Tuesday, July 01, 2003
The New York Times reports today on pruritis. Itch, an under-loved sensation, is really quite interesting. When studying opioids in class I learned that one of the most common side effects of pain-killers is pruritis and that the reason for this is most likely that pain masks itch. Opioids may attenuate pain but itch originates from another center and by disguising the pain, itch becomes evident. And by scratching an itch, you produce a slight sensation of pain which masks the underlying itch. The term for the phenomenon of hiding one sensation by engaging in another is counterirritation and it's responsible for more than just relieving itches. When you have a headache and you massage your temples, that's counterirritation, except you are not using pain to mask itch, you're using pressure to mask pain. The same principle applies to acupressure and acupuncture. These ancient medicinal practices are believed to be effective in alleviating pain by giving your brain something else to think about. To draw the concept out beyond sensation and to other realms of the body, think about the autoimmune disease, MS. In patients with MS (multiple sclerosis), the immune system basically starts attacking itself with debilitating consequences. One experimental treatment that provides people with some measure of relief is bee sting therapy. Many sufferers of MS subject themselves to repeated bee stings to slow the progression of the disease. The idea behind bee venom therapy is to give the immune system something else to attack rather than itself: the bee venom acts as a decoy, in much the same manner that pain distracts you from itch.
Geoffrey Nunberg, professor of linguistics at Stanford University spoke today on Fresh Air about slippery slopes. The full text of his speech is here. Key excerpts follow. I haven't learned to indent yet so anything inside of the >><< is Prof. Nunberg's words.
>>It's a convenient way of warning of the dire effects of some course of action without actually having to criticize the action itself, which is what makes it a favorite ploy of hypocrites: "Not that there's anything wrong with A, mind you, but A will lead to B and then C, and before you know it we'll be up to our armpits in Z."
Or sometimes the slippery slope is invoked in the course of making an argument about the impossibility of drawing clear moral distinctions -- if you can't draw the line between A and B, then how can you accept one and reject the other? That's an argument you always hear from abortion critics -- where does a fetus end and a child begin? It's an instance of what Greek philosophers called the fallacy of the heap, or the Sorites Fallacy. If you start with a heap of sand and take one grain away, you're still left with a heap, but if you keep repeating the process you wind up saying that a single grain of sand is a heap all by itself. The mistake is in assuming that if a distinction isn't clear-cut it can't be drawn at all.
But the real problem with slippery slope arguments isn't their logic, but the rhetorical games people play with them -- they're a way of turning every decision into an unprecedented step into the void. In theory, you could use Scalia's logic to run the metaphor uphill -- you could just as easily say that refusing to overturn the Texas statute would open the way to laws restricting nose rings, public dancing, or other things that voters might find morally unacceptable. But nobody ever brings up the slippery slope to argue for a change in law or policy -- it's always an argument for maintaining the status quo. The English legal scholar Glanville Williams once called the slippery slope "the trump card of the traditionalist, because no proposal for reform is immune to [it]."<<