Picking the Low Fruit

While feeling guilty about supplanting Scott's great post on Subjunctive Tu Quoques, (which you should read first–and while I'm at it, how did I not know about this? All that time studying particles in Greek! Here's the full link. Bravo.) I thought I might pick some low hanging fruit.

An absolute treasure trove of logical fallacies can be found through the various smear-campaigns of Center for Consumer Freedom. In case you haven't come across these folks before, NYT had a short piece a few months ago describing CCF's campaigns on behalf of various corporate interests against not for profit advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society of the United States. I'm sure Christopher Buckley didn't have these guys in mind when he wrote Thank you for Smoking but the comedy at times is equally broad.

Anyway, HSUS is squarely within their sights and sites these days as are any attempts to regulate "humane" conditions for livestock. Enter David Martosko, the mind behind Humanewatch.org, in the Sacramento Bee:

What's really at stake here is that word: "humane." HSUS seems to want a monopoly on it, even though other animal welfare-oriented groups – and plenty of scientists – disagree with its agenda. And that agenda is where the rubber meets the road: HSUS is run by vegans who don't believe anyone should eat eggs, regardless of how or where they were produced.

Most recently, HSUS has opposed attempts by California lawmakers to specifically define the standards mandated by Proposition 2. The very vague language that California voters approved in 2008 gives HSUS's enormous legal team enough wiggle room to hassle farmers who don't see things HSUS's way.

Of course, enriched chicken cages could be furnished with couches, Jacuzzis, treadmills and iPads, and activists who believe in "rights" for birds would still complain about them. HSUS is among them. And its vision of what's "humane" is outside the mainstream.

Since HSUS's view is that a vegan diet is the only "humane" way to eat, this whole "cage-free" egg campaign is a sideshow. It's a temporary step toward the group's larger goal.

Much of the argument against HSUS you find here and elsewhere has to do with what they "really want." Here it includes a "monopoly" on the word "humane" (whatever that means) and forcing everyone to eat tofu-scramble rather than scrambled eggs. Often evidence is trotted out in support of this agenda comprised of quotations from employees and fellow-travelers of HSUS, not occasionally, taken baldly out of context.

Nevertheless, there's an interesting argument from true intention here that is sort of like a circumstantial ad hominem  but seems interestingly different. It looks like the structure is something along the lines of:

1. P supports policy x (cage free housing).

2. P's real intention is to adopt radical end y (veganism).

3. Therefore, we should resist policy x (cage free housing).

It's not a simple ad hominem in this form since it doesn't deny the truth of a claim, though it could be formulated as a circumstantial ad hominem. What seems to be added is an implicit slippery slope argument that suggests that because P supports y we should not allow x since it would advance y. This is the sort of argument that lots of tea-party folks seem to fall back on–Obama's real intention is to turn the country into a socialist state, Obama advocates health care reform,Therefore we should resist health care reform. But, it's certainly not limited to the right-wing. We hear similar arguments made about corporations and certain other administrations. I don't have an example to hand right now, but I'm sure we can come up with a bunch. It's really the laziest of all argumentative vices.

In the case of President Obama the "real intention" premise is so laughable that the logical flaw in the argument is overshadowed by the obvious falsity of the premise. Most of these "real intentions"premises have a cartoonish world domination feel to them. But in the HSUS case it is, perhaps, in some sense true that HSUS are advocates of veganism (or their CEO is, or many of their members are–I'm not sure how to think about ascriptions of beliefs to organizations) and maybe even want to further that end through HSUS's actions. But, even if that's true, the conclusion does not seem to follow without some additional premises connecting x and y more closely, just like slippery slopes arguments.

Nevertheless, it is a really bad argument–even if HSUS does believe that everyone should become vegan this says little about whether their opposition to enriched cage housing as less humane than free range or other cage-less alternatives is well founded. Though to be fair to Martosko he does offer appeals to several expert organizations (American Humane Association, Temple Grandin and the American Veterinary Medical Association) who do hold that enriched cage housing is humane. But, rather than engage their serious disagreements over the substantive issue, he prefers the lazy route.

