notably Barry Brook in relation to Fukushima and the pre-TMI Rasmussen report on nuclear safety in the US) ended up with egg on their faces. My own judgement is that accident risks alone aren’t enough to reject nuclear power, but the cost of the safety precautions required to prevent accidents is part of the reason nuclear power is inefficient.

Evolution and creationism provide an even more interesting case. Until relatively recently, beliefs about evolution were largely uncorrelated with political affiliation. But creationism is now a Republican political issue, and beliefs are lining up accordingly, with Republicans supporting biblical literalism and Democrats mostly supporting theistic evolution[4]

Finally, there is the question of Genetic Modification (GM) technology. This is the strongest point of the rightwing tu quoque. Greenpeace, for example, is guilty as charged of being anti-science on this issue. But Greenpeace and likeminded groups are only a minority among Greens who are, in turn, only a minority of the Left.

There are a variety of reasons for being concerned about the assertion of corporate ownership over genetic resources of which GM is (a relatively small) part, and for allowing consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods (regardless of whether there are objective reasons to prefer non-GM to GM, or vice versa). But outright opposition to GM based on spurious claims about health risks is definitely a minority position.

Turning to tribalism, it is silly to point to criticism of figures like Murdoch and Rinehart as tribalist. They are powerful people who use their power (derived from wealth) to advocate bad policies, and do so in an aggressive and dishonest way. The fact that they then whine about being the subject of counter-attacks, is just further evidence of their dishonesty.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently tribalist in advocating policies that would redistribute income, wealth and power away from the rich for the benefit of society as a whole, any more than in advocating free market policies that would harm some groups and benefit others. Such policies should, be advocated on the basis that they will make society as a whole better off, and not on the basis that the winners are the right kinds of people and the losers the wrong kind,

Tribalism involves attacks designed to mobilise one group against another on the basis of perceived identity. It is easy to point to a long list of groups perceived as tribal enemies by the right: environmentalists, public sector workers, unionists, gays, scientists, cultural ‘elitists’, refugees, welfare recipients (except age pensioners), ethnic and indigenous ‘lobbies’ and so on: in fact, just about any group that is seen as supporting the left or centre-left, is attacked in these terms.

By contrast, most of the groups that form the base of the political right (for example: small business, farmers, the military, self-funded retirees, mainstream churches) are treated with solicitous respect by the centre-left parties. The most notable example of a group commonly treated as a tribal enemy is that of fundamentalist Christians, and even here, there have been plenty of attempts at engagement, for example, on the idea of environmental stewardship.

To sum up, even when true, the tu quoque argument is an implicit admission of error. When it isn’t, as in the case of the claims that the left and right are equally guilty of tribalism and anti-scientific thinking it amounts to an intellectual coverup.

fn1. Almost entirely in the US, Canada and (now that Turnbull has rolled over) Australia. To a slightly lesser extent in UK and NZ.
fn2. By contrast, this is the normal response when instances of racism or corruption are pointed out. The primary defence is that these instances are unrepresentative. A tu quoque if offered, is usually of the form “there are similar instances on the left”, but no one on that side would concede that they are unrepresentative.
fn3. Here’s an attempt, which relies on the ludicrous claim that among Congressional Republicans ” the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming” (There’s also a big load of tu quoque)
fn4. Some have tried to argue that this position is just as inconsistent with science as is Young Earth Creationism. But in reality, anyone who believes both in God (in the usual senses of this term) and evolution must believe that God guided evolution, just as they must believe that God was responsible for the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe. More generally, they must believe that religion is consistent with the findings of science. Whether or not this is a logically defensible position, it isn’t anti-science.

Note to commenters: We’ve done nuclear power to death, so I will delete any comments on this topic. If you have something you absolutely need to say about nuclear in the context of this post, put it in the sandpits with a heading “Nuclear and tu quoque” pr similar.

133 thoughts on “Tu quoque

  1. Just for the amusement of all, and not completely OT, was this recent XKCD comic.

    Rolling the mouse over the cartoon adds additional, highly relevant text.

  2. On balance I am sure you are correct JQ but possibly overplayed. An economic item neglected is support for the local food movement. Whereby it is believed local multipliers can massively boost GDP if only people switch from Coles to local food. Refer to a previous post from Nicholas Gruen on this: prosperity through autarky?

