Tu quoque, revisited

Slightly lost amid the furore over the alleged Trump dossier was the news that Trump had held a meeting with leading antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As is usual, particularly with the Trump Administration, accounts of the meeting differed, with RFK claiming Trump had asked him to lead an inquiry into vaccine safety and Trump apparatchiks denying any firm decision had been made.

This interested me because, on the strength of sharing his father’s name, RFK Jr was, for many years the poster child for those on the right who wanted to claim that Democrats were just as anti-science as Republicans. (I’ve appended a post from 2014, discussing this.) Now he’s eager to work for Trump.

I pointed out the likely emergence of vaccination as a partisan issue in another post. Lots of commenters were unhappy about it, and it’s true that it’s unfortunate in the same way as is the partisan divide on global warming, evolution and just about any scientific issue that has political or cultural implications. But, whether we like it or not, it’s happening and likely to accelerate. The sudden reversal in Republican views on Putin, Wikileaks and so on illustrates the force of loyalty to Trump. We can only hope that, for once, his team’s denials turn out to be correct.

Tu quoque (repost from 2014)

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, the Kochs and so on). 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 most 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 Canadian 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. No country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period, and investors everywhere have abandoned the technology. Yet 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 true, 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.

[^1]: Almost entirely in the US, Canada and Australia. To a slightly lesser extent in UK and NZ.
[^2]: 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.
[^3]: 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)
[^4]: 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.

45 thoughts on “Tu quoque, revisited

  1. @D

    if one’s goal is to inform and educate “anti-vaxxers” then understanding what bases they may have for their views and – in the case of those open to civil discourse – using evidence and reasoned argument might be useful.

    No it won’t, you’ll just get the same backfire effect you always get from irrational people who prefer to believe ‘alternative facts‘.

  2. @GrueBleen

    You are spot on in the bold print. Maybe D left a caveat that gives him an escape clause, namely; “in the case of those (anti-vaxxers) open to civil discourse”.

    Since zero is probably the number of anti-vaxxers open to civil discourse that pretty much settles it.

    Of course he could have wrapped it right up with; “in the case of those (anti-vaxxers) open to civil and rational discourse”.

  3. It’s striking that D attacks vaccines, which yield almost zero profit to corporations, by reference to the alleged evils of Big Pharma. To adopt a “tu quoque”, the most egregious case of profiteering in relation to vaccination is the appalling Andrew Wakefield, who lined his own pockets while contributing to the spread of disease and death.

  4. “It’s striking that D attacks vaccines…”


    I don’t believe I do, and certainly didn’t intend to.

    My points are clearly about “anti-vaxxers”, not vaccines.

  5. Merci, Ikono.

    Some years ago I had this thought: “Suffficient stupidity is indistinguishable from evil”(apparently quite a few others also had that thought, or something like it – totally independently so they claim).

    Anyway, more recently, my thinking has been along the line that: yes, but what if someone is both evil and stupid ? (Do we have any examples of that ?).

    There’s quite a few in public life that score bigin that respect. So, maybe it’s a ‘blessing’ as in “too stupid to effect much actual evil” and that seems to be mostly so. Even in the most egregious example – the original Godwin’s jar man – if he hadn’t been quite as stupid as he was, Germany might really have conquered the world (and maybe, in a reduced fashion, the ‘Man of Steel’ too).

    Not that I think D is actually stupid, or evil, whatever the sex or gender applicable (is that from personal knowledge, Tim ?), but what I do think is that if human beings could really think and readily separate the “alternative facts” from the iintersubjective “truth”, then the human race would have had colonies on other planets thousands of years ago and would probably have reached the Centauri system long ago.

    So it goes.

  6. @D
    I still can’t work out what your point is, and I’m not sure you actually know yourself.
    How can you not be against anti-vaxers if you are not against vaccination?
    How can you say we shouldn’t speak out against anti-vaxers if we believe they are doing something extremely harmful?
    Or have I misunderstood even that sentence?

    I’ll ask again, what is your point you are trying to make and your reasoning behind it?
    (Or do you just want post some general comment that you are upset at what John said about anti-vaxers without being too clear because it mightn’t hold up to scrutiny?)

  7. @D
    (Or do you just want post some general comment that you are upset at what John said about anti-vaxers without being too clear because it mightn’t hold up to scrutiny?)

    That came out a bit harsh, not what I was trying to do. I really meant to say that is what it looks like. I suspect that is not what you are trying to achieve, but in reality I don’t of course know.

  8. MartinK,

    We seem to have a communication problem.

    Firstly: I don’t think anyone self-identifies as an “anti-vaxxer”. It is a label applied subjectively by the observer. For the sake of the argument, let’s go with what is probably an easy definition – someone who opposes getting vaccinated for themselves or their children.

    Secondly: What do you mean by being “against” that person?

