Straw Sorbo

Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame and other entertainment ventures of playing a philosophy professor) has given a kind of critique of the California Coronavirus lockdown rules. Governor Gavin Newsom had imposed a 10PM curfew as numbers of infections had risen sharply in the last weeks. Sorbo, critiquing the rule, tweeted:

The folks at Breitbart thought it was fuggin’ hilarious. The joke, as I understand it, is that the hour of 10:00 is the threshold, and Sorbo narrowly avoided it. Of course, for the joke to actually criticize the curfew, you’d have to think that the curfew’s justification hung on things being radically different between 9:59 and 10:01. But that’s not what the justification for the rule is. The justification is that whatever happens later than usual dinner hours is unnecessary and likely more risky. And so, the penumbral zone between normal dinner hours (5:00 to 8:00?) and not (later than 9:00?) will admit of some relatively arbitrary line-drawing if we have to do it. Assuming there needed to be a curfew, the line was drawn at 10, likely to give as much room to err on the side of tolerance. (That’s how vagueness stuff works, right?)

So the joke works as a kind of straw man, then. Instead of constructing the reasons and attributing them to your straw man, and then turning to criticize them, one just announces a criticism — and the felicity conditions for that criticism produces the shitty reasons all by themselves. Clever!

The thing here is that this straw man argument is just so clearly crappy, and the joke sucks. So why did the folks at Breitbart love it so? (And Sorbo’s Twitter followers loved it, too.) This is what John and I in the new book on the Straw Man (now with a press, and we’ll see how things go!) have called the EFFECTIVENESS PUZZLE about straw man arguments. How in the world do they work when they very clearly misattribute the reasons criticized? We’ve got a whole variety of answers to this puzzle, but the big idea with this case is this: this straw man is not erected to be criticized for the sake of folks who sympathize with the lockdown rules — it’s erected and knocked down for the sake of an audience who already opposes those rules.

That is, the audience for this straw man already is committed to the fact that the rules are stupid and mere exercises of power. They are not out to convince anyone of anything, but to express an already held commitment and share it. Let’s call it the EXPRESSIVE ROLE of straw manning — it’s like a shared gripe session about one’s political foes with one’s allies. You mock up a picture of the hated ones and just beat it up together. And it doesn’t matter if the mock up accurately depicts the opposition or their reasons — it just matters that everyone in your audience already agrees that they are wrong, stupid, laughable, and need to be opposed. So with these kind of straw man arguments, the inaccuracy of the representation of the other side is beside the point — the negativity of the depiction is the point.

Of course, you can see that this is the case with Sorbo’s later tweet:

Err… it did work. Infection rates went down. Remember all that ‘flatten the curve’ business in the spring? To think that ‘worked’ meant that the virus was eradicated is, well, to get the situation all wrong. But that’s a whole other kind of intentional misinterpretation, isn’t it?

Magic words

Some of what argumentation theorists do is produce a metalanguage of argument. They make up names for stuff. Stuff you shouldn’t do (hollow man) stuff you should sometimes do (iron man). It’s partially a normative study, so the metalanguage is normative. As the Owl of Minerva Problem points out, however, there’s an inherent challenge in that the metalanguage for argument warps our performances. It’s a new thing to keep track of and it alters the way we interact. The thing it was meant to solve isn’t solved. It gets absorbed into the problem it was trying to solve. Interestingly, this is also the case for the Owl of Minerva problem.

Here is a variation on the Owl of Minerva Problem. Recall that the Owl of Minerva is retrospective, and productive of new normative terms. In some cases, once these terms get introduced, they are so powerful that they can never be used. This is to say that once a term becomes associated with a certain kind of extreme failure, it becomes magical. It’s a normative term with actual descriptive power. Take “racism.” Though there are significant disagreements about what really is the issue (ask a philosopher of race), there are no (significant) disagreements that it is bad, very bad. The same is true (with some perverse exceptions) of Nazism). No one wants to be a Nazi, even people who literally hold Nazi views. This video pretty much sums this up:

A more recent version of this featured three police officers caught on tape discussing their desire to engage in racially motivated homicide and start a race war with genocidal objectives. In their own defense, the officers said they weren’t racist:

Later, according to the investigation, Piner told Moore that he feels a civil war is coming and that he is ready. Piner said he was going to buy a new assault rifle, and soon “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them (expletive)” Blacks. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” Moore responded that he wouldn’t do that.

Piner then told Moore that he felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map. That’ll put them back about four or five generations.” Moore told Piner he was “crazy,” and the recording stopped a short time later.

