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Monday, September 1, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Arguing: the low-hanging fruit

So I've talked in the last few posts about making good arguments by addressing the substance of your
opponent's position rather than attacking irrelevancies. I described the practice of strawmanning, which is constructing an inferior version of the argument you're trying to demolish because it's easier, and how that shouldn't be mistaken for actually defeating the position you oppose.

But what about when you're addressing a whole group of people who share a belief, and you deliberately choose to address only those who are saying the worst things, making the worst arguments, if they're bothering to make arguments at all? That is, what if you only pay attention to the low-hanging fruit? Is that also a kind of strawmanning?

Well, yes and no. It could be, but not necessarily.

Because here's the thing-- life is not philosophy. Philosophy is what humans do when they get time to stop and think without anyone trying to kill them or ruin their reputation, when there's food on the table and a bed to sleep in and there are no pressing issues at hand like legislators trying to pass laws that make it illegal to do things like philosophy. Steelmanning, for that matter, is something philosophers do when those philosophers are feeling particularly chill. An angry philosopher cannot be counted upon to steelman. Even though they should.

In real life, people are constantly making terrible arguments for terrible things, and horrifyingly, many of those people are influential (I would say "They're called 'politicians,' but politicians are merely the most visible of this sort). When that happens, it's important to point out those terrible arguments and say "Look at this stupid, hateful thing this person is saying," to minimize the potential ideological damage they can cause.

That's what a lot of bloggers do, and I respect them like crazy for doing it, because it's a tiring, endless, and often thankless task. My friend Ed Brayton has been pillorying terrible arguments on religion, science, and politics on his blog since 2003, or maybe longer. And he's never going to run out of material, because there will never not be people making these arguments. Often the same ones, for years upon years, sometimes re-skinned in order to continue arguing badly for a slightly different position. That's fighting the good fight. I don't believe in a Lord, but if I did, that would be the Lord's work. You know the quote usually attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? We will always need people who help the truth put on its shoes.

There is something incumbent upon these pickers of low-hanging fruit to do, however. If you're going to do the-- again, very necessary-- task of addressing the worst arguments out there for the sake of diminishing their power, you must be careful to not pretend that these are the only sort of arguments that people who hold that position, people in that same ideological group, are capable of making. Unless, of course, they are.

What I'm saying is that you should not effectively straw-man people who hold position X as a group by deliberately choosing to destroy only the arguments of people who agree with position X but are crap at supporting it, and then acting as if you have defeated position X itself by doing so. You have not proven, for example, that man-made climate change is a lie by laughing at people who think that every time you drive somewhere, a polar bear starves to death. These people are wrong, but they do not speak for the truth or falsity of man-made climate change. Proving that there are environmentalists who are idiots does not prove that environmentalism is idiotic. Tugging at the low-hanging fruit doesn't bring down the tree.

Which is why, if you are asked to evaluate the merits of a position in general rather than to address specific arguments in favor of it, I'd say you are obliged to not restrict yourself to considering only the worst arguments. In fact, you really should ignore those arguments entirely and focus on the best arguments, because it's only fair to consider a position invalid if no valid arguments can be made in support of it. It's not the fault of someone who holds a legitimate position if there are people who share that position and are troglodytes, mentally or morally or (as is often the case) both.

Like steelmanning, this is not always easy to do. It's really, really tempting, especially when considering an issue that is personally relevant, to pick out the loudest and most obnoxious of those who oppose your position and make them the standard-bearers for the other side. But that is the seed of prejudice, isn't it? That's how people come to believe that all members of ideological group X are stupid or immoral by virtue of holding X position, on the grounds that some members of that group are stupid/immoral. That requires ignoring the existence of the more intelligent or moral members of that group and their arguments in order to maintain the belief that position X is untenable.

But it goes against our tribalistic impulses to think this way. It feels good to have ideological kindred who are in the right, and those who oppose us who are wrong, placing individuals on one side of that line or the other and leaving them there. Alliances of this sort are shaken up all of the time when it's discovered that somebody has views in common with people in that group, and that group isn't this group, but it still matters because people in that group are horrible and this group is good. Oh, you're a vegetarian atheist feminist...who owns guns? Go to hell! Gun-owners are a bunch of angry psychopaths. None of your other positions matter now.

