Category Archives: Bad Explanations

It’s not only arguments that have problems.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.”  Right on!  Oh, but there’s a catch.

First, the setup.

A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.

Again, this seems right.  And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on.  And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that.  At least since classical Athens.  OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.

And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . .   Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.

Give me a break.  Seriously.  (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)

The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere.  And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.

The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance.  Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s.  In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them.  Perhaps if one were to, say, go look.  Ask google.  Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”

And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualismMichael LynchJennifer LackeyLee McIntyre.  Alvin GoldmanPhilip Kitcher.  And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson.   And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too.  I mean, geez, just look around for a second.  (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)

The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation.  That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly.  And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers.  It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge.  I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge.  Why?  Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters.  And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry.  And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?”  the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”

Argumentum ad virilitatem

Steven Watts at NRO gives an amazing analysis of what happened in 2016’s election.  The thesis: Trump won because he was so manly.
Many liberals and conservatives alike, with considerable reason, denounced Donald Trump as a policy ignoramus and mocked his simplistic, rambling statements on immigration, social issues, government regulation, and foreign policy. What they missed, however, was Trump’s compelling connection to the cultural values — those fears, yearnings, and visions — of vast swathes of the American voting public.
What was it that they missed?
Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
You see, Watts’s view is that because so much of American culture has emasculated men and bent gender to a point of unrecognizable chaos, American voters yearned for something clear and simple, like a John Wayne movie.  And so, Trump, like JFK, before him became the strong hero for us.
Each moved center stage as an assertive masculine figure who appealed to mainstream Americans yearning for leadership by such a man. Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric has a nice bit on ethos, a kind of argumentative move wherein one establishes oneself as the kind of person who is believable, a person of sense.  Given Aristotle’s view of ethics, with phronesis, at the core, you can see why this would be an appropriate intellectual strategy — if you can make it clear that you have good judgment, then you don’t need to make all the arguments.
And this is Watt’s analysis, too.  Once establishing one’s “masculine mystique,” all the hard decisions, all the leadership questions, even the deep cultural divides, they’re all things that can be handled by a person, no a man, with a strong chin.  (It’s not an accident, then, that Mike Pence termed Trump’s foriegn policy ‘broad shouldered’.)
Two things.  The first, a political point.  The sexism of this line is appalling, if only because the election was between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The second point is about argument.  It has to do with the kind of ethos one establishes when making an argument.  We are all familiar with the regular “I’m just a lawyer from…” (It worked for Matlock and for Caveman Lawyer).  But in many cases, like with ad populum style arguments, being the kind of person you’d like to talk things over with (or in GW Bush’s case, have a beer with) is exactly the wrong model for who you’d want making the decisions.  Perhaps I’d want John Wayne for someone who’d chase down some desperadoes, but beyond that, no way for being in charge of the Federal Government.

I very strongly assert

Sean Spicer’s first press conference was pretty firey.  The most eye-catching part of it was his argument that Trump’s inauguration had the highest attendance ever.

That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.

His was a pretty complex argument.  There were two lines of reasoning. The first, to rebut the claims that the photographic evidence shows attendance to be significantly lower than Obama’s ’09.  The second, to make the case for a very large number.  The largest number, period.

The rebutting argument was that the photo doesn’t accurately represent attendance, because the mall wasn’t the place where all the people were (because of fencing, metal detectors, etc.) and because the materials on the ground make the open spaces look larger.

This pair of photos shows a view of the crowd on the National Mall at the inaugurations of President Barack Obama, above, on Jan. 20, 2009, and President Donald Trump, below, on Jan. 20, 2017. The photo above and the screengrab from video below were both shot shortly before noon from the top of the Washington Monument. (AP Photo) NYAJ501

The positive argument was that the spaces filled during the inauguration added up to a very large number.

We do know a few things. So let’s go through the facts. We know that from the platform from where the President was sworn in to 4th Street holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the President took the oath of office.

So that’s about 720K.  (Trump claimed it was 1.5 million, when he was at the CIA office, later.)

But here’s the thing.  Estimated attendance at Obama’s ’09 was 1.8 million.  So, even were Spicer’s rebutting argument accurate and his positive argument correct, that’s not even half of Obama’s ’09 number.  It’s not even the 1 million estimated for Obama’s ’13.

There were three arguments Spicer needed to make here, and he only made two of them.  The comparative argument for the superlative (period) needed to be made, too.  And no fudging with gates and ground covering would have fixed that one.


Persecution anxiety

Bruce Chapman reports at AmSpec that Christians are widely persecuted around the world, and one of the prominent examples is the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Chapman says someone should do something about it.  That’s right.  Ah, but then he hypothesizes why people haven’t already done something about it:

One reason for neglect in Washington is probably the continuing secularization of the West. Political forces that demand that domestic religious organizations provide employees insurance for contraception, that Christmas manger scenes be banned from the town park and that graduating high school seniors not be allowed to invoke God in their valedictory addresses are not the kind of people who care much about Christian prisoners in the North Korean gulag or burning churches in Egypt.

Here’s the analogy behind Chapman’s explanation.  Those who oppose mangers in town squares and compulsory prayer are like those who put Christians in gulags and burn churches — they sympathize with the oppressors.  In Chapman’s eyes, secularism is religious oppression lite.

