Mike the Mad Biologist

There’s been some discussion about the flareup between Lakoff and Pinker. I’m not even going to comment on the cognitive science issues: we have bonafide experts around these parts to do that. But I have had considerable experience debating conservatives, and I have personally found most of what Lakoff writes to be pretty useless in any practical, working sense. Why?

Because the best debating technique is relying on ethos (either yours or someone you’re quoting). For example, Rep. Harold Ford did that to innoculate himself against charges that he frolicked with Playboy bunnies. His retort was that the party of the Foley coverup has no business lecturing anyone about morality. See how that works: he attacked his opponents’ character. You’ll also note that he didn’t address the charges. This is not reframing, but simple rhetorical technique.

(an aside: that Harold Ford is black, the bunnies are mostly white, the election is in Tennessee, and that the Republicans have nicknamed him “Fancy Ford”–using ‘Southernisms’ to refer to him as a pimp–has nothing to do with racist appeals. I’m sure it’s all about protecting the children.)

The reason focusing on ethos works is most people are too busy to follow politics in any detail–people like me are, well, unusual (in so many ways…). So most people use shorthand rules-of-thumb: Krugman says, Dobson says, and so on. The Republicans have had great success with this method politically, which is why they can win elections even though they suck at governing. The instinctive dislike of liberals by many Americans isn’t about anything subtle like framing, it resulted from an unsubtle, flat-out character assault against liberals (and if we’re going to call this framing, then anything constitutes framing). When I saw the movie Red State, I was astonishing to hear what supposed horrors red state conservatives attributed to blue staters (for example, you would think that blue staters simply do not marry. Ever.)

Again, this is not framing. Framing is ultimately an appeal to logic–you’re repositioning the ground on which an argument is conducted. But most people don’t pay attention to the substance of arguments, or else lack the necessary information to rigorously judge them.

Mind you, I’m not calling most people stupid. It’s simply that most people don’t focus on the ins and outs of governance and government. And even those who follow politics in excrutiating detail sometimes make these same shortcuts–no one is immune from this. For example, Robert Kennedy Jr. has another article about voting irregularities, which unlike his previous article, seems pretty accurate (basically, the electronic machines and all the patches are so fubar, the results can’t be viewed as legitimate). But after getting burned by his last Rolling Stone article, I’m far less inclined to trust the portions I can’t independently verify.

As I just described, most people first assess the perceived authority of the speaker. When faced with complex issues that require some technical understanding (e.g., economics), often assessing ethos all they do because that’s all they can do (Like I’m going to really understand if string theory is ridiculous or not). This is why Foleygate is so damaging: it’s easy to understand, and because it is easy to understand, it shortens the distance between action and consequence, even for those who don’t follow politics closely. Character assessments are easy to make.

I’ll admit that I’m not professionally qualified to determine whether or not Lakoff is right about his cognitive theories. But he really doesn’t appear to live in the same political universe I do.


  1. #1 tiredtiredtired
    October 9, 2006

    Perhaps you are writing after consuming some bit of under-boiled beef, but this is really a lame attempt – enough so for me to comment in the hope you will at least make a better effort. I do think, and I am quite an admirer of your politics and your science writing, that you have adopted a position against Lakoff (and I admire the Pinker I have read as well, BTW. When the bizarrely vicious infighting that characterizes some liguistic debates settles, much will have been learned.) based far too much on a preconception not scientific at all.
    Your point about people trusting those labelled as authorities, unless given reasons to doubt that authority, really brushes his entire thesis aside, while admitting you are not “professional qualified” to do so.
    If not interested in the theory enough to develop your dismissal -”useless in any practical, working sense” -,why use your blog to kick it?

    — a disappointed reader

  2. #2 colin
    October 9, 2006

    I too think Lakoff harps too much on his pet theories while unvaluing other factors that also have influence. However is does seem that Lakoff isn’t really ignoring ethos.

    As I understand it, framing isn’t an appeal to logic it’s the usage of recognizable metaphors to elicit/alter an emotional response. Thus your example of referring to Harold Ford as a pimp fits well within the idea of framing it’s just that here they are reframing the person rather than the ideas. Lakoff’s commentary on Strict/Nurturant styles of governance are also obviously often used metaphors for framing people rather than just ideas.

    Still I must admit that I have qualms with Lakoff. Namely because I find it hard to seperate how much of his theory is true, and how much I’m imagining because of a confirmation bias.

  3. #3 Joshua
    October 10, 2006

    I’ll admit up front I’ve read very little Lakoff. But, I’ve read a lot of summaries from reputable sources like the ScienceBlogs crew, and I’ve come across a lot of examples of Lakovian thinking in my general interest in politics and liberal/progressive ideas.

    All that has pretty much driven me to the conclusion that Lakoff’s ideas, at least his political ones, are completely and utterly disconnected from reality. Then again, given the very strong postmodernist strain I detect in him and his adherents, it’s entirely possible that they don’t see this as a problem.

    But he reminds me so much of the liberals that say we just have to make pretend that Democrats are macho so as to appeal to these probably-fictional “NASCAR Dads” or the “Strict Family” types or whatever new label they’ve come up with the euphemise their real views of their conservative opponents, namely “a bunch of ignorant fascists”.

  4. #4 erotik shop
    September 10, 2008

    thanks fine .