Category Archives: Fallacies and Other Problems

This category covers all broken arguments. Some are straightforwardly fallacious, others suffer from a lack of evidence or some other unidentifiable problem.

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.

Argumentum ad virilitatem

Steven Watts at NRO gives an amazing analysis of what happened in 2016’s election.  The thesis: Trump won because he was so manly.
Many liberals and conservatives alike, with considerable reason, denounced Donald Trump as a policy ignoramus and mocked his simplistic, rambling statements on immigration, social issues, government regulation, and foreign policy. What they missed, however, was Trump’s compelling connection to the cultural values — those fears, yearnings, and visions — of vast swathes of the American voting public.
What was it that they missed?
Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
You see, Watts’s view is that because so much of American culture has emasculated men and bent gender to a point of unrecognizable chaos, American voters yearned for something clear and simple, like a John Wayne movie.  And so, Trump, like JFK, before him became the strong hero for us.
Each moved center stage as an assertive masculine figure who appealed to mainstream Americans yearning for leadership by such a man. Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric has a nice bit on ethos, a kind of argumentative move wherein one establishes oneself as the kind of person who is believable, a person of sense.  Given Aristotle’s view of ethics, with phronesis, at the core, you can see why this would be an appropriate intellectual strategy — if you can make it clear that you have good judgment, then you don’t need to make all the arguments.
And this is Watt’s analysis, too.  Once establishing one’s “masculine mystique,” all the hard decisions, all the leadership questions, even the deep cultural divides, they’re all things that can be handled by a person, no a man, with a strong chin.  (It’s not an accident, then, that Mike Pence termed Trump’s foriegn policy ‘broad shouldered’.)
Two things.  The first, a political point.  The sexism of this line is appalling, if only because the election was between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The second point is about argument.  It has to do with the kind of ethos one establishes when making an argument.  We are all familiar with the regular “I’m just a lawyer from…” (It worked for Matlock and for Caveman Lawyer).  But in many cases, like with ad populum style arguments, being the kind of person you’d like to talk things over with (or in GW Bush’s case, have a beer with) is exactly the wrong model for who you’d want making the decisions.  Perhaps I’d want John Wayne for someone who’d chase down some desperadoes, but beyond that, no way for being in charge of the Federal Government.

StrawMika

A longstanding way to think of straw man argumentation is to misinterpret or misrepresent what people said or what their arguments were.  That’s a version of the representational straw man. John and I have also identified the selectional version of the straw man, or the weak man.  That’s a case of finding a member of the opposition that has a badly stated version of the view or a poorly constructed version of their argument and go after that.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a bad argument, but what gets communicated with it is that you, in investing time and energy in replying to that bad argument, you’re not spending time on the better ones.  That would be bad use of your time, so if you’re doing the work of criticizing the bad arguments, they must be as good as they get.

Another weak man instance is that you take imperfectly phrased versions of an opponent’s posiiton and interpret them mercilously.  When we’re speaking off the cuff, extemporaneously, we may not say everything just right.  And so we, except when in full-attack mode, give each other some slack.  That’s a difference between spoken and written communication.  And to interpret your interlocutor in the worst lights when they are speaking informally (and so, imprecisely) is a kind of selectional straw man.

Well, so here’s what happened. Mika Brzezinski said on Morning Joe today that the media’s “job” is to “actually control exactly what people think.”  Here’s the clip:

Now, the context is that Brzezinski’s line is a contrastive — that Trump is trying to control what people think by pushing out the media.  By “speaking directly to the people,” as we’d seen in a previous post.

So conservative media has gone straight up bonkers about the line.  Tyler Durden says she’s “let slip the awesome unspoken truth” about what the media thinks they should be doing.  The folks at Breitbart have made it a front page story, with the implication that the imperfect wording is really a Freudian slip.

Real Clear Politics has a follow-up to it, and Brzezinski has gone into Twitter cleanup mode

It’s pretty clear that when folks have what Walton calls “dark side interpretation” already cued, they’ll take something like this as evidence of letting a mask slip instead of a poorly phrased bit of intellectual pushback.  So this makes it an interesting case of a mix between selectional and representational straw man — it’s selectional, since they go after what she’s said, but it’s representational, since we need an interpretive attitude to take this as seriously a representation of her sincere position.

So, in a way, a lesson about straw manning.  If your picture of the opposition, after interpretation, fits the worst kind of picture you may have of them, you may be a straw-manner.

Leaky Arguments from Precedence

Jack Shafer’s “How Trump Can Learn to Love Leaking” over at Politico has a few nice insights about the love-hate relationship many administrations have had for leaks, and he, I think rightly, observes that:

[T]here is no leak crisis, only a leak panic. . . . As leaks go, the ones currently tormenting the Trump administration are pedestrian, merely embarrassing the president rather than rupturing national security.

From this reasonable observation, Shafer makes, what seems to me, an unreasonable inference:

Trump, of course, might reject the status quo and order Attorney General Jeff Sessions to mount a hammer and tongs foray against the press and leakers, as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan recently warned. But there is scant precedent for such a crackdown, and for good reason. To chase down journalists, Trump and Sessions would have to weaken the Department of Justice guidelines that protect reporters from such investigations. Would the political costs of trashing the guidelines and stalking the leakers be worth it, especially in cases where no vital secrets have been revealed?

As I see it, Shafer’s inference runs something like:

The leaks are mostly costly cosmetically for the administration, and prosecuting them would be politically costly.  Moreover, few Presidents have pursued many leaks.  Therefore, it’s unlikely that Trump will pursue the leaks.

