Category Archives: General discussion

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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?

The debriefing paradigm

Image result for trump cartoons twitter

Readers will be familiar with this weekend’s POTUS tweet accusing former President Obama of authorizing wiretaps of Trump Tower. The controversy surrounding these tweets regarded the apparent baselessness of the claim (or its apparent base in Brietbart news). As of this AM (as far as I know) the POTUS has refused to offer clarification on the question of the basis of his claim.  Background here in case you’re behind.

This hasn’t stopped his court followers from coming out to iron man his claim. This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Trump says something manifestly false or outrageous, then come people to interpret what he says to sound more reasonable than it actually was. That’s the iron man. What differentiates Trump from, say, Palin is that she had the sense (or lack thereof) to shut up about it after (usually). Trump tends to reject the iron man version of his view. It’s what makes him strong and decisive.

Here’s another variation on Trump’s strategy:

I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump’s inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn’t regret this weekend’s fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is “absolutely convinced” he’ll be vindicated.

“The president just has a great nose for these things,” the official said. “It’s the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.”

This, by the way, is a variation on “spitballing,” identified by Talisse and Aikin at 3quarksdaily and discussed again here.

But there’s a parallel to another interesting case of epistemic failure.

Contrary to the what the source above says, Trump will not, of course, have a good point to make in any epistemically meaningful sense: he didn’t offer any relevant evidence (and apparently doesn’t have any, note the “if”). What’s amazing, however, is that the destruction of the basing belief here (the wiretap) doesn’t seem to undermine the case at all in the mind of the source. Such a failure at belief revision has long baffled psychologists. You can read about that here.

It runs basically like this. You give people a false belief on purpose, then you tell them that you gave them a false belief. Then you ask whether they continue to believe the false belief. Oddly, and sadly, they usually do. This explains, I think, the basic strategy of spitballing Trump-style: say a bunch of false things because once they’re out there and people believe them, they will continue to do so in the face of fact checking, even of the most direct variety.


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.