    I’ll try to make my point again: You consider that person is doing something extremely harmful. So, what would you like that person to do instead (it seems obvious that the answer would be: “I want them and their children to get vaccinated” – but correct me if that’s not the answer)?

    So, how would you try to get that person to do that? Force? Compulsion by threat of punishment? Seizure of property? Removal of children? Education, information, respectful dialogue starting from a genuine attempt to understand why they hold the views that make them an “anti-vaxxer”?

    The most prevalent method appears to be to abuse them. I posit that perhaps there is a better (and more decent) way to go about it.

  9. “I posit that perhaps there is a better (and more decent) way to go about it.”

    Maybe you could spell that out a bit, as I did above. To summarize very briefly, I advocate a respectful approach to parents who are genuinely confused, explaining why vaccination is important to their children and others, while being ruthless in the exposure of criminals like Wakefield and propagandists like Meryl Dorey, not to mention Trump and the US Republican Party (the subject of the OP)

    What is your approach?

  10. @Jim Rose

    And yet, in Sydney, the inner west and inner east, aka Greens Central, have among the lowest rates of MMR vaccInaction, noticeably lower than the Liberal voting Morth Shore and Labor voting south west. Go figure.

  11. Much the same – but being very careful to differentiate the misinformed (and understandably distrusting/cautious) from the frauds and charlatans so as not to heap abuse on the former ‘by association’.

    But, unless the definition of “anti-vaxxer” I used above is narrowed very substantially to only include the likes of Wakefield etc.., (and it hasn’t been used that way here in the comments, and the broader definition is used most frequently in general), then experience shows abusing the “anti-vaxxer” is the prevalent approach.

    Just re-read the tone of some comments (and questioning of my gender??), on the mere suspicion without evidence that I was an “anti-vaxxer”, for suggesting – as it now turns out – the same approach.

  12. @Smith

    This kind of reasoning has proved misleading in the US context, and not only wrt vaccination.


    Yes, speculation on gender is inappropriate (Tim Macknay please note). OTOH, I don’t see any basis for your claim that criticism of anti-vaccine views in the OP and comments is directed at those who merely misinformed, rather than active misinformers like Wakefield and (in the OP), Trump and RFK Jr. among other leading Republicans.

    In any case, we seem to be in agreement on the general approach.

  13. @John Quiggin
    My apologies – that comment was made on the basis that D is the commenter formerly known as Megan, and was not intended as speculative. Sometimes people take offense at misapplication of gender pronouns. However, it doesn’t appear that D is offended at being described as male, so perhaps my comment was unwarranted. It’s also possible, of course, that the moniker ‘Megan’ did not accurately reflect that commenter’s gender (although it seems to me that it would be reasonable to assume that it did). Anyway, point taken – I will make no more comments about D’s gender.

  14. I’m not “Megan”.

    You say I am.

    Put up your evidence or retract.

    Ironic that this is happening on a thread about “reason” and “truth” vs “conspiracy theories”.

  15. @D
    Thanks for your reply D,
    that does a lot to clear things up. I’m glad I pushed you to clarify, as that is not what I thought you were trying to say in your first post. I very much hope you keep posting, it doesn’t look like I’ve discouraged you for which I’m glad, but I may again push to pin down what you mean – should it be a topic of interest to me and should I have the time.
    John Quiggin’s 2 replies to you pretty much cover how I feel. Of course the charlatan’s are the types like Wakefield, not everyone who believe it is dangerous to vaccinate their kids.

  16. @D

    to differentiate the misinformed (and understandably distrusting/cautious) from the frauds and charlatans

    Well I guess we do have to convince every new generation that the Earth is really spherical, and some – doubtless experiencing distrust/caution – simply don’t believe it and that is why we still have Flat Earth Societies.

    But how do people get to be “misinformed” and/or harbour distrust/caution ? Is it just because they are so ignorant that they’ve never heard of the medical profession or been treated by a doctor ? Who and what do they “believe” and why ?

  17. @D
    Ok, sure. The reason I assumed that you’re Megan is that you have a very similar discourse style, the same turn of phrase, the same choice of subject matter and appear to have the same opinions. Megan, a long-time commenter on this blog, stopped commenting here around a year or so ago for reasons known only to her(?)self. You started commenting quite recently, AFAICT, in the last two or three months.

    Specifically, both you and Megan call Obama ‘Mr Hopey-Changey’ (I’ve never come across anyone else who calls him that), are scathing critics of Australian refugee policy, advocates of free public transport, exhibit a generally pro-Russia geopolitical perspective, are scathing critics of both the LNP and ALP but particularly the ALP, and have distinctly ambiguous views on vaccines. Given those similarities, I just assumed you were the same person. The likelihood of two unconnected people commenting on this blog having those factors in common seemed to me infinitesimally small. I assumed (mistakenly, it appears) that this was quite obvious.

    However, since you say you’re not Megan, I’m happy to take your word for it. It’s doesn’t particularly matter. 🙂

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