Friday, 21 October 2016

The Argument That Didn't Go Too Far Enough

The Delta Smart was probably Garmin's least successful launch ever. Although the company had been making e-collars for a few years after purchasing Tri-Tronics in 2011, they'd never set foot into the shark-infested waters of social media until they wanted to show off their latest device for the smartphone generation. As soon as they posted their first marketing video, it was seized upon by people who didn't know Garmin made e-collars, didn't know e-collars were "a thing," or were strongly morally opposed to their use. It was, by all accounts, a very bad day for Garmin.

Professional animal behavior organizations weighed in over the next few days, with position statements first from IAABC, then PPG, then CCPDT. This, as you might expect, caused further ructions as inter-organizational differences of opinion came to the fore.

Among dog trainers, the main ethical conflict arose out of the claim that in focusing on the technological reasons the Delta Smart was a poorly designed, potentially dangerous piece of junk, the IAABC must, therefore, be condoning e-collars as a class of device. This claim popped up immediately after the position statement was released, both in public and member-only forums.

Critics suggested that IAABC's arguments against the device, that it would fail to work as advertised and cause more welfare problems than even other kinds of e-collar, just weren't strong enough. One critic claimed it was "like" IAABC were saying e-collars were completely okay so long as nobody chose this particular e-collar. Instead, the position statement's authors (myself among them) should simply have pointed out that all e-collars were bad and nobody should use them. Instead of technological reasons not to choose the Delta Smart, it was claimed, the authors should have given "scientifically proven" reasons, or, better still, moral reasons.

What's the principle here?

From the arguments critics made, the most likely principle seemed to be that if you criticize one instance of a class for one set of reasons, and these reasons don't apply to the class as a whole, you must, therefore, be condoning the class as a whole. This principle is not logically sound. Why would anyone believe that there's only room for one kind of reason why something is bad?

The reasons the Delta Smart is a terrible device don't change depending on your stance about e-collars more generally. It's a bad device because it's been shown to fire randomly, because the smartphone interface is clunky, and because low energy Bluetooth is particularly prone to interference and latency when used at a distance. This should be something that both sides of the debate can agree on: one of those fantastical times where warring factions come together to fight a larger common enemy. 

I believe all professionals have an obligation to inform and educate the public. Time and again, education has been proven to work better in effecting behavior change than a blunt demand for prohibition. For example, abstinence-only sex education in schools has been proven to be less effective in delaying teenage sexual activity and reducing pregnancy rates than initiatives that teach about safe sex. People who believe in the immorality of sex before marriage ought to be in favor of educating school-age virgins about safe, consensual sex rather than demanding they sign a pledge not to have any, even if they believe this education should never be used by the kids who receive it. This is because if they have an aim of preventing as many people as possible from having pre-marital sex, they should endorse whatever strategy works best even if it runs contrary to their beliefs.

Being informed and understanding something is vital to having a justifiable stance for or against it. It's true for sex education and it's true in dog training: if you know better, you can do better. Everyone benefits when we encourage people to think critically and engage deeply with issues.

It's not black and white, except sometimes

Rhetoric isn't a dirty word

For everything you believe about dog training, you can probably think of a clutch of different reasons why you hold that belief: some personal, some practical, some normative. Some of these reasons will justify the belief, others will explain why you hold it. When you're trying to convince other people to share your belief, choosing the least controversial and most generalizable reason is a sound rhetorical tactic. You should choose the argument that is most likely to achieve the effect you want in your audience, not the one you believe is most important or the one that makes you feel best. In this case, IAABC wanted people to not buy the Garmin Delta Smart, all people, not just people who weren't going to buy an e-collar anyway, and we chose reasons that were most likely to convince the widest audience. 

My technological reasons for believing that nobody should use the Delta Smart are different from my moral justification for believing we should always use the least invasive, minimally aversive effective strategy in training and behavior modification. But they're not incompatible.

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