Category Archives: Ignoratio Elenchi

Ignorance of the proof–general cluelessness as to what the evidence shows.

Norms of Assertion #2

In more news of assertions made without backing (see previous post about the various norms of assertion), Joe Scarborough Tweeted:

Two assertions, really.  #1: Trump leaked the return, and #2: He did it as a distraction.

The backing: That it’s “painfully obvious.”  Pretty weak backing.  But, hey, it’s Twitter.

Interestingly, Scarborough was challenged by one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael Cohen — in particular, that he should have some support for such claims:

A pretty apt response, with a little heat to it.  It is ironic, however, that a Trump representative is making hay out of someone making unsubstantiated claims.  Oh, and then Scarborough took the bait:

Oy vey.  Wrong way to do this.

Scarborough is committing two errors here.  First, is what’s been called the Free Speech FallacyJohn’s got a nice bit on it HERE, and we’ve got an entry in the coming Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Important Fallacies.  Here’s our line:

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.

And note, that using the Free Speech Fallacy is a form of ignoratio argument — that we change what’s being criticized from what was said to whether one has the right to say it.  (I’d had an earlier point about this HERE, which I’d called the ‘meta-move’).   So taking the first amendment strategy is no defense against the request/demand for evidence.  Nor is it a reply to the insult that he has a big mouth.  In fact, some replies seem to confirm the accusations!

The second error is with taking a request, admittedly with heat, as purely intimidation.  In a way, I think this is a bit of straw-manning, which is to focus on the tone of a challenge instead of the content, and then make the case that someone is using an ad baculum or some other scare tactic.

Imagine that A gives a crappy argument, perhaps that B has made some moral error.  B, in reply, says something like:

Look, asshole, if you’re going to make a charge like that, you’ve got to have better grounds.  Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

And A replies:

Now who’s the asshole… defending yourself with an ad hominem against me?

For sure, B put some stank on the reply, but there wasn’t an argument from A’s being an asshole to A making unsubstantiated claims.  Rather, it was from A’s making unsubstantiated claims to A being an asshole.  Mistaking heat of reply with a premise of argument or with intimidation is to mistake tone and content.  And, you know, grownups who have hard conversations have to keep the two distinct all the time.

Don’t have a reply? Go Meta

Representative Diane Black (R-TN) was on the PBS News Hour on Friday defending the new TrumpCare bill making its way through Congress.  The bill’s getting criticism from both the Left and the Right.  In particular, host Judy Woodruff asked Black about how the bill’s supporters answer the objection from  Small Government Republicans that TrumpCare is yet another entitlement program, because it provides refundable tax credits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as you know, your conservative colleagues are saying they see it’s a government guarantee and they don’t like it.

REP. DIANE BLACK: Well, they have that opportunity to make those comments and make their points.

And that’s what the whole process is about. That’s the great thing about being in the legislature, is a lot of good discussion and sometimes really heavy conversations. But I think, at the end of the day, that you’re going to see that this bill is going to be successful, and that’s because our health care system right now is failing.

But that’s not an answer to an objection.  That’s the promise that there will be a discussion where the objection can be posed.  Not what the answer will be to it.

Aristotle called this kind of move ‘ignorance of the nature of refutation’ — that in order to reply to a challenge, one must provide not only an argument, but one that addresses the issue instead of establishing (perhaps well) another point.  Hence ignoratio elenchi, ignoring the argument.

In this case, Black’s strategy is to make a reasonable point about the process of argument, but proposing that the reasonable point about the process stands in for a reasonable case for a particular product.  And so, going meta, saying that we’ll have a fair conversation about this, is used as some reason to think that a particular view is defended.

The follow-up argument, by the way, that the bill will pass because the health care system is failing, is a false dilemma.  In fact, those who criticize the bill hold that a DIFFERENT bill would be a better third option.

 

Scumbag Teacher Meme

The scumbag teacher meme is one of the classic tu quoque memes on the internet.  It’s regularly: won’t accept late work, but takes forever to return papers; berates students for wasting time, but chats with students about stuff through class; has a Ph.D., but uses ‘irregardless’.  There are other non-tu quoque versions, too, like requires that you learn cursive, cancels class just 5 minutes before or with a note on the door, requires an expensive but never used textbook.  Most of the instances are misunderstandings about how education works and why teachers need more support (and more pay), but they are stand-ins for some frustration folks have with the current educational climate.

