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.

Give me argument, not advice!

Dear Prudence at Slate.com is an advice site for some of the more progressive of the progressives.  So there are lots of letters and advice response on how to handle LGBT issues, conflicts within class consciousness, how to manage vegan-nonvegan relationships, and Tinder mini-norms.  NRO’s Graham Hillard’s take on it all is that Mallory Ortberg (Prudence) “dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.”  The point, Hillard wants to emphasize, is that:

Regular people — “the great unwashed,” in Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase — know both instinctively and by hard experience that to live as the sexual Left preaches is to enter a world of confusion, heartbreak, and deep, abiding dissatisfaction.

Simple truth, do you? So, to start, Hillard’s charge is that the advice column on a progressive website gives progressive-friendly advice.  The second point is that “Regular people” know instinctively and by experience that it’s terrible advice.   Sigh.   To the first point — what do you expect?  If NRO ran an advice column, I would expect it all to be conservative and religious material.  You go to the kind of advice you want, so it’s really a problem with affiliated advice columns, isn’t it?  (For example, if a student comes to me about a crisis of faith, I interpret it as a request for more information about atheism and Slayer albums to listen to, not asking for spiritual healing. Were she to approach a priest, she’s requesting something different.)

To the second point, isn’t the matter more complicated than that?  Isn’t one of the replies by progressives that most of these norms and intuitions are products of societies that did not abide difference, and when we aren’t under those social conditions, there are many wider livable lives than we’d anticipated?

But Hillard’s not done.  His biggest complaint is that:

The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney — aside from the fact that, if heeded, they’re likely to leave Ortberg’s readers in worse shape — is that their cumulative effect is to move acceptable discourse (indeed, acceptable thought) ever leftward. Because Ortberg makes pronouncements rather than arguments when discussing the latest trends in gender and sexuality, the casual reader could be forgiven for believing that the argument has already happened somewhere, that the Left won, and that the only remaining thing is to climb on board.

Hillard wants arguments.  It’s part of the regular right-side nonsense that liberals are bad at argument, don’t argue, are fact-avoidant, and so on.  But I looked at some of Prudie’s replies, and they are full of argument.  Here’s one from one of the columns Hillard notes, about a bisexual student who was in a relationship with a married couple, who now have a baby on the way:

Get out now. This couple is producing red flags at such an accelerated clip that they could double as a red-flag factory …. You don’t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You don’t want to be treated like a dirty little secret, but already you feel uncomfortable spending time alone with Dave because of the unhealthy, triangulated dynamics between the three of you.

That’s an argument.  But perhaps not the kind of argument Hillard wants, one that would go something along the lines: what were you thinking, being Bi- and getting involved with a married couple to begin with… you must not be Normal.

Here’s  a thing that normal people know either intuitively or by experience: communication is for the sake of relaying the information needed (or thought needed) for the situation.  Bisexual people go to the advice column at Slate about their current relationships for advice about the relationship, not about why they shouldn’t be Bi- or that they shouldn’t have done what they did.  Moreover, normal people know by intuition or by experience that arguments are often there, but you’ve got to be looking for the piece of controversial information in the communication, not for what you think is controversial.

For sure, Hillard laments something lamentable — that people exist, get news in, and even advice within ideological bubbles that rarely are questioned internally.  It’s easy to see it looking in the culture sections of those you hold in contempt. But when you can’t detect reasoning internal to those cultures or in their advice columns, that’s more evidence that you’re the one who can’t get outside the ideological bubble except to gather dirt. (John had a nice column on this phenomenon, asking whether straw-manning is inevitable.)

Another problem with ad hominem argument

I’ve posted a few times here at NS about how to think of various functions of ad hominem abusive argument, how to see them as in the service of airing greivances, expressing exasperation, or even sometimes as being relevant.   And then there are non-argumentative versions of abuse — that it’s just there for the sake of making the exchange unpleasant. (And thereby, upping the costs for critical dialogue, and consequently, providing motivation to avoid argument in the future.)

President Trump has been the target for a number of abuses for his  purportedly small hands and his hair.

And there are the Mitch McConnell is a turtle memes.

Oh! And Ann Coulter is ugly memes, too.

