More on Alternative Facts

Talisse and I have a short piece over at 3QuarksDaily on the heat/light ratio in the ‘Alternative Facts’ reaction.   In many ways, it’s a follow-up to John’s earlier observation that Conway, on a more charitable interpretation, should have used a term like ‘rebutting’ or ‘complicating’ facts, since she’s talking about the evidence for the attendance claims.

The point: a little training in the argumentative culture of the humanities helps with these distinctions. The sad irony is that a representative of the Trump administration is hamstrung by the use of language in an area the administration is actively trying to undermine.

 

Some analogies are like idolatry

It was a pretty widely used trope to invoke idolatry to criticize the support for the Obama Presidency, especially early on.  So it’s not a surprise to see it come back for critique of opposition to Trump, except in this case, invoking the fall of what the believers took to be the true religion.  Enter David French for some gloating:

I’m beginning to get a sense of what it was like to be alive in ancient times when a marauding warlord melted down your village’s golden calf. Weeping. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. Wearing of vagina hats. Their god failed to protect the village, and now he’s a bracelet on the warlord’s wrist. It’s pathetic, really, the emotional reaction to Donald Trump’s victory, but the intensity of the emotion is nothing new. Remember the ecstasy when Barack Obama won?

So, the point is supposed to be that Obama-style liberalism was a kind of false religion — a golden calf, of sorts.  Now that it’s not only fallen, but is destroyed by another, the old true believers are in shock, despair.  And French takes it that it’s because these true-believers just have got the wrong religion.

This is post-Christian politics to its core. This is the politics one gets when this world is our only home, and no one is in charge but us. There is no sense of proportion.

The funny thing about analogies is that they are supposed to not be identities.  But French just went from saying that liberalism is like a false religion that’s fallen to just saying it is a false religion that’s fallen.  Doesn’t that change the point?  And, hey, don’t conservative Christians get angry when their religion’s not the law of the land, too?  Of course, one’s sense of proportion is indexed to the religion (or set of values) one thinks is true – of course you think that others have no sense of proportion when they mourn things you think are worthless or vicious.

Tu Quoque, Mr. President

I’ve been wondering for a while about what exactly gets shown with tu quoque arguments.  Is it that the premise is false, or no longer justified?  Since it’s an ad hominem form of the argument, perhaps it is more just a case against the people speaking, perhaps that they don’t understand their own case or aren’t sincere.  Or is it that they have a double standard. I think that, depending on the setup, these are all on the table.  Though the last one, the attack on the ethos of the speaker on the other side using a double standard is the most likely and most argumentatively plausible.

Here’s why.  When we charge tu quoque, it’s often a culmination of a series of argumentative exchanges.  Sometimes over years.  What we’ve got then is a lot of evidence about the person’s argumentative and intellectual character.  The tu quoque is a kind of caught-red-handed moment you serve up to show that the person’s not an honest arbiter of critical standards.  That they play fast and loose, and always to their own advantage, with evidence, degrees of scrutiny, and what’s outrageous or not.

Amanda Terkel at Huffpost, with “Trump Administration Absolutely Outraged Someone would try to Delegitimize a President” has an interesting tu quoque with the Republicans about the recent accusations that the current President isn’t legitimate.  Take, for example, John Lewis saying, in response to the challenge that The Russians had interfered with the election:

I do not see Trump as a Legitimate President.

The result was that the Republicans responded pretty harshly (including Trump’s tweet).  But then they complained about the negativity in the media about the Presidency, and Reince Priebus (ex-RNC Chair, now Trump’s Chief of Staff) complained that

There’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen. . . .You didn’t have Republicans questioning whether or not Obama legitimately beat John McCain in 2008

But wait, Amanda Terkel points out.  Trump very famously was a birther.  And so had been on a years-long de-legitimating campaign.

So what follows?  A regular phenomenon with tu quoque arguments is that pointing out the hypocrisy is the end of the game.  No conclusions are offered, and so it goes with the Terkel piece.

Again, my thoughts have been that a conclusion about the target proposition very rarely can be supported by the tu quoque, but some cases are relevant to the issue.  Again, if the challenge is to the sincerity or the intellectual honesty of a speaker, especially with double-standards, there are conclusions we can draw.  But does the fact that it’s politics make it worse or better?

Alternate facts

Boing Boing’s Facebook page shared a Little Golden Book parody mocking Conway’s use of “alternative facts.”

By now, we’re all familiar with Trump Adviser KellyAnne Conway’s remark about “alternate facts.” If not, a brief summary:

The outrage over “alternative facts” began Sunday, when Conway appeared on “Meet the Press” and defended press secretary Sean Spicer’s inaccurate statement about the size of inauguration crowds.

“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” Conway said.

“Wait a minute,” host Chuck Todd countered. “Alternative facts? … Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”

That has led to all sorts of internet hilarity (my favorite is the picture above). More on this in a second.

Sadly, however, this is an instance in which it’s clear that Conway means or should mean “rebutting facts” or “challenges to those facts.” To be precise, we probably should be talking about “alleged” facts in this case, or better, “claims.” A little charity and precision, in other words, would do much to clarify the matter.

Once we settle this common language problem, we can determine who is more likely to be right about this (not them). This is really what we ought to be focused on anyway (although, this particular question seems completely pointless). We’ve got, after all, a well-established way of settling these things. It’s not great, but it’s well-established.

