I heard you like fallacies

This is part of the reason why we can't have intelligent discussions about climate change:

Christopher Monckton, Viscount of Brenchley, is a climate disruption denier in multiple ways. He’s denied that climate change is happening. He’s denied that human beings are causing the (unchanging) climate to change by pinning the cause on the Sun. He’s denied that global polar ice extent is declining. He’s repeatedly misrepresented published papers and hasn’t retracted his statements even after some authors pointed out that he was misusing their work. He’s also hit one of my personal buttons by misunderstanding and cheapening the real history of the Nazis by labeling peaceful, if rowdy, protesters as “Hitler Youth.” And we cannot forget that Monckton wanted to quarantine AIDS victims in the late 1980s, believes that President Obama probably isn’t a U.S. citizen, alleges that NASA crashed their own carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite, and claims to be developing a drug that will cure not only his Grave’s Disease and multiple sclerosis, but HIV, influenza, and the common cold too. Monckton also maintains that he’s a member of the UK House of Lords even though Parliament stripped most of the hereditary peers of their membership in 1999 and the House of Lords says that Monckton has never been a member (he’s now been reduced to saying that Parliament’s legislation was itself illegal).

This guy is such a super troll that if you try to point out his foundational wrongness, he accuses you of logical fallacies–that, as I think we might have noted before, is the fallacy fallacy fallacy.

Over the last few years, I’ve been repeatedly tempted to check every single one of Monckton’s references and see just how bad his understanding of climate science really is. But Monckton makes liberal use of the “proof by intimidation” fallacy whereby he presents so much information in a form that’s so hard to understand that it’s impossible to refute without taking days, weeks, or months to fact-check his claims. Life is too short to fact-check every single claim Monckton has made, so I decided to leave this particular task to others.

And thankfully, a number of others have done so. Barry Bickmore, a geology professor at Brigham Young University, has dissected much of what Monckton said in testimony to the Utah state legislature and found it to be largely inaccurate. Arthur Smith went paragraph-by-paragraph through Monckton’s 2008 Physics and Society article and found 125 logical fallacies, irrelevant statements, and outright errors. Peter Sinclair, creator of the YouTube climate science video series Climate Crock of the Week, did a two-part video just on Monckton (videos included below). But several months ago, John Abraham, Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas, set the curve when it comes to debunking Monckton. In response to a presentation Monckton made in Minnesota, Abraham checked nearly every one of Monckton’s claims and references in order to see where Monckton got the science right vs. where he got it wrong. The result of all this research was a nearly 90 minute-long rebuttal where Abraham dissects dozens of Mockton’s claims from a speech a year ago and finds that nearly everything Monckton said in his Minnesota presentation was wrong. Abraham’s original presentation, plus a slightly shorter and revised version, are presently available at Abraham’s UST website.

To say that Monckton’s initial response to Abraham’s rebuttal was over-the-top is being far too kind – ludicrous might be the better description. Monckton accused Abraham of engaging in ad hominem attacks while simultaneously insulting Abraham and another of Monckton’s critics, George Monbiot of the Guardian newspaper.

That's putting a fallacy in your fallacy.

Outlived its usefulness

It's as if the institution of marriage itself were being redefined–where once there were three (or more)–a woman, a man, his brother(s)–now there seem to be only two.  What a shame.

Polyandry has been practiced here for centuries, but in a single generation it has all but vanished. That is a remarkably swift development in a country where social change, despite rapid economic growth, leaping technological advances and the relentless march of globalization, happens with aching slowness, if at all.

 The march of time.  Here's the kicker:

“That system had utility for a time,” Mr. Bhagsen said. “But in the present context it has outlived its usefulness. The world has changed.”

The world has changed.

Sabotage or Enforcing Equal Protection?

Maggie Gallagher has been doing some reading, and she's found that Richard Epstein, a libertarian legal theorist, opposes the way the Department of Justice and the lower courts have been chipping away at the Defense of Marriage Act.  She approvingly quotes Epstein:

I … think that the DOJ's faint-hearted advocacy is no way to run a legal system…. Nor is it wise for courts to use the equal protection clause as a club against conventional morality, deeply felt.

