Argumentum ad titulum

Here's a new fallacy.  It's a specific variation of the straw man.  It involves attacking the titles of someone's work in place of the work itself.  George Will–what would we do without him–has been working on this one for several years now.  Several years ago, before the NonSequitur, I saw him on ABC's This Week critique a series of New York Times' articles by reading their titles.  From what I could gather, he didn't bother to read the actual article.  The very same subject came up again this past Sunday.

Here is what he writes:

Listening to political talk requires a third ear that hears what is not said. Today's near silence about crime probably is evidence of social improvement. For many reasons, including better policing and more incarceration, Americans feel, and are, safer. The New York Times has not recently repeated such amusing headlines as "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling" (1997), "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops" (1998), "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction" (2000) and "More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime" (2003).

Headlines!  Without reading those articles, one can tell that the titles suggest a counter-intuitive irony.  Will challenges this by not reading it and accusing the author (and the newspaper) of denying an obvious causal connection.

We're Humean about such things, so we don't think causal connections can be divined a priori. 

7 thoughts on “Argumentum ad titulum”

  1. Ad titulum is a nice term, and it does seem to be of a class with straw man fallacies.   The main failure is a dialectical one: one of charity.  That is, Will seems to be interpreting all these headlines in the worst way they could be interpreted (from his point of view): namely that liberals (esp. the writers at the Times) are completely ignorant of the connection between catching the crooks and putting them away (higher prison rates) and lower crime rates.  He thinks this is an obvious causal connection — deterrence.

    Will takes the Times’ headlines to be evidence that the writers are ideologically blinded — that because “Liberalism likes victimization narratives and the related assumption that individuals are blank slates on which “society” writes”, incarceration rates and their effectiveness will always be something uncomfortable for liberals to talk about.  So they, as Will takes it, ignore the issue to the point where they are surprised when deterrent punishments work.

    If this is right, Will’s ad titulum here is part of a larger rhetorical program of treating liberalism like it’s an ideology that blinds its adherents to ‘obvious facts’ like the value of free markets, the effectiveness of force, and traditional morality.  Treating your opponents as benighted is as old as it is fallacious.

  2. The rhetorical trick of “arguing” when actually mocking is more readily apparent when it is an ad hominem against the person. Like the strawman and the ad hominem, the ad titulum would seem to be a sub-species of the Red Herring.

  3. I’d disagree with you on two scores Gary.  It is arguing, it’s just arguing badly.  I also tend think of red herring as a fallacy alongside of the straw man and ad hominem, as they suffer from the general problem of relevance.  But such classifications and terminology are loose, as Scott Aikin (see above) can attest.

  4. Well, on the first score, I would at least like to make explicit the idea that there are some presentations that are so bad that they simply do not qualify as arguments. In the absence of such a caveat, everything becomes an argument about anything else. (By the bye, I do not mean to suggest this is the position you want to advocate — if it is, I leave it to you to say as much.)

    On the second point, the Red Herring is less a species of argument as a genera. There are a variety of ways of presenting distracting and irrelevant information (attacking the person on non-relevant matters, waving around a specious caricature of the opponent’s position, mocking the titles of essays, etc.) But all of these are generically linked by the fact that they are distracting with irrelevant information — which is to say, they are Red Herrings.

  5. Your explanation makes sense–I mean of the red herring.  I’m of the view at the moment that one of the fallacies of relevance, as many call them, is the “red herring.”  I would agree, of course, that your description of the red herring fits the genus well; I would just call that a “fallacy of relevance” in order to preserve the specific instance of the “red herring.”

    As I said before, however, I’m not dogmatic about these classifications.  The important thing is to recognize as bad what is bad.

  6. You make a good point about the classifications, one that I need reminding on. Just intuitively (since I’ve only now begun thinking about the issue) it seems to me that informal fallacies by their very nature (I mean, they ARE informal, after all) tend to preclude any “hard and fast” system of classification.

    And me, I like “red herring” because it is easier to say and quicker to type than “fallacy of relevance.”

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