Archive for December, 2016

Ding, dong, Fallacies on High! The RNC’s been tweeting!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2016 by deborah1960

My goodness, but Christmas just keeps on giving and giving!  Not only did the RNC appear to greet the day with a false equivalency between Trump and Jesus, but Trump has provided another opportunity for me to discuss yet another type of logical fallacy:  post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).  Now, I was kind of hoping to take a bit of a break in my blogging because, as I’ve confessed before, I am quite lazy.  Also, all the kids are home, and it would have been nice to spend a little more time with them.  But, as my father told me once, you should spread when the manure is hot.  Or something like that.  But whatever he said, the message is clear:  with material this good, it is a moral imperative to respond in a timely manner.

So, take my hand, and let’s commence our journey through the looking glass.

Ambiguous Ambiguities

Reince Priebus, Chair of the RNC, caused quite a kerfluffle with his Christmas Day greeting to the nation.   I’m certain that Priebus had only the purest of intentions, but the internet has exploded over his innocent tweet.  Half of the nation claimed Reince was favorably comparing Trump to the Prince of Peace, while the other half denied it, presumably because no one would be that vulgar. (http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/311799-social-media-erupts-after-gop-statement-about-new-king).  It seems that no one knows precisely what Priebus meant, and this is a good clue that he has been ambiguous.

“Ambiguous” comes from hitching the prefix ambi- (both or around) to a form of the Latin verb agere (to lead or drive) (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/ambiguous ).  Thus, an ambiguous word or phrase has a meaning that can be driven in two opposing directions, or all around a variety of directions.  They generally arise when an author uses a word with more than one meaning, but her grammar doesn’t make clear which meaning is used.  For example, the mythical headline “Man Biting Dog” is humorous because it is unclear whether “man biting” constitutes the subject and verb of the sentence, or if it is a compound adjective describing the dog. This is called an amphiboly, if you really want to know.

Another kind of common ambiguity is “equivocation,” which occurs when the author uses a word in one way at the beginning of his premise, but then does the old switcheroo to another definition later on.  For example, look at the following:

Some think that artifice is necessary to create a work of lasting value; therefore, lies, the most common form of artifice, are masterpieces.

Here, I’m starting out with the original meaning of the word “artifice”, clever or artful skill, but in the second clause, I use the other meaning of the word:  trickery or connivance.  I have equivocated.

With that background in mind, let’s look at the RNC tweet:

“Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind,” the message from RNC chair Reince Priebus and co-chair Sharon Day said. “Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King http://fortune.com/2016/12/25/rnc-new-king-trump-christmas/ ).”

The issue at hand is what Priebus meant by “a new King.”  Some people are saying that Priebus is alluding to the election of Trump in his virtual Hallmark card.  They get this outlandish notion by interpreting “new,” as in “new King,” to mean “fresh,” “different,” or “novel”—the same meaning that is apparently being used when Priebus refers to “a new hope” in the first part of the tweet (unless, of course, Priebus is a huge fan of Star Wars Episode IV, or, as I like to call it, The First Ever Star Wars Movie–RIP, General Organa).  In other words, critics of Priebus are saying that he is not being ambiguous at all, and his meaning is clear.  Now how crazy is that?  And if they are right, that Priebus is unequivocally using the same definition of the word throughout the tweet, then Priebus is referring to a new ruler on the scene.  If that new ruler happens to be Trump, then the tweet is doubly blasphemous.  Trump is many things, but I’m pretty sure that the Savior of Mankind isn’t one of them.  Also, one of the most deeply held tenets of American political philosophy is that we are a representative democracy and not a kingdom, thank you very much.  It’s kind of why we fought that revolution.

The RNC, on the other hand, says that this is a tortured leap of logic.  Obviously, when Reince said “new King,” he meant the “old King,” Jesus.  Of course. How absurd of Trump’s critics to jump to the outrageous conclusion that Reince was being consistent in his definitions.  Or, to state it another way, the only way that Reince’s words come out the way that he claims they should is for him to be guilty of equivocation.  Indeed, it is even more extreme than that:  “new” does not, by its very definition, ever mean “old.”  It is the opposite of old.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that Reince actually believes that Trump is the Son of Man (although, I must confess that I frequently blurt out “Jesus Christ!” when I hear Trump speak), nor is it entirely outside of the realm of possibility that he is not showing a preference for an autocratic dictator to rule our land.  However, all this fuss and feathers could have been avoided if Priebus had actually taken the time and effort to use his words wisely.  Writing is very, very hard, because words are so important and have so many meanings.  If our readers are able to understand what we’re saying only by using faulty logic, then we have committed faulty writing.  So, the next time you feel like sending us a tweet, Reince, you should really make sure that you take the time to make it so clear that equivocation is unnecessary for us to get your intended meaning.

