Category Archives: General discussion

Anything else.

Believing is seeing

Nice little piece by Brendan Nyhan at the New York Times’ “The Upshot” about how ideology and factual beliefs collide.  Here’s a taste:

Mr. Kahan’s study suggests that more people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction,health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.

So what should we do? One implication of Mr. Kahan’s study and other research in this field is that we need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican like former Representative Bob Inglis or an evangelical Christian like the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.


The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved – an outcome that is inevitable on high-profile issues. Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.

All of this seems right to me.   The last point is especially interesting.  It reminds me (somewhat tangentially) of a paper (by Marcin Lewinksi and Mark Aakhus) on polylogical reasoning I saw at ISSA last week.  Though perhaps not the point of the research (I’m only vaguely familiar with it), the problem is that we have fora for dialogues (or di-logues), but none for the poly-logues that more satisfactorily represent the actual dialectical terrain.  This forces ideological alliances such as the GOP one, where you’re pretty much forced to take positions on factual issues in order to belong to the club.  I imagine the Democratic position then forms in contrast (or t’other way round).  If you want to be in the game, you have to be on a team.  Well, it’s a stupid game.

Paging Doctor Analogy

Perhaps there’s an academic paper in what we might call the “Doctor Analogy of Epistemic Competence.”  The basic thought is to treat any epistemic claim as if it were a claim made by your medical doctor.  You undeniably have a personal interest in the accuracy and competence of such claims, so a history of failure or incompetence in this regard is relevant to you.  Here’s an example:

“The analogy I’d draw is the following: You go to a doctor, who diagnoses an ailment and prescribes drugs and surgery,” Landay said. “The diagnosis, however, turns out to be disastrously wrong and as a result, the drugs and surgery leave you crippled for years to come. Are you going to go back to that same doctor to diagnose your next illness? No, you aren’t. In fact, you probably sued him/her for malpractice after the first go-round. Unfortunately, we can’t sue Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith and the others for malpractice. But we can stop listening to them.”

Naturally, the virtue of Dr.Analogy is that it’s measurable: certain kinds of outcomes can be assessed very directly.  Yet, somehow, the Doctors who predicted or diagnosed the Iraq situation correctly are virtually invisible, while the ones who got it wrong are everywhere.

Sophistry on the rise

In the Guardian, philosopher Jonathan Wolff argues that the Higher Education industry is creating the ideal conditions for the return of sophistry.

We may well have recreated the conditions that led to the rise of Sophistry. In just the last few years we have introduced significant fees for education; rapid opinion sharing in the form of the National Student Survey (NSS), repeated every year and widely publicised; and increasingly desperate competition between universities.

My anecdotal sense is that this has long been the case here in the US–where we have to battle not even with the instrumental value of logic, philosophy, etc., but with its perceived instrumental value.

Via the Leiter Reports.

Philosophy worthless, says Philosopher

I have some sympathy with the view that philosophy is a waste of time, though I hope it isn’t.  I really fear, however, that normative informal logic might be –though I cannot the basic self-referential problem that judging it to be a waste of time requires using it, therefore, etc.

There is a discussion on the Leiter Reports about the worthlessness of philosophy, as argued in Peter Unger’s recent book (and discussed in this interview at 3QuarksDaily).   Some, in the comments on LR, allege Unger’s thesis is self-refuting (along the lines mentioned above).  Someone responded–anonymously–as follows:

So far, it seems most people are either attacking Unger personally for having a cushy philosophy job while saying philosophy sucks or are resorting to cheap tricks like: If philosophy is empty and his argument is a philosophical one, then that’s empty too, so there. 

This accurately describes some of the comments, but the anonymous author here ought to know that such arguments are not ipso facto fallacious or irrelevant (I’m guessing this is what the author means by “cheap tricks”) because they’re ad hominem.   We’ve discussed this here.  Unger’s failure to apply his thesis too himself may be a sign that he doesn’t find his view credible.  More importantly, the self-referential failure of Unger’s view (if this is accurate), is not really a cheap trick, but rather the entire stupid problem.  Philosophy, in particular epistemology and its various applied fields, studies the question as to what makes for justified belief that something is worthless.  A worthwhile endeavor.

Bad arguments get bad replies

A student of mine is a lapsed vegetarian–with vegetarian parents. They object, for religious and ethical reasons, to his meat eating.   He retorts with the following argument:

If it’s wrong to eat animals because they’re living creatures, it’s wrong to eat plants, because they’re also living creatures.