This raises a question, however, as to whether this choice of term (“alternate facts”) is just the point.  This “alternate facts” stuff sure provokes a lot of laughter from logic types like yours truly. And perhaps this is just the point.  Sad.

A weary ad hominem

It’s an old trope to cast feminists as ugly.  The following inference seems to be either a direct ad hominem or a kind of debunking strategy on their claims.  The direct ad hominem runs as follows:

S is ugly

Therefore, the things S says aren’t worth our time

Notice that the direct argument has application to anyone, regardless of gender or politics.  The debunking argument works as a kind of explanation for the things S says — essentially, that they don’t track truths, but are mere expressions of resentment. The debunking argument, importantly, is uniquely targeting women who are feminists.

S is an ugly woman

Ugly woman have little chance with men

This causes them to be resentful

Out of resentment, they emote using terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘misogyny’.

Therefore, the things S says amount to mere emoting

The first form is a pretty clear error in relevance, the second is actually an instance of exactly the kind of sexist attitudes S’s feminism was criticizing.   But, hey, so it goes for those who rely on the ad hominem for their argumentative strategies — they hardly recognize when their use of it exemplifies precisely what the problem challenged is.   It seems to be in higher relief, though, with these cases applied to feminists.

Enter James Delingpole, over at Breitbart.  In some ways, I expect he’s just trolling (it’s a modified version of Poe’s Law — with right wing pigeons, you can’t tell whether they are serious, someone else lampooning them, or them embracing their worst sides just to get a rise out of you).  But, if the Poe point is right, who knows? In response to the Women’s Marches this last Sunday, he tweets:

Sheesh.  That’s just silly. Not just because folks were coming from well beyond DC. But here’s where things get bad, because Delingpole follows up the tweet with his article, and he puts a little edge on the issue.  Ad hominem edge, that is.

But this is self-evidently impossible. Very few of these shrieking munters – save the token celebrities – will ever find themselves in a position where they are able to fetch a man’s beer from his fridge because first they would have to find a man willing to share the same space with them.

Yep.  That’s what he wrote.  And the lesson he takes from it is that these folks are representative of what a Clinton Presidency would have looked like.

I think we owe those women who took to the streets across the world in their various pod groups a massive favour. They have reminded us what a Hillary presidency would have looked like every single day for at least four years.

Again, what’s it look like?

… the usual ragbag of leftist suspects, far too many of them blue hair, their whale-like physiques and terrifying camel-toes the size of the Grand Canyon.

Holy crap.  Let me take a breath here.  Does Breitbart have an editor over there?

The point I want to highlight how the use of one version of the ad hominem on feminists is a perfect picture of exactly the problem that feminists are out to address.  I think the only way someone could make this error so consistently is unless either (a) the person is trollling and is doing it intentionally for the sake of irritating a political opponent, (b) the person really doesn’t hear the critique as a critique, but, per the argument, just as empty emoting.  Either way, it’s an argumentative failure.  But, perhaps more importantly, a moral one, too.

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.

 

Polarization Perfectionism

Hi all, I’m back blogging here at the NS again, after a long break.  Ready to get back to it.  Thanks, John, for keeping the fire burning.

David French, over at National Review, has some pretty dark views about whether the partisan divide will ever be bridged, given the polarization of the political populace.  He makes some nice observations that polarization yields the view that one’s opposition is less open-minded, intelligent, honest, or even hard working than the average American.  (He leaves out the fact that polarization is both the result and cause of the divide, which is that it’s too often that we only talk to and read our own side…).

His argument that we can’t overcome polarization is on the basis of what he sees as who would need to be the leader for it. Namely, the new president, Mr. Trump.  The Donald has alienated folks given the way he’s campaigned (and given the inaugural), so folks don’t trust him.  But even if he were to soften his tone and recognized his political opponents as more than craven losers, French doesn’t think it’d make things better.

…if Trump stopped tweeting, spoke only in the most measured tones, and relentlessly reached out to black and Latino voters while also governing as a conservative, many millions of leftists and their media supporters would still howl in fury at his political program. You would relentlessly hear that Trump was somehow worse now than when he insulted his opponents, because that was only talk, while his policies represent actions.
This is a case of what’s sometimes called the Perfectionist false dilemma.  The reasoning goes like this:
We can either adopt some change to improve things or leave things as they (unfortunately) are.  The change won’t fix everything, nor would any fix be quick.  Therefore, the fix isn’t worth it.
Of course, the conclusion does not follow when it’s put that way.  Why? Because the reasoning leaves out the tertium quid of the ameliorating option of making things a little less bad.  Sure, in the Trump case, people still would distrust him and oppose him.  But that’s likely because of his long and bad history, and moreover, if he (as French notes) doesn’t change  his policies, he would merely be play-acting.  (Sure, if you only change your rhetoric, that’s not going to improve the divide by anything…)
But the main issue would be: if T were to change the rhetoric and actually heard the voices of those who were critical, then there may be some policy shift.  That would help with polarization.  Moreover, if he would take the time to explain his policies to those who disagree, maybe we’d understand why what he’s doing is more than sheer keptocratic manipulation.  But, hey, he’s just the President, not a miracle-worker, right?