Feast of the the Assumptions

Happily for teachers of Critical Thinking, as the Trump Administration carries on with its carrying-on, there will doubtless be a veritable wealth of flawed logic arising from the actual words and phrases stoking the engines of its, uh, progress that we can use to generate powerful resources to illustrate the principles of logical thinking to our students.  Oh, happy day!  Who says you can’t teach by negative example? [1]  So, up until now, I’ve been using critical thinking techniques to evaluate the rhetoric,  both oral and written, of Donald Trump and his surrogates.  To that end, I have focused on the actual words that are being used in order to examine the validity (or otherwise) of the statements that are being made, primarily by analyzing how the authors committed one form of logical fallacy or another, or else relied upon a somewhat less than reliable source.  However, in this essay, I want to focus upon what is being left unsaid:  the non-spoken assumptions that the speaker or writer relies upon in order to support what is explicitly being stated.

Now, I am as familiar as the rest of you with that old saw, “When you assume something, you make an ass out of u and me.”  Quite droll, indeed.  The truth of the matter is, however, that we make assumptions just about every waking hour.  An assumption is an unstated, unexamined belief that underlies our thinking. When I tuck myself into bed each night, I assume that I will wake up the next morning.  When Meryl Streep is in a movie, I assume that she will give an amazing and not-at-all overrated performance.  When I see Kellyanne Conway on the TV, I assume that my blood pressure will skyrocket.  And so it goes.

As it is in life, so it is in argumentation. You might recall that an argument is the happy marriage of a debatable claim and a reason supporting it.  The degree to which you support your reasons lends strength to the argument, but explanations are not a necessary component of the argument itself.  However, just about every argument requires the listener to make at least one assumption in order to make the link between the claim and the reason supporting it.[2]  Let’s look at the following argument to see exactly what I mean:

Because of its overwhelming role in eradicating disease, I conclude that water sanitation is the greatest invention.

Now, I could strengthen this argument by adding statistics about water borne illnesses, or information about how washing hands in clean water can inhibit the spread of contagion, but even without these flourishes, I still have an argument.  However, in order for the claim (“I conclude…”) to arise logically from the reason (“Because of its overwhelming role…”), I have to make a number of assumptions.  For example, I am assuming that the eradication of disease is the greatest possible achievement.  Upon its face, this looks like a reasonable assumption, but are there other, equally significant achievements?  Indeed, aren’t there achievements, such as the eradication of adulthood illiteracy, that actually made the development of sanitation systems possible?  Similarly, there is an assumption that the greatest invention is the one that has the greatest beneficial impact.  Many might agree with this position, but upon closer examination, one can see that this assumption might be disputed:  “great” might mean “having the greatest impact,” regardless whether that impact is beneficial or harmful.  Thus, the greatest invention might be the combustion engine, which has had not only an enormous impact on human mobility, but has also powered an unprecedented industrial revolution that is still ongoing after two centuries and (without any room for authentic debate whatsoever) caused global warming.  And then there is the assumption that is absolutely critical for the argument to hold any water whatsoever:  that it is actually possible to take all the inventions made by humanity and quantify which, of all them, is the greatest.  I bet you didn’t even think of that one, did you?  And yet, it is the invisible pole that is holding up the great debate tent.  Or something like that. At any rate, this last example should illustrate not only how important assumptions are to a debate but also how hard they can be to discern.  Sometimes, an assumption is so basic to an argument that it becomes nearly invisible.

Therefore, even though they are unstated, assumptions are a critical aspect of any argument.  You might wonder why, if they’re so damned important, they aren’t explicitly stated.  That seems reasonable, and good writers will frequently spell out the less obvious assumptions that they rely upon as they make their points.  But if a writer spells out every assumption that she is relying upon, then she will never reach the end of the argument.  But that doesn’t absolve the careful reader (or listener) of the responsibility of examining the underlying assumptions of an argument.  This attention to assumptions is critical, because if they are unsound, then, alas, the argument is unsound.

Yes, that’s right.  Not only do you have to find the assumptions, but then you have to evaluate them.  Nothing is ever handed to you on a silver platter in the world of reasoned debate.

I would say that most assumptions are fairly innocuous:  they are grounded in experience, or else there is a strong link between the reason and the claim, so the “bridge” provided by the assumption is fairly short and strong.  However, there are times when the connection between the two is not short:  in cases such as these, it is helpful to the reader for the writer to lay these assumptions out explicitly.  For example, at first glance, there appears to be no logical connection between the claim and reason in the following argument “I am moving to Kansas, therefore I need the name of a really good contractor.”  That’s because the assumptions linking the two are not immediately apparent.  But once those assumptions are stated, the link becomes clearer, and the conclusion isn’t as zany as it first appears:  I am moving to Kansas.  Based on what I know of the climate, I assume that I have a good chance of weathering a tornado or two.  Also, I assume that the best way to survive a tornado is to have a solidly built storm cellar that I can escape to when I hear those sirens wailing.  I further assume that the best storm cellars are built by really good contractors.  Therefore, I need to get the name of a really good contractor.”  See?  Once the bridge is laid out, the nexus becomes clearer.