War, Hypocrites, and Islam

Tu quoque arguments are posited on finding a contradiction or tension in the other side's position with regard to the matter at issue, and then holding on that basis that the other side is wrong or at least not qualified to speak to the issue.  I've argued elsewhere ("Tu quoque arguments and the significance of Hypocrisy" and "The truth about hypocrisy," with Robert Talisse) that sometimes these arguments are acceptable — e.g., if someone keeps contradicting himself, that's evidence he doesn't know what he's talking about.  Other times, the inconsistency of the other side is simply irrelevant to the issue (the classic example: even if your father smokes, he's right that you shouldn't smoke, and the fact that he is a smoker is at best irrelevant to the issue, and perhaps actually improves his case, as he, himself, is a testament to how addictive it is).

The tu quoque comes in a variety of forms.  The most significant differentiation to make is between the inconsistencies of speech and speech and speech and act.  The first is about a person who can't keep his story straight.  The second is about hypocrites.  Often the hypocrisy is actual — the person really says "do X" and they turn around and do not-X.  But sometimes, the inconsistency of the other side isn't something that's an actual inconsistency, just one that's likely.  One that would happen….  That is, sometimes the other side may not now be inconsistent, but if things were a little different, the other side would be singing a different tune.  So you say, "You say that now, under these circumstances, but were the shoe on the other foot…"  Colin called this phenomenon subjunctive tu quoque.

I've been on the lookout for it and for a few varieties, and I've found an interesting one in Sam Harris's The End of Faith (Norton, 2004).  Harris makes the case that we (in the West) shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for all the just war norms that we bend when we fight against Muslims.  His reasoning is perfectly subjunctive tu quoque.  First, in defending the way Israel deals with Palestinian aggression:

Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? (2004, 135)

Harris uses the same form of reasoning when mitigating blame for disproportionate use of force in Iraq:

If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (2004, 146)

The reasoning is appealing, but it doesn't support the conclusion that it's OK to be more cavalier in war with Muslims.  Jus in bello isn't affected by how the other side would be treating you, if they had the upper hand.  If it's unjust to wage war indiscriminately, it's unjust; and the fact that the other side has a clear inclination toward injustice may be a good reason to be at war with them, but it is not a reason to break the rules of war.

This said, I do want to retrieve what's appealing about the reasoning.  It does seem wrong for someone to insist on the rules of war when it's also clear that they, themselves, would not feel bound by them were they the dominant power.  It seems, first, dishonest.  And second, it seems like the use of moral argument is strictly strategic, instead of moral.  The most that would follow from the Harris arguments would be that there is a member of the discussion who is not an honest arbiter. 

One final thing is that these subjunctive moves carry a weird burden of proof, that it seems, is difficult to satisfy.  It's one thing to show that someone's a hypocrite — all you need to show is that he said "Do X" and then show that he did not-X.  But how do you show that the person, after having said "Do X" would nevertheless would, if circumstances were different, would do not X?

You can fool some of the people all of the time

Here's David Brooks in 2009:

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I go running several times a week. My favorite route, because it’s so flat, is from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and back. I was there last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government “tea party” protesters.

Now again Sunday:

There are liberals who call conservatives racist as a matter of tactics, too. That happens, as well. Listen, I was out jogging, you wouldn't know it to look at me. I was out jogging (LAUGH) you wouldn’t know it to look at me, I was out jogging on the mall. I was at a Tea Party rally, Tea Party rally. Also there was a group called the Back– Black Family Reunion, celebration of African American culture. I watched these two groups intermingle. Sitting at the same table, eating– watching concerts together. Among most of those people, there was a fantastic atmosphere of just getting along on– on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Thought that was funny–the line about running.  I guess it's funny because Brooks looks like every guy his age who engages in some kind of light sporting activity–so it's not surprising that he's a jogger.  Anyway.  The first passage continues:

Then, as I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.

Because sociology is more important than fitness, I stopped to watch the interaction. These two groups were from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum. They’d both been energized by eloquent speakers. Yet I couldn’t discern any tension between them. It was just different groups of people milling about like at any park or sports arena.