  3. @TerjeP
    ProfQ has already responded to your comment – and I agree the only possible basis for this assertion is the “but Australia’s only a small country”(poor little us) line. You can’t expect to be taken seriously if you use arguments like that. I also want to point out that even though Abbott is fond of talking about the “carbon tax”, the package included several other measures in addition to a carbon price. Overall it was quite a good starting point though modest. It is a shame that we have people, who should know better, opposing it.

    I also want to second what fn said. Your comments about the Rainbow Warrior were appalling.

  4. There certainly was in the example to which I pointed.

    I didn’t realise you had pointed to one. But on checking you had. And yeah okay. Touché.

  5. Of course, since Australia is only a small part of the world, small actions we take will have only small effects.

    My point was not any more than this. It only seems to have been because Val repeatedly managed to misrepresent me and hence the point ended up getting laboured over and over in an attempt to not be misrepresented. Certainly far more than should have been necessary. Some people seem to have a problem taking literal statements of fact at face value.

  6. @TerjeP
    Ok Terje, wonderful, you weren’t trying to say the Labor government’s policy was largely a political fix, and you weren’t trying to say it was largely ineffective, and you weren’t denying that it had contributed a measurable decline on CO2 emissions from the electricity sector.

    You were just trying to say that because Australia is a relatively small country, albeit with a very high per capita rate of emissions, we can’t singlehandedly make a huge difference to global emissions, even though we can try to do our bit and set a good example. And by the same token, I’m sure you also agree that the Labor government’s policy is actually significantly better than Direct Action in achieving those goals, and that Abbott trying to get rid of it is a huge and serious backward step.

    Well silly old me for getting you so wrong! We’re actually in complete agreement!

  7. One strong difference between the two groups is the use of sensational rumors by the right against their opponents. You can gauge the effectiveness of the opponent by degree of sensationalism and luridness of the story. The late Neville (Nifty) Wran was one target, an amazing range of bizarre conspiracy theories seemed to dog him. I was always surprised at how supposed captains of industry, law etc willingly and without a seconds thought generated or repeated these clearly unsubstantiated allegations.

    Fictionalisation seems to be a strong character trait of the Right.

  8. @TerjeP

    Given that you have retailed the Bolt/Jones nonsense in the past, you shouldn’t get upset if you are assumed to be pushing it again.

    And, from a moral point of view, the line “we only emit 2 per cent of the CO2, so let’s keep doing it, and leave the rest of the world to fix the problem” is no better than Bolt/Jones

  9. For the past four decades Australian conservatives have exhorted women to refuse the temptations of feminism, to bear children – the more, the better – and take long periods away from paid work to stay home with them. Yet it is precisely the women who have followed this advice who will lose the most from the current government’s policies on pensions and superannuation. Such is the incoherence of Australian conservatism – driven in large measure by the fact that its tribalist and revanchist hostility to feminism prevents it from acknowledging what feminists have been saying and writing about these issues for years.


  10. Rog @107:

    One strong difference between the two groups is the use of sensational rumors by the right against their opponents. You can gauge the effectiveness of the opponent by degree of sensationalism and luridness of the story.

    On this point, Gerard Henderson has begun retailing a story that he had a conversation with Bob Carr in 2001 at which Carr said that he had come to the view that the creation of Israel was a mistake, and that this is the real basis for Carr’s criticism of the role of the Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council in his diaries. My attention was drawn to this by a person who has known Carr personally and politically (and cordially disagreed with him on many things) since the late 1960s, and who on that basis is convinced that Henderson’s story cannot be true.

  11. And by the same token, I’m sure you also agree that the Labor government’s policy is actually significantly better than Direct Action in achieving those goals, and that Abbott trying to get rid of it is a huge and serious backward step.

    Let me summarise my position. For the same CO2 reduction target:-

    Carbon tax > ETS > Direct Action.

    However I agree with Abbott getting rid of the carbon tax and the senate blocking any moves by him to introduce Direct Action. Which is how I expect things will play out.

