All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Desperate but not Serious

In sauce that’s good for the goose is good for the gander news, Bill Kristol’s editorial at The Weekly Standard,Critical but not Serious” reads like a list of great moments of schadenfreude for the Left.  He identifies the problem for the Democrats:

The left isn’t serious. It’s in meltdownbut as resistant as ever to serious reflection on why. It’s been in the driver’s seat for so long, culturally and institutionally, and it so enjoyed its eight years of control of the White House that it can’t now come to serious grips with its critical situation. After all, if you’ve got a lot of faith in History, and if the arc of History now bends toward Trump—what’s a progressive to do?

OK, so the Left isn’t serious, and the Democratic Party has a huge political challenge ahead of it, and they’ve only got their intransigence to rely on.  That, surely, gives Kristol the deep tingly schadenfreudens!  OK, so how does it look for thoughtful and serious Republicans?

For those committed to constitutional government as opposed to administrative control, to self-government as opposed to the nanny state, to free markets as opposed to centralized power, and to strength and leadership abroad as opposed to weakness and retreat, the Republican party has been the organization (more or less) seriously advancing these principles.

Is it still? It’s true that Donald Trump, no adherent to traditional Republicanism, managed to effect a hostile takeover of the party at the presidential level in 2016. President Trump is a problem for Republicans seeking to be serious; a problem sufficient, perhaps, to prevent much that is serious from being achieved in the next four years.

Oh, that sounds bad, too.  If only Republicans had control of, say, one or two houses of government.  Then they could, you know, move forward with their thoughtful legislative agenda.  Or exercise some control over the overrreach of a President they don’t agree with.  That would take, you know, a serious person.  But, as Kristol sees it, that’s politically impossible.

The spirit of our age is hostile to serious men. That spirit is a strange combination of cynicism and hysteria, of irony and bombast. It would be soberly inspiring if some in the Republican party would stand up against that spirit and show themselves to be the hommes sérieux of our time.

Yes, but, you see, the fact that one must make such a rallying cry is evidence that no such people have (or are likely to) show themselves.  But if it’s not the case, one can always just say it’s “the spirit of our age” that prevented such people from coming forward.

Notice the double standard of the situation here.  And notice that the Democrats have plenty of people who’ve come out to criticize and resist the Trump agenda on the basis of their conscience.  That’s not serious by Kristol’s lights (for whatever reason); however, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have positions of leading Congress, and they seem too afraid of the President to do anything.  Kristol’s view is: The Zeitgeist Diddit. 

Scumbag Teacher Meme

The scumbag teacher meme is one of the classic tu quoque memes on the internet.  It’s regularly: won’t accept late work, but takes forever to return papers; berates students for wasting time, but chats with students about stuff through class; has a Ph.D., but uses ‘irregardless’.  There are other non-tu quoque versions, too, like requires that you learn cursive, cancels class just 5 minutes before or with a note on the door, requires an expensive but never used textbook.  Most of the instances are misunderstandings about how education works and why teachers need more support (and more pay), but they are stand-ins for some frustration folks have with the current educational climate.

In a new instance of the scumbag teacher meme move, Jim Geraghty at NRO has an objection to how the Day without a Woman Protest is affecting schools.  You see, because so many women are teachers in the Alexandria schools, they ‘ve had to cancel school for a ‘teacher work day’.  Geraghty then identifies the troubles facing the schools:

Alexandria’s public schools underperform the statewide average in subject after subject. In the 2015–16 school year, 80 percent of Virginia students passed English proficiency exams; 73 percent of students in Alexandria did. In math, 80 percent statewide passed; 68 percent of Alexandria students did. Statewide, 77 percent of students passed a test of writing proficiency; 69 percent of Alexandria students did. In history, 86 percent of students passed statewide; 77 percent of Alexandria students did. In science, 83 percent of students statewide passed; 69 percent of Alexandria students did.. . .
[T]he ills that plague Alexandria schools and, indeed, schools around the country… [are] unlikely to be solved by “A Day Without a Woman.”

