Archive for logical fallacies

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

Ding, dong, Fallacies on High! The RNC’s been tweeting!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2016 by deborah1960

My goodness, but Christmas just keeps on giving and giving!  Not only did the RNC appear to greet the day with a false equivalency between Trump and Jesus, but Trump has provided another opportunity for me to discuss yet another type of logical fallacy:  post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).  Now, I was kind of hoping to take a bit of a break in my blogging because, as I’ve confessed before, I am quite lazy.  Also, all the kids are home, and it would have been nice to spend a little more time with them.  But, as my father told me once, you should spread when the manure is hot.  Or something like that.  But whatever he said, the message is clear:  with material this good, it is a moral imperative to respond in a timely manner.

So, take my hand, and let’s commence our journey through the looking glass.

Ambiguous Ambiguities

Reince Priebus, Chair of the RNC, caused quite a kerfluffle with his Christmas Day greeting to the nation.   I’m certain that Priebus had only the purest of intentions, but the internet has exploded over his innocent tweet.  Half of the nation claimed Reince was favorably comparing Trump to the Prince of Peace, while the other half denied it, presumably because no one would be that vulgar. (http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/311799-social-media-erupts-after-gop-statement-about-new-king).  It seems that no one knows precisely what Priebus meant, and this is a good clue that he has been ambiguous.

“Ambiguous” comes from hitching the prefix ambi- (both or around) to a form of the Latin verb agere (to lead or drive) (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/ambiguous ).  Thus, an ambiguous word or phrase has a meaning that can be driven in two opposing directions, or all around a variety of directions.  They generally arise when an author uses a word with more than one meaning, but her grammar doesn’t make clear which meaning is used.  For example, the mythical headline “Man Biting Dog” is humorous because it is unclear whether “man biting” constitutes the subject and verb of the sentence, or if it is a compound adjective describing the dog. This is called an amphiboly, if you really want to know.

Another kind of common ambiguity is “equivocation,” which occurs when the author uses a word in one way at the beginning of his premise, but then does the old switcheroo to another definition later on.  For example, look at the following:

Some think that artifice is necessary to create a work of lasting value; therefore, lies, the most common form of artifice, are masterpieces.

Here, I’m starting out with the original meaning of the word “artifice”, clever or artful skill, but in the second clause, I use the other meaning of the word:  trickery or connivance.  I have equivocated.

With that background in mind, let’s look at the RNC tweet:

“Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind,” the message from RNC chair Reince Priebus and co-chair Sharon Day said. “Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King http://fortune.com/2016/12/25/rnc-new-king-trump-christmas/ ).”

The issue at hand is what Priebus meant by “a new King.”  Some people are saying that Priebus is alluding to the election of Trump in his virtual Hallmark card.  They get this outlandish notion by interpreting “new,” as in “new King,” to mean “fresh,” “different,” or “novel”—the same meaning that is apparently being used when Priebus refers to “a new hope” in the first part of the tweet (unless, of course, Priebus is a huge fan of Star Wars Episode IV, or, as I like to call it, The First Ever Star Wars Movie–RIP, General Organa).  In other words, critics of Priebus are saying that he is not being ambiguous at all, and his meaning is clear.  Now how crazy is that?  And if they are right, that Priebus is unequivocally using the same definition of the word throughout the tweet, then Priebus is referring to a new ruler on the scene.  If that new ruler happens to be Trump, then the tweet is doubly blasphemous.  Trump is many things, but I’m pretty sure that the Savior of Mankind isn’t one of them.  Also, one of the most deeply held tenets of American political philosophy is that we are a representative democracy and not a kingdom, thank you very much.  It’s kind of why we fought that revolution.