And now let’s look at our second holiday present from the GOP:  Trump’s Boxing Day greeting.

Post Hoc, Ergo Poppy Cock

I tap a ball with my foot, and it rolls.  The tap is the cause of the rolling—without that causation, the result would not take place.  My dog enters the room, and the cat has a conniption. Again, causation and result.  Causes produce consequences, in chronological order.  First this, then that.

But sometimes, what looks like a cause isn’t a cause at all—it’s a coincidence.

In the morning, before I walk my dog, I deactivate my alarm system.  It makes a cheery chirp, which my dog hears.  Immediately afterward, he gets to go out for a walk.  After a few weeks of this, I noticed that my dog starts wagging his tail and looking at me expectantly whenever I set or deactivate the alarm (it makes the same noise either way).  He has come to think that the alarm causes the walk.  In other words, he has mistaken a coincidence for causation simply because it proceeds that precious, precious walk.  Puppy has committed post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).

Puppy isn’t the only one who does this, of course.  Believe it or not, we all do it.  It’s why pitchers wear lucky socks.  The appearance of a comet on the Bayeux tapestry is testimony to the false causation fallacy: innocently shooting across the sky before the disastrous events of 1066, Halley’s Comet is blamed for disruptions that take place on the earth below.

The fallout from the post hoc fallacy can be quite serious.   Andrew Wakefield, a highly discredited British doctor, wrote a report purporting to establish a link between MMR vaccinations and autism.  His basic argument was that the twelve kids he studied had the MMR shot before they developed autism.  Therefore, the autism was caused by the MMR.  Forget about the possibility of genetic factors, or the pathetically small sample size—if a doctor said it, it must be so (watch out for a future essay on the problems with appeals to authority).  Even though the study was thoroughly debunked (and, in an extraordinary move by The Lancet, retracted by the journal that originally published it), the anti-vax league glued themselves to the report like barnacles on the rusty hull of a garbage scow (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html).  As a result, twenty states have “philosophical exemptions” to vaccine requirements (as opposed to medical exemptions), and in those twenty states, thousands of children have gone unvaccinated. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html). At the risk of making my own post hoc, ergo propter hoc mistake, I’m willing to bet that there is a causal link between the decrease in vaccinations and the increase in the outbreak of preventable and potentially fatal diseases—and the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to agree with me (http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2503179).

So, now that we know what the post hoc fallacy is and how destructive they can be, let’s take a look at Trump’s characteristically humble greeting to his followers on 26 December, Boxing Day.  Here’s what he said:

The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!

Just by walking on the stage, it appears, Trump has been able to bestow hope, bolster retail sales, and heat up the stock market.  He hasn’t made a single policy change, nor has he issued any executive order, and yet he is able to singlehandedly resuscitate a previously failing economy. Wow!  Maybe Reince was right about Trump being the new Lamb of God after all, because there’s certainly something messianic about the claims he’s making.[1]

Outside of divine intervention, there is very little likelihood that Trump would have such a profound impact on the economy.  Indeed, according to Team Trump, the source of the tweet was a Deloitte University Press projection that predicted in September that Christmas spending would exceed one trillion dollars—well before the world turned upside down on 8 November.[2]  Furthermore, in its October Christmas sales forecast, the National Retail Federation (hardly a hotbed of leftist-pinko-socialist thinking) attributed the projected increase not to Trump’s election (which hadn’t taken place yet), but to “steady jobs and income gains (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/26/president-elect-donald-trump-claims-credit-for-higher-market-christmas-shopping.html).” Since the word “steady” indicates a trend that occurs over time, it would be reasonable to assume that the NRF was referring to events and policies that were in place well before Trump’s election.  Further, the final figures are not yet in, so the trillion dollar projection might indeed be a bunch of hooey. It wouldn’t be the first time in 2016 that predictions went to hell in a hand basket, after all.

The increase in market activity did take place after Trump was elected, and there is some indication that it was in response to the election.  But it isn’t clear why Trump had that effect, nor is it at all clear that the rally is sustainable (http://www.npr.org/2016/11/30/503902394/postelection-stock-market-rise-shocks-prominent-economists). Indeed, it seems quite likely that Trump caused the rally by not doing anything at all.[3] For example, noted billionaire investor and Trump supporter Carl Icahn has cautioned that the rally might be “overdone” because the optimism about Trumponomics that fueled the rally might not be sustainable. The infrastructure funding that he promised might not materialize, nor might he be able to carry out the deregulation of the investment banking industry.  (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/carl-icahn-says-dial-back-on-stocks-as-trump-rally-looks-overdone-2016-11-17). So, ironically, Trump has caused a rally not because of what he has actually done, but because of what others believe he might do.  In other words, there is no “hoc”—just a lot of “ergo-mania.”

