All posts by John Casey


Use and mention

This seems like an obvious case of the use/mention distinction. Here is Dick Gregory, actor and civil rights activist, on the students who objected to the Dean recommending his work.

As a lifelong champion of civil rights and a firm believer in fighting for what is right, I applaud our young people for the various protests they have undertaken in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Recently, the young brothers and sisters of MRC Student Coalition at Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University, have taken up such a fight based on curriculum concerns. This protest, however, has become personal for me, since it is in part centered on my autobiography entitled Nigger, and the fact that some students became offended when Jodi Kelly, dean of Matteo Ricci College, recommended Nigger to a student to read.

Here’s the context:

The charge has appeared in several accounts of a tense meeting between the students and the Reverend Stephen Sundborg, president of the university, who urged the students to abandon their demand for the resignation of Jodi Kelly, dean of the university’s Matteo Ricci College, which offers degrees in the humanities. Several accounts state that the word was used by Kelly not to refer to the student or any individual, but to describe the book Nigger, the autobiography of Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist and biographer. On Gregory’s own website, he describes what he told his mother about the title of the book: that whenever she heard the name of his work, “you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”

It’s just not that difficult. The Dean mentioned, but didn’t use, the key term. Nor does it appear the kind of mention that’s really just a sneaky way of using the term indirectly (which is how my friend’s kids learned to swear and get away with it).

Fouling is part of the game

Quote of the day (Aristotle Sophistical Refutations 11 (171b20-35):

So, then, any merely apparent reasoning about these things is a contentious argument, and any reasoning that merely appears to conform to the subject in hand, even though it be genuine reasoning, is a contentious argument: for it is merely apparent in its conformity to the subject-matter, so that it is deceptive and plays foul. For just as a foul in a race is a definite type of fault, and is a kind of foul fighting, so the art of contentious reasoning is foul fighting in disputation: for in the former case those who are resolved to win at all costs snatch at everything, and so in the latter case do contentious reasoners. Those, then, who do this in order to win the mere victory are generally considered to be contentious and quarrelsome persons, while those who do it to win a reputation with a view to making money are sophistical. For the art of sophistry is, as we said,’ a kind of art of money-making from a merely apparent wisdom, and this is why they aim at a merely apparent demonstration: and quarrelsome persons and sophists both employ the same arguments, but not with the same motives: and the same argument will be sophistical and contentious, but not in the same respect; rather, it will be contentious in so far as its aim is an apparent victory, while in so far as its aim is an apparent wisdom, it will be sophistical: for the art of sophistry is a certain appearance of wisdom without the reality. The contentious argument stands in somewhat the same relation to the dialectical as the drawer of false diagrams to the geometrician; for it beguiles by misreasoning from the same principles as dialectic uses, just as the drawer of a false diagram beguiles the geometrician.

This is often the analogy that I use when discussing fallacies. I get little traction, because the students think fouling is part of the game.


Like anyone who teaches critical thinking, I spend some time on the topic of stereotyping.  Like most philosophers (so goes the stereotype at least), my discussion is not informed by empirical research.

No longer: Stereotype (In)accuracy in Perceptions of Groups and Individuals:

Psychological perspectives once defined stereotypes as inaccurate, casting them as rigid (Lippmann, 1922/1991), rationalizations of prejudice (La Piere, 1936), out of touch with reality (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999), or exaggerations based on small “kernels of truth” (Allport, 1954/1979; Table 1). These common definitions are untenable. Almost any belief about almost any group has been considered a stereotype in empirical studies (Jussim, 2012). It is, however, impossible for all beliefs about groups to be inaccurate. This would make it “inaccurate” to believe either that two groups differ or that they do not differ.

Is this just a terminological problem? My informal (read: untutored) sense is that the term might best be limited to those instances of false generalizations about people meant to diminish or otherwise pigeonhole them, on analogy with the way fallacy names are applied. Thus, not all ad hominem scheme arguments are fallacious, but let’s reserve “ad hominem” for those instances which are.

Never go full Godwin

From NPR’s All Tech Considered:

Godwin explains that the comparison is usually out of desperation. “Discovering what other people think when they disagree with you is quite disturbing. So there’s a tendency to escalate,” he says. He adds that the Internet created the first opportunity for such a diverse range of people to interact in an unmediated space.

To this I would add that dealing with disagreement is time-consuming, fatiguing, and emotionally distressing. Finding an easy way to do it is the name of the game. Hitler will do just fine.

