A Price Too High
Bob Herbert asks the question in the Opinion pages of the New York Times. 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 how to incorporate rebuttal into your own essays (and how to anticipate rebuttals to your own argument).
For example, it’s not effective rebuttal to say that “The evidence the author provided was insufficient.” Such an objection may be true, but making it is much like saying, “I’m not convinced,” which, you’ll pardon me saying, isn’t very convincing either.
Health advocates for years provided evidence that demonstrated smoking caused cancer and were refuted with: That’s not enough evidence. Global warming was refuted by: The science is insufficient. But the burden of proof goes both ways. The only effective rebuttal to insufficient evidence is evidence to the contrary.
Insufficient Evidence Rebuttal
Ineffective: It’s not an effective rebuttal to request more evidence from the author. 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.
Effective: Providing a single piece of good evidence is an effective rebuttal.
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. If the author offers irrelevant evidence, reasoning should tell you what missing evidence would prove, or could prove the thesis.
Effective: Pointing out that the evidence to support the author’s conclusion is missing from the argument is an effective rebuttal. For example.
Herbert makes a good case for unanticipated costs of building nuclear power plants, but offers nothing to indicate that the higher costs are unsustainable. Is the electricity generated by nuclear plants more expensive per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired juice? If it is, he should have said so; probably would have said so. If in fact nuclear power is as affordable as traditional electricity, his fretting about cost overruns is a fruitless complaint that doesn’t prove we can’t afford them.
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 unintentionally proves that we are able to afford nuclear power even when they cost more to build than anticipated. No power plant has ever gone bankrupt for lack of customers.
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. But if the author clearly (but usually stealthily) “stacks the deck” by suppressing evidence, as Bob Herbert does in A Price Too High?, you should be able to call him on it easily.
Effective: You could say, for instance:
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
True Analogy/False Analogy: Analogy is prediction based on close comparisons. 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, and should therefore be a huge success too. 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?
Ineffective: 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 surely the fact that Fukushima was unpredictable didn’t cause it to occur. 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. If none are positioned as precariously as Fukushima—on massive, active earthquake-prone fault lines just hundreds of feet from the ocean—he’s got no business saying that the failure of one predicts the failure of the other.
False Choice Rebuttal
False Choice: Once a false analogy has been made, almost certainly a false choice will follow. 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. 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.
Ineffective: 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: 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?