Kellyanne and the Sea of Red Herrings

 

A “red herring” in rhetoric refers to a diversionary tactic that is used to distract attention from the issue actually at hand.  Because it is an attempt to use an irrelevancy to avoid the real argument, it is a massive, albeit popular, logical fallacy. There are lots of fun, apocryphal stories about the origin of the phrase, but they all boil down to the same idea:  in order to throw hounds off a trail, crafty [fugitives, thieves, hunters, take your pick] would use a stinky old fish to create a false trail for whatever gullible rube they were trying to fool (http://www.culinarylore.com/food-history:origin-of-red-herring-expression, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2016/05/origins-phrase-red-herring/).  I was reminded of the term on December 29, when various Trump surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, strongly implied that the real story about the alleged Russian hacks of the DNC computers was how the DNC was actually to blame because of its piss-poor cybersecurity measures.

CNN asked Kellyanne about actions President Obama took in response to intelligence reports that not only did Russia hack the DNC, but they did so in aid of the Trump campaign.  She said many interesting things that day, but this is what really pricked up my ears:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/12/29/kellyanne-conway-blames-u-s-intelligence-agencies-russia-election-hacking.html).

It seemed as if she were saying that, instead of going after the hackers and whoever might have benefitted from their actions, we should instead blame the DNC.  Now that seems like a distraction, doesn’t it?

But it is important not to leap to conclusions.  Even teachers of Critical Thinking have been known to have an emotional reaction or two, and I certainly did not want to commit a logical fallacy of my own.  In this case, the fallacy I wanted to avoid is called “confusing an explanation for an excuse.”

Before going on to examine this fallacy, it’s important to recall basic principles of argumentation in order to understand the difference between excuses and explanations.  An argument has two basic components:  a reason and a conclusion.  A conclusion is the proposition or claim that you are trying to prove. A reason is a statement given to support or justify the conclusion.  If you can logically put “because” before a statement, it is a reason; similarly, if you can put “therefore” before a statement, then it is a conclusion. [1]  And if you have the two together, then you have an argument.

Here are some examples:

“[Because] I think, therefore I am.”

“[Because] I am a grammar nazi.  Therefore I would be a good copy editor.”

“[Because] I like cats, therefore I hate dogs.”

These are all properly formulated (albeit not very well-developed) arguments.

Explanations, however, are not reasons—they support the reason by making the thinking behind the reason clearer.

“I like cats.  They are fluffy and sweet.  Therefore, I hate dogs.”

The statement “they are fluffy and sweet” clarifies why I prefer cats, but does not justify why I hate dogs.  Thus, it is an explanation, and not a reason.

Unlike most logical fallacies, where the flaw is committed by the speaker or writer, “confusing an explanation for an excuse” is usually the result of faulty thinking on the part of the reader or listener.  Instead of realizing that what is being said is being offered to clarify the reasons behind the speaker’s ultimate conclusion, the reader jumps ahead and assumes that the writer is justifying the conclusion.  In other words, what is being used as an explanation is interpreted as a reason or excuse.

Here’s an example of how the fallacy can be committed:

Me:  Where’s your homework?

Student:  I didn’t do it.  I am a lazy slug.

Me:  I suppose you think that excuses/justifies your decision not to hand in your homework. [SPOILER ALERT:  This is the step where I commit the fallacy.]

Student:  No, I’m just explaining/clarifying that this is how God made me. You knew this about me, you have always known this about me, and you will always know this about me. Therefore, it was totally illogical of you to expect me to do the homework in the first place

I assumed that the student was saying “Because I am a lazy slug, I therefore did not do the homework,” and attacked her before she could conclude the argument.  I (gasp!) committed a flaw in my logic because I interrupted her before she could give me her reason (“You knew this about me…”) that supported her conclusion (“Therefore, it was totally illogical of you to expect me to do the homework in the first place”).  “I am a lazy slug” was simply strengthening her reason.  Now, I don’t have to accept her argument, but at least I can recognize the true role being performed by her statement, “I am a lazy slug.”

It is not always easy to make the distinction between an explanation and an excuse.  For example, sometimes an explanation is so compelling that it looks like an excuse.

Me: Where’s your homework?

Student:  I was in the hospital for two weeks in traction for two broken arms and high as a kite on pain killers.

Now, unless I were a total dickhead, this explanation would more than suffice as justification for cutting the kid some slack.  But, strictly speaking, it is still an explanation that supports the implied reason that she couldn’t do the homework, which would support her implied conclusion that she should be exempted from my “homework is due when homework is due” policy.  If my student were as pedantic as I am, she would have formulated her argument thusly:

Me:  Where’s your homework?

