Category Archives: Fallacies of weak induction

At some point… we’ll all love slippery slope arguments


Robert Astorino was on CNN with Don Lemon to talk about whether the Trump tweet calling Omarosa a ‘dog’ was racist.  Here is an edited version of the exchange:

Lemon: What do you think, Rob.  Was it a racist attack? Do you think he (Trump) should refrain from doing this?

Astorino: I don’t think it was a racist attack.  I think he’s (Trump) an equal opportunity offender. In that he goes after….

…. I had no idea that the word ‘dog’ – I knew it was pejorative – I had no idea that it was a racist term. And I don’t think that most people took it as one.

… I actually looked it up in the dictionary, and nowhere does it say that it’s a slang or racial word….

Lemon: Certain words used against certain people have a different context than if it’s used on a person of the larger culture…. Shouldn’t you know the nuances of this?

Robert Astorino: No. The quick answer is that at some point, we are going to get to the word ‘the,’ and ‘the’ is going to be racist. Because, as I just said is it (calling a woman a ‘dog’) pejorative? Yes. Because he (Trump) meant it as that – to punch back at her, figuratively.  Because he was upset – he knew her and she let him down.

The trouble with Astorino’s line of argument is that there are, as we’ve called them in the past, bumpy staircases (instead of slippery slopes) between a white man calling a black woman a ‘dog’ being racist and usage of articles (definite or indefinite, perhaps) being racist.  Lemon’s point about context is part of it, and the long history of animal vocabulary being overused with people of color is the main factor.    So what prevents the slipperiness of this slope is that there isn’t a long history of usage of ‘the’ as a term of abuse, but there have been ones with animal comparisons with people of color.

But notice a further thing with this particular slippery slope argument – it represents the opposition as having a very badly formulated view of the matter.  That the term ‘dog’ doesn’t have racist connotations is right from the dictionary — what a way to portray your opposition, that they don’t know the meaning of words.  The importance here is that with this slope argument Astorino represents the concerns about Trump’s racist overtones as just not knowing what words mean.  Notice, by the way, that the word ‘monkey‘ doesn’t have its racist usage noted in the dictionary, either.



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.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.”  Right on!  Oh, but there’s a catch.

First, the setup.

A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.

Again, this seems right.  And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on.  And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that.  At least since classical Athens.  OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.

And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . .   Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.

Give me a break.  Seriously.  (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)

The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere.  And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.

The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance.  Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s.  In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them.  Perhaps if one were to, say, go look.  Ask google.  Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”

And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualismMichael LynchJennifer LackeyLee McIntyre.  Alvin GoldmanPhilip Kitcher.  And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson.   And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too.  I mean, geez, just look around for a second.  (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)

The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation.  That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly.  And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers.  It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge.  I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge.  Why?  Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters.  And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry.  And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?”  the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”

Chicken Littles of Straw

Chicken Little freaked out when hit on the head with an acorn, and called out, “The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!”  Everyone goes berserk, then they see it’s just an acorn.  Chicken Little then retires to being an overreacting chicken, and things return to normal.  The end.

Calling someone a ‘Chicken Little,’ then, works as a form of analogy.  One sees someone reacting strongly to something, perhaps that it forebodes something worse, and one then points out that they are overreacting or don’t see the situation clearly.

It’s a pretty common feature of contemporary American political culture for folks to think and say that Donald Trump is a danger not just to this country’s prosperity and safety, but to the world’s.  He’s an authoritarian, he seems to have (or at least there’s the accusation that he’s) colluded with another state to secure his election, and he seems to be a general nincompoop who surrounds himself with avaricious doofuses.  That makes him dangerous as the President of the United States.

Well, Heather Wilhelm at NRO has had it with the doom-saying chicken littles out there.

The unprecedented volume of apocalyptic media pronouncements that Trump has inspired is unhealthy. . . .  How many times can one presidential administration end life as we know it?

The coverage of the Trump administration is “crazed and breathless” and bent on spurring your outrage or stoking your fears with predictions of doom.  Chicken Little apocalyptic journalists.  But Wilhelm has a counter to this:

[C]ongratulations! If you’re reading this, it means you’re still alive, and have survived the approximately 5,000 world-ending decisions that the Trump administration has supposedly made thus far this year. The Russians, at least as far as I know, have not yet taken over. Faced with budget challenges and various logistical challenges, including the fact more than 1,000 miles of our border with Mexico is actually a river, it seems that Trump’s much-decried Great Wall of America could be slowly shuffled off into the “it seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe not really” pile. When it comes to health care, congressional Republicans seem to be in the political equivalent of that one unlucky bumper car that gets stuck in the corner, no matter which way you steer. As Francis Fukuyama addressed the panic in Politico this week: “Trump’s a dictator? He can’t even repeal Obamacare.”

The last line’s funny, I’ll give Fukuyama and Wilhelm that.  But how is this a reply to the worries people actually had about the Trump administration?
Seriously, the evidence here is that things aren’t SOOOO bad, so what’s with all the hand-wringing?  Moreover, it’s not that people were predicting that the world would end, or that it’ll be like RED DAWN up in here.  The worries were that he’s an authoritarian dingus, who will either do something belligerent or something stupid.  That he hasn’t done something mindbogglingly belligerent or incomprehesibly stupid YET isn’t reason that people who had worries that he will do something belligerent or stupid were wrong or had no basis.

On Originalism and Omelets

Q: How many eggs do French people like to have for breakfast?

A: One is an oeuf.

