Feast of the the Assumptions

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2017 by deborah1960

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

Kellyanne and the Sea of Red Herrings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2017 by deborah1960


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.



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

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 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.


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.


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

An Observed Humanity: Structure and Form in Cannery Row

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2014 by deborah1960

I recently finished reading Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. My daughter had been after me to read it ever since she studied it for her IB English class, and a particular student of mine, who had adored Of Mice and Men, inspired me to read it with him.

I was predisposed to enjoy it, since I tend to respect both my daughter’s literary taste and Steinbeck’s writing, but I had no idea how much the inhabitants of the Row—Lee Chong, Mack and the boys, Dora and her working girls, and, of course, Doc—would move me. As someone who has taught Of Mice and Men a gazillion times, I can state with some authority that Steinbeck is a master of characterization. With a few deft observations of stance, clothing, and speech, he can reveal the deepest fears and hopes of his characters’ hearts. Read this passage, and I dare you not to be impressed with the depth of Mack’s love for Doc, and his remorse at disappointing him:

Mack lumbered to his feet. His hands were at his sides. Doc hit him again, a cold calculated punishing punch in the mouth. The blood spurted from Mack’s lips and ran down his chin. He tried to lick his lips.

“Put up your hands. Fight, you son of a bitch,” Doc cried, and he hit him again and heard the crunch of breaking teeth.

Mack’s head jolted but he was braced now so he wouldn’t fall. And his hands stayed at his sides. “Go ahead, Doc,” he said thickly through his broken lips. “I got it coming.”

Mack’s willingness to be defeated, his active passivity, his inability even to lick his blood from his lips, all point to a hideous, festering guilt for having let Doc down. It is so overwhelming that even Doc, who has every right to beat the crap out of Mack at that particular point in the story, can no longer summon the righteous anger he needs to finish the job.

But while characterization is crucial to this book, I think that Steinbeck’s manipulation of structure and form is key to understanding how Cannery Row so successfully burrows its way into the reader’s heart. Unlike other Steinbeck works, there is no tightly constructed story. Steinbeck asserts in his opening sentence that Cannery Row “is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Subjecting it to the rigors of structure would destroy the very thing that he is hoping to invoke. Like the memory of a lover’s perfume, Cannery Row cannot be captured. Instead, it must be allowed to bubble to the surface, gently and with patience. Like “certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole”, Steinbeck lets his memories of Cannery Row “ooze and crawl of their own will.” Hence, stories of Mack’s canny manipulation of the storekeeper Lee Chong (among others) float effortlessly alongside the tragic story of Frankie. Steinbeck’s panegyrics to the foam-flecked and garbage-festooned streets of Cannery Row coexist with the stories of the whores, housewives, and dreamers who inhabit this world. Just as Doc minutely observes the creatures he finds in the tidal pools of Central California, so too does Steinbeck subject his characters and their environs to a discerning—but nonjudgmental—eye. But the characters, like those interesting sea creatures, depend on their environment and the complex web of relationships with the other organisms sharing that space. So when Mack and the boys in the Palace Flop House ruin their planned party for Doc, creating chaos instead of celebration, their neighbors in Dora’s whore house know all about it and shun them for it. The structure of this book is not linear, but similar to those food webs we all drew in ninth grade biology.

But it is the act of observation that invests this web with meaning. An environment exists independently of the biologist, and Cannery Row, where Steinbeck lived and worked, existed well before he put pen to paper and wrote this book. Yet, unless the environment is observed and interpreted by the biologist or the author, we can develop no sympathy or empathy for it. The scientist (and artist) becomes an alchemist, transforming the dross of seaweed and sweat into poetry and understanding.

Furthermore, even though the structure appears diaphanous and vulnerable, Steinbeck uses a quite familiar form to give it strength. This is an old trick: Of Mice and Men borrows heavily from the traditions and tropes of Greek tragedy, the Joad family’s journey to California has more than a passing resemblance to The Odyssey, while East of Eden is a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. In the case of Cannery Row, I believe that Steinbeck uses the tall tale—that most American of American literary forms—to weave the web more strongly.

