Category Archives: Fallacies of Relevance

Virtue signaling

Image result for semaphoreThe term “virtue signaling” has been around for a few years now, though there’s some dispute about its origin. This guy claims he invented it.  But that seems to be false, the term has been in circulation for much longer than that.

In any case, in its barest sense, signaling is a kind of implicature. I signal one thing by doing another. Virtue signaling borrows from this somewhat imperfectly. Instead of signaling my virtue by doing some other kind of thing, I signal virtue by making arguments or statements regarding virtue kinds of things. It’s not, in other words, the doing of one thing (taking out my recycling, for instance) to signal another (I love the planet). Rather, it’s the arguing or the saying itself that is the signaling.

Here’s how the pretend inventor puts it:

I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

I’m all for neologisms in the service of argument analysis. Scott and I have even coined a few of them. This one, however, seems confusing (see above), unnecessary, and (like qualunquismo) self-refuting.

As for the unnecessary part, there’s already a handy term (or maybe two) for what virtue-signaling means to single out: ad hominem circumstantial (on some accounts). The one who employs the VS charge, in other words, means to claim that a person is making a certain claim not for epistemic reasons (because they think it’s true) but rather to signal belonging in a group (I’m on the side of the angels). I don’t mean to say that this is inherently wrong, people after all make inauthentic pronouncements all of the time. But it’s certainly a difficult charge to make. You have to make a further claim of inconsistency to show that the person does not actually believe what they say (this would be another version of the VS). This is kind of hard. Often, in any case, it’s not relevant, thus the great risk that leveling the VS charge is just to commit the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy: you ignore the reasons and go for the alleged motives.

Now for the self-refuting part. If I by making some pronouncement regarding some moral claim M virtue signal, then does it not follow that the VS charge is itself subject, or potentially subject, to the same charge? It is at bottom a claim about what kinds of claims are proper to make in certain contexts. By leveling the charge I’m signaling that certain kinds of claims are improper in certain circumstances–that, in other words, it’s virtuous not to make them.

Hamilton

Image result for hamilton duel

I posted a while back about the ad baculum argument. Roughly, “you hold p, but p, is false, and if you don’t agree I will punch you in the nose.” The typical account is that the nose-punching is irrelevant to the truth of p, so the ad baculum in this version is a fallacy.  Put another way: the punching, shooting, or threatening are not epistemic reasons for p, though they may be pragmatic ones. Whether pragmatic reasons can bring about belief is another question.

A standard objection to the existence of the ad baculum is that this just never really happens this way, and there are all sorts of more subtle things at work–such as consequences of one’s commitments, tests of hypocrisy, and so on. I think there’s a lot of truth to this (though I think there’s much to be said for the ad baculum). One bit of evidence in favor of the deflationary view is that it’s just hard to come up with plausible sounding examples. They all sound so contrived.

Until now. Here is Blake Farenthold, Republican Congressman from Texas (via TPM)

“The fact that the Senate does not have the courage to do some things that every Republican in the Senate promised to do is just absolutely repugnant to me. … Some of the people that are opposed to this, they’re some female senators from the Northeast,” he said, likely referring to Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, who has been vocal about her opposition to each of the Senate’s health plans from the start. She said over the weekend that she’s opposed to the delayed repeal bill.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Shelly Moore-Capito (R-WV) have also been clear about their opposition to various versions of the Republican health care plan.

Farenthold suggested if it were a man from his state blocking the repeal bill, he might ask him to “step outside and settle this Aaron Burr style,” he said, referencing the famed gun duel between the former vice president and Alexander Hamilton, a former secretary of the Treasury who had longstanding political differences. The gun fight ended in Hamilton’s death.

Man or woman, that wouldn’t settle it really–well, other than to subtract one vote either way (ok, two votes, because duels are illegal).

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.

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).

Simple Truths and Politics

The Simple Truths Thesis is that within some domain of inquiry or dispute, there is a set of truths that only the wicked, stupid, or mendacious would question or deny.  (Philosophy15 video on it here) Some domains of inquiry admit of simple truths, for sure.  But even in those domains, not all truths within them are so simple.  The core problem with the simple truths thesis is that there’s a difference between being wrong and being irrational.  It’s possible to be rational and wrong, to make a mistake, to be led astray by some piece of evidence or a theory.  And to have one’s defaults set on interpreting those with whom one disagrees as being on the wrong side of a simple truth is to set oneself up for being deaf to all criticism.

A perfect recent instance of Simple Truths being wielded to defend against criticism is by President Donald Trump in his AP interview over the weekend.  Transcript here.  When asked about criticism he’s received over whether he’s not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, Trump replies that they’ve, since he’s taken office, not been so bad.  Oh, and he can’t call them out on it if he’s also hoping to get help from them on North Korea.  But what does he think of the criticism?

And the media, some of them get it, in all fairness. But you know some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.

Stupid or mendacious.  Those are the only options.