Any view is an opinion, in my opinion

The problem with arguments is that everyone who has a view (i.e., everyone) considers themselves an expert. Stanley Fish  lends credence to this view. In a recent op-ed on Historians Against Trump, he writes:

But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

This strikes me as very confused. In the first place, what on earth are “political opinions”? Are the on par with opinions about matters of taste? (pizza is great!) If so, then indeed, maybe Fish is right. But I doubt this is what he means. Political opinions, after all, include all sorts of things that are fact-based. One example would be: “we should do this because it worked in the past.” The test of the acceptability of this opinion would be whether this indeed worked well in the past. That’s a factual question. Historians deal, allegedly, with such past-tense factual questions. In makes perfect sense that they weigh in.

On another level. Fish has hugely exaggerated the force of the argument from expert opinion (of which this is an example). Experts, which historians surely are at some level, are called upon (by reasonable people) to help with questions that fall within their expertise. For this reason, we call upon doctors to comment on political matters when those have bearing. We can call upon historians to answer questions about history. It does not mean, nor would anyone anywhere suggest, that such opinions are the same thing as truth itself than cannot be objected to.

Naturally, all of this is just my opinion.

Disagreement is personal

Disagreement is difficult and costly. When you disagree with someone on some matter of fact or policy, you’re alleging by implication that they’re mistaken. Whatever the source, the accusation of being mistaken stings–it suggests you have failed at a cognitive task and, importantly, that you are unaware of that. So you’ve failed at two cognitive tasks. There are polite ways to communicate this, but in the end they amount to the same thing: you’re right, they’re wrong. You’re passing judgment on them, as people. It’s personal.

Too often, sadly, people do not appreciate this. An example from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman writes:

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.

This disagreement with Trump, obviously directed at Trump supporters, is more than a matter of what kind of pizza is best. This disagreement concerns matters of fact and policy. Zimmerman thinks p, the Trump supporters think not-p or q. More than that, Zimmerman implies that supporters of Trump are susceptible to demagoguery and excuse, justify, or embrace bigotry. They’re mistaken in horrible and dangerous ways. That’s a pretty harsh judgment on them.

Despite such judgments, Zimmerman continues:

But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

Aren’t bigotry, demagoguery, and the corroding of public discourse an attack on the values presumably shared by academic historians? Let’s say they are. More importantly, Zimmerman shares HAT’s harsh judgment of Trump (and by implication his many supporters). In fact, let’s rephrase the last clause in light of this:

. . . which enjoin us to understand diverse communities [which are] warped or deluded.

Now he basically agrees with them. They even say as much:

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence.

To me it seems obvious that the historians are concerned, at this stage, to convince the Trump supporters that they’re mistaken and that their (and his) ideas are antithetical to a truth-based civil society. Figuring out just why these ideas have traction, understanding their appeal in other words, is secondary question. You can’t figure out why someone is a bigot without first concluding that they’re a bigot.


Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a nice piece up at 3Quarks Daily about the constraints of certain argument contexts. They write:

In the real world of political talk, getting the last word is often what counts most. This is especially the case where political talk is conducted in the limited space between commercial breaks.

The limitations of time and space are also a problem for real life, but that’s another story. The time constraints (John Stewart, by the way, had a great segment on this on the Daily Show–“CNN leaves it here” or something, but it’s long gone.) In that segment, people would start conversing, then CNN would run out of time, despite having a 24-hour span of time in which to develop arguments. You’d think, but you’d be wrong, that they could develop this stuff in depth.

Anyway, back to Aikin and Talisse. They call this “spitballing” and it works like this:

The derailing strategy we have in mind may be called spitballing. At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

Here is how this plays out over time:

Consequently, the spitballer controls the discussion by derailing any attempt to scrutinize what he has said; thus, in a very real sense, he always speaks unopposed. Meanwhile, public conversation is dominated by counterfeit ideas; popular political discourse is crowded out by a mode of exchange that merely mimics dialogue; and the pressing political issues that face the nation remain undiscussed.

The spitballer trolls in real life. You can’t evaluate what the spitballer says because there is no way to fix on it. Here is another thing. The spitballer relies on the requirement of charity for us to pick out the best of the many views. But even then, he can always claim we’ve straw manned him. And he can always call upon his minions to iron man what he’s spitballed.

I’m a Ford truck man, I don’t compromise

I’m going to guess that our five-minute gun debate after a national travesty is already over. One the gems of this debate was this argument over at Fox News (via Crooks and Liars)

“He passed everything,” Gorka agreed. “Let’s be really clear about this. We could get a magic wand and the president could make all legally-owned weapons disappear in America, [but] jihadis will keep killing Americans on U.S. soil.”

Gorka pointed to an issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine: “There’s a giant poster on one of the pages that says, ‘Use your F-150 to kill the infidel.'”

“They will kill us with whatever tools they need,” he shrugged. “Pipe bombs are illegal in America, it is illegal to construct a pipe bomb. What did the Tsarnaev brothers do in Boston? Did it stop them from building pipe bombs. It didn’t.”

“So, the idea that legislation or focusing on a tool, a weapon or an explosive is going to mitigate this threat or make it disappear, again, is fantasy land.”

This poor guy can’t even get the talking point right (cars and explosives are already highly regulated).

Anyway, it seems the claim goes like this. Unless addressing the legality of something completely eliminates the possibility that this thing will ever happen, it is worthless to try. Eliminating guns will not eliminate terrorism, so it is worthless to eliminate guns.

