Category Archives: General discussion

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‘Tis but a scratch

When the Black Knight gets his left arm chopped off in the battle with King Arthur, he shrugs, “Tis but a scratch.”  He continues fighting, and he loses his right arm.  “Just a flesh wound.”  Eventually, he’s had all his limbs hacked off, and he calls out to Arthur, who has spared his life (such as it is, now), and leaving.  “Ooooohhh… I see… running way!”

This downplayer strategy for challenges works only when the evidence of the situation isn’t clear.  And so in sports, one can’t be a big braggart when the L’s outnumber the W’s, for example.  But it seems that in politics (and perhaps business?) there’s just enough grey for big talk to cover difficulties.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times (which is behind a paywall, so a summary on Politico), Trump responds to questions about his difficulties with passing health care reform (i.e., “repealing and replacing Obamacare”).  Here’s his reply:

Yeah, I don’t lose. I don’t like to lose. But that wasn’t a definitive day. . .  There was no reason to take a vote. I said, ‘Don’t take a vote,’ and we will see what happens,. . . . But one way or the other, I promised the people great health care. We are going to have great health care in this country. Now, it will be in one form or another. It will be a repeal and replace of Obamacare which is the deal that is being negotiated now.

Two things.  #1.  That you don’t like to lose isn’t a piece of evidence that shows that you don’t lose.  Moreover, saying that the day wasn’t ‘definitive’ is a strange point — perhaps a way of re-casting a loss as something equivocal.  Perhaps what the President counts as a loss is a total loss, like having it go to a vote, nobody votes for it, and his pants fall down on TV.  Seriously, who does this guy think he is, Baghdad Bob?

#2.  Notice that the goalposts have moved here.  And with a kind of vague notion of what success will be.  “… one form or another.”  Sure, if you’ve got a well-stated goal like that, you’re sure to succeed.  The only more self-serving program would be to define success after the enterprise.

The important thing about lines of argument like this is that they are not packaged for the reporters who interview Trump or for his opposition, those who have critical views of the man and his policies.  Rather, they are designed for his preferred audience — they function as a way of re-casting the dialectical situation for those who are his, well… fans.  We’ve had a few discussions of the role of onlooking audience here at the NS, and I think that it’s at play here.  For sure refusing to call the miss with health care a ‘loss’ looks like more intransigence to many of us, but we are not the ones DT is talking to.  Just like when you see a straw man of a view and you see it clearly as a straw man, you find that you were not the target audience for those arguments.  Who are the folks targeted?  Folks who are looking for something to undermine the going story that the White House is floundering, that the President is a foopdoodle in charge of a group of people who, when they try to write legislation, find that they can only turn out raggabrash.  Nothing like standing in front of a flaming pile of tires and diapers and saying, “Nothing to see here… everything’s going according to plan.”


We’ve got a new video up over at Philosophy15 on what Talisse and I have been calling ‘The Simple Truth Thesis.’  The thesis is that most problems that look complex are actually very simple and that all the wrangling over the issues is because the opposition is either benighted, stupid, or evil.  So there are simple truths about which only those of objectionable character would dispute, and so engaging in the disputes gives the bad character of the opposition too much credit and also threatens to obscure what was so easily seen before.  And so a corollary of the view is that there is no reasonable opposition.

Given that Talisse and I endorse Mill’s Maxim, the view that in order to properly understand and have justifying reasons for holding one’s own views, one must know the views of one’s opposition, we think the no reasonable opposition view is incorrect.  The Simple Truth Thesis is, in fact, an illusion created by not knowing about one’s opposition.

There is a puzzle to the Mill’s Maxim line here, since we’d endorsed limits to the Maxim, which it seems makes the Mill view consistent with a modified No Reasonable Opposition view.  The modified view now is a picture of unreasonable opposition.  But now the requirement for such an assessment requires reasons independent of the disagreement.

