All posts by John Casey


The real hypocrites

It’s Saint Patrick’s day. Where I come from, Michigan, it means corned beef and cabbage.  Thank goodness those days are over. Should you suffer a dearth of Irish today, you can watch this video. It will sustain you for a year.

Twitter brings us today’s topic–tu quoque. You can’t get enough of this stuff.

That’s Erick Erickson, a true Christian. Consider the second tweet. It could be one of two thoughts.

First, the (in this case non-Christian) people who allege hypocrisy are not qualified to determine whether Christians are hypocrites are not. They’re not Christians, so they don’t know anything about what Christian dogma entails.

This is clearly false. They could be ex-Christians. Or they could just know what Christian morality requires. You can get this from books nowadays, or even the internet.

A second is that people who are not Christians are so sin-filled that they are morally unqualified to criticize anyone. This also seems wrong, because I can be a sin-filled monster but still recognize inconsistencies.

I suppose in the end there is a confusion about the status of outsiders who criticize you. In one sense, their input isn’t directed at improving your overall view (which they think is generally false). This fact, however, does not disqualify them from having any view about your claims.

Since it’s St.Patrick’s day, let’s close with a tweet-quoque by an Irishman:


Shut up and listen

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The following passage (borrowed from a twitter feed) is very suggestive:


We can all get a good chuckle about how these precious snowflakes need a safe space.

I imagine there’s some value in people being able to say things without having to worry about being evaluated (which is what “racist” is). This is what rough drafts are for.

But rough drafts also serve another purpose: to elicit cheap criticism in a low-stakes environment. You can’t forget that part.

If you do, then you’re just talking and making other people listen. What’s the point of that?


Argumentum ad argumenti longinquitatem

Time is short, folks. We don’t have all day to sit around and listen to arguments and puzzle through scholastic distinctions. Perhaps for this reason, some genius has come up with a new form of refutation:

“your argument is too long; mine is better because it’s shorter”

Here’s a recent version:


The length of such bills has been an argument against health care reform since 1993. We talked about this argument (in 2009) here.

I think it’s obvious (is it not?) that the length of our arguings have no direct relation to their quality. It’s not even a pragmatic indicator. Perhaps it even goes the other way. The longer an argument, the more likely it’ll be better (or address your objections!).

Anyhoo. What to call it? Sticking the with the Latinism popular among fallacy theorists: argumentum ad argumenti longinquitatem (argument against the length of an argument). Even the name of the fallacy is long. Get it?

The debriefing paradigm

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Readers will be familiar with this weekend’s POTUS tweet accusing former President Obama of authorizing wiretaps of Trump Tower. The controversy surrounding these tweets regarded the apparent baselessness of the claim (or its apparent base in Brietbart news). As of this AM (as far as I know) the POTUS has refused to offer clarification on the question of the basis of his claim.  Background here in case you’re behind.

This hasn’t stopped his court followers from coming out to iron man his claim. This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Trump says something manifestly false or outrageous, then come people to interpret what he says to sound more reasonable than it actually was. That’s the iron man. What differentiates Trump from, say, Palin is that she had the sense (or lack thereof) to shut up about it after (usually). Trump tends to reject the iron man version of his view. It’s what makes him strong and decisive.

Here’s another variation on Trump’s strategy:

I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump’s inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn’t regret this weekend’s fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is “absolutely convinced” he’ll be vindicated.

“The president just has a great nose for these things,” the official said. “It’s the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.”

This, by the way, is a variation on “spitballing,” identified by Talisse and Aikin at 3quarksdaily and discussed again here.

But there’s a parallel to another interesting case of epistemic failure.

Contrary to the what the source above says, Trump will not, of course, have a good point to make in any epistemically meaningful sense: he didn’t offer any relevant evidence (and apparently doesn’t have any, note the “if”). What’s amazing, however, is that the destruction of the basing belief here (the wiretap) doesn’t seem to undermine the case at all in the mind of the source. Such a failure at belief revision has long baffled psychologists. You can read about that here.

It runs basically like this. You give people a false belief on purpose, then you tell them that you gave them a false belief. Then you ask whether they continue to believe the false belief. Oddly, and sadly, they usually do. This explains, I think, the basic strategy of spitballing Trump-style: say a bunch of false things because once they’re out there and people believe them, they will continue to do so in the face of fact checking, even of the most direct variety.

What to think

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We saw yesterday (post here), that Mika Brzezinski , cohost of Morning Joe, said that it’s the media’s job “actually control exactly what people think.” She obviously didn’t mean that, some people jumped on it anyway. Here’s another example of lapsus profiteering (I’ll find a better name).

Today let’s think for a second about the phrase “telling people what to think” and its cognates. I bring this up because sometime today at CPAC, Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, filed, for the nth time, the complaint that universities “tell people what to think.”  From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community,” read the remarks. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

Teaching is pretty challenging. You have to deal, in the first place, with people who are not your epistemic peers. This means they know less than you do. As a result you seem pretty pedantic much of the time and pretty much anything you do with them in class will involve telling them what to think. For instance: don’t generalize from marginal casesdon’t straw man people you’re arguing with; and don’t base your argument on vague and equivocal terminology, like “think” (in the above case). Now naturally I’ll give reasons for their thinking this. But I’m still telling them what to think. That charge is inescapable because, and I’m telling you what to think again, vacuous.

