The ethics of student howlers competitions

Inside Higher Education just put up a list of the winners of the "exam howlers" competition.  Some are funny.  Some are dumb.  Some I don't get the humor about — they're not howlers, but just things that put sad on my face.  I've been teaching for a while, and I've got a pretty good list, myself.  Papers referring to Descartes "cognito" argument and complaining that there are no disguises, one paper on Aristotle's Five Causes which double-dips on efficient causation, and one jaw-dropper of a short essay on why we shouldn't worry about fallacies, because we'll never argue perfectly.  Also, since I edit a journal, I've got my fill of crazy submissions, too.  And I mean crazytown.

I got to wondering about these competitions.  Are they in the wrong spirit, especially for educators?  I mean, I've had many a laugh over beers with colleagues about some silly student paper, or a goofy  journal article I'm reviewing.  I don't see much wrong with that.  But why the public display?  A private chuckle over a student's error is one thing, but isn't putting that material up for public ridicule another?  Doesn't this break a tacit agreement of confidentiality between teachers and students to do this?  For example, I always ask students who wrote exemplary papers for my classes if I could save them and use them as models for further classes.  It seems wrong for me to use those papers, even in praise, without their permission.  Isn't it the same with howlers?

Know when to walk away

Reputed gambling addict and relentless Christian moralizer William J. Bennett has stern words for the Grammy judges:

(CNN)"They tried to make me go to rehab / I said, 'No, no, no.' " –Amy Winehouse, "Rehab"

Her most famous song may have been about substance abuse, but it mocked urges and demands to enter a rehab facility for her addiction problems. Then, in 2008, 24 years old and in the midst of story after story about her drug abuse, Amy Winehouse won Grammy Awards for best record of the year, best song of the year and best new artist of the year

With those awards, a message was sent: Mock addiction, create a rallying cry for those in its grip, blow your life up in every aspect other than financial success and name recognition, and you will be rewarded with the industry's gold medals. Today, at age 27, she is dead. The cause of death is unknown, but drugs took a toll on her life even if they did not they cause her death.

My guess is that William J.Bennett doesn't know a lot about music, or music awards, or song lyrics.  My guess is also that William J.Bennett wouldn't have written this same piece about the quondam drug-addled Johnny Cash, who celebrated cocaine-feuled spousal murder, or, for that matter, Kenny Rogers, who sung of gambling (while drinking).

Tu quoques aside, the song, if you listen to it, isn't quite as shallow as the refrain suggests.  Besides, I don't think people are looking for moral lessons from the Grammy judges in the first place.

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.

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. 

Of Demagogues and Straw Men

Victor Davis Hanson, over at The National Review, is an accomplished classicist.  Today's column, "The Demagogic Style," was a short account of the early usage of 'demagogue' and 'demagogueryfrom Thucydides through Xenophon and Aristotle.  Once the apparatus is in place, Hanson turns to look at how the demagogic style works in President Obama's rhetoric.  One tactic that caught my eye was the strategic use of straw men:

3) The evocation of anonymous straw men, sometimes referred to as “some” or “they”

In the Manichean world of Barack Obama there are all sorts of such demons, mostly unnamed, who insist on extremist politics — while the president soberly and judiciously splits the difference between these fantasy poles. So for the last three years we have heard, but been offered few details, about the perils of both neo-con interventionists and reactionary isolationists, of both profligate big spenders and throw-grandma-over-the-cliff misers, of both socialist single-payer advocates and heartless laissez-faire insurers who shut emergency-room doors to the indigent in extremis — always with the wise Barack Obama plopping down in the middle, trying, for the sake of all the people, to hold onto the golden mean between these artificially constructed zealots.

Hanson's provided an interesting analysis of how demagogic moderates sell their ideas — they portray themselves as avoiding the vices of two extremes.  The trouble, as Hanson sees it, is that nobody actually occupies those extremes.  They are men of straw.