Philosophy15 on Swamping and Spitballing

A new episode at Philosophy15 is up, and in it Talisse and I talk through the related phenomena of what we’d been calling in our old 3QD piece, Spitballing and Swamping.  The topic’s gotten good coverage here at the NS, but it’s worth noting that spitballing has a close connection to what John and I have been calling the iron man.  (An earlier post about the connection here.)

The connection is that with spitballing, a speaker makes a number of statements, mostly controversial, usually vague, and always memorable, and waits for people to react.  When they respond critically, one strategy is for the spitballer to then say that they’ve interpreted the statement incorrectly — that’s not what I said!  And then follow up with more stuff, or rely on allies to craft interpretations of the statement that are more plausible.  Hence, spitball and rely on iron-manners in the background.

Swamping is still a concept in the works.  One version of it is that it is the use of spitballs to completely fill the space of discussion with matters that are pure distraction.  And so, for example, one may be enraged with the tweets from an orange monster and the consequent iron-manning the monster’s minions pursue in light of criticism, but this distracts us from the policy decisions the orange monster’s other minions are making at the EPA or in the Department of Energy.  Moreover, it makes it impossible to have any discussion that is not about the spitballer.  The crucial thing about swamping, then, is that we are in a way complicit with the strategy, because it’s we who go along with the outrage and drama of spitball consequences.  We, as it were, pull the wool over our own eyes.

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:


Norms of Assertion

Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst have a section titled 10 Commandments of Reasonable Discussion to close their masterwork, A Systematic Theory of Argumentation.   The second and ninth are of import.

2. Discussants who advance a standpoint may not  refuse to defend his standpoint when requested to do so. (p. 191)

9. Inconclusive defenses of standpoints may not lead to maintaining those standpoints…. (p.195)

It’s a truism that if you assert that p and you’re asked to give reasons, you should.  Moreover, it seems clear that if you don’t have any reasons to hold p true, then you should (if you asserted it) retract your assertion. That’s responsible cognitive management, responsible assertion.  No evading the burden of proof if you assert, and if you can’t fulfill the requirements of the burden, stop asserting.

How epistemically demanding this norm must be is a matter of some debate.  Here are a few of the contenders:

C-Norm: S may assert that p only if S is certain that p.

K-Norm: S may assert that p only if S knows that p.

RBK-Norm: S may assert that p only if S reasonably (but possibly fallibly) believes that S knows that p.

J-Norm: S may assert that p only if S has epistemically justifying reasons for believing that p.

W-Norm: S may assert that p only if S has warrant for holding that p (but S does not have to believe it)

T-Norm: S may assert that p only if p is true.

The literature on norms of assertion are all over the place on which of these norms obtains, but with the exception of the T-norm, it’s not hard to see how these norms explain why Rules 2 and 9 above obtain.  (Those who hold the T-norm maintain that the obligation to defend is pragmatically derivable from the T-norm.)  In short, the point is to see that those who assert, by way of asserting, shoulder a burden to argue as a consequence.

Donald Trump’s tweet, assuming it’s an assertion, requires some backing.  And given the seriousness of the accusation, the urgency of his shouldering the burden of proof is pretty significant.

John McCain’s appearance on CNN’s State of the Union was an instance of someone invoking the rule.  His challenge is:

The President has one of two choices: either retract or to provide the information that the American people deserve . . . .  I have no reason to believe that the charge is true, but I also believe that the President of the United States could clear this up in a minute.  All he has to do is pick up the phone, call the director of the CIA, director of national intelligence and say, ‘OK, what happened?’

The problem is that the current President is used to asserting confidently to a roomful of his yes-men or to a group of supporters and never getting pushback.  He can say:  believe me, I’ve got information… and they do.  But now that he’s President, his assertions have wider audience and plenty of folks want the backing.


It’s all in the naming and how you say it

In clocks that are right twice a day news, Kevin Williamson at NRO has a nice observation about the way that the expression du jour ‘deep state’ has a breadth in contemporary  usage.  You have the positive valence now used by those who think that Washington civil servants are part of the resistance.  And you have the Sean Hannity-Rush Limbaugh version that takes the deep state to be a fifth column of bureaucrats hell-bent on undermining a legitimately elected President.

