Archive for Donald Trump

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

Jason and the Argue-Nots

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

Decisions, decisions.  Goodness knows how difficult it can be to make a decision—especially when the choices are set out like so many juicy cherries, their taut skin barely able to contain all of the delicious fallacies percolating beneath the surface.  But, really, some of these blogs have just been too long, so it is necessary to exercise discipline.  This is especially urgent when considering the wit and wisdom of one of the nation’s premier fallacy factories, the Honorable Jason Chaffetz.  In case you are not familiar with Representative Chaffetz, all you really need to know for the purposes of this lesson are the following three facts:

  1. He has represented Utah’s third Congressional District since 2008;
  2. He is the chair of the of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and
  3. He conducted the Benghazi hearings.[1]

Now, you might be wondering, after providing the platform for a witch hunt that arguably ultimately resulted in the non-election of perhaps the most qualified presidential candidate who ever walked the face of God’s green earth, however will Jason Chaffetz  fill his newly cleared calendar? Well, there are many options out there, but I’ll tell you one thing that Chaffetz won’t be doing any time soon.

He won’t be investigating any of Trump’s possible problems with the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.[2]

Nope.  Not a one.

Why ever not? I hear you cry.  After all, isn’t the government oversight committee supposed to, well, oversee the government?  And if the president is riddled with more potential conflicts of interests than a wharf rat has fleas, shouldn’t someone at least take a sneaky peek at what’s going on?

Well, apparently not.  And why not?  Well, on the 15th of January, Chaffetz explained his “reasoning” on This Week:

I’m not just going to go on these fishing expeditions. I didn’t do that with President Obama. We didn’t go through this with President Obama. I think the world and certainly the American voters understand that Donald Trump has mass holdings. He’s worth billions of dollars. He’s been very successful in business. And I think the American voters understood that when they voted him in (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-15-17-reince-priebus-sen-bernie/story?id=44778012).

         You see my dilemma, don’t you?  I mean, here I have some of the most flagrant hypocrisy uttered in political discourse in the past week,[3] but at the same time, I also have a lovely example of a strawman.  What’s a Critical Thinking Teacher to do?

Well, after weeping a bit at the thought of leaving that filet mignon of hypocrisy alone, I decided to go along with the straw man fallacy.  Hypocrisy is just too easy, and there are far too many examples (and far too little time) for us to examine every example that comes our way, no matter how glorious it might be.[4] Straw man fallacies are a bit harder to understand, and since Chaffetz has given us a nice example to work with, it seems a bit churlish to let it go by unnoticed. So, let’s start, shall we?

First of all, what is a straw man fallacy? Well, I think that the good folks at nizkor.org do an excellent job of defining a straw man fallacy:

“The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html).”

When I think of a straw man, I think of those World War I movies, where dashing young soldiers practice their bayonet skills by shoving the blade into bales of hay.  It makes the whole idea of killing someone with a knife on a stick look wondrously simple.  But when you get onto the battlefield, and you have to shove that sucker through bone and sinew, then you realize how false the straw man is.  In an argument, when an opponent’s actual claim is thick with muscle, and one’s pitiful little bayonet of a refutation is too weak to penetrate it, it is very tempting to replace the target claim with a distantly related, but quite pathetic, pile of straw.  You can then jab your rhetorical bayonet in it to your heart’s content, until all you’re left with is a pile of chaff.[5]  Here’s an example:

A:  We need to control the feral cat population in our neighborhood.  This place is crawling with scrawny, scabby kittens.

B:  You beast!  You hate cats!

The straw man is B’s assertion that A hates cats.  While it is possible that A does hate cats, there is insufficient evidence to support B’s assertion at this time.  Instead, B has mischaracterized A’s desire to control feral cats as a desire to exterminate them.  But the one does not equate to the other:  there are a variety of means at hand to control feral cats that fall far short of introducing them en masse to their maker. However, the emotional appeal of the straw man is such that poor A is left to splutter out that he loves cats, wouldn’t dream of killing them, etc., etc., etc.—and in the meantime, no agreement is reached about what to do with the feline nurseries that have magically appeared throughout A’s once desirable neighborhood.  And an effective straw man diverts all attention from the issue at hand—the hallmark of a logical fallacy.

So, there are a few straw men lurking around in Jason’s speechlet, but, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on only one.  And here it is:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Five days from now, [Trump] will be the president of the United States. At that point, will you be requesting this information [about possible Emoluments Clause violations].

CHAFFETZ: No, not necessarily. Look, I’m not just going to go on these fishing expeditions. I didn’t do that with President Obama. We didn’t go through this with President Obama.