  12. JQ – I don’t mind being affiliated with Andrew Bolt even though I disagree with him on a number of issues. It is probably fair to say I sometimes retail some of the outlook from some of his articles. However please don’t accuse me retailing the views of Alan Jones. That wouldn’t be at all accurate.

  13. “we only emit 2 per cent of the CO2, so let’s keep doing it, and leave the rest of the world to fix the problem”

    That wasn’t my actual point. But I’m giving up on trying to articulate my point in this thread because the level of wilful misinterpretation is now over the top.

  14. Perhaps you could get back to answering my questions about your rainbow warrior claims, then. You wouldn’t want people thinking it was another one of your made-up libertarian just-so stories, would you?

  15. Where is your evidence that sinking it was bad for the marine park, that it was not properly prepared for scuttling, or indeed that the islands are a marine park?

    I never said that dumping the rainbow warrior at sea was a bad decision. My point was that dumping at sea was touted by Greenpeace as a good decision in one instance (rainbow warrior) and a bad decision in another (Brent Spar).

    Or that greenpeace decided to dump it there or claim it as an ecological contribution?

    On their website they promote the dumped rainbow warrior as a “living reef”. They have not distanced themselves from the decision.


    And where is your evidence that sinking a small boat has the same ecological impact as an oil rig?

    Brent Spar was a North Sea oil storage and tanker loading buoy (not technically an oil rig). It’s basically steal and concrete. And it was to be scuttled at a depth of 2.5km. No doubt the ecological impact is different because the locations are different. But the potential ecological impact of Brent Spar being dumped had been evaluated before fisheries gave the green light. And disposal in landfill, which was what ultimately happened to a lot of it after Shell buckled to Greenpeace pressure, had been evaluated as a worse environmental option.

  16. TerjeP, if your point is that “dumping at sea was touted by greenpeace as a good decision in one instance (rainbow warrior) and a bad decision in another (Brent Spar)” then you either agree with them, or you think that dumping the rainbow warrior was a bad decision. Now you claim you “never said” this. So what’s the story? Are Greenpeace hypocrites for “not distancing” themselves from a decision they never actually made about how to dispose of a ship they never actually refloated, that was originally bombed in a terrorist act – or are they not?

    Do you understand the problem in claiming that Greenpeace are hypocrites for “not distancing” themselves from a decision they never made, then refusing to present evidence as to why the decision they never made was bad?

  17. @TerjeP
    I think your point is so obscure and confused that no-one can get it. You apparently agree that Labor’s package, including a price on carbon emissions, is better than Direct Action, but you also agree with Abbott getting rid of it. Doesn’t make sense.

    Is the basic problem that you don’t believe in human-induced climate change? Or you accept it’s happening, but don’t think we should do anything about? Or you think Australia has some kind of exemption from responsibility, even though we are high capita emitters?

    All joking aside, Terje, your position just doesn’t seem to make sense.

  18. Its all pretty much like AFL. You have the good (Freo) and the evil (Eagles). Everything Freo does is good, and everything the Eagles do is evil. Sometimes annoying Eagles fans bring up things that make Dockers fans feel uneasy, but generally we can do the tu quoque.

    Actually, I reckon the loony right, with their anti-science stand, and their demonisation of politicians is just trying to create an environment where people give up trying to make sense of things and disengage from the political process. And I hate them for it. More than I hate the Eagles.

  19. Val – My position is closest to that of Richard Tol when he advocates a modest carbon tax of around $5 per tonne. But such a tax seems impossible to maintain given the incessant way in which alarmists keep boosting the need to do more and more and more and more. I didn’t used to be a fan of the belligerent “do nothing” approach but given the politics and the agenda of alarmists it now looks like the best option.

    The ALP carbon tax was too high and they failed to use it as an opportunity to scrap other complicating measures like MRET etc. And they should have used 100% of the revenue to foster genuine tax reductions elsewhere rather than the slight of hand in swapping LITO for a higher tax free threshold and claiming a substantial tax cut. Spending the revenue on new green bureaucracy was ludicrous.

    Scrapping the carbon tax and the associated green bureaucracy seems better than keeping it. Scrapping it seems to be better than switching to an ETS. Direct Action seems like a waste of money also but one that is less grandiose and more likely to disappear over time.

