Pushback on the Will McAvoy speech

Will McAvoy the newsroomDid Will McAvoy’s speech on “The Newsroom” make sense?

We’ve looked forward to surpassing the transparency of more established fact check sites by regularly answering the best criticisms we receive.  Sadly, we haven’t had much to work with over the first year or so.  We’ve decided to begin highlighting criticism by replying to a critique from “Arseny.”  Arseny objected to our criticism of a fictional television news anchor from the HBO series “The Newsroom.”

In the series’ premiere episode, McAvoy delivers a speech addressing the issue of what makes the United States the greatest nation in the world.  He declares it isn’t the greatest, offering a series of international rankings where the U.S. came in No. 3 or worse.  McAvoy says there’s no evidence the United States is the greatest nation on earth, and that’s the argument we evaluated, finding it ill-constructed.

Arseny tried to defend McAvoy’s speech:

There are no objectively greatest nations in the world, period. “Not bad” is the best you could get in that department. Logic tells you just that and anyone who would try to convince you otherwise is either a fool or a liar.

… Now if instead of trying to mathematically measure the exact correctness of his words (which is, in my humble opinion, stupid) you actually think about the (possible) reason behind McAvoy’s heated speech – that his beloved country isn’t as good as it used to be, definitely has got a lot of problems which are masked and neglected while those who’re supposed to deal with them are drowned in the petty rivalries – then you see that his speech is quite coherent and makes a lot of sense.

 

Arseny somewhat missed our point.  We agree there’s no strictly objective measure of the greatest nation on earth.  But that doesn’t mean one can’t make a reasonable argument based on agreed-upon criteria, a point Arseny later appeared to acknowledge.  We covered in our original article that McAvoy’s list of rankings doesn’t reasonably support his argument even if his rankings were all correct.  That leaves us to guess at whether Arseny was calling our approach stupid or simply expressing an irrelevant opinion.  We looked at the accuracy of the rankings since we knew it would interest readers, not because the rankings would or could support McAvoy’s argument.

Still, if Arseny’s right that McAvoy’s speech is coherent and makes a lot of sense, then it challenges our conclusion that McAvoy’s argument was nonsense.

Arseny’s argument relies on two central propositions.  He divides McAvoy’s speech into two parts and attaches each proposition to one part of the speech.

Arseny says the first part of McAvoy’s speech argues that the greatest nation concept is completely subjective.

Arseny says the second part of McAvoy’s speech argues the United States isn’t as great as it once was.

We don’t think Arseny’s framework makes McAvoy’s speech coherent.

Part One

If McAvoy intends to show that the greatness of the United States is completely subjective, then it makes no sense to use statistical data to support his argument.  Statistical data do not carry any relevance in making a purely subjective judgment.  Arseny himself makes that point (punctuation edited):

One could call US nation (or any other nation) “the best” and remain true if instead of using measurable criteria one simply says “cause I love it.”

 

Just so.  The United States could rank last in every favorable statistical category and yet claim greatest nation status based on a subjective impression.  One cannot coherently argue that greatness is purely subjective based on measurable data.  Arseny’s interpretation makes poor sense of the first part of McAvoy’s speech.

Part Two

We agree with Arseny that the second part of McAvoy’s speech argues the United States isn’t as great as it once was.  But that fact does no damage to our conclusion and leaves Arseny’s argument just as incoherent as McAvoy’s.

If greatness is entirely subjective and McAvoy argued that point in Pt. 1, then McAvoy again uses measurable data to try to convince his audience to change its purely subjective impression of U.S. greatness.

Arseny takes a stab at explaining the incongruity (bold emphasis added):

Part Two: and then he switches topic. It’s no longer about being (or not being) “the best”. He simply addresses some of the current problems comparing what he sees now with how (in his opinion) it used to be. There’s no problem in comparing two states with a finite, limited amount of properties. He says: we used to be informed; now we’re not. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election; now we do, etc… Because of all this he concludes that the *current* US is worse than US that *existed before* (in his opinion) and that he liked. Now this has nothing to do with other countries as he no longer compares either past or current US to them. It’s about the situation getting worse instead of getting better.

 

We don’t think Arseny’s explanation succeeds in propelling his point.

Any reasonable argument for national greatness will tend to rely on a finite number of comparisons.  Arseny says there’s no problem making such comparisons “with a finite, limited amount of properties,” but with the caveat the comparison is McAvoy’s opinion.

Is that supposed to mean McAvoy’s opinion is purely subjective?

Arseny’s trying to straddle the fence between pure subjective judgment and evidence-based judgment.  It’s an uncomfortable position for him to assume.  If we can make evidence-based judgments about the relative greatness of the United States in comparison to itself, then we can make the same types of evidence-based judgments in comparison to other nations, at least in principle.  Based on those judgments we can rank the nations from the greatest to the least, albeit not with perfect objectivity.

If McAvoy was trying to argue no nation can claim the title of “greatest nation on earth” since greatness is subjective, then he undercuts his own argument at every point by arguing based on objective evidences.  Likewise, if greatness is subjective then the American decline McAvoy bemoans in Pt. 2 of his speech is subjective.  McAvoy argues inconsistently and incoherently if he argues people should change their purely subjective views of the United States based on objective data.

Conclusion:  McAvoy’s argument is incoherent.

 

We thank Arseny for his willingness to express his opinion here.

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