According to police, the officers admitted it was their voices on the video and didn’t deny any of the content. While the officers denied that they were racists, they blamed their comments on the stress on law enforcement in light of the protests over the death of George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died last month after a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

I’d be happy to hear if someone has identified this phenomenon and given it a funny name. It’s something like the Harry Potter Problem, where one invokes fallacy names in place of (hopefully constructive) criticism and discussion. But in this case the invocation of the magic word necessarily backfires. It casts a kind of reverse spell. So one discovers a new powerful and descriptive normative concept, but its very power means its real targets will never accept it.

The Socratic problem for fallacy theory

How do you explain that someone is being irrational? What does even mean to be irrational? What does it mean to explain irrationality? After all, “it seemed right at the the time” is a perpetual phenomenological condition–this is the problem Aristotle tried to account for in his discussion of Akrasia (weakness of will; incontinence) in book VII of the NIcomachean Ethics: how can someone know that they should Phi, intend to do Phi, but then fail to Phi? You can’t explain this by referring to reasons because the reasons, at least the motivating ones, are inoperative in some important sense. Fans ofThe Philosopher know that he struggled mightily with this problem after rejecting the Socratic claim that akrasia is just ignorance. In a lot of ways he ends up embracing that view, though in doing so he seems to identify a different shade of the problem: there are different kinds of reasons.

Something akin to this problem haunts argumentation theory. For, it seems obvious that people commit fallacies all of the time. This is to say, on one account, they see premises as supporting a conclusion when they don’t. One problem for fallacy theory is that they seem to them to support the conclusion, so fallacies aren’t really irrational. This is the Socratic problem for fallacy theory. There are not fallacies because no one ever seems to be irrational to themselves.

To the Socratic problem for fallacy theory there’s the Aristotelian distinction between kinds of reasons. And of course when we say reasons we also mean, just like Aristotle, explanations (which is what the Greek seems to mean anyway). So we can explain someone’s holding p in a way that doesn’t entail that holding p was rational (or justified, which is similar but different).

Lots of things might count as accounts of irrationality; one common one is bias. This has the handy virtue of locating the skewing of someone’s reason in some kind of psychological tendency to mess up some key element of the reasoning process in a way that’s undetectable to them. So, confirmation bias, for example, standardly consists in noticing only that evidence that appears to confirm your desired outcome.

Since you cannot will yourself to believe some particular conclusion, this works out great, because you can look at (or better not look at) evidence that might produce it (or avoid that which will). Of course, you can’t be completely be aware of this going on (thus–bias). This is what Aristotle was trying to represent.

This is one very cursory account of the relation between what people mean by irrationality in argumentation and what others mean by it. There is, by the way, a lot of confusion about what it means to teach this stuff–to teach about it, to teach to avoid it, etc. More on that here. I recommend that article for anyone interested in teaching critical thinking.

Having said all of this, there is interesting research (outside of my wheelhouse sadly) on bias being going in psychology and elsewhere. Here is one example. A sample graph:

However, over the course of my research, I’ve come to question all of these assumptions. As I begun exploring the literature on confirmation bias in more depth, I first realised that there is not just one thing referred to by ‘confirmation bias’, but a whole host of different tendencies, often overlapping but not well connected. I realised that this is because of course a ‘confirmation bias’ can arise at different stages of reasoning: in how we seek out new information, in how we decide what questions to ask, in how we interpret and evaluate information, and in how we actually update our beliefs. I realised that the term ‘confirmation bias’ was much more poorly defined and less well understood than I’d thought, and that the findings often used to justify it were disparate, disconnected, and not always that robust.

The questions about bias lead to other ones about open-mindedness:

All of this investigation led me to seriously question the assumptions that I had started with: that confirmation bias was pervasive, ubiquitous, and problematic, and that more open-mindedness was always better. Some of this can be explained as terminological confusion: as I scrutinised the terms I’d been using unquestioningly, I realised that different interpretations led to different conclusions. I have attempted to clarify some of the terminological confusion that arises around these issues: distinguishing between different things we might mean when we say a ‘confirmation bias’ exists (from bias as simply an inclination in one direction, to a systematic deviation from normative standards), and distinguishing between ‘open-mindedness’ as a descriptive, normative, or prescriptive concept. However, some substantive issues remained, leading me to conclusions I would not have expected myself to be sympathetic to a few years ago: that the extent to which our prior beliefs influence reasoning may well be adaptive across a range of scenarios given the various goals we are pursuing, and that it may not always be better to be ‘more open-minded’. It’s easy to say that people should be more willing to consider alternatives and less influenced by what they believe, but much harder to say how one does this. Being a total ‘blank slate’ with no assumptions or preconceptions is not a desirable or realistic starting point, and temporarily ‘setting aside’ one’s beliefs and assumptions whenever it would be useful to consider alternatives is incredibly cognitively demanding, if possible to do at all. There are tradeoffs we have to make, between the benefits of certainty and assumptions, and the benefits of having an ‘open mind’, that I had not acknowledged before.

