Category Archives: Specious allegations of fallacy

How to turn your analogy to straw

Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.  He said that the likelihood of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) actually helping people is as great as the likelihood of the Denver Broncos coming back from their fourth-quarter deficit in the SuperBowl.

I know that there are still some who hold out hope that Obamacare will work, just like there were some in Denver this Sunday still holding out hope that the Broncos could come back and win in the fourth quarter.

Now, there is some debate on the matter, but let’s give Rubio the point for the sake of argument.  However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:

But let’s not forget that the Broncos actually made it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were the second best team in the NFL in 2013….

If Rubio is going to compare Obamacare to a football team he should invoke the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16. Better still, the junior Senator from Florida could also speak of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. This would be a far more apt comparison because when it comes to Obamacare no one wins.

Ah, a lesson in how to turn an analogy into a straw man.  At least the Rubio analogy conceded that the ACA had something going for it (at least the Broncos had a chance to make points back earlier), but Goldstein refuses even that.  Beyond this, the point Rubio was trying to make with the analogy was one of prospects, like for the future, not retrospects, looking at the past.  Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.

Fallacy Man

Existential Comics has a nice series on Fallacy Man, a guy dressed as Zoro who jumps into conversations to point out fallacies.  It’s a nice way to show the dialectical error of only pointing out fallacies – namely, that naming a fallacy form isn’t helpful feedback for the argument.  You’ve got to explain why a premise is irrelevant, or how some forms of inference are based on incorrect data.  Those are all dialectical requirements of reason – exchange.  The best part, of course, is that there’s also the problem of the fallacy fallacy. (You’ve got to read to the end of the comic.)

Now, the fallacy fallacy requires additional dialectical baggage, and I don’t see it in the comic posted.  Here’s the basic form of fallacy fallacy:

Premise: The opposition’s case for their view (P) is fallacious. (Then the list of the fallacy forms identified).

Conclusion 1: The opposition’s view, P, is false.

Conclusion 2: And, further, my view is true.

Now, so far, just listing all the fallacy forms you identify in the opposition’s case isn’t yet proof that their view is false or that your view is true.  BUT: there are a number of considerations that might undercut that.  Note, the opposition may have the entirety of the burden of proof.  And so, were the opposition to have the view that, say, there’s an elephant in the room, and they can’t prove it except fallaciously, then there’s reason to believe that there’s no elephant in the room.  (Otherwise, there’d be evidence).  Or consider this in a legal context — all the defense has to do is point out the failures of argument from the prosecution, because the burden of proof is entirely on those who argue for guilty.  In those cases, there are default conclusions, and when the case to the contrary fails, we revert to them.  So in those cases, fallacy fallacy is no fallacy. To further clarify John’s got a great post on the Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy.

Santa brought you a fallacy

USA Today recently reported that “not all Christians believe there is a War on Christmas.”  Most who don’t have this belief have the contrary belief – that not only that there is not a war on Christmas, but that the holiday is doing just fine and one doesn’t need to force it on the non-believers.

But Larry Thornberry at AmSpec sees a fallacy:

A recent USA Today story carried the headline “Not all Christians believe there is a ‘War on Christmas.’”  Hardly surprising. Not all Christians believe Elvis is dead. The obvious escapes many, pious or heathen.

The title of the piece is “Objection, Your Honor. Relevance?”

Two important things.  First, ad populum arguments are not failures of relevance.  Otherwise the fact that something is ‘traditional’ or ‘common sense’ wouldn’t lend any support to anything.  But it does – else conservatism would, at it’s core, be a fallacy.  Ad populum arguments suffer, instead, from problems of weak authority – the matter is whether there are other reasons undercutting the authority or the accuracy of those attesting.

Second, the analogy between those who don’t believe in a War on Christmas and those who believe Elvis is still alive is mighty ridiculous.  The difference between the two is that Elvis-death-deniers fail with empirical evidence.  War-on-Christmas deniers distinguish being oppressed from tolerance.


