Archive for critical thinking

How to Tell BF from BS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by deborah1960

A recent op-ed article in the New York Times raised an interesting (and eponymous) question:  has Trump stolen philosophy’s critical tools? The author, Casey Williams, argues that some of the blame for Trump’s rather casual relationship with the truth lies in some measure with the philosophers, literary critics, and social scientists who have chipped away at the notion that truth can in any way be deemed objective, universal, and unquestionable.  In a world where the one universally acknowledged truth is that the truth cannot be known, it is a short hop, skip, and a jump to proclaiming the legitimacy of “alt-truth.”  Certainly, truth is subjective.  If nothing else, neuroscience has established that the evidence of our eyes and of our memory is anything but reliable.  A quick peek at Neuroscience News reveals how researchers are learning how fragile, friable, and fantastical our memories—so critical to our understanding of “truth”–are.  Trump therefore cannot be lying, because there cannot be such a thing as the truth.  Instead of lies, Trump is merely recasting his version of the truth, or rather, is positing one of an infinite possible truths.  This situation raises the hitherto unthinkable possibility that Trump is a b.f. (bona fide—good faith) philosopher, and not a b.s. (bullus shittus) artist.

And yet this prospect doesn’t sit well with me, and I think Williams finds it a quite uncomfortable notion, too. Indeed, he ends by stating that the only way for us to determine the legitimacy (or otherwise) of Trump’s pronouncements is for us to use critical thinking skills.  After all, philosophy and truth-seeking should be supported by sound reasoning, right? So, let’s put on our Critical Thinking Caps and do it!  Let’s root out rotten reasoning!

First, intentions should matter. And something tells me that Trump’s intentions are not pure.  Someone who acknowledges the possibility of a subjective truth, and who rejects the notion of a universal truth, tends to be anti-authoritarian.  If you have a nuanced view of the world, and are willing to accept that there is, indeed, more than one way to skin a cat,[1] then you are far less likely to attempt to impose your world view upon others.  This is evident in literary criticism, which by its very nature encourages the reader to develop personal interpretations of texts.  Analyzing a canonical work such as Othello through a feminist lens, for example, enables us to view the characters of Emilia and Desdemona as far more critical (and interesting) than if we simply accept the heavy-handed traditional view that the female characters are merely stock figures whose sole purpose in the play is to move the plot along.  Similarly, adopting different ways of viewing the world might make one a bit more sensitive to the impact of history upon current events.  So, for example, one might be a tad more willing to concede the importance of asserting that “black lives matter” if one looked at the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching through the eyes of African Americans.  I know that if I were African American, I would be a bit shrill in asserting my right to exist in the face of a power structure that has done everything possible to downplay the importance of black lives.[2] Absolutists, on the other hand, appear to have no difficulty with declaring that their point of view is the correct position to take. Frankly, there is nothing in Trump’s biography, rhetoric, or actions to support the idea that he is a subtle observer of the human condition.  Indeed, I think that Trump himself would scoff at the idea that he really need to see things from another person’s point of view. Atticus Finch he is not.[3] At the very least, his sweeping generalizations indicate that he is a man who sees the world in absolute terms.

But even if we assume that Trump’s intentions are as pure as Sir Galahad, and that Trump were posing an alternative truth instead of a downright lie, there should still be some relationship to the “truth” he is refuting.  Let’s look at the example Williams used:  Trump’s tweet in response to the increased heat generated by the investigation into Russian interference with the election.  Here it is, in all its glory:

 “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism.”

Now, you might look high, and you might look low, but there is nothing in this statement that is in any way relevant to the question of just how far up his puppet Putin’s hands go.[4]  This lack of a logical relationship between the statement (“Putin really had his hand way, way, WAY up his puppet!”) and the refutation (“Obama bugged me!”) can be either intentional (a red herring) or inadvertent (ignoratio elenchi)[5].  But either way, as any Critical Thinking Teacher worth her salt can tell you, this disconnection is a fatal flaw to the argument Trump is making, because all it does is throw sand into the reader’s eyes.  Instead of shedding light on the matter at hand, Trump is obscuring it.  Blurts do not sound reasoning make.

