Archive for logical fallacy

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.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguous Ambiguities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Hoc, Ergo Poppy Cock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where does that leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016, D R Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhow, here we go!

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful, huh?

Tu Quoque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright D R Miller 2016