In a new instance of the scumbag teacher meme move, Jim Geraghty at NRO has an objection to how the Day without a Woman Protest is affecting schools.  You see, because so many women are teachers in the Alexandria schools, they ‘ve had to cancel school for a ‘teacher work day’.  Geraghty then identifies the troubles facing the schools:

Alexandria’s public schools underperform the statewide average in subject after subject. In the 2015–16 school year, 80 percent of Virginia students passed English proficiency exams; 73 percent of students in Alexandria did. In math, 80 percent statewide passed; 68 percent of Alexandria students did. Statewide, 77 percent of students passed a test of writing proficiency; 69 percent of Alexandria students did. In history, 86 percent of students passed statewide; 77 percent of Alexandria students did. In science, 83 percent of students statewide passed; 69 percent of Alexandria students did.. . .
[T]he ills that plague Alexandria schools and, indeed, schools around the country… [are] unlikely to be solved by “A Day Without a Woman.”

Here it is in a meme:

Here’s Geragthy’s final analysis:

Apparently, they’ve decided that standing up to the sexist menace across the river in Washington and nationwide is more important to them than doing their actual jobs. It’s a shame they aren’t more concerned with the tangible problems those jobs present every day.
But the trouble is that people can walk and chew gum at the same time.  Teachers can be worried about X and it can be at the top of their priority list, but they can also be worried about Y and Z, too.  And that means that they can even make some room to do Y and Z, too.  John had a nice observation about this a few weeks back with the ‘think of the children‘ trope.  In  this case, however, it’s a case of a red herring of assessing the importance of X with the greater importance of Y.
Another way to see this would be as an instance of a perfectionist’s false dilemma, or as John termed it a few years back, argumentum ad imperfectionem.  That it would be preferable for teachers to be in class for every day of scheduled school is correct, but this is not a perfect world.  And teachers are at liberty to use their personal days as they see fit.  That they all use them on the same day for a political purpose, well, is in an important way, exactly the point they were trying to make.

Those who don’t know anything love the…

Ignoratio.  Charles Cooper, arguing yesterday to defend California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court, embraced the old strategy of invoking unknown harms to come from allowing gay marriage. [Transcript HERE] Justice Kagan asks Cooper if allowing same-sex marriage hinders state interests. Cooper responds:

]Your Honor, we — we go further in — in the sense that it is reasonable to be very concerned that redefining marriage to — as a genderless institution could well lead over time to harms to that institution and to the interests that society has always — has — has always used that institution to address.

Kagan then asks Cooper to clarify.  She asks:

What harm you see happening and when and how and — what — what harm to the institution of marriage or to opposite-sex couples, how does this cause and effect work?

And then Justice Kennedy jumps in to encourage Cooper to concede that there are no actual harms done:

Well, then are — are you conceding the point that there is no harm or denigration to traditional opposite-sex marriage couples? So you’re conceding that.

But Cooper won’t back down.  Just because he can’t name any harms or articulate how allowing gay marriage would cause heterosexuals not to marry, or have kids, or raise them right… won’t prevent him from saying bad things will happen.

The first one is this: expert acknowledged that redefining real-world consequences, and that it is impossible for anyone to foresee the future accurately enough to know exactly what those real-world consequences would be. And among those real-world consequences, Your Honor, we would suggest are adverse consequences.

But consider the California voter, in 2008, in the ballot booth, with the question before her whether or not this age-old bedrock social institution should be fundamentally redefined, and knowing that there’s no way that she or anyone else could possibly know what the long-term implications of — of profound redefinition of a bedrock social institution would be. That is reason enough, Your Honor, that would hardly be irrational for that voter to say, I believe that this experiment, which is now only fairly four years old, even in Massachusetts, the oldest State that is conducting it, to say, I think it better for California to hit the pause button and await additional information from the jurisdictions where this experiment is still maturing.

First, a rule about properly run ignoratio.  The argument from ignorance runs that because we don’t have evidence that p, not-p follows.  There are two related conditions for using the form appropriately.  In one case, it’s right when the principle that were p true, we’d already have clear evidence for it is true.  For some things, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  The second condition is when those arguing for p have the burden of proof — that is when p’s being false clearly yields worse consequences from not-p being false.  So when there are known harms to come from one error (taking p to be true when it is in fact false) but none clearly coming from another (taking p to be false when it is true), p has the burden of proof.