Furthermore, even if “truth” doesn’t exist, “facts” sure do.  There are observable, measurable phenomena whose existence can be verified.  Temperatures can be measured, stock prices recorded, and hot mic remarks  replayed.  To date, he has not offered any evidence to back his claim about Obama bugging Trump Tower.  Nor is this an isolated lapse: Trump’s relationship with facts is notoriously lax. Politifact, an independent fact-checking website, reckons that 71% of the 394 statements by Trump that they fact-checked were mostly false (20%), false (33%), or “pants-on-fire” (16%).  And these statements include easily fact-checked falsehoods (“All pipelines that are coming into this country from now on has (sic) to be American steel”) and some just plain silly pants-igniting lies ( “Before the presidential campaign, ‘I didn’t know Steve [Bannon]’”). I think that we can all agree that a philosophical truth-seeker will, if nothing else, at least try to make his or her statements consistent with the factual record.

But mostly, Trump’s rhetoric is simply not consistent with typical philosophical discourse.  Can any among you honestly say that The Critique of Pure Reason was simply un-put-down-able?  Or that Of Grammatology was a real page turner?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

Of course not.  And there is an excellent reason for this:  philosophical writings are intellectual, rational, and about as exciting to read as paint can labels.  That’s why most people don’t read them and instead use Sparknotes.[6]

Now, there are many things you can call Trump’s rhetoric, but “dry” and “intellectual” certainly aren’t among them.  Look at these examples to see what I mean:

“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”

“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

“If I were running ‘The View’, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.’”

They are not identical in tone or subject.  In that first quotation, Trump’s New Year’s greeting manages to conflate love and vague threats to his “enemies” in a rather memorable –and disturbing—manner, while the repeated references to the greatness of his wall in the second quotation brings to mind the hubristic musings of an illiterate eight-year-old.  The revenge fantasy of the third quotation is marked by its viciousness.  But they share a vital quality:  they are all riddled with emotive language.

Emotive language, as its name strongly suggests, is used to create an emotional response in the reader or listener.  And that emotional response is often visceral, which literally means taking place in the gut.  Fear, love, humor, horror all have physical manifestations: sweat, increased heart rate, laughter.  Even my usual response to Trump’s language, nausea, is merely the physical manifestation of my disgust.

You might notice that in the midst of all this emotion, there is very little intellectual reaction going on.  It takes real effort to think after reading a Trumpism, because you feel emotionally drained.  A b.f. philosopher, on the other hand, leaves you exhausted because she exercised your brain.  By purposely creating an emotional reaction, Trump is using linguistic prestidigitation to distract the reader from the critical task at hand of evaluating the legitimacy of his “alt-truth.”  Far from seeking his own subjective truth, he is preventing the reader from engaging with the meaning of his words in any substantive way.

And that, dear reader, is why I feel utterly comfortable with labeling Trump as a b.s. artist, and his “alternate truths” as lies.

[1] My cat hates this expression.

[2] And in case you think I’m being ever so slightly hysterical, you might want to check out this book.

[3] I am, of course, referring to the Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird, or, as I like to call him, the real Atticus Finch.  Someday I will write a blog about the immorality of tricking an old lady with dementia into publishing a draft of a crap novel she had abandoned decades ago.  But more of that anon.

[4] My!  That’s a disturbing image!

[5] If you want to know the difference, I suggest you click here to read a really, really AMAZING blog that uses the best words to explain it!! Nice!

[6] Yes, yes, yes.  I know that there are a few among you who have, indeed, read these works in their entirety and really, really liked them.  Bully for you.  But I was talking about normal people.

 

Copyright 2017 D. R. Miller

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.

 

THIS JUST IN: 

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

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

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

What a sweetie!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

But surely not.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 D R Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhow, here we go!

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful, huh?

Tu Quoque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright D R Miller 2016

Pizzagate: How to Consider the Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reputation

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

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

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

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

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

Ability to See

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

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

Vested Interest

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

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

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

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

Expertise

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

So, expertise?  Not so much.

Neutrality

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

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

Hardly Switzerland, wouldn’t you say?

The Verdict?

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

Copyright D R Miller 2016