So, where does that leave us?

Well, first of all, I think both tweets leave a lot to be desired in terms of clarity.  Preibus, whether he intended to or not, convoluted the meaning of “new” to such an extent that it became utterly nonsensical. I stated in an earlier blog that it’s probably a good idea to avoid using modifiers, in order to prevent ad hominem attacks.  Usually, just naming the noun should suffice. However, there are times when it is necessary to be precise, and so a modifier is justified.  But here, the modifier appears to have been chosen precisely to cause imprecision and chaos.  Who the hell knows what “new” means in this tweet?

Similarly, Trump’s tweet lacks clarity because he is using unverified projections to bolster his position that he has been a force for economic good simply by existing.  He also neglects to mention that his “evidence” was published one to two months before his election—an excellent indication that his election had nothing to do with the brisk Christmas trade that the NRF was fervently praying for.

The lack of clarity is key:  both tweets generated a lot of interest.  But for all the heat that they inspired, there was precious little light.  It would be interesting to see what stories these tweets obscured.  For example, it appears that the nomination of Rep. Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services has caused a real ruckus amongst the medical profession—but who, besides a few policy nerds and Critical Thinking teachers, noticed (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/26/us/tom-price-hhs-donald-trump-cabinet.html)?  It was much more fun, I’m sure, to write witty ripostes on the RNC and Trump twitter accounts than to keep an eye on what that wacky Trump transition team was getting up to.

And finally, we are again left with a feeling of profound gratitude to Trump and his supporters for providing us with yet another useful tool for examining logical fallacies.  In these dark times, it is important to look for even the slightest glimmer of a silver lining.

[1] It is also interesting that both tweets refer to “hope.” In Priebus’s case, he was referring to the Son of God, while Trump, with great humility, was referring to himself.  Even though Trump is a notorious non-reader of books (https://newrepublic.com/minutes/133566/donald-trump-doesnt-read-books), perhaps he took the time to read Priebus’s tweet before writing his own.

[2]Now that I think of it, is it possible that the Deloitte University Press is responsible for the election of Donald Trump?  I mean, September is before November, after all.

[3] Goodness only knows what might happen when he actually does something! (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2016/11/global-economy).

Copyright 2016, D R Miller

Sand Gets In Your Eyes: Using Trump’s Rhetoric to Recognize and Analyze Two Basic Logical Fallacies

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by deborah1960

Logical fallacies are, basically, flaws in reasoning that under normal circumstances should be fatal to the argument they are meant to support.  There are a wide variety of them, and while some of them are pretty easy to spot (e.g., the nearly onomatopoeic “hasty generalization”), others are a bit more obscure (e.g., the oft-misused “begging the question”).  But the kids in Critical Thinking classes are generally clever, and they usually get it:  logical fallacies are bad, and need to be rooted out with the skill of pedigree Italian truffle hounds.  Occasionally, I get a student who wants to know “how to use” logical fallacies, but I take some extra time with that kid until he or she realizes that logical fallacies are not tools for structuring an argument.  Give them a wide berth, sonny.  They’ll scupper you.

Judging from the caliber of his rhetoric, however, I get the feeling that the current president-elect has not read the memo about the nature of logical fallacies.  Far from avoiding these flaws, Trump seems to glory in them, using the most fallacious logic this side of the Mad Hatter.  As a dedicated teacher of Critical Thinking, I think I can be forgiven for feeling a shudder of despair as I see people fall for the various defects Trump employs to communicate with his followers.  However, it is an ill wind that blows no good:  Critical Thinking teachers the world over can rejoice in the number of pedagogical resources that his speeches, tweets, and other pronouncements can engender—not to mention those of his surrogates.  Indeed, it is only one of the many ways that Trump and his cronies have given new life to the term “embarrassment of riches.”

