Nutpicked Trump Derangement Syndrome

Nutpicking, or weak-manning one’s opponent, is a form of the straw man fallacy wherein one finds the worst or weakest version of your opponent’s views or the least sophisticated defenders of an opposed view and then subject that view to scrutiny.  So one goes after the bad versions of one’s opposition, instead of the good ones.

The strategy can occur in lots of ways.  One can wait for an offhand and awkward comment to encapsulate the view, or one can track down the least informed representative of the opposition.  Or one can listen in on the other side’s loose talk.  This last one is a new way to weak man — listen in on a comedy show by and for liberals and wait for them to say something that sounds all-too-revealing.

Well, the folks at INFOWARS did just that.  They listened in on Michelle Wolf’s new Netflix show, and in a comedy gag, she asks:

Are you sort of hoping we don’t get peace with North Korea so you won’t have to give Trump credit?

A funny question.  Of course it’s a joke, but one that is at the expense of the deep resentments at the heart of American politics.  The joke gets funnier, since the audience polled answered YES 71% to No 21%.   That’s pretty funny, and surely everyone who responded had a little chuckle.

Oh, but the INFOWARS folks were listening, too.  They don’t like humor, unless it’s them making a joke about how sensitive liberals are.  Anyway, Paul Joseph Watson, the INFOWARS author, didn’t get the joke, and now reports:

In other words, a significant majority of leftists would happily risk nuclear war, so long as it meant Trump would look bad.

Let that sink in.

When conservatives talk about how many on the left “hate America,” it’s seen by most as a tired cliché, but when you see clips like this it really makes you wonder. . . .

Indeed, it seems that the left is so beset by Trump Derangement Syndrome that they’re quite happy to see the pilot crash the plane even though they’re on it.

So, as I see it, a reporter watches a comedy show and reports that a gag that the audience was supposed to play along with bespeaks a traitorous vendetta among liberals.   So much of the straw man fallacy generally is about interpreting your opponent in a way that exercises minimal charity, if only for the sake of the quality of the exchange that these defaults encourage.  But, look, if your defaults are set on interpreting a comedy sketch like this as little more than a suicidal desire for Trump to fail, then it’s hard to see how there’s much of any opportunity for critique either way.

Yeah, well everybody tu quoques

The fallacy of ad hominem tu quoque is that of identifying an inconsistency either between what’s said and what’s done or between what’s said in one case and in another.  It’s sometimes a strategy of criticism, but it can also be used as a way of deflecting criticism.

The deflection strategy is one that goes after the authority of a speaker for a critical point.  So that I smoke can be a point someone may make back at me when I say one shouldn’t smoke.  For sure, it’s an uncomfortable fact, and one that makes me subject to my own critiques.  So I’m a hypocrite. And that’s why it’s got the pull it does — it’s a matter of making someone uncomfortable in their critical role.  Again, it’s just a deflection strategy, and it still holds that one shouldn’t smoke, even if the person  delivers the message with a cigarette in their mouth.

Now, consider Donald Trump’s defense against the critique of his exchange with Kim Jong-un.  Apparently, there was no discussion about human rights in the meeting.  When asked about it by Bret Baier of Fox News, Donald Trump replied:

Baier: “But he’s still done some really bad things.”

To which Trump said: “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

The strategy here is to say: Look, lots of people do bad things… why make a big deal of it now, especially if we’re making this progress with the de-nuclearization of Korea.  But that’s not exactly what got communicated.  What got communicated is that because everybody (or “lots of other people”) does bad things, we don’t have grounds for criticizing someone who’s done bad things.

This is a pretty strange strategy of managing norms and their demands.  I think that since Trump criticizes people for bad things at other times, he’d probably not accept this as a reply.  Right?  So when he criticizes the ‘deep state’ for undermining his Presidency, I suppose he’d think it irrelevant that lots of other nations have states that undermine their leaders, too.  Or when he complains about celebrities who criticize him, the fact that there are many other people criticized by celebrities is not much of a defense.

One way, maybe, to get a handle on why a defense like this is disappointing is that the fact that lots of people or countries make the error is likely a very good reason to take the criticism to be important and serious.  That is, if it’s a widespread and very costly error (which abusing human rights is, if anything is), then shrugging one’s shoulders and saying that LOTS of people do it is a way of highlighting how important the issue is.  Not of deflating the criticism.