What is interesting is how questions about one kind of account (the bias one, which is explanatory) lead back to the questions they were in a sense meant to solve (the normative one). But perhaps this distinction is mistaken.

It’s never too soon

I wrote most of this post back in 2017. I am editing it (just a little) and moving it to the front because (1) I still (maybe mistakenly) think this is an interesting idea; (2) I haven’t heard it anywhere else; (3) it’s appropriate today.

You very often cannot control the basic circumstances of argument, especially public argument. A public argument, let’s say, is one you have in public, with, um, the public, about matters that concern the public (I suppose this could be anything). You can try to bring about a public argument on your own by inviting those around you, or the people who read your blog, or maybe someone in some comment thread. But you’re more likely to be at the mercy of events. I think this is the point behind trending topics on Twitter. You’d be jump on board because by yourself you can’t start a trend (unless you’re somebody famous). You have to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

This may run counter, however, to certain social norms. One such norm is not to speak ill of the dead or dying, or not to take advantage of misfortune to “score political points,” or the more general comedic injunction to avoid making jokes, “too soon.”

As an epistemic matter, however, arguments require you to put evidence before your audience. This means you must spring upon them where they are and when they are there.

The injunction against taking advantage or forcing unkind thoughts runs counter to the imperative to present your case when the opportunity arises. My case in some circumstance might involve alighting upon some uncomfortable aspect of a public official at some weak point in their life, or using someone’s misfortune as an example.

It just doesn’t land if you wait.

The uncanceled

John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently argued (behind a paywall that I’m not paying) that George Soros bought the State’s Attorney’s position by generously underwriting the campaign of Kim Foxx (a black woman). Unsurprisingly, this provoked a lot of criticism (as well as comparisons to the speech above from The Blues Brothers). The short story on that (not the point here) is that Kass’s invocation of racist tropes was not only racist but actually non-sensical, as Foxx beat an opponent who outspent her 3:1.

One other consequence of the piece was\https://www.robertfeder.com/2020/07/27/tribune-colleagues-blast-john-kass-column-antithetical-values (in the same spirit as some Wall Street Journal reporters who complained that the op-ed page’s very low standards of accuracy was undermining their work on the news end). Subsequent to this, the Tribune moved all of the opinion columns to a separate section, lest anyone get confused that Kass was writing an opinion piece.

That’s a kind of improvement, but alas, there still remains the standards question. Just because something is on the opinion page doesn’t make it immune from editorial criticism regarding the truth of the assertions, and, I think at least, the soundness and cogency of the arguments advanced.

Kass’s response was predictable: I’m a victim of cancel culture.

Will he get canceled for writing about cancel culture? Stay tuned!

This is where for me this cancel culture business loses meaning. As you all probably know by now, we’ve got many different variations of #cancel culture in play, so let’s just consider the one where columnists such as Kass or Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan or whoever get punished (they haven’t been) for their opinion.

Let’s start with a a basic picture: what does it mean to cancel someone, A? Let’s say A argues for p. You find A’s reasons q and r to be not only bad, but so bad that you’re done with A. You unfollow A or what is maybe worse you mute A. If you’re especially confrontational, you block them (happened to me and I’m nice). Not only this, you also share your opinion of A’s reasons with others. You encourage them to draw that same conclusion—to unfollow, block, or ignore A.

Now let’s say that your opinion about A gets some traction. Now lots of people are ignoring A. Now A’s publisher is considering dropping A because reading of A’s opinion is down. In addition, they worry that maybe people think continued publication of A reflects on them (see above). So they ditch A.

Is this an instance of cancellation? To review: you didn’t like A’s reasons, you shared this with others who agreed, and then A was gone. Perhaps your reasons are no good and people were idiots for listening to you. Perhaps people listened to you for the wrong reasons. Perhaps we should ask what would make a case of legitimate cancellation—like, perhaps the cases of the many who publish and publish and seem doomed to labor in silence.

