Tag Archives: Ignoratio Elenchi

Norms of Assertion #2

In more news of assertions made without backing (see previous post about the various norms of assertion), Joe Scarborough Tweeted:

Two assertions, really.  #1: Trump leaked the return, and #2: He did it as a distraction.

The backing: That it’s “painfully obvious.”  Pretty weak backing.  But, hey, it’s Twitter.

Interestingly, Scarborough was challenged by one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael Cohen — in particular, that he should have some support for such claims:

A pretty apt response, with a little heat to it.  It is ironic, however, that a Trump representative is making hay out of someone making unsubstantiated claims.  Oh, and then Scarborough took the bait:

Oy vey.  Wrong way to do this.

Scarborough is committing two errors here.  First, is what’s been called the Free Speech FallacyJohn’s got a nice bit on it HERE, and we’ve got an entry in the coming Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Important Fallacies.  Here’s our line:

The fallacy arises when a contributor to a critical exchange confuses the protected freedom of expressing an opinion with correlate obligations to reply to freely expressed critical opinions of others.

And note, that using the Free Speech Fallacy is a form of ignoratio argument — that we change what’s being criticized from what was said to whether one has the right to say it.  (I’d had an earlier point about this HERE, which I’d called the ‘meta-move’).   So taking the first amendment strategy is no defense against the request/demand for evidence.  Nor is it a reply to the insult that he has a big mouth.  In fact, some replies seem to confirm the accusations!

The second error is with taking a request, admittedly with heat, as purely intimidation.  In a way, I think this is a bit of straw-manning, which is to focus on the tone of a challenge instead of the content, and then make the case that someone is using an ad baculum or some other scare tactic.

Imagine that A gives a crappy argument, perhaps that B has made some moral error.  B, in reply, says something like:

Look, asshole, if you’re going to make a charge like that, you’ve got to have better grounds.  Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

And A replies:

Now who’s the asshole… defending yourself with an ad hominem against me?

For sure, B put some stank on the reply, but there wasn’t an argument from A’s being an asshole to A making unsubstantiated claims.  Rather, it was from A’s making unsubstantiated claims to A being an asshole.  Mistaking heat of reply with a premise of argument or with intimidation is to mistake tone and content.  And, you know, grownups who have hard conversations have to keep the two distinct all the time.

Don’t have a reply? Go Meta

Representative Diane Black (R-TN) was on the PBS News Hour on Friday defending the new TrumpCare bill making its way through Congress.  The bill’s getting criticism from both the Left and the Right.  In particular, host Judy Woodruff asked Black about how the bill’s supporters answer the objection from  Small Government Republicans that TrumpCare is yet another entitlement program, because it provides refundable tax credits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as you know, your conservative colleagues are saying they see it’s a government guarantee and they don’t like it.

REP. DIANE BLACK: Well, they have that opportunity to make those comments and make their points.

And that’s what the whole process is about. That’s the great thing about being in the legislature, is a lot of good discussion and sometimes really heavy conversations. But I think, at the end of the day, that you’re going to see that this bill is going to be successful, and that’s because our health care system right now is failing.

But that’s not an answer to an objection.  That’s the promise that there will be a discussion where the objection can be posed.  Not what the answer will be to it.

Aristotle called this kind of move ‘ignorance of the nature of refutation’ — that in order to reply to a challenge, one must provide not only an argument, but one that addresses the issue instead of establishing (perhaps well) another point.  Hence ignoratio elenchi, ignoring the argument.

In this case, Black’s strategy is to make a reasonable point about the process of argument, but proposing that the reasonable point about the process stands in for a reasonable case for a particular product.  And so, going meta, saying that we’ll have a fair conversation about this, is used as some reason to think that a particular view is defended.

The follow-up argument, by the way, that the bill will pass because the health care system is failing, is a false dilemma.  In fact, those who criticize the bill hold that a DIFFERENT bill would be a better third option.


