The cure is worse than the disease

Image result for the horse's mouth

The intuition that political polarization is caused by lack of access to dissenting views has much to recommend it. First of all, if you don’t know what these views are, you can’t learn about them. Second, if you only know strongly dialectical or distorted (straw man) versions of them, you’re unlikely to find your opponents to be reasonable people with plausible views. The obvious antidote to this would seem to be to sit and listen to dissenting voices in their own words.  Let’s call this view, “the horse’s mouth” Looking into the horse’s mouth will have a moderating effect; for,  people are eminently reasonable, so if you just listen to them in their own reasonable words you’ll be compelled to admit that (and so abandon your polarized, straw man versions of their view).

Now comes science to spoil everyone’s intuitions. Some political scientists have tested whether this decreases polarization. The long and the short of it is that it doesn’t and it may (though this result was within the margin of error) increase it. From their paper:

Social media sites are often blamed for exacerbating political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. We conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views. Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant. Despite several limitations, this study has important implications for the emerging field of computational social science and ongoing efforts to reduce political polarization online.

This is disappointing in part because things were looking good for the horse’s mouth view. For it has recently been shown that another representationalist paradox–the backfire effect–had failed to replicate. In the “backfire effect” study, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that attempts to correct mistaken information would backfire in certain circumstances. The idea, in other words, is that exposure to facts is not sufficient for correction and may in fact make one retrench.

Naturally, we should be cautious with such results, as the authors themselves warn:

Although our findings should not be generalized beyond party-identified Americans who use Twitter frequently, we note that recent studies indicate this population has an outsized influence on the trajectory of public discussion—particularly as the media itself has come to rely upon Twitter as a source of news and a window into public opinion (47).

In closing here I might venture a hypothesis for why people didn’t moderate their view. Prominent politicians on Twitter, from what I’ve observed, produce content for a partisan audience.  Often that partisan audience is already polarized and it isn’t particularly well-informed. Content that appeals to them, viewed by an observer, might only tend to confirm the worst views about them.  If you see a bunch of tweets urging you to “lock her up,” you can hardly be blamed for thinking them to be idiots.

Self straw manning

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This is a continuation of Scott’s post from yesterday, where he observed that you can perform a kind of self straw man. You say something vague, knowing that you’re going to be “misinterpreted” and then you complain that you have been misinterpreted.

This kind of move–and I’ll give a slightly more subtle version of this in a moment–nicely illustrates the Owl of Minerva Problem for fallacy theory. The Owl of Minerva problem, as Scott and Robert Talisse describe it over at 3 Quarks Daily, runs like this:

But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

The introduction of a metavocabulary will change the way we argue and it will, inevitably, become a thing we argue about.  The theoretical question is whether there is any distinction between the levels of meta-argumentation. The practical question is whether there is anything we can do about the seemingly inexorable journey to meta-argumentation. I have a theory on this but I’ll save that for another time.

Now for self straw manning.  This is a slightly more subtle version of yesterday’s example. Here’s the text (a bit longish, sorry) from a recent profile of Sam Harris by Nathan J.Robinson.

A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam,[4] but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.[5]

Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.[6]

It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?

Sam Harris is certainly a divisive figure. I’d also venture to guess that he is smart enough to know his audience, some of whom (such as Robinson here above) strongly disagree with him. He might be expected, therefore, for the purposes of having a productive debate, to make his commitments absolutely clear. This would involve, one would hope, avoiding bombastic utterances bound to provoke strong reactions or misinterpretations.

But, crucially, arguments are not always about convincing new people to adhere to your view, but to strengthen the attitudes of your followers. It seems to me that just such a tactic as the self-straw man is ideal. You get an opponent (cleverly, this case) to embody the very stereotype of the unreasonable, ideology-driven mismanager of fallacy vocabulary by setting up a straw man of your own view for them. They’re drawn to that but not to your qualifications and so the trap closes.

