All posts by John Casey


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.

Trump and Poe’s law

One common explanation for the sufficient (because that’s what it was in the end, wasn’t it) popularity of Trump and Trumpism was the idea that he didn’t play by the rules of the elite (he did, but that’s not the point). Some even suggested that not having facts and evidence or making discernible (not to mention valid or cogent) arguments for his views was the heart of the appeal. If true, this would explain the difficulty or disregard they have for such basic notions as “facts” (or logical notions such as use/mention). It also explains how he seems to be insulated from the charges he leveled at Hilary Clinton: he has employed the swamp (rather than drain it) and reportedly his staff, such as it is, uses private email servers (and he uses his insecure private phone). The frustration of the consistency police at these things is a further part of the appeal.

It turns out there is yet another benefit to this strategy: he’s impossible to satirize. Enter Matt Stone and Trey Parker  of “South Park” fame (from the Huffington Post):

South Park” is done with Trump ― at least for the moment.

The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, said in an Australian interview Thursday that they’ve decided to “back off” on satirizing President Donald Trump because his administration is already creating tough-to-top comedy.

“It’s really tricky now because satire has become reality,” Parker told the show “7.30.”

“It’s really hard to make fun of,” Parker continued. “We were really trying to make fun of what was going on but we couldn’t keep up … and what was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with.”

“So we decided to kind of back off and let them do their comedy and we’ll do ours,” he said.

It’s Poe’s law (discussed by Scott here) regarding Trumpism. In this case, it’s not only that the view is indistinguishable from satire, it’s that the view outstrips satire. Poe’s law is meant to be a heuristic for when a view is not worth considering.

This has an interesting consequence for argument theory. Normally, a view that’s too stupid to characterize is not worth one’s time. Usually in these circumstances, there are other views on the table–better ones. You can critique those. Indeed, the satire works because the view is bad. You can see the good view in it. In this case, there is no alternative available. This is a view that needs evaluation and offers no alternative. Going after Burkean conservatism would be irrelevant.

All of argument relies on the fundamental requirement that you can represent a view. If Poe’s law is the measure of basic acceptability, then we’re in serious trouble.

Alternate facts

Boing Boing’s Facebook page shared a Little Golden Book parody mocking Conway’s use of “alternative facts.”

By now, we’re all familiar with Trump Adviser KellyAnne Conway’s remark about “alternate facts.” If not, a brief summary:

The outrage over “alternative facts” began Sunday, when Conway appeared on “Meet the Press” and defended press secretary Sean Spicer’s inaccurate statement about the size of inauguration crowds.

“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” Conway said.

“Wait a minute,” host Chuck Todd countered. “Alternative facts? … Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”

That has led to all sorts of internet hilarity (my favorite is the picture above). More on this in a second.

Sadly, however, this is an instance in which it’s clear that Conway means or should mean “rebutting facts” or “challenges to those facts.” To be precise, we probably should be talking about “alleged” facts in this case, or better, “claims.” A little charity and precision, in other words, would do much to clarify the matter.

Once we settle this common language problem, we can determine who is more likely to be right about this (not them). This is really what we ought to be focused on anyway (although, this particular question seems completely pointless). We’ve got, after all, a well-established way of settling these things. It’s not great, but it’s well-established.

This raises a question, however, as to whether this choice of term (“alternate facts”) is just the point.  This “alternate facts” stuff sure provokes a lot of laughter from logic types like yours truly. And perhaps this is just the point.  Sad.

The Ring of Gyges

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For many years now, I’ve used the anonymity of internet comments as an example of the Ring of Gyges in the first book of Plato’s Republic. No doubt you’re familiar with the idea: given a ring of invisibility, would you be a jerk or not? The internet sometimes grants a kind of anonymity with regard to dialectical exchanges on the internet. If you don’t have to reveal who you are, will you write the uninhibited comment rich with all manner of ad hominem? The thought was that lots of people would.

Well, it turns out this thought was probably wrong. Research seems to indicate that internet anonymity does not contribute to debased debates. It’s (partially) something much more satisfying (to me): lack of regulation:

Clear social norms can reduce problems even when people’s names and other identifying information aren’t visible. Social norms are our beliefs about what other people think is acceptable, and norms aren’t de-activated by anonymity. We learn them by observing other people’s behavior and being told what’s expected [2]. Earlier this year, I supported a 14-million-subscriber pseudonymous community to test the effect of rule-postings on newcomer behavior. In preliminary results, we found that posting the rules to the top of a discussion caused first-time commenters to follow the rules 7 percentage points more often on average, from 75% to 82%.

This is somewhat heartening, I think. It holds out hope that people can channel their energies more productively in clearly regulated environments, like this one (so, no ad hominems, jerks).