Now, take the SCOTUS case here.  Who has the burden of proof?  It seems, given the way the case is being handled, that the question is whether  Proposition 8 denies rights to a group of people.  If it does, then people have their rights stripped from them if the court strikes down the prior rulings holding it unconstitutional.  If it doesn’t, then if the court upholds the prior rulings, then rights have been extended in a case where it’s not necessary.  Those are the two errors possible.   Which is worse?  The former.  Waving one’s hand and trying to imagine worse consequences doesn’t change that.

Enough about fallacies to close.  Now a moment about moral reasoning.  And conservatism.  I simply abhor the way the conservatives argue about gay marriage.  John’s last post shows the deep mendacity of the movement, and this moment in front of the court is another case of the moral cowardice shown by those against marriage equality.  Since when do conservatives think that sacrificing the rights of a few to protect the bounty of the many is really acceptable?

Ignoratio elenchi of the day

Oh the humanity:

Fast-food playlands under scrutiny

Arizona mom inspects, records appalling conditions

Representative graph from this article:

A reporter crawled through a few minutes later to find sticky surfaces, filmy windows, several broken pieces of equipment, food morsels in every compartment, trapped hair, garbage and thick black schmutz in most crevices.

By comparison, here are the ingredients in a Happy Meal:

White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, chicken flavor (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (canola oil, mono- and diglycerides, natural extractives of rosemary). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. Prepared in vegetable oil ((may contain one of the following: Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated corn oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness), dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent). Water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose, citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), potassium benzoate (to protect taste), modified food starch, natural flavors (vegetable source), glycerol ester of wood rosin, yellow 6, brominated vegetable oil, red 40. Potatoes, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor (wheat and milk derivatives)*, citric acid (preservative), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain color), dimethylpolysiloxane (antifoaming agent)), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil ((may contain one of the following: Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated corn oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness), dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent).

And she complains about the playlot.

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).

Showers of gold

I belong to a faculty union, now in it's third year of contract negotiations (for a contract which lasts four years).  The sticking point, unsurprisingly, is not money.  No one expects any of that–no one other than the administration, the top rung of which has been lavished with raises equal in some cases to my entire full time Assistant Professor salary.  No one is complaining; their punishment is that they get to be administrators.  The sticking point is workload. 

But that's not really want I wanted to talk about.  I'd like to talk about promises.  David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, writes:

To be clear, I’m making an argument that’s different from “Government workers are overpaid.” I’m saying that they are paid in the wrong ways — in ways that make life easier on union leaders and elected officials, at least initially, but that eventually hurt both workers and taxpayers.

The best example is health insurance. Health plans for union workers and retirees are much more likely to require little or no co-payment, which leads to lots of medical treatments that don’t make people any healthier, and to huge costs. Ultimately, some of these plans will probably prove so expensive as to be unsustainable. Workers would have been better off accepting a less generous benefit package and slightly higher salaries.

 Got that.  He's not saying they're overpaid.  He's saying they're overpaid.

On a different point.  Workers negotiated those plans on purpose.  They accept lower salary in favor of better health and retirement benefits, because they understand that this is part of their compensation.  The responsibility for making these deals sustainable belongs not to them, but to the people with whom they negotiated.  If it doesn't, then Leonhardt has justified negotiation in bad faith, and has placed the blame on failing to follow through on promises with the promise breaker. 

In the moral universe, promises such as those outlined in contracts entail moral obligations to uphold them–however "unsustainable" they may be.  If they turn out, in this case, to be unsustainable, the fault lies with the promiser. 

**In other news.  Corporations have no personal right to privacy:

“Two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation,” he wrote, adding that “personal privacy” suggests “a kind of privacy evocative of human concerns.”

The chief justice had examples here, too. “We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold,” he wrote. “A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed.”

I wonder if Roberts noticed all of the clerks laughing.

Economic stimulus

Economic stimulus, David Broder style:

Can Obama harness the forces that might spur new growth? This is the key question for the next two years.

What are those forces? Essentially, there are two. One is the power of the business cycle, the tidal force that throughout history has dictated when the economy expands and when it contracts.

Economists struggle to analyze this, but they almost inevitably conclude that it cannot be rushed and almost resists political command. As the saying goes, the market will go where it is going to go.