In the title of her posting, Gallagher calls these decisions that merely allow same-sex partners of federal employees access to federally mandated family benefits (such as health and dental coverage, at issue in the Gill vs Office of Personal Management) sabotage of electoral politics and morality.

Strange, but the question of equal protection isn't about reflecting the moral judgment of the majority.  It's about ensuring minority rights and protections.    And saying it is a question of "deeply felt" moral conviction is to betray the expressed intent and justification of the law, that of "responsible procreation."  Turns out the DOMA was really just majoritarian moralizing all along, only dressed up as a public health initiative.  Thanks, Maggie Gallagher, for pulling the curtain back.

Opinions based on beliefs

Here is a very disturbing article on the relationship of facts to beliefs.  Turns out, according to a study discussed in the article, for certain people, awareness of facts can have a negative correlations to the accuracy of a person's beliefs.  Studies such as these at first blush seem to portend the death of the traditional fact-driven conception of belief.  But then there's this:

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote. 

Pardon the irony, but I'm not sure if this changes anything.  I think we're still talking about the traditional fact-driven conception of belief–that is, you believe what you take to be facts, and disbelieve what you don't.  It's just that you don't believe that the facts alleged are facts.  The problem is that for whatever reason too many people kind of suck at distinguishing the true from the false.

 

Non-Argument to the Worst Explanation. Just. Wow.

Wrote about this Kathleen Parker op-ed before I went on vacation for a week. Thought I'd post it anyway, just because it's still impressively awful.

Here goes the argument:

1. Obama delivered a speech that contained 13% passive voice constructions.

2. Men and women communicate differently.

3. Obama talks like a girl.

4. Obama's rhetoric hinders his leadership.

She writes:

Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks (with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women form circles and talk it out.

Obama is a chatterbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan.

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama's rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to "plug the damn hole," as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn't. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

We might be able to fill in a few more premises here.

2a. Women tend to use passive constructions more than men. (Is this true? Is there any evidence for it?).

3a. Talking like a girl prevents one from taking action. (Again, any evidence to believe this? There might be some relationship between the two. E.g "Time and again, the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor." Does such a sentence make action less likely that an active construction?)

Interesting that the qualifier is "any major presidential address this century" which would include just two of our 44 presidents (Are there data for the last 50 years?). Also, interestingly the link to the communicative differences between men and women is a story about differences in navigational abilities and says nothing about linguistic differences. But, that I presume doesn't matter to Parker who is convinced that Obama is not a good leader and this makes her think, it seems, that he is womanly.

I understand that the Washington Post is concerned about bias among their bloggers these days, maybe soon they'll get equally concerned about basic competence in advancing an argument for an opinion.

The whole premise is a fallacy

Read this column by Dana Milbank in the paper today:

This matters, because it means the entire premise of the Arizona immigration law is a fallacy. Arizona officials say they've had to step in because federal officials aren't doing enough to stem increasing border violence. The scary claims of violence, in turn, explain why the American public supports the Arizona crackdown.

I know what he means, but I'm a stickler for such things, and it's wrong to call this a "fallacy."  A fallacy is an error in reasoning and Milbank is simply alleging that the factual basis of the law (more on that in a second) is false.  Were it to be true, then there would be no fallacy.  So they're just mistaken about facts.    

As for the allegedly false factual basis, the most Milbank can say is that some of the claims made by various supporters of the Arizona immigration law are false.  I don't think that amounts to the claim that the "entire premise of the law" is false.  I imagine there are other premises–such as illegal immigration is illegal, and so forth–that supporters of the law can point to.

None of this means, of course, that the law in question is a good idea–it's just not a fallacy. 

   

Pundit versus pundit

It's annoying that most premier leftish or left-leaning pundits never really argue for anything–they explain.  They don't explain the cogency of their view either.  They explain different sides in a debate without making an argument for which side is the correct one.  Go read just about any column from E.J.Dionne and you'll know what I mean. 