Some of that tribalism and low-hanging fruit picking was, disappointingly, on display by Daniel Dennett in this article on Richard Dawkins's pattern of stirring up enmity on social media:
I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are THEY condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are always equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.
The problem is, most of the people I saw reacting with hostility to Dawkins's tweet that "“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think," didn't think that at all. For that matter, I didn't actually see a single person claim that all rape is equally bad, "radical feminist" or no.

What I  saw was a lot of people saying things more along the lines of Ashley Miller's position, which was basically to point out that making blanket declarations about the relative significance of other people's suffering (out of nowhere, as in a tweet) as a supposed attempt to deliver a lesson on logic is a really callous and bizarre thing to do. Especially when those declarations might arguably be factually incorrect (i.e., that some victims of aquaintance rape, which is the majority of rape, actually suffer more than they might've if raped by a stranger, because of perception and treatment by others after the fact, and having to live with the violation of trust that acquaintance rape represents). And of course, that has precisely nothing to do with whether Dawkins has been "immensely important" or not. It seems clear that Dennett's only intention was to support his friend, and the most expedient way to do that was by picking some seriously low-hanging fruit.

Which is, I hasten to point out, a more reasonable assumption than to say he was simply strawmanning. You could say that literally nobody, anywhere, was claiming that all rape is equally bad. That Dawkins was strawmanning in constructing this person who allegedly holds this position, and then Dennett joined him in beating that strawman to death. But when you're talking about a position rather than a specific argument or person, you can pretty much count on there being somebody out there who does authentically hold it. I'm sure there are people out there who think all rape is equally bad. I'm equally sure that they're the least important people to consider when answering the question "What do you think of the criticism of Richard Dawkins's tweet?"

Again-- nobody is immune to doing this.

But it's still unfair and logically sloppy to do, and that's what I'm driving at. By all means, tear apart bad arguments when you see them. Practicing critical thinking is doing yourself and the world a service, and I'm sure you know that we could all, always, use more of it. But be careful, and be precise in doing so. Don't act as though you've taken down the queen when you've merely eliminated a pawn, even if the pawns in this game seem endless. Taking care to remember that there are good, intelligent people who hold positions you oppose, and their arguments are very likely to be better than others, is a good way to avoid ideological prejudice. When you are arguing against a position in general rather than a specific argument or person, steelman the hell out of that position.

And then when you've done so, keep that thought in the back of your mind whenever talking to people who hold that position, because hey-- most arguments people make in favor of anything, even the beliefs they hold most dear, happen in real life. Most people argue on their feet, with the weapons they've got at hand. As a consequence, they probably won't offer the best defense of that position possible, and they certainly won't do so all the time. And yeah, that includes you too.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Good Arguing: How to steelman (and why it's hard)

In the last couple of posts I've been exploring different ways in which it's possible to make bad arguments against someone's position by ignoring the substance of their argument in favor of some distraction from it or distortion of it, even a completely fictional version of it. The tactic of constructing an inaccurate version of an argument in order to demolish it is called strawmanning.

Strawmanning is easy to do, and advantageous when the only people you care about impressing are people who already agree with you, and who also aren't particularly concerned about you representing your opponent fairly-- they just want to see you rip him/her apart, or at least a sufficiently convincing facsimile thereof. And since it's very likely that the image of your opponent is already more of a caricature in the eyes of those who agree with you (that's tribalism, in a nutshell), the chances are relatively low that someone on your side is going to pull back from basking in the warmth and comforting glow of the effigy which you've just set ablaze to tug at your sleeve and point out-- hey man, that's an effigy.

A strawman version of your opponent's argument is easier to demolish for precisely the same reasons that the first little pig's straw house was easy for the big bad wolf to demolish-- it's flimsy. It was constructed in haste with little thought put into it (who lives in a house made of straw, anyway?), and takes but a few forceful huffs and puffs and logic to blow it to smithereens. So if you, rhetorical big bad wolf that you are, could actually choose to have the person you're arguing against live in a straw house rather than something sturdier, you would, wouldn't you? It makes everything so. Much. Easier. And you're angry, because damn that pig for having the gall to say...whatever horrible thing pigs say. Why should he get the benefit of a charitable, sturdy interpretation of his house I mean, argument?

Well, because that's what logic-- and fairness-- demand. You want your opponent to engage the argument you're actually making, rather than some shoddy imitation that's easier to dismantle, so shouldn't you extend the same consideration? And if his/her argument is really so pernicious and threatening, doesn't that make it especially important to make sure that you're addressing it accurately, in order to publically demonstrate its problems to every witness, so that they can avoid being taken in by it?  Does the group of people you care about convincing of the problems with your opponent's argument include the opponent him/herself? And if not, shouldn't it?

