Tag Archives: Argumentation

Bring out the big guns

Perhaps some of you have heard of the Harvard Business Professor, Ben Edelman, who went to war over a four dollar overcharge.  If not, here’s the story (from Boston.com):

Last week, Edelman ordered what he thought was $53.35 worth of Chinese food from Sichuan Garden’s Brookline Village location.

Edelman soon came to the horrifying realization that he had been overcharged. By a total of $4.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a Harvard Business School professor thinks a family-run Chinese restaurant screwed him out of $4, you’re about to find out.

(Hint: It involves invocation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute and multiple threats of legal action.)

Read the rest, it’s hilarious (and not the first time this guy did this).

This raises a lot of questions, one of which is whether he needed all of that argument to make that point.  Let’s presume, for the sake of our own  argument, that he’s not wrong.  It’s clearly not worth his time to complain.  But maybe a word or two to point out the restaurant’s error.

Nonetheless, even granted the correctness of his claim, the over sized argument (again, however correct) makes me wonder what the nature of the injustice of argumentative disproportionality is.  He just doesn’t need that much argument to make his case.

This reminds me of a talk I once saw where the speaker brought out the theoretical big guns in order to explain (and reject I guess) the garden variety racism of some local politician.  Yes, you can use Foucault to do that, but do you really need that much?

Masters of war

This morning, I caught the tail end of an NPR interview with David Kilcullen who has written Out of the Mountains, a book about war.  One point he made struck me: some people make conflict their business.  These people are conflict entrepreneurs.  I know this is kind of obvious–the masters of war and all–but you do not hear much about it in descriptions of conflicts.  You will hear about the reasons group x has gone to war with group y, but you will not hear about, as parties to the conflict, people whose interests lies in the conflict itself.  These people are war trolls.  He says:

And to me that’s a great example. Right now we have what I would call a lot of conflict entrepreneurs. They’re prolonging conflicts not because they want to win some political goal or because they want to change the form of government of a particular area, but just because they make a lot of money, they get a lot of power from conflict and they want to preserve that conflict to keep going. So I think part of it is about shifting people away from being conflict entrepreneurs to being stakeholders in a peaceful environment.

This is another under-theorized (in my mind at least) connection between just war theory and argumentation.  Argumentation tends to take as its central focus the study of reasons–good ones, bad ones, etc, as they are oriented towards the objectives of argumentation (being correct, convincing, etc.).   So we watch Bill O’Reilly and we shake our heads at the poverty of good reasoning, thinking him and his ilk to be ignorant or dishonest.

Maybe, however, their objectives are not the objectives of anyone else: they’re not trying to be correct, to show someone else to be incorrect, maybe they’re not even trying to win an argument at all.  They’re just making sure that unresolvable argumentation continues indefinitely.  This is their job.

**UPDATE: links, other info added above.

Maybe you’re the problem


In their recent book (and in their TV appearances!), Why We Argue, Scott and Rob make the case for vigorous, meaningful, and competent public argument.  The competence part of this is the most obvious.  Logic texts have long made the case for this, taking a “skills” approach to the subject–learn to reason well, and you will reason well.

Well, that’s not the case.  Smart Harvard types have long been the most vigorous practitioners of the fine art of sophistry (for evidence, see anyone of our 1500 or so posts here).  The problem with these guys isn’t the lack of vigor, they’ve got lots of that.  The problem is the “meaningful” part.  They don’t, or can’t possibly, mean what they say.  They’re hacks.

A fundamental presupposition to productive argumentation, after all, is that the other person arguing means what she says.  Hacks do not mean what they say.  They take the party line whether it’s the best available view or not.  So I find it disturbing to read this post by Jonathan Bernstein, defending them.  His main reasons:

I think Chait is talking about something like a “public intellectual” model, and what I’d say is that there’s also room for a lawyer model. For a lawyer-model pundit, it doesn’t matter so much if she said the exact opposite thing five years ago, but it still matters a lot if she gets her facts right and makes well-reasoned, well-informed, arguments.

I guess the question is whether there’s really any need for lawyer-style commentators, given that it’s the professional responsibility of many politicians to essentially do that. I’d say: sure. Commentators, as opposed to politicians or their staff, are relatively free to make the argument properly, without having to worry about the political fallout from the various speed traps and potholes that politicians have to shy away from — or from winning daily spin wars.

The hack, by definition, is not making the “argument properly.”  Part of making the argument properly is believing what you say.  The lawyer doesn’t have to believe what she says because there’s a judge, a jury, a process for evaluating (and restricting) their utterances.  Hacks throw themselves into a game claiming to be something they’re not.  This, I think, is fundamentally destructive to argumentation.

To be fair, this is pretty much how Bernstein concludes:

Granted, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to identify himself as a lawyer-style commentator. And yes, one tip-off that Krauthammer isn’t worth bothering with is his extreme certainty that he’s correct, even as (as Chait notes) he flips from one side to another of an issue based on partisan tides. But overall, there’s probably a lot more room for good lawyer-style pundits than Chait thinks.