  20. @TerjeP

    How can $5 per tonne be ok? The carbon tax has to be increased until power generators choosing the cheapest method of power generation choose one that doesn’t emit CO2.

    And as for the compensation, it was pretty well planned.

  21. @TerjeP
    What is this fine distinction you see between giving tax cuts and raising the tax threshold? Again your position does not make sense.

  22. Tax cuts reduce the amount of tax people pay. Increasing the tax free threshold is a good thing because it reduces the tax people pay. But if at the same time you reducing the low income tax offset (LITO) then it is mostly slight of hand and people don’t pay less tax. Or rather not much of a tax cut once it all comes out in the wash. However it is an improvement in tax transparency even if it’s not a tax cut.

  23. Raising the tax free threshold is about increasing the taxation plane away from the flatter tax that the gst introduced and putting a little more fainess back into the system. Abbott is doing his best to claw that fairness back by proposing to increase the tetirement age to a level where more people will have died and never collect on their benefits, and squeeze most welfare beneficiaries out of support with tough mean testing. We know it will be tough because Abbott is after all Howard’s lackey.

  24. I was going to respond to your point Terje, but I got one of those security checks which are impossible to read on an iPad. So maybe some other time.

  25. Raising the tax free threshold is about increasing the taxation plane away from the flatter tax that the gst introduced and putting a little more fainess back into the system.

    It would be if it wasn’t simply offset by a reduction in the LITO.

  26. The ‘New York Times’ this week ran a story ‘proving’ that the ‘masked men in Ukraine’ were Russian Special Forces. This was repeated all over the Western Establishment Media, and sucked up as fact by most of their hapless readers, before the truth had a chance to get its shoes on.

    The ‘journalist’ responsible for that story (Micahel Gordon) is most notable for the fact that he still has his job after being so closely involved in the NYT’s infamous Judith Miller ‘WMDs in Iraq’ fraud stories that directly led to the death of maybe a million people.

    The decent people who, increasingly, inhabit the internet to check media/US/neo-con lies & propaganda exposed the lie almost immediately. Even the NYT eventually had to publish a meally-mouther acknowledgment that the photos did not ‘prove’ anything. Even the US State Department had to accept that what they had said the photos ‘proved’ was not true – but they promised they had other secret proof they couldn’t show us!

    Obviously the neo-con psychos who run the US (and Australia, the UK, France, Japan etc…) want a confrontation with Russia. They are trying to start a war. All the evidence works against them but they have the most powerful propaganda machine in history trying desperately to give them yet another war of aggression.

    Having been caught out yet again, ‘Tu Quoque’ is about the best their muppets and trolls can manage.

    PS: If ‘JD’ is reading, how about that Princeton study that shows the US has no functioning democracy? (Ikon, Val and I have provided links or references to it a few times in previous threads).

  27. @TerjeP
    Back in Oz and just trying to reply to this quickly Terje. I don’t know about the low income tax offset, I thought it was still in place?
    However the big advantage of raising the tax-free energy threshold to c $18000 (which is what the government did in conjunction with the clean energy package as I recall), is that it removed a lot of the traps for people moving from welfare to work (tax claw backs). Eg single parents moving into work were estimated to pay equivalent to 65% effective tax rate on the first $100 or so per week under the old scenario, which is a huge disincentive. Some of this was due to loss of benefits, but raising the tax threshold eased the burden. One of the many things that the Gillard government didn’t get much credit for, unfortunately, even from progressive economists as far as I can see.

  28. Sorry don’t know how “tax free energy threshold” got into my previous comment – just mean tax free threshold of course.

  29. @Megan
    Yes I noticed after I’d posted the link that you had already done so. Sorry I missed that. However great minds think alike, etc 🙂

  30. One of the many things that the Gillard government didn’t get much credit for, unfortunately, even from progressive economists as far as I can see.

    Well, you shouldn’t get credit for doing the bleeding obvious.

    Ask yourself instead why people didn’t get criticised for not doing it.

  31. TerjeP:

    It would be if it wasn’t simply offset by a reduction in the LITO.

    Except it’s not completely offset by the LITO. The net changes still result in an effective 3% reduction in the tax rate for those in the target range ($20000/year). Not quite the 10% of the GST but a step in the right direction.

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