This is why steelmanning is so important. And so difficult. And so important.

Steelmanning is exactly what it sounds like-- you turn the analogy of the strawman on its head, and imagine constructing a stronger, better version of your opponent's argument. Perhaps even better than the one he/she initially constructed. You take the time to contemplate your opponent's concerns, including the unspoken ones, and address them. You create the most convincing, best possible version of your opponent's argument, and you lay it out for everyone to see. And then-- only then-- do you you show why it's wrong.

To the best of my knowledge, use of the term "steelmanning" to refer to this practice originated with Chana Messinger. To quote her on the subject:
But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds. 
Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning. 
First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs. 
Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.
Now, of course, the concept of taking on the most robust version of your opponent's argument, even if you have to construct it yourself, has been around a lot longer than the term "steelmanning" itself. You could simply call it arguing charitably. You could, as philosopher Daniel Dennett has been known to do, actually insert a stand-in for your opponent in the text of your own elucidation of your position, to fire objections and criticisms of that position in "real time," giving you the opportunity to answer those criticisms. Of course, when you have multiple opponents, this means you probably won't have the time and space to answer all of their potential criticisms. But again, you can choose the best of these and answer them-- or at least, the best of them so far as you can honestly assess.

Dennett outlines the practice of charitable criticism in his recent book Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, attributing it to Russian-American psychologist Anatol Rapoport:
Anatol Rapoport… once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow– or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive.
Sounds good, right? Sounds like a total "best practice" for argumentation. This is something everybody should be doing right? So....why is, when we look around, we see so few people actually doing it? So few people, when deciding how to depict a position they oppose, selecting materials by reaching immediately for the straw rather than the steel?

Well, I know one thing with certainty-- it's not because they're incapable.

There is no level of intelligence or education at which a person moves beyond having the incentive to strawman. The incentives, as I've described, include that that it's easier and faster, but also there is the fact that it's simply more satisfying to pin down and torture a good straw man when you're angry, and when you're speaking to people who are already angry for the same reason that you are, or whom you would like to make angry for the same reason.

A rhetorical crime has been committed, and by golly we want someone to answer for it. We want to haul in some guilty party and hold them to account, and when the guilty party is an argument, the penalties for getting the wrong man tend to be few. Violation of due process of the laws of logic for suspect arguments is not an offense for which most really suffer. We're biased in a multitude of ways, perhaps most predominantly in favor of our own sense of being right. Being right feels good. Righteous indignation feels good. Watching people whose righteous indignation you share royally trouncing an argument that you find offensively wrong?  Gosh, that's nice. That's why we value an intelligent, caustic, sardonic ranter on our side so highly. Perhaps more than is really healthy on a sociological level, we value these people. There's a reason for that.

But there ways to make steelmanning a great deal easier and more likely. Here are some I can identify:
  1. A polite disagreement, where passions are low. 
  2. Time is not a highly significant factor. This suggests that strawmanning is much more likely in verbal debates than in print.
  3. Opponents know each other. It's much easier to represent your opponent's position charitably when you're familiar with his/her views on other things which aren't directly related to the topic of contention. 
  4. Space, or rather the lack thereof, is not a significant factor. If you take the time to recreate a better version of your opponent's argument before answering it with your own, there had better be some room to do it. Which means that you're more likely to find steelmanning in a book than an essay or blog post. A blog post or essay than a verbal argument. A verbal argument than a sound bite. 
  5. A reasonable expectation of continued interaction, on some level. 

Steelmanning is possible for all of us, though. It's a best practice for all of us. We're not terrible people if we fail to do it, but it's something to aim for. It's good arguing.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Don't do this either

Okay, so we've pretty well covered how not to talk to and about people you disagree with, right? It can be summed up pretty easily by asking yourself the following question: Does this thing I'm writing/saying/drawing/etc. actually address the substance of what the person I'm talking about is saying/writing/drawing/etc.? Or does it attack irrelevancies? Because focusing on what someone says and addressing that, rather than changing the subject to their looks, their credentials, or anything else isn't just polite-- it's good arguing. It's Lesson #1 on Good Arguing, perhaps Remedial Good Arguing.

Another way to attack irrelevancies rather than the substance of your opponent's argument is to attack arguments your opponent never made. This is typically called strawmanning, although if you go the lengths of flat-out quoting them saying something they never actually said, I think that's called plain ol' lying.


