When ad populum identification itself is a fallacy

Matt Purple has diagnosed the Republican Party with a case of Stockholm Syndrome.  They identify with their oppressors, now.  Specifically, liberal Democrats.

Turn on MSNBC these days and you’ll see a non-stop metronome of post-Romney Republican flogging. You want this to stop?! Then pander to Hispanics! Give up on entitlements! It’s enough to send you thumbing through the Geneva Conventions.

Yes, he just made a torture analogy.  Ignore that.  Here’s the meat of the argument.  The fact that you lose an election, argues Purple, isn’t evidence that you’re wrong.  In fact, it’s evidence that you’re just principled.  The electorate is just… well… you know…  citizens of a democracy, and so stupid. [Here’s an old post on what I’m starting to call The Plato Principle, without fail invoked by losing parties of elections.]  Here’s Purple, again, on why electoral results aren’t reasons to change any policy planks in the Republican platform.

Certain conservative quarters are starting to sound like political strategy shops, fretting over which principles to jettison so they can win an election and make the abuse stop. Forget the Resurrection or American Founding or French Revolution. For these commentators, the formative historical moment for conservatives is now the 2012 election.. . . . This is such spectacularly bad logic that it’s tough to know where to begin.

The fact that Purple invoked logic (particularly, of the  “spectacularly bad” kind) is what caught my eye.  Here’s the first line of argument, again, on the Plato Principle: what wins elections is only what appeals to the stupid and easily moved by their debased self-interest, so is likely wrong.  So the fact that 2012 went against the Republicans is good news.  The degenerate idiots don’t like them.

The second line of argument is that the torturers have a hidden agenda with their criticisms.

Let’s start with the fact that the right’s Democrat tormentors don’t want a legitimate opposition party. They want a single Democratic Party, in agreement so it can pass its agenda. . . . Entitlements. Spending. Taxes. The debt. Regulatory policy. Healthcare. Abortion. Gun control.  Everything.

This is the next line, which is that one shouldn’t take critical input from those who you disagree with, as they are not only wrong, but also are out to make you change your mind.

Once we’ve gotten to the point where finding reasons to agree with others on anything is taken as a form of fallacious reasoning (again, I’m thinking that Purple’s main line of criticism is that in democracies, ad populum is rampant), we’ve hit the point where fallacy-hunting itself is a meta-form of fallacy. [N.B., John’s got a really great post on meta-fallacies from a few years back HERE].





Did he just false dilemma himself?

Jed Babbin, over at The American Spectator, has some objections to the gender-integration of combat troops.  He breaks the issue into two questions:

First and foremost is whether the presence of women will add to or detract from the readiness and capability of the unit to perform its mission. The second is a moral question: Will having women serve in harm’s way benefit our military and society at large?

OK. That sounds fine.  Though the second moral question seems improperly formed.  Shouldn’t it be less an issue of serving society at large but more an issue of equal treatment of those in the military (i.e., not having a glass ceiling for women)?  Well, regardless, Babbin holds that the answer to the second is a NO, but he feels like the PC police will descend on him if he says much more about it:

The question of benefit to society has been mooted politically.

He then turns to the question, again, whether the presence of women will add or detract from readiness:

So we are left with the first question, which has to be answered with a resounding “no.”

Wait.  He posed the dilemma (add or detract), and now he says ‘no.’  Now, that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be arguing for a third option (though, given the way the question is posed, it should). Given what he says later (like, having women around yields “complete the destruction of the warrior culture”) it’s pretty clear that what Babbin means to say is that it will detract from readiness.  But, sheesh!  Somebody over there is playing (and being paid to be an) editor, right?



I thought this segment of the Daily Show underscored just what distinguishes it from much of the rest of Cable TV media.  Despite being a comedy show, they somehow managed, by the art of just stopping and thinking for a second, to show just how awful an arguer Paul Ryan is.  For Ryan, the former Republican Vice Presidential Candidate, accused Obama of straw manning him in his inaugural address.  From the Washington Post:

“I think when the president does kind of a switcheroo like that, what he’s trying to say is that we’re maligning these programs that people have earned throughout their working lives,” Ryan said. “So, it’s kind of a convenient twist of terms to try and shadowbox a straw man in order to win an argument by default, is essentially what that rhetorical device is that he uses, over and over and over.”