It’s a little fun, for sure.  But then there are the Hillary is ugly/shrill/horrible line of thought, which (given my political bent) seems objectionable.

As John noted, sometimes, our communicative-argumentative exchanges are less in the service of inquiry, but for the sake of airing of the grievances.   But they can have a chilling effect on speech, and I think that taking too much pleasure in them (and spending a great deal of time thinking about them and making them) is bad for us.  It’s like spending too much time fantasizing about giving people you hate some comeuppance, or focusing on what a terrible person someone is.  It’s natural, but impedes solving the problem or getting on with the rest of your life.

Now there is the focus on the appearance of Rob Goldstone, the Trump contact and publicist who made the introduction between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya. He’s a heafy guy.  Huffington Post’s hook for the story is titled, “From Russia with Schlub.”  They lead with the fact that Goldstone declared himself “in a serious relationship with bread.”  NYT’s story is that Goldstone “Likes silly hats and Facebook.”

The difference between the political cases and Goldstone is that with the latter, his appearance and his name on an email is all we seem to know about him.  And, again, isn’t focusing on his appearance a misuse of our time and an encouragement of our worst inclinations? John and I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the drawbacks of the adversariality of argument — seeing those you argue with as enemies or opponents.  For sure, that’s a good way to see disagreements, especially if you, by hypothesis, think someone’s wrong.  But this adversariality can start to get in the way of good argument, conviviality, and even minimal civility for just living together.  And so, in the same way that we cringe at the Festivus airing of greivances, we should cringe when we see others give in to the temptation of making fun of or taking pleasure in the opposition’s imperfect appearance.  Contempt breeds contempt.

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.

Looking for keys under the streetlight

There’s an old joke about the guy who comes out of a bar late at night to see another fellow on his hands and knees under a streetlight.  He asks the fellow what he’s doing.

“Looking for my keys,” he says.

“Oh, so you dropped them around here?” The first guy asks.

The other fellow responds, “No… it’s just that the light’s better over here.”

And so it goes for what might be called the ‘spotlight’ features of consciousness — we notice what we are aware of, and make inductions and other inferences only from what has made it on our radar.  If it hasn’t been in the spotlight of our awareness, there’s not much for us to go on.  Moreover, our attempts to pursue knowledge usually go along the lines we think are easiest to pursue, namely what we have noticed.

Now the spotlight of awareness has shifted to the tone of political rhetoric.  It’s a regular phenomenon for folks to tut-tut tone, to say that we can disagree without being disagreeable.  One reason to object to rough tone is just that it’s uncivilized (or at least in civil), the other is that it leads to other bad behavior.

Now that some truly bad behavior has shown up in the spotlight with the Wednesday morning shootings in Alexandria, the tone police are ready to start it up.  And since it was a group of Republican lawmakers targeted, it’s the Right’s turn to wag a finger.  But because they only started paying attention to how bad the rhetoric is now that they are the target for the rough talk, there’s a special error to it.  So enter Ross Delingpole at Breitbart:

Trawl the internet as much as you like. Read the headlines. Listen to the talk shows. Watch TV. No matter how hard you look you won’t find nearly the same level of hatred and aggression from conservatives as you now do routinely from liberals.

In the pragmatist tradition, the error is sometime called the fallacy of selective emphasis — namely, that you make inferences just on the basis of the small sample you have from when you just started paying attention.  This fallacy is a particular form of hasty generalization, but it’s one that generalizes only on the instances that are of importance to the subject… all the other instances relevant for the generalization are treated as irrelevant.

Teenagers are serial hasty generalizers in this sense — and so they make inferences like we always do something boring on the weekends and not what I wanna do… but on the sample size of just this boring weekend, ignoring the fact that we drove all over town for the last three weekends taking them to skate parties, friends houses, shopping, and concerts.

For sure, there’s a lot of rough talk about Mr. Trump and the Republicans out there — Kathy Griffin’s headshot is the tip of the iceberg, for sure.  But let’s not forget the racial animus out there for Mr. Obama, the “Second Amendment Solution” Mr. Trump proposed to Hillary Clinton’s hypothetical opposition to guns. Or all the folks saying that the tree of liberty needs watering (with the blood of tyrants).