The great irony is that the term had a very different valence for liberals and libertarians only a few years ago.  Waaaaay back then, ‘deep state’ or ‘deep government’ was a term of abuse for the established role that government took in civic life.  Liberals thought that it was too cozy with the financial sector and with industry, and so few elections could turn back any of that.  Libertarians thought it had overreached with social programs, but it was too late to repeal them.

Once the term has such breadth, only context will provide you with any clarity as to what’s being meant by its usage.  Williamson makes analogy here to the term ‘neocon’ to help clarify — originally, it meant different kind of conservative, then it meant disaffected leftist-turned-conservative, and then it took on international-Jewish-conspiracy-world-war-hawk connotations.  To know what mud someone’s slinging with the word, you need a little more background.

But, now, the important part with the terms ‘neocon’ or ‘deep state’ is that they not only have an evaluative and expressive role, they also play explanatory roles in what we’re seeing.  And so with ‘neocon,’ the association of the neocons like Wolfowitz with the WTO was part of the sinister explanation for the Iraq War.  (And so, too many people went with the last interpretation of neocon.)  And  with the current ‘deep state’ conspiracy theories, Hannity and Limbaugh are using it to explain the Trump administration’s early political losses.

But Occam’s Razor is ready to trim the thicket with the latter.  When the own-goals are so clearly instances of incompetence, blaming a vast conspiracy of bureaucrats is really more evidence of incompetence than an alternative explanation. It’s like the suckiest kid on the team blaming the refs for every time he gets burned.  Or the kid who never does the reading or the homework and then complains that your lectures don’t make any sense… and that’s why he’s failing.

Williamson makes a nice closing observation that the naming here (and how its said) works as a bit of magical thinking:

There is an ancient superstition that to name something is to assert power over it. (The members of some ancient tribes kept their real names secret and had secondary names for public use.) But giving the figments of your imagination a name and an involved back-story doesn’t make them real. It just makes you nuts.
The crucial thing to keep in mind, however, is that in every one of these cases, we are identifying the work of institutions and individuals — they exist.  What is controversial here is whether they themselves are working with a deep and shadowy plan…  But, again, what can be explained by incompetence or laziness in politics will always win out.

Mill’s Maxim on Philosophy15

Talisse and I have been thinking about the famous maxim from John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty that

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

We call it Mill’s Maxim.  It’s a central feature of our Why We Argue book, and we have a short popular essay on it published in Think a few years back.  Over at Philosophy 15, we have a 3-part discussion of the maxim, where Talisse argues that the maxim has two components.  First, it’s an epistemic thesis – that evidential assessment is comparative, and so to know the case for one’s view, it’s always how one view handles the relevant evidence compared to the competitors.  Second, it’s a semantic thesisthat understanding a view is to understand it contrastively, in terms of the views it must exclude.

In the spirit of the maxim, in the subsequent videos I then subject the view to a series of objections and contrasts in terms of how the view may be supererogatory instead of obligatory, how it may overplay the necessity of contrasts for comprehension, and whether the maxim puts us in danger of falling for really bad views.

Finally, there’s a question of whether the demands of following Mill’s Maxim places unnecessary or undue burdens on members of vulnerable groups.

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?


Argumentum ad argumenti longinquitatem

Time is short, folks. We don’t have all day to sit around and listen to arguments and puzzle through scholastic distinctions. Perhaps for this reason, some genius has come up with a new form of refutation:

“your argument is too long; mine is better because it’s shorter”

Here’s a recent version:


The length of such bills has been an argument against health care reform since 1993. We talked about this argument (in 2009) here.

I think it’s obvious (is it not?) that the length of our arguings have no direct relation to their quality. It’s not even a pragmatic indicator. Perhaps it even goes the other way. The longer an argument, the more likely it’ll be better (or address your objections!).

Anyhoo. What to call it? Sticking the with the Latinism popular among fallacy theorists: argumentum ad argumenti longinquitatem (argument against the length of an argument). Even the name of the fallacy is long. Get it?