Yes, I found that incoherent as well.  In any case, the Daily Show pointed out in exquisite detail just how accurate Obama had been in referring to (without naming) Ryan.  Here’s Jonathan Chait doing the same thing.

Obviously Obama hasn’t done anything wrong.  So Ryan’s accusation of fallacy is specious.  Worse, it’s a akin to flopping: calling foul when there isn’t one is itself a kind of fallacious move, an attempt to sidetrack the conversation.  It deserves its own name.  Anyone?

Flopping is annoying in sports and it’s annoying in argument.  There should be some kind of penalty.


Having a face like their ass*

A couple days ago we had a discussion about the non-fallacious sense of ad hominem.  As recent research has shown (decisively, I think), fallacious forms of argument schemes exist along side non-fallacious ones.  Attacking the person isn’t ipso facto impermissible, because sometimes people who argue are bad and that fact bears on their argument.

Here’s another fun example pulled from Twitter.  A Catholic hospital in Denver has been sued for malpractice involving the death of a mother and one of her twin fetuses.  Their defense?  Well:

As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, the court “should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term ‘person,’ as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses.”

Please consider the usual caveats about legal cases and legal reporting and let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the Catholic hospital’s view (but don’t let this stop you from commenting on them should you want to).  It seems like we’d have reasonable grounds for saying: how inconsistent this argument is with your long-standing views!  In fact (from the same source):

The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based nonprofit that runs St. Thomas More Hospital as well as roughly 170 other health facilities in 17 states. Last year, the hospital chain reported national assets of $15 billion. The organization’s mission, according to its promotional literature, is to “nurture the healing ministry of the Church” and to be guided by “fidelity to the Gospel.” Toward those ends, Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules have stirred controversy for decades, mainly for forbidding non-natural birth control and abortions. “Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,’” the directives state. “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn.”

So here we have probably (again for the sake of argument) perfectly reasonable interpretation of the Wrongful Death Act.  But it is exactly the opposite of the views of the institution which is making the argument.  This inconsistency has (justifiably) occasioned the non-fallacious tu quoque charge.  Imagine had the plaintiff making the argument been represented by Planned Parenthoood.  Nonetheless, I think this illustrates a critical issue about ad hominems, namely: it is impossible to entertain this argument in isolation from the other commitments–even those not currently up for discussion–of the arguer.

*having “your face like your ass” (la faccia come il culo): (roughly) not ashamed of anything.


What would Martin do?

Fig.1, Prominent gun advocate

You have the argumentum ad Hiterlum, whereby any proposition p consistent with Hitler’s beliefs b or actions a is ipso facto wrong.  Now you have the ad regem (still working on the name), where any proposition p consistent with the beliefs b or actions a of Martin Luther King, Jr. is ipso facto correct.

By way of Think Progress, and last night’s Daily Show, we have an example:

WARD: I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.

This obviously suffers from terminal factual problems, but so powerful is the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. that no one bothers to check what he believed any more.  He’s good, therefore he supports any view that’s good.  Hitler is bad, therefore he supports any view that’s bad, like gun control (which he didn’t support, actually).  But thus the fallacy.

Hope you like false on your dilemmas

David Catron’s piece at the American Spectator is titled:

Is Obamacare Socialism or Fascism?

How about liberal, progressive, or egalitarian for tertium quids?

(N.B., check out Catron’s opening paragraph, where he insists that he won’t eat healthy food, and thinks that’s a good thing to do given what he thinks is coming in Obama’s America.)

Fair share of security

Fig. 1. Presidential Security

My hypothesis is this: given any opponent O to your view p, your first reaction is to claim that O is inconsistent with regard to p.  So, take Obama, whose first initial happens to be O.  He’s against arming school teachers and janitors.  The National Rifle Association naturally finds this absurd, and, of course, hypocritical.  In a recent commerical, which you can see at this link, they argue:

“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the narrator of the group’s 35-second video asks. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s
just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Is the President a hypocrite because his family has armed security?

Obviously not.  First, the President’s security is provided by the (hated) government; each of the gun-carrying individuals surrounding the President and his children (etc.) is of the very well-regulated militia type: trained and retrained, background tested, sworn to uphold the constitution, serve and protect, and so forth.  Second, the President (and members of Congress, etc.) exist in a gun-free zone, except for the police.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have my 2nd amendment rights at the Capitol building, among the NRA’s biggest legislative boosters.  Does that not make them hypocrites?  Not really.