In this regard, Obama has no advantage over any other pol. Even in analyzing the tidal force correctly, he cannot control it.

What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.

Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.

Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.

Is he suggesting Obama start a war in order to stimulate the economy?  Aren't there other things we can blow our money on?

War, Hypocrites, and Islam

Tu quoque arguments are posited on finding a contradiction or tension in the other side's position with regard to the matter at issue, and then holding on that basis that the other side is wrong or at least not qualified to speak to the issue.  I've argued elsewhere ("Tu quoque arguments and the significance of Hypocrisy" and "The truth about hypocrisy," with Robert Talisse) that sometimes these arguments are acceptable — e.g., if someone keeps contradicting himself, that's evidence he doesn't know what he's talking about.  Other times, the inconsistency of the other side is simply irrelevant to the issue (the classic example: even if your father smokes, he's right that you shouldn't smoke, and the fact that he is a smoker is at best irrelevant to the issue, and perhaps actually improves his case, as he, himself, is a testament to how addictive it is).

The tu quoque comes in a variety of forms.  The most significant differentiation to make is between the inconsistencies of speech and speech and speech and act.  The first is about a person who can't keep his story straight.  The second is about hypocrites.  Often the hypocrisy is actual — the person really says "do X" and they turn around and do not-X.  But sometimes, the inconsistency of the other side isn't something that's an actual inconsistency, just one that's likely.  One that would happen….  That is, sometimes the other side may not now be inconsistent, but if things were a little different, the other side would be singing a different tune.  So you say, "You say that now, under these circumstances, but were the shoe on the other foot…"  Colin called this phenomenon subjunctive tu quoque.

I've been on the lookout for it and for a few varieties, and I've found an interesting one in Sam Harris's The End of Faith (Norton, 2004).  Harris makes the case that we (in the West) shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for all the just war norms that we bend when we fight against Muslims.  His reasoning is perfectly subjunctive tu quoque.  First, in defending the way Israel deals with Palestinian aggression:

Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? (2004, 135)

Harris uses the same form of reasoning when mitigating blame for disproportionate use of force in Iraq:

If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (2004, 146)

The reasoning is appealing, but it doesn't support the conclusion that it's OK to be more cavalier in war with Muslims.  Jus in bello isn't affected by how the other side would be treating you, if they had the upper hand.  If it's unjust to wage war indiscriminately, it's unjust; and the fact that the other side has a clear inclination toward injustice may be a good reason to be at war with them, but it is not a reason to break the rules of war.

This said, I do want to retrieve what's appealing about the reasoning.  It does seem wrong for someone to insist on the rules of war when it's also clear that they, themselves, would not feel bound by them were they the dominant power.  It seems, first, dishonest.  And second, it seems like the use of moral argument is strictly strategic, instead of moral.  The most that would follow from the Harris arguments would be that there is a member of the discussion who is not an honest arbiter. 

One final thing is that these subjunctive moves carry a weird burden of proof, that it seems, is difficult to satisfy.  It's one thing to show that someone's a hypocrite — all you need to show is that he said "Do X" and then show that he did not-X.  But how do you show that the person, after having said "Do X" would nevertheless would, if circumstances were different, would do not X?

Gusher

So by now everyone knows that oil is being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate higher than 0 gallons.  That's bad for all involved.  What lessons do we draw from BP's epic failure to be regulated?  Let's ask David Brooks:

Everybody is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis. In the late 1970s, the hostage crisis became a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself.

Well if by "everybody" David Brooks means "everybody on Fox News and in the Right Wing think tanks David Brooks listens to," then, yes, everyone is comparing this unrelated thing to Hurricane Katrina.  In any case, the real parallel doesn't seem to be the Hostage Crisis either.  By all accounts, the Iranians had something to do with that (and it wasn't an accident).  (Funny thing: the other day George Will said that BP's failure demonstrates the failure of the regulatory system–rather than the failure of specific regulators). 

Brooks is drawing, I think, some pretty weird conclusions from the tandem failure of BP to control their own mess and of the government to make sure they don't make a mess in the first place.  What this fiasco tells me is this: BP ought to have to get some kind of permit and submit to some kind of honest inspection if they are to put everyone's oysters at risk. 

Indeed, perhaps it's time for the extreme socialism Obama has been advocating.

(For the humorless, the last sentence is a joke)