Here it is in a meme:

Here’s Geragthy’s final analysis:

Apparently, they’ve decided that standing up to the sexist menace across the river in Washington and nationwide is more important to them than doing their actual jobs. It’s a shame they aren’t more concerned with the tangible problems those jobs present every day.
But the trouble is that people can walk and chew gum at the same time.  Teachers can be worried about X and it can be at the top of their priority list, but they can also be worried about Y and Z, too.  And that means that they can even make some room to do Y and Z, too.  John had a nice observation about this a few weeks back with the ‘think of the children‘ trope.  In  this case, however, it’s a case of a red herring of assessing the importance of X with the greater importance of Y.
Another way to see this would be as an instance of a perfectionist’s false dilemma, or as John termed it a few years back, argumentum ad imperfectionem.  That it would be preferable for teachers to be in class for every day of scheduled school is correct, but this is not a perfect world.  And teachers are at liberty to use their personal days as they see fit.  That they all use them on the same day for a political purpose, well, is in an important way, exactly the point they were trying to make.

Prezza-Denchal

When your kids finally act like members of the human species over dinner, you go out of your way to compliment them.  How grown up they’ve been!  When the dog that will jump and hump any goddam leg in range keeps to himself for a minute while guests are over, you praise him.  What a good boy!  Why? Because you want to encourage further good behavior and you’ve been trained to put up with bad behavior.

And so when the kids and dogs do what they are supposed to do,  you act like they are friggin’ saints.  And then they think that they deserve praise for doing the minimum.  (Chris Rock had a fabulous version of this insight – but it’s got some… uh… language.)

Well, you know where this is going.  President Trump’s address to the Joint Session of Congress did not involve any egregious lapses of rhetorical judgment, overt antagonism or any ad-libbed lines beginning with ‘believe me…’.  It was still filled with dopey lines like, promoting “clear water” (just after ordering the repeal of the CleanWater Rule), and “We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts.”  And “And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.”  Yeech.

Moreover, Trump’s speech was all over the place argumentatively.  Just take for example the fact that he rebukes the Democrats with the line

The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.

But then he just rolls into the cadence-windup for the big finish.  Not a well-written or well-delivered speech.  Not inspiring or clear about what or how things will be done.  But not an hour of blustery windbaggery or braggadocio.  He stopped being the cartoon villain. And so the pundits fell all over themselves with praise:

He became President of the United States in that moment. Period.

Said Van Jones on CNN.  Tom Brokaw said his presentation was

Tonight, this is easily the most Presidential he’s been.

And that’s just the media folks.  Breitbartians have been reporting that there has been a wave of “positive reaction” to the speech.  And so that’s where we are, folks.  We’ve gone from Obama’s standard to just being Presidential.

 

 

 

 

 

Season of the Godwin

Godwin’s Law is, roughly, that as a political discussion proceeds, the likelihood of an analogy to Hitler increases.  Long discussions have it as a relative certainty that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini references will not only happen but perhaps multiply. (We’ve done a number of bits on Godwining here at the NS.  I’ve tried a reconstruction of the argument form here.)

Enter our favorite Orange Furher-analogue and the variety of ways folks have made the argument.  There’s the nationalism, the militarism, the authoritarian style, threatening the free press, the racism.  And there’s the fact that even his supporters holler out ‘Heil Trump.’   So much to work with!

It’s worth paying attention to a small difference in argument criticism here — you can criticize an argument against some claim or individual without really defending the claim or person.  That is, you don’t have to be a Trump sympathizer to think that some analogies between him and Hitler are off base.  You’ve just got to think that this analogy isn’t quite right.  (See John’s older post about how to evade in these lights.)

David Harsanyi at NRO has a bit of argument criticism with the wide phenomenon Godwining/Ad Hitlering with our Great Orange Leader.   He has one line of argument that there are bad consequences to the overuse of Ad Hitlerum:

Comparing everything to 1933 is now a big part of our national discourse, not only that of angry partisans but also that of people who should know better than to habitually make these correlations. This isn’t Mel Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler. Whether you’re a fan or a detractor of Trump, these gross false equivalencies belittle the memory of millions who died in unimaginably horrifying ways. Moreover, exaggeration and historical illiteracy undermine the very cause these people claim to care about, unless that cause is desensitizing people to the terror of the Holocaust.