It’s all interpretation

There seems like there should be a name for the dialectical trap of saying something controversial, but then acting hurt that those who object to it interpreted it as controversial.  Talisse and I called a very closely related stategy spitballing, that of covering the dialectical space with too many things to respond to.   Consider the following case.  President Trump has been the target of a defamation lawsuit by Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump years ago.  Daniels’ lawsuit has been dismissed, and Trump goes to Twitter:

So he calls Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ when announcing the case is dropped. The President has a long history of saying nasty things about womens’ appearances, so he was asked about it by the AP in a recent interview.

Trump also did not back down from derisively nicknaming porn actress Stormy Daniels “horseface” hours earlier.

He says “you can take it any way you want,” when asked if it was appropriate to insult a woman’s appearance.

Such an off-base reply.  The question wasn’t what the statement meant, but whether the President stands by the statement given what it clearly means.  Moreover, what are the options for my preferences to interpret this statement, to begin with?  Is there another option, perhaps less misogynistic, to interpreting calling a woman ‘horseface’ to be a way of maligning her looks?  Maybe it’s a shorthand that rich guys use to show that they know someone who looks like they own horses… you say “Ah, Sterling… he clearly has a wonderful set of stallions at home… see his regal horseface?”  But still hard to take it in these lights when the expression is next to calling Danels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, a “third rate lawyer”.

The question is what’s the problem?  Here’s a shot.  The problem is along two lines.  The first is just that it’s a form of incorrigibility — you get caught doing something that someone objects to, and even if you think it is fine even under their interpretation, you just say they are interpreting it all wrong.  So this is the ‘out of context’ play with verbal indiscretion — you make the game of nailing down exactly what you said just more costly than what’s worth the points of making the objection.  In this case, making explicit what the problem is, what the interpetive options are, and so on, is just more work than is worth it.  (At least for the reporters… I’m an academic… this is my JAM!)

The second part is the trap element.  The trap is as follows — if Trump has said that we can interpret the claim as we see fit, if we interpret it as offensive, that’s evidence that we’ve chosen to interpret the claim as something bad.  But who would do such a thing, except someone who suffers from an irrational, uncivil bias?  And so, by saying that this unqualifiedly objectionable piece of language can be taken as we wish, Trump, by his lights, is testing us for whether we choose to blindly resist him on everything and act all offended when we do that, or we just see that Stormy Daniels is as ugly as he thinks she is, and we agree.

But the point, again, is the trap — once you choose to be offended by interpreting his statement in the offensive way — how is he really responsible for the objectionable stuff.  The only apology he would owe, then, would be that he’s sorry that people can’t help themselves but to interpret him in a nasty way all the time.

With charges of straw man, those who make the challenge take on particular dialectical burdens.  One of them is to point out how the view that’s been straw manned is not only better than the representation, but that better view was accessible to those who performed the straw man.  Namely, that a reasonable interpretation was available that did not suffer from the problems with the represented view.  But here’s the problem with the Trump case here with the trap — he hasn’t offered any alternative that’s a reasonable interpretation that’s not misogynistic.   Not a surprise, really.  But it’s useful for the theory of fallacy.

When they say anything metaphorical, straw man them

Eric Holder, the former Attorney General, recently put a new spin on the familiar Michelle Obama quip, “When they go low, we go high.”  Holder’s is that “When they go low, we kick them.”  Here’s the video with the relevant pieces at the Washington Post.  Importantly, Holder, after the quip, clarifies what he means by ‘kick’ them:

When I say we, you know, ‘We kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal,… But we got to be tough, and we have to fight for the very things that [civil rights leaders] John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young – you know, all those folks gave to us.

He means give it back with confrontational rhetoric, not actual violence.  Oh, but is that what Sean Hannity will have as part of his clip of the quip?  Nope.  Just the part about the kicking.  And here’s how he cuts the tape and explains it to his audience. (Video of Hannity’s show HERE, start at 6:19) He frames and restates Holder’s quip:

Just look at the number of democratic leaders encouraging mob violence against their political opponents…  When they go low, ditch civility. Kick Republicans, when they are on the ground, kick ’em.

