Category Archives: Fallacies of ambiguity

Scumbag Teacher Meme

The scumbag teacher meme is one of the classic tu quoque memes on the internet.  It’s regularly: won’t accept late work, but takes forever to return papers; berates students for wasting time, but chats with students about stuff through class; has a Ph.D., but uses ‘irregardless’.  There are other non-tu quoque versions, too, like requires that you learn cursive, cancels class just 5 minutes before or with a note on the door, requires an expensive but never used textbook.  Most of the instances are misunderstandings about how education works and why teachers need more support (and more pay), but they are stand-ins for some frustration folks have with the current educational climate.

In a new instance of the scumbag teacher meme move, Jim Geraghty at NRO has an objection to how the Day without a Woman Protest is affecting schools.  You see, because so many women are teachers in the Alexandria schools, they ‘ve had to cancel school for a ‘teacher work day’.  Geraghty then identifies the troubles facing the schools:

Alexandria’s public schools underperform the statewide average in subject after subject. In the 2015–16 school year, 80 percent of Virginia students passed English proficiency exams; 73 percent of students in Alexandria did. In math, 80 percent statewide passed; 68 percent of Alexandria students did. Statewide, 77 percent of students passed a test of writing proficiency; 69 percent of Alexandria students did. In history, 86 percent of students passed statewide; 77 percent of Alexandria students did. In science, 83 percent of students statewide passed; 69 percent of Alexandria students did.. . .
[T]he ills that plague Alexandria schools and, indeed, schools around the country… [are] unlikely to be solved by “A Day Without a Woman.”

Here it is in a meme:

Here’s Geragthy’s final analysis:

Apparently, they’ve decided that standing up to the sexist menace across the river in Washington and nationwide is more important to them than doing their actual jobs. It’s a shame they aren’t more concerned with the tangible problems those jobs present every day.
But the trouble is that people can walk and chew gum at the same time.  Teachers can be worried about X and it can be at the top of their priority list, but they can also be worried about Y and Z, too.  And that means that they can even make some room to do Y and Z, too.  John had a nice observation about this a few weeks back with the ‘think of the children‘ trope.  In  this case, however, it’s a case of a red herring of assessing the importance of X with the greater importance of Y.
Another way to see this would be as an instance of a perfectionist’s false dilemma, or as John termed it a few years back, argumentum ad imperfectionem.  That it would be preferable for teachers to be in class for every day of scheduled school is correct, but this is not a perfect world.  And teachers are at liberty to use their personal days as they see fit.  That they all use them on the same day for a political purpose, well, is in an important way, exactly the point they were trying to make.

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.

Polarization Perfectionism

Hi all, I’m back blogging here at the NS again, after a long break.  Ready to get back to it.  Thanks, John, for keeping the fire burning.

David French, over at National Review, has some pretty dark views about whether the partisan divide will ever be bridged, given the polarization of the political populace.  He makes some nice observations that polarization yields the view that one’s opposition is less open-minded, intelligent, honest, or even hard working than the average American.  (He leaves out the fact that polarization is both the result and cause of the divide, which is that it’s too often that we only talk to and read our own side…).

His argument that we can’t overcome polarization is on the basis of what he sees as who would need to be the leader for it. Namely, the new president, Mr. Trump.  The Donald has alienated folks given the way he’s campaigned (and given the inaugural), so folks don’t trust him.  But even if he were to soften his tone and recognized his political opponents as more than craven losers, French doesn’t think it’d make things better.

