As partisans and ideologues wage their linguistic wars, I’m always looking for ways to cut through the fog and optimize the journey towards truth. There’s a particular type of argument I often see that I think is particularly weak. I’m calling it appealing to the future.
An “appeal to the future” is when a partisan pundit gets really excited about a prediction, proposal, promise, or otherwise unrealized claim, and perfunctorily elevates it to prophetic status. This claim is used as evidence that the other tribe’s policies or politicians are evil personified, or evidence that my tribe’s policies or politicians are gloriously brilliant.
The only ingredient a pundit usually needs for an appeal to the future is a “source.” It doesn’t really matter if the source is a CBO budget analysis, a corporate quarterly forecast, a scientific paper, or an anonymous insider tip. Nor does it matter whether or not the pundit has previously considered the source to be trustworthy. The only purpose of the source is to use its projection as a starter to generate emotional validation of the pundit’s pre-existing worldview. (In fact, the really brash “thought leader” pundits do not even need a source; a gut feeling about upcoming trends tenuously linked to any arbitrary news is good enough.) Generally, the claim does not pan out as predicted, but by then the pundit has moved on to a new appeal to the future to generate the next round of outrage or excitement.
For Example: Obamacare
Obamacare has already been through several rounds of respective “imminent failure” and “imminent success.” Supporters recently seized on a report that insurers planned to spend $500 million on advertising. Pundits like Paul Krugman practically hailed it as the second coming of Obama. I didn’t realize this advertising plan was “the shoe we’ve all been waiting to see drop,” but apparently it was and it’s great news! “Insurers think this is going to work.” Never mind that the same pundits are usually criticizing insurer actions. Never mind that we could just as easily interpret the advertising rush as a ploy of desperation, or that it may not actually happen, or that it may not actually have any significance if it does. Never mind that previous future appeals – por ejemplo, that people would learn to love Obamacare – have thus far failed to materialize. Why worry about present reality when we can always appeal to a newer, hopeful future?
Not that Obamacare critics have been much better. The presently unfolding several million cancelled health plans wasn’t bad enough, so some started appealing to predictions that 80 million people will be seeing their plans cancelled! “Several experts predicted it,” and “the administration estimated” themselves. Never mind that conservative critics laughably dismissed other, rosier predictions from the administration. Never mind that even that prediction requires some creative stretching to interpret it in such a devastating way. Never mind that if this prediction fails to materialize, we’ve already moved on to a new appeal – surely the insurers are bound to start revolting any time now! Why worry about present reality when we can always appeal to a newer, hopeful future?
For Example: Climate Change
The climate change debate is full of this appeal. It seems like I’m always seeing someone tout some new evidence for climate change that, to my surprise, is not actually a new data or observation but a new projection about the loss of some habitat or an increase in some bad weather metric that could occur forty years from now!
In a widely circulated piece on Slate’s Bad Astronomy last year, Phil Plait attempted to debunk the claim that there’s been no global warming for 16 years. In my opinion, he did not prove that it “has not even slowed,” but what’s really ironic is that among the actual observations (like the record low Arctic ice cap in 2012), Phil used an appeal to the future that was just too emotionally validating not to pass up: “It is getting so hot in Australia right now that weather forecasters had to add a new color to the weather maps.” Never mind that the actual temperature ended up being seven degrees cooler than predicted and well within the old color range. Never mind that the “new color on the map!!!” hysteria is still circulating the Internet as evidence of climate change (an interesting example of an appeal to the future from the past!)
The projections that feed appeals to the future are not inherently useless. But they are not generally intended to be used as arguments for an ideological case, and they are often weaker than other types of arguments available for making those cases. All future projections are by definition a type of calculated knowledge, which is generally more likely to be wrong than direct knowledge. But if appeals to the future are so often unreliable, why do partisans keep using them?
The incentive to create appeals to the future stems directly from the ideologue’s exaggerated worldview in which his views are sacred truth and his opponent’s views are evil lies. In the actual present and complicated reality, many of the ideologue’s predictions and prescriptions are not as wonderful as he imagines; neither are his opponent’s quite as harmful as he believes. So the only way to continue to validate a worldview that is not actually validated by the past or the present is to grasp at any potential indication that the future is about to prove it all right.
“The economy under my president may not look so hot now, but just you wait – this new survey shows a confidence uptick that proves the recovery is just around the corner!” Or: “the economy under their president may not look like it’s collapsing yet, but just you wait – the latest Fed statement betrays a weakness that proves the end is just around the corner!” And round and round it goes.