Ignoratio elenchi of the day

Oh the humanity:

Fast-food playlands under scrutiny

Arizona mom inspects, records appalling conditions

Representative graph from this article:

A reporter crawled through a few minutes later to find sticky surfaces, filmy windows, several broken pieces of equipment, food morsels in every compartment, trapped hair, garbage and thick black schmutz in most crevices.

By comparison, here are the ingredients in a Happy Meal:

White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, chicken flavor (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (canola oil, mono- and diglycerides, natural extractives of rosemary). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. Prepared in vegetable oil ((may contain one of the following: Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated corn oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness), dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent). Water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose, citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), potassium benzoate (to protect taste), modified food starch, natural flavors (vegetable source), glycerol ester of wood rosin, yellow 6, brominated vegetable oil, red 40. Potatoes, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor (wheat and milk derivatives)*, citric acid (preservative), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain color), dimethylpolysiloxane (antifoaming agent)), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil ((may contain one of the following: Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated corn oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness), dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent).

And she complains about the playlot.

Showers of gold

I belong to a faculty union, now in it's third year of contract negotiations (for a contract which lasts four years).  The sticking point, unsurprisingly, is not money.  No one expects any of that–no one other than the administration, the top rung of which has been lavished with raises equal in some cases to my entire full time Assistant Professor salary.  No one is complaining; their punishment is that they get to be administrators.  The sticking point is workload. 

But that's not really want I wanted to talk about.  I'd like to talk about promises.  David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, writes:

To be clear, I’m making an argument that’s different from “Government workers are overpaid.” I’m saying that they are paid in the wrong ways — in ways that make life easier on union leaders and elected officials, at least initially, but that eventually hurt both workers and taxpayers.

The best example is health insurance. Health plans for union workers and retirees are much more likely to require little or no co-payment, which leads to lots of medical treatments that don’t make people any healthier, and to huge costs. Ultimately, some of these plans will probably prove so expensive as to be unsustainable. Workers would have been better off accepting a less generous benefit package and slightly higher salaries.

 Got that.  He's not saying they're overpaid.  He's saying they're overpaid.

On a different point.  Workers negotiated those plans on purpose.  They accept lower salary in favor of better health and retirement benefits, because they understand that this is part of their compensation.  The responsibility for making these deals sustainable belongs not to them, but to the people with whom they negotiated.  If it doesn't, then Leonhardt has justified negotiation in bad faith, and has placed the blame on failing to follow through on promises with the promise breaker. 

In the moral universe, promises such as those outlined in contracts entail moral obligations to uphold them–however "unsustainable" they may be.  If they turn out, in this case, to be unsustainable, the fault lies with the promiser. 

**In other news.  Corporations have no personal right to privacy:

“Two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation,” he wrote, adding that “personal privacy” suggests “a kind of privacy evocative of human concerns.”

The chief justice had examples here, too. “We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold,” he wrote. “A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed.”

I wonder if Roberts noticed all of the clerks laughing.


I think I might refine the definition of the argumentum ad imperfectionem somewhat today.  As I alleged the other day, ad imperfectionem fallacy occurs when one asserts that the minor errors in someone's argument may be justifiably exaggerated by opponents of that argument.  So, for instance, minor errors in a legal filing undermine one's entire case, not just those particular claims relevant to those errors.  For, after all, if there are a couple of typos, who knows what other kinds of serious errors there could be.  This, of course, is the response of a crazy person.  But not all crazy is the same, so it's worth it to take a closer look at the crazy.   

On this description, the imperfectionem is a variation of the ignoratio elenchi (IE).  The ignoratio elenchi, sometimes called "missing the point" or–get this–"non sequitur", is a kind of a catch-all category of fallacy: any other basic failure of informal entailment gets thrown in here.  Here, for instance, is the way Patrick Hurley puts it in A Concise Introduction to Logic:

Missing the point illustrates a special form of irrelevance.  This fallacy occurs when the premises of an argument support one particular conclusion, but then a different conclusion, often vaguely related to the correct conclusion, is drawn.


but in some ways it serves as a catchall for arguments that are not clear instances of one or more of the other fallacies.

