Category Archives: Plain Bad Arguments

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.

The Clearing the Decks Fallacy

Talisse and I have a short bit at Philosophy15 on a new fallacy we’ve been seeing in philosophy.  Well, really, it’s not a new phenomenon, we’ve just started noticing it. One reason is that we’ve become particularly interested in how dialectical standards change over extended philosophical work. Here’s the basic setup.

Stage 1: Hold one’s dialectical opponents to a very high standard of scrutiny.   Show that they do not pass that level of scrutiny.

Stage 2: Deduce that the standard of scrutiny is likely too high, and then introduce a new, lower standard.

Stage 3: Show that one’s own view passes the lower standard.

The problem is that in many cases, the other views criticized in Stage 1 would pass the lower standard in Stage 3, just as one’s own view does.  But they don’t get mentioned in stage 3.  So the argument proceeds as though their being eliminated by the high standards eliminates them full stop.

This strategy we call clearing the decks.  It shows up lots in the history of philosophy, and it is particularly noxious when philosophers do metaphilosophy.

The basic rule, we think, that gets broken is a form of the rule that in deliberating between choices, one uses a consistent standard for the ultimate decision.  It’s not that one must use the same standard throughout, as we can find that some standards are too strict or lax and need to change them.  It’s just that when we make the final decision, we apply the same standard to all eligible options.  With clearing the decks, once the standard is lowered, there are more eligible options.   In some ways, it’s a form of argument from double standards.

I very strongly assert

Sean Spicer’s first press conference was pretty firey.  The most eye-catching part of it was his argument that Trump’s inauguration had the highest attendance ever.

That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.

His was a pretty complex argument.  There were two lines of reasoning. The first, to rebut the claims that the photographic evidence shows attendance to be significantly lower than Obama’s ’09.  The second, to make the case for a very large number.  The largest number, period.

The rebutting argument was that the photo doesn’t accurately represent attendance, because the mall wasn’t the place where all the people were (because of fencing, metal detectors, etc.) and because the materials on the ground make the open spaces look larger.

This pair of photos shows a view of the crowd on the National Mall at the inaugurations of President Barack Obama, above, on Jan. 20, 2009, and President Donald Trump, below, on Jan. 20, 2017. The photo above and the screengrab from video below were both shot shortly before noon from the top of the Washington Monument. (AP Photo) NYAJ501

The positive argument was that the spaces filled during the inauguration added up to a very large number.

We do know a few things. So let’s go through the facts. We know that from the platform from where the President was sworn in to 4th Street holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the President took the oath of office.

So that’s about 720K.  (Trump claimed it was 1.5 million, when he was at the CIA office, later.)

But here’s the thing.  Estimated attendance at Obama’s ’09 was 1.8 million.  So, even were Spicer’s rebutting argument accurate and his positive argument correct, that’s not even half of Obama’s ’09 number.  It’s not even the 1 million estimated for Obama’s ’13.

There were three arguments Spicer needed to make here, and he only made two of them.  The comparative argument for the superlative (period) needed to be made, too.  And no fudging with gates and ground covering would have fixed that one.

 

Mallard Fillmore’s critique by reportage?

Here's a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon.  It portrays president Obama making two inferences.  First, there is the argument by projected increase:

P1: The rate of entitlements in 1962 was 6%

P2: The rate of entitlements in 2012 is 35%

C1: Entitlements are increasing at a rate of .58% a year.

The second inference is the regular conservative culture of dependency argument:

P3: If one depends on entitlements, one is dependent on the state.

P4: If one is dependent on the state, then one will vote for the welfare state

P5: If one votes for the welfare state, then one will vote for liberals.

C2: Those dependent on entitlements will vote for liberals.

Putting C1 and C2 together yield the final conclusion:

C3: The proportional voting block for liberals is increasing at .58% a year.

There are other features of the presentation in the background, too, namely, that it's implied that Obama already knows about the culture of dependency argument, and that because of that, he's arranged to make P2 true.  That is, it's a politically motivated move to make people dependent so as to make them Democrats. 

Now, I think it's clear that Fillmore is displaying the inferences here critically.  So what's the critical edge to it?  Here's my best try to reconstruct it:  the implication is that Obama is intentionally making people dependent on government assistance to make them more liberal.  That will make them more inclined to vote for him and his party in this and upcoming elections. 