And yet we live in a nation in which some people see every conflict through the prism of race. So over the past few days, many people, from Jimmy Carter on down, have argued that the hostility to President Obama is driven by racism. Some have argued that tea party slogans like “I Want My Country Back” are code words for white supremacy. Others say incivility on Capitol Hill is magnified by Obama’s dark skin.

First, let me make one quick point about race.  There's no reason to believe that celebrating African-American culture puts you at the opposite side of the political and cultural spectrum from the tea party types.  Many African-Americans are culturally conservative Christians, some even fiscally conservative Republicans. 

Second, watch that next paragraph closely.  Let me rephrase: at least one person sees every conflict through the prism of race, and, many have argued that all the hostility toward Obama is driven by race.  That little slip there of the quantifier–many argue that all is your hollow man.

As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with these arguments can tell you–some that some of the animosity toward Obama is driven by race.  The rest of the animosity, of course, is driven by his being a foreign-born muslim.

In all seriousness, no one maintains that the only reason many conservatives oppose Obama is race.  There is, of course, the matter of disagreement over the policies–a fact which everyone recognizes. 

Now back to the tea-partiers.  Accusations of racism have rightly been leveled against some of them.  That some of them do not engage in open race war when they encounter African-Americans does not negate that claim.  That only negates the claim that all tea partiers are itching for perpetual race war.  And no says that.   

Raw deal

It's farmers' market season, so it's time for a food-related post.  Slate ran an article by a professor of science journalism on the possible ill effects of consuming raw milk.  To be more precise, Slate ran an attack on weak man arguments in favor of drinking raw milk, complete with weak man digs against other pro-organic positions.  This, I think, is especially egregious, not only of Slate but of the author, who as a professor of journalism really seriously ought to know better than to engage in such behavior.  Here's a representative graph:

And it's in this incarnation—the one that draws a cultlike following—that the raw-milk ideal becomes dangerous. They're not alone, of course; pure-food advocates in general tend to cast a romanticized glow over their favored products. We hear that old-fashioned organic produce contains more nutrients than that grown by modern agriculture, despite the fact that most research suggests that, basically, a carrot is a carrot and one spinach leaf is pretty much another (and all lose nutrients as they sit on a shelf). We hear that we should return to old-fashioned farming methods, advice that ignores the key fact that such techniques are so inefficient that they can't sustain the world's current population. There's an element of wishful thinking to many food mythologies, but—unlike the haloed status of raw milk—most don't lead directly to risky behavior or public health concerns or physicians complaining that increased consumption of "nature's perfect food" has led to a recent doubling in the number of milk-borne disease outbreaks.

I'm going to presume that the readers of Slate are not going to be all that familiar with debates about raw milk and biodynamic farming methods.  It think it's also safe to assume that the likely reader of this piece doesn't have a stake in the argument–they're not a partisan looking for confirmation of their vision of the dialectical opposition.  This fact makes the weak manning here all the more egregious.  People know, or ought to know, where a partisan agenda is being advanced.  You're a fool (and sadly many are) if you think you're going to get an honest picture of liberals from the Rush Limbaugh show.  In this case, however, one might be excused for having one's guard down.  

Now of course, it's certainly true that some advocates of raw milk are nuts (the author has picked them)–they make nutty claims without basis in any kind of evidence for the magical properties of raw milk.  Some of these nuts even dismiss the very obvious dangers of raw milk consumption with the most ridiculous of sophistries.

Nonetheless, many people drink raw milk (and in general advocate for various organic farming methods).  Some of these people have compelling arguments.  Many of them have arguments that pass the initial test of plausibility.  But you'd never get that idea from this piece.

Tribunals of the moribund

I'd call this column by David Brooks a complete waste of space.  He signals as much from the get-go:

When historians look back on the period between 2001 and 2011, they will be amazed that a nation that professed to hate bureaucracy produced so much of it.

Will they now.  I think he means historians will be unsurprised that a party that professed to hate government produced so much of it. That question, however, has already been answered–see Reagan, Ronald. 

