So often I hear people admit that while the argument in some op-ed is wrong, "the point" is somehow still good. To some extent, such an attitude is due to the principle of charity. Too much charity, in my book, because the point of the op-ed is an admitted failure. To this end, Simon Maloy of mediamatters.org makes an indispensable, um, point:

Here's a quick lesson for Poe on the relationship between "facts" and "points": When making a "point," one must rely on "facts." When one's "facts" turn out to be false, one no longer has a "point." The "facts" Theodoracopoulos used in his article turned out to be false — a "fact" Poe acknowledged — which means Theodoracopoulos ceased to have a "point."

We would say the same thing. We would also add, when one's argument turns out to be weak, one ceases also then to have a point.

8 thoughts on “Points”

  1. Bravo, I agree absolutely with this thesis.
    Unfortunately, today the use of fallacies in discourse are so successful because people for the most part do not focus on the content of an argument but the context. Take for example our political discourse, where it really doesn’t matter what dribble politicians have in their speeches, they are our man because of what they are – party affiliation – and not who they are.
    How we package our information for presentation is more important then the information itself, thus we get little sound bits or quick speaks like: compassionate conservative; if the glove doesn’t fit, we must acquit; death tax; and on and on. I believe Orwell call this double speak.
    Anyways, this is the way things are and I doubt anything will change until it becomes very bad, that will be right about the time that the young kids today realize how much they are paying out to us in entitlements.

  2. I think you’re right about the party affiliation point. I would also add that if it weren’t for the tyranny of the points, we wouldn’t have to listen to whether Rush Limbaugh has a point when he criticizes someone’s disease. He has no point as what he says has no basis in reality.

  3. While I’m all for jumping on bad facts in an argument, this “point” business seems like a poor semantic trick.

    When we speak of a “point” that someone is trying to make, I would say we’re talking about the author’s intentions. Mr. Maloy and yourself seem to be conflating this with an unsound conclusion.

    In an unsound argument, we have (at least) three things:
    1) bad facts
    2) unsound conclusion
    3) the author’s point (their intention, hermeneutical concerns aside)

    Without true premises, the point can be said to be unsupported, but it does not cease to exist, as Maloy seems to say. Just like the conclusion, it may be right or wrong, though the author has shown us neither. However, in the case of “the point,” because it is an /idea/, it can be taken up by others who might do a better job showing it to be true (much like a scientific hypothesis).

    So, to get to /your point/, if we say of a bad op-ed that it has a good point, that should be taken to mean that we too hold the same idea the author was intending (but failed) to show — or perhaps that, just now in the presence of the author’s /idea/ in the op-ed, though we recognize the facts to be bad or their conclusion to be poorly drawn, we integrate it with our own set of corroborating facts which justify the idea to us. Thus, to us, the op-ed is bad, but the point, good, or illuminating, or valuable — however you’d care to classify it.

    (Sorry. I think you-know-who’s Phenomenology class is sinking in a bit too much.)

  4. Nice analysis. I think you’re right about the difference senses of “point.” But I would reject the idea that the point is an idea lurking somewhere waiting for proof. An author of an op-ed has a point to the extent that he or she is able to establish it. Insofar as she does not, she doesn’t have a point. Someone else may have that point, but that is another matter. So the idea, as you have called it, exists to the extent that it is well-established by facts and demonstrated logically. What this means, as you well know, is that there are no conclusions absent premises. And of course, if you have this point as the product of true and well put together premises, then you have the point, not the author of the op-ed. So I would say the semantic trick is not ours, but that of the appraiser of points.

  5. Excessive charity. That nails it. I think you should write a book on the etiquette of arguing.

  6. Media Matters simply points out that false premises undermine any argument, or in their words any “point”. An argument, as we know, can have false premises and a true conclusion, still making it unsound; however, Horowitz and Poe have both false premises and a false conclusion, making their argument doubly bad. I suppose that if the conclusion had been true Poe and Horowitz could possibly make the claim that a “point” could still be made, and yet they would have to do this by resorting to new premises that show a stronger inductive connection to the conclusion. They have not done so, therefore they can make no claims to still having a “good point”. Media Matters delivers the smackdown yet again. I’m surprised that they are able to make these well-reasoned arguments coming out of such a sophistic tradition as journalism. There is still hope…

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