All posts by John Casey


The inevitability of straw men

Not all newspaper op-eds are straightforwardly argumentative. Some trend explanatory. The ones that are argumentative face a kind of dilemma. On the one hand, they can present an argument that’s engaging, conclusive, and therefore probably wrong because it’s a straw man or some other easily diagnosed fallacious argument form. On the other, they can present a fair, rigorous, and analytical piece that won’t have time or space to get to a conclusion. Most argumentative ones opt for the former.  Few people, outside of academics, want to read anything like the latter.

An illustrative example of this came up over the weekend. Background: The New York Times, in an effort to diversify its op-ed page, hired another white, male, conservative with predictable conservative views. This naturally includes thinking the science behind climate change to be wrong. To this end, he made the following argument:

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

And there’s your problem. No one who is a serious participant in the science-based conversation around climate change makes that argument (call it the Cartesian Certainty Claim). For those keeping score at home, this is a weak man. That’s not how science works (it’s more Humean certainty). To be charitable to Stephens, maybe he is thinking of the no doubt many confused individuals who make these sorts of claims at rallies and such. They truly could use this clarification. But that’s probably not what he means. And it would also leave standing the idea that he means to criticize. And so the problem:  it’s not fun to argue fairly and honestly. And you can’t do it in the space of an op-ed. In matters of science, you can’t do it even in the space of many many publications. It takes a long time to rock and roll, as it where.

There was a serious uproar over his hiring that again flared up this weekend. There were many good responses. The best response, I think, is this one :

A decent touchstone for newspapers to apply to opinion writers of all ideological persuasions would test whether they engage in that kind of sophistry, and a decent rule would be to not publish them if and when they do—basically, to hire good editors for their editorialists. It would be ideologically cocooning for newspapers to censor the opinion that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about, but it is neither partisan nor biased to insist that the supporting arguments be factual, logically rigorous, and sincere.

Easy enough, but it’s surprising to me how difficult it is to get newspaper types away from the idea that only single factual assertions can be the subject of editing (BTW, the one factual assertion about climate change in Stephens’ piece was wrong–the Times issued a correction).

The airing of grievances

We’ve had a few posts up lately about the adversarial paradigm of argument (links: one, two). Today will be another one. The others discussed the problems resulting from treating arguers as opponents, today’s will discuss the problems in not viewing them this way (when appropriate. ran an article on CNN, where it blamed them for treating politics “like a sport.”

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

That fighting-based approach to covering politics has created a huge demand for Trump supporters willing to appear on the network, which is why CNN hired Trump supporters like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany to defend Trump full time.

Another dominant metaphor for argument is war: arguers are adversaries, positions are attacked and defended.  It’s similar to sports, but the focus is not on the entertainment of the spectator (I hope), but rather on the viciousness of the contest. Scott wrote a paper on this.

In both cases the focus is not on the quality of the reasons, but rather on some external features–either the joy of the audience in the case of sport or the ability to extract concessions in the case of war.

This is generally bad news for arguments. But not all arguments are about truth telling, as the author supposes:

All of this would be fine and normal for a network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

I’d be happy to find out when CNN had ever been about serious truth telling.  But seriously, the context of these CNN discussions is scandal and audience-driven (because of advertising, the need to pay Wolf Blitzer millions of dollars, etc.). This should be a clue as to their focus.

So, in CNN’s defense, they specialize in a subgenre of argumentation called the quarrel. The point of the quarrel is not to settle the truth of some proposition but rather to air grievances. The problem really consists in the viewers (and participants) thinking that this is supposed to be an argument.

Kids today, you know what I mean?

Catherine Rampall, of the Washington Post, lists five self-interest-based reasons allegedly liberal college students should listen to speakers who ridicule them to their face or allege blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior.  They’re solid, utilitarian reasons, taken right out of Mill’s On Liberty.

  1. You make a martyr of the protestee;
  2. You dull your ability to answer the arguments of the protestee;
  3. You force their ideas underground;
  4. Your jerkishness drives people from your cause;
  5. These techniques will be used against you.