The quote is suspicious to me right off the bat for two reasons: 1) I know that Richard Dawkins considers himself a "cultural Christian," meaning that he acknowledges the extent to which Christianity has shaped the culture in which Westerners live, and sees no conflict in appreciating those elements of culture as an atheist-- a standpoint which I wholly agree with, although I don't really like the term "cultural Christian." It's too confusing without the explanation. 2) I have gathered, though I couldn't tell you from where, the understanding that Dawkins has close to zero knowledge of and interest in video games. I'd be surprised if he knows what "RPG" means.

However, that's not going to be obvious to everybody. All that a lot of people know about Dawkins, people who despise him and people who love him, is that he's an atheist who opposes religion. And there's no shortage of atheists who would most likely agree with the first part of the quote (or rather "quote," I suppose-- putting scare quotes around the word "quote" is so meta), if significantly fewer who would agree with the second part.

I don't know whether John the Secular actually created the meme he tweeted, or just found it and commented on it. If the latter, then he's just guilty of being credulous. But that's an important part of not attacking irrelevancies-- don't be credulous. Don't just assume that a statement you see attributed to someone you want to attack is authentic, especially if it seems too "good" to be true. As in, laughably easy to discredit and mock.

It's possible the meme was made as satire, but if it's intended to be satire then it fails-- no clever point is made, and gosh, if you wanted to satirize Richard Dawkins it would be so easy to do better. There's ample material out there-- no need to create new, false statements to attribute to him.

If it's an attempt to satirize Dawkins' detractors....no. That's not how you do that, either. If they believe the quote, then again-- they're just guilty of accidentally buying a lie. But if you created it, or passed it along, you're guilty of selling it to them.

Making good arguments requires skepticism. And skepticism needs people who can make good arguments.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It should go without saying

Yesterday Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins both published, on their respective blogs, a brief joint statement on how atheists should disagree. It's really unfortunate that such a thing should be necessary, but encouraging that it happened. The statement condemns bullying and harassment generally, and then goes on to cite specific examples of such:
In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
It should go without saying, but this statement comes into the wake of some particularly disgusting instances of people doing exactly these sorts of things, and defending others who have done them. In the comments on this statement on Dawkins' blog, there are people continuing to defend this kind of behavior:
The reason that people make photoshops of her and her fellow travelers and make derisory comments about her is that they tried very hard to engage in honest discussion with her only to be met with conveniently selective moderation practices, ridiculous accusations of misogyny and a habit of playing the offended victim card to death. People might still have left her to stew in her own juice if not for the attacks on high profile figures over contrived offences. When bloggers jump on board with unevidenced accusations of sexual crimes then they can expect to be lampooned. The rationale behind the ridicule is that there is no point at all in trying to reason with her because she will not give an honest reading to what you say and will likely selectively moderate for effect, so why bother trying to engage politely with her.
No. See, that's not how it works.

Harassment is not wrong unless you can find some justification in your mind for a person deserving it. It's wrong, period. If you disagree vehemently with someone, you express this disagreement as an argument. You do not draw childish pictures of them making fun of their appearance. You do not call them demeaning names. You do not, in the same breath, endorse rhetorically punching someone because they won't listen to you and then, because they complained about the first punch, justify doing it again. You don't fake a punch and then give them two for flinching. That's what children and bullies do.

Personally, I see a false dichotomy between harassment and politeness-- there's a world of ways to be rude to and about people without acting like a five year old. But if you're unable to find a course of action in this realm, I would suggest not engaging with those people. No, going off and drawing a cartoon of them with a pig nose, or spreading around somebody else's drawing of such, doesn't qualify as disengagement.

Tribalism is a huge problem in the atheist movement, and my thoughts on that subject are muddled. I haven't honestly worked out when it's okay to draw lines in the sand and insist that "we" should no longer value what a certain person has to say because of what they've said in the past, or even continue to say, although I think Greta Christina's recent post on the subject is pretty damn persuasive. There's only so much time, and only so much attention we have to give, and it's valid to say that a person's actions have been so egregious as to disqualify him or her from deserving attention. That doesn't mean much when you're talking about someone's personal attention, but it means a hell of a lot when you're talking about who to invite to a conference or whose blog to host on your network.