Now, it seems reasonable at first blush, doesn’t it?  We didn’t go after President Obama, so why should we go after President Trump?  Well, sure, except for one little thing:  You didn’t go after President Obama because President Obama didn’t have any Emoluments clause issues, numb nuts!

And that, my dear, is a classic straw man.  Instead of giving a substantive response to Stephanopoulus’s question, Chaffetz tries to deflect him by distorting the topic of the question to make some weird equivalency between Donald Trump, the rolling scandal sideshow clown, and President Obama, whose administration, while far from non-controversial, was remarkably free from major scandals of the hands-caught-in-the-cookie-jar kind (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/19/has-the-obama-white-house-been-historically-free-of-scandal/).

So, now that you’re armed with this knowledge, what should you do?  Well, straw men are tricky, because in the heat of the moment it’s easy to be thrown off course by the emotions that the straw man stirs up.  You need to be able to respond quickly and coolly to the diversionary tactic. That’s the nature of reasoned debate:  it requires a certain amount of cold-bloodedness in order to maintain logic.  But you don’t want to alienate your audience by being a Spock-like slave to your rational side.  Clothe your muscular and robust logical refutation with humor, for instance:  “Is that a straw man in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Or, right before eviscerating the idiocy that your counterpart has just uttered, openly acknowledge its emotional appeal: “Gosh, Mary, you sure know how to stir up a hornet’s nest with that last irrelevant remark!”  Do what you must, but just do it, because now, more than ever, we are confronted by an army of straw men.

Now that you’re done with this article, it would be good practice to spot and analyze the other straw men in Chaffetz’s statement.  I’ll give you a hint, too:  just about every sentence Jase utters is home to a straw man.

 

©D R Miller 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Yes, those Benghazi hearings.  You know, the ones that took two years (and 33 hearings, including 4 public hearings), cost $7 million, and produced an 800-page report that failed to prove that Secretary Clinton was responsible for the tragic deaths of four Americans (http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/06/house-select-committee-benghazi-report). Those Benghazi hearings.

[2] “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” (US Const. Article I, sec. 9, clause 8).

[3] And believe me, that’s saying a lot.

[4] But before continuing on, let’s just agree that Jason Chaffetz must have a huge and brassy pair on him if he’s saying that he would never go on a fishing hunt!  As if.  Whew!  Well, that feels better.

[5] Chaff:

noun

  1. the husks of grains and grasses that are separated during threshing.
  2. straw cut up for fodder.
  3. worthless matter; refuse. (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/chaff).

No matter how you look at it, you just know that it’s a matter of linguistic destiny that Rep. Chaffetz is guilty of using this particular fallacy.

Ignoramus Rex

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2017 by deborah1960

I was waiting in line at my local hardware store, chatting with my friend about the jolly japes I would have as I made my voice heard during the upcoming post-inauguration marches, when a boorish bellow invaded my pink and shell-like ear:

“Oh, why don’t you libtards get over yourselves?  Trump won the election, so sit down and shut up.”

Naturally, I whipped around and, before he could chortle too heartily at his witty bon mot, impaled him with my gimlet eye.

“You do realize that you have just committed an ignoratio elenchi fallacy, don’t you?”

“Huh?” was his penetrating response.

“An ignoratio elenchi fallacy.  Or ‘ignorance of refutation.’ Derived from the apparent fact that you don’t quite understand what a refutation is.  A refutation of a claim needs to be relevant to the claim being made.  So, when you rudely interjected your unsolicited irrelevant remark into my private conversation, you’ve committed the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi.”

“Irrelevant?”

“Unrelated. Immaterial. Beside the point,” the lady operating the cash register said.

“Ker-ching!” went the cash register.

“Yeah,” said the nice young man who had helped me decide which brand of indelible magic markers I would use to write my protest signs.  “The Critical Thinking Teacher was talking about the joys of exercising one’s First Amendments rights, and you barged in, saying that Trump won the election.  As if that had anything to do with the price of beans in Boston.”

“That’s right,” my friend piped up.  “The mere fact that Trump somehow managed to scrape together a sufficient number of Electoral College votes has absolutely no logical relationship to my friend’s observation that it would be jolly spiffing to remind the world that the majority of  Americans reject his vicious agenda. You are raising an entirely different and unconnected issue.”

“But, but, isn’t that a red herring? Aren’t they the same thing?” Irksome Inter-meddler spluttered in dismay.

“Of course a red herring isn’t the same as ignoratio elenchi, you dolt.”  An awed hush fell upon us.  It was Ben, the store cat, known throughout the neighborhood for his disdain of poorly reasoned argument.  “While they both have the effect of distracting the listener from the matter at hand, the red herring requires an intent to distract.  Ignoratio elenchi, however, is usually the result of mindless blurting.  Judging from your gormless expression, anyone with half an ounce of brain matter would easily discern that you are no more capable of forming an intent than I am capable of caring what you think.”

