While reading Aquinas on War for a history of medieval philosophy class, I stopped over this gem:

Secondly, a man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him. Now we are not always bound to do this, since even in the Sacred Doctrine many things have to be concealed, especially from unbelievers, lest they deride it, according to Matthew 7:6: “Give not that which is holy, to dogs.” Wherefore much more ought the plan of campaign to be hidden from the enemy. For this reason among other things that a soldier has to learn is the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy’s knowledge, as stated in the Book on Strategy [Stratagematum i, 1 by Frontinus. Such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush which may be lawfully employed in a just war.

I suppose the idea of an ambush is not particularly inapt in argument–one might argue for a more palatable proposition only to reveal that the argument applies to something the listener finds less palatable.  So you thought I was arguing for vegetarianism but I was really arguing against abortion!

I’m not sure, however, whether this is the same thing.  One the one hand, the context of the ambush would suggest as much–an ambush is no good unless you attack.  On the other, hiding your view from scrutiny is the very opposite of engagement, that is, the very opposite of argument.

Bring out the big guns

Perhaps some of you have heard of the Harvard Business Professor, Ben Edelman, who went to war over a four dollar overcharge.  If not, here’s the story (from

Last week, Edelman ordered what he thought was $53.35 worth of Chinese food from Sichuan Garden’s Brookline Village location.

Edelman soon came to the horrifying realization that he had been overcharged. By a total of $4.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a Harvard Business School professor thinks a family-run Chinese restaurant screwed him out of $4, you’re about to find out.

(Hint: It involves invocation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute and multiple threats of legal action.)

Read the rest, it’s hilarious (and not the first time this guy did this).

This raises a lot of questions, one of which is whether he needed all of that argument to make that point.  Let’s presume, for the sake of our own  argument, that he’s not wrong.  It’s clearly not worth his time to complain.  But maybe a word or two to point out the restaurant’s error.

Nonetheless, even granted the correctness of his claim, the over sized argument (again, however correct) makes me wonder what the nature of the injustice of argumentative disproportionality is.  He just doesn’t need that much argument to make his case.

This reminds me of a talk I once saw where the speaker brought out the theoretical big guns in order to explain (and reject I guess) the garden variety racism of some local politician.  Yes, you can use Foucault to do that, but do you really need that much?

Tortured logic

We’ve been out of commission for a while with our day jobs.  Now that vacation is almost here, let’s try to get back in the swing of things.

First, an assignment: let’s everyone think about torture–namely, the tortured arguments for it.  My favorite is the one that it’s not torture if we practice it on our own personnel.  So, for instance, if we demonstrate water torture boarding to someone, as an example of torture, it’s ipso fatso not torture, because we did it.  For, after all, anything we do cannot be torture, duh.

Here it is:

KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.

I reread this a bunch of times (then and again now), thinking I had to have misinterpreted Krauthammer.  I don’t think I have.  Water torture isn’t torture because we use it on our own soldiers to demonstrate torture.

In case one thinks that this is a one-off argument uttered in haste, here’s former CIA chief Michael Hayden yesterday:

“It prompts the anti-drowning reflex in an individual. I’m sure it’s horrible, but it was also horrible for tens of thousands of American airmen whom we used it against for their training.”

So, assignment time, what’s your favorite WTF argument for torture?  There should be some kind of chart–oh, there is!

Here’s the torture report for reference.


This from the always lucid Massimo Pigliucci is worth a read.   A key paragraph:

Denialists have even begun to appropriate the technical language of informal logic: when told that a majority of climate scientists agree that the planet is warming up, they are all too happy to yell “argument from authority!” When they are told that they should distrust statements coming from the oil industry and from “think tanks” in their pockets they retort “genetic fallacy!” And so on. Never mind that informal fallacies are such only against certain background information, and that it is eminently sensible and rational to trust certain authorities (at the least provisionally), as well as to be suspicious of large organizations with deep pockets and an obvious degree of self-interest.

Seen a lot of that around here.

via Leiter.

Nowhere man

It’s often difficult to find actual hollow man arguments; what with all of the internet crazies holding these views, you can always find someone to weak man at least.

