Nuance-Trolls and Bad-Faith Policy Debates

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

How do you make someone reluctant about supporting a policy? One strategy is to suggest people with clear answers do not appreciate just how complicated, complex, multifaceted—and my favorite — “nuanced” the situation really is. No one wants to view themselves as unsophisticated or unrefined and this plays on that insecurity. Unfortunately, major news outlets embraced this strategy, for some reason, and one can only speculate about motive.

What am I talking about? These constant nuance arguments. You’ve probably read them: the ones that muddy the waters but don’t seem to say anything. There’s even a term for it. It’s nuance-trolling; not the best term, but it works. Nuance-trolling is constructing a debate by evading and relying on rhetorical filibustering; it turns complexity into a virtue, a fetish for its own sake. Sociologist Kieran Healy of Duke University summed it up in his article “Fuck Nuance,” arguing that nuance, or rather what he called “actually existing nuance,” a pillar of academia and mainstream discourse, “is what one does when faced with a question for which one does not yet have a compelling or interesting answer. Thinking up compelling or interesting ideas is difficult, so it is often easier to embrace complexity than to cut through it.” In his essay, he writes about “nuance traps.” One is “the nuance of the fine-grain [ed],” an “empirical description… masquerading as increased accuracy.”

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If NPR writes about Portugal’s drug policy, the headline will never be, “Why decriminalization works; evidence suggests the United States should follow suit.” There are two ways to discuss Portuguese drug policy, but the most regularly featured is that which marks is as a curiosity, the same way a correspondent might spotlight the popularity of Twitch or marvel at phenomenon of furry conventions. For instance, in the NPR story “In Portugal Drug Use is Treated As a Medical Issue, Not a Crime,” the successes are not assumed to be applicable to the U.S.  Is it me or does it not reveal more about the United States than Portugal, if treating drug use as a non-criminal behavior is noteworthy?

But to the original point, nuance abuse, let’s look at a 2011 NPR interview with Keith O’Brien, a journalist who traveled to Portugal to report on its decriminalization initiative, titled “Mixed Results For Portugal’s Great Drug Experiment.” The results don’t seem so mixed in the beginning. O’Brien noted that his research found that “drug-induced death rate has plummeted to five times lower than the European Union average,” and that “drug-related HIV infections in Portugal had dropped 95 percent.” He also wrote how the other harm reduction programs the government has provided, including a mobile methadone program and numerous, often required, treatment options, were still less costly than incarceration. His story mentioned a 63% increase in people seeking treatment, stated was that heroin use had been cut in half, and discussed how the prison population also shrank. 

As you go through it, near the end, it turns out those “mixed results” aren’t mixed results after all, instead emphasizing variables that one could argue don’t matter. The counterevidence was there had been an increase in the number of people tried—keep that word in mind — “cannabis, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, ecstasy, and LSD” in their lifetime. Lifetime self-reporting showed people admitted to using “heroin” during a lifetime, a figure that jumped from 0.7% to 1.1%; for cocaine, it went from 0.9% to 1.9%. In aggregate, this marked a change of 3.4% in 2001 to 3.7% in 2007. Even if that is true, the idea that people “try” drugs, any drug, reveals nothing. What matters as a policy matter is if the trend continued, which it didn’t, and whether the use translated into societal problems. The mere fact of someone trying drugs can be a good, bad, or neutral experience. Putting that aside, if the United States could increase people in treatment at a lower cost, decrease the prison population, dramatically reduce drug-related disease and overdose deaths, and the tradeoff we had to bear was some nominal increase in lifetime usage, who would say no? The only people that come to mind whose brain has been poisoned by their irrational fears and hatred of drugs they can no longer differentiate between stupid and sensible policies.

In August 2018, for example, NPR ran “What’s The Evidence That Supervised Drug Injection Sites Save Lives?” concluding it was a “tricky question to answer,” despite researching examining the issue for years. In the article there are studies back up what harm-reduction activists said, and on the other side was a new study, which was so consequential that it was supposed to give pause to advocates, or suggest more caution was needed. But again, one study, one counterweight. It just so happens it was retracted.

Even if it hadn’t been retracted, the conclusion wasn’t “don’t open safe injection sites” but, paraphrasing here, that “safe injections sites are more robust when states and municipalities allocate the resources to meet the need and demands of that area.” But Vox and other publications used it the same way as NPR had: primarily, if not exclusively, to write up pretend “complication” pieces in which the authors appeared to take seriously what harm-reduction advocates have said. At Vox the original post was updated: “The study, published by the International Journal of Drug Policy, has been retracted by the journal due to ‘methodological weaknesses.’ As such, it should no longer be taken seriously.”

The problem here is not the debate but how a retraction doesn’t alter the discussion, though its admission was purported to be significant. In an alternate universe, one could imagine a follow-up: “In light of the retraction, evidence at the moment overwhelming tilts in favor harm-reduction advocates,” or something that at least makes the sincerity seem real. But what is unsaid makes what is said evident: these stories parsing new studies, additional evidence, and claims of appreciating nuance discussed in the pages of academic journals isn’t real. Instead, it’s a prop to stage a phony debate. I’m tempted to say most of these self-professed wonks are merely engaged in wonk cosplay, but before I make a definitive judgment, I need to filter through the studies.