The other problem arises when the link between the reason and the conclusion is not strong for any number of reasons.  For example, the assumption might fly in the face of facts.  The following argument might have been made right up until the moment Senator Marco Rubio took the microphone during the Tillerson confirmation hearings:

Because Senator Marco Rubio, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a Republican, he will give Rex Tillerson an easy time during the confirmation hearings.

Here, the assumption being made is that, because Rubio is a Republican, he will put party interests ahead of what he believes are the best interests of the country and not raise the thorny issues of Tillerson’s chummy relationship with Vladimir Putin.[3]  However, and certainly to Tillerson’s chagrin, this assumption about Rubio could not be farther from the truth (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/trump-cabinet-confirmation-hearings-live.html). Rubio’s conscious apparently could not allow him to forget Putin’s actions in Syria, and he therefore would not allow Tillerson to get away with pussyfooting around the whole Putin thang—including the issue of whether Vlad is or is not a war criminal (https://www.yahoo.com/news/marco-rubio-grills-rex-tillerson-for-refusing-to-call-putin-a-war-criminal-174525761.html) .  Maybe he’s following in the steps of Senators McCain and Graham in a principled revolt against Trump’s choice for State (http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/12/rex-tillerson-senate-confirmation), or perhaps he just really, really hates Trump (http://www.gq.com/story/marco-rubio-is-really-bad-at-pretending-to-support-donald-trump). Regardless of Rubio’s motivation, however, this assumption about him toeing the party line is just flat out factually incorrect—but it isn’t necessarily logically flawed.

Another reason that an assumption might be flawed could be that the speaker is assuming that the source of a claim is credible.  Take this example, hot off the presses, where Trump is discrediting an unverified report that Putin is blackmailing him:

Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.” Very unfair! (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/819155311793700865).

Obviously, Trump is making the assumption that the Kremlin is a reliable source for this type of information.  Donald, Donald, Donald.  WHEN will you read my essay on how to consider the source?[4]  If you would just put the Twitter app down, you would see that this assumption really doesn’t pass the RAVEN test.  While Vlad certainly has the ability to see (hence, the source of some of the more salacious rumors), and apparently he’s an expert in the field of political blackmail (http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/11/509305088/a-russian-word-americans-need-to-know-kompromat) , he doesn’t exactly have a reputation for honesty (http://www.politifact.com/personalities/vladimir-putin/ and http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/donald-trump-2016-vladimir-putin-liars-213788). Furthermore, given a recent statement that Trump is “a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt (http://www.thepoliticalinsider.com/vladimir-putin-just-made-a-massive-donald-trump-announcement/#ixzz4VUwY876Y),” Putin is hardly a neutral party in this debate.  Finally, if he does have something on Donald, the elected leader of the Free World, then Putin certainly has a vested interest in not wanting to let the world and his wife know all about it.  After all, if you had a useful, but powerful, idiot in your pocket (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/trump-russia-useful-idiot-madeleine-albright-230238), would you really want the rest of the world to know about it?  Wouldn’t you instead want to hold him close, all to yourself?  Shower him with gold?  Or something similar?

Finally, an assumption might be incorrect because it is based on a logical fallacy.  Naturally, this is the most difficult type of false assumption to figure out, because not only do you have to articulate an assumption, but you also need to see if it fits into one of the many, many kinds of flaws in logic that exist.  But while it is hard, it is not impossible—and it is critical.  Practice will make the task easier, so here’s an easily spotted logically flawed assumption to start out with, and then we’ll examine a slightly more difficult example, okay?

Remember, way back when we still had sensibilities to be offended, the lovely things that Donald said about our neighbors South of the Border when he announced his candidacy?  No?  There’s just been too much stuff to pull that particular rabbit out of your hat?  Okay.  Here’s a reminder:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people (http://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/).[5]

There are some interesting assumptions going on here.  For example, when he says, “They’re not sending their best.  They’re not sending you,” the assumption he’s making is that his supporters (the ones to whom he is directing his remarks) are the best.  However, that is not the example of a logically fallacious assumption that we’re examining.  It’s just factually wrong. The logically flawed assumption is the one that he makes at the end, when he says “And some, I assume, are good people.”  This explicit assumption depends upon an underlying implicit assumption:  “I also assume that the rest of the Mexicans, the so-much-greater-number-than-‘some’, are bad people.” This assumption has many of the hallmarks of a hasty generalization.

A hasty generalization, as its name implies, is a broad categorization that is made unwisely because there are insufficient examples to support it.  In other words, the speaker didn’t wait for all the data to come in. So, for example, I see swan A, and it is white.  So too are Swans B and C.  The rather hasty generalization that I conclude from this observation is that all swans are white.  And just as soon as a black swan paddles down the stream, I will learn that my conclusion is quite wrong.  Just too damned hasty.

