Category Archives: General discussion

Anything else.

The Ring of Gyges

Image result for gyges greek mythology

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).

Fallacy theory and democracy

Instead of writing something myself today, I thought I’d post a link to this interesting piece by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse on Democracy and the Owl of Minerva Problem. A critical graph:

We argue in our natural languages, and so often when we argue, we argue over economies, animals, environments, poverty, and so on. But arguments are structured collections of statements that are alleged to manifest certain kinds of logical relations; consequently, they, too, can be the subject of scrutiny and disagreement. And often in order to evaluate a claim about, say, poverty, we need to attend specifically to the argument alleged to support it. In order to discuss arguments, as arguments, we must develop a language about the argumentative use of language. That is, we must develop a metalanguage. The objective in developing a metalanguage about argument is to enable us to talk about a given argument’s quality without taking a side in the debate over the truth of its conclusion.

The critical idea is that our theory about deliberative debate always follows the debate itself. This explains our ill-preparedness for what these debates offer. See: 2016.

No fair!

Scott and I wrote a piece for an anthology of fallacies (I think the title is still up in the air). One of our contributions was on the straw man (of course!), the other was on the “Free Speech Fallacy.” Here is how we defined it:

The fallacy arises when a contributor to a critical exchange confuses the protected freedom of expressing an opinion with correlate obligations to reply to freely expressed critical opinions of others.

I ran across an instance of this yesterday from VPEOTUS Mike Pence. Here’s the passage:

Lewis joins a handful of congressional Democrats who say they won’t attend Inauguration Day on Friday, when Trump, a Republican, becomes the country’s 45th president.

“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis also said in his interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

On Saturday, Trump retaliated against Lewis for the remarks.

“Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart,” Trump tweeted.

Trump, in a follow-up tweet Saturday, said Lewis should spend more time helping his “crime invested” district, instead of “falsely complaining about the election results.”

“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad.” Trump concluded.

Pence argued Sunday that Trump “has the right to defend himself.”

Whatever the context, what’s not on the table is PEOTUS Trump’s right to defend himself. What is on the table is whether his defense–or indeed Lewis’s criticism–is any good (it doesn’t seem to be, sad!). The question of rights here is, as it is so often, irrelevant.

And I think this actually points to a more generalizable problem in dialectical exchanges: call it “irrelevant rule-invocation.”* It consists in avoiding the substance of the dialectical exchange by alleging violations of rules that do not bear on the substance of the dialectical exchange. So, for instance, if I say, “I think A’s comment p was false.” Respondent B might say, “how dare you attack A!” But I’m not attacking A, I’m challenging A with regard to p. Alleging I’m breaking some rule is an attempt to disqualify me from further participation, since I’ve broken some key argument norm. But alas, I haven’t.

Anecdotally, I’m struck by how quickly this happens. The first move in an argumentative exchange seems pretty frequently to be just this.

*I’ve got to think of a better name (or someone point me to where this has been identified and described).

The Transformer Man

Every critical engagement requires some critic A to represent some B’s position p. Ideally, A accurately presents B’s p in addressing it. Sadly, it’s never that simple. What counts as B’s p is often very difficult to determine. It’s especially difficult because of A’s urge to score points on B and B’s desire not to be scored on. With regard to the latter, B has a number of options. One is to change positions. One way to do this is to “move the goalposts.”  Moving the goalposts is a question of degree. Say B argues for some p, but the evidence for p doesn’t stack up, so B claims some diminished form of p, call it p*. This, with little p and p*, by the way, is how you do philosophy.

Now consider another version of this. B clearly argues for p. But it turns out that p is false. B doesn’t modify p with p*, but rather replaces p with q. All along, B alleges, q was meant. By implication, A’s an idiot or dishonest for not understanding this.

This is what is going on here (Conor Lynch at

As Trump has packed his administration with lobbyists and industry insiders, many liberal commentators have mocked Trump voters as misinformed, credulous idiots, while shoving his swampy cabinet picks in their faces. Such liberals have missed something fundamental about Trump’s populist rhetoric. For many of the millions who voted for Trump, the “swamp” in Washington doesn’t necessarily denote corporate insiders, Wall Street executives and K-Street lobbyists — as those of us on the left visualize — but arrogant technocrats, bookish intellectuals and politically correct liberal elites who are indifferent to the struggles of the “forgotten men and women” in middle America.

I can’t think of a more strained reading of the “drain the swamp” than this. Here’s an analysis, if you’re interested, of the actual words and context.  I don’t mean to deny that Trump might be “anti-intellectual,” whatever that might mean. Rather, this is not at all what he meant by that phrase (he has admitted that he didn’t like it). I can tell because the author of this piece doesn’t bother trying to make the case for this interpretation. He’s just substituted it in. He’s switched goalposts.  Of course on this method just about anything counts as “draining the swamp.”

This all turns out to be hugely insulting to the people (gleeful liberals included) who took Trump literally when he said “drain the swamp”. The funny thing about this is that Lynch doesn’t appear to be some kind of Trump surrogate. He’s just offered up this crazy interpretation on his own, for no reason.

So we have something totally novel (something identified, by the way, by one of Scott’s daughters). Instead of A and B and p, we have A and B and C and p and q. A charges B’s p is false. B replies that it was not p but p*. C comes along and says that B never argued for p or p*, but rather q and that A and B are both idiots. What do we call C, then? C is the Transformer Man.

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.