He just plays the quip, not the clarification, note.  And that’s the key.  Holder’s expressing the view that political argument is high-stakes and hard-charging, so he’s willing to sacrifice the high road these days, precisely because he thinks it’s clear his opponents have done so.  So the metaphor of the ‘kick’ is the response to their ‘going low’ — invoking the way the battle would go.  But it’s all metaphorical about the rhetorical exchange.  Imagine someone saying,  after hearing another describing a coming debate as a ‘bare knuckle boxing match,’ they are worried for their physical safety.  For sure, this would be some willful ignorance of how metaphorical language works.

Trevor Noah’s Daily Show review of the selective quotation also revealed the additional irony: “Can we just acknowledge that by saying they’re gonna get kicked, Sean Hannity and his friends are accepting that they’re going low?”


Poe’s law and hoaxes

Some of you may be familiar by now with the second in a series of hoaxes perpetrated by Peter Boghossian* (Portland State University’s Philosophy Department), James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose  (the editor of Areo, the online journal that published the hoaxes findings). The first of these hoaxes, by Boghossian and Lindsay, got a fraudulent  (what that means we’ll have to discuss) article into a very weak pay-to-play journal. They then drew dark conclusions about that fact for the future of scholarship.  You can read a very sound rebuttal of their work  by CUNY’s Massimo Pigliucci here. TL;DR: the hoax was if anything a hoax on many credulous members of the so-called skeptical movement, who thought that posting a crap article in a crap journal meant something.

The latest version of the hoax improves upon the methodology of the first one significantly–it avoided, from what I can tell, the pay-to-play journals and, importantly, it produced a larger number of fraudulent (I’m still not sure this is the right term) article.  In all, the trio wrote 20 and managed to get seven accepted. They even managed to get one of these articles accepted by Hypatia (which has had its own problems recently).

A couple of minor criticisms before I move on to the main point of this post. Other than Hypatia the other journals are hardly top-tier.  (e.g., Journal of Poetry Therapy?).  I’m also puzzled that they call this stuff “humanities” (in the introduction to the project and elsewhere). Other than the Hypatia piece, most of the stuff is what humanities people such as myself would call “social science.” While on the surface this might appear to be a minor terminological issue, there’s a big difference when you get down to it. People may think they have shown something about history, philosophy, and literature when only two of twenty had that focus.

If you’re interested in reading more criticisms, this piece in Buzzfeed does a pretty good job of summarizing the main complaints.

As an argumentative matter, I think this is a lot of wasted effort. Are there absolutely crappy papers that make it through the publishing process? Absolutely. I bet you could ask anyone who reads this stuff and they could point you to some. Sorting this stuff out, however, is just what one does in Academia–this article was bad, let me refute it; this article was bad, so bad we’re going to ignore it. Those are criticisms. And cumulatively over time these criticisms yield results of a kind–results far better than producing some bad work narrowly tailored to pass muster at gullible journals.

If they’ve shown anything conclusively here, it’s that you can produce shoddy work insincerely. Some of the work they produced was accepted only after revisions. Doing those revisions meant insincerely adapting their work to some kind of standard. Whether that standard is a good one is what people dispute (and why, ultimately, there’s  ranking of journals and so forth). But, speaking of insincerity, you can accidentally stumble into a good point. Consider this bit from one of the hoax papers:

Thesis: When a man privately masturbates while fantasizing about a woman who has not given him permission to do so, or while fantasizing about her in ways she hasn’t consented to, he has committed “metasexual” violence against her, even if she never finds out. “Metasexual” violence is described as a kind of nonphysical sexual violence that causes depersonalization of the woman by sexually objectifying her and making her a kind of mental prop used to facilitate male orgasm.

Purpose: To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes..

This was from a paper that was rejected. Oddly, they’ve stumbled into a sort of virtue theory argument here. Certain activities are wrong not because they actively harm another person only, but also because they turn their perpetrator into the kind of person who would do that kind of bad thing or at least enjoy that kind of thing. It’s bad, but for primarily self-regarding reasons. Stated this way it’s not great (remember the paper was rejected) but in all of the attempt to do a clever hoax, they actually run over the line into something plausible. The fact, however, that they can’t see the line is evidence that their failure to grasp the meaning of the term “humanities” was more than a mere oversight.