This is what Donald has done.  Based on some scanty data, he has established that damned near all Mexicans are bad, bad people.  He offers neither evidence nor statistics; hell, he doesn’t even give anecdotal evidence (“I knew this Mexican, and he was a gun runner.  Therefore, all Mexicans are gun runners”). In fact, there is so little support for his assumption that it hardly rises to the dignity of a hasty generalization: no data, just nastiness.  It is much, much more flawed than my example.  At least I saw those three swans.  But that’s our Donald.  Full of surprises.

So, that was the example of a logically flawed assumption that is fairly easy to identify.  Before looking at the next flawed assumption, it’s worthwhile to discuss “conflation.”  Conflation occurs when the speaker asserts an identity between two things (people, ideas, actions, etc.) that are actually distinct and separate from each other.  Conflation causes confusion, because clear lines are blurred, and the listener is frequently left scratching his head. The reason why this is a bit harder to spot than, say, a hasty generalization, is that you have to stop and ask yourself whether the two things are separate or identical.  Is “might” truly “right”?  Or is there a difference?

On 11 January 2017, during his first press conference since the election, Trump was confronted with many, many questions about his budding relationship with Vladimir Putin.  And he responded with what can only be described as a master class in conflation. Not only did he equate Buzzfeed’s decision to print the entire unverified dossier about what Vlad knows about Donald with CNN’s decision to report about the two page summary of the allegations shared with Trump, but he also equated the situation with Nazi Germany (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/us/politics/trump-press-conference-transcript.html ). But as fascinating as these examples are, they are not the instance of conflation that I find particularly worthy of close analysis.

In response to the suggestion that there might be something, uh, unwholesome about this friendship, Trump responded with the following:

If Putin likes Trump, guess what, folks, that’s an asset.

Now, strange as this might seem, the unspoken assumption that I wish to explore is not “Trump honestly thinks he can play with fire without getting burned.”  Nope.  The assumption that I wish to explore is “Putin’s warm feelings for Trump equates to good news for America.”[6] An ancillary to this assumption might very well be “If it’s good for Trump, then it’s good for America.”

Here, Trump is implicitly inviting us to accept the notion that his interests are identical to the country’s interests.  But in order to do that, we have to ignore quite a bit of evidence about how that might not be the case.  The following are just a few examples of how this man’s interests diverge from the national interest:  his possible violations of the Emoluments clause of the Constitution (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/11/21/the-emoluments-clause-is-donald-trump-violating-its-letter-or-spirit/?utm_term=.3e8431a655eb); his apparent unwillingness to do what’s necessary to avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest between President Trump and Businessman Trump (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/12/509421108/u-s-ethics-official-trumps-divestiture-is-hard-pricy-and-essential ); his fervent wish that the Russians hack Secretary Clinton’s email (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/trump-putin-no-relationship-226282); and his curiously persistent denial of Russia’s interference with the election, despite the fact that the nation’s major intelligence-gathering agencies vigorously beg to differ (https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf). Given the seriousness of these conflicts of interest, it is entirely unnecessary to delve into the truth or otherwise of the rumors concerning Vlad’s special knowledge of Donald’s curious bladder control issues to determine that it is highly unlikely that their bromance is in any possible way good news for America.

So, it’s obvious that we need to listen carefully to what is not being said as carefully as we listen to what is actually said. When our Dear Leader’s favorite form of communication with his subjects fellow citizens is a social media app that permits him to use only 140 characters to express his views on complex subjects, he will of necessity leave gloss over a few important details.  Anyone would have to omit words—even if one weren’t a lazy thinker—and as a result, there is no real opportunity to tease out subtleties or to explain assumptions.  Using Twitter to react coherently to the world’s problems would be a challenge for a nuanced thinker, such as President Obama.[8]  It is especially problematic, therefore, when one tweets in the cold hours of the far too early morning, in visceral reaction to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.


[1] As for the rest of you, well, I’m sure that everything will be fine.  Just fine.  Really.

[2] Under Toulmin’s model of arguments, the term “warrant” is used to refer to these underlying assumptions (although heaven only knows why he chose to call them that—he could just as easily have called them “goulash,” as far as I’m concerned) http://changingminds.org/disciplines/argument/making_argument/toulmin.htm.  Warrants can be either implicitly understood or explicitly laid out; for the purpose of this blog, I am focusing on the implicitly understood assumptions (or warrants or goulash) that bridge the gap between the reason and the conclusion.

[3] This is not an out-of-the-world assumption to make; I mean, McConnell seems to have bought into the “party before country” idea hook, line, and sinker (https://twitter.com/SenateMajLdr/status/816740570248990720).

[4] And, Donald, just in case you or Kellyanne is reading this, here is the link.  AGAIN.  https://essayettes.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/pizzagate-how-to-consider-the-source/

[5] Bless his heart.

[6] This observation is based on the somewhat generous assumption that, as the President Elect of these United States, he is referring to Putin’s gushy feelings as an asset to the country.  Of course, this assumption could be totally wrong, and Trump could be baldly asserting that his special relationship with Vlad is a personal asset, and fuck the rest of the country.  Perish the thought.

Copyright 2017 D R Miller


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