You’re living in the past

This blog–I used to hate calling it that, but, as you can see, I've gotten over it–has a very simple purpose: we read the papers, we find some misbegotten inferences, and we point that out.  Sometimes, we do other, related things, like discuss general "logical" issues.  It doesn't take a whole lot of smarts.  As a matter of fact, that's the message.  Our intuition some four years ago was that the nature of public argument–especially that of the op-ed pages–was in a very sorry state.  The few people who actually engage in it–the ones listed in the categories here on the page–too frequently do it badly.  Even accounting for the natural limitations of the genre of the op-ed, there doesn't seem to be any excuse for this.  Most of these people have received the best educations (at the highest levels) money can buy.  And so they ought to know when they say stuff that's misleading, unfair, wrong, or just plain nonsense.

Having said that, by way of reminder I suppose, take a gander at David Ignatius.  Last week he was uncertain of Obama, he's gotten over it.  His critical faculty is now directed at Hillary Clinton.  He writes:

The experience issue will dominate the final weeks of the Democratic primary campaign. Hillary Clinton's only remaining trump card is that she has been in the White House before and will be ready, as she repeats so tirelessly, from Day One.

Notice the weaselly adverbial phrase.  This paints a picture of a droning, redundant and repetitive tedium to Clinton's argument.  But Ignatius, true to form, doesn't give us any reasons for thinking that.  Whatever her virtues and vices, Mrs. Clinton has a lot to say on a lot of issues and she differs significantly from Obama in a number of important, and to many voters, attractive ways.  More fundamentally, why would "the experience issue" dominate the final weeks of the campaign?  There is no justification for that claim–the central premise of this piece.  Before we say some words about that, let's see how this paragraph finishes:

But ready for what? For a recapitulation of the people and policies that guided the country in the past? That's an attractive proposition only if you think that the world of the 1990s — or '80s, or '70s — can be re-created.

Ignatius answers his own rhetorical question–"ready for what?" with another rhetorical question.  I suppose that means he's being both rude to himself and clueless about his own rhetorical strategy at the same time.  On top of that, this is just a silly inference.  Having experience, on any reasonable interpretation of that claim, does not obviously entail some kind of intellectual stasis or desire to repeat things over and over redundantly.

Maybe consistency is overrated, but this is what Ignatius said about Obama:

Obama's inexperience is not a fatal flaw, but it's a real issue.

This week he says that Clinton's experience is not a real issue, but it's a fatal flaw.

6 thoughts on “You’re living in the past”

  1. I’ve been a reader of your site for a few months now, and this post gives rise to the question: Have you ever wrote about some of those who are actually doing a real good job ? That gives you a pleasant feeling of a logically concise argumentation consistently ?

    I’d be interested to know if any gives you that feeling.

  2. Dear Eric–

    Yes we do. Here’s a category devoted to that challenge: In general, we find that Paul Krugman acquits himself pretty well. This is not because we agree with him–often I’m agnostic, it’s just because he for the most part does not make cheap shots. If you can find him on Youtube arguing with Bill O’Reilly, you’ll see what we mean.

    Your comment should inspire us however to point out at least occasionally when we get that warm, logical feeling. Thanks.

  3. Eric’s point and jcasey’s response are interesting. I teach critical thinking as an informal logic class focusing on detecting fallacies as this blog does par excellence. But a colleague of mine who used to teach the class moved away from the approach because in his words “I was just creating a bunch of well-armed little pricks.” The idea is that these kids became radical skeptics believing that no argument was sound. I’m torn because there is so much bad argumentation, or effective rhetoric disguised as authentic argumentation, out there that the need to expose flawed reasoning and explain clearly why it is flawed. At the same time, it does give rise to Eric’s concern.

    In the blogosphere, I don’t worry so much, but what about the classroom? I have the students write their own letters to the editor sometimes. I think that helps. Other thoughts about pedagogically addressing this issue?

  4. I share your concerns Steve G. I think I struggle with the same concerns. As it stands now, a full third of my critical thinking class concerns fallacies. I’ve moved away from stressing the particular identification–although that’s important–to emphasizing the recognition or identification of general types of inferences. Part of recognizing them consists in being able to see when they go wrong. So the fallacies are continuation of the introductory elements of informal reasoning. So, for instance, the premises of an argument ought to be logically relevant to the conclusion, one way of seeing that notion is seeing where there is only specious relevance.

    On a related point, I’ve never really been happy with just throwing around the name of the fallacy, as if that were sufficient to demonstrate an argument’s weakness or failure. Even though we have things here organized by fallacy name, that’s an organizational principle (so I can find examples) rather than, err, a logical one. I’m in the middle of looking for a WordPress theme that would collapse most of the categories. I’ve gotten the impression from some that they take the category to be what we’re saying. I take it that what we’re saying is what we’re saying. But maybe that’s just me.

    Most elementally, for me the fallacies concern our duties as honest inquirers and interlocutors. I try to stress to the kids the importance of avoiding them in our own thinking more than I do finding them in the thinking of others.

  5. This:
    _I try to stress to the kids the importance of avoiding them in our own thinking more than I do finding them in the thinking of others._

    Seems to me to be the key; critical thinking shouldn’t be taught so that the body politic turns into a bunch of smarmy d-bags who know just how to toss smart darts at their interlocutors. Critical thinking needs to be taught in order to improve the discourse, as jcasey says, to avoid utilizing cheap rhetorical tricks in our ratiocinations, and a journey to, say, a regional ethics debate competition is enough to demonstrate that not enough students are being taught this basic philosophical skill. We all know not plagiarize in our, but why is this more subtle form of academic dishonesty not equally discouraged? With all due respect, SteveG, I think an instructor who makes the argument you quote is shirking the role they played in creating a band of “well-armed pricks.” Perhaps this professor would be better served in instructing his or her students, as my instructors have, that the fallacies are taught not as a tool or as a sort of weapons-grade argumentative strategy, but as way of improving and strengthening and improving one’s own arguments.

  6. Ack. Pardon my tortured syntax.

    This: _We all know not plagiarize in our,_

    Should read: _We all know not to plagiarize in our academic work_

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