But a few things.  First, so far, all Hanson has done is say that the positions are anonymous.  That doesn't mean that they don't have occupants.  That just means that the president doesn't have to name his dialectical opponents.  That's an old rhetorical advantage presidents have always had — they are presidents. Second, Hanson's way off if given that President Obama doesn't name names, it means that nobody actually occupies that position.  I can name people on the two sides, at least for the medical insurance issue.  Mike Huckabee for the "personal responsibility" right, Michael Moore for the 'single payer' left.  Done.  Just takes some familiarity with the terrain, and we can easily populate those extremes for ourselves.

The straw man trouble with the setup, really, isn't that the extremes are anonymous or that they aren't populated, but that there is a lot of ground between the extremes.  And when one sets them that way, anyone can look like a moderate.

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.

Time to employ the tu quoque

Short items today.

First, according one study, half of the recipients of social programs (including various tax credits) in the US do not know or believe they are participants.  As they continue to demand the government get their hands of their Medicare, or that the government stop treating social security like its some kind of government program, one may without reservation employ the tu quoque.

Second, hipster baby might inspire a new response to the ultra conservative pro-life types: I was gay before I was born.  Then again, perhaps the science is not clear on that, as the careful (though oddly selective) skeptic Tim Pawlenty proclaims.


For those who are not rocking

A return to rock'n'roll and logic blogging. AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock" has some trouble (Video, Lyrics).  The crucial line is the familiar:

For those about to rock, we salute you

Now, I'm inclined to say that those who are about to X are not currently X-ing.  If you're about to run, you're not running.  If you are about to sneeze, you are not currently sneezing.  If you are about to type, you are not right now typing.  And so on.

Trouble is, the line occurs in the midst of an AC/DC song.  We, then, have an interpretive dilemma.  On the one hand, the song is addressed to those currently listening to the song.  That means that those people listening to the song are not rocking.  And that means that the song is not rocking them.  This seems a bad thing for AC/DC to concede, especially in the middle of the song.

On the other hand, perhaps the song is not addressed to those listening to the song, but someone else, not listening to the song. Someone who is currently not rocking, but, perhaps, would like to rock and who, again perhaps unwittingly, is in fact about rock.  Trouble is, it certainly seems that the salute would mean that, well, those folks are listening to the song — else they wouldn't know that the guns going off are a salute, but rather a bombardment.  And then we're back to the first option.

Questions: Are AC/DC saluting people who are not rocking? (It seems so, if they are saluting people who are about to rock.)  If the people are not rocking and are currently listening to their song, "For those about to rock," what does that say about what AC/DC thinks about that song? (Maybe: you aren't rocking to this song, but wait until "Thunderstruck"!  We salute you for waiting patiently. Boom!)

Everyone ’round here loves the ad populum!

Quin Hillyer, over at the American Spectator, is running the "We don't cotton to his kind" argument about President Obama's policies and style of governance. Hillyer has recently moved to Mobile, Alabama after years in Washington, D.C.  He's now writing about how everyday Americans in RedState American cities (or, as Hillyer calls them, "The Real America") have their American sensibilities offended by so obviously an un-American President. 

More than anything else, though, again and again and again, the question comes at me, with a deep concern almost plaintive in nature: Who is out there who can beat Obama and do an okay job? This isn’t merely a “Clinton is a scuzzbucket” or a “Carter is inept” sort of sentiment. This is different. This is an expression of the conviction that what Obama is doing, along with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, is alien to our very idea of what being an American means.

All of the alien ideas are: the health insurance mandate and government stimulus spending.  But what Hillyer takes as the indicator that Obama is so alien isn't really that he objects to his policies.  He takes it that because Obama doesn't go in for flag-waving extravaganza, he's not one of us.  Same goes for pretty  much anyone associated with him:

Does anybody doubt that Van Jones would sneer at the tri-colored bunting? Does anybody doubt that White House Science Czar John Holdren would look askance at the propagation of so many carbon-emitting children? Does anybody really think that Obama himself feels real joy at hearing a 13-year-old recite the Declaration’s words about rights endowed by a Creator?

Yes, it's come to this — the lefties are sneering cheese-and-brie-crowd haters of America and Americans.