So there’s one problem with hoaxing: you might accidentally make the matter hinge on sincerity. Again, the fact that people write insincere papers is not particularly surprising. Demonstrating this fact is certainly not worth the effort they put into it.

Another feature of the hoax–its baseline logical feature–comes out of Poe’s Law–the eponymous internet law that says that a view is absurd to the extent that it’s impossible to create believable satire of it without saying explicitly: this is satire. As it happens, Scott discussed this here (also, follow the references at the end for more). There, the thought was that there are always weak adherents of views to turn the satire into reportage.

So it’s true in this case. It’s not a secret that there exists really crappy, politically-motivated, or downright unethical work in academia. It’s also not surprising that if you try to satirize some of that work, some people will not recognize it as satire and will take it as genuine work. The more direct route to that thesis is just to look at the work. Such work exists, of course, as it was the premise of the entire hoax.

A somewhat sad coda to this was the tweet thread of the graduate student who refereed that paper. He spent hours crafting feedback for what he thought was an earnest, but inexperienced, scholar. Journals such as these are where such earnest scholars go to continue the discussion and to continue their professional development. So, the net effect of the hoax is that some one of these apparently earnest but inexperienced scholars might be an earnest but insincere person looking to waste your time.

*Not to be confused with philosopher Paul Boghossian (NYU) who is now dealing with mistaken requests for interviews.

Why we argue

The second edition of Why we argue  (and how we should) by Robert Talisse and our own Scott Aikin is now out. You can get it here or (what’s better) at your local bookstore.

Devoted readers of this site will recognize some of the ideas, but (and perhaps I’m biased) all will appreciate its lively approach to the topic of disagreement and informal logic. It’s primary virtue is that  it’s a self-aware discussion of informal reasoning–it recognizes that everyone is already familiar with the metalanguage of argument and this is what amounts to its biggest challenges.  Along these lines, the new edition has stuff on deep disagreement, the Owl of Minerva Problem, and online arguing.

It will be worth your time.

The fake straw man

Typically, a straw man argument is some kind of misrepresentation (by selection, by distortion, or by invention) in order to conclude that some alternative position is stronger by comparison. We often think that last part–that some alternative position is stronger–is the key move. You use a straw man to go somewhere else with the argument.

So, for instance, “the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is communism,” distorts the ACA in favor of a more sensible, non-communist version.

This morning I was struck by an account of a strategic use of distortion that skips the last, crucial step in straw manning: the sensible alternative. Here it is:

For context, this self-retweet is meant to characterize President Trump’s approach to revisions (rather, alleged revisions) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The argument runs: NAFTA is bad (for exaggerated reasons), engage in a lengthy back-and-forth, NAFTA is fixed (when it’s the same).

You can see from the example that the distortion is almost entirely self-enclosed. In the first stage, it presents a distorted account of the current realty. So far, that’s very straw manny. But, rather than offering an allegedly more sensible alternative, it offers a second distortion, which takes us back to a non-distorted version of the status quo.

This version–I don’t know what to call it–retains all of the puffery of the standard versions: look at how dumb my opponents are! And it doubles that puffery by turning the exchange entirely into a show about how awesome you are.  You’re not as awesome if you have to share the credit with someone else.

Perhaps the more precise account is this: you distort an interlocutor’s position so that you can occupy the non-distorted version. So, the alternative position is strong enough as it is. The only problem is who is occupying it–not you. You have to steal it. To do that, you have to trick your opponent into leaving it.

There are some natural advantages to this. It’s easier to occupy an already constructed position than to make up a new one. Just ask the Great Horned Owl.  There’s got to be a real estate version of this scam. The closest I can find is the real estate practice of blockbusting, where unscrupulous developers scarred white people out of their homes in order to resell them at much higher prices to black families.