A Price Too High
Bob Herbert asks the question in the Opinion pages of the New York Times. Is nuclear power worth the risk? It’s pretty clear from the evidence he cites that he thinks the answer is No, it’s not worth the risk (or Yes, the price is too high, if that’s how you phrase the question).
Since he’s willing (sort of) to go on the record with his objections, let’s examine his essay as an opportunity for rebuttal, the better to understand what rebuttal means when it comes time to craft your own essays, days from now.
Insufficient Evidence Rebuttal
Not Effective: It’s not an effective rebuttal to request more evidence from the author.
Why? There would be no end to the requests. Any opponent of any argument could simply refuse to be convinced forever, always claiming that her opponent had provided “insufficient evidence.”
Effective: If the author offers insufficient evidence, or no evidence at all, one good piece of evidence of your own for an opposing point of view can easily refute it. Provide that evidence and you win the argument.
Analogy: Telling your poker buddy that his hand is weak does not entitle you to the pot. You must show your cards. If he has five unrelated number cards, your Ace or your pair of deuces will win.
Irrelevant Evidence Rebuttal
Ineffective: It’s not an effective rebuttal to complain that you really don’t see what the evidence provided has to do with the argument.
Why? Nothing would prevent you from refusing to acknowledge the obvious relevance.
Effective: If the author offers irrelevant evidence, logic should tell you what the evidence does prove, or could prove. Point out that the evidence supports a different conclusion than the author’s.
Inconclusive Evidence Rebuttal
Ineffective: It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that the evidence provided doesn’t quite add up to a proof. If the author offers substantial evidence that doesn’t actually support the argument though, as Bob Herbert does in A Price Too High?, you should be able to identify the logical fallacy at fault.
Effective: Demonstrating how a correct interpretation of the evidence proves something other than the author’s argument is an effective rebuttal. In rebuttal of Bob Herbert’s four-paragraph description of cost overruns, for example, you could say:
Herbert makes a good case for unanticipated costs of building nuclear power plants, but offers nothing to indicate that the higher costs are unsustainable. If the electricity generated by nuclear plants is more expensive per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired juice, he should have said so; probably would have said so. If in fact nuclear power is as affordable as traditional electricity, or even cheaper, his fretting about cost overruns is a fruitless complaint without real substance. What’s unimportant is what the cost was projected to be. What’s important is the final cost of electricity generated by nuclear power.
Stacking the Deck Rebuttal
Ineffective: It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that the author is unfair to your “side” of the argument and should offer evidence to support your position.
Why? Because the author has no obligation to present your evidence for you. She may not qualify your evidence as legitimate, and is under no obligation to do so.
Effective: But if the author clearly but stealthily “stacks the deck” by suppressing evidence you know to be legitimate, as Bob Herbert does in A Price Too High?, you should be able to call him on it easily.
Ineffective: You can’t win by pointing out that something’s missing:
Bob Herbert doesn’t mention any advantages of nuclear power besides the elimination of greenhouse gases.
Effective: But you can win by specifying what’s been left out:
Bob Herbert acts as if the only benefit we obtain from nuclear power is reduced greenhouse gas emissions. If that were the case, the price might truly be too high. But he neglects to mention nuclear power replaces unsustainable fossil fuels; makes us less dependent on foreign oil imports; eliminates the mercury, sulfur, and countless other emissions from burning coal, and improves our national security by making us less beholden to Middle East dictators.
False Analogy Rebuttal
Analogy is prediction based on close comparisons. When the comparisons are very close and pertinent, analogy is a powerful argument. But when the similarities between cases are false or irrelevant, the argument fails.
False Analogy: If I’m planning to release The Matrix Revolutions shortly after the outrageous success of The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, I point out that the new film shares the same writing and directing team, an almost identical cast, and the same subject matter as the first two films. I predict that the third installment in the series will therefore be a huge success. But I’d be wrong.
Why? What one difference made that analogy false? The new actress who played the Oracle? Or the fact that the script was anticlimactic and the audience was already saturated with better material?
False Analogy: When Bob Herbert compares the nuclear disaster at Fukushima with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he emphasizes that they were both almost unimaginable. Nobody could have predicted them, he says. He uses that similarity to prove that a similar nuclear catastrophe could happen here.But he’s wrong.
Why? Surely the fact that Fukushima was unpredictable didn’t cause it to occur.
Ineffective Rebuttal: It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that Herbert “uses false analogy” when comparing Fukushima to nuclear plants in the US. But it’s a start.
Effective: An effective rebuttal of a false analogy is one that points out the essential difference that keeps the third Matrix from repeating the first two movies, or in this case,
The essential difference between Japanese nuclear plants and US plants is that US plants are not positioned as precariously as Fukushima—on massive, active earthquake-prone fault lines just hundreds of feet from the ocean. As long as we avoid the ridiculously inept placement of nukes, Herbert has no business saying that the failure of one predicts the failure of the other.
False Choice Rebuttal
Once a false analogy has been made, almost certainly a false choice will follow.
False Choice: Should we put money into getting people jobs, or should we slash government budgets, putting more people out of work?
Neither alone may be the real answer, but debates are often framed between two such false choices.
True Choice: The third choice, that we should slash the parts of the budget that reduce employment and spend the savings putting people to work, never gets a hearing.
False Choice: When Bob Herbert frames his second question:
whether it makes sense to follow through on plans to increase our reliance on nuclear power, thus heightening the risk of a terrible problem occurring here in the United States
he’s offering a false choice based on the assumption that more nuclear power necessarily increases risk. It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that Herbert “offers a false choice” when asking us to choose energy futures, but it’s a start.
Effective Rebuttal: An effective rebuttal of a false choice is one that points out the unnamed third choice, in this case, that
every new nuclear plant either be built to address all known risks or not be built at all. Another would be to point to countries like France that, unlike Japan, have relied on nuclear power for almost all their energy needs for decades without serious incidents. Do we have to choose between Japan and no nukes? Or could we choose safe nukes?
Update on Indian Creek, FEB 2016
Bob Herbert reported in 2011 that New York Governor Cuomo was calling for the immediate shutdown of the plant, which by then had exceeded its projected safe lifetime by more than ten years. More than five years later, FEB 2016, the plant was still up and running.