So let’s think about them a second. The newspapers are full of the uncanceled. But they’re also unfull of the passively canceled: the countless many whose opinion for whatever reason no one listens to and never gains any traction. Now many of them might be absolutely right about their thing. But perhaps it’s just not interesting, or won’t have a large audience, or is too hard to understand. For whatever reason, someone has decided (even if only passively) not to include them and their voice. Now I’m not suggesting that we need to include everyone, but that perhaps there ought to be a reason why just these writers deserve a reason to continue to be heard. Is it like tenure, where you clear some kind of rigorous selection process and then the burden shifts to the would-be remover? So, a writer is canceled if they have achieved a certain platform, once they do, the burden shifts to the ones who would no longer hear them published there (not hear them at all). In the case of the countless passively canceled, there must be a reason they aren’t uncanceled.

So, one corner of the cancellation preoccupation seems to concern some measure of burden of proof. In other words, there seems to be a giant presumption that people with a form currently deserve it, and more than the usual reasons must be levied to change that.

This seems to imply that the columnist cancellation consternation is basically a version of the tenure debate (though my guess is positions are going to be at least partially reversed).

Let’s say for giggles that there is a kind of tenure for the likes of Kass: shouldn’t there be an analogous rigorous selection process for what goes into publication?

Don’t get comfortable with making people uncomfortable

Some interesting research (from Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, Philosophy and Science Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark) questions the effectiveness of discomfort in moral argumentation. It might not, so the author argues, be so effectiveness to make people feel bad about their various moral failings:

My primary aim is to caution against the current wave of discomfort advocacy. Advocates risk overrating the moral potential of discomfort if they underestimates the extent to which context shapes the interpretation of affect and simple, raw feelings. Context in this sense entails two dimensions: (i) the concrete situation of individual agents and (ii) the internal tools and concepts they use to interpret their discomfort. Rudimentary affect like discomfort does not necessarily have a transparent, straightforward intentionality.

Put simply, agents may not know precisely why they feel uncomfortable. Their specific situations and the interpretative tools they use to discern their discomfort are central to how they will understand their discomfort and the motivations they will draw from the experience. Affect—and especially negative affect like discomfort—has an paramount and often unpredictable influence on our judgments, behavior and understanding of the world. From the perspective of the contextual approach, a critical problem for discomfort advocates is that they risk ignoring the multiple kinds of discomfort that may arise in discussions of implicit bias.

This has interesting implications for the ad baculum business we’ve been discussing here the past couple of days. The thought seems to be that discomfort doesn’t really function like a reason (or doesn’t function in the absence of clear reasons–i.e., do you know why I’m punishing you. I wonder (not having read the work–plan to!) whether question is covered.

This also has implications for some other stuff both Scott and I have been working on: the concept of adversarial argumentation. In a nutshell, this is treating argument like a contest or a conflict. One of the concerns is that such an approach seems to incentivize the kinds of moves discussed here. I am co-editing (with Kat Stevens of the University of Lethbridge) a special issue of the journal Topoi on this. The deadline has passed, but these are special times in case anyone has anything nearly ready to go.

My own view, FWIW, on the adversarial business is that such discomfort is unavoidable and perhaps uncontrollable because of the way beliefs work. More on that another time (or you can read it here).

Cancel that

You can follow me (John) on Twitter, you know. I don’t actually tweet a ton, and when I do it’s usually a (tedious) self-reference joke. Anyway, in all my time away from here I spent a lot of time there. I haven’t done much arguing there (when I do it rarely goes well for me). I don’t actually like arguing anyway. That’s even in my bio.

Anyway, I just ran into this:

I suppose people have written a ton about “cancel culture”–too much for me to add anything new, I’m sure.

If I did write anything, I’d probably start with a taxonomy. On that score, I will say that what strikes me as interesting about this remark (other than the “now” business that seems completely false) is the version of “cancel culture” on offer. The canceling here is really not canceling in any unique sense at all, but rather just judging someone partially and badly (allegedly at least). I’ve no doubt this happens (because I’ve done it myself–don’t be insufficiently dialectical!), but this can’t be one of the main versions of the thing everyone is worried about. Besides, this strikes me as too high a burden: I don’t have time to read every one of this guy’s articles before I decide maybe I don’t need to read any more (I haven’t actually resolved this yet).

In the end, to stretch this out a bit, you’ve have something of the Aristotle problem: you’ll never be able to cancel anyone until well after they’re dead, and by then, they’re already cancelled.

Boycotts

Sorry it’s been so long since we’ve posted anything; we’ve been very busy with other projects. For myself, and I’m sure Scott would agree, I just can’t give up on the idea of this blog–however flawed it might be and however infrequently I might post something.

Enough preamble, let’s talk about boycotts.

Here’s a link to a piece that raises interesting questions about boycotts and violence.