That’s no one’s argument, of course.

Fill in your own counterexample.

He invited him in to talk

From the Huffington Post but by Reuters:

(Reuters) – A North Carolina man faces ethnic intimidation charges after leaving bacon at a mosque and making death threats to its members as they prepared for worship in observance of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, authorities said on Friday.

Russell Thomas Langford of Fayetteville was arrested late on Thursday, the Hoke County Sheriff’s Office said. He is a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, WTVD-TV in Raleigh said, quoting officials at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.

On Thursday afternoon, members of the Masjid Al Madina in Raeford found two packages of bacon at the mosque entrance, the sheriff’s office said.

A few years back in Texas, some neighbors, incensed at the idea of the freedom of religion in their neighborhood, decided to hold pig races. This provoked the following response from a representative of the mosque:

Muslims do not hate pigs. . . they just don’t eat them.

Anyway, here’s the good part of the current tale.

A Chevy Tahoe was in the parking lot when the bacon was found, and the driver of the Tahoe, later identified as Langford, followed one of the members home, the sheriff’s statement said.

The suspect returned in the evening, showed a gun to one of the members, a retired Army captain and Muslim chaplain at Fort Bragg, and threatened to kill him, according to a report by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C.

The chaplain invited him inside to talk, but the man left, the report said. Later, the man returned in his SUV and tried to run over a group of people who were going inside the mosque for evening Ramadan prayers, the report said.

He invited him in to talk.

Atul Gawande on the mistrust of science

The New Yorker published Atul Gawande’s commencement address at the California Institute of Technology. He calls upon the graduates to defend science from pseudo science. I don’t think he’s really defending science so much as basic reasoning. He writes:

To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing. You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience.

Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.

To be precise, all five of those moves are logical fallacies–well most of them anyway. And this speaks to the broader point–it’s not just science, but basic reasoning that he’s defending. The trouble is, however, that the enemies, as it were, of reason take themselves to be its defenders. In fact, calling them out on their sorry reasoning, as Gawande has just done, is, as Gawande notes, not advisable:

The challenge of what to do about this—how to defend science as a more valid approach to explaining the world—has actually been addressed by science itself. Scientists have done experiments. In 2011, two Australian researchers compiled many of the findings in “The Debunking Handbook.” The results are sobering. The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

To put this another way. Science teaches you a lot of truths and techniques that don’t matter to people who most need them. Invoking these truths and techniques not only does not convince them, it makes it worse. By analogy, the truths and techniques of critical thinking 101 don’t matter to the people who most need them and invoking them only serves to make matters worse.

Read the rest of Gawande’s piece.  At least he’s optimistic.

The mistaken racist

Here is a pretty sorry attempt at iron-manning Trump:

JOHN HEILEMANN (HOST): Let’s just say this first of all, when Trump does what he did in that Tapper interview, and he did it over and over again, he kept calling Curiel a Mexican, right? It is not even dog whistle politics. It is just pure racial politics. 

MARK HALPERIN (HOST): No, it’s not racial.

HEILEMANN: It’s racial politics. It is.

HALPERIN: Mexico isn’t a race.

HEILEMANN: It doesn’t matter whether Mexico is a race, it’s stirring up racial animus about people who don’t like Hispanics, and illegal immigrants coming across the border. That’s what he’s doing. He’s ringing the bell for them every time he does it. He’s not Mexican. He was born in Indiana. And eventually you can get Trump to acknowledge that he’s Mexican-American, it’s his heritage that’s what he’s doing here right? Then on top of that he is a potential president of the United States who has issued, over the course of the last week, vague threats, saying that the judge should be investigated. It is wildly inappropriate and yes, of course there are no political benefits to this and I’m sure that his team is beating it’s head against tables as they watch him blow news cycles behaving in this way that is again, I think racially tinged and also really wildly inappropriate things to say about a federal judge by someone who could be president of the United States.

HALPERIN: It’s certainly racially tinged. I just want to make the point that Mexico is not – Mexican is not a race. 

HEILEMANN:  I am fully aware that Mexico is not a race, but you can invoke things like that to stir up racial animus regardless of whether or not Mexico is a race or not. 

It’s no defense, by the way, of Trump that “Mexico is not a race.” I think it’s sufficient for one to be a racist, or racist-like, if they treat non-races, like Mexico, as if they were races.  These are going to be interesting times, unfortunately.


Coddled college kids

Very often I translate arguments into the language of Philosophy 101. I fear this is a bad thing because it tends oversimplify matters. On the other hand, it usually works; this stuff isn’t that hard to do well. Consider this conclusion to a piece about coddled college students:

But what’s too often missing from this picture is the very thing that opponents of political correctness so often decry: a sense of proportion and judgment, and an awareness that what transpires on the radical edges of elite universities is not always an accurate barometer of what’s happening in the wider world.

Not that this needs explaining, but the criticism alleges that instances of coddling (that’s what I’m going to call it) have been greatly exaggerated. This amounts to accusing the people who make such charges of a very basic and completely avoidable reasoning error: hasty generalization. For added irony, in this case, this is what the critics of coddled college kids have accused the coddled college kids of.

By the way, let’s call this the one-two (You are ironically guilty of the very intellectual mistake you are committing!).

Anyway, my interest is with the charge of the author here (rather than the validity of the charge). It’s such a basic error that I marvel it forms the basis of such a long article. Then again, maybe people really just are not that good at this stuff.

Your argument is invalid

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