 But the problem is that, as with all probabilistic reasoning, if we add evidence that we are dealing with an outlier case, then the inductive reasons are defeated.  And there are good reasons to say that Trump’s case is an outlier here.  Recall that he’s fiercely retributive for those who break his trust.  Moreover, that X is the way that folks in Washington have done things is not a reason that seems to hold much force with the Trump administration.

This is, I think, a good example of why the ad populum forms of arguments from precedence (and from all the motives that make up that precedence) are all inductive, and so non-monotonic forms of inference.  They can be just fine so long as we think the cases we are applying them to are not relevantly different from what had come before, but if we add the new information in, then that inference gets defeated.  And I think that most of arguments from precedence are suspended when we talk about the orange one.

Fake because Fake

The Friday presser (NYT’s transcript here) was too much to let get by with just one post on it.  Trump had been railing that the leaks about Russia ties with General Flynn were “Fake news.”  He was then asked the question:

And on the leaks, is it fake news or are these real leaks?

His reply was interesting.

Well the leaks are real. You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them, I mean the leaks are real. You know what they said, you saw it and the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake. So one thing that I felt it was very important to do — and I hope we can correct it. Because there’s nobody I have more respect for — well, maybe a little bit but the reporters, good reporters.

First, it’s not much of a clarification.  But that’s not the  point here.  My point is about Trump’s argument for why the news is fake.  From what we have here, it looks blatantly circular.  Or, perhaps, it’s a weaker induction.  Perhaps it’s something of this form of inductive inference:

So much news is fake

Therefore, it’s reasonable to take this news as fake.

That’s not a form of circular reasoning, but it certainly has a greater burden of proof on it.  Showing that X is fake news requires only refuting X, but showing that there is so much fake news requires a lot more — you need to refute X, Y, Z and so on.  Here’s what was Trump’s case for the premise:

It’s very important. I don’t mind bad stories. I can handle a bad story better than anybody as long as it’s true and, you know, over a course of time, I’ll make mistakes and you’ll write badly and I’m OK with that. But I’m not OK when it is fake. I mean, I watch CNN, it’s so much anger and hatred and just the hatred.

So in this case, the argument that so much news is fake is dependent on his sample from CNN and how angry they are with him.  That may mean it’s less a news show and more an opinion piece or a panel discussion, but how is that a case that it’s fake news?

A short note on what argumentative burdens one takes on when charging an other with an error.  A point about dialectical points in argument.  We are reasoning about how we are reasoning together, and in these cases, the argumentative burdens, when charging another with an error, is to demonstrate to them in manners they can see what the error is.  Failing to do that fails a dialectical burden in argument.  But here, I think, Trump’s not interested in whether his argument moves media-types or academic professors, he’s interested in taking this message “to the American people”.  The point, then, is that he’s playing to an onlooking audience with these arguments — he doesn’t take it that he really needs to fix the premise that so much of the news is fake… that premise has been established by the right wingers for ages.  Trump’s just reaping what’s been sown by the culture of aggression toward the media.

I just repeat things I read

Lordy, what a presser yesterday! There was a lot for us to work on, but Trump gave an interesting answer to a challenge.

First, the challenge.  In the opening remarks and in the Q&A, Trump swung back to talking about the election.  He said his 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232 was the largest win since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. However, Obama won more electoral votes in 2008 and 2012, Bill Clinton won more in 1992 and 1996 and George H.W. Bush won more in 1988.  So much for historic — at least he beat W’s 2000.  To this, Peter Alexander of NBC, after having corrected Trump on this, asked him:

Why should Americans trust you?

Trump’s replies were, from what I can gather from the audio:

I was given that information… I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.

and

I was given that information…  Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

To the last bit, Alexander replies,

Well, you’re the President.

The last is interesting, if only because it’s an elision of instituional authority with cognitive authority.  But the more interesting feature is that Trump’s best reply to being caught out on a falsehood is (a) to say he’s just reading what’s written for him, and (b) to say he’d heard it before.  Of course, neither is a reply to the question of whether he’s reliable.

That he reads what’s written for him is not a relevant reply, since the question could be then put to: why should we trust the things you read?  To the latter, the issue isn’t whether he’s heard it before (there are many untrustworthy rumors and things people say), but whether they are credible.

I think these must be something like weak ad populum arguments, to the effect:

It’s been said/written that p

Therefore, p

The bridge principle, like with ad populum arguments, must be something along the lines If people are saying it, that’s reason to believe it’s true.

The problem with all ad populum arguments is that they are very weak inductions.  Moreover, if you don’t know who said it, then they aren’t really even cases of believing on the basis of testimony — it’s just that you’d heard it.  Generally, on-record testimony is better evidence, at least because people can be held responsible for their assertions.

 

Tu Quoqu…erm

Arguments from hypocrisy can legitimately target a number of features of a speaker’s case.  They may show that a proposal is really impractical, or they may show that things are more complicated than the speaker’s pronouncements make it seem.  Or they, in ad hominem fashion, may show that the speaker lacks the ethotic standing (has a moral right) to lecture us about X, Y, or Z.  But they usually are irrelevant — that’s why they have a name for the fallacy, the tu quoque.

One, I think uncontroversial, constraint on these (even fallacious) versions of arguments from inconsistency/hypocrisy is that the two events must be actually inconsistent.  Otherwise, no hypocrisy.  Surely, an argument from hypocrisy needs for there to be hypocrisy, first.

Enter Jerome Hudson over at Breitbart with his clearly newsworthy report on Matt Damon’s apparent hypocrisy:

 “Great Wall” Star: “I’m not a fan of walls”

So, how is this news? Moreover, I don’t see the hypocrisy.  The Matt Damon movie is about a wall keeping out lizard monsters and what look like sword-wielding dragons.  The Trump wall isn’t designed for that purpose, no matter how racist you are.

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.