This seems to be reasonable strategic advice. I do, however, have two concerns, one broad and one narrow.  The broad one concerns the tired narrative that we’re dealing with a real danger to democracy here; the narrow one regards reason #2: the idea that advancing learning objectives requires reciting reasons against the worst possible trollishness.

The broad concern: let’s remember that these are just kids–and a tiny handful of them at that. Kids say and do a lot of misguided things. Sadly, these particular things and these particular kids seem to make the news and then loom large in the minds of scolding commentators at our nation’s flagship newspapers. Have a sense of scale in other words. It’s not like they have managed to outlaw the teaching of basic science.

Second, to repeat something I said the other day (and something you can find discussed more eloquently by others here and here and here), the idea that you are somehow obligated to handle crazy objections can sometimes undermine free inquiry, rather than advance it. Clearly, the people who invite trolls aren’t learning anything–either because they’re too clueless to recognize trolling or, more likely, they just want to troll. Answering trolls, after all, takes up precious time that might be better spent learning about actual views on the table. This goes for everyone.

In the end, of course, strategic considerations might suggest these kids not scream so loud. But then again, they’re kids. They’re only just learning about strategy.


Not any kind of game

Here is some advice from  Joshua Parsons, who passed away this week at the too-young age of 44.

In the bad old days philosophers used to invite speakers to seminars just in order to show off to each other by tearing strips off the speaker. It was a wonder anyone ever accepted an invitation to give a talk anywhere! The most prized skill a philosopher could have was to be able to utterly demolish a speaker’s argument; a good speaker would be one who could resist this process, or if that was not possible, then accept defeat with good grace. You’ll still hear old-timers reminiscing about this fondly: “Back in ’58, X gave us a lunch time talk on whether or not jars were a kind of bottle! Y interrupted 15 minutes in with a counterexample, and X said that he was refuted and there was no point in continuing so we all went to the staff club early for cigars and sherry!”

Point-scoring was big then. The idea is that philosophical discussions are a zero-sum game: either someone wins a point and looks clever and someone else loses one and looks foolish, or it is a stalemate, and no one likes a stalemate. This is of course completely false – philosophical discussions are not any kind of game, but a collaborative attempt to uncover and solve serious intellectual problems.

In my view, point-scoring behaviour is one of the biggest blights on the philosophy profession. The way philosophers are trained to conduct conversations in seminars lends itself to point-scoring, which is how the whole sorry idea got started in the first place. Think back to graduate school. At first you were afraid to ask questions in seminars because you had hardly understood a word of the talk, and everyone who was asking questions seemed to have understood it better than the speaker and have a trenchant criticism. Then your supervisor told you that the only way to learn was to muck in, and that she was expecting you to ask a question at the next seminar. At the paper, you listened very carefully to find something that you were sure you understood to ask a question about. You tentatively asked your first question. To your surprise, the speaker took you seriously and famous Prof X asked a follow up on your question. Your supervisor was proud of you. That was good! After that you tried your hardest to think of a question in every seminar. A few years later you had mastered the technique, not only thinking of a question, but anticipating the speaker’s response and ready with a follow-up too.

An interesting thought here is the mercenary nature of these discussions–you don’t actually have any points to make, you need to come up with some because that’s your job (or so you think). You come up with objections that may not be your objections, but they are objections nonetheless.

A further thought might be this: perhaps the author of the paper didn’t care about their point themselves. They had to come up with something to give a talk. That would make it a game for them, I think.

The adversary paradigm

In “The Adversary Paradigm,” (1983) Janice Moulton challenged the claim that the ideal way to examine a view is to subject it to adversarial challenges in the form of  counterexamples. Roughly, I assert p, you assert ~p in an attempt to challenge p.

Among Moulton’s problems with this view are these. First, it’s epistemically limited. There are lots of ways a view can go wrong, not all of them, or even the most salient ones, are revealed by this method.