The RNC, on the other hand, says that this is a tortured leap of logic.  Obviously, when Reince said “new King,” he meant the “old King,” Jesus.  Of course. How absurd of Trump’s critics to jump to the outrageous conclusion that Reince was being consistent in his definitions.  Or, to state it another way, the only way that Reince’s words come out the way that he claims they should is for him to be guilty of equivocation.  Indeed, it is even more extreme than that:  “new” does not, by its very definition, ever mean “old.”  It is the opposite of old.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that Reince actually believes that Trump is the Son of Man (although, I must confess that I frequently blurt out “Jesus Christ!” when I hear Trump speak), nor is it entirely outside of the realm of possibility that he is not showing a preference for an autocratic dictator to rule our land.  However, all this fuss and feathers could have been avoided if Priebus had actually taken the time and effort to use his words wisely.  Writing is very, very hard, because words are so important and have so many meanings.  If our readers are able to understand what we’re saying only by using faulty logic, then we have committed faulty writing.  So, the next time you feel like sending us a tweet, Reince, you should really make sure that you take the time to make it so clear that equivocation is unnecessary for us to get your intended meaning.

And now let’s look at our second holiday present from the GOP:  Trump’s Boxing Day greeting.

Post Hoc, Ergo Poppy Cock

I tap a ball with my foot, and it rolls.  The tap is the cause of the rolling—without that causation, the result would not take place.  My dog enters the room, and the cat has a conniption. Again, causation and result.  Causes produce consequences, in chronological order.  First this, then that.

But sometimes, what looks like a cause isn’t a cause at all—it’s a coincidence.

In the morning, before I walk my dog, I deactivate my alarm system.  It makes a cheery chirp, which my dog hears.  Immediately afterward, he gets to go out for a walk.  After a few weeks of this, I noticed that my dog starts wagging his tail and looking at me expectantly whenever I set or deactivate the alarm (it makes the same noise either way).  He has come to think that the alarm causes the walk.  In other words, he has mistaken a coincidence for causation simply because it proceeds that precious, precious walk.  Puppy has committed post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).

Puppy isn’t the only one who does this, of course.  Believe it or not, we all do it.  It’s why pitchers wear lucky socks.  The appearance of a comet on the Bayeux tapestry is testimony to the false causation fallacy: innocently shooting across the sky before the disastrous events of 1066, Halley’s Comet is blamed for disruptions that take place on the earth below.

The fallout from the post hoc fallacy can be quite serious.   Andrew Wakefield, a highly discredited British doctor, wrote a report purporting to establish a link between MMR vaccinations and autism.  His basic argument was that the twelve kids he studied had the MMR shot before they developed autism.  Therefore, the autism was caused by the MMR.  Forget about the possibility of genetic factors, or the pathetically small sample size—if a doctor said it, it must be so (watch out for a future essay on the problems with appeals to authority).  Even though the study was thoroughly debunked (and, in an extraordinary move by The Lancet, retracted by the journal that originally published it), the anti-vax league glued themselves to the report like barnacles on the rusty hull of a garbage scow (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html).  As a result, twenty states have “philosophical exemptions” to vaccine requirements (as opposed to medical exemptions), and in those twenty states, thousands of children have gone unvaccinated. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html). At the risk of making my own post hoc, ergo propter hoc mistake, I’m willing to bet that there is a causal link between the decrease in vaccinations and the increase in the outbreak of preventable and potentially fatal diseases—and the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to agree with me (http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2503179).

So, now that we know what the post hoc fallacy is and how destructive they can be, let’s take a look at Trump’s characteristically humble greeting to his followers on 26 December, Boxing Day.  Here’s what he said:

The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!

