Category Archives: Fallacies of ambiguity

Calling Fallacies by their Proper Names

In the wake of Trump’s false analogy between the behavior of the neo-Nazis and the antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, there has been a good bit of criticism of the point.  However, the term used in criticism has consistently been that he ‘equivocated’ the two.  Here’s the headline at the Daily Beast:

Netanyahu’s Cynical Delay Denouncing Trump’s Nazi Equivocation

Other outlets have used the term ‘equivocation’ for the error, too.  CNN has consistently termed the error an ‘equivocation.’   Today:

… the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered …


…Trump’s equivocation earlier this week between white supremacists and those who were protesting them in Charlottesville.


… his initial equivocation, saying there was “blame on both sides.”

Vanity Fair:

…the president of the United States equivocated.

Even at the venerable Economist:

Mr Trump’s equivocation on Saturday thrilled the Daily Stormer

And so on.  In a follow up post, perhaps Friday, I’ll talk about the problems with the slippery slope argument Trump made defending the monuments, so there is a lot of bad reasoning and falsity to criticize.  But, my point today is just something small.  It’s just this:  if people are going to use the vocabulary of fallacy appraisal, it should be used correctly.  Here’s the big point: so much power is wielded by that vocabulary.  Think of the big-word points scored by folks who use that word — and notice the force it has when you’re criticizing someone.  It’s the fallacy-spotting game, and throwing a fallacy name out there shifts the course of conversation.  So using fallacy vocabulary (especially when it’s composed of Latinisms), means you’re claiming a kind of informed position on the debate — like pausing and making a point of order.

That’s the reason why you’ve got to be competent when using the vocabulary.  In this case, we’ve got a fallacy, and what’s being criticized, again is something just as simple as a false analogy (or false equivalence).  There may be an element of two wrongs to the reasoning, too (since T also implicated that because the antifa folks were violent, too, they bear blame, too).

Regardless, what he did not do is equivocate.  Here’s why.  Equivocation is an error of term-confusion.  It happens when you’ve got two meanings for a term, and you reason along only looking at the similarity of the term, but miss the dissimilarity of the meanings in the reasoning.  Here’s an example:

Students attend school to improve their faculties.

Their faculties are their teachers

So students go to school to improve their teachers.

Funny? Yeah,  and fallacious! It’s because faculty in the two instances meant different things, and so the syllogism looks valid, it’s because the term faculty appears as the middle term, but there’s two different things denoted by those two instances of the term.  (In the first, it means the mental functions, in the second, it means teachers.)

Here is a lesson about fallacy-charges.  They come with a burden of proof.  When I charge you with begging the question, I need to show either (i) how your conclusion is one of your premises or (ii) how one of your premises is, given the argument, more controversial than your conclusion.  When I charge you with straw man, I need to show how you’ve distorted my view to look worse than it is.  And so on.  When you charge equivocation, you have to show (i) that there are two instances of a term in some reasoning, and (ii) show that those two instances of the same term  nevertheless mean different things in the two cases.

So what’s the upshot?  Journalists don’t use the vocabulary of logic accurately.  For the most part, that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s disappointing to a college prof who tries to make it so that the names of things helps us keep them straight, not just that knowing lots of names for things makes it so that you can use them as you like.

Here’s another shot, perhaps a bit more of a sympathetic view on the use of the term.  When one says a speaker had an ‘unequivocal’ statement, that means that the statement was clear about its meaning.  So unequivocal statements are unambiguous, at least on the level of terms.  So perhaps the view is that in being unclear about whether T was really rejecting the commitments of Nazis or their behavior, T equivocated.   However, I’m not entirely moved by this line of thought, since many of the cases are those of ‘equivocating between’ not ‘equivocating about’.  So, perhaps, there are different kinds of misuse of this term.




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.

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.




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.

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!