There's no official code of conduct that people in the atheist movement are forced to follow. If someone behaves reprehensibly, group ostracism is really the only way to deal with it. As a consequence, we continually have people trying to influence the group against someone, or against an organization, because that person or organization is believed to have rendered all charitable assumptions about him/her/them unjustified. I couldn't tell you how many times I've seen someone say (invariably in the comments on the Facebook post of some prominent person in the atheist movement) that they've quit "the movement" altogether for this reason. I then laugh inwardly, bitterly, and move on, because the frustration and non committal nature of the statement is so palpable. "I wish I knew how to quit you," indeed.

Not all "infighting" is created equal. The existence of disagreement, even strong disagreement, does not justify pettiness and childishness. The fact that someone is a "public figure" does not justify it either-- public figures are still people. I don't think it's tribalistic to tell people who insist otherwise that their behavior disqualifies their views from consideration by people who want rational, respectful dialog, because it's always possible to find someone expressing the same otherwise worthwhile sentiment while not being a heinous asshole at the same time. We just have to follow up on this promise, and vote with our attention.

I hope we can. I think this joint statement is a move in that direction.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Things you might not want to say about hot car deaths

I live in Wichita, Kansas. Kansas is a place of extreme temperatures-- it can get bitterly cold in the winter, and deathly hot in the summer. Today, for example, the high is supposed to be about 106.

On Thursday, a baby died here in the heat. Another hot car death. She was 10 months old, and left in the car for two hours while it was 90 degrees outside.

In this case her was name Kadylak, and she was the foster daughter of two men in their late 20's who also have several other foster children.

If you live in any place where it routinely becomes very hot in the summer, you're probably familiar with the story-- the father forgot that the child was in the car. He went about his day somewhere else while she remained there. In that confined space, the baby died of heat stroke. The father is distraught. He didn't mean for this to happen. That father, in this case named Seth Jackson, wants to die himself, according to his mother.

On average, 38 children die in the United States every year from hyperthermia, or heat stroke, inside of hot cars according to the advocacy group Kids And Cars. Over 600 have died in this way since 1998. In roughly half of the cases, the parent/driver forgot that the child was in the car.

Proposals have been made for technological solutions to this problem; a way to force parents to remember that there is a small child in the car. A child who may be asleep and therefore making no noise him/herself, a child whose car seat is in the back of the car because he/she is too young to sit in the front seat of a car with airbag technology, a child whose car seat might not only be in the back of the car, but facing the back of the car so the driver won't even see his/her face without a mirror installed.

A high school student from Albuquerque (another hot place) named Alissa Chavez won an award last year for designing an alarm system called "The Hot Seat" which notifies the driver if a child is left in a vehicle. There are also, as you might expect, apps for that. Kids And Cars has a petition to the White House asking for funding to be allocated to the Department of Transportation to research technology (the nature of which isn't specified in the petition) to tackle the problem of children being left in hot cars, and also to "require installation of technology in all vehicles and/or child safety seats to prevent children from being left alone left alone [sic] in vehicles."

After so many years of hearing about children dying in this way, and listening to people's reactions to the stories, I've noticed a few trends in these reactions. Not positive trends. Trends that sound, quite frankly, a lot like concerted efforts at empathy avoidance. I'd like to address a few of these and explain why I find them so problematic.

1. "I can't believe he/she forgot that she had a child."

In the roughly 54% of occasions on which a child was left in a hot car because he/she was forgotten, it wasn't because the parent forgot that he/she had a child. He/she forgot that the child was left in the vehicle. Big difference.

2. "This parent must have been drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid/evil." 

In this case, at least,
Neighbors described Jackson and his partner as doting parents. 
"They are two of the most kind-hearted guys that I have ever met. And I hate that there's so much controversy right now with babies' being left in the car, because I truly don't feel from the bottom of my heart they would ever do this on purpose," said Lindey TenEyck, who lives across the street.

3. "This parent should be 'forgotten' in a jail cell for about 50 years and see how he/she likes it."

.....
Never mind, your capacity to empathize is clearly broken. I dearly hope you have no children of your own-- not because you might leave them in a hot car, but because I can see you banishing them to Siberia the moment they first burst into tears at the hospital. They wouldn't even make it to car.

4. "I just can't imagine doing/having done this with one of my children." 

All right, this is the big one. This is the main thought I want to address.

The fact that you can't imagine something like this means very, very little on the one hand, and quite a lot on the other.

Your not being able to imagine something means very, very little, I should say, in terms of its truth value. Not being able to imagine something is called a cognitive constraint, in that it's hard to meaningfully process a concept if you lack the ability to get your mind around it in the first place. But that doesn't mean it's not true.