I think that it would be a useful exercise to examine some examples of the unsound “thinking” behind Trump’s verbal squirts, not only to deepen an understanding of how illogical he truly is, but to help people recognize these flaws in other contexts.  After all, just because he’s probably the most prominent specimen we have right now, he is by far not the only person using bad logic to an alarming, if not dishonest, degree.[1]  While I’m sure that I could use Trump as an illustration for every logical fallacy in the book, out of consideration for my reader’s patience (and the delicacy of my stomach) I will not attempt to cover all of them in this essay (although, I just might give it a go in a series of blogs).  Instead, I will look at what appears to be Trump’s two most favorite logical fallacies:  two wrongs don’t make a right and tu quoque (pronounced “to KWO-kway”).  I’ve chosen these two not only because they occur with alarming frequency in Trump’s tweets, but because, in my, ahem, humble opinion, they are particularly effective tools when one is hoping to throw sand in one’s listener’s/reader’s eyes.  They are also frequently confused with each other, so I hope to make the distinctions clearer, not only so you can analyze them accurately, but you’ll be able to amaze your friends with your vocabulary.  Or bore the socks off of them.  Whatever.

Anyhow, here we go!

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

Ah, who among us can honestly say that we haven’t used this old chestnut?

There you go, driving merrily down the highway at a leisurely eighty miles per hour, when a state trooper pulls you over.  You try to keep it together as you listen to him lecture you on speed limits, but you can feel your blood pressure rise to dizzying heights in response to the outrageous miscarriage of justice being carried out right in front of you.  Where was Mr. Eagle Eyes when all those other assholes were weaving in and out of the traffic like maniacs?

Finally, you can’t take it anymore, and you burst out, as the trooper calmly writes out your ticket, “But what about the guy who kept cutting me off?”

And, as inevitable as high tides in the spring time, he responds, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

It is, without doubt, the most infuriating response to what seems to be a perfectly legitimate grievance. Why should I be punished when there are far more outrageous scoundrels out roaming the nation’s interstate system?  It’s just so damned unfair.

But that righteous anger you feel is the very reason that you’ve committed a logical fallacy.  Logic, by its very nature, requires you to be a bit cold-blooded, like Mr. Spock.  It is not very likely to make you purple in the face.  Emotions, while normal and healthy, tend to blind you to the meat of the matter.  If your first response to an argument is to feel a strong emotion, then that should be like an alarm bell to you: you might be reacting to a flaw that is somehow leading you away from the substance of the argument.  Here, your anger is blinding you to the fact that you were, in fact, breaking the law.  The possibility that other people were breaking the law does not detract from that truth one little bit.S o, the name “two wrongs don’t make a right” isn’t quite accurate, because it is a criticism of the flaw, rather than the flaw itself.

Now, let’s examine a real life example of “two wrongs don’t make a right” to see how it works and why the flaw should be taken seriously.

On 16 December 2016, in response to the news that the cyberattack upon the DNC was pretty definitely done at the personal behest of Vladimir Putin, Trump tweeted the following:

“Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?”

The Washington Post characterized this tweet as “misleading and masterful”—and I agree on both counts (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/16/trump-keeps-misleading-his-voters-on-the-donna-brazile-debate-scandal/?utm_term=.7067680136d7). The Post, however, focused on the substantive issue—the statement’s rather casual relationship to the truth.[2] But because Louis Sullivan was right in saying “form follows function,” I will be looking at how the structure of the statement in and of itself is misleading, and therefore flawed.

So here you have two wrongs:  the cyber attack and Brazile’s leaking of some of the questions prepared for a Democratic candidates debate. Before going on, I really have to tip my hat off to Trump for his formulation of the two wrongs. Usually, a speaker cites the wrongdoing of another in order to avoid substantively discussing the impact of the first wrong.  Trump, however, does more than avoid discussion of the cyberattack—he appears to be denying that it was all that wrong a doing in the first place.  When the flaw is made, there is normally at least some sense that the speaker has been caught out.  That’s why it’s such a popular trap to fall into:  yes, I did something wrong, but x did something worse.  But here, while Brazile is named and shamed, the perpetrators of the hack are left unnamed, underscoring Trump’s oft-repeated contention that the hackers are unknown and unknowable (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/12/11/trump-claims-russian-interference-in-2016-race-ridiculous-dems-making-excuses.html).  He is absolutely not owning that first wrong doing, even though he appears to have at least benefited from it (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/obama-russia-election-hack.html). But even more remarkably, by using a rhetorical question, Trump is subtly calling into question the reality of the cyber attack itself—a position he recently took in that same Fox News interview (id.).  Not only is he saying that Brazile did the second wrong, but he is also questioning the very existence of the first wrong. Wow. That’s some serious sand in my eye. [3]

Additionally, Trump is establishing a false equivalency between the two wrongs—he is indirectly making the case that giving Clinton a heads up about a possible (but not totally unpredictable) question at a Democratic party debate (where Trump would not be the “victim” of Brazile’s “crime”) somehow deserves the same level of outrage as a cyber attack carried out on a US target by Russian military intelligence operators under the direction of the Russian head of state (http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/22/politics/crowdstrike-dnc-hack-russian-military/index.html and https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cybersecurity-firm-finds-a-link-between-dnc-hack-and-ukrainian-artillery/2016/12/21/47bf1f5a-c7e3-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html?utm_term=.5cc7f0c69c42). I don’t know about you, but I’m just not seeing it quite that way.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of the opinion that a cyber attack committed by a military arm of a foreign government is a bit more serious than spilling the beans on a debate question.

