All posts by Colin Anderson

Picking the Low Fruit

While feeling guilty about supplanting Scott's great post on Subjunctive Tu Quoques, (which you should read first–and while I'm at it, how did I not know about this? All that time studying particles in Greek! Here's the full link. Bravo.) I thought I might pick some low hanging fruit.

An absolute treasure trove of logical fallacies can be found through the various smear-campaigns of Center for Consumer Freedom. In case you haven't come across these folks before, NYT had a short piece a few months ago describing CCF's campaigns on behalf of various corporate interests against not for profit advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society of the United States. I'm sure Christopher Buckley didn't have these guys in mind when he wrote Thank you for Smoking but the comedy at times is equally broad.

Anyway, HSUS is squarely within their sights and sites these days as are any attempts to regulate "humane" conditions for livestock. Enter David Martosko, the mind behind, in the Sacramento Bee:

What's really at stake here is that word: "humane." HSUS seems to want a monopoly on it, even though other animal welfare-oriented groups – and plenty of scientists – disagree with its agenda. And that agenda is where the rubber meets the road: HSUS is run by vegans who don't believe anyone should eat eggs, regardless of how or where they were produced.

Most recently, HSUS has opposed attempts by California lawmakers to specifically define the standards mandated by Proposition 2. The very vague language that California voters approved in 2008 gives HSUS's enormous legal team enough wiggle room to hassle farmers who don't see things HSUS's way.

Of course, enriched chicken cages could be furnished with couches, Jacuzzis, treadmills and iPads, and activists who believe in "rights" for birds would still complain about them. HSUS is among them. And its vision of what's "humane" is outside the mainstream.

Since HSUS's view is that a vegan diet is the only "humane" way to eat, this whole "cage-free" egg campaign is a sideshow. It's a temporary step toward the group's larger goal.

Much of the argument against HSUS you find here and elsewhere has to do with what they "really want." Here it includes a "monopoly" on the word "humane" (whatever that means) and forcing everyone to eat tofu-scramble rather than scrambled eggs. Often evidence is trotted out in support of this agenda comprised of quotations from employees and fellow-travelers of HSUS, not occasionally, taken baldly out of context.

Nevertheless, there's an interesting argument from true intention here that is sort of like a circumstantial ad hominem  but seems interestingly different. It looks like the structure is something along the lines of:

1. P supports policy x (cage free housing).

2. P's real intention is to adopt radical end y (veganism).

3. Therefore, we should resist policy x (cage free housing).

It's not a simple ad hominem in this form since it doesn't deny the truth of a claim, though it could be formulated as a circumstantial ad hominem. What seems to be added is an implicit slippery slope argument that suggests that because P supports y we should not allow x since it would advance y. This is the sort of argument that lots of tea-party folks seem to fall back on–Obama's real intention is to turn the country into a socialist state, Obama advocates health care reform,Therefore we should resist health care reform. But, it's certainly not limited to the right-wing. We hear similar arguments made about corporations and certain other administrations. I don't have an example to hand right now, but I'm sure we can come up with a bunch. It's really the laziest of all argumentative vices.

In the case of President Obama the "real intention" premise is so laughable that the logical flaw in the argument is overshadowed by the obvious falsity of the premise. Most of these "real intentions"premises have a cartoonish world domination feel to them. But in the HSUS case it is, perhaps, in some sense true that HSUS are advocates of veganism (or their CEO is, or many of their members are–I'm not sure how to think about ascriptions of beliefs to organizations) and maybe even want to further that end through HSUS's actions. But, even if that's true, the conclusion does not seem to follow without some additional premises connecting x and y more closely, just like slippery slopes arguments.

Nevertheless, it is a really bad argument–even if HSUS does believe that everyone should become vegan this says little about whether their opposition to enriched cage housing as less humane than free range or other cage-less alternatives is well founded. Though to be fair to Martosko he does offer appeals to several expert organizations (American Humane Association, Temple Grandin and the American Veterinary Medical Association) who do hold that enriched cage housing is humane. But, rather than engage their serious disagreements over the substantive issue, he prefers the lazy route.

Non-Argument to the Worst Explanation. Just. Wow.

Wrote about this Kathleen Parker op-ed before I went on vacation for a week. Thought I'd post it anyway, just because it's still impressively awful.

Here goes the argument:

1. Obama delivered a speech that contained 13% passive voice constructions.

2. Men and women communicate differently.

3. Obama talks like a girl.

4. Obama's rhetoric hinders his leadership.

She writes:

Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks (with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women form circles and talk it out.

