The fallacy of the proximity argument.

Longer term readers may remember my complaining that, as a political scientist, it is burdensome to have non-political scientists wanting to engage me about politics. No layperson would think to approach an astrophysicist and lecture him/her on the finer details of quarks and black holes, but everybody with an opinion feels perfectly entitled to tell me exactly why their views are just if not more accurate than mine when it comes to discussing political phenomena. Some go on to mention that I must have gotten my degrees so that I could become a politician, which is like telling a primatologist that he wants to be a chimp (I have used this analogy before so apologies if you have already read or heard it).

One of the most often used lines that I hear is what I call the “proximity argument.” That is the belief that proximity to an event, situation or process gives one special insights into them and therefore entitles one to opine from a position of purportedly superior insight. In vulgar terms it is the “you don’t live here” or “I was there” argument, in which the fact of being proximately familiar with something confers special argumentative rights when discussing it.

In recent weeks I have been following the lead up to October’s general elections in Argentina, including reading the posts from friends in Argentina on social media. Their opinions are deeply divided between Left and Right-oriented folk, with some of their commentary bordering on hysterical. What they all have in common is that they claim to know better what the “objective” situation is because they are living in Argentina at the moment, so observations from the likes of me, regardless of the fact that I have written professionally about Argentine politics for all of may adult life, do not count because I live outside of the country.

I cannot enumerate the times that people in the US, particularly MAGA morons, discount what I have to say about US politics because “you don’t live here anymore.” This despite my years of government service prior to emigration, my research and writing on various aspects of US foreign policy and military affairs and my ongoing connections to people in politics and government in that country. “You gotta be here,” they say.

Closer to home, I repeatedly hear and read people claim that one can not opine about issues involving Maori if one is not Maori. Most recently, I have watched with concern the unhappiness voiced by members of the NZ Muslim community with the way on which the investigations into the March 15 attacks have proceeded, in particular the way in which the Royal Commission of Inquiry has handled their participation in the process. The claim is made that since they were the targets and subjects of the attacks, Muslims should be front and centre in any investigation into the events that led up to March 15.

Conversely, several prominent commentators–Gerry Brownlee, Lianne Dalziel and Russell Brown amongst them–attacked me in personal terms because of my media commentary that Christchurch had a well- documented history of white supremacism prior to the attacks. Beside the hypocrisy that comes naturally to politicians, one can only assume that their reactions are due to their personal connections to that city, which may have led them to the conclusion that I was attacking the city as a whole rather than a well-known extremist element within it. In other words, they could or would not see the very rotten trees in their particular forest, or will not admit to having known about them (Dalziel still insists that there is no white supremacist “problem”).

Putting on my analyst’s hat, I find that proximity arguments of this sort to be problematic. Of course familiarity with something gives particular insight into it and therefore those closest to an event, situation or process need to be heard when seeking remedies or even just objective understanding of the phenomenon. But proximity also brings with it emotion and subjectivity, both of which are anathema to analytic objectivity.

Years ago I published a collection of essays titled “With Distance Comes Perspective.” The book title was taken from the Spanish phrase “hay que tomar distancia” (“take some distance”), which refers to the fact that one must sometimes step back and put some distance on something in order to understand its objective status. That always reminds me of the children’s story about five blind people touching an elephant–each describes a different beast depending on what part of the elephant they are touching–because the emotion and subjectivity conferred by proximity often makes one blind to the larger realities at play, or at least the bigger picture.

I put together that collection because I gained perspective on the US, and international politics in general, from having moved to NZ and gaining literal, figurative and theoretical distance on great power dynamics by adopting the perspective of a very small democratic state. I found that in order to better understand US foreign policy I needed to move away from it after having spent time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

That helps explain why the proximity argument is fallacious. It may be necessary to understanding something but it is not sufficient when trying to explain it. In many cases it obscures objective understanding because it clouds the analysis with emotion and/or the particular (often myopic) perspective of specific participants in or observers of an event. Balanced analysis requires objectivity and objectivity more often than not requires neutral distance from the subject of study. Emotion and subjectivity have no place in the analytic mind.

That does not mean that proximate familiarity is not required. All Ph.D. programs in comparative politics worth their reputations require students to acquire language skills and conduct in-country field research as part of their dissertations, preferably through the use of personal interviews, archival research, documentary collection and observer participation in the broader events and context surrounding their studies. The purpose is for the student to gain cultural familiarity with their case study or studies in order to give depth and contextual understanding to the specific research that they are undertaking. For example, one can never fully understand the nature of Argentine football if one does not understand the class and urban/rural divisions that underpin it, be it from club structure and the stadium songs used by fans to the role of organised crime in club governance and the selection process for the national team. For that to happen, one has to spend time there, both in general and in the stadiums.

For me the dissertation process required repeated trips to Argentina in order to conduct research in the Health and Labour Ministries, interview unionists and health policy makers, and run ideas past others in the research institutes to which I was affiliated at the time (all in Spanish, of course). Being raised in Argentina gave me a distinct advantage when it came to moving around and making connections, but I had to put my political beliefs and personal feelings aside when engaging in research and writing because my dissertation committee were not interested in how I felt but in rather what I objectively observed and the analytic conclusions that I reached from said observations (I left the personal stuff for the dedication page of the finished work).