…if Trump stopped tweeting, spoke only in the most measured tones, and relentlessly reached out to black and Latino voters while also governing as a conservative, many millions of leftists and their media supporters would still howl in fury at his political program. You would relentlessly hear that Trump was somehow worse now than when he insulted his opponents, because that was only talk, while his policies represent actions.
This is a case of what’s sometimes called the Perfectionist false dilemma.  The reasoning goes like this:
We can either adopt some change to improve things or leave things as they (unfortunately) are.  The change won’t fix everything, nor would any fix be quick.  Therefore, the fix isn’t worth it.
Of course, the conclusion does not follow when it’s put that way.  Why? Because the reasoning leaves out the tertium quid of the ameliorating option of making things a little less bad.  Sure, in the Trump case, people still would distrust him and oppose him.  But that’s likely because of his long and bad history, and moreover, if he (as French notes) doesn’t change  his policies, he would merely be play-acting.  (Sure, if you only change your rhetoric, that’s not going to improve the divide by anything…)
But the main issue would be: if T were to change the rhetoric and actually heard the voices of those who were critical, then there may be some policy shift.  That would help with polarization.  Moreover, if he would take the time to explain his policies to those who disagree, maybe we’d understand why what he’s doing is more than sheer keptocratic manipulation.  But, hey, he’s just the President, not a miracle-worker, right?

I define the terms here

Ross Kaminsky holds that the popular appellation “libertarian populist” (see Ross Douthat’s recent column) is a contradiction in terms.  In short, because ‘libertarian’ is about freedom, and populism has “nothing to do with freedom”.  Now, first, that’s not yet a contradiction.  So when I say that Bill has a brown dog, it’s not an oxymoron, even though being a dog doesn’t have anything to do with being brown.

But Kaminsky’s argument is more for contradiction than for irrelevance.  First, he opens by defining ‘populist’ from the dictionary.

A standard definition of “populist” includes supporting ordinary people over the elites.

So far, that’s perfectly consistent with libertarianism.  In fact, very much consistent with the commitments of libertarians – these elites think they know better than the average Joe, and coerce him this way or that.  So Kaminsky shouldn’t have a problem with the populist brand of libertarian, right?  Wrong.  That’s because Kaminsky means something different by ‘populist’:

Getting away from the dictionary, I have always understood “populist” to mean “demagogue” or to be a synonym for various adjectives modifying the word it’s connected to. Adjectives such as “ersatz” or “-lite” or “but not fully adhering to its principles” or “shrill.”

Whuh? Look, I’m no great fan of the dictionary for definitions of controversial terms, but the more controversial term is ‘libertarian,’ not ‘populist.’  Not respecting common usage is the first sign of Humpty-Dumpty Semantics.  Moreover, I still don’t yet see why this new stipulated defintion is inconsistent with libertarianism, either.  How is demagoguery inconsistent with the exercise of freedom?  Isn’t that exactly what demagogues invoke when they talk to folks (especially here in the States)… how we love our freedom? Moreover, why is being an ‘ersatz’ X inconsistent with being an X?  Or how is ‘ersatz X’ an oxymoron?  And, by the way, does he really mean ‘popularizer’?  Seriously, it’s pretty sad when you can’t even stipulate your way to a contradiction.

Contested concept equivocation

I’ve been toying for a while with the thought that there’s a rhetorical device that works in the following pattern: you point to an uncontroversially positive concept and emphasize its importance, and in the process import your own controversial conception of that concept over the course of talking about its importance.

For example, we all think fairness is good and important, so it’s uncontroversially positive.  But we may have different conceptions of that concept. I may think that impartiality is sufficient for fairness, so favor blind lotteries to determine what people get. Others may think that need may determine what’s fair. You may think that equality of outcome is what’s fair.  You get the point.  So even if we all agree that fairness is good, we all have different conceptions of fairness.  And it’d be an error on my part to import my conception without acknowledging that we need to move from concept to conception.  That’s why semantics matters – anytime someone says “it’s just semantics,” they’re intellectually lazy and probably trying to prevent their own conceptions from being challenged. It’s effectively an attitude that equivocation isn’t troubling.  That’s stupid.

Now, we all agree that civic virtue is important.  And we all agree that we should encourage it.  But, not surprisingly, civic virtue is a contested concept.  Some think that individualism and independence are civic virtues – not being a burden on others and ensuring that others are not burdensome. Some think that civic virtue is about making oneself intelligible to others and ensuring that the cultural system of significance is maintained.  Some think that being informed and politically engaged are the central civic virtues. Some think that ensuring that others have sufficient means to survive and thrive are the core virtues. Some think that acknowledging diversity and reasonable disagreement (especially about contested concepts) is a core civic virtue. See? Contested concept.