Back to Delingpole. The reason why you don’t see that animus now is that Mr. Trump is the President.  And part of the strategy for Republicans and other Trump supporters is to actively antagonize the left.  Consider the breadth of the markets for things you can do to drive liberals crazy.   James Delingpole even has a book with that title:

But it extends beyond this, from movies to watch, to bumper stickers, how to talk at the Thanksgiving table, even to what cars to buy (or retrofit).

For sure, there’s plenty of animus, but usually who expresses it and who gets it is indexed to who is in the position of calling the shots.

Straw Figures and Analogies

When one makes a straw figure of an interlocutor’s position, one casts it in worse lights than it deserves.  And so, one interprets a ‘most’ as an ‘all,’ or a prima facie duty as an absolute one.  And so with Mallard Fillmore’s recent comic, we have an imagined critical discussion.  The person in the black turtleneck says “we should be more like Scandinavia.”  Fillmore’s rebuttal is that there’s a brewery in Scandinavia that makes beer from urine, presumably with the thought that this is a counter-example.  He then predicts that this should have “no impact” on the black turtleneck guy’s thesis.

Of course, it’s a joke.  But the humor in the joke, I presume, is that the urine-beer point is supposed to be a kind of analogy-breaker, instead of a counter-example.

So, in the first instance, the Fillmore argument is a straw figure.  He interprets black turtlenecks’ thesis as: we should do all the things that Scandinavians do.  All it takes is one counter example.  So pee beer.  You could also have other things.  Black Metal, weird furniture design, love of Schnapps, obsessions with wool mittens.  Those are things that Americans could probably take the pass on.  (Sidebar: I’ve always thought I should like Black Metal, but I just can’t seem to get into it.)

As I take it, black turtleneck won’t be phased by the urine beer counter-example, because his argument isn’t that we should do all the things they do, just those from a relevant class.  So, decent treatment of workers, living wage, encouraging bicycles, social safety net.

So, here’s how I think that Fillmore’s argument works in the second instance.  It’s supposed to be a kind of analogy-breaker, and the line is that if you’re comfortable with all the social things that come with being a Northern European Socialist Utopia, then there are other things that come along for the ride. External costs.  And urine beer is just one of those things.  So the thought is that if you experiment with society to a certain degree, you break common sense.  And you end up with piss beer.

The irony, of course, is that if reductio of social policy can be done by way of what kind of beer a society produces, then we are in for some trouble.  And Fillmore implicitly recognizes that point.  See the next comic:

What’s funny, of course, is not just that Fillmore recognizes the  implication for American beers, but that he’s really hung up on the Danish piss brew.

Two scoops of weak man

Time magazine ran a bit about how President Trump got two scoops of ice cream for desert after a dinner interview, while everyone else got just one.  CNN then ran a few stories about it.

So far, not fake news.  Ah, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is how Breitbart and Hannity are responding to the story.  Here’s Hannity’s tweet:

The implication is that the story isn’t newsworthy, so CNN (and Time) are undercut as news organizations for running with it.

The first thing is a version of the weak man point.  Judging a news organization on the basis of its weakest story is uncharitable, especially if it’s a slower news day.   Puff pieces happen when you’ve got a 24-hour news channel.  One nut-picked puff piece does not a case against a network make.  So long as it’s not made up, poorly sourced, or misleading, how exactly is this bad journalism?

The second thing is that I’m not sure what the argument against the story is beyond the implication that it comes off a little petty.  But here’s the thing: the character of the President of the United States is a matter of significant import. (I’d posted something on this point about ad hominem a little while back.)  And what we seem to keep getting is a picture of a very selfish person.  Sure, it’s not a scoop on whether there are “tapes” of the conversation Trump had with Comey, and it’s not a discovery of evidence of collusion with Russia.  But it is yet one more story confirming what we’d had a pretty good idea of to begin with, and that the office has had no change on the character of the man inhabiting it.

 

Iron Turkey

Remember the bonkers 80’s move, Iron Eagle? I only vaguely do, but I remember thinking it was bonkers back then.   Well, taking off from that, I’ve been thinking of ways iron-manning can fall apart.  So, instead of making someone an IRON EAGLE, they show back up and turn themselves into an IRON TURKEY.

Here’s an example. President Trump won’t accept someone reinterpreting what he’s saying so that it won’t sound crazy.  Take the Jeaninne Pirro interview.

Pirro: Are you moving so quickly that your communications department can’t keep up with you?

Trump: Yes, it’s true.

P: So, what do we do about that, because –

T: We don’t have press conferences. And we do –

P: You don’t mean that!

T: Well, we just don’t have ’em – unless I have one every two weeks, and I do it myself.  We don’t have ’em.  I think it’s a good idea. First of all, there’s a level of hostility that’s very unfair….

Trump also tweeted that it’s impossible for his surrogates to get everything right all the time, so it’s just better to opt out of having press conferences altogether.  Just have press releases.

There are actually two issues with the argumentative context here.  The first is Trump’s false dilemma between (a) having totally error-free press conferences and (b) not having press conferences at all.  His reasoning is that because (a) is impossible, (b) must follow.  But, we know, that there are many other options. Another option could just be: (c) have press conferences, but have people who are properly briefed before them, vet the people you’ve got speaking on behalf of the administration for competence, and try to cultivate an amicable relationship with at least some of the media outlets and their reporters. You know, what responsible Presidents do.

Ok, so that’s the familiar perfectionist’s false dilemma.

But it’s what Trump does after someone tries to help him out in the midst of the argument that’s so interesting.  Pirro responds: surely this must be just a rhetorical overstatement.  It’s a nice way to say: Look, I know it’s hard to get a detailed view out, so using a bit of reactionary language is useful.  But try the detailed view, now.  I’m listening.  But, as it turns out, that’s all Trump’s got!  It’s like you try to iron man a guy, and he shows back up and says not only it’s not his view, but that it’s worse.  He wanted the fully on bonkers view!  So here’s folks trying to iron man him, and he turns it into an iron turkey.

 

 

 

Straw Mom

Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about his son’s congenital heart defect and the medical treatment it needed was pretty moving.  And Kimmel then followed it with an observation that too many folks without insurance coverage would not have had the medical access he had. It was, ultimately, a personal story about why the Affordable Care Act is so important.

Enter Michelle Malkin for some pushback.  She titled her piece, “A Thinking Mom’s Message for Jimmy Kimmel.”  First, she took issue with the fact that Kimmel “turned his personal plight into a political weapon” that so many were willing to re-tweet and like on social media.  But then the argument, and not the opportunisim, gets some critical attention:

Kimmel doesn’t need more maudlin Twitter suck-uppery. He needs a healthy fact-check. “Before 2014,” he claimed, “if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition, you were born with a pre-existing condition.”

This is false. If parents had health insurance, the child would have been covered under the parents’ policy whether or not the child had a health problem

But this is a pretty uncharitable interpretation of Kimmel’s sentence.  Surely Kimmel’s not saying that without the ACA the babies would need to have insurance coverage, but the baby’s parents.  But the second issue is not addressed at all – the point about pre-existing conditions.  Sure, if the parents have coverage, no problem.  But the parents can’t apply for coverage after finding the condition without either huge penalties, going into a high-risk pool with sky-high premiums, or just not getting coverage.  That’s what Kimmel is focusing on.  And that’s not at all what Malkin’s responding to.
This occasions an important theoretical point.  Sometimes the straw man is constructed not in the restatement or the explicit representation of the opponent’s view, but in the implicature in how one responds to the things they said.  So when Malkin makes the unnecessarily persnickety point about parents, she’s painting a picture of Kimmel’s view by only stating the correction.  And when she makes the point about health insurance already on the books, she obscures Kimmel’s main point by attacking something off stage.

The inevitability of straw men

Not all newspaper op-eds are straightforwardly argumentative. Some trend explanatory. The ones that are argumentative face a kind of dilemma. On the one hand, they can present an argument that’s engaging, conclusive, and therefore probably wrong because it’s a straw man or some other easily diagnosed fallacious argument form. On the other, they can present a fair, rigorous, and analytical piece that won’t have time or space to get to a conclusion. Most argumentative ones opt for the former.  Few people, outside of academics, want to read anything like the latter.