Plenty of people misconstrue evolution, for example, because they just can't get their minds around the length of time it would take for the genetic structure of a species of organisms to change sufficiently for their progeny to become a different species, and so you get bizarre straw man characterizations of evolution that have no correlation to reality, like the crocoduck for example.

Now, just because Kirk Cameron is unable to properly imagine how evolution really works, that doesn't mean that evolution doesn't work. It just means that his poor brain, for whatever reason, is unable to grok the concept. He can't grasp that evolution is true because the only version of it he's willing or able to entertain is a caricature.

Likewise, your inability to do something like forget your own child in the back of your own car might be a caricature of a different sort-- an unwarranted but entirely understandable mental distancing from the idea that such a horrendous tragedy could have ever happened, or especially could ever happen in the future, to one of your own children because of your own negligence.

Let me emphasize those two words again-- entirely understandable. It's entirely understandable to banish from your mind the thought of something like this happening in your own life, because if a parent went around seriously considering that any and all tragedies which have ever ended the life of any child could happen to his or her own children, he/she could be rendered paralyzed with fear. It's possible that this person would become unable to function as a parent if that happened, because parenting involves risks, and imagining the worst possible consequence of every risk has a way of preventing people from being willing to take any risks.

Right?

Okay, but here's the problem with that, and this is the part that means a lot, as I mentioned-- being unable or unwilling to conceive of yourself doing something, especially a thing which involves forgetting something important with disastrous results, has the effect of inhibiting your ability to empathize with people who have done that thing. People who-- this is important--  it's very likely also would've said that they would never forget their child in a hot car, who would have themselves condemned any other parent who did so as drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid and/or evil. Yes, I'm quite sure that Seth Jackson himself would've said that.

So what ends up happening is that when someone like Jackson does forget, and a child ends up dying, there are endless other parents out there, who aren't necessarily any smarter or more responsible or loving or conscientious, who nevertheless have to condemn what he did in the strictest terms. This person who is described by his neighbor as lying on the ground near his car, "practically in the fetal position," experiencing the sort of pain that no parent ever wants to experience. The kind no parent could ever forget. This person is assumed to be the worst sort of human being imaginable. And it's very likely that right now, he would not disagree.

Except the problem is, he isn't. He's a parent who made a mistake. The problem with shutting off empathy to this person out of a sense of self-preservation, or rather a preservation of the image of oneself as a good parent who would never do this, is that it doesn't fix anything. It does absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening again. And again, and again, and again. Which brings me to the last thought.

5. "Pushing for [insert proposed safety measure here] means blaming [insert manufacturer here] for this sort of thing instead of the negligent parent." 

No, it doesn't. No more than any other safety device invented since the beginning of time has meant this.

When you and I were babies, we didn't travel in super-safe car seats in the back seat, facing backward. Maybe we were in car seats. But they weren't the same kind, and they were probably in the front seat or maybe even on the floor. In such a position, I can't help thinking that our presence there, even while asleep, was more of a reminder to Mom or Dad driving us around that we were in the car.

Does that mean that the backward-facing seats in the backseat are bad, and the practice should be ended? No, of course not. It means that in the act of moving car seats to the back seat, which was done in the first place because of the introduction and standardization of air bags because one of those being triggered could be dangerous to a small child in the front seat, may have created a new risk of its own which deserves its own safety concern. It makes absolutely no sense to slam on the brakes (figuratively speaking) when it comes to this concern, and insist that this is where safety measures end, that nothing should be done to prevent parents from forgetting a child in a car because it's just their own fault. They're horrible people and deserve to suffer, and that's where it ends, right?

No.

Do you care more about making sure parents suffer when their children die, or do you care more about preventing the children from dying? Because trust me, the first one is going to happen regardless.

Parents can make horrible mistakes. Good ones. Smart ones. Capable ones. That's the risk of being a parent-- you're going to screw up sometimes. If you're lucky, the results won't be devastating. That of course doesn't mean that it's all up to luck, but there is definitely a lot of luck involved.  It's okay to acknowledge that. It doesn't mean you're admitting to being a terrible parent. If it helps, you don't have to announce it to the world-- I'll do it for you.

I know that the pressure to appear perfect is neverending. But don't let that get in the way of empathizing with people who have clearly experienced tragedy, because they're already suffering enough. And certainly don't let it get in the way of supporting help for parents who need it. Because in the end, it's better that they get that help, isn't it?

Who knows, you might even benefit from it too. Or your kids will. Or their kids.