Beautiful, huh?

Tu Quoque

Sorry to have spent so much time on “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but having done so should make explaining the tu quoque flaw much easier and quicker.  It is easy to mistake the one flaw for the other, but since the effects are a bit different, it’s important to have a clear understanding of both kinds of fallacies.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right” requires, by definition, two wrongs.  Tu quoque is Latin for “you, too,” or “thou, also,” and involves two parties committing the same wrong.  I happen to think that my oldest sister’s formulation of the fallacy is much easier to grasp:   “Look who’s talking.”  The speaker is saying “yeah, I did x, but you also did x, so where do you get off criticizing me, you filthy hypocrite?” And it is the use of the “h-word” that gives this flaw its emotional power.  We all hate hypocrites—even hypocrites hate hypocrites.  And if a speaker can make his opponent out to be a hypocrite, then he has the audience firmly in his pocket.

My favorite example of Trump’s use of a tu quoque remains his delightfully misguided attempt to paint Warren Buffett with the same tax-evading brush that had recently tarred Trump.  In the second debate, Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he had taken advantage of the carry-forward rule to use massive losses he sustained in 1995 to offset his subsequent federal income taxes.   Trump responded that he “absolutely” used it, “and so did Warren Buffett http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html).”  The implicit claim being made is that Clinton has a hell of a lot of nerve making any noises about Trump’s taxes when her very own donors use the same exact rule to minimize their tax liability.  By having Buffett stand in for Clinton, Trump is gamely making a tu quoque attack.

Trump’s gambit could have been quite effective, too, if it hadn’t been for one small detail:  the very next day, Buffett released his taxes, which showed he paid very hefty taxes, indeed.[4] But, for the purpose of understanding the ill effects of a tu quoque flaw, let’s assume that Trump is right on the money:  Buffett used the carry-forward rule with unseemly abandon to cut his taxes down to the barest nothing.  Even under those circumstances, Trump’s tu quoque is a fatal flaw to his argument. First of all, because tu quoque is a form of ad hominem attack (you are, after all, accusing your opponent of being a hypocrite), it does seem to be only gentlemanly to actually aim the attack at your opponent—and not a surrogate.  However, in these rough and tumble times, the Marquis of Queensbury rules of debating sadly no longer seem to apply.

No, the main problem with Trump’s claim is not that he’s ascribing someone else’s hypocrisy to Secretary Clinton.  The actual problem is that, once again, he is avoiding the substance of the question.  If, as Trump claims, all of Clinton’s surrogates used the carry-forward rule to avoid paying taxes, that should serve only to underscore the enormity of the problem.  If all these billionaires are avoiding paying their taxes, who will be stuck paying the bill for our infrastructure, environmental protection, and those precious, precious agricultural subsidies?

Furthermore, it distracts from the underlying issue that we don’t know whether Trump has used the carry-forward rule to avoid paying taxes for the past twenty years.  We know nothing about his tax situation—good, bad, or indifferent—for the simple reason that Trump has never, ever released his taxes.  But by using a tu quoque attack on Clinton and her supporters, he distracted us for at least a few minutes from wondering why he’s avoided doing something that every president since Nixon (NIXON!!) has done.

So there you have it.  In sum, these two logical fallacies are particularly dangerous because they rile us up and make us forget the substantive question being asked.  Instead, we become fixated upon righting perceived injustices and rooting out hypocrisy.  We accept false equivalencies, and take at face value personal attacks—all of which allows scoundrels to avoid responsibility for answering real and serious questions.  Bigly.

[1] “Aha!” I hear you cry.  “You’ve just committed an ad hominem attack on our esteemed Twitterer in Chief.  Your logic is therefore flawed!” Hmmm.  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  If my argument is that Donald is using intellectual dishonesty for a dishonorable reason, then my calling him dishonest is valid because “the claims made about a person’s character or actions are relevant to the conclusions being drawn (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/character-attack/).”

