Good Writing As Hypnosis
Good writing is seductive and makes you feel like you have good reasons to believe things that you don't actually.
Sam Atis has an excellent article titled The Case Against Public Intellectuals. In it, he begins by noting that quite a large percentage of the people in his circles think that the benefit of education is mostly signaling. They think this not because they’ve read lots of meta-analyses or studied the issue deeply but because they’ve read Caplan’s The Case Against Education—or at least heard others in their circle tout Caplan’s book as the decisive scholarship on the topic—and have become convinced. Because public intellectuals are smart, entertaining, and good at writing, it’s very easy to just nod along as they speak, and begin to agree with them, especially if one is not well-read on the topic.
Public intellectuals often present a skewed version of data. As Atis notes:
I also think people often mistakenly believe that the opinions of public intellectuals are representative of the field as a whole, or even believe that they’re an expert in any field they happen to opine on. When Jordan Peterson talks about the Gender Wage Gap, he says things like ‘any social scientist worth their salt will do X’, where X is something that social scientists are very clear that you should not do (discussed here). When Chomsky speaks about foreign policy, I think laypeople are often bedazzled by his academic prestige, and assume that what he’s saying is the consensus of foreign policy experts. I could be wrong about this - but when I’ve spoken to random Peterson fans especially, appeals to his academic background are fairly common, even if the particular thing he’s said that we’re discussing doesn’t really have anything to do with psychology.
But there’s another danger of good writing apart from skewing the data. Writing is an effective medium for passing arguments from the mind of the writer to the minds of the various readers, but sometimes good writing can veil the absence of an argument, replacing it with a vague notion. This is especially true if people already agree with the thesis of the article—they feel as though you’re saying what they’ve been thinking, they nod and snap along to the article, ignoring its potential paucity of arguments. Good writing can, almost by hypnosis, convince people to hold various views very strongly in the absence of convincing arguments.
One of my favorite articles ever is Who By Very Slow Decay, by Scott Alexander. If you have not yet read it, you ought to do so immediately—especially before you slowly decay. The article details the cruelty of end-of-life care, wherein we keep people around until they’re a sick, decaying husk of their former selves, ravaged by disease, frail, miserable, half-mad, blind, and infected. We do this under the feeble excuse of preserving a culture of life, as if there is something noble and dignified about keeping people alive who can no longer eat, drink, or defecate by themselves, who live every waking moment in terror thinking that their dead loved ones are alive and that they’re being attacked by demons. Scott’s final paragraphs are especially chilling:
I work in a Catholic hospital. People here say the phrase “culture of life” a lot, as in “we need to cultivate a culture of life.” They say it almost as often as they say “patient-centered”. At my hospital orientation, a whole bunch of nuns and executives and people like that got up and told us how we had to do our part to “cultivate a culture of life.”
And now every time I hear that phrase I want to scream. 21st century American hospitals do not need to “cultivate a culture of life”. We have enough life. We have life up the wazoo. We have more life than we know what to do with. We have life far beyond the point where it becomes a sick caricature of itself. We prolong life until it becomes a sickness, an abomination, a miserable and pathetic flight from death that saps out and mocks everything that made life desirable in the first place. 21st century American hospitals need to cultivate a culture of life the same way that Newcastle needs to cultivate a culture of coal, the same way a man who is burning to death needs to cultivate a culture of fire.
And so every time I hear that phrase I want to scream, or if I cannot scream, to find some book of hospital poetry that really is a book of hospital poetry and shove it at them, make them read it until they understand.
There is no such book, so I hope it will be acceptable if I just rip off of Wilfred Owen directly:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the gurney that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sack of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene with cancer, bitter with the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues
My friend, you would not so pontificate
To reasoners beset by moral strife
The old lie: we must try to cultivate
A culture of life.
Now, don’t get me wrong—there are arguments in this piece that would convince a perfectly emotionless robot to be more dim on the prospects of end-of-life care. Among other things, this article shows that doctors—the people most familiar with end-of-life care—tend to eschew lengthy end-of-life care themselves, and instead try to die a short, relatively natural death, rather than slowly languishing in nursing homes and hospitals. In addition, hearing about exactly how bad things can get—as the article painstakingly describes—should convince people, just as learning the details of what goes on when the U.S. tortures people should affect our assessment of whether our methods of so-called enhanced interrogation are indeed humane (it’s called enhanced interrogation when we do it, torture when the other guys do it).
But these rational arguments are not why the essay is persuasive. It’s persuasive because it conveys to its readers a sense of visceral horror at what’s going on in end-of-life care—it gives one a mental picture of ulcer-ridden geriatric centenarians, howling about demons as they lie in their own feces and call out for their wife whose been dead for 40 years. As one reads the descriptions, the things that convince them are not the rational arguments, but instead the extremely good writing.
I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about end-of-life care. I was in favor of less of it, for the reasons described in the article, she was in favor of more of it. I realized that there was not an easy way to convey the gestalt of the article—I had an extremely strong view on the topic, even though I had no ability to convey the basis of this fervent belief. I just encouraged her to read the article, because my belief was not based on rational arguments so much as the emotional force of the article.