But two questions here.  First, I don't think it's appropriate to attribute the first argument to Obama.  Few people would think that rates of increase like this are projectable.  There was a story circulating a few years back that given the rate of dropoff of jobs in philosophy in the last year, we're only three years away from having NO jobs. Of course, few precipitous dropoffs are projectable, as there are natural bottoms and tops to markets.  So even after the precipitious dropoff in PHIL jobs, it hit a bottom.  The same, presumably, is the case with dependency, at least in the sense of entitlement deployed here.

The second is whether the second argument is right, too.  England has a conservative party.  They win elections. Shouldn't that be enough to show that government assistance doesn't guarantee political affiliation? 

Regardless, the weird thing is that the Fillmore cartoon presents the very bad inferences as not just intellectual moves, but as plans

It’s not only mistaken, it’s also wrong

John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, argues in today's column that requiring health-insurance plans to include contraception for women in their health insurance plans is a "clear" violation of the First Amendment.  He offers this puzzling argument:

But then, recently, he decided to challenge the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. And his new policy to force religious hospitals and schools to offer abortion-inducing drugs and birth control in health care plans for employees is a clear violation of religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

It demonstrates to Americans that their government is not only willing but eager to dominate faith, by telling religions how to practice their beliefs. And if they refuse, then the faithful will feel the federal wrath.

So the president's policy is not only mistaken and insensitive and wrong, it is the perfect expression of everything Americans fear about the ever-increasing federal leviathan.

It is not only mistaken–it's also wrong.  Mistaken is the most wrong kind of wrong.  The article (and the comments) are worth reading for the factless cocoon in which some people seem to live.  Nowhere in the piece does Kass bother to (1) cite the facts about the actual policy; (2) consider reasonable objections to such non-restrictions; (3) discuss what the actual position of the Catholic Church is:

The Catholic bishops have called the new health coverage rule "an attack on religious freedom" and argue that all employers who object to contraception–not just faith-based organizations–should be exempt from having to provide it to their employees.

“That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, "not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers."

He added, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate."

That's not a slippery slope, that's their stated objective.  So imagine the following etiam tu quoque (offered, by the way, by a commenter on the Tribune page): the Chicago Tribune has now changed hands, it's owned by Jehovah's Witnesses.  However life saving blood transfusions may be, they are not covered on their plan because Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in them.  Sorry John Kass, no blood transfusions for you so long as you work at the Tribune.  In addition, the JWs think it immoral to refer you to outside plans that would cover blood transfusions.  You must find insurance and pay for that out of pocket on your own.  A discount from you current plan to cover it would violate their beliefs (these are, by the way, objections actually offered to compromise plans by the Catholic Church).    Would you support the law then?

Anyway, the point is that it is not super-obvious to everyone that this is a religious freedom issue.  I would say that it's one worthy of some careful discussion.  Kass isn't offering that.

There’s an argument for that

Maybe someone can do a spoof of that Apple "there's an app for that" commercial replacing "argument" for "app."  Here are two possibilities. 

First, Newt Gingrich–the stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like–argues that Child Labor Laws ought to be repealed.  Seriously, this was practically what I had assigned to my Phil 210 course this year as a troll assignment: they had to argue that children ought to work–or ought not to be prohibited (with child labor laws, etc.) from working–in coal mines.  His argument

This is something that no liberal wants to deal with," Gingrich said. "Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.

"You say to somebody, you shouldn't go to work before you're what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You're totally poor. You're in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I've tried for years to have a very simple model," he said. "Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they'd begin the process of rising."

Interesting choice of words. The second is a variation on the argument that pizza is a vegetable.  Pepper spray is "a food product, essentially", one squirt and you're South of the Border.  Where would one find this?  Why Fox News of course.  Video here.

O'Reilly: "First of all, pepper spray, that just burns your eyes, right?"

Kelly: "Right, I mean it's like a derivative of actual pepper.  It's a food product, essentially.  But a lot of experts are looking at that and saying is that the real deal or has it been diluted because–"

O'Reilly: "They should have more of a reaction than that."

Kelly: "That's really besides the point, it was obviously something that was abrasive and intrusive.  Several went to the hospital."

Tastes like burning (someone–can't remember where–beat me to that one). 

