All posts by John Casey


The iron man we need, not the one we deserve

I hope you all follow The Non Sequitur on Twitter (@nonsequiturthe). It’s the same scintillating commentary, only shorter.

You should also follow @MatureTrumpTwts: it’s the tweets of the President-elect completely altered to accord with reality. In other words, it’s the iron man @Hughhewitt should be constructing. Here’s  a taste:

PresidentialTrump Retweeted Donald J. Trump

Studying jobs report. Job additions fell short; unemp edged up. Wage gains! I work for you now, and am committed to improving these numbers.

PresidentialTrump added,

Science mimicry

Massimo Pigliucci considers (again) the question as to why irrational beliefs mimic science (In a blog post and in a co-authored paper (link currently broken on this)). The idea:

In the paper, we develop and extend an epidemiological framework to map the factors that explain the form and the popularity of irrational beliefs in scientific garb. These factors include the exploitation of epistemic vigilance, the misunderstanding of the authority of science, the use of the honorific title of ““science” as an explicit argument for belief, and the phenomenon of epistemic negligence. We conclude by integrating the various factors in an epidemiological framework and thus provide a comprehensive cultural evolutionary account of science mimicry.

A critical issue, I think, is that the purveyors of this stuff themselves fail to understand the difference. They mimic science (badly) because they think they’re doing it right. Moreover, everyone thinks this is true of the people with whom they disagree. The comments on the the Twitter feed quickly illustrated this point.

An expertise in the death of expertise expertise

File this article on the death of expertise under the topic of the meta-argument. Here’s a particularly good passage:

This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting — at least speaking from my perspective as the policy expert in most of these discussions — to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument. (Most people I encounter, for example, have no idea what a non-sequitur is, or when they’re using one; nor do they understand the difference between generalizations and stereotypes.) Most people are already huffy and offended before ever encountering the substance of the issue at hand.
Once upon a time — way back in the Dark Ages before the 2000s — people seemed to understand, in a general way, the difference between experts and laymen. There was a clear demarcation in political food fights, as objections and dissent among experts came from their peers — that is, from people equipped with similar knowledge. The public, largely, were spectators.

I’m skeptical of the good-ole-days angle there at the end, and it’s a little hilarious that this piece comes along in the Federalist (home to a fair amount of pseudo-skepticism about experts on climate change), but it’s worth a read.

Crooked Hillary

Not all arguments involve fundamental disagreements. Those that do, however, come along with a couple of challenges. One challenge regards the consequences of the disagreement.  There are many, but I only want to talk about one. When A disagrees with B about some proposition p , then A impugns B’s competence, intelligence, or perhaps morality. That’s why people enter into such discussions in the first place–i.e., to levy these accusations and, hopefully, adjust the behavior or ideas of their interlocutor.

It’s frustrating to me, therefore, that people confuse these necessary concomitants of argument as somehow wrong or out of bounds. It’s especially frustrating when these people ought to know better. Here’s an example I stumbled over in the Chicago Tribune:

If Trump pursued the politics of resentment in courting white, working-class voters and their rural cousins, Democrats succumbed to what I call “the politics of righteousness” in overlooking their concerns and underestimating their power. By righteousness I mean the tendency of the Democratic Party to assume ownership of the moral high ground whenever cultural values and social norms are at issue in American politics — and to presume that those who disagree are, as Hillary Clinton put it, “a basket of deplorables.”

Aside from the false claims about “overlooking their concerns,” the assumption of “ownership of the moral high ground” is just what a debate about moral issues involves for Pete’s sake. What do you call people who call other people “Crooked Hillary”? That’s a moral position if there ever was one. Need we talk about abortion, gay marriage, or any of the other issues that are properly characterized as moral issues?

It’s a waste of time and energy to focus on garbage like this. We all take the moral high ground in moral debates where we hold some definite position. That’s how you play.

The Pundit’s Fallacy

Internet denizen Matthew Yglesias coined the term “pundit’s fallacy” back in 2010. It goes like this:

The pundit’s fallacy is that belief that what a politician needs to do to improve his or her political standing is do what the pundit wants substantively. So progressive populists think that Barack Obama would have higher approval ratings if he acted more like Ed Schultz while establishmentarian centrists think his ratings would go up if he acted more like David Broder. The truth, of course, is that he really needs to hew more closely to my preferences politics doesn’t work this way.

For this to be a “fallacy” in any meaningful sense of the term, there has to be some reasoning failure. To me it seems the failure consists in a lack of self-awareness about one’s own perspective. Not, mind you, that you have a perspective. Rather, that you assert your perspective as the perspective without, and this is crucial, offering any argument for it.  If you put it this way there is nothing peculiar to pundits. Indeed, it’s just another form of petitio principii–the one where you assert controversial premises without evidence.
Naturally, the phrase, “without evidence” might raise some hackles. Let me specify. It’s to assert controversial things without the right kind or quality of evidence. So, for instance, democrats should have appealed to white working class voters by being less, er, judgmental, moralistic, or whatever. I’ve seen this a lot (one really bad one in today’s Chicago Tribune).
This kind of claim may be true (because any proposition can be true–well, almost any proposition). The problem is the kind of evidence offered for it. If it’s anecdotes about your father-in-law’s dislike of elites, then you’ll have to try again.  Claims about what motivates mass numbers (or important minorities in this case) of people to select one candidate over another require a special kind of evidence; you can’t ask everyone and you cannot easily interpret their selection (or non-selection) as a signal of anything in particular.

A golden age of iron manning

Donald Trump has, somewhat ironically, ushered in a golden age of iron manning.  Here’s how it goes: Candidate Trump says something false, crazy, racist, etc., and Trump surrogate  appears somewhere to recast what he said as totally reasonable. This is now a daily occurrence, so you can fill in your own examples (here’s one).