That is something that I have carried with me over the years and, along with things such as inductive versus deductive reasoning, most-similar versus most-different and large-N versus small-N methodologies, that I tried to impart on students during 25 years of academic service. The idea is to use proximity whenever possible but to use it in a broader context where neutral analytic distance is maintained.

All of which is to say that we must not be fooled by those who use the proximity argument when opining about current events or policy issues. Be it measles, land rights, climate change, gun control, political finance, threat assessments or any other matter of contentious public concern, the false expertise of those who rely on the proximity argument must be balanced with the objective appraisals of those who can address the subject dispassionately and knowledgeably whether or not they have immediate connection to what is being discussed.

7 thoughts on “The fallacy of the proximity argument.

  1. Having gone back and read RBs criticism of you, it’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest it was based on a proximity fallacy, given it was clearly related to the accuracy and validity of the statements you made. What accuracy there maybe in the general point regarding appeals to proximity (and clearly it’s used all the time to discredit certain opinions), your entire piece falls foul of a different fallacy. Namely ‘appeals to authority’. Whatever your academic background your views need to stand on merit, not be given special credence as a political scientist. An astrophysicists work isn’t accepted because they’re an astrophysicist, it’s accepted because it stands up to scrutiny.
    And good luck convincing people political science and the hard sciences should be thought of in the same terms (Having studies Political Science albeit not nearly to the level you have, I find the comparison laughable).

  2. Excellent article as befits your academic background. I have never understood Lianne Dalziel’s wilful blindness about the Christchurch skin heads. Does she think denial of their well known existence means they are not part of the more posh view, three ships (or however many there were) of the garden city.

  3. Andrew:

    You are entitled to you opinion, but you need to re-read the post. It does not claim any authority merely based on academic background but on the objective research that goes into it, mixed in with immediate familiarity when and where appropriate. That is as true for astrophysicists as it is for political scientists. I can only hope that you are not one of those who think uneducated opinion is equal to scholarly observation.

    RB is a weepy fool when it comes to the 3/15 discussion. He attacked me personally on matters of which he knows nothing. I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here because it seemed that he may have an emotional connection to the city. His attack on me went beyond fact checking and was emotion-driven rather than fact-based in nature. It is true that I made some mistakes as I was commenting in real time based on what I saw on the live stream and read on 8chan and 4chan as things unfolded (something that RB was clueless about but felt compelled to opinionate on (e.g. the weapon being illegal in NZ)). He did not mention the context in which I made my commentary at the time because he just jumped to uninformed conclusions without ever looking into–much less contacting me about–why I made them (others took issue with me in the comments). As it stands the gist of my commentary was correct and will be proven to be so once evidence is presented in court (e.g., that the killer was intimately familiar with X-church, did not plan and prepare in complete secrecy, was radicalized after he first arrived in NZ and that the track record of neo-Nazi extremism in X-church is long and well documented). My main focus was and is on the systemic, institutional and individual failures that enabled the perp to do what he did, not nit-picking about minutiae.

    As for your comment about my comparing astrophysicists with political scientists being “laughable.” You are right. The study of that variable known as human political behaviour is far more complex and difficult than the study of predictable phenomena driven by immutable laws.

  4. Thanks Barbara.

    Andrew was just voicing his differing opinion on some aspects of the post in pointed fashion, which is fine. There have been much worse things said about me and my writing here, so I have gotten used to contrarians and trolls.

  5. Any profession gets outsiders who think they know better criticising them. I’ve seen or heard of actors being told how to act, bankers being lectured on investing and money management, meteorologists on weather prediction and climate change, astronomers on astrology (not a typo; and I expect astrophysicists have the same problem), and more. Presenting facts usually won’t change the mind of the critic but may convince any audience.

    Supposedly there was more respect for professionals in bygone days of yore. I’m not sure about that but certainly attaching political partisanship to all kinds of things makes people with no particular skills but some political identity more willing to speak up.

  6. AVR:

    My issue is that uninformed political opinion is far more prevalent than unqualified opinion on other professional subjects like astrophysics (and you would have to be a certified member of the tin foil hat brigade to have the audacity to challenge an astrophysicist on his/her professional turf without being a member of that professional community). Moreover, uninformed political opinion influences public policy choices far more than it does scientific debates, although I recognise that ignorance on issues like fluoride and vaccines has infected the coverage and content of policy debates on these subjects. Lastly, uninformed political opinion can be manipulated for nefarious ends. Think of the Brexit referendum and the disinformation that permeated the 2016 US election. Had the Brexiters and MAGA morons a scintilla of knowledge about the realities surrounding those plebiscites, the results might well have been different.

    More to the point of the essay, I simply believe that the “proximity argument” is overemphasised in many debates and needs to be balanced with objective assessments that are best secured by adding analytic neutrality to study of the subject in question.

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