Enlarging the goalposts

We’ve all heard of the accusation of moving the goalposts. At bottom, this consists in illegitimately changing the standard of appraisal in order to match some arbitrary standard. While before you had to prove B, now you need only prove A, because, well, because.  Closely related, so I think today, to this is the idea of enlarging the relevant dialectical context. Here’s a cartoon on point:

I have no comment on the actual discussion (and I don’t know anything about this Peterson fellow). This move nonetheless seems to be a pretty common one. It doesn’t so much as move the goalposts as enlarging the field of play to such a point where you’ll never catch the other player (I don’t know what game this is in my analogy, but you get the idea).

So it’s a kind of iron man. Like all such ferrous persons, it works in two ways: the first way is to make the object impervious to criticism; the second way is to make the critic look dishonest. There’s one more thing: it’s a status-booster for the iron-manner: their being aware of the relevant information is a way of basking in its reflected glory.

Such moves (and I’ve observed them in other contexts, however) are strategically risky: the greater the burden of critique, the greater the burden of understanding. While your critic might not land the blow, the costs of understanding such a complex and unassailable view might be too high for potential converts.

Real Life Circular Arguments

A pretty common complaint among argument theorists about the fallacy of begging the question and circular argument is that hardly anyone ever really commits the error.  But then there are the cases where it happens for realz.

President Trump, before flying to the G7 conference in Montreal, argued that Russia should be included in the proceedings again — so, returning the meeting to the familiar title, G8.  Reported at Politico and InfoWars(don’t read the comments!) (Russia was expelled after their 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.) Here’s the argument:

I would recommend — and it’s up to them, but Russia should be in the meeting, it should be a part of it. You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run . . .  And in the G-7, which used to be the G-8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in. Because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.

As far as I can see, the explicit form of that argument, given the ‘because’ clause, is:

We should have Russia at the bargaining table

So: Russia should be part of the G7(8).

That’s pretty much a perfectly circular argument, since the premise is just a differently worded version of the conclusion.  I think the only mitigating factor to this fallacy challenge is that Trump also says, “we have a world to run,” which I think is a point about economic and political necessity.  Something like:  Look, Russia has been and should be sanctioned, but leaving them and their economy out of these discussions is short-sighted…”  But he doesn’t do that.

One lesson, then, is that fallacy charges of circularity may be good ways to elicit submerged reasons.   Like what we see with the Trump case here — there is a hint of a better argument in the background, but it’s really just a series of assertions of the conclusion.  The charge of begging the question is a way of getting those other reasons out for evaluation.  So there’s something right about the argument theorists’ complaint that there aren’t really circular arguments, but there’s also something to the thought that the fallacy categories are useful.


Fake News

Our friend Robert Talisse has an article up at 3 AM Magazine on the concept of “fake news.” TL;DR: it’s impossible to define “fake news” because our current discourse is so toxic that it will furnish no neutral examples:

Thus we confront what philosophers call the paradox of analysis.  Any definitional endeavor must begin from presumed instances of the phenomenon that is to be defined.  In many philosophical contexts, the paradox’s “I know it when I see it” circularity is manageable because philosophical debates often proceed against wider background agreements.  For example, philosophers who disagree sharply about justice nonetheless agree that antebellum slavery is an exemplary instance of severe injustice.  Similarly, metaphysical disputes over the nature of physical objects typically presume that tables and chairs are among such entities.

Things are far more troubled with fake news.  In order to devise a nuanced definition that is also politically impartial, we must identify cases of fake news that can be presumed to be noncontroversial among otherwise divided citizens.  I doubt that there are such cases.

I think this is correct, but the real problem is another one. Happily, it’s one that Rob (and Scott) have already identified:  discussions of terms such as  “fake news,” inevitably suffer from the problem of “weaponized metalanguage.” This is where the tools of argument analysis are crafted as weapons in arguments. The problem in this particular case  is particularly acute because  “Fake News,” like “gaslighting” and “whataboutism” are somewhat new entries in our metavocabulary. Perhaps we had high hopes for them; their novelty is meant to avoid worn-out terms like “propaganda” or “lying” or “tu quoque.” That they immediately fail at their appointed task shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

On a sad note, it appears that Charles Krauthammer, a frequent object of our criticism here, has but weeks to live. In his final column, he notes:

Lastly, I thank my colleagues, my readers, and my viewers, who have made my career possible and given consequence to my life’s work. I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.

Best wishes to him, his family, and friends.


The argument police

Image result for turtles all the way down

Here’s a bracing passage from a recent article in the Baffler:

IN THE HEYDAY OF THE INTERNET MESSAGE BOARD, let’s say in the 1990s, a certain species of idiot materialized. He was male, aggressively pedantic, self-professedly logical, committed to the hard sciences, prone to starting sentences with “actually,” and almost always devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority.

There are several others like it. I have to admit that reading them stung a bit–this is after all what we do here. If you openly claim to do be self-conscious about your logicness, then any failing real or otherwise is an occasion for disdain and dismissal. It’s annoying, because everyone is their own logic police. As C.S. Peirce observed:

Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination and does not extend to that of other men.

But one part of me thinks the criticism is for this reason completely superficial, not to mention self-contradictory. There’s something of the logic police in it: just another layer higher. When it comes to being critical, it’s turtles all the way down.

And therein lies the question. Argument analysis has its own terms of art. Tu quoque is an example. Using these terms of art in mixed company is nearly always a bad idea. I stress this over and over in my critical thinking classes. Do not use a fallacy name on anyone ever. I know, by the way, I’m guilty of this very thing many times here. In my defense, however, my presumption is that the targets know the terms and besides, I don’t do really do that anymore.

This raises, however, a somewhat tragic (to my mind) point–related to the turtles above. Is not using the name–say, tu quoque–sufficient? Should we not find ways of pointing it out either? That’s pretty much the same thing–it just takes longer (and sort of presumes the target not versed in the right terms). Besides, not using the standard names doesn’t stop people (or perhaps encourages them) from creating a duplicate set of terms. Now, for instance, we have “whataboutism” and others. It does the same exact work at twice the cost.

We can’t avoid the need of evaluating reasons (our own and that of others). We also for this reason can’t avoid the problem of evaluating the evaluating of reasons. It’s simpler, perhaps, just to remind ourselves of Peirce’s observation: everyone is perfectly logical and ignore the temptation to consider it some kind of hypocrisy or arrogance when they’re not.

An argument with an expiration date

The talk-show host Sean Hannity had a segment the other day about the “exploitative” nature of rushing in after mass shooting events to score “political” points. You can watch a video of him here:

And here’s a link to an NRA lobbyist saying the same kind of thing. Though I’m skeptical of the sincerity of these sorts of arguments, (see here for a sort of rebuttal), if not for the sole fact that running a spot on how others have violated norms in a time when we’re not supposed to be scoring points seems like an attempt to score points, I think it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what might be a reasonable version of taking things on too soon.

The first question is this: what does it mean to “politicize” something or to “score political points”? My guess is that the events are going to be used as a premise in a policy argument. Something like this:

“the events of the other day have policy implications a, b, and c.”

Simple enough, but there’s more to this. Much hinges on what we mean by “political,” as in “political points” or “politicize.” My guess is that what makes these particular issues “political” is that those policy implications are (1) already well-known, (2) the subject of intense dispute, and (3) unresolved or in a kind of argumentative stalemate. By “argumentative stalemate” I mean that the positions of each side are well known and well defined, not that the sides have exhausted the possibility for resolution. The dispute is still live. Oddly, the only example I can think of is gun violence. Maybe readers can suggest different cases.

Now consider by way of counterexample that the injunction does not apply to one-off events where most people have not occupied ideological positions. Should there be, for instance, some kind of random event tomorrow with casualties, I’m going to guess that we’ll immediately discuss the policy implications. We’ll do so before anyone is buried or all the wounded are accounted for. The injunction against politics is not universal. It only applies to certain debates.

There’s a second thing to notice about such debates: the side that invokes the injunction will typically be the side that has the most to lose by the added evidence. This was covered (satirically) here.  Or, if not invoked by them, it will be invoked by others on their behalf.

Their concern might not be an entirely unreasonable one, but it underscores the somewhat limited scope of the injunction. They might fear rhetorical disadvantage by the tendency of people to run with latest piece of evidence adduced in deciding a question (by, in other words, availability bias). The politicization of the debate, or the “cheap points scoring” is therefore winning rhetorical advantage without working for it or by taking advantage of the temporary set-back of the other side.

This brings us to the key feature of such arguments: the invocation against talking “too soon.” It’s a temporal restriction rather than a content one. The presumption is that we can talk about it later, just not now. This can take a couple of forms. One argument is that the “the bodies are not in the ground, and the people have not had time to mourn” among other claims. This is a sensitivity claim. Arguing about the policy implications are alleged to be (1) insensitive to the people affected and (2) bad form for the participants, as their thoughts should be directed elsewhere. These don’t seem to be entirely unreasonable.

A second, and I think more problematic, version of the “too soon” injunction concerns the management of evidence “too soon.” This is an epistemological concern: we haven’t had time to learn the relevant facts or mull over the meaning of the evidence. Besides, as we’ve already noted, remarkable new evidence might bias us. Our haste will undermine the quality of our discussion.

Neither of these concerns is essentially unreasonable. We do care, after all, about the quality of our evidence and there is something to be said about hitting the pause button on civic disputes to focus on the needs of the large numbers of people affected. But, I might add here in closing as this has gone on longer than I meant, there’s something of a conflict between the state of the argument (stalemate) and the regularity of the need to hit the pause button. I think, furthermore, this takes concerns about making hasty decisions or corrupting our evidence off the table. We’ve seen all of this before. And our requiring frequent pauses to bury the dead seems to underscore the need to bring this thing to a resolution. If anything, this suggests that the “too soon” argument has an expiration date.

Let’s get political

In the wake of mass violence like the one last night people often say it’s not time to “for politics.” You can set your watch by it. Here’s the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Sanders.

Not sure about that analogy underneath the video, by the way. The point in any case is that you don’t talk about the political angle of these things for some determinate period after they happen. Not to be facetious, but in the US they happen with such regularity that you’re never really out of the hot zone.

Back to the point. I have the sneaky feeling that “let’s not politicize this” means “let’s not have a disagreement now.” This naturally favors the status quo ante, because there’s a restriction on admitting or considering new evidence for some particular position. I made that argument here.

What strikes me as odd about all of this is that we have all sorts of discussions in the immediate aftermath of events–we might describe them as ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological.  For we have conversations about what happened, about the quality of our evidence, or about the heroism of some of the people involved or the evil of the perpetrator. All of them involve some level of disagreement, uncertainty, revision, or retraction. So if the claim that we shouldn’t get political rests of fear of going wrong, we already seem to tolerate a fair amount of that.


I’m pretty well convinced that knowledge is the norm of assertion — that one should not assert that p unless one knows that p.  (Here is a Philosophy15 about it.) There are a few puzzle cases with the norm (blameless assertions like in cases of weird Gettier scenarios and so on) but it otherwise looks about right.  So it seems right that if someone says something true, but without warranting evidence, though that person was correct, the assertion isn’t praiseworthy, and the person isn’t fully creditable for the assertion.  In fact, asserting without warrant is blameworthy, even if what was said came out true.

So, for example, had I said way back in 2000, without any reason favoring its truth, that Donald J. Trump would one day be President, I would have said something true, but still something unwarranted.  And though it came to pass that DJT is President, it’s not like that statement is vindicated or I should get any more credit for it than your friend who hits the hole-in-one on the mini-golf hole when he’s taking a drink of his soda and looking elsewhere.  And moreover, I’m inclined to say that would still be intellectually blameworthy for saying things without backing.

And so, now, over at The American Spectator, Daniel Flynn makes the case that DJT was right all along about the government spying on his campaign.  And he analogizes the situation to that of Watergate – that the party in power spies on the opposition party in the midst of an election.  Flynn opens with a pretty catchy line:

Vladimir Putin did not hack the election. Barack Obama did.

DJT, then a candidate, said that the Obama Administration had wiretapped the Trump Tower. He didn’t have evidence for this, beyond a radio show by Mark Levin’s claims. When asked about it, nothing.

Now, it turns out that, as reported by CNN, the feds were listening in on Paul Manafort.   It’s important to note that, according to the report (again from CNN): “While Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower, it’s unclear whether FBI surveillance of him took place there.”  So we don’t know if it was Trump Tower being tapped.

But does this stop Daniel Flynn from wagging his finger?  Oh, no.

The media went all-in this spring on the notion that the loose-tongued Trump once again spoke without reference to the facts. Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh labeled his charge “incendiary.” The Los Angeles Times called it “a phony conspiracy theory.” PolitiFact bluntly judged his accusation “false.”

Who will fact check the fact checkers?

Now, the issue is how to read all the vagaries of what it is to ‘tapp’ a phone or whether the issue is whether ‘my’ phones are really Paul Manafort’s phones.  Regardless, the issue is whether we can give any credit to someone who makes a charge like this (even when true) with no evidence?


Your argument is invalid

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