The iron man works best when the person who’s getting iron-manned plays along. Oddly, this doesn’t always work with Trump. He often seems unaware that he needs help. Here is Trump supporter Hugh Hewitt trying (and failing) to iron man him:

I’ve got two more questions. Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

DT: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

HH: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

DT: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

HH: Well, that, you know, I have a saying, Donald Trump, the mnemonic device I use is Every Liberal Really Seems So, So Sad. E is for Egypt, L is for Libya, S is for Syria, R is for Russia reset. They screwed everything up. You don’t get any argument from me. But by using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?

DT: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it. I give him the most valuable player award. And I give it to him, and I give it to, I gave the co-founder to Hillary. I don’t know if you heard that.

I’m informed now that Trump finally gotten the picture. Turns out it was sarcasm. Yeah, like’s that’s good defense.

The argumentative theory

The argumentative theory of argumentation maintains that reasoning is for arguing–actually, for winning arguments (but not in the philosophy way). Here’s the idea (from here):

Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

Here’s an interview with Hugo Mercier I stumbled across that gives a shorter and less formal version of the idea. A sample:

And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.

Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves. 

But maybe these people are terrible at reasoning.  Ok, joking (sort of). The interview is well worth reading. There’s even a little video.

Any view is an opinion, in my opinion

The problem with arguments is that everyone who has a view (i.e., everyone) considers themselves an expert. Stanley Fish  lends credence to this view. In a recent op-ed on Historians Against Trump, he writes:

But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

This strikes me as very confused. In the first place, what on earth are “political opinions”? Are the on par with opinions about matters of taste? (pizza is great!) If so, then indeed, maybe Fish is right. But I doubt this is what he means. Political opinions, after all, include all sorts of things that are fact-based. One example would be: “we should do this because it worked in the past.” The test of the acceptability of this opinion would be whether this indeed worked well in the past. That’s a factual question. Historians deal, allegedly, with such past-tense factual questions. In makes perfect sense that they weigh in.

On another level. Fish has hugely exaggerated the force of the argument from expert opinion (of which this is an example). Experts, which historians surely are at some level, are called upon (by reasonable people) to help with questions that fall within their expertise. For this reason, we call upon doctors to comment on political matters when those have bearing. We can call upon historians to answer questions about history. It does not mean, nor would anyone anywhere suggest, that such opinions are the same thing as truth itself than cannot be objected to.

Naturally, all of this is just my opinion.

Disagreement is personal

Disagreement is difficult and costly. When you disagree with someone on some matter of fact or policy, you’re alleging by implication that they’re mistaken. Whatever the source, the accusation of being mistaken stings–it suggests you have failed at a cognitive task and, importantly, that you are unaware of that. So you’ve failed at two cognitive tasks. There are polite ways to communicate this, but in the end they amount to the same thing: you’re right, they’re wrong. You’re passing judgment on them, as people. It’s personal.

Too often, sadly, people do not appreciate this. An example from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman writes:

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.

This disagreement with Trump, obviously directed at Trump supporters, is more than a matter of what kind of pizza is best. This disagreement concerns matters of fact and policy. Zimmerman thinks p, the Trump supporters think not-p or q. More than that, Zimmerman implies that supporters of Trump are susceptible to demagoguery and excuse, justify, or embrace bigotry. They’re mistaken in horrible and dangerous ways. That’s a pretty harsh judgment on them.

Despite such judgments, Zimmerman continues:

But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

Aren’t bigotry, demagoguery, and the corroding of public discourse an attack on the values presumably shared by academic historians? Let’s say they are. More importantly, Zimmerman shares HAT’s harsh judgment of Trump (and by implication his many supporters). In fact, let’s rephrase the last clause in light of this:

. . . which enjoin us to understand diverse communities [which are] warped or deluded.

Now he basically agrees with them. They even say as much:

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence.

To me it seems obvious that the historians are concerned, at this stage, to convince the Trump supporters that they’re mistaken and that their (and his) ideas are antithetical to a truth-based civil society. Figuring out just why these ideas have traction, understanding their appeal in other words, is secondary question. You can’t figure out why someone is a bigot without first concluding that they’re a bigot.


Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a nice piece up at 3Quarks Daily about the constraints of certain argument contexts. They write:

In the real world of political talk, getting the last word is often what counts most. This is especially the case where political talk is conducted in the limited space between commercial breaks.

The limitations of time and space are also a problem for real life, but that’s another story. The time constraints (John Stewart, by the way, had a great segment on this on the Daily Show–“CNN leaves it here” or something, but it’s long gone.) In that segment, people would start conversing, then CNN would run out of time, despite having a 24-hour span of time in which to develop arguments. You’d think, but you’d be wrong, that they could develop this stuff in depth.

Anyway, back to Aikin and Talisse. They call this “spitballing” and it works like this:

The derailing strategy we have in mind may be called spitballing. At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

Here is how this plays out over time:

Consequently, the spitballer controls the discussion by derailing any attempt to scrutinize what he has said; thus, in a very real sense, he always speaks unopposed. Meanwhile, public conversation is dominated by counterfeit ideas; popular political discourse is crowded out by a mode of exchange that merely mimics dialogue; and the pressing political issues that face the nation remain undiscussed.

The spitballer trolls in real life. You can’t evaluate what the spitballer says because there is no way to fix on it. Here is another thing. The spitballer relies on the requirement of charity for us to pick out the best of the many views. But even then, he can always claim we’ve straw manned him. And he can always call upon his minions to iron man what he’s spitballed.