That's actually a word, but it's not particularly related to what I will say here.  

Last week George Will wrote a column sufficiently full of outright falsehoods–non facts as it were–such that people all over were demanding retractions, corrections, etc.  Rightly so, as the falsehoods were fairly egregious (it wasn't just forgetting who argued that philosophy is preparation for dying).  He completely misrepresented research on global warming in order to claim that it wasn't happening.  Strangely enough, the Washington Post has issued nothing by way of a retraction, and they have claimed that the column made it through their multi-layered editing and fact-checking process.  So much the worse for them.  Click here for a discussion of the factual errors, and here for our original post.

There is something slightly odd about the whole matter, however.  He got some facts wrong.  So did Bill Kristol (formerly of the New York Times now–get this–of the Washington Post).  People screamed about that as the height of sloppiness.  Which it is.  But op-ed columnists do not really deal primarily in facts anyway.  They deal primarily in arguments–the argumentative ones at least (which is mostly the conservative ones by the way–don't know why that is, it just is). 

Arguments are one part fact, one part inference.  As a matter of fact, they're mostly inference.  Getting facts wrong is bad, but I think it is a comparably less egregious problem than repeatedly authoring crappy, to use a technical term, arguments.  For the sake of clarity, a crappy argument is one whose conclusion likely wouldn't follow even if they premises were true.  Seems to me that if one repeatedly makes these sorts of arguments, then one's getting the occasional fact wrong is a comparatively minor problem–easily correctable by a (competent) fact checker.

Correcting crappy arguments is rather more difficult, as many lay people don't seem to have a good idea what a crappy argument is.  Many lay people think that pointing out an argument's crappiness, in fact, is a kind of crappy argument.  I think someone–maybe me, maybe our Australian friends–suggested a name for this–the fallacy fallacy fallacy (the fallacy of thinking pointing out fallacies is a fallacy of some sort).  It takes some amount of training to point out sophistries.  But it's at least as important if not more than the pointing out errors of fact.  So I'd like to propose that the Post, in addition to hiring a new fact-checker (not one paid by George Will–seriously, he's got like two of them), hire a kind of sophistry checker.

That way we wouldn't be subjected to things like this (from Will's column yesterday):

Although liberals give lip service to "diversity," they often treat federalism as an annoying impediment to their drive for uniformity. Feingold, who is proud that Wisconsin is one of only four states that clearly require special elections of replacement senators in all circumstances, wants to impose Wisconsin's preference on the other 46. Yes, he acknowledges, they could each choose to pass laws like Wisconsin's, but doing this "state by state would be a long and difficult process." Pluralism is so tediously time-consuming. 

The sophistry detector might say the following: Mr.Will, you're going to have be a lot more specific here.  In the first place, who are "liberals"?  Second, you're equivocating on "diversity."  "Liberals"–whoever the hell they are–can consistently be for one kind of diversity but not another.  Aside from this, "impose" seems to have a different meaning for you.  Feingold seems to be advocating a change in electoral procedure by democratic means–amending the Constitution.  Such an activity requires signifcant electoral participation and agreement.  One can hardly call that "imposing."

These, I think, are serious and egregious problems with just this one paragraph, yet none of them are factual problems in any direct sense. They do, however, make the argument here rather sucky.

About John Casey

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10 Responses to Facticity

  1. aikin says:

    An ‘equivocation checker,’ you’d think that’d be the job of a competent editor.

    A question about the ‘fallacy fallacy.’  I’d heard it another way, which runs: A’s argument for p is a fallacy, so p is false. Am I missing something, or is this your point a dialectical consequence of calling the ‘fallacy fallacy’?

    It may go: A gives an argument for p, and B criticizes the argument.  A defends p by pointing out the fallacy fallacy (just b/c her argument sucks, it doesn’t mean that her conclusion is false), and thereby shuts B up?

  2. jcasey says:

    Hey Scott,

    I think I was unclear.  The fallacy fallacy (as the Australians define it) is as you describe it: it’s the fallacy of thinking a conclusion false because fallaciously derived.  People of course think that the fallacy fallacy is what we do here.  Because George Will commits a fallacy in his argument, the opposite must be true!  Of course that is just preposterous.  But it always bears repeating. 

    The fallacy fallacy fallacy, on the other hand, involves accusing someone who points out fallacies of committing fallacies in the simple act of pointing out fallacies.  It’s the fallacy the person commits who accuses us of the fallacy fallacy!

  3. pmayo says:

    Media Matters has page where you can write a letter to the Post’s ombudsman:  http://mediamatters.org/action_center/willful_denial

  4. aikin says:

    Ha! Fallacy fallacy fallacy. Brilliant. 

    Let me get it straight: A commits the FFF when:
    1. A gives an argument for p,
    2. (part of?) A’s defense of p is to accuse critic B of the fallacy fallacy,
    3. B was only criticizing A’s argument, not p

    So it’s an issue of keeping up with what’s on the table — there’s p’s truth or falsity, and then there’s A’s case for p.  When B criticizes A’s argument, it certainly is relevant to p’s truth or falsity, but it’s  hasty to take the critique of A’s argument to close the case with p, but both A and B can take criticism of arguments as also implicit criticisms of theses.  I.e., it certainly is part of a good case for not-p that all the cases for p stink.  But to accuse someone of the FF requires more than just the implicit relevance of criticising arguments to criticizing conclusions — you need positive evidence that someone has conflated to the two.  So what makes this a fallacy, instead of simply an argument with a false premise, is that A fails to shoulder the burden of proof to show that B has slipped between criticizing arguments to bringing out a full criticism of a conclusion?

  5. jcasey says:

    I think that sounds right, but here’s a more simplified version: A commits the fallacy fallacy fallacy when A accuses B of committing the fallacy fallacy, when B has simply identified a fallacy in the reasoning of A or someone else.

  6. aikin says:

    Ah, so the fallacy is the mis-diagnosis and accusation of fallacy, hence a derailment of the dialectical situation.  A kind of META-fallacy.  This may work for other fallacy-accusations.  For example, there may be the ad hominem fallacy fallacy, where one mis-diagnoses  rough treatment in a refutation as fallacious abusive ad hominem?  (Think, for example, of Ann Coulter’s Slander, which amounts to the claim: liberals think conservatives are selfish and evil, so all their arguments against conservatives are abusive of their character, so all arguments are abusive ad hominem. QED)  That’s a case, first, of a fallacy fallacy, but it seems that it’s more than that, because it works like FFF, because it’s an accusation of something like FF, but mis-diagnoses it and yields even worse results.  I wonder if there’s a whole new area to work on with META-fallacies?

  7. jcasey says:

    That’s right Scott.   I think the FFF has a kind of meta-ness to it in that it any number of other fallacies could be employed in committing it (such as the hasty generalization and so forth).   While we’re on the subject of the FF, I think one might find a whole lot of FF in the blogosphere–where triumphalist imputations of fallacy replace actual refutation.  Sure it’s a service to point out the fallacy, but one must be careful not to claim that the commission of the fallacy undermines the truth of the conclusion.  I’m going to be on the lookout for this.

  8. jcasey says:

    Here is a link to the “Fallacy fallacy” post at the Fallacy Files.   Somewhat related is the “eager beaver fallacy“, which, as the name suggests, involves pointing out fallacies in every argument remotely like them.  Every attack against the person, for instance, would be alleged to be fallacious.

  9. Pingback: The NonSequitur » Shut him down

  10. Pingback: The NonSequitur » Stop contradicting yourself

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