Well, we have to note that the argument here depends on the analogies being false.  So the main line of argument, then, depends on the case that there are relevant dissimiliarities between Trump and Hitler.  Here’s how Harsanyi breaks the analogies when they come to deportation:

[E]ven if the authorities . . . were to start deporting illegal immigrants, not one of those unfortunate people would ever be sent to anything resembling the ovens of Treblinka and Auschwitz. Not their children. Not anyone else in this country. Most often, in fact, deported illegal immigrants, who have broken the law, are going back to their home in Mexico, where they can often apply for legal entry into the United States.

Two things.  First, the Jews weren’t sent straight to the ovens.  They were sent to internment camps, which were billed to the rest of Germany is pretty nice places.  Second, given the way the laws were sold to the public, they don’t sound like matters of targeting illegal immigration, but are more matters of ethnic or religious identity.  It’s that part that merits the Hitler analogies, not whether the consequences are nicer or not.   That the policies could be worse (as in exactly like Hitler’s policies) is a very weak defense.  And, again, as we’ve said many times: analogies are not identities.

Argumentum ad virilitatem

Steven Watts at NRO gives an amazing analysis of what happened in 2016’s election.  The thesis: Trump won because he was so manly.
Many liberals and conservatives alike, with considerable reason, denounced Donald Trump as a policy ignoramus and mocked his simplistic, rambling statements on immigration, social issues, government regulation, and foreign policy. What they missed, however, was Trump’s compelling connection to the cultural values — those fears, yearnings, and visions — of vast swathes of the American voting public.
What was it that they missed?
Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
You see, Watts’s view is that because so much of American culture has emasculated men and bent gender to a point of unrecognizable chaos, American voters yearned for something clear and simple, like a John Wayne movie.  And so, Trump, like JFK, before him became the strong hero for us.
Each moved center stage as an assertive masculine figure who appealed to mainstream Americans yearning for leadership by such a man. Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric has a nice bit on ethos, a kind of argumentative move wherein one establishes oneself as the kind of person who is believable, a person of sense.  Given Aristotle’s view of ethics, with phronesis, at the core, you can see why this would be an appropriate intellectual strategy — if you can make it clear that you have good judgment, then you don’t need to make all the arguments.
And this is Watt’s analysis, too.  Once establishing one’s “masculine mystique,” all the hard decisions, all the leadership questions, even the deep cultural divides, they’re all things that can be handled by a person, no a man, with a strong chin.  (It’s not an accident, then, that Mike Pence termed Trump’s foriegn policy ‘broad shouldered’.)
Two things.  The first, a political point.  The sexism of this line is appalling, if only because the election was between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The second point is about argument.  It has to do with the kind of ethos one establishes when making an argument.  We are all familiar with the regular “I’m just a lawyer from…” (It worked for Matlock and for Caveman Lawyer).  But in many cases, like with ad populum style arguments, being the kind of person you’d like to talk things over with (or in GW Bush’s case, have a beer with) is exactly the wrong model for who you’d want making the decisions.  Perhaps I’d want John Wayne for someone who’d chase down some desperadoes, but beyond that, no way for being in charge of the Federal Government.

StrawMika

A longstanding way to think of straw man argumentation is to misinterpret or misrepresent what people said or what their arguments were.  That’s a version of the representational straw man. John and I have also identified the selectional version of the straw man, or the weak man.  That’s a case of finding a member of the opposition that has a badly stated version of the view or a poorly constructed version of their argument and go after that.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a bad argument, but what gets communicated with it is that you, in investing time and energy in replying to that bad argument, you’re not spending time on the better ones.  That would be bad use of your time, so if you’re doing the work of criticizing the bad arguments, they must be as good as they get.

Another weak man instance is that you take imperfectly phrased versions of an opponent’s posiiton and interpret them mercilously.  When we’re speaking off the cuff, extemporaneously, we may not say everything just right.  And so we, except when in full-attack mode, give each other some slack.  That’s a difference between spoken and written communication.  And to interpret your interlocutor in the worst lights when they are speaking informally (and so, imprecisely) is a kind of selectional straw man.