Student:  I should be not be punished for not handing in my homework [Conclusion] because I couldn’t do it [Reason/excuse/justification].  I was in the hospital for two weeks in traction for two broken arms and high as a kite on pain killers [Explanation].

There are many reasons why the listener can mistake explanations for excuses.  My second student didn’t structure her argument formally (she was still on painkillers), and it’s rather unreasonable (even for a dedicated pedant such as your author) to expect everyone to formulate every argument according to my exacting specifications. Another reason the listener can make the mistake is because of emotions.  For example, I was so pissed off at the student in the first example that I jumped the gun.

In order to distinguish excuses from explanations, it is necessary to see how the statement in question is being used.   Is it setting the stage by giving context for the reasons supporting the conclusion?  Is it giving you a fact that strengthens the reasoning behind the conclusion?  Or is it being used as a reason that justifies the conclusion of the argument?

So, keeping these considerations in mind, let’s look again at what Kellyanne said about the DNC hacks to determine if I’ve committed a fallacy by mistaking her explanation for her reason:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/12/29/kellyanne-conway-blames-u-s-intelligence-agencies-russia-election-hacking.html).

Now, if we were speaking strictly in structural terms, it’s clear that Kellyanne is making an argument:  you can logically insert the word “because” in front of the sentence starting “They didn’t have the proper security…” and “therefore” in front of “This is really about the DNC’s breach.”  Grrr.  She really does seem to be saying that the DNC is solely responsible for the hack.  But, maybe like my student in my second example, Kellyanne’s powers of reasoning were somehow not up to par.  Maybe the stress of her job is getting to her.  So let’s cut her some slack, and see if we can discern an implied intent to use this statement as an explanation, and not an excuse. To do this would require us to see if “This is really about the DNC’s breach” can function as a reason, and not a conclusion.

But, assuming Kellyanne is being logical, there should be some proposition that would flow naturally from her reason “This is really about the DNC’s breach.”  What could that conclusion be?  That the DNC is the author of their own downfall?  That the hackers are utterly absolved of their own culpability?  It’s hard to see what other conclusion might be drawn.[2]

Or, if there is no reason at all in her statement, but it is instead a pile of explanations, of clarifications, of context, what reason would those explanations support?  Perhaps she is using this information to build an argument about the necessity for constant vigilance in the face of foreign attacks upon our political structures. In that case, we would reasonably look for her to condemn the Russians for taking advantage of the security breach.  Such an argument might look like this:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence.  Because of the lax security, the Russians were able to influence the outcome of the election.  Therefore, we must have a root and branch investigation of the DNC hacking to ensure that this never happens again.[3]

However, Kellyanne’s statement does not use the fact of the DNC’s rather fey attitude to cybersecurity for either of these purposes.  No. Instead, she says “[t]his is really about the DNC’s breach.”  That’s it.  End of report.  Kellyanne is not showing any interest in addressing the underlying issue of the rights or wrongs of the DNC hack:  instead, she is allocating all of the blame to the DNC, and none to the hackers.  So, after all that, I’m pretty sure that I’m not committing the error of mistaking an explanation for a reason.  Additionally, other GOP surrogates have failed to dissuade me from this conclusion.

For example, Sean Spicer used similar language the same day in his response to the news that the Russians were linked to the hacking:

At some point, the question hasn’t even been asked of the (Democratic National Committee): Did you take basic measures to protect the data that was on there?  Where’s the responsibility of them to protect their systems? http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/29/politics/sean-spicer-dnc-hackings/

Again, this might be deemed to be an explanation of why the hacking occurred in the first place.  However, Sean never takes that extra step of saying that the hacks should never occurred in the first place, or that we really do need to find a way to keep those pesky Russians from stealing personal documents.  Instead, he goes on to attack the media for not asking the DNC about its crap security and the intelligence agencies for not making their findings public.  Indeed, his ire seems to be aimed at just about everybody except the people who experts agree are the most likely culprit.  This is not the language of explanation:  it’s the language of obfuscation.  Of sand in your eyes.  Or, to use a term I learned on my mother’s knees, horse feathers.

Well, what’s the big deal, you might ask.  After all, Kellyanne and Sean have a point:  if the DNC hadn’t been so whimsical about basic cybersecurity, they wouldn’t have been hacked, right?  Even if they come to this conclusion, what makes it a red herring?