Second, it tends to institutionalize a kind of intellectual trolling culture. Since to challenge its view is to assert its opposite, we need to refresh the pool of people who will play this role, even if their criticisms have little plausibility. So, for instance, do we need to host Holocaust deniers in a history of the holocaust course? Does answering their charges do much to improve our knowledge of the Holocaust? What’s more likely, is that it obscures the many actually controversial elements to the study of the Holocaust and it gives greater plausibility to a fringe view (among other reasons).

This danger, I think, lurks behind the idea that we need to invite controversial people for the sole reason that they’re controversial. Here’s this from Inside Higher Ed:

As movements to protest and silence controversial campus speakers have become common, the president of a new Harvard University student group intends to “saturate” the campus with those types of talks — to challenge established ideologies that he said administrators there blatantly promote.

Open Campus Initiative was organized this year, its president, Harvard sophomore Conor Healy, said in an interview Friday.

Already, the group of roughly 25 students, Healy said, has secured commitments from two right-leaning, controversial figures to address the campus. One, writer Charles Murray, made headlines in March after his lecture at Middlebury College was drowned out by student chants, forcing him to stop. Murray is often accused of promoting racist ideals. Open Campus Initiative has not yet pegged a day for his talk.

The pick of Murray was deliberate, Healy said. He was horrified by the disruptions at Middlebury and said he wanted to prove Harvard could serve as a role model institution for free expression.

“Most of the community wants to hear from the people we’re inviting, they want to critique them, ask them hard questions, and they’re willing to be convinced,” Healy said. “If they’re not convinced, their perception of the truth can be reinforced by the opposing view.”

Free speech rights and all. But this is college, the challenge in college is to bring students (and others) up to speed with debates among academics. This naturally will not include everyone and every view. The challenge then, for controversial speakers, is to show that they’re part of a live controversy, and not instead just people who are very good at hanging on to discredited views.

Moulton herself was not categorical in her rejection of the adversary paradigm. The problem, she maintained, was considering it to be the ideal of intellectual engagement.


With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do

There is no question that President Trump has done a 180 on military intervention in the Middle East. You can see the tweet record here.

It is reasonable, I think, to call this hypocrisy or inconsistency. That’s why we have those terms. They’re shorthand for saying, “you have changed your view without signaling any reasons for having done so.” Part of what this evaluation points out, in other words, is that it’s time for reasons. After all, there’s been a change, and we normally expect there to be something to justify the change.

So this is a discussion we ought to have and “hypocrite” or “inconsistent” are terms we need to use.  But that’s just me. Here’s Josh Marshall from TPM.

Donald Trump has said all manner of contradictory things about Syria and unilateral airstrikes. He said Obama shouldn’t attack in 2013 and insisted he needed congressional authorization to do so. Now he is contradicting both points. But whether or not Trump is hypocritical is not a terribly important point at the moment. Whether he’s changed his position isn’t that important. But the rapidity and totality with which he’s done so is important. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the intervention question. But impulsive, reactive, unconsidered actions seldom generate happy results.

Another way to put this is that while I agree it’s silly for the now to focus on calling Trump a hypocrite, the man’s mercurial and inconstant nature makes his manner of coming to the decision as important as the decision itself. That tells us whether he’ll have the same worldview tomorrow, whether this is part of any larger plan. There are arguments for intervention and restraint. But given what we know of Trump, it is highly uncertain that this is part of either approach. It may simply be blowing some stuff up.

Which is another way of saying his hypocrisy raises questions. This is why we have  meta-linguistic terminology. And the important thing about the metalanguage  is that it makes our analytical work easier. We don’t need to build new theories every time we encounter a problem.

James Brown’s hair

One reason we started this blog so many years ago was to create a repository of examples of bad arguments. There were, we thought, so many. There are, we still think, so many.

Since then, we’ve expanded our focus to theoretical questions about argumentation. One such question is whether there are actually any fallacious arguments at all. Part of this question concerns the usefulness of a meta-language of argument evaluation. Argument has a tendency to eat everything around it, which means evaluations of arguments will be included in the argument itself. To use a sports analogy, penalties are not separate from the game, they’re part of the strategy of the game. The use of fallacies, then, is just another layer of argument strategy and practice.

