Tag Archives: Nutpicking

Today in nutpicking

It is good, every now and then, to take a look at the kind hateful bile that spews forth from internet commenters.  Charles Johnson, former right wing blogger, takes a look at Fox News commenters on Obama and the Trayvon Martin case.

Still nutpicking, sadly, but here was Newt Gingrich's reaction to Obama.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich harshly criticized President Obama for commenting on Trayvon Martin’s race as he extended condolences to the 17-year-old shooting victim’s parents on Friday. Obama said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” a remark that Gingrich said he found “disgraceful” and “appalling.”

“What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful,” Gingrich said on Sean Hannity’s radio show. “It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.

Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban, or if he had been white, or if he had been Asian-American, or if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.”

In a normal argument, Gingrich's hypothetical would not be followed by very conclusive assertions using the hypothetical as evidence.  Because, after all, this is cleary not what the President was suggesting.

He tweeted me so unfairly

I always (I think) name names here because it's hard to cite someone's arguments without naming them by name.  But sometimes, I've noticed, one does hear the expression, "I won't name names here."  I ran across an instance of this at the Washington Monthly today.  One fellow, Brendan Nyhan, is all upset over having been referred to (not named) with identifiable phrases he thinks taken out of context.  Here is what he is complaining about (it's a post by Nathan Silver–everyone's favorite numbers nerd):

The jobs numbers are awful, but they’ve also provided fodder for some poor political punditry. 

I won’t name names, since the people in question are normally thoughtful writers. But you can already find an article keyed off the news with the headline “How a one-term president is made.” And a political scientist in my Twitter feed wrote of how numbers like these will have Mitt Romney “measuring the drapes” in the White House.

I do not mean to suggest that the unemployment numbers are unimportant as a news story. To the contrary, recent polls find that four times as many people list jobs rather than the budget deficit as a top priority, even though the latter issue has gotten more press attention lately.

But if you’re going to write about the jobs numbers as a horse race story, you ought to do it right, and that means keeping an eye on the big picture.

Following up on this post from yesterday, this seems like a somewhat polite use of the "some say" trope.  You don't identify your opponents not because they don't exist; you avoid doing so in order to be nice.  Let's hope, perhaps is the thought, no one inquires but the guilty party gets the point.  This seems reasonable, as the point of the criticism is friendly correction, rather than triumphalist douchebaggery.

This strategy does not work, however, when the accused publicly complains about being strawmanned.  On this score, the criticism in question was directed at a tweet.  Two things:  One, don't tweet easily misunderstood condensed arguments (which require, as Nyhan maintains in his own defense, you to refer to your vast body of not-tweeted work) and expect to be tweeted fairly; and two, criticizing tweets is almost nutpicking, because tweets are usually dumb. 

Daily Show on Nutpicking

Watch at this link for a fun back-and-forth between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly on the argumentum ad Hitlerum. 

TL;DR for O'Reilly, his Nazi invocation (about "the left") is just fine because his assistants found an anonymous commenter at a blog who called Nancy Reagan evil and wished that she die soon (of natural causes).  What that has to do with the Nazis is beyond me. 

That, of course, is some classic nut picking, or as the experts call it, weak manning.  What makes it especially fallacious (if that is possible) is that it's deployed in an ideologically monochrome (should I drop this phrase? Should I not comment on my sentence during my sentence?) context in order to disqualify an opposing arguer on account of the very bad arguments they make.  This last part being critical to the nutpicker.   

Compound error

I read these things and shake my head:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments.

The criticism most often voiced was that by holding Rancourt up as an example of the excesses indulged in by those who invoke academic freedom, I had committed the fallacy of generalizing from a single outlier case to the behavior of an entire class “Is the Rancourt case one of a thousand such findings this year, or it the most outlandish in 10 years?” (Jack, No. 88).

That's Stanley Fish, the New York Times' interpreter of the academic world.  Sounds like he has been accused of a hasty generalization in the form of "nutpicking."  I'm not particularly interested in the merits of the charge–Fish seems even to concede it.  One minor observation.  I'm sure we are all guilty at one point or another for reasoning that badly.  The difference is that Fish gets to air out his errors in the New York Times.  Anyway, he makes things worse as he defends himself.  He writes (following directly):

It may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Eegads!  "Carrying the behavior to its logical extreme" is the characteristic marker of the slippery slope.  And its supported by an alleged fallacy of accident: certain very jerky professors are going to interpret academic freedom very broadly, and, since they will allege this, there must be a logical connection between academic freedom and being a complete nitwit.  Well there isn't.  Just because the connection is alleged by some–how many, not many I would guess–does not mean the connection obtains.  What Fish has done, in other words, is compound the error of one fallacy (the hasty generalization nutpicking variety) with three more:the slippery slope, the fallacy of accident, and the implied hasty generalization again!