Well, the reason why it’s a red herring is that it is an attempt to distract the reader from the real issues at hand:  who the hell committed those hacks, and what should we do about them and their beneficiaries?  Instead, Kellyanne and Sean are offering up a new culprit:  the victim of the hacks, and not the hackers themselves.

There is something that feels good about this stance:  it seems balanced.  The bad action provokes the bad reaction.  Man up and stop being such a baby—you got what was coming to you.  And there are, indeed, times when someone richly deserves the bad karma he or she provokes.  I once knew a guy who wrecked his MG Spitfire, so his amazingly indulgent parents gave him a Triumph 7.  Spoiled rich guy hated the Triumph, so he would leave it in the middle of the highest crime neighborhood in the city– unlocked, convertible roof opened, windows down, and key dangling from the ignition—praying that it would be stolen so his parents could use the insurance money to buy him a new Spitfire.  Of course it wasn’t stolen (any would-be thief with half a brain cell would have thought it was a trap set by the police), but if it had been, I would have been the first in line to say that my friend had it coming to him.[4]

But it is precisely because this formulation is so emotionally satisfying that we should look at it carefully.  Remember:  emotions cloud reason.  In essence, we are blaming the victim, and a victim, by definition, should evoke our sympathy.  Therefore, when a claim not only neutralizes our compassion, but actually gets us to actively sneer at the victim, we really need to look at it with a magnifying glass.

The key to determining the reasonableness of blaming the victim is to examine the proportionality of the action and the result. The classic formulation of victim blaming is “if she weren’t so drunk/dressed like a slut/walking home alone, she would not have been raped.” Surely, even if any of these actions were the proximate cause of a sexual assault (and that is HIGHLY debatable), they are so negligible that they wouldn’t justify a brutal crime.  The results are simply wildly out of proportion to the alleged cause.[5]

So, let us use the proportionality test to ascertain whether it is fair to say that, since the DNC is the author of its own woes, we should not try to dig more into the hacking itself.

First of all, what’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander:  if we shouldn’t take the DNC hack seriously because it was its own fault, then we should never take hacking seriously if the victim had poor cybersecurity.  But being lax with cybersecurity is hardly unique to the DNC.  A 2014 report by the Heritage Foundation reveals a list of hacked companies that is simply breathtaking in its breadth.  (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/10/cyber-attacks-on-us-companies-in-2014).  From Sony to Target, it seems no one is safe from internet malefactors.  And surely, there must have been some laxity involved.  For example, as recently as 2015, in an article discussing a hack of Anthem, the New York Times reported that health insurance companies are vulnerable to hacking as a result of lax security practices surrounding the personal information in their files (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/business/experts-suspect-lax-security-left-anthem-vulnerable-to-hackers.html). And yet, despite this laxity, various federal and state law enforcement agencies have been hunting the hackers down—and occasionally even managing to arrest them (http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/surprise-breaking/2016/10/27/phoenix-meetkumar-desai-arrested-cyberattack-911-system/92847226/). So, surprise, surprise:  as far as law enforcement is concerned, the victim is still a victim, and the hacking is still a crime, even if the victim had been somewhat lazy about not responding to phishing expeditions.  I guess that’s only fair:  after all, cops still investigate burglaries even if the victim left the door unlocked.

Second, we need to look at the enormity of the Russian hack.  Top intelligence officials believe that the Russians deliberately interfered with our election by selectively releasing embarrassing emails in the hopes of swaying the voters away from Secretary Clinton.  Goodness only knows why they preferred Trump; I admit I’m as perplexed as the next person about it.  Maybe it has something to do with those pesky tax forms (http://ijr.com/2016/09/698715-senate-democrats-speculate-that-donald-trumps-tax-returns-would-reveal-russian-collusion/), or the bizarre love triangle between Putin, Trump, and Manafort (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/439164/donald-trump-paul-manafort-russian-ties)  .  But whatever the reason, there is a clear indication that this election’s results probably came from Russia, with love. This is a foreign attack on our electoral system, which, in the humble opinion of your author, is a YUGE deal.  The preservation of fundamental democratic principles demands that the government conduct a full and open investigation into the hack and its connections to the RNC, even if the DNC were hopelessly naïve about cybersecurity.

Consequently, not only did Kellyanne and Sean use a red herring to keep us off the trail, but it was a particularly stinky one.