Hilarious!  That’s about the quality of Jonah Goldberg’s recent posting at NRO, titled “Close Encounters with a ‘Living Constitution'”.

Here’s the setup.  Goldberg orders an Arizona Omelet at the diner, the Red Flame.  But the server brings him a bowl of oatmeal.  When Goldberg objects that he didn’t order this, the server replies that he, in fact, did order the oatmeal.

“This is oatmeal,” I’d say. “The menu says that the Arizona Omelet has cheese and onions and jalapenos in it. It also says it’s an omelet.”

Waitress: “Well, we here at the Red Flame believe that the menu is a living, breathing document that changes with the times. Oatmeal is healthier than an omelet, and we feel that people should eat more of it. So, we only serve oatmeal, but we call it by different names.

The point, as we see, given the analogy, is that taking X as a ‘living document’ is just to impose one’s will on the document.  Words don’t mean what they mean at all.  Or they mean what we just want them to mean.  And here’s how Goldberg sees the plausibility of this line of thought:

That’s more like how the doctrine of the “Living Constitution” works in real life. A judge makes a small leap of interpretation that seems reasonable — say, replacing onions with shallots, which after all, are a kind of onion. Then the next judge makes another incremental hop in interpretation. And then another. And another. Until eventually the waitress brings me the head of Alfredo Garcia

So Goldberg’s reasoning is that because it happens in ‘incremental steps,’ there will be no constraint on how to read the Constitution or a menu, for that matter.   But the problem is that there must still be a ‘reasonable interpretation’ at each of these steps.  Red onions for shallots… and note what makes it reasonable is that they are kinds of onions.  (And note that it’s a replacement, not a re-interpretation.)
But here’s the big lie to the reasoning — none of the ‘reasonable’ replacements actually end up with what Goldberg takes as obvious — that there’s a series of reasonable interpretations of ‘omelet’ that yields a bowl of oatmeal.
Goldberg closes by noting how he sees the dialectical situation:
There are some issues where I think liberals have a sincerely held, rational, and legitimate point of view that I simply disagree with. But the doctrine of the Living Constitution is not one of them.
You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me.  At no point in time does someone who cares about individual rights thinks that there would be a problem with the dead hand?
And so, we see a fallacy double-dip.  First, there’s the faulty analogy between the situation of Living Document interpretation of the Constitution and the Red Fire Diner’s omelet, and the case Goldberg makes for it as a slippery slope.
The ur-fallacy here is the slippery slope, since reasonable interpretations don’t have the all-too-easy-slide to voluntarist re-writing, the slope isn’t slippery.  So the two cases aren’t analogous.  Oh well, if this is how well Goldberg thinks who hold Living Document views reason, then of course he shouldn’t think there’s a rational and reasonable disagreement.  But he’s not reasonably held that view.

Literally Analogous

Analogies, like metaphors, require that things not be identical.  But have some relevant similarities.  And so, if you’re arguing that because X is like Y, we should treat X-cases like Y-case… you’re also committing to the thought that Xs are not Ys.  Just, well, like Ys.  That’s it.  But if you said, “Cases of X literally are cases of Y,” that’s a different claim.

Dennis Prager at Townhall argues that entitlements are like drugs and alchohol, because they create addictions to them.  Especially when they are given for free and in large quantities.  And then as a consequence, they create dependent and entitled populations.  And he then concludes:

In this sense, the left in every country — in America, the Democratic Party — should literally be regarded as a drug dealer. Virtually every American given a free benefit becomes an addict who relies more and more on his dealer, which is exactly what the left seeks.

What’s funny is that Prager’s argument is no longer about what entitlements do to the people who are offered them, his line is about what entitlements do to the people who offer them.  But, of course, is he really saying of those who hold that there should be food stamps that they are to be treated literally like drug dealers?

Of course, the point is that when folks get carried away with their analogies, they forget that they aren’t identities.  Oh, and the other problem is that maybe Prager’s been infected by the widespread use of ‘literally’ as an emphatic device.


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.

Some analogies are like idolatry

It was a pretty widely used trope to invoke idolatry to criticize the support for the Obama Presidency, especially early on.  So it’s not a surprise to see it come back for critique of opposition to Trump, except in this case, invoking the fall of what the believers took to be the true religion.  Enter David French for some gloating:

I’m beginning to get a sense of what it was like to be alive in ancient times when a marauding warlord melted down your village’s golden calf. Weeping. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. Wearing of vagina hats. Their god failed to protect the village, and now he’s a bracelet on the warlord’s wrist. It’s pathetic, really, the emotional reaction to Donald Trump’s victory, but the intensity of the emotion is nothing new. Remember the ecstasy when Barack Obama won?

So, the point is supposed to be that Obama-style liberalism was a kind of false religion — a golden calf, of sorts.  Now that it’s not only fallen, but is destroyed by another, the old true believers are in shock, despair.  And French takes it that it’s because these true-believers just have got the wrong religion.

This is post-Christian politics to its core. This is the politics one gets when this world is our only home, and no one is in charge but us. There is no sense of proportion.

The funny thing about analogies is that they are supposed to not be identities.  But French just went from saying that liberalism is like a false religion that’s fallen to just saying it is a false religion that’s fallen.  Doesn’t that change the point?  And, hey, don’t conservative Christians get angry when their religion’s not the law of the land, too?  Of course, one’s sense of proportion is indexed to the religion (or set of values) one thinks is true – of course you think that others have no sense of proportion when they mourn things you think are worthless or vicious.