So I wonder, is the hollow man for the extremely lazy arguer?  Or is there some other more nefarious and devious purpose?  Here’s indolent Laura Ingraham, who has figured out why Obama doesn’t want to impose an Ebola-themed travel ban: so that some Americans die in penance for our sins (from Crooks and Liars):

Ingraham: The experts are telling him we can’t think about a travel ban because it will make matters worse. For whom? I think there have been a few moments where people have been honest about this on the left/ where in their heart of hearts think if a few Americans have to be infected and even a few Americans or more than that have to die to make the lives of Africans better , that’s just what has to happen. We owe a great debt to other countries in the world. including Africa, and if Americans have to die to repay that debt then we just have to die. I really believe this is where they are.

Yea, I don’t think so.   I wonder if the function of the hollow man here is to make it appear one’s opponent not only reprehensible positions, but is also dishonest about holding them.  They’re so dishonest that they don’t even utter them in public.  It takes in the know folks like Ingraham to figure it out.   Sure, you can weak man or nut pick all you want, but at least in those circumstances you’re engaging with your opponent (and they’re engaging with you).  One might be tempted to improve their views, or, at the very least, feel sorry for them.

Do you think this is a game?

Outsourcing most of the work to another blog here, so apologies.  Here is George Will on the Republican Party’s alleged war on women (from Digby’s blog):

One of the wonders of this political moment is feminist contentment about the infantilization of women in the name of progressive politics. Government, encouraging academic administrations to micromanage campus sexual interactions, now assumes that, absent a script, women cannot cope. And the Democrats’ trope about the Republicans’ “war on women” clearly assumes that women are civic illiterates.

Access to contraception has been a constitutional right for 49 years (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965). The judiciary has controlled abortion policy for 41 years (Roe v. Wade, 1973). Yet the Democratic Party thinks women can be panicked into voting about mythical menaces to these things.

Digby then cites the usual litany of Republican types inveighing against abortion rights, access to birth control, and so forth.   To this extent (the extent which matters most I suppose), what Will says is patently ludicrous.  Will himself frequently complains about the “judicial activism” which recognized these rights.

In any case, this is a nice example of the red herring tactic: the complaint isn’t that these things are not currently rights in some narrow legal sense, it’s that they’re under threat of elimination as rights from all sorts of key Republican officeholders and opinion types.

This is sadly very uninteresting.  What is interesting is that Will fails to see the obvious objections to his claim:

Actually, Gardner favors over-the-counter sales of oral contraceptives. In addition to being common sense, Gardner’s proposal is his way of making amends for formerly advocating a state constitutional “personhood” amendment (it is again on the ballot this year and will be decisively rejected for a third time) and for endorsing similar federal legislation that has zero chance of passage. By defining personhood as beginning at conception, these measures might preclude birth control technologies that prevent implantation in the uterus of a fertilized egg. On this slender reed, Udall leans his overheated accusations that Gardner is bent on “trampling on women’s rights,” is on a “crusade” for “eliminating” reproductive freedoms and would “outlaw birth control.”

Indeed, the fact that such an amendment exists (and has the consequence of making certain kinds of birth control illegal) is the whole point of fearing attacks on reproductive rights.   I imagine that Will doesn’t think we should take such things seriously.   Good to know, I guess.

When people on your team, then, advocate crazy stuff that makes you look stupid, blame the people who believe they’re serious.

Dennett on Criticism

Here is some (fairly obvious I think) advice on criticism from Daniel Dennett:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Good practical advice, I think.  Facebook comment from someone:

I don’t think anyone can accuse Daniel Dennett of being ‘kind’ when it comes to criticizing the things he doesn’t agree with. When it comes to religion and determinism, I think ‘brutal’ would be a more appropriate word to use. Wish I could think of some concrete examples, but the only one that comes to mind is his critique of Rick Warren in a TED talk.

Maybe he got through the first three without learning anything.

Dred Scott and Godwin

Fig.1 Gay Marriage Analogy

When you’re out of arguments you go full Godwin (proposition p with which I disagree is Nazi).  When you go full Godwin Poe’s law goes into effect (we can’t tell your view from a straw man of your view–essentially).  On this score, here goes some bozo from the Witherspoon Institute, famous for their slippery slopes about Gay Marriage (society will be destroyed, eventually).  Via Talking Points Memo (the source for this kind of crazy nowadays):

In Dred Scott it was the false idea that some human beings can own other human beings, and that a democratic people cannot say otherwise. In the same-sex marriage rulings it is the false idea that men can marry men, and women can marry women, and that democratic peoples cannot say otherwise.

I suppose they’re both court cases of a sort.  In one, rights were recognized, in the other, they were denied.

Your argument is invalid