All posts by Colin Anderson

Almost, Douthat, almost. . ..

But it seemed that way because it was hard to imagine the Obama White House botching the design and execution of its national health care exchange. Building Web sites, mastering the Internet — this is what Team Obama does!

Except this time Team Obama didn’t. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the White House seems to have invaded the health insurance marketplace with woefully inadequate postinvasion planning, and let the occupation turn into a disaster of hack work and incompetence. Right now, the problems with the exchange Web site appear to be systemic — a mess on the front end, where people are supposed to shop for plans, and also a thicket at the back end, where insurers are supposed to process applications.

The disaster can presumably be fixed. As Cohn pointed out on Friday, many of the state-level exchanges are working better than the federal one, and somewhere there must be a tech-world David Petraeus capable of stabilizing And the White House has some time to work with: weeks before the end-of-year enrollment rush, and months before the mandate’s penalty is supposed to be levied.

Yep, it’s a disaster almost like Wolfie and J-Paul’s destruction of a nation, loss of millions billions of dollars, and bringing about an insurgency against the US occupation.

Almost, Douthat, almost. . ..

Slip Slidin’ to 20 Billion

Crooks and Liars link to a Senate committee discussion featuring Al Franken, Bernie Sanders, and Rand Paul on funding the Older Americans Act–a program that provides services to the elderly to allow them to remain in their homes and be healthy.

PAUL: I appreciate the great and I think very collegial discussion, and we do have different opinions. Some of us believe more in the ability of government to cure problems and some of us believe more in the ability of private charity to cure these problems. I guess what I still find curious though is that if we are saving money with the two billion dollars we spend, perhaps we should give you 20 billion. Is there a limit? Where would we get to, how much money should we give you to save money? So if we spend federal money to save money where is the limit? I think we could reach a point of absurdity. Thank you.

FRANKEN: I think you just did.

This is probably not a slippery slope argument, though it has some similarities to one. In fact, it's hard to figure out what Paul's point is.

P1) If spending x produces savings, then spending 10x would save 10x as much.

P2) This will reach absurdity.

C) Therefore, we shouldn't spend x.

This is not a good argument, but primarily because premise 1 seems false. Most preventative expenditures are not infinitely scalable (how much preventative maintenance should you do on your car, as Crooks and Liars notes), and so the absurdity never gets generated.

I think, in fact, there is a sort of equivocation at the root of Paul's rhetoric.Rand Paul is obtusely refusing to admit that when you spend money in order to reduce future expenditures that you would otherwise be forced to incur we can consider these "savings." He seems to be relying on a narrow notion that would define savings and spending as contradictory concepts. Thus, spending cannot be savings and vice versa. This latter sense of savings and spending is certainly operative in our language ("How can spending money be saving money?"). But, Franken reasonably expects a bit more sophistication than Rand Paul is able to muster. Rand's problem, I think, is that he needs to deny that those savings will be realized, but is unable to do so, and so falls back and some very silly twaddle.



A Missing the Point and Red Herring Sandwich

Cleaning out my drafts folder I came across this from a few months ago. I've always been baffled by those who argue against someone's concern for animal {suffering, lives, rights, etc.} by asking why they aren't concerned with some other form of injustice or suffering. Most of the time it isn't so wonderfully clear a case of missing the point.

Came across a nice case of "missing the point." In the aftermath of the release of an undercover video revealing animal abuse at an Ohio farm, Farm and Dairy editor Susan Crowall wrote a column in favor of the truth about the animal abuse, much of which raises skeptical questions about whether abuse was perhaps sponsored by the undercover agent, etc.. But, at the end of her column she shares the reflections of her husband on this incident.

There is no way to talk about the alleged incidents of animal abuse at the Ohio dairy farm without becoming emotional. When I went home from work last week and shared the emerging story to my husband, however, he found a way to put it in perspective in a new way.

Where are the undercover videos, where are all these well-funded activists, he asked, when it comes to children instead of animals?

. . ..

I’m not trying to downplay the incident. I watched the video once and I will not watch it again. Wanton animal abuse or neglect is inexcusable.

But I also agree with Keith. There are no multimillion dollar-backed undercover investigators, no news conferences, no outraged blog posts or online comments, no protests around homes, in 99% of the child abuse cases. There are just underpaid, overstressed social workers, and a society that cares too little, too late.

As nice a case of missing the point on Keith's part as you can find in a textbook. It may well be true that we should have more undercover investigators exposing child abuse, but, Keith is really just missing the point, and Crowall seems willing to use his non sequitur as part of her red herring strategy to change the subject in whatever way possible.