Sometimes ad hominem is warranted

Phil Plait’s got a serious take-down of the recent claim that there’s been a meteorite found that has diatom fossils in it (at Salon).  Plait’s case is along a few lines: (1) that the rock doesn’t look like it’s a meteorite and has no documentation of how it was found or recovered, (2) the diatoms in it seem to be from Earth, like from a riverbed.  But he opens by criticizing the source of the claim.  He says  N. C. Wickramasinghe, the author of the paper reporting the meteorite, “jumps on everything, with little or no evidence, and says it’s from outer space, so I think there’s a case to be made for a bias on his part.”

Plait then turns to forearm against a concern about the present line of argument:

Now, you might accuse me of using an ad hominem, an argument that cast aspersions on the person making the claim, and not attacking the claim itself. I’ll get to the claim in a moment, but sometimes an ad hominem is warranted!

He makes the case with an analogy:

If Jenny McCarthy claimed botox cures autism, again, you might be forgiven for doubting it based on her previous anti-vaccine and other false claims. You still need to examine the claims on their own merits, of course, but: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

But, now, this isn’t an ad hominem, per se, is it?  When the premises are that the person has a bad track record in the area they are reporting in (or in relevantly similar areas), that’s not ad hominem, but a case against their status as an authority.  I suppose that the basic thought is:  arguments against the person are appropriate when they are relevant to whether the conclusion is acceptable.  If we have reason to believe that S is unreliable, that’s a relevant consideration when we’re considering S’s reportage.

So a question to the NS readers:  should we save terms like ad hominem exclusively for the fallaciously irrelevant considerations of a speaker to impugn his/her claims, or can we allow the term to extend to relevant considerations?  I’ve argued that we should have that flexibility with plenty of other forms of argument, even with straw men and the tu quoque.  But ad hominem seems to have exclusively fallacious connotations for me.  Thoughts?

Love democracy, despise your fellow citizens

Check out last Friday’s Mallard Fillmore:


The thought here is a familiar sour-grapes yuckface that those on the losing ends of elections make about what they think wins elections — catering to the intellectual tastes of a credulous and decadent electorate.  It’s a old Platonic worry about democracy, and it’s usually invoked by those who think their own democracy has made a bad decision.  (It’s all about what a good means for decision-making democracy is when they win elections, of course.)

As I take it the trope here is a form of what I’ve started calling the ‘No Reasonable Opposition’ strategy for political argument.  Take the move here as follows:  The electorate made a decision I disagree with;  from this, we can infer that they were deeply distracted and mis-informed.  They wouldn’t have made that kind of decision if they knew what they were doing.   There are two bad consequences of this line of thinking.  First, it’s self-sealing (as losing elections isn’t taken as evidence one needs to rethink one’s views, but of how fargone the rest of the citizenry is).  Second, it’s a perfect way to not even bother to get one’s views out for inspection — pearls to swine, at this point.

Reductio by analogy

Johah Goldberg wrote a book about public and political discourse.  That makes him an expert about how people argue about policy.  His recent criticism of Joe Biden’s rhetorical flourish “if it saves one life,” reason to heavily regulate fire arms is an occasion for him to act the logic hound:

Maybe it’s because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

Ok, so what’s Goldberg’s critical point?  That the ‘saves one life’ line of reasoning doesn’t work for lots of other things we could regulate:

The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds, or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative that the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Oy.  Well, for sure, he’s responding to stark version of the ‘saves one life’ principle, but the application of the principle in the gun laws case is about regulating a product that’s designed to kill.  For sure, if we can prevent the wrong kinds of deaths, that’s the objective.  So the analogy may be appropriate for a straw liberal, but that’s not Biden’s argument.  And note, on top of all that, we do use a version of the ‘one life’ principle with all those other products, only that we don’t prohibit their purchase.  We regulate salt in foods, we institute speed limits and require safety measures in car production, and have pretty clear warnings about buckets and ladders on them (the presumptions being that people don’t purchase them so as to drown toddlers or jump off of).

The irony of it all is that Goldberg says that phrases like Biden’s cheapens our political discourse.  Sometimes, it’s not the phrase that cheapens, but the way it’s taken.