Obama is a chatterbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan.

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama's rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to "plug the damn hole," as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn't. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

We might be able to fill in a few more premises here.

2a. Women tend to use passive constructions more than men. (Is this true? Is there any evidence for it?).

3a. Talking like a girl prevents one from taking action. (Again, any evidence to believe this? There might be some relationship between the two. E.g "Time and again, the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor." Does such a sentence make action less likely that an active construction?)

Interesting that the qualifier is "any major presidential address this century" which would include just two of our 44 presidents (Are there data for the last 50 years?). Also, interestingly the link to the communicative differences between men and women is a story about differences in navigational abilities and says nothing about linguistic differences. But, that I presume doesn't matter to Parker who is convinced that Obama is not a good leader and this makes her think, it seems, that he is womanly.

I understand that the Washington Post is concerned about bias among their bloggers these days, maybe soon they'll get equally concerned about basic competence in advancing an argument for an opinion.

Biocentric anti-vegan arguments in the NYT

There has been a lot of coverage of veganism in the major media recently–Jonathen Safran Foer–bears much of the credit for this: And so, it was probably just a matter of time before we saw desperate and silly self-justification start to be printed. I was unprepared for seeing one of the silliest arguments that I have seen in the New York Times op-ed pages.

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way.

The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.

I take it that her point is that there is a moral fault in eating plants. This is because plants are sophisticated and have responses to the world around them. Of course, these are not the reasons that anyone thinks that animals are morally significant and our use of them for food is a moral fault in the circumstances in which most people (in the West at least) consume animals.

Perhaps, I wouldn't have a problem with a form of this argument–there are many interesting biocentric ethical positions, which hold that non-sentient living things have interests in a morally significant sense. But, when this argument is deployed to create a moral equivalence between harvesting grain and the slaughter of sentient animals for non-necessary purposes, we end up with this twaddle bent, it seems, on scoring cheaply a clearer moral conscience.

Doesn’t anyone read this stuff before they print it?

For half a second–OK, a couple paragraphs–I thought Jonah Goldberg might have an interesting argument for an interesting distinction. Goldberg is tired of hearing about moral hypocrisy, understandably perhaps, given the exposure of the pecadillos of so many of his party's stalwarts. But, this just fuels his desire to accuse those pointy headed liberals of some form of hypocrisy. Since, he can't seem to wait patiently until Geithner is caught shacking up with a Bolivian movie-star, he tries to invent a charge of hypocrisy.

Regardless, what I don't think we hear enough about is intellectual hypocrisy. What do I mean? Well, if moral hypocrisy is saying what values people should live by while failing to follow them yourself, intellectual hypocrisy is believing you are smart enough to run other peoples' lives when you can barely run your own.

I'm not entirely sure that this is a coherent idea (see my comment below), but let's play along for the time being. If someone is "barely able to run their own lives" and yet believes that she or he is able to "run other peoples' lives" then lets call this "intellectual hypocrisy."

The chairman of a small college's English department thinks it's obvious intellectuals should take over healthcare, but he can't manage the class schedule of three professors or run a meeting without it coming to blows or tears; a pundit defends government intervention in almost every sphere of economic life, but he can't figure out how to manage the interns or his own checking account.

Goldberg seems to have forgotten his definition just two paragraphs earlier. Our chairman does not seem to be "barely able to run his own life" nor does believing that "intellectuals" should take over health care meet his own definition. The same can be said for the pundit. So maybe we can revise his definition in the light of his actual examples:

I.H. occurs when a person believes that intellectuals (does he just mean "experts" here?)  should manage parts of our society while being unable to manage every problem in their lives (run an obstreperous department or manage interns). But, what's wrong with this? Does it make any less sense than saying that I am unable to diagnose my own health perfectly, while believing that others are smart enough to diagnose other peoples' health. I'm not sure that this is an analogous, but the general point seems right to me–there is nothing intellectually dishonest occuring in either of these examples.

But, Goldberg has some more loaded examples to try to make fit his definition.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) offers a more timely example. Rangel heads the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the tax code, and he recently backed the imposition of an income tax surcharge on high earners to pay for healthcare, calling it "the moral thing to do." Yet he can't seem to figure out how to file his own taxes properly or, perhaps, legally. The lapses are the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation.

Is the problem here really intellectual hypocrisy, or perhaps the moral hypocrisy that Goldberg is tired of? Perhaps, Goldberg didn't have time to revise his op-ed to free it of this self-contradiction, but this example does not seem to bolster his case for intellectual hypocrisy.