Aristotle, On Trolling

This long-overdue translation (by Rachel Barney, Toronto) of Aristotle’s seminal, On Trolling, is worth a careful read. A sample:

Hence the modes of trolling are many: the concern-troll, the one who ‘sees the other side’, the polite inquirer into the obvious. For the perfected troll has no need of rudeness or abuse, or even of fallacy (this belongs rather to sophistic or eristic, and requires making an argument): he only makes a suggestion or indication [semainein ˆ ].

Read it. It’s only two pages.

We’re Back

Sorry for the long hiatus–work and some wordpress issues. Anyway, we’ll be back to posting occasionally.

Here’s a paper worth reading: “The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life”  by Boudry, Paglieri, and Pigliucci. Here’s the key argument:

We outline a destructive dilemma we refer to as the Fallacy Fork: on the one hand, if fallacies are construed as demonstrably invalid form of reasoning, then they have very limited applicability in real life (few actual instances). On the other hand, if our definitions of fallacies are sophisticated enough to capture real-life complexities, they can no longer be held up as an effective tool for discriminating good and bad forms of reasoning.

In addition to other questions (which I’ll maybe discuss later), I wonder very strongly about the empirical verifiability of the first horn.

But didn’t Hitler grow up to be Hitler?

The quondam next Hitler

Low hanging fruit today, but here’s Televangelist Pat Robertson’s advice to the mother who just lost her baby:

As far as God’s concerned, He knows the end from the beginning and He sees a little baby and that little baby could grow up to be Adolf Hitler, he could grow up to be Joseph Stalin, he could grow up to be some serial killer, or he could grow up to die of a hideous disease. God sees all of that, and for that life to be terminated while he’s a baby, he’s going to be with God forever in Heaven so it isn’t a bad thing.

Look Lady, on the bright side, at least you’re child wasn’t the next Hitler. I think Rev. Robertson might have borrowed from this video.


In the The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten defines chutzpah as

. . . that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan”.

Here is a nearly perfect example. John Thune, US Senator from South Dakota, tweets:

Six million people risk losing their health care subsidies, yet @POTUS continues to deny that Obamacare is bad for the American people.

Six million people have health care subsidies through Obamacare, they risk losing it because Republicans have (1) never supported it and didn’t vote for it; (2) constantly voted to repeal it; (3) waged lawsuits, like the present one, aimed at undermining its legal basis. Now, the argument goes, if he gets his wish and it goes away, it is the President’s fault.

The Attack on Truth!

Fun article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on willful ignorance, science denial, etc.  Here’s a fun paragraph:

The philosopher Andy Norman and others have criticized this theory [that what matters is persuasion, not reason, eds.] by pointing out that it relies far too heavily on the idea that rhetorical skills are valuable within an evolutionary context, irrespective of the truth of the beliefs being advocated. What if the reasons for your beliefs are not true? In a response to Mercier and Sperber, the psychologist Robert J. Sternberg pointed out that while reason and argument are closely related, “persuasive reasoning that is not veridical can be fatal to the individual and to the propagation of his or her genes, as well as to the human species as a whole.”

It’ll get you killed.

The deep end

Bridge in Sioni Reservoir. September 2006.jpg

There drought in California has raised questions about how to conserve water. Luckily, the California Pool and Spa Association has the answers:

As residents struggle to cut waste at the tap, the California Pool and Spa Association is lobbying water districts to quash proposed bans on filling pools and spas. The industry cites an in-house study that found that a standard-sized pool, plus decking, uses one-third the amount of water as an irrigated lawn after an initial fill.

“We’re not saying, ‘Solve the drought, put in a pool,’ but the bottom line is people who put in a pool are making a decision to do something more water efficient with their backyard. They’re saving water,” said John Norwood, the California Pool and Spa Association’s president. “Pools are landscaping.”

Even more water efficient would be not watering at all–or putting in drought-resistant plants:

In the end, the water used for pools and lawns is roughly the same, said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, a nonprofit research institute focused on the environment and sustainability. And letting a lawn die or replanting with desert landscaping uses dramatically less water than a pool, so the comparison misses the point, he said.

A long while back I got an email (I don’t check that account) asking whether there was a name for this argument form (though the example the author gave went like this: gays in the US should not complain because gays elsewhere, like Uganda, have it comparatively worse). I’m inclined to think it a false dichotomy, as it offers an exclusive, but false, disjunction between alternatives p and q, where q is horrible and p is what arguer A wants.

So, adapting the current example: given the drought, you can either water your lawn like a water hog or save water by filling or building a pool.