There are many instances of the tall tale scattered in this book, but surely the brightest—and funniest—is the description of the frog hunt in chapter fifteen. Mack and the gang—hoping to raise money for a party for Doc—break all known rules of frog hunting, and Steinbeck celebrates the boys’ success in a Homeric listing that reminded me of Browning’s description of the doomed rats in “The Pied Piper”:

A wave of frantic, frustrated frogs, big ones, little ones, brown ones, green ones, men frogs and women frogs, a wave of them broke over the bank, crawled, leaped, scrambled. They clambered up the grass, they clutched at each other, little ones rode on big ones. And then—horror on horror—the flashlights found them. Two men gathered them like berries. The line came out of the water and closed in on their rear and gathered them like potatoes. Tens and fifties of them were flung into the gunny sacks, and the sacks filled with tire, frightened, and disillusioned frogs, with dripping, whimpering frogs. Some got away, of course, and some had been saved in the pool. But never in frog history had such an execution taken place. Frogs by the pound, by the fifty pounds. They weren’t counted but there must have been six or seven hundred. Then happily Mack tied up the necks of the sacks. They were soaking, dripping wet and the air was cool. They had a short one in the grass before they went back to the house so they wouldn’t catch cold.

This is Mack’s proudest moment: the plan he hatched has worked, and the frogs (for which Doc will pay him) will finance the party he and his gang want to throw for Doc. In a hilarious exchange between Mack and Lee Chong, they even become a form of legal tender within the poverty-strapped boundaries of Cannery Row. But they are also the symbols of Mack’s downfall: his fecklessness and alcoholism doom all of Mack’s schemes (except the most venal) to failure. On the night of the party, the frogs escape, leaving the lab and the party in tatters behind them:

Through the broken end of the packing case a frog hopped and sat, feeling the air for danger, and then another joined him. They could smell the fine damp cool air coming in the door and in through the broken windows. One of them sat on the fallen card which said, “Welcome Home, Doc.” And then the two hopped timidly toward the door.

For quite a while a little river of frogs hopped down the steps, a swirling, moving river. For quite a while Cannery Row crawled with frogs—was overrun with frogs. A taxi which brought a very late customer to the Bear Flag squashed five frogs in the street. But well before dawn they had all gone. Some found the sewer and some worked their way up the hill to the reservoir and some went into culverts and some only hid among the weeds in the vacant lot.

And the lights blazed in the quiet empty laboratory.

The purpose of the tall tale is generally to aggrandize the protagonists of the story. Pecos Bill rides a tornado, while Paul Bunyan tamed the Whistling River. Tall tales can also take their heroes down a notch or two, as seen in Mark Twain’s famous story about another amphibian. Steinbeck does both here. But, just as he uses Greek tragedy to illuminate the noble lives of the unheroic men in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck uses the tall tale to magnify the humanity of his characters, instead of distorting it or diminishing it. Yes, the frogs are symbols of transient glory and aborted dreams, but they are also symbolic of Mack’s intelligence, cunning, and desire to express a humane love for the quietly heroic Doc. In another story, Mack would be the hero, not the goat. Speaking through Doc, Steinbeck acknowledges the superior humanity of the neglected:

Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Of course, characterization also gives Mack his particular dignity: it’s interesting, for example, that he always uses the grammatically correct “I and the boys are…” instead of the more expected (but incorrect) “me and the boys are…” But ultimately, it is through the web-like structure of the story and the use of the tall tale that Steinbeck best shows how integral to the life of Cannery Row that Mack and the boys are. And by extension, by exalting the lowest of us, Steinbeck endows each of us with humanity. We are all ennobled by Mack, and far from scorning him –or Dora or her whores or the mercenary Lee Chong or any of the other people who populate Cannery Row—we should celebrate him, his failures, and his triumphs.

Number Four on Britain’s Top 10.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 4, 2013 by deborah1960

Sorry it’s been a while since the last blog—my damned day job keeps rearing its ugly head!  But now that I’ve had a chance to sit down and write, I shall proceed with no further ado; I know you’ve been waiting for the latest instalment with bated breath.