Now I also know lots of conservatives who are basket cases at everything other than reading and writing books and articles, giving speeches and thinking Big Thoughts (just as I know lots of liberals who despise conservative moralizing about sex and religion who nonetheless live chaste and pious lives themselves). The point is that conservatives don't presume to be smart enough to run everything, because conservative dogma takes it as an article of faith that no one can be that smart.

So, even when conservatives think that they're smart enough to re-write tax code, and have the same difficulties paying their taxes on time, they aren't being intellectually dishonest, because they hold an ideology that takes it as an article of faith that no one can be smart enough to re-write the tax code!?

Moral hypocrisy is still worth exposing, I guess. But we are living in a moment when revealing intellectual hypocrisy should take precedence. The American Enterprise Institute's "Enterprise Blog" recently ran a chart from a J.P. Morgan report showing that less than 10% of President Obama's Cabinet has private-sector experience, the least of any Cabinet in a century. From the stimulus to healthcare reform and cap-and-trade, Washington is now run by people who think they know how to run everything, when in reality they can barely run anything.

Hmmmm. Somehow Goldberg seems to infer from a claim about people not having run a business to a conclusion that they can barely run anything.

If I follow the implicit argument here it seems to be: 90% of Obama's cabinet are intellectual hypocrites. By hypocrites I mean people who haven't worked in the private sector (but who now work in government). Intellectual hypocrites should not be in power. Therefore 90% of Obama's cabinet should not be in power ((All liberals are Nazis, by Nazis I mean people who vote democratic. Nazi's support genocide, Therefore all liberals support genocide.)

Subjunctive tu quoque

I'm looking for examples of this in the media, but I wanted to distinguish a form of tu quoque I've come across in conversations, the subjunctive tu quoque. I haven't checked any literature to see whether this is a well known variant.

In the subjunctive tu quoque, someone argues that a criticism of a policy or practice is unreasonable, because the critic would do the same in similar circumstances. So, for example:

"You say that it is wrong to detain without warrant suspected terrorists, but you would do the same if you had to confront the problem of terrorism that we confront."

"You say that it is wrong to ban minarets on mosques, but if you had the immigration problem we have, you would do the same."

Neither of these are actual arguments, but composites from conversations. They seem interesting to me for a number of reasons:  they're often entangled with a claim of epistemic privilege and an explanatory claim.

First, the epistemic privilege. Unlike a standard tu quoque, they involve an interesting dismissal of the critique that claims that the critic is not really in a position to judge because they haven't dealt with the reality of the difficult situation. This carries the strong whiff of the "ivory tower fallacy" (a version of the circumstantial ad hominem, though in some newspapers its really a abusive ad hominem).

Second, the explanatory claim. The subjunctive tu quoque seems to develop naturally from the reasonable attempt to explain some phenomena to a critic. The line between explanation and justification is often difficult to mark and in trying to explain e.g., how it came to pass that the swiss population would vote to ban minarets on mosques, it is easy to move from a causal explanation or an attempt to show how such a vote would appear rational to the population, to a justification of it, at least from the critique of its rationality.


Not just pundits like the cheap shot


Tucked in the last paragraph of an otherwise banal review of Jonathen Foer's Eating Animals we find this gem

He uses the word “atrocities” to describe the cruelties visited upon baby turkeys and chickens and writes that KFC “is arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history.” He asserts that “we have let the factory farm replace farming for the same reasons our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men.” And in another section he talks about “the shame” he felt as an American tourist in Europe when “photos of Abu Ghraib proliferated” and then speaks in the very next sentence about the “shame in being human: the shame of knowing that 20 of the roughly 35 classified species of sea horse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed ‘unintentionally’ in seafood production.”

Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”

It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.

As it stands this isn't an argument,  and so isn't fallacious. But, it seems to me that this move is deployed as a sort of defensive argument to shift the burden of moral justification. It questions the author's moral authority, rather than his argument, with a quasi ad hominem circumstantial fallacy wapped in a slice of accusation of hypocrisy. Although it doesn't assert that Foer's conclusion that we should end the massive vicious violence of our current systems of meat "production" is false, it certainly suggests that Foer is, at least, suspect for wanting to make such an assertion. It's about as cheap an argument as you can squeeze into a book review.

Of course, if we allow this move in this discourse, then it seems to me that it can be used about caring about anything–I certainly wonder how this author "can expend so much energy and caring on reading books, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year."

Insofar as it is an argument, it seems to rest on some sort of premise such as that "animal suffering can matter only if human suffering is abolished." This seems likely false to me and seems to miss Foer's point which seems relatively benign–that we should not assume that social justice discourse does not have anything to say about how we treat animals, or that there are similarities between how we degrade human beings and how we treat animals.