Textbooks will often use examples of IEs with outrageous conclusions where more moderate ones are available.  So, for instance, given the inevitable shortcomings in weather forecasts, one ought not to listen to them at all.  That's dumb, as weather forecasts are predictions, and predictions can be wrong.  Again, the conclusion of a crazy person.  This conclusion, in that particular example, is driven by the idea that any imperfection, however minor, in the assertions of one party are sufficient to create doubt about that party's entire case. 

I think the argumentum ad imperfectionem is focused on the inference from the relatively minor shortcomings of one side to either (a) the truth of the opposite side (in which case it looks like a false dichotomy) or (b) to the conclusion that no one can really claim to know one's conclusion is true (in which case it looks like an appeal to ignorance) or finally (c) to the conclusion that the opposite side is relatively more justified. 

I can think of examples of all three of these.  But for today, here's an example of (a):

(a) in the minds of many, the various quibbles and revisions involved in the science of global warming justify skepticism of the entire thesis.  Here's an example of that from the Washington Post:

"What's happened here is that there's an industry of climate-change denialists who are trying to make it seem as though you can't trust anything that is between the covers" of the panel's report, said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies glaciers. "It's really heartbreaking to see this happen, and to see that the IPCC left themselves open" to being attacked.

That's not an example of an actual argument, as it is a report of someone else's argument.  But people really do make that allegation, unfortunately.

Maybe if I'm motivated I'll find examples of the others later.

Judgement at Nuremberg

Kathleen Parker cluelessly asks:

When did we start punishing lawyers for producing opinions with which we disagree? And where does that road lead?

The answer: Nuremberg

And that's not the dumbest part of her argument.  This inexplicably moronic assertion (seen by now all over the place, e.g., here) shows up as well:

Moreover, the same technique is used to train our own military personnel, who do not suffer severe physical pain or prolonged mental harm. 

The logic of this claim is completely baffling.  If we use the technique known as waterboarding in order to prepare our military personnel for the kinds of torture that the enemy might use against them, then on that account it's not torture if we use it against the enemy.  But if it's not torture, then we are either tormenting our soldiers for no good reason or we are giving the enemy a pass in virtue of our using it as training.  

Boiling of the blood around the heart

There is a fairly simple argument for exploring the possibility of criminal trials against those who justified, ordered and performed torture: torture is illegal.  David Broder, however, seems very confused about the nature of legality.  He writes:

But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps — or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

Holy crap is that silly.  Vengeance is irrelevant to whether or not someone has broken laws.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, people have broken the law.  The people who trusted them with their vote (and those who didn't vote for them, but implicitly "trusted" them anyway) have a right to be rather narked (I don't know how to spell that Britishism properly) about their violating that trust.  There being angry about it, however, is an independent, mostly irrelevant, fact about their character used ad hominemly to distract the reader from drawing the correct conclusion.

It's about as irrelevant as the following:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness — and injustice.

The question is not whether the torture decision was a policy decision–we all know that it was–the question is whether that policy decision was legal.  Just because the right people sat in a room and debated it doesn't mean it's just politics.  It only makes the crime (should there be determined to be one) worse.    

You make me so mad

The proliferation of global warming deniers occupying the highest echelons of the Republican political and intellectual structure (need they be listed here?) notwithstanding, Al Gore is really partisan–and on top of that, some environmentalists seem not to value people more than plants.  So if anyone is responsible for the failure of environmentalism, Michael Gerson argues, it's them.  While we're at it, if anyone is responsible for the failure of women's rights, it's those annoying feminists:

Some Republicans and conservatives are prone to an ideologically motivated skepticism. On AM talk radio, where scientific standards are not particularly high, the attitude seems to be: "If Al Gore is upset about carbon, we must need more of it." Gore's partisan, conspiratorial anger is annoying, yet not particularly relevant to the science of this issue.

This points, however, to a broader problem. Any legislation ambitious enough to cut carbon emissions significantly and encourage new energy technologies will require a broad political and social consensus. Nothing this complex and expensive gets done on a party-line vote. Yet many environmental leaders seem unpracticed at coalition-building. They tend to be conventionally, if not radically, liberal. They sometimes express a deep distrust for capitalism and hostility to the extractive industries. Their political strategy consists mainly of the election of Democrats. Most Republican environmental efforts are quickly pronounced "too little, too late."