While we were arguing about this, I felt as if I had some deep wisdom that she didn’t. Sometimes when arguing with people I feel like there’s something important that I get and that they don’t, but I think here I was wrong. I had just been convinced on the basis of the good writing. There was not any hidden wisdom I had—I was just under the spell of Scott Alexander-induced hypnosis.
I didn’t have any hidden special knowledge. I just had a strong mental association between end-of-life care and something out of a horror movie—I had no statistics about how common they were, but I was nevertheless confident in my views.
And I think this happens a lot. When a writer who one likes or agrees with is saying things, especially when they’re writing well, drawing on powerful, emotive examples, it’s very easy to just be led along. What is true of Caplan’s presentation of potentially non-representative data is also true of non-data-based argumentation from your favorite writers.
Noam Chomsky is clearly very smart, and I’m convinced of many of his views about foreign policy. He even goes out of his way to be methodical—documenting everything meticulously with footnote after footnote, source after source. But even when reading his writing, because it’s hard to check his work, his persuasiveness comes from the general whirlwind of atrocities he describes. As Scott Alexander has noted:
Chomsky and Herman are both academics, and they’re both relentless. When they try to prove something, by golly, it stays proved. This is a good thing, in that the book deals with very controversial topics and anything less would be unconvincing. It’s also a bad thing, in that by the ninth or tenth long transcript taken from the same war crimes trial, all of the genocides and village-burnings and nun-rapes start to blend together into a big blob of atrocity, and you can’t remember whether Kouprasith Abhay was the evil generalissimo who launched the pro-US coup and killed thousands, or the good generalissimo who launched the anti-US counter-coup and killed thousands, or the morally ambiguous generalissimo who launched the non-aligned counter-counter-coup and killed thousands.
But these details are less interesting than the big picture, a sketch of a political system that C&H jokingly term “death squad democracy”.
The general picture is of a third world country that was previously in a fragile social equilibrium. Something disrupts the equilibrium – usually the United States toppling the government because Communists were starting to do well in elections. It is replaced by a weak central government insecure in its power which decides to go after mass movements it perceives as a threat.
The mass movements form guerilla groups to resist government brutality. Supporters of the government form death squads in order to kill suspected guerillas more unethically than the international community would allow the government to do directly. Eventually there is so much violence that anyone who can form a guerilla army and kill their enemies before their enemies kill them does so.
So even when people go out of their ways to document their claims, providing literally hundreds of footnotes to prove various points, they’re convincing because of the general sense one gets reading them, the broad sketch one gets. Most of the readers of Chomsky who are convinced by his points are not convinced because they’ve studied the events in great detail, but instead because they get the sense that Chomsky has a wall of evidence for everything he’s saying, and the blur of atrocities convey a sense that something is deeply wrong in the ways Chomsky describes. Even Chomsky’s attempts to just stick to the facts and back everything up leads to most of the people who are convinced being convinced by the sense they get when reading it and not by the specific evidence provided.
I know I’ve just given two of my favorite writers as examples of this phenomenon, but continuing in the tradition of throwing my favorite writers under the bus, another good example of this is Freddie deBoer. In fact, this recent article by deBoer gives us two very distinct examples of the thing I’m railing against. DeBoer is responding to an article by the mother of a very mentally ill child who is describing her child’s struggles with the system involved in taking care of mentally ill people. Her child was given inadequate care and at one point forcefully confined—something that her mother says was very bad for her mental health.
The original article tells a heartbreaking story of a very sick kid whose life seems very bad. It’s quite sad. But considered rationally, it’s just evidence-free, emotion-based argumentation. No one should be rationally moved by hearing the story of her child in particular—whether forced confinement of mentally ill people who are not an immediate danger to themselves or others is worthwhile will hinge on lots of complex empirical questions that can’t be settled by hearing a single sad story.
deBoer’s response is convincing. Here, as elsewhere, he rails in emotive terms against the efforts to defund psychiatry, to treat mental illness as a cute little quirk rather than something deathly serious, as something harmless and innocent and sweet and not worth seriously doing anything about, like confining people. If mental illness leads to people hurling themselves off bridges and stabbing others, then the case for confinement is stronger than if it were just a cute harmless quirk. But his article is convincing not because of rational argument. It’s convincing because deBoer is an insanely talented writer, able to provide impassioned pleas for any position. If he were arguing the opposite, it would be just as convincing. Rationally, nothing deBoer says should affect our view of whether we should have forced confinement of people like Jordan Neely, but because he describes the problem so vividly, it does.
Writers are great at putting sentiments into words. Very often there will be a concept that I have trouble describing, and some writer I look up to will have an article masterfully describing it. These articles are the types that you link to your friends captioned “SEE WHAT I MEAN,” regarding some long-running dispute that you’re having, the types that make a point that you couldn’t adequately put into words. Very often the reason you can’t convey it is that you don’t actually have a good reason to think what you’re saying is correct, but instead just have a vague sense that it is.
These articles, while often valuable, are worrisome, because even false sentiments can be persuasively described by gifted writers.