 

THIS JUST IN: 

Even though Kellyanne and Sean made their comments on 29 December, I didn’t complete this essay until 1 AM on 4 January.  That’s because I like to do a little something called “thinking” before I set my words down for everyone to read.   Call me old school.  However, it did give me a little qualm, thinking that what I said might not have the same relevance that it might have had if I had been a bit quicker at the keyboard.

Well, thank God for Donald Trump (and, trust me, that’s a prayer you’ll rarely hear from my lips)!  Almost as if my fairy godmother had let him know my worries, he posted the following on Twitter at 7:22 AM on 4 January:

Julian Assange said “a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta” – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info! (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/816620855958601730).

What a sweetie!

Clearly, Trump is using one of his favorite devices—the rhetorical question—to make the argument that the DNC’s ineptitude, and not the Russian cyber hit squad(s), are to blame for the hack.  There is not even a hint of a whiff of an explanation here:  the DNC was careless, therefore they are to blame.  The use of the question is especially telling, because questions, by their nature, raise, well, questions.  They do not provide facts.  They do not provide answers.  They demand responses.  So it is evident that Trump is using the old red herring (as well as blaming the victim) to distract us from the substantive questions about Russia’s role in his election.  Nice!

Furthermore, I can’t help but notice that Trump is using Assange as a source about both the DNC cybersecurity and the role of the Russians.  Now, Assange might be a stand-up kind of guy.  Haven’t a clue.  However, when it comes to Secretary Clinton, he’s hardly a fan:

“Hillary Clinton is receiving constant updates about my personal situation; she has pushed for the prosecution of WikiLeaks,” he told ITV. “We do see her as more of a problem for freedom of the press generally. (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/15/12929262/wikileaks-hillary-clinton-julian-assange-hate).

It kind of hurts to admit this, but I get the distinct impression that Trump has not read my earlier blog on how to evaluate sources.[6]  If he had, he would know to be wary of citing Assange under these circumstances as he fails two of the prongs of the RAVEN test:  V (vested interest) and N (neutrality).  Assange clearly hates Clinton, so he is far from neutral.  Further, while I’m sure that being squirreled away in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London is as much fun for him as it is for his hosts, I bet that Assange is hankering to breathe the sweet, sweet air of freedom.  But if he hits the pavements, he might be sent to Sweden to face two rape charges.[7]  Yet, that is not the least of his legal woes:  once he’s in Sweden, he might very well be sent to the US and face capital charges for leaking a whole heap o’ classified documents.[8] So things might be a bit rosier for Assange if a non-Secretary Clinton were in the White House—especially if said non-Clinton owed his occupancy of the Oval Office to, in some degree, Assange. In other words, Assange has a vested interest in the outcome of this particular debate.

So, in conclusion, I needn’t have worried that Kellyanne’s little red herring would be irrelevant.  It is as stinky now as it was when she rubbed it on CNN’s trail on the 29th. It also indicates that we can expect more, and not less, use of this logical fallacy on the part of the Trump administration.  Sad!

 

[1] This is not to say that the reason is a good one, or that it necessarily leads to the conclusion.  It’s just saying that this is how an argument is formally structured.  The argument, “[Because] Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch, therefore I believe every word Tucker Carlson says,” while structurally correct, does not pass substantive muster in ways too numerous to address.

[2] And for reasons given below, I would count this conclusion as a red herring.

[3] Of course, another formulation of the argument might have the following reason and conclusion:

Because you guys were suckers, [therefore] we win.  Nanny, nanny boo-boo.

But surely not.

[4] And, given the fact that the car wasn’t stolen, it is arguable that he got exactly what was coming to him.

[5] Unlike my rich friend, whose actions not only would have justified the theft of his car, but also the pressing of charges for insurance fraud.

[6] Here’s where you can find it, in case you forgot: https://essayettes.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/pizzagate-how-to-consider-the-source/.  It’s really good.  Trust my unbiased opinion.

[7] In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that Assange insists that these charges are politically motivated (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/oct/14/wiileaks-from-liberal-beacon-to-a-prop-for-trump-what-has-happened). I don’t know enough to evaluate this claim, so I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to accept his statement.

[8] The United Kingdom does not extradite people if they are facing the death penalty after a court ruled that the risk of serving on death row would constitute a violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which I think is rather sporting. Soering v United Kingdom (1989) 11 EHRR 439, Judgment of 7 July 1989. That’s why the trip to Stockholm is key to getting him to the US:  Sweden apparently has no such qualms.

Copyright 2017 D R Miller

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: