When they say anything metaphorical, straw man them

Eric Holder, the former Attorney General, recently put a new spin on the familiar Michelle Obama quip, “When they go low, we go high.”  Holder’s is that “When they go low, we kick them.”  Here’s the video with the relevant pieces at the Washington Post.  Importantly, Holder, after the quip, clarifies what he means by ‘kick’ them:

When I say we, you know, ‘We kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal,… But we got to be tough, and we have to fight for the very things that [civil rights leaders] John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young – you know, all those folks gave to us.

He means give it back with confrontational rhetoric, not actual violence.  Oh, but is that what Sean Hannity will have as part of his clip of the quip?  Nope.  Just the part about the kicking.  And here’s how he cuts the tape and explains it to his audience. (Video of Hannity’s show HERE, start at 6:19) He frames and restates Holder’s quip:

Just look at the number of democratic leaders encouraging mob violence against their political opponents…  When they go low, ditch civility. Kick Republicans, when they are on the ground, kick ’em.

He just plays the quip, not the clarification, note.  And that’s the key.  Holder’s expressing the view that political argument is high-stakes and hard-charging, so he’s willing to sacrifice the high road these days, precisely because he thinks it’s clear his opponents have done so.  So the metaphor of the ‘kick’ is the response to their ‘going low’ — invoking the way the battle would go.  But it’s all metaphorical about the rhetorical exchange.  Imagine someone saying,  after hearing another describing a coming debate as a ‘bare knuckle boxing match,’ they are worried for their physical safety.  For sure, this would be some willful ignorance of how metaphorical language works.

Trevor Noah’s Daily Show review of the selective quotation also revealed the additional irony: “Can we just acknowledge that by saying they’re gonna get kicked, Sean Hannity and his friends are accepting that they’re going low?”


Poe’s law and hoaxes

Some of you may be familiar by now with the second in a series of hoaxes perpetrated by Peter Boghossian* (Portland State University’s Philosophy Department), James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose  (the editor of Areo, the online journal that published the hoaxes findings). The first of these hoaxes, by Boghossian and Lindsay, got a fraudulent  (what that means we’ll have to discuss) article into a very weak pay-to-play journal. They then drew dark conclusions about that fact for the future of scholarship.  You can read a very sound rebuttal of their work  by CUNY’s Massimo Pigliucci here. TL;DR: the hoax was if anything a hoax on many credulous members of the so-called skeptical movement, who thought that posting a crap article in a crap journal meant something.

The latest version of the hoax improves upon the methodology of the first one significantly–it avoided, from what I can tell, the pay-to-play journals and, importantly, it produced a larger number of fraudulent (I’m still not sure this is the right term) article.  In all, the trio wrote 20 and managed to get seven accepted. They even managed to get one of these articles accepted by Hypatia (which has had its own problems recently).

A couple of minor criticisms before I move on to the main point of this post. Other than Hypatia the other journals are hardly top-tier.  (e.g., Journal of Poetry Therapy?).  I’m also puzzled that they call this stuff “humanities” (in the introduction to the project and elsewhere). Other than the Hypatia piece, most of the stuff is what humanities people such as myself would call “social science.” While on the surface this might appear to be a minor terminological issue, there’s a big difference when you get down to it. People may think they have shown something about history, philosophy, and literature when only two of twenty had that focus.

If you’re interested in reading more criticisms, this piece in Buzzfeed does a pretty good job of summarizing the main complaints.

As an argumentative matter, I think this is a lot of wasted effort. Are there absolutely crappy papers that make it through the publishing process? Absolutely. I bet you could ask anyone who reads this stuff and they could point you to some. Sorting this stuff out, however, is just what one does in Academia–this article was bad, let me refute it; this article was bad, so bad we’re going to ignore it. Those are criticisms. And cumulatively over time these criticisms yield results of a kind–results far better than producing some bad work narrowly tailored to pass muster at gullible journals.

If they’ve shown anything conclusively here, it’s that you can produce shoddy work insincerely. Some of the work they produced was accepted only after revisions. Doing those revisions meant insincerely adapting their work to some kind of standard. Whether that standard is a good one is what people dispute (and why, ultimately, there’s  ranking of journals and so forth). But, speaking of insincerity, you can accidentally stumble into a good point. Consider this bit from one of the hoax papers:

Thesis: When a man privately masturbates while fantasizing about a woman who has not given him permission to do so, or while fantasizing about her in ways she hasn’t consented to, he has committed “metasexual” violence against her, even if she never finds out. “Metasexual” violence is described as a kind of nonphysical sexual violence that causes depersonalization of the woman by sexually objectifying her and making her a kind of mental prop used to facilitate male orgasm.

Purpose: To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes..

This was from a paper that was rejected. Oddly, they’ve stumbled into a sort of virtue theory argument here. Certain activities are wrong not because they actively harm another person only, but also because they turn their perpetrator into the kind of person who would do that kind of bad thing or at least enjoy that kind of thing. It’s bad, but for primarily self-regarding reasons. Stated this way it’s not great (remember the paper was rejected) but in all of the attempt to do a clever hoax, they actually run over the line into something plausible. The fact, however, that they can’t see the line is evidence that their failure to grasp the meaning of the term “humanities” was more than a mere oversight.

So there’s one problem with hoaxing: you might accidentally make the matter hinge on sincerity. Again, the fact that people write insincere papers is not particularly surprising. Demonstrating this fact is certainly not worth the effort they put into it.

Another feature of the hoax–its baseline logical feature–comes out of Poe’s Law–the eponymous internet law that says that a view is absurd to the extent that it’s impossible to create believable satire of it without saying explicitly: this is satire. As it happens, Scott discussed this here (also, follow the references at the end for more). There, the thought was that there are always weak adherents of views to turn the satire into reportage.

So it’s true in this case. It’s not a secret that there exists really crappy, politically-motivated, or downright unethical work in academia. It’s also not surprising that if you try to satirize some of that work, some people will not recognize it as satire and will take it as genuine work. The more direct route to that thesis is just to look at the work. Such work exists, of course, as it was the premise of the entire hoax.

A somewhat sad coda to this was the tweet thread of the graduate student who refereed that paper. He spent hours crafting feedback for what he thought was an earnest, but inexperienced, scholar. Journals such as these are where such earnest scholars go to continue the discussion and to continue their professional development. So, the net effect of the hoax is that some one of these apparently earnest but inexperienced scholars might be an earnest but insincere person looking to waste your time.

*Not to be confused with philosopher Paul Boghossian (NYU) who is now dealing with mistaken requests for interviews.

Why we argue

The second edition of Why we argue  (and how we should) by Robert Talisse and our own Scott Aikin is now out. You can get it here or (what’s better) at your local bookstore.

Devoted readers of this site will recognize some of the ideas, but (and perhaps I’m biased) all will appreciate its lively approach to the topic of disagreement and informal logic. It’s primary virtue is that  it’s a self-aware discussion of informal reasoning–it recognizes that everyone is already familiar with the metalanguage of argument and this is what amounts to its biggest challenges.  Along these lines, the new edition has stuff on deep disagreement, the Owl of Minerva Problem, and online arguing.

It will be worth your time.

The fake straw man

Typically, a straw man argument is some kind of misrepresentation (by selection, by distortion, or by invention) in order to conclude that some alternative position is stronger by comparison. We often think that last part–that some alternative position is stronger–is the key move. You use a straw man to go somewhere else with the argument.

So, for instance, “the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is communism,” distorts the ACA in favor of a more sensible, non-communist version.

This morning I was struck by an account of a strategic use of distortion that skips the last, crucial step in straw manning: the sensible alternative. Here it is:

For context, this self-retweet is meant to characterize President Trump’s approach to revisions (rather, alleged revisions) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The argument runs: NAFTA is bad (for exaggerated reasons), engage in a lengthy back-and-forth, NAFTA is fixed (when it’s the same).

You can see from the example that the distortion is almost entirely self-enclosed. In the first stage, it presents a distorted account of the current realty. So far, that’s very straw manny. But, rather than offering an allegedly more sensible alternative, it offers a second distortion, which takes us back to a non-distorted version of the status quo.

This version–I don’t know what to call it–retains all of the puffery of the standard versions: look at how dumb my opponents are! And it doubles that puffery by turning the exchange entirely into a show about how awesome you are.  You’re not as awesome if you have to share the credit with someone else.

Perhaps the more precise account is this: you distort an interlocutor’s position so that you can occupy the non-distorted version. So, the alternative position is strong enough as it is. The only problem is who is occupying it–not you. You have to steal it. To do that, you have to trick your opponent into leaving it.

There are some natural advantages to this. It’s easier to occupy an already constructed position than to make up a new one. Just ask the Great Horned Owl.  There’s got to be a real estate version of this scam. The closest I can find is the real estate practice of blockbusting, where unscrupulous developers scarred white people out of their homes in order to resell them at much higher prices to black families.

Rudy *follow up*

Yesterday it seemed to me that Rudy Giuliani was not doing the standard relativist argument, but, more ominously for our democratic institutions, was (incoherently) challenging the adversarial process for settling questions of fact.

The initial relativism of factual claims is the condition of the adversarial legal system. Someone says x, someone says y, and an impartial judge listens to their arguments and makes a factual determination. The presupposition is that both cannot be correct.

Giuliani seemed to be arguing that because of the disagreement over the factual claims at issue in this case, no resolution is possible, and so any result at all is bound to be unjust to one of the parties. Naturally, this view itself favors one of the parties (conveniently, his).

Today, however, it seems he’s just about to go full relativism, but only with regard to certain questions.

Consider the following exchange from an interview with Fox News:

MacCallum: What did you mean by that?

Giuliani: Oh, very simple. I’m talking about in this particular situation, one person says the Flynn conversation took place. The other person says the Flynn conversation didn’t take place. What’s the truth? You tell me how you figure out the truth. 

MacCallum: Well either it did or it didn’t.

Giuliani: It’s like the tree falling in the forest. Did anybody hear it? I mean how do we know what the truth is?  

MacCallum: You’re talking about whether or not the president asked James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. And James Comey says he did, and the president says he didn’t.

Giuliani: That’s right and they will possibly charge him with perjury should he give that answer. That’s why I’m saying in situations like this, to prosecutors, the truth is relative and it’s not absolute like some philosophical concept.

Unlike the tree case, there were observers to whatever conversation we’re talking about–namely, the participants. So points off Giuliani for not noticing that.

Now again it seems to me that the law does have a system for handling cases of, what to call them, extreme factual disagreement–a trial. If it is the case, as Giuliani alleges, that nothing can be known for certain, then there’s a default setting (to the defense).

So Giuliani again balks at embracing full-throated relativism. He’s only a relativist when it’s convenient.


Pontification on moral theology

In a conversation with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, remarked, puzzlingly, that “truth isn’t truth.” Here’s Politico’s reconstruction of the exchange:

“When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,” Giuliani told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning

“Truth is truth,” Todd responded.

“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth. The President of the United States says, “I didn’t …”

A startled Todd answered: “Truth isn’t truth?”

Giuliani: “No, no, no.”

Todd said: “This is going to become a bad meme.“

This has occasioned lessons in metaphysics from former FBI chief, James Comey:

Not that these guys need any iron-manning, but it seems to me that this (like Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts)  is pretty banal claim inartfully stated. Even the Politico reconstruction makes this obvious: Giuliani’s worry is that Mueller will be working with a different set of alleged facts, so there might be disagreement that looks bad for Trump. I think it’s hard to disagree with this view.

There’s a better version of the objection, I think (and I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m guessing someone somewhere has said this).

A slightly more uncharitable version of Giuliani’s utterance might go like this: Giuliani (and Conway before him) mean to undermine our processes of finding the truth. Part of the process for discovering the truth in our adversarial legal system is an interview such as the one Mueller wants to hold.  It is of course true that Mueller has (probably) collected, at this stage, a set of claims he thinks are true. But, as far as I know, and I am not a lawyer, Mueller is an investigator and not a judge and a jury. He likely also knows this. The problem, then with Giuliani’s claim is that it rejects the adversarial process for the reason that there will be disagreement over which claims are true, which is, after all, the very point of the adversarial process.

Late update. Here’s Giuliani’s Twitter clarification:

The view seems to be that if you have contradictory statements, he-said-she-said, then no process is adequate to discover it. Take note, criminal defendants!

Reverse Authority

In an earlier post, I’d noted the phenomenon of what I’d called the George Costanza rule – that you do the opposite of what you’re inclined to do.  Here’s the Seinfeld clip with the relevant info again:

The point is that if you find someone who you think has all the wrong inclinations, then you have a good bellwether about where things go off the tracks.  Like old Socrates’ daimon.  Call this the phenomenon of reverse authority.

The paleoconservatives have such a bellwether of reverse authority — it’s whatever progressive celebrities say.  And so, it’s headline news over at Breitbart that celebrities are objecting to  President Trump’s rescinding John Brennan’s security clearance.   This, of course, is news only if you think that celebrities with progressive politics are not only wrong about everything, but their statements must be highlighted so as to deepen one’s own commitment.  And a visit to the comments bears this out:

Dr. Strangely Deplorable: Those overpaid narcissistic aberrations known as “celebrities” are a true barometer of another person or groups rationality and Patriotism. If they are “furious”…all is well in the Great Republic at that moment and the war goes on.

It’s a strange place to be when you can tell you’re right only when the people you hate are objecting.

At some point… we’ll all love slippery slope arguments


Robert Astorino was on CNN with Don Lemon to talk about whether the Trump tweet calling Omarosa a ‘dog’ was racist.  Here is an edited version of the exchange:

Lemon: What do you think, Rob.  Was it a racist attack? Do you think he (Trump) should refrain from doing this?

Astorino: I don’t think it was a racist attack.  I think he’s (Trump) an equal opportunity offender. In that he goes after….

…. I had no idea that the word ‘dog’ – I knew it was pejorative – I had no idea that it was a racist term. And I don’t think that most people took it as one.

… I actually looked it up in the dictionary, and nowhere does it say that it’s a slang or racial word….

Lemon: Certain words used against certain people have a different context than if it’s used on a person of the larger culture…. Shouldn’t you know the nuances of this?

Robert Astorino: No. The quick answer is that at some point, we are going to get to the word ‘the,’ and ‘the’ is going to be racist. Because, as I just said is it (calling a woman a ‘dog’) pejorative? Yes. Because he (Trump) meant it as that – to punch back at her, figuratively.  Because he was upset – he knew her and she let him down.

The trouble with Astorino’s line of argument is that there are, as we’ve called them in the past, bumpy staircases (instead of slippery slopes) between a white man calling a black woman a ‘dog’ being racist and usage of articles (definite or indefinite, perhaps) being racist.  Lemon’s point about context is part of it, and the long history of animal vocabulary being overused with people of color is the main factor.    So what prevents the slipperiness of this slope is that there isn’t a long history of usage of ‘the’ as a term of abuse, but there have been ones with animal comparisons with people of color.

But notice a further thing with this particular slippery slope argument – it represents the opposition as having a very badly formulated view of the matter.  That the term ‘dog’ doesn’t have racist connotations is right from the dictionary — what a way to portray your opposition, that they don’t know the meaning of words.  The importance here is that with this slope argument Astorino represents the concerns about Trump’s racist overtones as just not knowing what words mean.  Notice, by the way, that the word ‘monkey‘ doesn’t have its racist usage noted in the dictionary, either.



Dissensus profundus

To have a meaningful or maybe productive disagreement you should be able to identify what it is you disagree about. Once, for example, I had a disagreement with a neighbor over whether some or other species of vine was an invasive (it was and she was right). It was easy in that case to point to the source of our disagreement: some factual claim about Boston Ivy (irrelevant side note: there are no climbing ivy species native to Chicago). Crucially, it was also easy to point to a source for confidence in such claims about plants: a plant manual (or something like that).

Sometimes, however, it’s easy to point to what you disagree about, but not easy to find a solution–this is because you disagree about what a solution would be. This is a deep disagreement (check on this project on the topic). You disagree so fundamentally that you disagree about disagreeing.

On this topic today I learned, courtesy of Dr. Sara J.Uckelman’s Medieval Logic and Semantics blog, a Latin phrase for this situation:

Contra negantem principia non est disputandum

Or: “against someone who denies principles there can’t be a debate.”

Well, in some cases, according to Duns Scotus, there is one thing you can do:

Et ideo negantes talia manifesta indigent poena vel scientia vel sensu, quia secundum Avicennam primo Metaphysicae : Negantes primum principium sunt vapulandi vel exponendi igni, quousque concedant quod non est idem comburi et non comburi, vapulari et non vapulari.

And thus those who deny such manifest things need punishment or knowledge or sense, because, According to Avicenna (I Metaphysics): those denying a first principle ought to be beaten or burnt until they concede that being burned is not the same as not being burned and being beaten is not the same as not being beaten.

There you might have a valid case of ad baculum, though I don’t recommend this as a general principle.

Too much argument

In a recent TED-X talk in Nashville, Robert Talisse (Vanderbilt) argues that to save democracy, we need to do less of it. Here’s the video:

There’s such a strong connection between argument and democracy that I think what we’re being asked to less of is not so much democracy, but argument. We should argue less in order to argue better.

Your argument is invalid

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