Well, so here’s what happened. Mika Brzezinski said on Morning Joe today that the media’s “job” is to “actually control exactly what people think.”  Here’s the clip:

Now, the context is that Brzezinski’s line is a contrastive — that Trump is trying to control what people think by pushing out the media.  By “speaking directly to the people,” as we’d seen in a previous post.

So conservative media has gone straight up bonkers about the line.  Tyler Durden says she’s “let slip the awesome unspoken truth” about what the media thinks they should be doing.  The folks at Breitbart have made it a front page story, with the implication that the imperfect wording is really a Freudian slip.

Real Clear Politics has a follow-up to it, and Brzezinski has gone into Twitter cleanup mode

It’s pretty clear that when folks have what Walton calls “dark side interpretation” already cued, they’ll take something like this as evidence of letting a mask slip instead of a poorly phrased bit of intellectual pushback.  So this makes it an interesting case of a mix between selectional and representational straw man — it’s selectional, since they go after what she’s said, but it’s representational, since we need an interpretive attitude to take this as seriously a representation of her sincere position.

So, in a way, a lesson about straw manning.  If your picture of the opposition, after interpretation, fits the worst kind of picture you may have of them, you may be a straw-manner.

Leaky Arguments from Precedence

Jack Shafer’s “How Trump Can Learn to Love Leaking” over at Politico has a few nice insights about the love-hate relationship many administrations have had for leaks, and he, I think rightly, observes that:

[T]here is no leak crisis, only a leak panic. . . . As leaks go, the ones currently tormenting the Trump administration are pedestrian, merely embarrassing the president rather than rupturing national security.

From this reasonable observation, Shafer makes, what seems to me, an unreasonable inference:

Trump, of course, might reject the status quo and order Attorney General Jeff Sessions to mount a hammer and tongs foray against the press and leakers, as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan recently warned. But there is scant precedent for such a crackdown, and for good reason. To chase down journalists, Trump and Sessions would have to weaken the Department of Justice guidelines that protect reporters from such investigations. Would the political costs of trashing the guidelines and stalking the leakers be worth it, especially in cases where no vital secrets have been revealed?

As I see it, Shafer’s inference runs something like:

The leaks are mostly costly cosmetically for the administration, and prosecuting them would be politically costly.  Moreover, few Presidents have pursued many leaks.  Therefore, it’s unlikely that Trump will pursue the leaks.

 But the problem is that, as with all probabilistic reasoning, if we add evidence that we are dealing with an outlier case, then the inductive reasons are defeated.  And there are good reasons to say that Trump’s case is an outlier here.  Recall that he’s fiercely retributive for those who break his trust.  Moreover, that X is the way that folks in Washington have done things is not a reason that seems to hold much force with the Trump administration.

This is, I think, a good example of why the ad populum forms of arguments from precedence (and from all the motives that make up that precedence) are all inductive, and so non-monotonic forms of inference.  They can be just fine so long as we think the cases we are applying them to are not relevantly different from what had come before, but if we add the new information in, then that inference gets defeated.  And I think that most of arguments from precedence are suspended when we talk about the orange one.

Fake because Fake

The Friday presser (NYT’s transcript here) was too much to let get by with just one post on it.  Trump had been railing that the leaks about Russia ties with General Flynn were “Fake news.”  He was then asked the question:

And on the leaks, is it fake news or are these real leaks?

His reply was interesting.

Well the leaks are real. You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them, I mean the leaks are real. You know what they said, you saw it and the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake. So one thing that I felt it was very important to do — and I hope we can correct it. Because there’s nobody I have more respect for — well, maybe a little bit but the reporters, good reporters.

First, it’s not much of a clarification.  But that’s not the  point here.  My point is about Trump’s argument for why the news is fake.  From what we have here, it looks blatantly circular.  Or, perhaps, it’s a weaker induction.  Perhaps it’s something of this form of inductive inference:

So much news is fake

Therefore, it’s reasonable to take this news as fake.

