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

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


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