Michelle Malkin’s new essay over at National Review Online commits this fallacy.  I call it contested concept equivocation.  She starts with the universally acknowledged value of civic virtue and that we are in sore need of more of it these days:

We have forsaken the observance, in any systematic and deliberate public manner, of one of our most fundamental duties: fostering civic virtue in each and every one of our citizens.

She invokes the founders noting the importance of virtue to the fledgling republic:

And Thomas Paine said it best: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

So far, not controversial.  Ah, but then the contested conception comes in:

Calvin Coolidge, profiled in Why Coolidge Matters, a terrific new book by Charles C. Johnson, echoed the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on virtue, restraint, and work ethic. “If people can’t support themselves,” he concluded, “we’ll have to give up self-government.”

Add militant identity politics, a cancerous welfare state, entitled dependence, and tens of millions of unassimilated immigrants to the heap, and you have a toxic recipe for what Damon calls “societal decadence — literally, a ‘falling away,’ from the Latin decadere.” Civilizations that disdain virtue die.

Did you see the move?  The contested conception got introduced with this notion of self-support, independence.  If that’s what civic virtue is, then of course the welfare state and all the other nanny-style stuff the government does will not only fail to encourage virtue, but positively retard it.  And so those who promote the liberal welfare state must disdain virtue.  They are terrible people, rotting civilization from the inside out.

But, you see, the move was from uncontested concept to contested conception.  And those who promote progressive taxation and the social safety net aren’t disdaining virtue; they are promoting their own conception of it.  Surely someone who values liberty should be able to acknowledge the value of that.  Unless, of course, they disdain liberty.


Do you want firm, weasely abs?

Weaseling is a form of informational misdirection.  You get your audience to agree to a very weak version of a commitment, then proceed as if they’ve agreed to a stronger version.  The greatest weasel ever was in Dumb and Dumber when unattainable romantic interest in the film says that one of the dumb guys only has a one-in-a-million chance of ever having something with her, and he giddily replies “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” (See the clip HERE)

Beachbody, the giant exercise company that has brought you the Sunday morning infomercials about P90X and Insanity!, has a product called HipHopAbs (don’t click the link if you hate frenetic pop music).  They have all the perfunctory before and after photos, but this awesome weasel caught my eye:

Jump-start your weight loss with this easy-to-follow plan that will help you lose up to 3 inches off your waist in your first week!

Up to 3 inches.  Now, that means:  no more than 3 inches.  But you hear: 3 inches.  Now you own HipHopAbs.  So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance!

True tolerance

Chris Broussard at ESPN said that Jason Collins, the NBA player who’s come out as gay, isn’t a true Christian and is “in open rebellion to God.”  So what?  Well, he got some blowback from a variety of sources.  So what?  Well, he’s now got to clarify things, and when he does, he also needs to clarify a concept for all of us:

true tolerance and acceptance is being able to handle [differing lifestyle beliefs] as mature adults and not criticize each other and call each other names

I don’t think that’s true tolerance.  Tolerance means that even when you think someone else is wrong about something that matters, you don’t exclude them or prohibit them from doing the things that they do.  Tolerance isn’t tolerance if you like what they do.  It means putting up with things you hate.  That, by the way, was one of the reasons why the stoics thought of themselves as the ones who kept the old Republican virtues alive, by the way. But, notice, that doesn’t mean that you have to hold your tongue.  In fact, tolerance without care for criticism and correction isn’t much of anything — it’s more like ignoring each other.  Oh, and convenient that he’s NOW saying that tolerance is not criticizing others.  Again, sometimes inconsistency is evidence of a double standard.

Doctor, but not a real one

A quick lesson on equivocation and how not to charge that it’s occurring.  Charles Cooke has a piece over at NRO about how Jill Biden, who has a Ed.D., has been tweeting under the handle ‘DrBiden’.  The tweets have been about educational issues in the US and updates about her recent work promoting educational initiatives.  Cooke objects to her use of ‘Dr’ as part of her title.  It’s primarily that those who have doctorates aren’t real doctors.