But, that's not all we find of logical interest in her column. Earlier, we find a nice attempt to impugn the motives of the organization that released the video:

“Animal agriculture is incapable of self-regulation,” condemns Mercy For Animals on its blog. MFA was the group behind the undercover footage and its packaging and release on the Web.

But readers need to be aware of the group’s ulterior motive, and that is promoting a vegan diet (vegans try to eliminate the use of animals for food, clothing or any other purposes). Nothing excuses the actions of the dairy farm employee, but you need to know where this group is coming from.

Not exactly an ad hominem, but certainly seems ad hominish.

And then we get a nice red herring rhetorical move in the form of a series of questions all of which are meant to suggest that there are big unanswered questions that might shed light on the incident.

Who was the undercover “investigator” from Mercy For Animals? When was he hired, if he was posing as an employee? Did he know Gregg before he arrived on the farm? When was Gregg hired? What is the farm’s process for checking references? Who were these guys’ references?

After these sorts of videos come out, it is now standard practice for the industry to attack the undercover investigator (or is that "investigator"?) for complicity in the animal abuse, and now, the industry and its lobbyists are attempting to make such investigations illegal, though several state legislatures have not passed the proposed legislature (Minnesota and Florida).

Funny fallacy fallacy

From Slate:

This is not even a straw man; it's some loose straw the writer is throwing in the air while yelling "Look at that man!"

Funny line, but it may be that it's not a straw man, because it's just not a straw man. Benjamin explained in the NYT that he is boycotting hetero-sexual weddings on the grounds that it is unreasonable for him to "financially and emotionally invest in a ritual that excludes [him] in all but five states."

The response to this, he says, is that his friends take him to task for foisting his political agenda on others. he seems to see their argument as:

P1. Your refusal to come to my wedding is foisting your political agenda on us.

P2. You should not foist your political agenda on us.

C. Therefore, you should not refuse to come to my wedding.

His response is that P1 is false. It is not just a political agenda, since his desire to be able to marry is a personal issue not a political one. He then accuses heterosexual supporters of gay-marriage of having a double-standard.

They’re proof of a double standard: Even well-meaning heterosexuals often describe their own nuptials in deeply personal terms, above and beyond politics, but tend to dismiss same-sex marriage as a political cause, and gay people’s desire to marry as political maneuvering.

Scocca asks "Who are these many straight people Benjamin claims to be describing?" The answer isn't hard to find in Benjamin's column:

Though Zach falls into that slim majority, he scolds me for being “peevish.” He says he resents me for blowing off his special day, for putting political beliefs ahead of our friendship and for punishing him for others’ deeds.

Their joy in their marriage is personal, and they take personal affront at Benjamin's refusal to take joy in their marriage. But, they think the objection to taking joy in an institution that forbids recognition of his own relationships is merely a political issue, and he replies that it is just as much a personal issue to be invited to celebrate an institution that he is excluded from.

Is this a straw man? Doesn't seem like it to me. But, neither is it a handful of straw thrown in the air. If someone accuses you of politicizing their wedding, it seems reasonable to deny that the issue is political rather than personal.

Is it a good argument? I'm not sure about that. I don't see that one guy is "proof of double standard." And, that might be where Scocca feels uneasy: Benjamin seems to draw some broader claims from his disagreement with his friend, and it's not clear that the broader claims are connected in the same way that the claims are connected in the disagreement. And second, in order to be a double-standard the judgment has to be about the same sort of case, and it isn't obvious what the more general case is.

Not All Rhetorical Questions Deserve Equal Consideration

As we learn from the media, we must try always to criticize both sides of an issue equally. Now, this will not be the full parity treatment–I'd have to find a billboard from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, or New England Anti-Vivisection Society or another Anti-Vivisection organization. And I'm sure there are many fallacies to be identified in all sorts of protest signage as well as other nonsense. But, as always this isn't about scoring points, but understanding how poor reasoning infects our public discourse. So, in that spirit, let's examine a billboard from Vegan advocacy organization Mercy For Animals.


[Source is MFA's blog]

Now, they're a bit more explicit in drawing the practical conclusion compared to the FBR bill-board, which I previously commented on.

C You should choose vegetarianism.

The premise is only a question, but the question presumably is meant to prompt us to conclude that there is no good reason to kill one animal for food while lavishing the other with love. Stated as the premise that they hope you will grant

P1: There is no good reason to eat some animals but treat others like members of the family based simply on species membership.

