Friday, October 1, 2010

You too can write like a professional pundit -- RMP/STF arguments

This series of post (go here, here, here, here, and while you're at it, here) got me thinking about a rhetorical trick that has gained great popularity in the op-ed pages and other places you find pundits at work. It's called the RMP/STF argument and it's something you can try at home.

Start with a Relatively Minor Problem (RMP) usually expressed through a vaguely troubling statistic. Here are some RMPs:

We might eventually be forced to cut Social Security benefits though not by that much and not for a long time;

A test of international academic performance shows America near the bottom though the test is fairly new and other better established tests and studies contradict this finding;

Airports lack amenities (like plug-ins for laptops) and it can be difficult getting from one terminal to another.

Now pair your RMP with a Serious Tangentially-related Fact (STF). Here are some examples of STFs:

If current trends continue, Medicare will be unsustainable in the near future;

Almost 60% of the students in Nevada will fail to graduate high school;

TSA procedures of questionable value have a large cost to the economy in terms of lost productivity and tourism dollars.

Finally, you propose a solution to your original RMP:

Privatize Social Security;

Fire teachers who don't produce higher test scores;

Reduce zoning restrictions to create more meaningful competition for airports.

Of course, privatizing SS does nothing to help Medicare, reducing zoning restrictions will have no effect on TSA rules and focusing on test scores actually gives schools an incentive to encourage students to drop out, but that doesn't matter. The argument works on an emotional level. It uses the negative associations of the STF to make people more receptive to the solution.

This is closely related to Paul Krugman's "serious person" phenomena where economists, politicians, bankers, etc. are considered responsible and realistic for taking positions directly contradicted by the data. Once again it is the emotional association that matters.

When you criticize an RMP/STF argument, someone will invariably say "At least, _____ is willing to talk about [serious issue]." That's not really true. _____ is willing to invoke the issue and we need a higher standard than that.

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