Category Archives: Specious allegations of fallacy

Help, I’m steppin’ into the Twilight Zone

President Trump tweeted that he’d snubbed Mika Brzezinski last new years eve, because she was bleeding still from a face lift.  Here’s the tweet:

Sheesh.  OK, so here’s where things get interesting, at least for the sake of argument.  When asked to explain/defend/just talk about apologetically Trump’s tweet, Deputy Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders says he was fighting “fire with fire.”

I think the president has been attacked several times by people on those programs. They elected someone who is stuff, smart, and a fighter. I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone that he fights fire with fire. The things this show called him, not just him but numerous members of his staff, incuding myself and many others, has been very deeply personal. So to turn and pretend like this approach is, you know, I guess it is kind of like living in the Twilight Zone.

So there are two things happening here.  First is the thought that if one’s criticized in harsh terms, one has the right to do so in reply.  Second is that when one is criticized for one’s tone in reply, it is like the Twilight Zone, that it’s not just wrong but bizarre.

The first point is one about two wrongs reasoning.  For sure, arguers should be allowed to give back as good as they get, but there are occasions where this is inappropriate.  Consider being a teacher — students are often rude to you, criticize you relentlessly, and maybe make ridiculous requests and claims.  But they do so because they don’t know any better.  Lucky for them, they have a teacher.  And it would be inappropriate to fly off the handle and reply in kind to every critique, no matter how badly off base they are.  So, the lesson is: there are institutional roles one plays wherein it is inappropriate to give back in kind.  The POTUS is one of those roles.  Surely using one’s voice in the role of that office to single out private citizens for hateful censure is an abuse of that office (just as it would be for a teacher to do so in a classroom).

The second is one about what censure one incurs when one breaks a rule of discourse.  For sure, it can seem wrong to someone who follows the give it back as good as you got it rule to be on the receiving side of some criticism for doing so.  But when is it like the Twilight Zone, where it is bizarre, not even identifiably relevant?  Invoking the Twilight Zone is a move that says that the lines of argument are so far off base, one doesn’t even know what to say back.  It is a theater of the absurd.  But surely Sarah Huckabee Sanders knows what this all means.  That’s why she follows up with:

If it happened in the previous administration, the type of attacks launched on this program, the things they say, utterly stupid, personality disorder, mentally ill, constant personality attacks, calling people liars to their faces on programs. They would have said no way, hold on.

Oh.  Yes.  But that’s exactly what happened.  Do you remember when President Obama had that SC Representative yell out “You Lie!” in the midst of the State of the Union?  Watch the President stay on track, reply and go on.

For sure, people said “no way, hold on,” but the President didn’t go on a twitter tear about what a doofus Representative Joe Wilson looks like. Or how there’s a question about whether he wears adult diapers. (People are saying!)

But the point is that there’s a difference between (a) saying “no, wait, hold on” when faced with nasty bile and (b) spitting bile back.

Finally, I think it’s pretty great that folks on the right, too, are invoking Rod Serling’s great contribution to our culture, a television series about how fragile our grasp on reality really is.  Because, yes, in this political climate, I, too, feel like I’m steppin’ into the Twilight Zone.

Reductio mad libitum

Mad Libs is a kids game, where a familiar story has a number of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and proper names taken out, and players provide their own without knowing the story.  It makes for great game time, and when you allow the kids liberal use of some naughty terms, things get pretty hilarious.  (Pro tip: ‘diaper’ and ‘butt’ are always an excellent nouns to use if you’re in a pinch. But only one per story, else you’ve overplayed your hand.)

Folks use a Mad Libs strategy sometimes when making an argument by analogy.  And so when one criticizes someone for saying something that sounds racist, you might say, “Replace all those times you said ‘Romanian’ with ‘blacks,’ and see how that sounds…”

The crucial thing for all the cases, of course, is that the replacement instances are of roughly the same type.  That’s why it’s an argument by analogy — if the two things aren’t analogous, then the exercise is pointless.

George Will’s new column at NRO is a defense of the Trump plan to gut and/or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.  Will does make a few sensible points along the way — especially that the NEA is a regressive wealth distributor (most of the folks who get the support are already with money).  And, of course he leads with the old kulturkampf line about the government shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to fund things like the Piss Christ, Mapelthorpe’s photos, and other objectionable messes.  These, of course, are more arguments against how the NEA has been run, and less arguments against the NEA.  He closes, after conceding that art, for the most part, is a good thing, with the following:

Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”

Holy moly!  OK.  I’ll limit myself to three things.

#1:  The argument overyields.  Now replace “art” with “national defense” or “law enforcement.”  Once the line is put that way, NO government program is defensible.  (Don’t tell small government Republicans!)

#2: We do have government subsidies for macaroni and cheese.  It’s called  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  So many boxes of mac’n’cheese have been purchased with government help.  (Moreover, don’t forget the government support for the farming and manufacturing sectors that produced it!)

#3:  I smell some straw on that opponent.  With ‘GOOD DEED’, Will has conflated a good thing to do with a thing that is good for the populace, or is in the interest of the state.  Contributing to the common good, even if it is indirectly, is what this is about.  Calling it a ‘good deed’ is a mis- description of what the supporters of the NEH see the agency out to do.  This is not a distillation of essence, but rather a snifter of nonsense.

Season of the Godwin

Godwin’s Law is, roughly, that as a political discussion proceeds, the likelihood of an analogy to Hitler increases.  Long discussions have it as a relative certainty that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini references will not only happen but perhaps multiply. (We’ve done a number of bits on Godwining here at the NS.  I’ve tried a reconstruction of the argument form here.)

