Even the daft find him stupid

A particularly frequent subvariety of argument from authority is the, for lack of a better description, "even sophists find his arguments fallacious" scheme.  The thought is that even people likely to make bad arguments have special authority when they point out a bad argument.

I ran across an instance of this scheme on Balloon Juice.  Here's the whole post:

The National Catholic Reporter calls Obama the more pro-life candidate (via):

There is no doubt Obama is pro-choice. He has said so many times. There is also no doubt Romney is running on what he calls a pro-life platform. But any honest analysis of the facts shows the situation is much more complicated than that.
For example, Obama’s Affordable Care Act does not pay for abortions. In Massachusetts, Romney’s health care law does. Obama favors, and included in the Affordable Care Act, $250 million of support for vulnerable pregnant women and alternatives to abortion. This support will make abortions much less likely, since most abortions are economic. Romney, on the other hand, has endorsed Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s budget, which will cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the federal plans that support poor women. The undoubted effect: The number of abortions in the United States will increase. On these facts, Obama is much more pro-life than Romney.

That’s some good reasoning, but it’s preceded by a defense of Cardinal Dolan that includes Canon Law justification of Dolan paying pedophile priests. In a way, that makes it even more remarkable, since even someone who can defend Dolan for that kind of stuff sees through the Romney/Ryan bullshit.

The last part is the key.  There is indeed something strangely compelling about that kind of reasoning.  But I think on logical grounds this fails miserably.  First, I'm not sure I see bad arguments increasing a person's authority.  Second, it's oddly selective; i.e., usually such a person has no authority, but here that they have come to the conclusion I find palatable I find them convincing.  But perhaps on this occasion their reasoning is also flawed.  My sense then is that this sort of scheme undermines rather than strengthens someone's authority. 

In fairness to mistermix, the author of the post, his primary point is that the reasoning in the cited passage was indeed good.  To that extent my comment here is tangential.  It's just that this reasoning was seen to be given more probabitive force by instances of reasoning poorly (earlier in the article).

Interested in comments on this one.

9 thoughts on “Even the daft find him stupid”

  1. "The thought is that even people likely to make bad arguments have special authority when they point out a bad argument."
    The errors in question are not randomly selected from the different types of error that an argument could have. The bias the Catholic allegedly suffers from in the example is of overly defending someone's argument. So: even someone who is inclined to defend/is capable of defending every argument that's at least somewhat decent won't/can't defend this argument, so it must be terrible.
    I think the probability of the argument's being bad isn't the primary change after seeing a fool reject a foolish argument. Instead, it is the magnitude of the badness of the argument that changes most from prior to posterior, at least relative to other ways of getting evidence, such as from authority.  
    This is analogous to getting one reading of "2" and one reading of "3" on a 1-10 scale when measuring items you thought would average about "5.5." After getting those two readings first, you wouldn't be too confident you'd erroneously underestimated the average value of the items, but assuming you had, it would begin to look like your estimate was far off. (This analogy isn't supposed to make sense alone, it contrasts with what is below, so keep reading).
    Arguments from authority occur when indirect evidence is misassessed as stronger than it is, which humans are prone to when we overly assume expertise in one area indicates expertise in another.
    This is analogous to getting ten readings on a 1-10 scale where you are expecting items to average a "5.5," with the first ten readings being "3," seven "4's," a "5" and a "6."  Unlike in the first case, an average of "2" is now even less likely than it was before you started (when you thought the average would be 5.5), even though the average is really starting to look like it will end up being measured below "5.5". And you are probably rightfully more confident that the eventual measurement will be below "5.5" than person described measuring items in the paragraph above is. After all, you have many more items measured than they do. However, those you do have measured aren't as low.
    If the fools equally called bad arguments good and good arguments bad, they wouldn't be measures of anything. If they are better described as biased in one direction, as humans tend to be, then they are diagnostic.
    Lowering the rate of false positives by increasing the rate of false negatives can be done for many systems. There is not a solitary abstract value of how much attention you should pay to such a system's claims; if it says there's no bullshit, ignore it; if it says there is, take heed.

  2. Arguments from authority occur when indirect evidence is misassessed as stronger than it is, which humans are prone to when we overly assume expertise in one area indicates expertise in another.

    This isn’t really true.

    As for the rest, I think you’ve got an interesting suggestion, but I’m not sure how someone who usually gets a 2 when he measures some x is more credible when he measures a 5. But then again, I’m not sure I understand the analogy, as we’re talking about argument schemes, not probabilities.