The basic thought seems to be that boycotts, as tools of political persuasion, exert force (by the withdrawal of economic support) to gain adherence to some perspective. Here is the conlcusion:

Still, the question does give pause. Boycotts do occupy part of a spectrum of direct-action activities, understood as extra-legal activities designed to change someone’s behaviour. They are attempts to go beyond rational persuasion to take matters into one’s own hands, to force an outcome that one is unable or unwilling to argue for. Of course, that’s probably sometimes morally required. But it’s not to be taken lightly.

In argumentation this is what you’d call the ad baculum. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit (Here’s a post and you can read something longer here if you want). The basic idea of the ad baculum is that force isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a reason to conclude something. There’s quite a lot of literature on this, odd as that may seem. The basic struggle is how to account for the fallaciousness of the appeal to force. The standard textbook examples (unchanged through many editions) are hilarious.

I loathe to write a ton about this right now, but I would like to add one thought to the idea of ad baculums and violence (that I don’t think was raised in the piece). The boycott might be understood as a means to drawing attention to the reasons rather than an end in itself. So, perhaps people boycott product x not to bring about the end of x, but rather to call attention to the argument in question. To understand this you have to look at the audience as well as the target. So, when people boycott, perhaps they want people to ask: why are they boycotting stuff?

Arguing with Children

The other day the New York Times ran an op-ed about Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. The TL;DR is that activism, particularly the activism of Ms.Thunberg, is “at odds with democracy.”

Many on Twitter wondered how attempting to persuade people to take an interest in an issue could be undemocratic. It seems, if anything, just like how you do democracy.

What the author really means, however, is that her argument methods are no good. He writes:

Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.


Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.

Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.

Pointing out in an argument with a child that they’re a child and you can’t really argue with them is pretty much the same thing as arguing with them, only it’s way more dishonest because it’s patronizing, self-contradictory, and itself pretty much fallacious. For, in the first place, you’re actually arguing with them, you’re just not doing it right by calling into question the truth of the premises or the logic of their conclusions. Instead, you’re pointing out that they’re children who, because of their fragile nature (I won’t even point out the other thing he mentions–see how I can be ironic too!), cannot be criticized by adults.

Still more perplexlingly, and equally ironically, the author argues that drawing negative conclusions about people’s behavior is not allowed:

Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonizing anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’s declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word “Flugscham” is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.

I’m supposing that the people making such arguments should be ashamed of themselves. Geez. It’s pretty much an inescapable feature of disagreements that the people with whom you disagree are doing something wrong. That’s just the way it’s done. When the disagreement concerns actions, then it follows that the claim will be that doing that action is wrong, and so should not be an action that is done. Pointing this out is just how you do arguments in a democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the extremity of the wrongness is exaggerated. If so, that’s something that’s pretty easy to point out.

To end on a rather more general note, this is another example of what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin call the Owl of Minerva problem. The argument is so often not about what to do or what to believe but about what are legitimate arguments concerning what to do or what to believe.

Sadly, sometimes it’s pretty easy to have an argument about first order issues. Even Greta Thunberg, a mere child, can direct you to that.

Argumentative clutter

A while back, not that long ago actually, you couldn’t escape memes about Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert and reality TV personality. The most famous one was to ask, about any object that you have laying around your house: does it spark joy? If it doesn’t, then you get rid of it.

Over at Philosophy15, run by our own Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, they run another version of the “Owl of Minerva Problem.” Here’s the video (it’s a two-parter, this is part I):

A common stoic-type (Scott can confirm this) argument against extra stuff (one that I unsuccessfully employ all of the time) is that stuff just creates the need for more stuff. There’s a version of the this in Boethius’s Consolation.

Interestingly, this works for arguments as well, though there is no Marie Kondo here to help you. The better you get at arguments, the more argument furniture, rugs, tchotchkes you gather in the form of argument vocabulary, fallacy names, etc. In a sense, gathering this stuff is what it means, in the minds of many at least, to be good at arguing. The problem is that it gets subsumed into arguments such that you then have to gather more of it–more second (third?) order vocabulary, and so forth, to manage the misemployment of fallacy vocabulary, for instance.

One quick example of that. The Harry Potter Problem, so I call it, is the employment fallacy names (expecto ad hominem!) in place of ordinary language critique of argument. The Harry Potter problem only arises because we have a second-order vocabulary.

Anyway, back to the main point: you can get rid of stuff, lead a more simple life. This is not an option with arguments, even though the cause of the problem is pretty much the same. We’re stuck with the clutter. The only solution is more clutter.


Your argument is invalid

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