Anyway, here's one more from the archives.  Do you do something that contradicts your stated principles?  Well, Ayn Rand has an argument for that.  It's not wrong for you, because you object to it.  Do you disagree with all forms of public welfare but collect it?  It's not wrong if and only if you think such things are wrong.

The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships, have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

And so on.  Much more in our archives. 

Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

Just is

Yet again, in the can't tell if trolling category, we have Ross Douthat, New York Times Columnist, arguing for the death penalty.  It's the not fact of arguing for it (full and irrelevant disclosure: I think we're better off without it), it's the way he does.  His argument has all of the earmarks of a sophistry challenge:

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.   

That Troy Davis's likely unjust (and therefore actually unjust) execution inspired people to care about his fate is not an argument in favor of the death penalty anymore than the outpouring of blood donation and patriotism was an argument for 9/11.  Some in the public responded in the appropriate moral way to an atrocity.  Good for them.  But the atrocity is not the reason for their being moral.  Take away that atrocity and they can be moral about something else–like prison reform, about which many already care death penalty aside–Douthat's insinuation is a false dichotomy (it's either death penalty elimination or broader prison reform!). 

There's too much that's just awful here to comment on.  Here, however, is the worst of the worst:

Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.

And thus the sophistry challenge.  Eliminating the big injustices would merely (albeit justifiably) undermine confidence in the unjust system.  That would be unjust. 

Trust your feelings

In service of the idea that arguments infect people like viruses, immuno-suppressed Dennis Prager catches some of that David Brooks virus (see here).  Prager, however, manages to get a worse version of Brooksosis acuta:

This latest study cited by David Brooks confirms what conservatives have known for a generation: Moral standards have been replaced by feelings. Of course, those on the left only believe this when an “eminent sociologist” is cited by a writer at a major liberal newspaper.

What is disconcerting about Brooks’s piece is that nowhere in what is an important column does he mention the reason for this disturbing trend: namely, secularism.

The intellectual class and the Left still believe that secularism is an unalloyed blessing. They are wrong. Secularism is good for government. But it is terrible for society (though still preferable to bad religion) and for the individual.

One key reason is what secularism does to moral standards. If moral standards are not rooted in God, they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than “yummy” and “yucky.” They are simply a matter of personal preference. One of the foremost liberal philosophers, Richard Rorty, an atheist, acknowledged that for the secular liberal, “There is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”

Aside from actually getting Brooks' article wrong, suggesting that Brooks is a liberal, and claiming that people believe him, Prager has the shallowest understanding of moral philosophy.  One would think that the cure Prager needs is the Euthyphro Problem.  But the passage just before this shows his intellectual ailment to be much worse:

Ever since I attended college I have been convinced that “studies” either confirm what common sense suggests or they are mistaken. I realized this when I was presented study after study showing that boys and girls were not inherently different from one another, and they acted differently only because of sexist upbringings.

Maybe he should go back to college and ask for his money back. 

Freedom, strings attached

Pat Buchanan has concerns about the democracy movement, especially in the Arab world:

For it may fairly be said of this generation that it worships democracy. Indeed, the fanaticism of this faith in democracy as the path to worldly salvation causes many to hail any and all revolutions against any and all autocrats. . . . Before we endorse the right of all peoples to have what they want, perhaps we should know what they want. For in the Mideast, it appears that most would like to throw us out and throw our Israeli friends into the sea.

But is the democracy movement about giving people what they want?  I thought it was about self-rule.  That doesn't mean that they get what they want, but that they are in charge of their own political lives.  And so endorsing democratic movements in the Arab world may give a stage to the Anti-Americans and Anti-Israel crowd.  But that doesn't mean that they get to have what they want.  That just means that these folks also have a say in how their country functions.  Moreover, isn't one of the thoughts about democratization that once you get the factions working on the hard business of governing, they lose their bloodlust.  They may squabble, but they become less marginalized.  Governing in a democracy should have a moderating effect.  I'm not familiar with any evidence that shows that (or otherwise, either), but regardless of whether it's right, Buchanan's point is moot.  If people deserve political autonomy, then they deserve it and the right to make bad decisions with it.  In fact, if that right didn't have the option for making bad decisions (ie.g.., if you were about to make the wrong one and then everything shuts down), it doesn't really count as a right, does it?