That’s not a form of circular reasoning, but it certainly has a greater burden of proof on it.  Showing that X is fake news requires only refuting X, but showing that there is so much fake news requires a lot more — you need to refute X, Y, Z and so on.  Here’s what was Trump’s case for the premise:

It’s very important. I don’t mind bad stories. I can handle a bad story better than anybody as long as it’s true and, you know, over a course of time, I’ll make mistakes and you’ll write badly and I’m OK with that. But I’m not OK when it is fake. I mean, I watch CNN, it’s so much anger and hatred and just the hatred.

So in this case, the argument that so much news is fake is dependent on his sample from CNN and how angry they are with him.  That may mean it’s less a news show and more an opinion piece or a panel discussion, but how is that a case that it’s fake news?

A short note on what argumentative burdens one takes on when charging an other with an error.  A point about dialectical points in argument.  We are reasoning about how we are reasoning together, and in these cases, the argumentative burdens, when charging another with an error, is to demonstrate to them in manners they can see what the error is.  Failing to do that fails a dialectical burden in argument.  But here, I think, Trump’s not interested in whether his argument moves media-types or academic professors, he’s interested in taking this message “to the American people”.  The point, then, is that he’s playing to an onlooking audience with these arguments — he doesn’t take it that he really needs to fix the premise that so much of the news is fake… that premise has been established by the right wingers for ages.  Trump’s just reaping what’s been sown by the culture of aggression toward the media.

I just repeat things I read

Lordy, what a presser yesterday! There was a lot for us to work on, but Trump gave an interesting answer to a challenge.

First, the challenge.  In the opening remarks and in the Q&A, Trump swung back to talking about the election.  He said his 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232 was the largest win since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. However, Obama won more electoral votes in 2008 and 2012, Bill Clinton won more in 1992 and 1996 and George H.W. Bush won more in 1988.  So much for historic — at least he beat W’s 2000.  To this, Peter Alexander of NBC, after having corrected Trump on this, asked him:

Why should Americans trust you?

Trump’s replies were, from what I can gather from the audio:

I was given that information… I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.

and

I was given that information…  Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

To the last bit, Alexander replies,

Well, you’re the President.

The last is interesting, if only because it’s an elision of instituional authority with cognitive authority.  But the more interesting feature is that Trump’s best reply to being caught out on a falsehood is (a) to say he’s just reading what’s written for him, and (b) to say he’d heard it before.  Of course, neither is a reply to the question of whether he’s reliable.

That he reads what’s written for him is not a relevant reply, since the question could be then put to: why should we trust the things you read?  To the latter, the issue isn’t whether he’s heard it before (there are many untrustworthy rumors and things people say), but whether they are credible.

I think these must be something like weak ad populum arguments, to the effect:

It’s been said/written that p

Therefore, p

The bridge principle, like with ad populum arguments, must be something along the lines If people are saying it, that’s reason to believe it’s true.

The problem with all ad populum arguments is that they are very weak inductions.  Moreover, if you don’t know who said it, then they aren’t really even cases of believing on the basis of testimony — it’s just that you’d heard it.  Generally, on-record testimony is better evidence, at least because people can be held responsible for their assertions.

 

Tu Quoqu…erm

Arguments from hypocrisy can legitimately target a number of features of a speaker’s case.  They may show that a proposal is really impractical, or they may show that things are more complicated than the speaker’s pronouncements make it seem.  Or they, in ad hominem fashion, may show that the speaker lacks the ethotic standing (has a moral right) to lecture us about X, Y, or Z.  But they usually are irrelevant — that’s why they have a name for the fallacy, the tu quoque.

One, I think uncontroversial, constraint on these (even fallacious) versions of arguments from inconsistency/hypocrisy is that the two events must be actually inconsistent.  Otherwise, no hypocrisy.  Surely, an argument from hypocrisy needs for there to be hypocrisy, first.

Enter Jerome Hudson over at Breitbart with his clearly newsworthy report on Matt Damon’s apparent hypocrisy:

 “Great Wall” Star: “I’m not a fan of walls”

So, how is this news? Moreover, I don’t see the hypocrisy.  The Matt Damon movie is about a wall keeping out lizard monsters and what look like sword-wielding dragons.  The Trump wall isn’t designed for that purpose, no matter how racist you are.