Category Archives: Argument Analysis

A catch all category for posts which analyze arguments without diagnosing specific failures of logic.

How to turn your analogy to straw

Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.  He said that the likelihood of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) actually helping people is as great as the likelihood of the Denver Broncos coming back from their fourth-quarter deficit in the SuperBowl.

I know that there are still some who hold out hope that Obamacare will work, just like there were some in Denver this Sunday still holding out hope that the Broncos could come back and win in the fourth quarter.

Now, there is some debate on the matter, but let’s give Rubio the point for the sake of argument.  However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:

But let’s not forget that the Broncos actually made it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were the second best team in the NFL in 2013….

If Rubio is going to compare Obamacare to a football team he should invoke the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16. Better still, the junior Senator from Florida could also speak of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. This would be a far more apt comparison because when it comes to Obamacare no one wins.

Ah, a lesson in how to turn an analogy into a straw man.  At least the Rubio analogy conceded that the ACA had something going for it (at least the Broncos had a chance to make points back earlier), but Goldstein refuses even that.  Beyond this, the point Rubio was trying to make with the analogy was one of prospects, like for the future, not retrospects, looking at the past.  Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.

Sometimes ad hominem is warranted

Phil Plait’s got a serious take-down of the recent claim that there’s been a meteorite found that has diatom fossils in it (at Salon).  Plait’s case is along a few lines: (1) that the rock doesn’t look like it’s a meteorite and has no documentation of how it was found or recovered, (2) the diatoms in it seem to be from Earth, like from a riverbed.  But he opens by criticizing the source of the claim.  He says  N. C. Wickramasinghe, the author of the paper reporting the meteorite, “jumps on everything, with little or no evidence, and says it’s from outer space, so I think there’s a case to be made for a bias on his part.”

Plait then turns to forearm against a concern about the present line of argument:

Now, you might accuse me of using an ad hominem, an argument that cast aspersions on the person making the claim, and not attacking the claim itself. I’ll get to the claim in a moment, but sometimes an ad hominem is warranted!

He makes the case with an analogy:

If Jenny McCarthy claimed botox cures autism, again, you might be forgiven for doubting it based on her previous anti-vaccine and other false claims. You still need to examine the claims on their own merits, of course, but: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

But, now, this isn’t an ad hominem, per se, is it?  When the premises are that the person has a bad track record in the area they are reporting in (or in relevantly similar areas), that’s not ad hominem, but a case against their status as an authority.  I suppose that the basic thought is:  arguments against the person are appropriate when they are relevant to whether the conclusion is acceptable.  If we have reason to believe that S is unreliable, that’s a relevant consideration when we’re considering S’s reportage.

So a question to the NS readers:  should we save terms like ad hominem exclusively for the fallaciously irrelevant considerations of a speaker to impugn his/her claims, or can we allow the term to extend to relevant considerations?  I’ve argued that we should have that flexibility with plenty of other forms of argument, even with straw men and the tu quoque.  But ad hominem seems to have exclusively fallacious connotations for me.  Thoughts?

Makers and takers

Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice.  As a consequence, there's been a good bit of attention paid to Ryan's much-touted appreciation of Ayn Rand.  One edge is to criticize Randian economic policy.  Another edge is to ask whether Ryan himself lives by the Randian rules.  Here's Joan Walsh taking the second option, over at Slate,  with her article, "Paul Ryan: Randian Poseur":

When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. . . . After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government. . . .Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.

It's been a regular question here at the NS whether some kinds of tu quoque arguments can be relevant.  Again, the best example is what we've been calling smoking dad, which has the father, in the midst of taking a drag from a cigarette, telling the son that he shouldn't smoke because smoking's addictive and bad for your health.  Of course, the father's a hypocrite, but he's right, and his hypocrisy actually is relevant, because it's evidence that the father, who thinks smoking's bad, can't stop.  So it is addictive.  OK, so what about Walsh's argument here?  It seems to be that: Paul Ryan is committed to Randian principles, but doesn't live by them.  So… what follows, and why?

Here's the argument with the strongest conclusion:  Ryan's failure to live by his principles shows that they aren't right, that they aren't practicable.  Randianism is all about individuals, doing things by themselves, and ensuring that others don't interfere.  But that's not how societies work. Instead, individual success arises out of large-scale cooperation, opportunities afforded, and others giving back. 