Just by walking on the stage, it appears, Trump has been able to bestow hope, bolster retail sales, and heat up the stock market.  He hasn’t made a single policy change, nor has he issued any executive order, and yet he is able to singlehandedly resuscitate a previously failing economy. Wow!  Maybe Reince was right about Trump being the new Lamb of God after all, because there’s certainly something messianic about the claims he’s making.[1]

Outside of divine intervention, there is very little likelihood that Trump would have such a profound impact on the economy.  Indeed, according to Team Trump, the source of the tweet was a Deloitte University Press projection that predicted in September that Christmas spending would exceed one trillion dollars—well before the world turned upside down on 8 November.[2]  Furthermore, in its October Christmas sales forecast, the National Retail Federation (hardly a hotbed of leftist-pinko-socialist thinking) attributed the projected increase not to Trump’s election (which hadn’t taken place yet), but to “steady jobs and income gains (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/26/president-elect-donald-trump-claims-credit-for-higher-market-christmas-shopping.html).” Since the word “steady” indicates a trend that occurs over time, it would be reasonable to assume that the NRF was referring to events and policies that were in place well before Trump’s election.  Further, the final figures are not yet in, so the trillion dollar projection might indeed be a bunch of hooey. It wouldn’t be the first time in 2016 that predictions went to hell in a hand basket, after all.

The increase in market activity did take place after Trump was elected, and there is some indication that it was in response to the election.  But it isn’t clear why Trump had that effect, nor is it at all clear that the rally is sustainable (http://www.npr.org/2016/11/30/503902394/postelection-stock-market-rise-shocks-prominent-economists). Indeed, it seems quite likely that Trump caused the rally by not doing anything at all.[3] For example, noted billionaire investor and Trump supporter Carl Icahn has cautioned that the rally might be “overdone” because the optimism about Trumponomics that fueled the rally might not be sustainable. The infrastructure funding that he promised might not materialize, nor might he be able to carry out the deregulation of the investment banking industry.  (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/carl-icahn-says-dial-back-on-stocks-as-trump-rally-looks-overdone-2016-11-17). So, ironically, Trump has caused a rally not because of what he has actually done, but because of what others believe he might do.  In other words, there is no “hoc”—just a lot of “ergo-mania.”

So, where does that leave us?

Well, first of all, I think both tweets leave a lot to be desired in terms of clarity.  Preibus, whether he intended to or not, convoluted the meaning of “new” to such an extent that it became utterly nonsensical. I stated in an earlier blog that it’s probably a good idea to avoid using modifiers, in order to prevent ad hominem attacks.  Usually, just naming the noun should suffice. However, there are times when it is necessary to be precise, and so a modifier is justified.  But here, the modifier appears to have been chosen precisely to cause imprecision and chaos.  Who the hell knows what “new” means in this tweet?

Similarly, Trump’s tweet lacks clarity because he is using unverified projections to bolster his position that he has been a force for economic good simply by existing.  He also neglects to mention that his “evidence” was published one to two months before his election—an excellent indication that his election had nothing to do with the brisk Christmas trade that the NRF was fervently praying for.

The lack of clarity is key:  both tweets generated a lot of interest.  But for all the heat that they inspired, there was precious little light.  It would be interesting to see what stories these tweets obscured.  For example, it appears that the nomination of Rep. Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services has caused a real ruckus amongst the medical profession—but who, besides a few policy nerds and Critical Thinking teachers, noticed (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/26/us/tom-price-hhs-donald-trump-cabinet.html)?  It was much more fun, I’m sure, to write witty ripostes on the RNC and Trump twitter accounts than to keep an eye on what that wacky Trump transition team was getting up to.

And finally, we are again left with a feeling of profound gratitude to Trump and his supporters for providing us with yet another useful tool for examining logical fallacies.  In these dark times, it is important to look for even the slightest glimmer of a silver lining.

[1] It is also interesting that both tweets refer to “hope.” In Priebus’s case, he was referring to the Son of God, while Trump, with great humility, was referring to himself.  Even though Trump is a notorious non-reader of books (https://newrepublic.com/minutes/133566/donald-trump-doesnt-read-books), perhaps he took the time to read Priebus’s tweet before writing his own.

[2]Now that I think of it, is it possible that the Deloitte University Press is responsible for the election of Donald Trump?  I mean, September is before November, after all.

[3] Goodness only knows what might happen when he actually does something! (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2016/11/global-economy).

Copyright 2016, D R Miller