This has really never been the case with Krugman.  Here's an excellent example: 

Arguments From Authority

A quick note on David Brooks’s column today. I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says,

The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years

Funny, I thought we had a perfectly good explanation: severe downturn in demand from the financial crisis, and a stimulus which we warned from the beginning wasn’t nearly big enough. And as I’ve been trying to point out, events have strongly confirmed a demand-side view of the world.

But there’s something else in David’s column, which I see a lot: the argument that because a lot of important people believe something, it must make sense:

Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?

Yes, I am. It’s called looking at the evidence. I’ve looked hard at the arguments the Pain Caucus is making, the evidence that supposedly supports their case — and there’s no there there.

And you just have to wonder how it’s possible to have lived through the last ten years and still imagine that because a lot of Serious People believe something, you should believe it too. Iraq? Housing bubble? Inflation? (It’s worth remembering that Trichet actually raised rates in June 2008, because he believed that inflation — not the financial crisis — was the big threat facing Europe.)

The moral I’ve taken from recent years isn’t Be Humble — it’s Question Authority. And you should too.

It's especially rare for columnists to address each other by name.  Brooks, in his usual dichotomous fashion, has set up a false bifurcation (here are two sides, whoa, this one is crazy wrong–and it's adherents make weak arguments–therefore this other one is the one we should go for).  For an entertaining comment on Brooks' dichotomizing, read this at the Daily Kos.

Krugman doesn't call him on that, rather he calls him on his total reliance on a limited set of authorities (and his disregard for the arguments Krugman and others have made).  Without judging the efficacy of Krugman's claims, I would say that this is a textbook case of good criticism: find the key inference someone makes–in this case an argument from authority–and raise a meaningful question about it.

Moar please.  

What refutes what?

Phyllis Schlafly is right about one thing: the Fourth of July is a good time to read the Declaration of Independence.  But she's wrong about pretty much everything else.  First, her timing is a little off — her posting is dated July 9, but she's giving advice about what to do on the 4th.  Maybe her plan was for us to remember what to do next year.   Second, she claims that the Declaration is a 'religious document.'  This seems a little thin, as her evidence is that:

The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of our belief and faith in God. It affirms God's existence as a "self-evident" truth that requires no further discussion, debate or litigation.. . . The Declaration of Independence contains five references to God: God as Creator of all men, God as supreme Lawmaker, God as the Source of all rights, God as the world's supreme Judge, and God as our Patron and Protector. The Declaration declares that each of us was created; so if we were created, we must have had a Creator and, as the modern discovery of DNA confirms, each of God's creatures is different from every other person who has ever lived or ever will live on this earth.

Just for the record, I took a quick look at the Declaration, and I counted only four overt references to God.  One in the first paragraph, to Nature's God.  One in the second paragraph, that "we are endowed by our Creator….", and two in the final paragraph, one an oath to the Supreme judge of the world, and another about trusting 'divine providence.'  Now, with each of these, I don't (especially given the widespread deism of the day) see these as strongly theistic as Schlafly sees them.  Regardless, whatever these references mean, they aren't there as core commitments of the Declaration — the Declaration is about human rights and about the role of government (and also to list all the colonial grievances against the crown).  To put it on record that they all love God doesn't seem to be the point, but more a rhetorical element of the presentation of more (ahem) humanistic concerns.  If you use reference to God in making a point, that doesn't by necessity make your speech religious, because I often punctuate my angriest moments with "Goddammit!", but that hardly makes my speech religious.

Schlafly's third error is most troubling.  She claims:

The message of the Declaration of Independence is under attack from the ACLU and atheists because it refuted the lie about a constitutional mandate for "separation of church and state."

Wait.  That gets it backwards, doesn't it?  The whole point of the Constitution was to provide a framework for government that wasn't there in the Declaration. And in putting those things together, wasn't the objective to either supplement or correct the Declaration?  What about the First Amendment, the one that prohibits laws "respecting an establishment of religion"?  If the Declaration had a line that said anything about acknowledging and establishing a religion of the one true God (which seems to be Schlafly's reading), it's the Constitution that would refute that establishment, not the Declaration that would refute the Constitution. 

False consensus

With all of the normative stuff going on here (this is a bad argument, no one should be convinced by it!) it's easy to forget that some very critical empirical questions remain: e.g., what effect have the battery of crappy arguments (say, in favor of torture) had?  Thankfully, some effort has been made to gauge public opinion over time.

Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack. As Mark Danner wrote in the April 2009 New York Review of Books, “Polls tend to show that a majority of Americans are willing to support torture only when they are assured that it will ‘thwart a terrorist attack.’” This view was repeated frequently in both left- and right-leaning articles and blogs, as well as in European papers (Sharrock 2008; Judd 2008; Koppelman 2009; Liberation 2008). There was a consensus, in other words, that throughout the years of the Bush administration, public opinion surveys tended to show a pro-torture American majority.

But this view was a misperception. Using a new survey dataset on torture collected during the 2008 election, combined with a comprehensive archive of public opinion on torture, we show here that a majority of Americans were opposed to torture throughout the Bush presidency. This stance was true even when respondents were asked about an imminent terrorist attack, even when enhanced interrogation techniques were not called torture, and even when Americans were assured that torture would work to get crucial information. Opposition to torture remained stable and consistent during the entire Bush presidency. Even soldiers serving in Iraq opposed the use of torture in these conditions. As we show in the following, a public majority in favor of torture did not appear until, interestingly, six months into the Obama administration.

Why have so many politicians and journalists so badly misread the strong majorities opposed to torture? A recent survey we commissioned helps shine a light on this question. Psychologists describe a process of misperception—“false consensus”—whereby an individual mistakenly believes that his or her viewpoint represents the public majority. False consensus has a long legacy in social psychological research, but our survey is unique in that it examines, for the first time, how false consensus may have shaped the public debate over torture. Our survey shows that this false consensus pervades the opinions of those who support torture, leading them to significantly overestimate the proportion of the public that agrees with them. Those people opposed to torture, in contrast, have remarkably accurate perceptions of the rest of the public.

Indeed.  It's easy to forget, with all of the "American people are this or that," that one can measure such things. 

Via The Monkey Cage via Digby.

Give it away for free

I once read an entire book on giving, or givenness, or something, by Jacques Derrida.  The point was, so I seem to remember, that you can't ever really give anything, even anonymously, because it all gets rolled into an economy.  Now of course "giving" in that text means a lot more than just giving stuff.  But nonetheless, the point is clear.  It seems a local op-ed columnist has had a similar idea.  She writes of his encounter with some girls who have a lemonade stand:

The three young girls — under the watchful eye of a nanny, sitting on the grass with them — explained that they had regular lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and small chocolate candy bars.

Then my brother asked how much each item cost.

"Oh, no," they replied in unison, "they're all free!"

I sat in the back seat in shock. Free? My brother questioned them again: "But you have to charge something? What should I pay for a lemonade? I'm really thirsty!"

His fiancee smiled and commented, "Isn't that cute. They have the spirit of giving."

That really set me off, as my regular readers can imagine.

"No!" I exclaimed from the back seat. "That's not the spirit of giving. You can only really give when you give something you own. They're giving away their parents' things — the lemonade, cups, candy. It's not theirs to give."

I pushed the button to roll down the window and stuck my head out to set them straight.

"You must charge something for the lemonade," I explained. "That's the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs — how much the lemonade costs, and the cups — and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money."

I was confident I had explained it clearly. Until my brother, breaking the tension, ordered a raspberry lemonade. As they handed it to him, he again asked: "So how much is it?"

And the girls once again replied: "It's free!" And the nanny looked on contentedly.

No wonder America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the "lemonade" or benefits we're "giving away" is free.

And so the voters demand more — more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits.

Other than the obvious fact that this person is a massive tool for lecturing three girls in this way (she says it's a true story), the analogy makes no sense.  Presumably the parents have given the girls permission to give away free lemonade.  In a similar fashion, people who support public benefits, etc., give their permission to distribute their goods (tax money). 

And I don't remember voters clamoring for more bailouts and other versions of corporate welfare (which oddly don't seem to bother the author here).

**Update.  the "he" above is a she.  And I just saw her on MSNBC, which called her a "financial expert"–liberal media.  And speaking of liberal media.  No Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) on that channel!

Your argument is invalid

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