GoogleIt Mail IT Print IT PermaLinkThe Problem With The Slippery Slope
08:56:41 PM

This post includes five pictures, drawn by me. I hope that you will bear with my utter lack of graphical ability.

Last week, Chris Whisonant made a point in a comment thread over in his blog, which I characterized as a "slippery slope" argument. That set the wheels in motion toward this post, but Pete Lyons, also, ended a recent post of his own with a reference to the slippery slope, and that convinced me to do it a bit sooner.

The slippery slope is such a tempting argument. I freely admit that I've made it myself, more times than I can count. Wikipedia has a good article about it, which gives it a very formal treatment and notes that "these arguments may indeed have validity, but they require some independent justification of the connection between their terms: otherwise the argument (as a logical tool) remains fallacious

The picture at the above right depicts the way the world looks like to someone making a slippery slope argument. There's a precipice in front of him, but everything behind him is nice and flat.

The problem, though, is that to whomever you are making your slippery slope argument, it is entirely possible that the world looks like it is precisely the opposite, with a precipice behind you instead of in front:


If both sides are right, then the world must look like a sharply peaked hill, with danger in all directions:


Most of the time, however, steep hills are the exception. This is not just true of geography. Most of the time, the terrain around us -- whether we're talking about geography, a social question, a business question, or a technical question -- is pretty flat:


Or, if you move back far enough to see more of the terrain, it probably looks like a rolling hillside, with lots of little bumps and footholds on it that will stop anyone from slipping all the way down:


(Ooops! I forgot to make my little stick-figure guy smaller to convey a sense that we're looking at the larger-scale terrain from farther away. That's not so much a sign of my lack of graphical talent as it is a sign of my being far more interested in the verbal than the graphical. )

That, in five badly drawn pictures is the gist of it. The maker of the slippery slope argument suggests that slight movement in one direction will result in a major fall toward a place he doesn't want to go. He is generally convinced that moving in the other direction, however, won't cause a major fall at all -- or he doesn't care if it does. There's always someone who sees it exactly the other way, however, and the truth is that the things we argue about just don't tend to work that way. The slippery slope comes up, more often than not, in social contexts, and the social landscape is mostly pretty smooth. Small changes don't tend to lead to really big changes. Most of the time, change happens in small increments, and after one small change there are still many obstacles to further change.

In order to fall down the slippery slope, all the obstacles that are in the way must be overcome. From now on, I will try to avoid slippery slope arguments myself, and I will challenge anyone who makes such an argument to provide a plausible series of events that lead from the peak down into the valley such that the first step toward the the edge creates sufficiently high probability that every obstacle to each event will be overcome. Bear in mind, that if there are 20 obstacles in the way of going all the way down the slippery slope, even if there's an 80% chance of overcoming each one, there's still just barely a 1% chance of getting all the way to the bottom.

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