An illustrative example of this came up over the weekend. Background: The New York Times, in an effort to diversify its op-ed page, hired another white, male, conservative with predictable conservative views. This naturally includes thinking the science behind climate change to be wrong. To this end, he made the following argument:

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

And there’s your problem. No one who is a serious participant in the science-based conversation around climate change makes that argument (call it the Cartesian Certainty Claim). For those keeping score at home, this is a weak man. That’s not how science works (it’s more Humean certainty). To be charitable to Stephens, maybe he is thinking of the no doubt many confused individuals who make these sorts of claims at rallies and such. They truly could use this clarification. But that’s probably not what he means. And it would also leave standing the idea that he means to criticize. And so the problem:  it’s not fun to argue fairly and honestly. And you can’t do it in the space of an op-ed. In matters of science, you can’t do it even in the space of many many publications. It takes a long time to rock and roll, as it where.

There was a serious uproar over his hiring that again flared up this weekend. There were many good responses. The best response, I think, is this one :

A decent touchstone for newspapers to apply to opinion writers of all ideological persuasions would test whether they engage in that kind of sophistry, and a decent rule would be to not publish them if and when they do—basically, to hire good editors for their editorialists. It would be ideologically cocooning for newspapers to censor the opinion that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about, but it is neither partisan nor biased to insist that the supporting arguments be factual, logically rigorous, and sincere.

Easy enough, but it’s surprising to me how difficult it is to get newspaper types away from the idea that only single factual assertions can be the subject of editing (BTW, the one factual assertion about climate change in Stephens’ piece was wrong–the Times issued a correction).

An unforeseen cost of free speech

Freedom isn’t free.  Sure, and neither is free speech.  Some of the costs are those of ire from your allies for giving time to someone whose views you despise, some costs are the time and energy expended in ensuring that those with whom you disagree can express their views.  And there are the costs of considering and replying to their views.  These kinds of costs are familiar to those with Millian sympathiesthose who know only their own side know little of that.

Dennis Praeger at NRO has exacted a new cost for those who defend free speech: being attacked by those for whom you’ve fought for the freedom to speak for not being sincere in supporting free speech.  His reason?  Because you don’t seem to agree with his views.

While some of the professors who have signed these statements might sincerely believe that the university should honor the non-left value of free speech, one should keep in mind the following caveats.

First, the number of professors, deans, and administrators who have signed these statements is very small. . . .

Second, while no one can know what animates anyone else, it’s a little hard to believe that many of those who did sign are sincere. If they were, why haven’t we heard from them for decades? Shutting out conservatives and conservative ideas is a not new phenomenon.

Third, these statements accomplish nothing of practical value. They are basically feel-good gestures. . . .

If any professors want to do something truly effective, they should form a circle around a hall in which a conservative is scheduled to speak, with each professor holding up a sign identifying themselves as a professor: “I am [name], professor of [department].”

…. But it won’t happen. It won’t because the university is a particularly cowardly place.

Let’s start with the fact that because there are few professors signing the letter in support of free speech, they must not be sincere.  Surely this is backwards — it’s because they are few and stand to be on the receiving end of the ire of their colleagues that we know they are sincere.

Second, the familiar no conservatives in the academy line is just dumb here, since those who stand up for free speech and so on in the academy have been doing that since the beginning.  That they need to stand up for conservatives is (i) evidence of the problem Prager is talking about, and (ii) shows what wilting violets academic conservatives turn out to be.  Ooooh the Marxists can be soooo mean.  Prager’s big thought is that because they aren’t conservatives, they can’t seriously be in for protecting conservative speech.  But, hey, you’re not supporting free speech unless you’re supporting the rights of those whose views you hold to be deplorable to speak.  Otherwise, it’s just self-congratulatory nonsense.

Third, if Prager’s criterion for sincerity is to ‘form a circle’ around folks who are talking on campus, then (a) he’s got a misunderstanding of how most academics spend their time, and (b) he’s forgotten about the prof at Middlebury who got a concussion protecting Charles Murray from an angry mob of student protesters.  Yeesh.

The takeaway is that Praeger, because he doesn’t see the academics as on his side can’t see the work they are doing for free speech as anything but insincere.