It just gets dumber:

When historians look back on this period, they will see it as another progressive era. It is not a liberal era — when government intervenes to seize wealth and power and distribute it to the have-nots. It’s not a conservative era, when the governing class concedes that the world is too complicated to be managed from the center. It’s a progressive era, based on the faith in government experts and their ability to use social science analysis to manage complex systems.

This progressive era is being promulgated without much popular support. It’s being led by a large class of educated professionals, who have been trained to do technocratic analysis, who believe that more analysis and rule-writing is the solution to social breakdowns, and who have constructed ever-expanding networks of offices, schools and contracts.

I think that claim there–the central conceit of this piece–ought at least to gesture in the direction of evidence.  Sure, he's predicting the future, but his prediction would have some teeth if for instance he at least faked some kind of Rasmussen poll.  Besides, from where I sit, financial and health reform measures had significant popular support–if anything, people wanted even more from the reforms than politicians were willing to offer.

The real mystifying thing here is Brooks's straw-man alternative to popular support–a group of technocratic know-it-alls setting panels for the moribund and such.  It's just trivially the case that implementing anything will involve some degree of assessment and measurement.  And that will always involve nerds.  Historians will not be surprised by that.  Even the Egyptians had a class of nerds.


I heard you like fallacies

This is part of the reason why we can't have intelligent discussions about climate change:

Christopher Monckton, Viscount of Brenchley, is a climate disruption denier in multiple ways. He’s denied that climate change is happening. He’s denied that human beings are causing the (unchanging) climate to change by pinning the cause on the Sun. He’s denied that global polar ice extent is declining. He’s repeatedly misrepresented published papers and hasn’t retracted his statements even after some authors pointed out that he was misusing their work. He’s also hit one of my personal buttons by misunderstanding and cheapening the real history of the Nazis by labeling peaceful, if rowdy, protesters as “Hitler Youth.” And we cannot forget that Monckton wanted to quarantine AIDS victims in the late 1980s, believes that President Obama probably isn’t a U.S. citizen, alleges that NASA crashed their own carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite, and claims to be developing a drug that will cure not only his Grave’s Disease and multiple sclerosis, but HIV, influenza, and the common cold too. Monckton also maintains that he’s a member of the UK House of Lords even though Parliament stripped most of the hereditary peers of their membership in 1999 and the House of Lords says that Monckton has never been a member (he’s now been reduced to saying that Parliament’s legislation was itself illegal).

This guy is such a super troll that if you try to point out his foundational wrongness, he accuses you of logical fallacies–that, as I think we might have noted before, is the fallacy fallacy fallacy.

Over the last few years, I’ve been repeatedly tempted to check every single one of Monckton’s references and see just how bad his understanding of climate science really is. But Monckton makes liberal use of the “proof by intimidation” fallacy whereby he presents so much information in a form that’s so hard to understand that it’s impossible to refute without taking days, weeks, or months to fact-check his claims. Life is too short to fact-check every single claim Monckton has made, so I decided to leave this particular task to others.

And thankfully, a number of others have done so. Barry Bickmore, a geology professor at Brigham Young University, has dissected much of what Monckton said in testimony to the Utah state legislature and found it to be largely inaccurate. Arthur Smith went paragraph-by-paragraph through Monckton’s 2008 Physics and Society article and found 125 logical fallacies, irrelevant statements, and outright errors. Peter Sinclair, creator of the YouTube climate science video series Climate Crock of the Week, did a two-part video just on Monckton (videos included below). But several months ago, John Abraham, Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas, set the curve when it comes to debunking Monckton. In response to a presentation Monckton made in Minnesota, Abraham checked nearly every one of Monckton’s claims and references in order to see where Monckton got the science right vs. where he got it wrong. The result of all this research was a nearly 90 minute-long rebuttal where Abraham dissects dozens of Mockton’s claims from a speech a year ago and finds that nearly everything Monckton said in his Minnesota presentation was wrong. Abraham’s original presentation, plus a slightly shorter and revised version, are presently available at Abraham’s UST website.