4.  Churches

I am hardly unique when I say that 9/11 will be forever seared in my memory; who could forget seeing those images of that crystal sky, the plane, the towers, the impact?  The horror was magnified by personal events:  my husband’s co-worker, a young and seemingly healthy man, had a stroke.  His wife, who had remained in the States, came over after my husband called.  She stayed with us and we remained with her as her husband died.  A couple of days later my mother-in-law called, to tell me what was happening back home.  Life was suddenly tenuous, and I was all too aware that I was out of my depth, out of my country, and out of my mind with grief and fear.  My usual reaction to chaos is to try to  impose order, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that every single sheet, tea towel, and cloth napkin in the house was ironed to within an inch of its life that afternoon.  But I eventually ran out of things to organise, so I went out for a walk.

At the time, we lived on Minster Yard, right across the street from Lincoln Cathedral.  I hope sometime that you get the chance to go to Lincoln, if you haven’t already had that privilege.  The medieval center is exquisite, with the cathedral dominating that corner of the world, radiating its assurance and beauty like a benediction.  But that day, I received something more.  Turning left, instead of right, I went on a circular path that led me down Viking paths and Roman roads and  past a Norman castle and shops that saw John of Gaunt ride by, until finally I found myself in front of the cathedral.  At a certain angle, the autumn sun turns the limestone into gold.  I touched the front wall, and it positively thrummed with light and energy.  That’s when it hit me:  all these things I had walked past were testaments to our ability to survive the most horrific disasters:  plague, war, famine.  And we’d make it again.

History isn’t merely the recitation of catastrophe: it’s a hymn to our steadfastness and endurance.

It was that moment when history ceased to be an abstract academic interest and became something deeper and more personal.  And nowhere does that personal history speak more clearly to me than in the churches that dot the towns and villages across Britain.

Don’t worry—I’m not turning all holy on you.  But if you know how to read a church (a wonderful friend taught me how to do it), you can track the impact of history upon the people who built it and lived their lives around it.  Your average parish church (unless it was rebuilt by the Victorians, who liked to tidy things up a bit too much) is a hodgepodge of architectural styles that can range from before the Conquest up to the present day.  It isn’t unusual to see an Anglo-Saxon tower (recognisable from the ashlar edges, squint windows, and sturdy double-arched windows), a Norman porch (dog-tooth decorations on the round arches of the door), and a Perpendicular lady chapel tacked onto an early English gothic nave.  Right there, you see the progression of time.2013-03-24 14.23.53

But, my glory, what wonders you see inside!  I’m not talking about the obvious grandeur of the pillars and (usually Victorian) stained glass; what I love are the small miracles that survived.  Edward VI and his commissioners did a pretty good job of eradicating much of Catholic England (most people blame Oliver Cromwell, but the sanctimonious little prick got there ahead of him nine times out of ten).  Stained glass was shattered, statues beheaded, and relics of beloved saints thrown out with the rubbish.  While a good number of people agreed with these changes, I don’t think you should underestimate the trauma the average person felt (The Voices of Morebath by Eamon Duffy is an excellent book on the subject).

The Bishop’s Eye, Lincoln Cathedral. Once shattered, the glass is a patchwork of the shards of different windows, pieced together in the 18th century.

But every once in a while you see where that average person took a stand:  statues of saints hidden away and brought back out in safer times; shards of stained glass lovingly placed back into their tracery, like huge, abstract jigsaw puzzles; saints, covered for centuries, finally reappearing through the carelessly applied whitewash; the forbidden rood screen at St. Edith Coates defiantly surviving Henry VIII’s edicts.  These are the triumphs of ordinary men and women, and I love them for what they reveal about these obstinate, sturdy people.

St Edith Coates by Stow, with pre-reformation wooden rood screen.

Before moving onto numbers 5 and 6, I’ll give you a mystery to ponder.  St Mary le Wigford in downtown Lincoln, only yards away from the train station, has an Anglo-Saxon tower.  On the top of the east facing wall, is a double arched window; there is a small pillar, and on top of it is a stone capital.  It is unfinished.  Why?  Did the mason fall from the tower?  Did they run out of money? Was the mason killed at Hastings?  If anyone knows, please don’t tell me—I want to keep on pondering.

St Mary le Wigford, looking at the west face of the tower.

Goodness!  That was long.  Looks like driving and The Archers will have to wait a bit longer.