Now, I do think that the hypocrisy of those avowing ideology X can regularly be relevant to our estimation of X.  But not all hypocrisies are created equal.  Couldn't a defender of Ryan and Randianism say something like: sure, but all this is evidence of how things work now, not how they should.  Paul Ryan benefitted from this system, and it was in his interest to do so, but that doesn't mean that the system is just or appropriate.  It just means it benefits some people.  They should be free to criticize it, still.

I think that reply is just about right, but it does miss one thing, which I  think Walsh's column could make clearer: it's easy to forget, even when you're Paul Ryan, that individual successes are nevertheless social products.  And that social programs do help people, even Randians, pursue their self interest.

Scare quoque

Mallard Fillmore's recent take on the President's rhetorical strategies:

This is an argument about arguments — namely, that scare tactics are bad, but it's worse to be a hypocrite about using them.  So the score tally goes:  Republicans -1 for using scare tactics, Obama +1 for chastising them for using the tactic.  Obama -1 for using scare tactics, and -1 for being a hypocrite about using them.  (And +1 for Fillmore for pointing out the scare tactic, and +1 for pointing out the hypocrisy.)

Now, a question.  Surely arguing that policy X will have bad consequences (or not following policy X will have the bad consequences) appeals to people's fears, but (a) so long as those things are bad and worth fearing, and (b) X is a crucial element in either avoiding or bringing about those consequences, aren't arguments from fear also good arguments from prudence?  The scare tactic is not composed of simply pointing out that something bad will happen if we don't do something — it's comprised in shutting down discussion about what is the best way to avoid the bad consequences.  Take for example the insurance salesman who says something like: people your age often can get sick and die with no warning — that's why you need St. Bartholomew Insurance to take care of your family if that happens.  The fact of the sudden death may mean that you should get insurance, but it certainly doesn't mean that you should get St. Bartholomew Ins.  We don't get why the Republicans or Obama are using scare tactics here, but it is a real question for us when we're being scared to accept a conclusion that doesn't follow.

Of aphorisms and neat language

Roger Scruton thinks the art of the aphorism in in decline among American English speakers. 

[W]hen they do talk, it is in an outpouring, in the belief that one person's language is as good as any other's. Bon mots, aphorisms, insightful quotations, nuggets of wisdom, or even ordinary apt remarks form only a tiny part of their conversation.

That's too bad, he thinks, because aphorisms are like stock cubes, they "are dry, salty, compact; and they are intended, when dissolved in thought, to be nourishing."  Not having that ability is a deficiency.  So far, this is just a point about rhetoric — we lack a special linguistic skill, apparently.  But, he notes, there are true and false aphorisms.  The true ones are from Henry James, Groucho Marx, and La Rochefoucauld. The false ones are from Marx, Christopher Hitchens, and Oscar Wilde. (Wilde gets lumped with the false aphorizers, because he came down against fox-hunting.) The trouble is that the catchiness of an aphorism is not what determines whether it is a true one or not, regardless of how one comes down on Scruton's division of them here.  The crucial thing is to direct them at truth, right?

How are we to recapture the forgotten ways of wit, and the use of aphorisms in the cause of truth? It seems to me that this is something that we ought to be teaching in our universities. A degree in the humanities should have something of the ancient study of rhetoric. It should be equipping students to persuade, to use language gracefully and succinctly, and to speak and write with style. Persuasion comes not through statistics and theories, but through the artful aphorism that summarizes, in the heart of the listeners, the things that they suspect but don't yet know.

But wait — it's in all those statistics and theories and stuff that the truth or falsity of something is found.  It's in the evidence, the argument.  Aphorisms are good ways to capture that stuff, but without the argument, the aphorism is just garbage.  And Scruton wants more rhetoric, not less?  What's necessary is more logic, more training in statistics, an education in history.  Not more rhetoric.

Fallacy Exercise

Alright readers of the NonSequitur, I have an exercise for you.  John and I have had a few laughs with the following form of joke: employ a fallacy in giving an argument against using that fallacy.  It's funny.  Here are a few examples:

Agree that ad baculum arguments are fallacious or I'll punch you in the face!


If you don't stop using tu quoque arguments, you'd be such a hypocrite!


If we don't stop using slippery slope arguments, we'll become sloppy arguers, and if we become sloppy arguers, we'll become sloppy people.  And if we become sloppy people, flies will land on us.  And if flies land on our sloppy bodies, they'll lay eggs. And then we'll be sloppy slippery slope arguers covered in maggots… that's what we'll be!