With that, Ben turned his back to us, curled himself into a ginger ball of fluffy cuteness, and slept the dreamless slumber of the purely contemptuous.

By this time, the rude oaf was transformed into a smoldering pile of ash, leaving me to contemplate the awesome and beautiful power of communal critical thinking. Nice!

However, after paying for the Sharpies (and while the nice young man was literally consigning the Trump supporter to the dust bin of history), I was struck by the implications of what Ben had said.  It had been quite a busy week for our Twitter-in-Chief-Elect.  First, he responded to Meryl Streep’s eloquent call-out of his general nastiness by posting a generally nasty tweet in which he called Streep “over-rated” (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/818419002548568064). [1] Similarly, after Representative John Lewis[2] stated that he didn’t think Trump was a legitimate president,[3] Trump blasted out this charming riposte:

Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad! (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/820255947956383744).[4]

                Aside from the utterly fact-free nature of these tweets,[5] it’s clear that these attacks are not related to the matter at hand.  Even if Streep were such a has-been that she would deign to appear on Celebrity Apprentice, it has nothing to do with the fact that Trump’s “attraction” has a great deal to do with his xenophobic, misogynist, racist, and just generally vile rhetoric.  Similarly, attacking John Lewis’s record in no way addresses the legion of issues that would give any thinking person pause before accepting the legitimacy of Trump’s occupancy of the Oval Office. Clearly, both tweets were a distraction.[6]

But were they intended as distractions, or are they merely the incontinent expressions of a chronically unsound reasoner? I have in a previous blog characterized the Streep tweet as a red herring,[7] but I’m beginning to have my doubts.  The sheer volume of his tweets makes me think that he might be sincere in his beliefs, and his inability to make a single relevant refutation to any claim makes him a veritable ignoratio elenchi factory.  On the other hand, I find it somehow more reassuring to think that he’s being deliberate.  That would, at the very least, indicate that some thought is going into his actions.[8]  At this point, I am leaning both ways—mostly because I don’t want to make that cold and lonely voyage into Trump’s mind that would be necessary to come to a definitive conclusion.  And at the end of the day, regardless of Ben the cat’s opinion, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we, as warriors in the Critical Thinking Army, must be ever on the lookout for the irrelevant refutation—whether intended or not—and, when we find it, guide our readers and listeners to the real issue that it seeks to obscure.

Constant vigilance!

[1] As if.

[2] John Lewis, the hero of the Civil Rights Movement, distinguished statesman, and conscious of the Congress—that  John Lewis, not the posh British department store.

[3] And really, can you blame him?

[4] The dreadful irony of lashing out at John Lewis on the Saturday before Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday is apparently lost on Trump.  Similarly, it’s fun to note that Lewis has accomplished more for humanity with his “talk, talk, talk” than all of Trump’s actions ever would, even if you lumped them all together in one unattractive heap.

[5] Lewis didn’t have to lift a finger to defend himself from Trump—instead, an army of his admirers, supporters, and constituents happily took on that task (http://usuncut.com/politics/twitter-just-demolished-donald-trump-attacking-john-lewis/).  NBC News further pointed out Lewis’s “metropolitan Atlanta district covers predominantly black communities and historically black colleges, including Morehouse and Spelman. The FBI’s latest crime report ranks Atlanta as No. 14 for violent crime in the nation, although overall crime in the city has been down, according to city police statistics (www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/dems-defend-rep-lewis-hero-after-trump-slams-civil-rights-n706921).” As far as calling Streep “over-rated”! Well!  I just want to point out that the Golden Globe award she accepted that night was for lifetime achievement—hardly what you’d expect the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to bestow on a hack.  Jackass.

[6] There were, of course, many, many other irrelevancies in this week’s outpourings from Trump’s twitter account, but I’ve been advised by my editorial board to keep these blogs short and sweet.  But if you want a handy-dandy compilation of Trump’s oeuvre, then you really gotta check out The Atlantic’s “Trump Tweet Tracker” (https://www.theatlantic.com/liveblogs/2016/12/donald-trump-twitter/511619/). It’s a hoot.

[7] https://essayettes.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/kellyanne-and-the-sea-of-red-herrings/.  It’s really good—share it with your friends!

[8] I have no problem with maintaining that Kellyanne is deliberately using red herrings.  As a professional flunky, she would be expected to have the skillset necessary to deliberately throw sand in her opponents’ eyes.

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