P2: In the absence of a good reason to eat some animals, we ought not to eat them.

I doubt that we would call this a great argument, but it isn't an awful one (and I'm not certain I have the best reformulation of it here). Presumably carnists will argue that the premises are false, either by arguing that there is a good reason to differentiate between dogs and pigs and thereby justify eating one of them, or deny that a good reason is needed because they're just animals.

But, the important point here is that the billboard itself is of an entirely different logical character than the Foundation for Biomedical Research that we looked at previously. Not all rhetorical questions are logically equivalent.

Here's another MFA bill-board that, it seems to me, is also logically respectable. I'll leave the reconstruction up to you.

Note: I was expecting to find some easy pickings over at PeTA's website, given their reputation for hyperbole and attention-seeking. ( Yet, all of the four "Outdoor PSA's" that focus on animals in research labs seem to avoid egregious fallacies like in the FBR billboard. I'll have to dig a little deeper.

Your wife or a snake?

Critics of anti-speciesist arguments, like presumably the Foundation for Biomedical Research in my previous post, often fall back onto simplified hypothetical moral situations in order, typically, to elicit an inconsistency in the opponent's belief sets or between their beliefs and actions. These arguments typically take the form of asking "your dog or your child?" On the basis of the inconsistency, there are a number of possible consequences that they might wish to suggest or draw, including:

a) Opponent's anti-speciesist view is false.

b) Opponent's anti-speciesist view is weakened.

c) Opponent is an unreliable judge of the moral issue due to the incoherence of their belief set.

d) Opponent is an unreliable judge of the moral issue due to hypocrisy.

As we've commented before, these Subjunctive Tu Quoque arguments are often fallacious, though sometimes they have some probative significance (e.g., by dialectically shifting the burden of argument). But, there is another case of argument that looks like the Subjunctive Tu Quoque, but operates differently.

P1: Opponent S asserts p, either generally or in situation A, on moral ground U.

P2: But, opponent S would assert ~p, in situation B.

C3: Opponent S should not hold p on moral ground U either generally or in situation A.

Here's an example from philosopher Carl Cohen.

"Tom Regan enjoys outdoor activities, and we can well imagine that on some cross-country hike a child of his may be bitten by one of the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes abundant in those North Carolina woods, or a cottonmouth, or copperhead perhaps, or during a winter holiday in Martinique his wife may be struck by the fer-de-lance, a snake whose bite is often fatal if not swiftly treated with an antivenin. Happily, there is treatment readily available for such excruciatingly painful bites, an antivenin that is waiting for the Regan family or any family in need of it, at any good hospital in North Carolina or the Caribbean. But would Tom Regan's child be allowed to receive it? Here is the problem. The needed treatment for the bites of the family of pit vipers is Antivenin (crotalidae) Polyvalent-serum globulin obtained from the blood of healthy horses that have been injected with snake venoms to cause of the development, in their blood, of the needed antibodies. Those horses have been used without their consent, with some pain to them. But, if the antivenin is not administered quickly, children bitten by rattlesnakes (or other pit vipers) will suffer terribly, may lose an arm or leg, or even die." (Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, The Animal Rights Debate, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. p 242.)

Here Carl Cohen is following out what he takes to be the consequence of Tom Regan's animal right's position. I don't think that he is actually arguing against Regan's view here, instead he is setting out the practical stakes of Regan's position before examining "with a very skeptical eye the philosophical arguments by which it is claimed that 'animal rights' are established" (p.243).

But, one might formulate an argument as follows:

P1: Tom Regan asserts that animals have rights not to be used for human purposes generally.

P2: But Tom Regan would/should assert that humans have the right to use animals (horses) in situation B.

C1: Tom Regan should not hold that animals have rights not to be used for human purposes generally.

or, C2: Tom Regan's judgment in P1 is unreliable.

This argument might have a similar structure as the standard reconstruction of the Socratic Elenkhos articulated by Gregory Vlastos, an instance of the Argument from Inconsistency. Though in the Elenkhos, we would add some additional premises to which the interlocutor agrees that entail C1, or for Socrates (on Vlastos' interpretation) the stronger claim that the original belief (animals have rights not to be used for human purposes generally) is false (Vlastos, Gregory "The Socratic Elenchos" Journal of Philosophy 79 (11), 1982, 711-714).

But, there is an important difference between arguments of this sort and the reconstructed implicit argument of FBR's billboard. In the case of Cohen's hypothetical, the hypothetical is an instance of the principle in question. In the case of FBR's billboard, the hypothetical is not. To put it simply:

Cohen: Using horses to produce anti-venom is a counter-example to the principle that animals have rights not to be used.