  3. Interesting!  JC, I found the Carfadi post and comments fascinating.  (Especially since I'm appalled by his opening bit on pedophilia and his implied argument that Canon law supercedes secular law – not in the U.S. it doesn't – but perhaps he'd argue Dolan was a conscientious objector. Brrr.)  I think it might be helpful to distinguish between beliefs about empirical facts, or beliefs about the merits of an overall argument, versus beliefs about credibility.  You're absolutely right that (to be a bit flip) "Even Ross, who is normally dumb, believes in global warming" is not particularly convincing (especially if Ross can't explain why he believes in it and is just parroting something he read).   But Carfadi is basically looking at Obama and Romney as a voter, and assessing their credibility… and politically, he would normally be inclined to choose the Republican/conservative over the Democrat/left-centrist.  But even he (the argument would go) does not find Romney convincing.

    I'm not sure how far one can take that, though, at least in this instance.  Many social conservatives don't find Romney convincing on abortion and similar issues, but they hate Obama more, and will hold their noses and vote for Romney.  Meanwhile, Carfadi seems to be a true believer, and following the logical conclusion of his beliefs: 1) Code of Canon law must be obeyed, even if conflicts with secular law, and 2) abortion is a grievous wrong, and based on the evidence available (to Carfadi), Obama is the lesser of two evils and thus the preferable candidate (at least on this issue). 

    I'm guessing that mistermix's argument is less that "Carfadi's arguments are further proof that Obama is the better candidate" (I'm pretty sure mistermix is not pro-life) and more that "Carfadi's rejection of Romney is further proof that not even Romney's natural constituency finds him credible [on this issue]."  Perhaps this is more an issue of rhetoric than informal fallacies?     


  4. Hi Batocchio,

    I think your observations make sense (and I think they make sense of the previous comment, which I struggled to understand). 

    I'm guessing the scheme works on partisans.  Carfadi is a reliable Catholic partisan, as evidenced by his support of Dolan, so therefore he's a reliable Catholic partisan in this instance, as he measures someone's relative Catholic acceptability.

    This is a common argument scheme, so I think it does concern informal logic (as well as rhetoric); often, sadly, I think it is misused.  Though perhaps not in this case.

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. Fair enough.  To rephrase, I suspect mistermix was imprecise in his writing rather than sloppy in his thinking.  Still, I agree with your general point, and your observation about partisans.  
    Somewhat relatedly, I'm still wrestling with "whether some forms of tu quoque can be relevant." (The post below, but a recurring subject here.) I think in some cases the viewer's objection is to an implicit conclusion or premise rather than the explicit argument of the supposed hypocrite.  There's also the earthly issue of corruption (although that's far easier to insinuate than prove, hence the discussion).  I'll have to ponder that further…  Cheers!   

  6. Hey Batocchio,

    Right. I'm not certain mistermix made any kind of flub, just made me think of that particular scheme.  Yours and the other comment have helped clarify the scheme from an informal logic point of view.

    As for the tu quoque, it's now a commonplace that there are relevant (and non fallacious) tu quoque arguments.  If they tend to show an argument's conclusion is too difficult to accept, for instance, they're relevant to the falsity of the conclusion.  Calling tu quoque on Gingrich or Limbaugh re marriage, for instance, is not fallacious, so long as the claim is that there support of traditional marriage is too difficult for even them to practice, as evidenced by their lives.

    Sadly, people tend to call fallacy all to often in such cases. 

    Thanks for the comment–

  7. Hey John,   You dropped a line in the comments here that made me smile from ear to ear:  "it's now a commonplace that there are relevant (and non fallacious) tu quoque arguments"  Darn tootin!
    On the argument scheme, isn't there a kind of maker's knowledge argument in the background.  In the the best person to detect how a thief would break in would be a thief or the most authoritative judge of whether this is a fine wine is someone who makes fine wines variety.  The sophistry thought may go like this:  who knows better how to detect when someone's using rhetoric to cover his ass than someone who uses rhetoric to cover his ass?  Aren't those who cynically use argument to do what they want it to do good at seeing how others do it, too?  Isn't this why you'd rather ask Gorgias to defend you in court over Socrates?

  8. Hey Scott–

    I have learned from the master. I think the maker’s knowledge argument suffers from the original problem, however. Especially as the maker was, in this example, displaying his maker knowledge in the vey piece in which his honest maker’s knowledge was being invoked. This seems to disqualify him, I think.

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