Enter our favorite Orange Furher-analogue and the variety of ways folks have made the argument.  There’s the nationalism, the militarism, the authoritarian style, threatening the free press, the racism.  And there’s the fact that even his supporters holler out ‘Heil Trump.’   So much to work with!

It’s worth paying attention to a small difference in argument criticism here — you can criticize an argument against some claim or individual without really defending the claim or person.  That is, you don’t have to be a Trump sympathizer to think that some analogies between him and Hitler are off base.  You’ve just got to think that this analogy isn’t quite right.  (See John’s older post about how to evade in these lights.)

David Harsanyi at NRO has a bit of argument criticism with the wide phenomenon Godwining/Ad Hitlering with our Great Orange Leader.   He has one line of argument that there are bad consequences to the overuse of Ad Hitlerum:

Comparing everything to 1933 is now a big part of our national discourse, not only that of angry partisans but also that of people who should know better than to habitually make these correlations. This isn’t Mel Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler. Whether you’re a fan or a detractor of Trump, these gross false equivalencies belittle the memory of millions who died in unimaginably horrifying ways. Moreover, exaggeration and historical illiteracy undermine the very cause these people claim to care about, unless that cause is desensitizing people to the terror of the Holocaust.

Well, we have to note that the argument here depends on the analogies being false.  So the main line of argument, then, depends on the case that there are relevant dissimiliarities between Trump and Hitler.  Here’s how Harsanyi breaks the analogies when they come to deportation:

[E]ven if the authorities . . . were to start deporting illegal immigrants, not one of those unfortunate people would ever be sent to anything resembling the ovens of Treblinka and Auschwitz. Not their children. Not anyone else in this country. Most often, in fact, deported illegal immigrants, who have broken the law, are going back to their home in Mexico, where they can often apply for legal entry into the United States.

Two things.  First, the Jews weren’t sent straight to the ovens.  They were sent to internment camps, which were billed to the rest of Germany is pretty nice places.  Second, given the way the laws were sold to the public, they don’t sound like matters of targeting illegal immigration, but are more matters of ethnic or religious identity.  It’s that part that merits the Hitler analogies, not whether the consequences are nicer or not.   That the policies could be worse (as in exactly like Hitler’s policies) is a very weak defense.  And, again, as we’ve said many times: analogies are not identities.

Two wrongs of straw

Kellyanne Conway has had a hard couple weeks.  She had the ‘alternate facts‘ brouhaha, then she had the case where she made up a massacre in Bowling Green.   That then yielded a refusal by  a number of news outlets to interview her.  CNN’s ran for 48 hours. She had a credibility deficit.

Jonah Goldberg, over at National Review Online has come to Conway’s defense saying that she is “good at her job, and the media hates her for it.”  You see, she’s regularly been sent on a tough mission – to defend Trump’s policies against a media set on interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.

President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself.

Just for clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that I don’t think Goldberg is holding that Conway must defend straw man positions, but rather she must defend against straw men of her positions.  It has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see the language of informal logic abused, but this one is a doozy!  Regardless, the point is a fair one.  If folks have been getting the views and policies wrong, it’s the job of the communicators to set the record straight.

But it’s here that Goldberg switches gears – you see, if you must defend against those who straw man in hostile fashion, then you, too, must fight dirty. And a lesson from history is a case in point.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.

This, of course, is a curious line of argument, since the lies made the administration’s position (in both cases!)look considerably worse.  Who needs a straw manner in one’s opposition when one is doing such a bang-up job oneself?

Philosophy15 – What’s a Metalanguage?

The distinction between first-order languages, or object languages, and metalanguages is a familiar one to readers of the NS.  However, over at Philosophy15, Rob Talisse and I try to explain how once we have the distinction, a unique kind of phenomenon occurs within arguments. In effect, the point of the metalanguage is to have a kind of evaluative criterion for arguments, but the trouble is that it keeps getting used as just one more line of first-order argument.  One of the results, we see, is what we call weaponized metalanguages.

Question-begging and terms of preference

Dysphemisms and euphemisms – it’s all in the naming when it comes to the rhetoric of a cause.  So one side’s freedom-fighters are the other side’s guerillas or insurgents.  And now it comes to what terms to use for those who protest much of the Trump Presidency.  From the start, the term resistance was appealing for those who were sympathetic with the protester-cause.  And for those who see it as mere trouble-making by sore losers, it’s obstructionism or public tantrums.  Fair enough, really.  What really matters is whether the folks have a point.

But that’s just it — if you think they’ve got a point, then that determines the term to use.  So far, this is the sensible thought shared by many, and Varad Mehta at NRO (with a nicely barbed title, “Resistance is Facile”) makes similar remarks.  But then he sees a fallacy behind it all when it comes to reporting on the matter:

There’s an element of circular reasoning involved: The media reports on the resistance because the resistance exists because the media reports on the resistance. But thinking something doesn’t make it real.

But the second part of the circle isn’t part of the question-begging, is it?  That is, the media may report on the ‘resistance’ because it is happening and is pretty widespread.  That’s the first part.  But the second part isn’t part of the issue, is it?  Moreover, the resistance doesn’t exist because the media reports on it.  Rather, it’s something that people are doing on their own, organizing through social media, and so on.  It’s not because CNN set up some cameras.

So, the lesson is that, to use Mehta’s words, just thinking something is circular reasoning doesn’t make it circular.

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?