Chapman’s error is that those who oppose state-sanctioned religious displays do so precisely in the spirit of opposing oppression.  Sure, it may feel like being oppressed when the state capitol doesn’t have a manger scene – you’re not getting complete control over the state.  But that’s not oppression, that’s a reduction in your undeserved and disproportionate power.

And so the analogy isn’t just false, it’s entirely backwards — you get the kind of oppression of gulags and church burnings when you have a state that endorses only one kind of religious view.  You see, the secularization of the West isn’t motivated by the desire to oppress the religious, but by the desire to reduce religious oppression.

Under a description

Here’s a way you can straw man someone.  Pick out a bad decision she made, then say she chose that bad part of the decision.  For example, say my wife and I are  trying to decide where to vacation.  She wants to go to a cabin in the woods – something rustic and woodsy.  But we get there, and the cabin’s filled with spiders and there’s a raccoon in the fireplace.  Angrily, I say: We could have gone to Chicago, but you preferred a cabin filled with arachnids and vermin! Yes, that’s the choice she made, but not what she chose as she chose it.  What she chose was rustic vacation… what that choice yielded was spiders and a hissing varmit.  The lesson: our desires are propositional attitudes, and those attitudes represent what we desire or choose under a specific description.  Again, she chose rustic cabin… and it happened to have spiders.  She didn’t prefer the spiders.  She just chose something that turned out had them.  That’s not choosing spiders.  So it’s a straw man – you’re misrepresenting the intentions of your interlocutor by describing them under the description of their worst consequences.

OK.  So now the point about choice under a description and straw-manning is clear, let’s turn to the way George Neumayr over at AmSpec is handling his portrayal of the Obama Administration’s turn on foreign policy.  His view is not just that they make bad decisions, but that they choose terrible things.

Ho Chi Minh once said that he won the Vietnam War not in the jungles of Asia but on the streets of America. Islamic terrorists could make a similar claim: from Libya to Egypt to Syria, they rose to power not in spite of American leaders but because of them. Obama and McCain preferred Morsi to Mubarak, the assassins of Christopher Stevens to Gaddafi, and now the enforcers of sharia to Assad.

The final point about Syria is a familiar one.  (If you haven’t, take a quick look at John Dickerson’s Slate overview of the various arguments regarding Syria.)  The point is that there would be an unintended consequence of destabilizing Assad – the opposition’s not a bunch of liberal-minded democrats, but radical Islamists.  But it’s not that with the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration chose to support a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt or that there would be a terrorist attack on a consulate in Libya.  Those were the consequences of the choices, but, again, choices are under descriptions, and not all consequences are the descriptions.

Just little old me…

Dennis Prager’s post at NRO today is literally a series of conservative talking points on Islam and terrorism.  All pretty much familiar fare, from identifying a persecution complex in their opponents (the irony!) to blaming the Left for encouraging them to their acts of violence, to just stopping short of calling Islam an ideology of indecency.  But it’s with the last line of thought  that Prager has an interesting line of argument.  He holds that “Any religion or ideology that is above good and evil produces enormous evil”, and then he plays to make a contrast.

Unfortunately, most religious and secular ideologues find preoccupation with human decency boring. The greatest moral idea in history, ethical monotheism, doesn’t excite most people.

First, there are factual things in question.  One is that most of the ideologies run on making the case that they are the last and best hope for decency.  They wouldn’t be convincing otherwise.  Liberalism is posited on the appeal of decency, by the way.  Second, is ethical monotheism really “the greatest moral idea in history”?  Solve the problem of evil before you say that, buddy.  Moreover, I don’t even seen ‘ethical monotheism’ as really a moral idea — it’s more a meta-ethic, that God is the source of moral norms.  That’s more a metaphysical idea.  And aren’t there actual moral ideas that seem to be considerably more powerful than ‘ethical monotheism,’ anyhow?  Deontology?  Eudaimonistic ethics?  Consequentialism? (It’s one thing you can say for Roger Scruton is that he’d never write anything this stupid.  NRO and The American Spectator will miss his intellectual heft for sure.)

Finally, I suspect Prager’s got a very specific monotheism in mind when he says this… but, you know, his favorite ethical monotheism doesn’t have a particularly good track record, either.   Would we want Christianity judged by the decisions made by George W. Bush?

Factual questions aside, Prager’s case is interesting argumentative strategy.  It’s a kind of downplayer, but on his own side. As if to say, “Well, nobody pays attention to little old me… I just try to do my best to be moral and upright and stuff…”  The implicature of the speech act, of course, is to make the contrast — so as to say that popularity is a kind of negative authority of what’s right and true.

I’ve started calling strategies like this ‘persecution strategies,’ those that set up the dialectical board in a way that makes it inappropriate to overtly challenge the view.  It runs:  this view has had a long line of critics and rejections, and most folks think it’s crazy.  But it hasn’t had a fair hearing.  The strategy, then, is to identify most of the going criticisms of the view as mere expressions of the standard knee-jerk rejection of the view.  Now, for sure, some views haven’t had a fair hearing, and it’s worth making the case they should be given it.  But, as we’ve noted with the iron man, not all views need to be fully developed before we can see they are losers. And sometimes, it’s not worth our time and effort to do the work.  Recently, in my survey of informal class, I’ve started calling this tactic the little view that could.

Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no