[2] And there certainly is a lot more that could be said about the underlying truthfulness of the statement.  For example, the use of the adverb “illegally” to describe Brazile’s actions is certainly problematic.  While “unethically,” “nastily,” and, possibly, “immorally” could be used with some regard to the truth, Brazile’s actions would not rise to the level of being criminal.  Also, as a side note, I would be remiss in my duties as a Critical Thinking teacher if I didn’t point out that using heavily loaded modifiers such as these might considerably weaken an otherwisestrong argument.  So if I chose to modify “Trump” with the appositive phrase “a lying sack of shit”, as in, “Trump, a lying sack of shit,” then I could honestly be accused of allowing my emotions to override my argument.  Best to avoid modifiers altogether, unless they are purely factual and not a matter of opinion.

[3] A stance, by the way, that is at odds with the position taken by the CIA and the FBI.  But what do they know? (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-blames-putins-personal-grudge-against-her-for-election-interference/2016/12/16/12f36250-c3be-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.9b0c96c6e77b).

[4] In an explanatory note, Buffett made it quite clear that not only had he never taken advantage of the carry forward rule (perhaps a subtle swipe at Trump’s losses in the face of Mr. Buffett’s own successes?), but he had paid income taxes every year of his life since he was thirteen.  Mr. Buffett’s take down of Trump is so classy and so comprehensive that I could never, in a million years, do it justice.  You should take a moment to read it over to see a masterful example of how to marshal facts in aid of an argument:  http://fortune.com/2016/10/10/presidential-debate-donald-trump-warren-buffett/.

Copyright D R Miller 2016

Pizzagate: How to Consider the Source

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 13, 2016 by deborah1960

There has been a lot in the news about “fake. news” lately—those stories that have no basis in fact, but can have real effects upon people’s lives. (In the good old days, we used to call them “lies”).  The most current example is the notorious “pizzagate” story.  In case you’ve been living on a desert island and missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell.  John Podesta’s email accounts were hacked and released by Wikileaks. Among those emails was one to the owner of Comet Ping Pong, a popular and family-friendly D.C. pizzeria, concerning a possible fundraiser at the restaurant. (https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/14395).  However, instead of realizing that an email about pizza was, indeed, an email about pizza, somebody in the Twitterverse thought that this was proof of the existence of an international pedophile ring, with Hillary Clinton at its head.  In other words, he added 2 + 2 and came up with the square root of fuck all.  Under normal circumstances (remember what they were like?) this would merely be another example of how silly people can be.

However, the story spread faster than a vomit virus in a nursery, and grew in both detail and monstrosity.  There were claims that the restaurant’s logo was actually an internationally acknowledged symbol for pedophilia.  Children were allegedly abducted and abused in the basement of the restaurant—a neat trick, considering that there is no basement in the restaurant.  As the story wore on, it became more and more lurid, until an otherwise nice man from North Carolina allegedly entered the restaurant and aimed his automatic weapon at a scared shitless employee.  The customers ran out, in fear for their lives, because of the two allegedly random shots emanating from said gun or guns.  He was there, allegedly, to “self-investigate,” and, presumably, to rectify the situation on his own terms should he find any alleged victims in the alleged basement.  Happily, there were no children—tortured or otherwise– in the non-basement (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/pizzagate-gunman-surrendered-after-finding-no-evidence-fake-conspiracy-court-n692321). Or, as he put it, “the intel on this was not 100 percent (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/edgar-welch-comet-pizza-fake-news.html ).”

As amazing as all of this is, what really shocks me is how people still believe in pizzagate.  Apparently, there are people out there who think that the gun man was a set up to fool the unwary into thinking that pizzagate was not real—rather like the faked planting of an American flag on the moon way back in ’69 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/conspiracy-theorists-pizzagate-shooting-false-flag-44092906). Mike Flynn Jr. managed to offend the sensibilities of the Trump transition team (no mean feat, that!) and got his ass fired for tweeting some post-gunman pizzagate nonsense (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/us/politics/michael-flynn-son-trump.html).

But there are still people demanding an investigation of pizzagate. And although many of them are simply (and allegedly) crazy, many of them admit to being so confused by the morass of allegations that they believe that a formal investigation is the only way to ascertain the facts of the matter.

In a way, I can sort of see their point of view.  When there are so many stories floating around on the internet, how does one tell shit from shine-o-la? How can we help these poor, benighted souls?

Well, I used to teach Critical Thinking back in the day, and what these people want to know was actually covered by the syllabus. Their unarticulated question is this: what criteria should one use to judge the validity of an individual’s claim, report, point of view, testimony, whatever? It seems to be such a daunting task, but it becomes easier to judge the validity of a claim if the source is reliable.  Happily, there is a very easy way to remember how to reasonably judge the reliability of a person making a claim:  RAVEN.