My student acknowledges that this is a weak argument but nonetheless reports that this is a successful rejoinder to the extent that his parents do not reply.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the case.  Let’s further say, again for the sake of argument, that the parents’ argument is both weak in itself and weakly held by them.

This means that his parents do not have (or do not share) very good reasons for their vegetarianism.  So, the student replies to a weak argument with an equally weak argument.  When I raised this point, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “what does it matter?  It does the job.”

Students of argumentation, in my limited experience, tend to study either bad arguments or bad replies, but not both together.  And in this case, the bad reply is offered on purpose, because a better reply isn’t necessary.

I’m inclined to think this is wrong, and that the student owes the parents (and himself) a better reply to a better argument.   I say this because he’s aware of how bad his own argument is.  On the other hand, his parents haven’t offered a very good defense, and answering a better argument would be iron manning them.


We’ve all been very busy around here doing whatever it is that we do, so apologies again for the dearth of posting.

While writing something else and looking for distraction, I ran across a tweet of interest.  Here’s the tweet: (courtesy of Media Matters).

You can imagine the context, but here it is (again, MM):

And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader – and especially your Commander-in-Chief – to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

In a very narrow sense, Hayes is correct to accuse Obama of strawmanning–especially with the “only” modifier.   I’m sure in Hayes’s world many problems cannot be solved by military action (e.g., a famine or natural disaster).  And indeed it certainly sounds like Obama is making the general claim that this is all and only what certain pundits think about.

Fair enough, but I think it’s fairly obvious that the “only” in this case shouldn’t be read so strictly.  In the first place,  given the context of the speech (West Point), that Obama is talking about diplomatic crises involving possible (or suggested) military force.  Second, it’s a speech, and Presidents don’t generally name their critics or get specific.

And here is where Hayes’ accusation of straw manning is coupled with self-iron manning.   On any fair reading, Obama is referring to the many pundits  and members of the political opposition who complain that his failure to make military moves during diplomatic crises is a sign of weakness.  Here, for instance, is the allegedly straw manned Hayes (same link as above):

HAYES: [If] we had said when Russia first invaded Crimea, if we had sent troops, hopefully more than 150, to our NATO allies at that time, it would have suggested that the president was resolute, that he was determined not to let Russia push our allies around. Instead what he did was dither for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. And now he does it almost grudgingly and because is he being badgered in part by members of Congress suggesting is he not doing enough, that he sends something that everybody recognizes. The United States, the Obama administration basically has to concede, members of Congress are calling him out on this. Our allies are saying this is just a symbol. This is basically just a symbol.

Funny, this is just the kind of thing Obama is talking about.  Hayes’s accusation of straw man is itself an iron man of his own view.  Here’s another:

HAYES: I think the overriding objective for the Obama administration on a number of different fronts, whether you’re talking ability Iran, Syria, or Russia, is to avoid military confrontation. We can all understand why he wants to avoid it. Everybody would like to avoid it. But there comes a time where that can’t be your leading objective. When you have one of the world’s great powers invading other countries or annexing other sovereign states, you have to take that seriously.

Gee, and this is just the kind of thing Hayes complains has happened to him.   But more to the point, and in the interest of charity, the question is whether “seriously” means “military something.”  I think that’s what Hayes means by it.  Thus Obama’s criticism.

Be nice

My view on civility in discourse is that people ought to try their best to be nice, given the very delicate matters often on the table.  This may involve being nice to actual people with whom you disagree (in person or online) or actual people whose life choices are implicated in your utterances.  Indeed, people ought to bear in mind that even abstract arguments have real targets–all arguments, in this sense, are ad hominem. On this point, here is an interesting meditation on civility.  It’s a fun read and well worth it, a sample paragraph:

What exactly is the difference between what I am doing and what McArdle is doing? Is it that the hypothetical poor person is this faceless human being that nobody in the elite pundit class has ever actually known and that therefore their internal feelings and humanity can sort of be tossed about in some half-assed psychoanalytical effort to theorize their needs and dreams? Meanwhile, McArdle is a concrete human being in your circle whose humanity is present on your mind as she’s being torn through in my concrete example for my pro-material-security argument?

I’m inclined to think, as I think the author is suggesting (though I’m not sure), that we ought actually to be nice to the people in our arguments, even though those people aren’t always real people.  Our views, however, have implications for real people, so perhaps we should act as if those people were before us and not just nameless idiots.  After all, you care about the cognitive life of those idiots; that’s why you’re arguing with them.