As you can see, we’ve suffered a dramatic loss of style. Our WordPress install was hacked sometime this weekend, but thanks to our backups we didn’t lose anything and were able to do a quick reinstallation. We’re taking our time getting things back to the way they were, however. Hopefully we’ll have things fully restored in the next couple of days and be back in the trenches.

Amoral Scientists or Ethically Serious Presidents

Krauthammer enters into this week's stem cell fooferaw  today. Krauthammer has consistently generated more serious commentary on embryonic stem cell research than his fellow wapo-cons, Will and Gerson. His view on the issue is measured and reasoned–he engages the moral, scientific, and political questions on this issue with a seriousness so often lacking on op-ed pages. He reproduces his position here:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

This led him to argue that Bush was right to draw a moral line, permitting the 20 or so (Bush claimed 60) existing stem cell lines derived from destroyed embyros to be used in federally funded research, while denying the use of funds for the creation of new lines (either from discarded embryos or research cloning). Krauthammer, however, disagreed with where the line was drawn, holding that research involving new lines from discarded embryos should be able to be federally funded. (Though the Dickey-Wicker amendment is the real force behind this "ban" and neither Bush nor Obama have the authority to revoke the ban against federal funds for the research involving the destruction of embryos–for Bush to suggest that he was the real authority on this question was false).

Obama however is "morally unserious" in his executive order when he turns the decision over to the scientists.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

He repeats the argument that we've examined this week that scientists are a-moral and so can't be trusted to devise reasonable and responsible policies. Once again I'll note my hesitation in regards to this inference. Unless the President is the only person who can make ethical judgments on this matter, or scientists (Sec of H&HS and Director of NIH) are incapable of ethical consideration in their judgments it wouldn't seem to me to follow from this:

Sec. 2.  Research.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.

 But, setting that aside for the time being, Krauthammer takes offense at the less reported memorandum signed at the same ceremony.

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out. 

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values."

The contrast between Bush's televised speech and Obama's address is striking. Of course, we might remember that Bush was presenting the results of the policy process, and Obama is initiating a process. The real disagreement, however, seems to be on the question whether the President should decide this issue himself (on the basis of his moral beliefs) or delegate the formulation of policy to others (with presumably the authority to intervene or reject their policies).

I'll leave the question of whether Krauthammer has correctly identifed a straw man aside here. But Krauthammer smells a contradiction between resisting the "false choice between sound science and moral values" and Obama's view on cloning for human reproduction.

Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

This seems a bit forced. To claim that there is a "false choice between sound science and moral values" may be an unfair characterization of Bush's embryonic stem cell policy, but it would seem to claim that sound science and moral values can be made consistent with one another, not that moral values should never limit science. Obama's orders and address argue that the balance between scientific aims and moral values should be differently drawn, not erased entirely. Thus, there is no contradiction as far as I can see here:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

The last two sentences are troublingly open: Obama opens to the door to a policy that allows the cloning of embryos and their destruction for research and therapeutic purposes. What is meant by "cloning for human reproduction" is not entirely clear, but it seems to only rule out making new human beings (i.e., new "people"?). There are moral arguments that can justify these conclusions. Krauthammer seems to think that there are not and so describes them as the result of a sort of amoral pragmatism devoid of ethical considerations. I'm not sure I've gotten to the hearts of the matter here, but it seems as though we are circling around a dichotomy that depending upon how it is formulated and used may either be a false one, or may be an important piece of an argument about the dangers of allowing ethical decisions to be made by beauraucrats and scientists, and therefore a possible criticism of Obama's open-ended delegation of ethical policy.

But, even if it is the latter it needs to be more rigorously formulated than it is here. Krauthammer has argued the slippery slope before–if we allow scientists to decide to what uses embyros should be put, it is likely that we will end up with policies that are significantly beyond most of our moral intuitions and considered beliefs about the use of human life. As I've said  before, I think this argument can be reasonably made.  For the conclusion to be follow,  does not, however, require the premise that scientists are amoral pragmatists and must be restrained by ethically minded Presidents. The weaker premise that enthusiasm for scientific goals might lead scientists to ignore moral considerations is adequate for the inductive conclusion the argument advances and is plausibly true.Krauthammer's hyperbolic and false dichotomy between science and ethics goes much further than that. The weaker premise something that Obama is advocating be done by the relevant branches and offices of our government, and which on the issue of stem cells at least, Bush decided to do himself.