See?  Fun!  Give it a shot in the comments.


UPDATE: John reminded me that the NS did the exercise back in 2008.  Check the entries out here.

Funny fallacy fallacy

From Slate:

This is not even a straw man; it's some loose straw the writer is throwing in the air while yelling "Look at that man!"

Funny line, but it may be that it's not a straw man, because it's just not a straw man. Benjamin explained in the NYT that he is boycotting hetero-sexual weddings on the grounds that it is unreasonable for him to "financially and emotionally invest in a ritual that excludes [him] in all but five states."

The response to this, he says, is that his friends take him to task for foisting his political agenda on others. he seems to see their argument as:

P1. Your refusal to come to my wedding is foisting your political agenda on us.

P2. You should not foist your political agenda on us.

C. Therefore, you should not refuse to come to my wedding.

His response is that P1 is false. It is not just a political agenda, since his desire to be able to marry is a personal issue not a political one. He then accuses heterosexual supporters of gay-marriage of having a double-standard.

They’re proof of a double standard: Even well-meaning heterosexuals often describe their own nuptials in deeply personal terms, above and beyond politics, but tend to dismiss same-sex marriage as a political cause, and gay people’s desire to marry as political maneuvering.

Scocca asks "Who are these many straight people Benjamin claims to be describing?" The answer isn't hard to find in Benjamin's column:

Though Zach falls into that slim majority, he scolds me for being “peevish.” He says he resents me for blowing off his special day, for putting political beliefs ahead of our friendship and for punishing him for others’ deeds.

Their joy in their marriage is personal, and they take personal affront at Benjamin's refusal to take joy in their marriage. But, they think the objection to taking joy in an institution that forbids recognition of his own relationships is merely a political issue, and he replies that it is just as much a personal issue to be invited to celebrate an institution that he is excluded from.

Is this a straw man? Doesn't seem like it to me. But, neither is it a handful of straw thrown in the air. If someone accuses you of politicizing their wedding, it seems reasonable to deny that the issue is political rather than personal.

Is it a good argument? I'm not sure about that. I don't see that one guy is "proof of double standard." And, that might be where Scocca feels uneasy: Benjamin seems to draw some broader claims from his disagreement with his friend, and it's not clear that the broader claims are connected in the same way that the claims are connected in the disagreement. And second, in order to be a double-standard the judgment has to be about the same sort of case, and it isn't obvious what the more general case is.

Not All Rhetorical Questions Deserve Equal Consideration

As we learn from the media, we must try always to criticize both sides of an issue equally. Now, this will not be the full parity treatment–I'd have to find a billboard from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, or New England Anti-Vivisection Society or another Anti-Vivisection organization. And I'm sure there are many fallacies to be identified in all sorts of protest signage as well as other nonsense. But, as always this isn't about scoring points, but understanding how poor reasoning infects our public discourse. So, in that spirit, let's examine a billboard from Vegan advocacy organization Mercy For Animals.


[Source is MFA's blog]

Now, they're a bit more explicit in drawing the practical conclusion compared to the FBR bill-board, which I previously commented on.

C You should choose vegetarianism.

The premise is only a question, but the question presumably is meant to prompt us to conclude that there is no good reason to kill one animal for food while lavishing the other with love. Stated as the premise that they hope you will grant

P1: There is no good reason to eat some animals but treat others like members of the family based simply on species membership.

P2: In the absence of a good reason to eat some animals, we ought not to eat them.

I doubt that we would call this a great argument, but it isn't an awful one (and I'm not certain I have the best reformulation of it here). Presumably carnists will argue that the premises are false, either by arguing that there is a good reason to differentiate between dogs and pigs and thereby justify eating one of them, or deny that a good reason is needed because they're just animals.

But, the important point here is that the billboard itself is of an entirely different logical character than the Foundation for Biomedical Research that we looked at previously. Not all rhetorical questions are logically equivalent.

Here's another MFA bill-board that, it seems to me, is also logically respectable. I'll leave the reconstruction up to you.

Note: I was expecting to find some easy pickings over at PeTA's website, given their reputation for hyperbole and attention-seeking. ( Yet, all of the four "Outdoor PSA's" that focus on animals in research labs seem to avoid egregious fallacies like in the FBR billboard. I'll have to dig a little deeper.