That’s not the usual argument, I think, against employing a meta-language of fallacy evaluation. Often rather the discussion hinges one whether such moves can be precisely identified, or whether it’s practically useful to point them out. These, like the first, are both excellent considerations.

On the other hand, there’s a heuristic usefulness to a set of meta-terms for argument evaluation. For one, it’s nice to have an organized mind about these things.  Second, people tend to make the same moves over and over. Consider this one from Bill O’Reilly last week:

In case you can’t watch, a brief summary (courtesy of CNN):

During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” O’Reilly reacted to a clip of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said of Waters. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

“If we have a picture of James Brown — it’s the same wig,” he added.

The classical version of the ad hominem goes like this: some speaker is disqualified on grounds not relevant to their competence, accuracy, etc. This seems like a pretty textbook example.

This brings me to another reason people have for skepticism about the usefulness of fallacy theory: fallacies, such as the one above, are so rare that it’s just not useful to spend time theorizing about them.

I don’t think so.


Lying to my face

One of the many perplexities of the study of argument is that people often (but not of course always) deploy bad arguments to favorable audiences. You don’t straw man an opponent to their face–you do it to people disposed already to find your interpretation acceptable.

This raises an interesting question: I’m guessing that at least sometimes these audiences know that you’re doing it. They know you’re lying to them about your opponent’s view. Do they just not care? Or do they put up with it for “strategic” reasons?

This question came up yesterday in regard to Trump’s constant lying. It turns out, according to one report, that his supporters just do not care. An excerpt:

Robin Pierce, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Newark, said he doesn’t think anybody wiretapped Trump. But Pierce, 70, was almost gleeful as he offered an explanation for Trump’s claim.

“I think Trump just did that to freak them out — they were giving him bad times, so he gave them bad times. Mess with their brains,” he said.

He broke into a loud laugh.

“I like that,” he said. “Because we’ve had so much crap in Washington for years, and now we have someone shaking ’em up really good.”

Well, this is not reassuring. But here’s some research on point:

This research — and those stories — highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial — compassionate, empathic, generous, honest — in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence — and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” said George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, people who tend to view these issues as a part of a contest or argument-as-war narrative are likely to act accordingly. This means foregrounding group-cohesion or coherence of a simple message has higher strategic value than getting some opponent’s view just right.

The real hypocrites

It’s Saint Patrick’s day. Where I come from, Michigan, it means corned beef and cabbage.  Thank goodness those days are over. Should you suffer a dearth of Irish today, you can watch this video. It will sustain you for a year.

Twitter brings us today’s topic–tu quoque. You can’t get enough of this stuff.

That’s Erick Erickson, a true Christian. Consider the second tweet. It could be one of two thoughts.

First, the (in this case non-Christian) people who allege hypocrisy are not qualified to determine whether Christians are hypocrites are not. They’re not Christians, so they don’t know anything about what Christian dogma entails.

This is clearly false. They could be ex-Christians. Or they could just know what Christian morality requires. You can get this from books nowadays, or even the internet.

A second is that people who are not Christians are so sin-filled that they are morally unqualified to criticize anyone. This also seems wrong, because I can be a sin-filled monster but still recognize inconsistencies.

I suppose in the end there is a confusion about the status of outsiders who criticize you. In one sense, their input isn’t directed at improving your overall view (which they think is generally false). This fact, however, does not disqualify them from having any view about your claims.

Since it’s St.Patrick’s day, let’s close with a tweet-quoque by an Irishman:


Shut up and listen

Image result for shut up and listen

The following passage (borrowed from a twitter feed) is very suggestive:


We can all get a good chuckle about how these precious snowflakes need a safe space.

I imagine there’s some value in people being able to say things without having to worry about being evaluated (which is what “racist” is). This is what rough drafts are for.

But rough drafts also serve another purpose: to elicit cheap criticism in a low-stakes environment. You can’t forget that part.

If you do, then you’re just talking and making other people listen. What’s the point of that?