FBR: Saving a little girl rather than a rat is not an instance of the general category of using animals in research.

So, FBR cannot, I think, defend the implicit argument by modelling it on an implicit Elenctic argument. Conclusions about the use of animals in research is a non-sequitur from the assumed answer to the billboard's question.

Fallacies for Biomedical Research

The Foundation for Biomedical Research, an advocacy and lobbying organization for biomedical industries has been dumbing down the public discourse around the use of animals in medical research with bill-boards in several cities. ABCNews has the story


Now, one might say that this does not make an argument and so cannot argue fallaciously. As their spokesperson (roughly) says in the article, they are just getting people to "ask the question" and "think about why doing animal research is important." And that might be fair enough, even if it seems, perhaps, a bit disingenuous. But, it seems to me, even if we grant this, doing so should lead us to see that they expect us to infer something from our answer to this question. 

Perhaps it's just:

C: Killing the rat to save the little girl would be a good thing.

But, it seems unlikely that they are merely interested in agreement to such a limited conclusion. Presumably the girl and the rat represent a general claim about the value of the lives of cute little girls and rats. And, as an advocacy group, which lobbies against further restrictions on the use of animals in biomedical research (such as considering rats "animals" under the Animal Welfare Act, I believe) and defends research that kills and causes animals to suffer for possible medical benefits, it seems likely that they want us to infer something further from this premise. Perhaps,

P1: It would be better to save the girl than the rat.

C: The use of animals in research generally is good.

But, if someone were to infer that broader claim, as I suspect, the FBR would like, they would seem to be reasoning fallaciously.

The argument might also be taken as an argument from inconsistency:

P1: You hold that the use of animals for research is morally problematic. (70% of Americans do according to FBR).

P2: You would save a girl's life rather than a rat's life.

C1: Your belief in P1 is false

or, C2: You do not have good reason to hold your belief in P1

or, C3: You are an unreliable judge of the moral issue.

This is a better argument, and takes the form of a subjunctive tu quoque, of the fallacious variety–which conclusion should be drawn is unclear, but all of them seem non sequiturs.

On our analysis of subjunctive tu quoque's, the question is whether

P3: Your judgment in P2 is more relevant for judging the moral issue than whatever grounds you have in P1.

If this premise is supplied the argument looks less logically awful (for C2 at least), but P3 is unlikely to be true, making the argument at best unsound. Further as I noted above, it seems likely that the FBR would like the viewer to draw C1, which does not follow from the premises even with P3 supplied.

There are other things to say about the logic of the implicit arguments here, and my charity is running out. One might think, at the least, that it is curious that some would want to defend scientific research with bad arguments, but perhaps that's just my out-dated enlightenment views of science surfacing.

Can’t make this stuff up

What have I told you about diet and exercise?  Exercise is irrelevant…. "How do you know all this?"  One of the reasons I know what I know is that I know liberals, and I know liberals lie, and if Michelle Obama’s gonna be out there ripping into "food desserts" and saying, "This is why people are fat," I know it’s not true.  "Rush, do you really believe that? It’s that simple to you, liberals lie?"  Yes, it is, folks.  Once you learn that, once you come to grips with that, once you accept that, the rest is easy.  Very, very simple.  Now, my doctor has never told me to restrict any intake of salt, but if he did, I wouldn’t.  I’d just spend more time in the steam or the sauna sweating it out.

Boo Effing Hoo

I'm not trying to horn in on Scott's rock'n'roll fallacy posts, (kudos and kleos for correct guesses for what song is in my head right now), but I think there's a sub-type of the ad misericordiam fallacy that we might name by the title of this post. I don't have an example in print right now, rather I've been running into this argument occasionally in conversation. It runs something like this.

No really, it runs something like this:

A: "We think X is bad because it places significant burdens on us."
B: "That's nothing we have had much greater burdens placed on us."

Or, colloquially:

B1: "Oh, Boo Effing Hoo, that's nothing compared to what we suffer."

So, there are some forms of this argument that might be reasonable, but when it is offered as a reason against rejecting X it seems to me to be fallacious, unless some sort of substantive premise, a "shared misery premise" is added. Something along the lines of:

B2: "It is your turn to share the burden that we have already endured."

But, as I've encountered it out in the irrational wildernesses of discourse, it seems often to be a nice variation on the ad miseridcordiam fallacy–a way of turning an assertion about burdens into a misery pissing contest.