Who loves the ad baculum?

Mallard Fillmore, that’s who.


Well, I should say, actually: Who loves to attribute the ad baculum?  This seems a very strange sort piece of communication, one that were it actually true or believed to be true, wouldn’t actually be performed in this fashion.  That is, if Bruce Tinsley really believed that the President would bomb him for opposing his agenda or other democrats or for thinking that Nancy Pelosi isn’t attractive (WHUH?), he’d order a drone strike.  Or would be willing to threaten one… would Tinsley write a version of this cartoon?  Surely not.  So what’s this cartoon actually communicating?

Classic Krugman

Check out this video on Bloomberg.

The story goes something like this.  In the remark shown on the screen, Paul Krugman cautioned that he is not calling someone a name (via a Monty Python reference lost on the speaker), but rather questioning the evidence for his view.  The stunningly clueless commentator remarks that this is “classic Krugman” for “going after a person,” which is greeted with all sorts of agreement from the assembled panel brainless commentators.  She then refers to Niall Ferguson, who in his turn says Paul Krugman uses ad hominem arguments because he must have been abused as a child.  That, of course, is an actual ad hominem; Krugman’s is not.  You just cannot be this dumb.

Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!


If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

When ad populum identification itself is a fallacy

Matt Purple has diagnosed the Republican Party with a case of Stockholm Syndrome.  They identify with their oppressors, now.  Specifically, liberal Democrats.

Turn on MSNBC these days and you’ll see a non-stop metronome of post-Romney Republican flogging. You want this to stop?! Then pander to Hispanics! Give up on entitlements! It’s enough to send you thumbing through the Geneva Conventions.

Yes, he just made a torture analogy.  Ignore that.  Here’s the meat of the argument.  The fact that you lose an election, argues Purple, isn’t evidence that you’re wrong.  In fact, it’s evidence that you’re just principled.  The electorate is just… well… you know…  citizens of a democracy, and so stupid. [Here's an old post on what I'm starting to call The Plato Principle, without fail invoked by losing parties of elections.]  Here’s Purple, again, on why electoral results aren’t reasons to change any policy planks in the Republican platform.

Certain conservative quarters are starting to sound like political strategy shops, fretting over which principles to jettison so they can win an election and make the abuse stop. Forget the Resurrection or American Founding or French Revolution. For these commentators, the formative historical moment for conservatives is now the 2012 election.. . . . This is such spectacularly bad logic that it’s tough to know where to begin.

The fact that Purple invoked logic (particularly, of the  “spectacularly bad” kind) is what caught my eye.  Here’s the first line of argument, again, on the Plato Principle: what wins elections is only what appeals to the stupid and easily moved by their debased self-interest, so is likely wrong.  So the fact that 2012 went against the Republicans is good news.  The degenerate idiots don’t like them.

The second line of argument is that the torturers have a hidden agenda with their criticisms.

Let’s start with the fact that the right’s Democrat tormentors don’t want a legitimate opposition party. They want a single Democratic Party, in agreement so it can pass its agenda. . . . Entitlements. Spending. Taxes. The debt. Regulatory policy. Healthcare. Abortion. Gun control.  Everything.

This is the next line, which is that one shouldn’t take critical input from those who you disagree with, as they are not only wrong, but also are out to make you change your mind.

Once we’ve gotten to the point where finding reasons to agree with others on anything is taken as a form of fallacious reasoning (again, I’m thinking that Purple’s main line of criticism is that in democracies, ad populum is rampant), we’ve hit the point where fallacy-hunting itself is a meta-form of fallacy. [N.B., John's got a really great post on meta-fallacies from a few years back HERE].