Wherever she goes and whatever she does, Dr. Biden is always referred to as “Dr. Biden.” “Is Joe Biden married to a physician?” wondered the Los Angeles Times in January. “You might have gotten that impression while watching television coverage of the inauguration.” Yes, you might have indeed. Dr. Biden isn’t a physician, of course. She has a doctorate – in “educational leadership,” whatever the hell that is….

One can only wonder what Dr. Biden’s response would be to the urgent question “Is there a doctor in the house?!” Perhaps “Yes! Don’t worry, I’m here! I’m not too sure how to do a tracheotomy, though . . . ”

OK.  So Cooke’s objection is that ‘Dr’ carries with it a lot of weight in this culture, and it comes from the status that Medical Doctors have.  Then there’s a quick lesson about why folks with still get called ‘doctor’.

It’s somewhat by chance that the recipients of Ph.D.s may even presume to call themselves “doctors,” the unfortunate product of a thousand-year-old liberal-arts tradition …. “Ph.D.” stands for “Philosophiae Doctor,” a Latin term that (rather obviously) means “Doctor of Philosophy” in English. The “Philosophy” bit was intended loosely, in the classical sense of “love of learning”; the “Doctor” bit derives from “docere,” which simply means “to teach.”

Erm.  That’s all totally backwards.  So it’s not really by chance that Ph.D.’s are called ‘doctor.’  That’s, like, what the degree means — the one who teaches others about the area, the one who is nobody’s student. It’s actually by chance that medical doctors are the ones who get all the cred for the title.  Cooke’s got the implications of his own evidence entirely backwards.

But now Cooke pauses to concede that sometimes it’s appropriate to use the title ‘doctor’ for someone with a doctorate:

American etiquette books tend to mark this dichotomy, holding that it is acceptable for Ph.D.s to use “Dr.” within the context of their business but inappropriate everywhere else.

Oy.  And what was Jill Biden tweeting about?  Matters regarding education.  Precisely what her doctorate is in.  KA-BOOM.  And now Cooke has provided all the evidence to show that he has absolutely no point at all, other than to complain that someone he doesn’t like uses a term of intellectual distinction.  Good things conservatives don’t do anything like that. (Oh, yes they do.)

False dilemma, inclusive disjunction

Mark Steyn’s lead post at NRO today was an argumentative (and organizational) trainwreck.  Here’s just one of the fallacious lovelies.  Steyn observes that lefties have in the past been against marriage, as a kind of anti-bourgeois bit of posing.  And now the lefties want marriage for homosexuals, now as a kind of ennobling and civilizinginstitution.  He  poses the dilemma for them:

Which of these alternative scenarios — the demolition of marriage or the taming of the gay — will come to pass? Most likely, both.

I like the fact that you can have an inclusive ‘or’ in ordinary English, but this one seems wrong.  First, it seems that the two features are at least prima facie inconsistent — if marriage is demolished, then it won’t play the taming function it’s supposed to play.  Right?  Second, are those the only two options or consequences? How about gay unions going on as they have for years and years, but now with legal protection from the state?


Reduce, reuse, recyle

Fig.1: Conservativism

Here is a post for those who think that pointing out the inconsistency between a party’s name and its alleged position on an issue constitutes a decisive refutation of their view.  That “conservatives” fail to “conserve” or “preserve” or anything else along those lines does not mean they embody some kind of contradiction.  George Will has used this line on “progressives,” or his army of hollow men in years pastHere he is the other day:

Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations.

What kind of move is this?  I think it’s an equivocation–a rather textbook variety.  Clearly “progressive” means something different to “Progressives” (the name a half-hearted attempt at rebranding “liberal,” by the way).  Will’s thought goes something like this:

your name implies you like progress, but here is progress which you don’t like, so you’re not “progressive.”  Your self-understanding therefore is laughably contradictory.

The problem with this is that “progress” (1)–things getting better, more just, etc–and “progress” (2)–things changing–mean different things to alleged “progressives”.  Besides, what is at issue with voting rights is an empirical question: has progress been made on voting rights?  Progressives say, pointing to the recent election, no; (some) conservatives say yes.

*minor edit for clarity.