To say that Monckton’s initial response to Abraham’s rebuttal was over-the-top is being far too kind – ludicrous might be the better description. Monckton accused Abraham of engaging in ad hominem attacks while simultaneously insulting Abraham and another of Monckton’s critics, George Monbiot of the Guardian newspaper.

That's putting a fallacy in your fallacy.

Outlived its usefulness

It's as if the institution of marriage itself were being redefined–where once there were three (or more)–a woman, a man, his brother(s)–now there seem to be only two.  What a shame.

Polyandry has been practiced here for centuries, but in a single generation it has all but vanished. That is a remarkably swift development in a country where social change, despite rapid economic growth, leaping technological advances and the relentless march of globalization, happens with aching slowness, if at all.

 The march of time.  Here's the kicker:

“That system had utility for a time,” Mr. Bhagsen said. “But in the present context it has outlived its usefulness. The world has changed.”

The world has changed.

Sabotage or Enforcing Equal Protection?

Maggie Gallagher has been doing some reading, and she's found that Richard Epstein, a libertarian legal theorist, opposes the way the Department of Justice and the lower courts have been chipping away at the Defense of Marriage Act.  She approvingly quotes Epstein:

I … think that the DOJ's faint-hearted advocacy is no way to run a legal system…. Nor is it wise for courts to use the equal protection clause as a club against conventional morality, deeply felt.

In the title of her posting, Gallagher calls these decisions that merely allow same-sex partners of federal employees access to federally mandated family benefits (such as health and dental coverage, at issue in the Gill vs Office of Personal Management) sabotage of electoral politics and morality.

Strange, but the question of equal protection isn't about reflecting the moral judgment of the majority.  It's about ensuring minority rights and protections.    And saying it is a question of "deeply felt" moral conviction is to betray the expressed intent and justification of the law, that of "responsible procreation."  Turns out the DOMA was really just majoritarian moralizing all along, only dressed up as a public health initiative.  Thanks, Maggie Gallagher, for pulling the curtain back.

Opinions based on beliefs

Here is a very disturbing article on the relationship of facts to beliefs.  Turns out, according to a study discussed in the article, for certain people, awareness of facts can have a negative correlations to the accuracy of a person's beliefs.  Studies such as these at first blush seem to portend the death of the traditional fact-driven conception of belief.  But then there's this:

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote. 

Pardon the irony, but I'm not sure if this changes anything.  I think we're still talking about the traditional fact-driven conception of belief–that is, you believe what you take to be facts, and disbelieve what you don't.  It's just that you don't believe that the facts alleged are facts.  The problem is that for whatever reason too many people kind of suck at distinguishing the true from the false.


Non-Argument to the Worst Explanation. Just. Wow.

Wrote about this Kathleen Parker op-ed before I went on vacation for a week. Thought I'd post it anyway, just because it's still impressively awful.

Here goes the argument:

1. Obama delivered a speech that contained 13% passive voice constructions.

2. Men and women communicate differently.

3. Obama talks like a girl.

4. Obama's rhetoric hinders his leadership.

She writes:

Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks (with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women form circles and talk it out.

Obama is a chatterbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan.

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama's rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to "plug the damn hole," as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn't. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

We might be able to fill in a few more premises here.

2a. Women tend to use passive constructions more than men. (Is this true? Is there any evidence for it?).

3a. Talking like a girl prevents one from taking action. (Again, any evidence to believe this? There might be some relationship between the two. E.g "Time and again, the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor." Does such a sentence make action less likely that an active construction?)

Interesting that the qualifier is "any major presidential address this century" which would include just two of our 44 presidents (Are there data for the last 50 years?). Also, interestingly the link to the communicative differences between men and women is a story about differences in navigational abilities and says nothing about linguistic differences. But, that I presume doesn't matter to Parker who is convinced that Obama is not a good leader and this makes her think, it seems, that he is womanly.

I understand that the Washington Post is concerned about bias among their bloggers these days, maybe soon they'll get equally concerned about basic competence in advancing an argument for an opinion.