Even worse, a disturbing minority of the environmental movement seems to view an excess of human beings, not an excess of carbon emissions, as the world's main problem. In two recent settings, I have heard China's one-child policy praised as an answer to the environmental crisis — a kind of totalitarianism involving coerced birth control or abortion. I have no objection to responsible family planning. But no movement will succeed with this argument: Because we in the West have emitted so much carbon, there needs to be fewer people who don't look like us.

Human beings are not the enemy of sound environmental policy; they are the primary reason sound environmental policy is necessary.

If the movement to confront climate change is perceived as partisan, anti-capitalist and hostile to human life, it is likely to fail, causing suffering for many, including the ice bears. And so the question arises: Will the environment survive the environmentalists?

Now in some respect this might be sound practical advice.  But really, I think Gerson has blamed the unreasonable excesses of the Conservative movement on their perception (which is in reality a caricature) of the environmental movement.  That caricature, of course, exists primarily in their minds.  Sure, you can find some pretty jerky environmentalists, but you need not consider them the key representatives of the movement.

Shopworn Panaceas

A frequent question among our chattering classes is whether our children is learning.  The answer seems to be no, they isn't.  What would explain that?  George Will has the answer:

Moynihan also knew that schools cannot compensate for the disintegration of families and hence communities — the primary transmitters of social capital. No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males. 

If you think the solution–the only solution, the panacea, as it were–is a rise in teacher salaries then George Will is going to prove you wrong:

Chester Finn, a former Moynihan aide, notes in his splendid new memoir ("Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik") that during the Depression-era job scarcity, high schools were used to keep students out of the job market, shunting many into nonacademic classes. By 1961, those classes had risen to 43 percent of all those taken by students. After 1962, when New York City signed the nation's first collective bargaining contract with teachers, teachers began changing from members of a respected profession into just another muscular faction fighting for more government money. Between 1975 and 1980 there were a thousand strikes involving a million teachers whose salaries rose as students' scores on standardized tests declined.

In 1964, SAT scores among college-bound students peaked. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) codified confidence in the correlation between financial inputs and cognitive outputs in education. But in 1966, the Coleman report, the result of the largest social science project in history, reached a conclusion so "seismic" — Moynihan's description — that the government almost refused to publish it.

We've already established that teachers' salaries have nothing to do with output, haven't we?  But lo, continuing from above:

Released quietly on the Fourth of July weekend, the report concluded that the qualities of the families from which children come to school matter much more than money as predictors of schools' effectiveness. The crucial common denominator of problems of race and class — fractured families — would have to be faced.

But it wasn't. Instead, shopworn panaceas — larger teacher salaries, smaller class sizes — were pursued as colleges were reduced to offering remediation to freshmen.

Couldn't it be, however, that smaller class sizes and higher teacher salaries are goods to be pursued regardless of their effectiveness at fixing a social problem they're not supposed to be fixing?  Who could dispute that teachers ought to be well compensated for the very important work they do (I'll exclude myself from that work–what I do is not really work)?  What parent would not want her or his child in a smaller rather than a larger class?

More importantly, where is the social scientist who would claim that paying teachers more will remedy the various social problems produced–get this–as a result of income inequality?  Indeed, while we're at the correlation game, why don't we correlate family incomes and stability with the absence of well compensated, union labor?  Since Mr.Will is so interested in quantitative social science, perhaps he might find the results so alarming he'd refuse to read them until the Fourth of July, at night.

So to sum up.  Teachers' salaries may have nothing to do with educational outputs.  But that's not why teachers should have higher salaries in the first place.  Second, the social problems kids bring to school stem in no insignificant way from economic inequalities faced by their parents.  These may come together at school, no one expects the school to solve anything but what the school can solve.   But teachers and schools ought not to be punished just because they can't solve that which they aren't suited to solve.