Teachers adore mnemonics, and this is a particularly useful one.  RAVEN stands for Reputation, Ability to observe, Vested interest, Expertise, and Neutrality.  It can be used to evaluate the reliability of any claim of any kind.  Also, since these criteria are reasonably related to a witness’s veracity and are objectively verifiable, they are a good guard against personal attacks based purely on ideological differences.  Using pizzagate as an example, we can see how easy it is to apply this simple tool to a real life situation without resorting to nasty ad hominem attacks.

Reputation

Reputation in this sense refers to the speaker’s reputation for honesty.  If someone has a track record of telling the truth, then it is more likely than not that she will be honest in this instance.  Conversely, if someone is a habitual lying sack of shit, then chances are she’s not being totally forthcoming in this instance.  This is not a fool-proof test, of course, since most of us are generally honest in most situations, but have also been known to tell a few whoppers in order to avoid embarrassing or difficult situations (“The dog ate my homework.”  “My, that dress certainly does something for you!” Et alia).  That is why reputation for honesty is only one of several criteria—but it is still an important one.

So, let’s look at the original posting that started pizzagate rolling. According to Buzzfeed, pizzagate started on 30 October with a tweet from David Goldberg, who in turn reposted a Facebook post by Carmen Katz (https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/fever-swamp-election?utm_term=.goEQ8Y2mN5#.ehV7VezkMQ). Now, I don’t know David Goldberg, nor do I know Carmen Katz, so I really don’t have a basis for assessing their reputation for honesty.  Hell, I don’t even know if they actually exist, since they could be aliases. So, I’m stymied, right?

Well, not so fast.  First of all, I could, if I weren’t so damned lazy, conduct an internet search and find out whether Carmen and David exist and if they’re known for their honesty.  But, let’s face it.  I’m lazy.  Not gonna happen.  So, instead, I could argue that, since they’re unknown, then I have no basis for believing them—but then, it’s equally plausible to assume that they are honest.  It just depends on how you view human nature. However, instead of admitting defeat, I could look at the reputation for honesty of the sources they are citing.  So, let’s forget all about Dave and Car and look instead at the reputation for honesty of the people they are relying on.

But wait.  You can’t do that—both of their sources are anonymous members of the NYPD.  At least Katz and Goldberg put their names out there—absolutely nothing is known about their sources except for the fact that they belong to the NYPD.  But what part of the NYPD?  Vice?  Homicide?  Traffic? Who knows? I am therefore totally unable to assess the reputation for honesty of the person making the initial claim that Hil and Bill are implicated in a child sex ring: I am totally unable to verify the reputation for honesty of their unidentified sources.

Now, you might say that newspapers use anonymous sources all the time, so why shouldn’t Dave and Car? Well, as it happens, newspapers and other legitimate news outlets do not use anonymous sources all that often, and when they do, they are supposed to follow the ethical guidelines of their profession. (http://jea.org/home/curriculum-resources/anonsources/).  When journalists and editors rely too much on anonymous sources, they lose that most precious of journalistic assets: a reputation for truthfulness (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/03/15/the-new-york-times-tightens-rules-for-using-anonymous-sources/?utm_term=.259abd0fb46e).  So, unless Dave and Car can demonstrate that they underwent the stringent test that reliable news sources are supposed to use when relying on an anonymous source, I have absolutely no reason to think that these sources have a reputation for truthfulness. In that case, I think that pizzagate fails the first test of RAVEN.

Ability to See

The “ability to see” means exactly that:  was the person making the claim actually present when the event occurred? Does he or she have first-hand knowledge of the shenanigans going on in that non-existent basement?

Well, it’s kind of hard to say, since a simple look at any number of the stories that spread pizzagate will reveal that there is nobody stepping forth with first-hand knowledge about what went on.  There are lots of references to “unnamed sources,” “friends in the NYPD,” and “rumors”—but not a single name of a single witness. (https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/fever-swamp-election?utm_term=.usM9krd6aB#.nrjPgoXY4y ). Hmmm.  Looks like a total fail on the ability to see test.

Vested Interest

The question here, basically, is whether the author of the claim has any dog in this fight.  If the answer is “yes,” then, while not a total fail, it should, at the very least, raise some eyebrows.  And the bigger the dog in the fight, the higher those eyebrows should go.  So, let’s take a look at some of the people writing about pizzagate and see if they own some dogs, shall we?

