Friday, April 26, 2024

Alex Tabarrock and Argumentum ad Flubberum

Alex Tabarrock has a beef against modern dishwashers, that they take too long (something they do in order to conserve water and energy). Unfortunately an appellate court (two Trumps and a Bush) took the same position. Alex could've simply stuck with the argument that fast dishwashers are more important than say stopping climate change, but he had to go for the Flubber Argument in addition.

I gave the name Flubber to this type of argument back in 2011, somehow it didn't catch on but that won't stop me. The reference is to an old movie with a terrible remake about a material that when dropped, bounces back with more energy than it acquired from being dropped. As applied to policy, it argues that the negative response to that policy would exceed the positive effect the policy otherwise enables.

These bad arguments are the worst because they're not innately wrong, like a logical fallacy is, they're just really annoying. You can't just respond with saying something like a "Tu quoque," drop the mic and walk away, but they're really weak arguments, usually trotted out when people who realize a more direct argument for their side is unpersuasive. The classic is the slippery slope argument, but Flubbering is what we have here.

So what's the Flubber argument here? It's that some people frustrated by the time taken by the dishwasher will wash by hand instead, and that washing by hand supposedly uses more water and energy. The studies vary wildly on water and energy usage when handwashing. (FWIW, I usually don't use any hot water when handwashing for one or two people, it takes too long to heat up and cold soapy water is good enough.) Mostly, the studies conclude handwashing uses more energy and water. The Flubberer then concludes without showing any work that enough people will switch to inefficient handwashing so that their extra use will outweigh the more efficient use by those who stick with the dishwashers.

The problem is there's no proof, just an assumption based on partial evidence. The value in understanding Flubbering is that we now have two types: Type 1 Flubber arguments don't even have a factual basis for the claim, just conjecture. Type 2 Flubber, maybe call it Tabarrock Flubber, takes partial evidence and reaches a conclusion, Underpants Gnome style, without demonstrating that it works. So we can thank Tabarrock for advancing the understanding of Flubberum.

In a side note, Justice Alito recently said that holding US Presidents to account for crimes committed in illegal pursuit of a second term will just spur them to commit more and worse crimes to make sure they're not held to account. You can see what's happening there with that argument.