Our friend Robert Talisse has an article up at 3 AM Magazine on the concept of “fake news.” TL;DR: it’s impossible to define “fake news” because our current discourse is so toxic that it will furnish no neutral examples:
Thus we confront what philosophers call the paradox of analysis. Any definitional endeavor must begin from presumed instances of the phenomenon that is to be defined. In many philosophical contexts, the paradox’s “I know it when I see it” circularity is manageable because philosophical debates often proceed against wider background agreements. For example, philosophers who disagree sharply about justice nonetheless agree that antebellum slavery is an exemplary instance of severe injustice. Similarly, metaphysical disputes over the nature of physical objects typically presume that tables and chairs are among such entities.
Things are far more troubled with fake news. In order to devise a nuanced definition that is also politically impartial, we must identify cases of fake news that can be presumed to be noncontroversial among otherwise divided citizens. I doubt that there are such cases.
I think this is correct, but the real problem is another one. Happily, it’s one that Rob (and Scott) have already identified: discussions of terms such as “fake news,” inevitably suffer from the problem of “weaponized metalanguage.” This is where the tools of argument analysis are crafted as weapons in arguments. The problem in this particular case is particularly acute because “Fake News,” like “gaslighting” and “whataboutism” are somewhat new entries in our metavocabulary. Perhaps we had high hopes for them; their novelty is meant to avoid worn-out terms like “propaganda” or “lying” or “tu quoque.” That they immediately fail at their appointed task shouldn’t be particularly surprising.
We argue in our natural languages, and so often when we argue, we argue over economies, animals, environments, poverty, and so on. But arguments are structured collections of statements that are alleged to manifest certain kinds of logical relations; consequently, they, too, can be the subject of scrutiny and disagreement. And often in order to evaluate a claim about, say, poverty, we need to attend specifically to the argument alleged to support it. In order to discuss arguments, as arguments, we must develop a language about the argumentative use of language. That is, we must develop a metalanguage. The objective in developing a metalanguage about argument is to enable us to talk about a given argument’s quality without taking a side in the debate over the truth of its conclusion.
The critical idea is that our theory about deliberative debate always follows the debate itself. This explains our ill-preparedness for what these debates offer. See: 2016.
3:AM Magazine has an interview with our own Scott Aikin. Get it here. A sample:
3:AM: Your new book is about the social nature and political significance of argument. You see argument as any attempt to think things through, talk things over or figure out by means of processes aimed at sharing and evaluating reasons. The originality of this is that you broaden the idea of ‘argument’ out considerably so you catch what you call ‘dialectical fallacies’ . So can you first say something about what you’re doing here – and how it contrasts with more common approaches to evaluating arguments – and what a ‘dialectical fallacy’ is.
SA: The first step is to acknowledge that the term ‘argument’ captures two types of things. On the one hand, arguments are informational products – sets of premises and conclusions bearing logical relations to each other. On the other hand, arguments are processes and performances – reason-exchanges between people for the sake of resolving a dispute by finding out what’s true. For the most part, philosophical interest in argument has been focused on the product-side of argument, and the process-side has been left to rhetoric. This is lamentable. First, because the focus of rhetoric isn’t about what normatively appropriate methods there are, but about what methods yield assent. Second, because there are norms of argument as a process that are truth-oriented.
So consider the old straw man fallacy. It’s hard to say what’s wrong about it from a formal perspective, as a straw man fallacy entails erecting a fallacious argument and criticizing it. Nothing is formally wrong with that, but what’s informally wrong is that you’re not hooking up with the arguments and views those who oppose your views have. It’s a kind of misfire between interlocutors. So there are groundrules for good arguments, ones that arise out of (or are the conditions for) the exchange of reasons. And one of those groundrules is that if we are jointly weighing reasons, we accurately assess each other’s reasons – to distort the other’s reasons subverts the process. Consequently, to take on this notion of dialectical fallacy, you’ve got to take on this pragmatic perspective on argument – we’re out for the truth (or at least understanding) by way of the honest exchange of reasons.
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.
First of all, let’s call affordable health care what it really is: It’s socialized medicine.
I’ve had an opportunity to watch the Canadian version of affordable health care in action with all its limitations with my Canadian husband’s family. A few years ago, I was startled to see the cover of Maclean’s, a national Canadian magazine, showing a picture of a dog on an examining table with the headline, “Your Dog Can Get Better Health Care Than You.” It went on to say that young Canadian medical students have no incentive to become doctors to humans because they can’t make any money. Instead, there is a great surge of Canadian students becoming veterinarians. That’s where the money is. A Canadian animal can have timely MRIs, surgeries and any number of tests it needs to receive quality health care.
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.
Many readers of this site know that the fallacious variety of ad hominem argument admits of many different types–the abusive, the circumstantial, the tu quoque, and much much more. Some friends of The Non Sequitur, Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse, have written an illuminating and entertaining piece on the tu quoque variety for the magazine Scientific American Mind. Read it here.
For those who don't remember, one is guilty of the the ad hominem tu quoque variety of fallacy when one charges one's opponent with hyprocrisy when such hypocrisy is irrelevant to the strength, cogency, validity or whatever of the opponent's argument. Al Gore's riding in a private jet does not make Al Gore's claims about global warming false. Sure, it's rhetorically effective to talk about Al Gore's private jet riding, it's even fun, but so are a lot of sophistries. That's why they're called "sophistries." But, like all informal fallacies, it's a kind of cheating–and cheating is a kind of stealing in that one claims to have demonstrated what one clearly has not–and, as the mindless dogma of liberal academia has it, stealing is wrong. In this case, one claims to have shown something about climate change by showing something about Al Gore. To say anything worthwhile about climate change, however, you have to do the necessary work–pointing out Al Gore's electricity usage does not count.
In addition to discussing the general questions of relevance central to the definition of the ad hominem tu quoque argument, Aikin and Talisse also point out that sometimes the hyprocisy may underscore rather than contradict the hypocrite's point. So, for instance, if a smoker recommends someone quit or not start for health reasons, we might look at that apparent hypocrisy more creatively. Their not being able to quit underscores one of the dangers of smoking.
In addition to that insightful point, what is most interesting about the article are the clueless and unhinged responses in the comment section. Some people simply cannot read the four letter string G-O-R-E without losing it.