Well, for starters, according to Craig Silverman, it seems that at least two of the stories about pizzagate originated with a couple of entrepreneurial Macedonian lads.  I tried to check the links that he gave in his article, but, sadly, they had been removed.  Goodness only knows why.  If Silverman’s claim is true, then there is a clear money trail between the story and at least two of the claim makers.  The little town of Velès, Macedonia, has made quite a name for itself in the past few weeks as a result of its latest export—fake news stories that are geared to reel in gullible readers  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/macedonian-teen-claims-trump-supporters-paid-him-60k-to-produce-fake-news-during-campaign_us_584ac403e4b0bd9c3dfc51b7).  I’m sure the Velès Chamber of Commerce must be very proud.

Some other purveyors of the story also own some nice-sized pit bulls.  For example, according to the BBC, supporters of President Erdogan of Turkey retweeted the pizzagate story in order to throw sand in the eyes of political opponents who were concerned about a genuine child abuse scandal in Turkey.  (http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-38156985; see also, http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/pizzagate-alt-right-turkey-trolls-child-abuse/).  Similarly, Alex Jones has been pushing pizzagate like nobody’s business (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/06/504590375/radio-conspiracy-theorist-claims-ear-of-trump-pushes-pizzagate-fictions), and one can only wonder whether his dogged pursuit of the story has anything to do with his ratings and resulting advertising revenues.

So, there is at least a strong indication that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of pizzagate stood to gain some benefit (monetary or political) from the story.  Given how the pizzagate gang failed R and A, I’m going to have to put the ball in their court for V:  unless they can prove that the indication is merely that, an indication of a vested interest that is utterly without substance, then I think that they have failed the vested interest test.

Expertise

If the stakes weren’t so high, I would actually find this an amusing test to apply.  There are some highly colored claims out there, and one can only wonder where the authors of these posts got their expertise in some fairly arcane subjects.  For example, how did Jared Wyand know that “pasta” stood for “little boy,” while “sauce” meant an orgy? ( https://pics.onsizzle.com/hotdog-boy-pizza-gir-cheese-ittle-girl-pasta-little-boy-6047206.png.) I would love to ask him where he got his expertise, but as of December 12, 2016, his Twitter account has been suspended.  The same goes for the “experts” who analyzed Comet Ping-Pong’s logo and decided that it was an internationally recognized symbol of pedophilia.  Happily, the New York Times and Snopes have been able to dissect the validity of these bits o’ “evidence” (as well as other claims) and since they lack any shred of reliability whatsoever, I really don’t think I need to dig much deeper.  Thanks, guys!  (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/10/business/media/pizzagate.html and http://www.snopes.com/pizzagate-conspiracy/).

So, expertise?  Not so much.

Neutrality

Ideally, neutrality would come immediately after invested interest, but that’s not how you spell RAVEN.  The two ideas are linked, but they are not exactly the same.  It is possible that someone could have a financial stake in the outcome of a dispute, but still be able to render a disinterested, dispassionate decision about it.  For example, lawyers working on a contingency basis can and should give good advice to their clients.  So, even though the pizzagate purveyors didn’t do so well with the vested interest test, maybe they’ll smell like roses in this because they are totally neutral about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Well.  That was hard to write.  Because if you look even for even the teensiest second at how the people who pushed this story regard Mrs. Clinton, you’ll see that “dispassionate” is probably the second to last word you would use to describe them.  Alex Jones is famous for saying the President Obama and Secretary Clinton are, literally, satanic (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/us/politics/alex-jones.html).   According to Media Bias Fact Check (an amazing source for checking the reputation for honesty and the biases of media outlets, by the way), True Pundit, another outlet for pizzagate “also currently has a very strong anti-Hillary Clinton bias.  Most articles have an anonymous author.  Simply not trustworthy https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/true-pundit/ ).”  Brietbart, which tweeted about a Podesta-pizza-handkerchief-map that was somehow proof of something, (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/04/fake-news-delivers-real-gunman-to-pizzeria-caught-up-in-alt-right-fake-news.html) is also rated as “highly biased towards conservative causes (https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/?s=breitbart) .”

Hardly Switzerland, wouldn’t you say?

The Verdict?

Well, put all together, it’s fairly clear that the pizzagate conspiracy was suspect from the very beginning until its sordid end.  It was a lie, a hoax, a fraud—and, but for the grace of God, could have ended in tragedy.  Tell your friends to ignore the story.  But don’t let them ignore the people who tried to get them to believe it. And remind them to use RAVEN the next time they mention a bullshit story on Breitbart.

Copyright D R Miller 2016