Fair share of security

Fig. 1. Presidential Security

My hypothesis is this: given any opponent O to your view p, your first reaction is to claim that O is inconsistent with regard to p.  So, take Obama, whose first initial happens to be O.  He’s against arming school teachers and janitors.  The National Rifle Association naturally finds this absurd, and, of course, hypocritical.  In a recent commerical, which you can see at this link, they argue:

“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the narrator of the group’s 35-second video asks. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s
just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Is the President a hypocrite because his family has armed security?

Obviously not.  First, the President’s security is provided by the (hated) government; each of the gun-carrying individuals surrounding the President and his children (etc.) is of the very well-regulated militia type: trained and retrained, background tested, sworn to uphold the constitution, serve and protect, and so forth.  Second, the President (and members of Congress, etc.) exist in a gun-free zone, except for the police.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have my 2nd amendment rights at the Capitol building, among the NRA’s biggest legislative boosters.  Does that not make them hypocrites?  Not really.

Politics and bullshit

Daniel Foster at National Review Online has a well-timed piece on political culture and bullshit.  For the most part, it's a quick essay glossing Harry Frankfurt's views in his classic "On Bullshit".  He's got a few examples that aren't quite right, as his Marylin Monroe case is just one of lying, not bullshitting.  What's interesting, though, is Foster's extension of the bullshit point to what he calls "the politics of identity."  Now, this itself isn't new, as Frankfurt even ends his essay with the observation that "authenticity is bullshit."  But Foster's examples are worth a look. 

The first is Elizabeth Warren and her claims to be a Native American.  What Foster objects to is not the politics from the identity but the case made for her identity. 

Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t.

In this case, what's weird is not that this is identity politics, but the evidential conditions for claiming identity.  I think he's right about the fact that the Warren case is pretty pathetic, but I'd hardly call it identity politics.  Next up is the President himself:

Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.

Again, this is likely right — that the book is trumped up. But how's that identity politics?  Is this a dogwhistle for the right? Sometimes, I feel, when reading stuff at NRO or on Newsmax, that there are words that mean more than I think they mean.  You know… welfare=brown people, crime=brown people, poverty=brown people, undereducated=brown people. Is this another case of conservatives using a normal word as code for something else?  Does it mean something different from what most people think that it means, roughly, people mobilizing political power for the interest of preserving or promoting an identity they share (racial, cultural, sexual, religious, or other)?  Now Foster is right when he says that

That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency.

But I'm at a loss as to what he's saying to the readers at NRO, given his examples.  Is calling bullshit in some cases another case of bullshit?  Really, that's my sense of it here.  The "bullshit" charge was so powerfully wielded against the Bushies earlier in the 2000's, and the conservatives are looking to co-opt the charge as a weapon. But this looks exactly like a cooption, not a lesson. 

Odd inferences

I don't see the relation between "unarmed black teenager is shot under puzzling and racially charged circumstances" and "black people shoot each other all of the time," but apparently it's become quite a thing.  George Will has even jumped on the bandwagon (via Crooks and Liars):

WILL: Well, precisely. I mean, this is why we have what's called due process. We have institutions that are juries and grand juries and prosecutors who are supposed to look at the evidence and come up with the answer.

The root fact is, though, Mr. Jones, that about 150 black men are killed every week in this country. And 94 percent of them by other black men.

And this is — this episode has been forced into a particular narrative to make it a white-on-black when "The New York Times" rather infamously now decided that Mr. Zimmerman was a white Hispanic, a locution (ph) that was not — was rare until then, and I think they abandoned by Friday.

The funny thing is that Will's researchers must have looked up that little factoid.  It certainly does not clarify the puzzling circumstances around this case: namely, the fact that someone stalked a skittle-bearing teenager on his way home , described him as suspicious, shot him, and walked away claiming, among other things, that he stood his ever moving and stalking ground.  I don't know what happened, it seems odd.

But I suppose the implication is that one is inconsistent if one isn't shrieking with rage over the other murders.  Which people are, anyway. 

Here's a question.  If one hasn't remarked on the 150 or so black men who die every week violently, is one enjoined from being outraged by the Trayvon Martin slaying?