Granted indeed, and good example!  But that’s really the entirety of Bernstein’s case.

When argument doesn’t work, try argument

Fig 1: arguing badly by going for the jugular

Courtesy of a former student, here’s an interesting read from Pacific Standard about the effectiveness of counter arguments and contrary information on people’s attitudes towards their own beliefs.  TL;DR: counter information makes people more likely to persist in their false beliefs:

Research by Nyhan and Reifler on what they’ve termed the “backfire effect” also suggests that the more a piece of information lowers self-worth, the less likely it is to have the desired impact. Specifically, they have found that when people are presented with corrective information that runs counter to their ideology, those who most strongly identify with the ideology will intensify their incorrect beliefs.

When conservatives read that the CBO claimed the Bush tax cuts did not increase government revenue, for example, they became more likely to believe that the tax cuts had indeed increased revenue (PDF).

In another study by Nyhan, Reifler, and Peter Ubel, politically knowledgeable Sarah Palin supporters became more likely to believe that death panels were real when they were presented with information demonstrating that death panels were a myth. The researchers’ favored explanation is that the information is so threatening it causes people to create counterarguments, even to the point that they overcompensate and become more convinced of their original view. The overall story is the same as in the self-affirmation research: When information presents a greater threat, it’s less likely to have an impact.

This naturally raises the question: are we doomed?  Part of the problem, I think, is that people generally argue very badly.  This is part of the point of Scott and Rob’s book: Why We Argue.  See here for a post the other day.  Take a look, for instance, at the following claim:

This plays out over and over in politics. The arguments that are most threatening to opponents are viewed as the strongest and cited most often. Liberals are baby-killers while conservatives won’t let women control their own body. Gun control is against the constitution, but a lack of gun control leads to innocent deaths. Each argument is game-set-match for those already partial to it, but too threatening to those who aren’t. We argue like boxers wildly throwing powerful haymakers that have no chance of landing. What if instead we threw carefully planned jabs that were weaker but stood a good chance of connecting?

I don’t have any issues with this advice.  Indeed, I think it does not show that argument of the basic logical variety we endorse here doesn’t work.  On the contrary, it works really well; this is just how you do it.

To rephrase the author’s advice: you’ve been arguing badly all along.  Constantly going for the knock out argument is a bad strategy primarily because it’s bad argumentation.  Such moves are very likely to distort the views of the person you’re trying to convince and in so doing alienate them.  What’s better is the slow accumulation of evidence and the careful demonstration of the truth or acceptability of your beliefs.

Picture framing

ad deformem

For the informal logic connoisseurs, the modus tonens (identified by our very own Scott Aikin and co author Robert Talisse) consists in repeating back an interlocutor’s argument in a derisive tone (see also here).  There is a visual version of that which has long bothered me.  It involves posting a jerky looking photo of the person whose view you derisively or incredulously report (not refute, by the way, and I think this is important).  This happens in reporting, as the refutation is the picture.  Let’s provisionally call it the “ad deformem” (against ugly).

Take the above example from Talking Points Memo.  No doubt there exist lots of pictures of Erickson.  This one makes him look like a bloviating jerk.  What did he say?

In many, many animal species, the male and female of the species play complementary roles, with the male dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture. It’s the female who tames the male beast. One notable exception is the lion, where the male lion looks flashy but behaves mostly like a lazy beta-male MSNBC producer.

Yes, he certainly deserves to be laughed at for that.  But I don’t see the relevance of an uncharitable picture.  I don’t see the relevance of any picture at all, actually, save to identify the mug for the onlooking audience–to distinguish Erickson from George Will for instance.

The argument seems bad enough on its own.  And I think the uncharitable picture undermines, rather than advances, the report.  An accurate report ought to be enough to call attention to the appalling view; the picture turns our attention away from that and onto the person with the view.

Naturally these two persons need not always conflict (the ad hominem after all is not always fallacious), but one ought to be judicious in using them.

OSSA Day 1: Andrew Aberdein Fallacy and Argumentational Vice

Andrew Aberdein, of the Florida Institute of Technology, argued that if good arguments are virtuous, then bad arguments are vicious.  The problem is that arguments are tokens, not dispositions.  Side note: we here at the NS stress this fact in our general disclaimer on bias.  We diagnose individual argument tokens, not ideologies.

Back to Aberdein.  After dispensing with the idea that the ad hominem is always fallacious that the concept of virtue in argument was a self refuting ad hominem, Aberdein built what I thought was a good case for taking fallacies as argumentative vices–these include dogmatism, reliabilist problems, and failures of diligence in investigating evidence.  All good so far, I think.

Dan Cohen (see Scott’s post on his awesome keynote) raised a key question.  Argumentative vices seem to provide good reason for discounting arguers, but do argument virtues do the same for individual arguments?