Yes, of course she means to dust off the old one about “indoctrination” and the like. Well, while we’re lazily advancing tropes, here’s one of my own. I’ve tried and tried to indoctrinate my students into not using the passive voice –yet it still gets used! How successful will I be in getting them to accept the subtleties of my modified version of Rawls’ theory of justice?

Think of the children

Often dialogical public argument consists in the search for closers, Archimedean points from which to eject others and their views from consideration. As a pragmatic and rhetorical matter, this doesn’t usually work (or at least it doesn’t work on the target). The accusation of “racism” is quickly countered, for instance, with “the real racist,” and so on for the others (sexist, etc.).

There does, however seem to be one (for today, at least) that you cannot counter:  advocate of pedophilia.

Enter infamous troll and white nationalist  Milo Yiannopoulos, who was recently discovered to have advocated relationships between older men and boys as young as 13:

“In the homosexual world, particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men — the sort of ‘coming of age’ relationship — those relationships in which those older men help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable, sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents,” he added.

This cost him his book contract and got him disinvited from CPAC (some of whose stars advocated genocide).

It’s nice, perhaps, to know there is a line somewhere with people.

I don’t mean to be flip here, with all of the other lines this guy crossed, why was it this one that finally made him unacceptable? Is it because we’re talking about children?


Consider these two images.

The tweeter is obviously right, they’re not equivalent. Having a conservative world view (and being a billionaire with little prior educational experience) is not remotely close to what Ruby Bridges had to endure.

But this kind of move is extremely common. It’s a variation on the phenomenon of “leveling up” or “outflanking.” I think it has its origins an important fact about how we hold beliefs.

Here it is: people don’t typically change their view on the spot; they just don’t usually have that kind of direct control. Even in the face of much better reasons, people fail to move. This points less-skilled (or maybe more skilled) arguers in two directions.

On the one hand, the inability to change beliefs on command suggests that beliefs can’t be changed at all (or only with great difficulty and it’s not worth trying). If this is the case, then every criticism is ad hominem and so out of bounds (thus the above). This is of course bad.

On the other hand, to get someone to change a belief, you can’t say: “change your belief, it’s false!” You have to get around behind that belief and the belief that supports it (or even better at the structure of believing itself). This is not necessarily bad, but it tends away from the matters at hand (in the case above the very legitimate questions about DeVos’s knowledge and preparation for her important position).

Seriously but not literally

A while back a writer at the Atlantic introduced the Trumpian heuristic, “take him seriously but not literally.” This was then quickly adopted by Trump surrogates as a way of responding the  Trump’s frequent exaggerations and errors of fact (this Jonah Goldberg piece covers that end of it–never thought I’d cite him approvingly, by the way).

Let’s try to understand this thought. We can start by going back to the original piece. Here’s the money quote:

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”

It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”

I wonder by the way  what the etiquette is for including self-congratulatory lines in the course of your own writing–“now that’s an interesting thought,” you might think. Anyway, it’s probably clear by now that Trump takes himself literally and seriously, and so do his supporters. If this weren’t the case, they wouldn’t work so hard and constructing an alternative set of facts to match Trump’s assertions (watch the video linked above).

It’s a curious thought nonetheless, one that cuts right to the heart of dialectical argument. If I’m going to engage you, I have to have a representation of your view. Usually, the question is whether my representation of your view is accurate, or, if not accurate, charitable.

It is true, however, that we pepper our arguments with all sorts of things not-to-be-taken literally. I’d venture to guess that if we really thought hard, we’d find that we’d think this about many of our arguments themselves. Think how often in a casual conversation you might make some kind of hasty generalization. You don’t mean the argument to be taken literally.

But you’re not President of the United States. And there’s a difference between casual conversation and semi-formal argument. So, let’s take the Atlantic writer seriously and literally. How do we take someone seriously, but not literally? Do we simply substitute our own version of the correct factual assertion? “Sure, Trump said 50 percent unemployment, but he’s not wrong because there’s lots of unemployment.” Would that I got iron-manned like this!

One last question. What’s the clue that we need to interpret someone seriously but not literally? Is it when they’re very often wildly wrong?

Weaponized metalanguages


On Philosophy 15 (briefly discussed here yesterday), Rob and Scott discussed the dialectical move from object language to meta-language (and then from meta-language to meta-meta-language, and so forth). They call this “weaponized metalanguage.” It’s a nice metaphor, despite its violence, because it captures the idea that the metalanguage of argument gets turned into a tool of argument itself. On a somewhat strained analogy, it’s a bit like using the rules of a game as part of the game (using the referee as a blocker in football, maybe).

Scott and Rob are correct in their observation that a sizable part of political debate nowadays is almost entirely second-order–the subject is not the best policy option but rather what constitutes reasonable talk about what the best policy option is. For some people, the election of Donald Trump is a fundamentally second order affair–“I voted for Trump because I’m tired of hearing people tell me what to think….”)

The trouble with this strategy, however, is that there always seems to be a flanking maneuver available; there’s always one-level up. What constitutes reasonable basis for rules about talk about what the best policy option is.

When that fails–as in the example above (here’s an article on point)–there’s always the tu quoque.  My informal guess is that the “leveling up” is done mainly to allege the other person has violated some sort of norm. Naturally, accusers can’t be abusers, so the tu quoque is always an exit strategy.