Archive for the category “Logic”

I’ve got something against you.

This post is purely aspirational for me because I have a very hard time doing what I’m going to propose. From what I observe, the same holds for a lot of people. So here goes: Be for things. Don’t just be against things. Sounds simple, right? Watch me go off the rails straight away……

The inspirations for this post come from a couple of online personae that I admire.

The first is Cleek’s Law.

Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.

Pretty straight-forward, no? It also reeks of the truth. It’s quite easy to sit back and lob criticism at your ideological opposition but offer no solutions. These criticisms don’t need to be true or even make sense. They could be based on perception or potential perception of an issue. They could rely on all sorts of fallacies. Slippery slopes. Straw men. The intent is to invalidate the actions of one’s opponent by making a broad assertion and then force the opposition to defend itself.

Conservatism does not offer solutions. Sure, they trot out supply-side economics (trickle-down theory) and tax cuts that will pay for themselves, but these theories have an awful empirical track record. See, Kansas, State of, for a current example. Restating an ideology that has been shown not to work in the current operating conditions isn’t offering a solution. So we’re trapped in a zero-sum game. Everything that one’s opponent does must be wrong, because it comes from your opponent.

The second is related to Cleeks law and is called Davis X. Machina’s Law.

The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of who will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it.

As a note up front, I get a lot of pushback when I quote this law. The substance of the pushback hasn’t ever been that people act this way. It is always about whether sparrows can fit on curtain rods to cook them. Whenever I hear this line of objection, I know that the criticizer is giving up on the merits of the law (the actions of the people) and trying to divert attention to the trappings of the argument. Basically, they’re trying to say that since a sparrow can’t fit on a curtain rod (or more accurately, they refuse to admit that they are small in diameter curtain rods), then the conclusion must be wrong. Ummmmmmm…no.

The point is that people will act against their interests as long as it hurts the “right” people. But why is this? As discussed above, it’s easy. It’s the path of less resistance. It is much easier to “punch down” on the people one wants to be disadvantaged than it is to “punch up” against the powers that be to obtain something for one’s benefit. Personally, when I see someone acting against their own interests in order to harm others it screams to me that the primary motivator for that person is hatred. It’s not a very good look. For anyone.

So what to do then? Try to make positive arguments and bolster those with negative arguments. By this I mean be for something, not just against things. I’m not saying one should never use a negative argument. Pointing out the deficiencies of your opponent is not necessarily a bad thing. However, over-reliance on negative arguments can be and is a bad thing because it is extremely difficult to find common ground. Only negative arguments is not a persuasive technique. I sometimes find myself painted in a corner and taking pot shots at an opposing viewpoint. I may even be making valid points about the weakness of the viewpoint. But in the back of my mind I know I’m not being constructive or persuasive.

And he is not one of us. He has never been one of us.

It’s fallacy exploration time again and today we’re going to tackle the No True Scotsman (“NTS”) fallacy. Generally, it occurs when a member of a group attempts to disassociate herself from the actions of a fellow group member by claiming that the other group member wasn’t ever really a part of the group. Basically it means that a person re-defines the group to exclude the “undesirable” actor leaving themselves and their precious narrative free from consequences.

The most common usage of the NTS fallacy is a Republican deeming a fellow republican to be a “RINO”, Republican in name only. Another common usage is the saying, “Conservatism can’t fail, it can only be failed.” Here are some quotes from a serial abuser of the fallacy:

“Republicans lost last night but conservatism did not, and that is, to me, one of the fundamental elements of last night’s results. Conservatism did not lose; Republicans lost last night.” – Rush Limbaugh, 11/8/2006

“Conservatism did not lose last night. Conservative was not on the ballot.” – Rush Limbaugh, 11/5/2008

“Conservatism, in my humble opinion, did not lose last night. It’s just very difficult to beat Santa Claus.” – Rush Limbaugh, 11/7/2012

I use El Rushbo as an example because it is my belief that the epistemic closure of conservatives in general as enabled by their preferred media does not allow conservatives to honestly and objectively analyze or understand why conservative ideas sometimes fail. I understand the incentive for the conservative media to abuse this fallacy. They are invested in a narrative and gain financially by doing so. They do not have a duty to accurately inform you contra their narrative. The rank and file conservative has a different incentive. They just don’t want to believe what their lying eyes and ears are telling them. I get this as well. It’s not enjoyable to be wrong. However, the lazy NTS fallacy severely diminishes your ability to be “right” going forward (if that’s something you care about). Would you run your business or family this way? In my business if there is a mistake or outcome that we don’t like, we perform a root-cause analysis. We don’t make up plausible excuses that conform to our narrative and then quit investigating.

There is no ideology or belief that is correct or “right” every single time. People that have that sort of expectation or belief have to delude themselves to maintain their narrative. When you see people use the NTS fallacy, you should be (rightly) skeptical of their motives. They have crafted what they think is an unassailable position. They are just aping their media sources/heroes by painting themselves in a corner and lashing out/playing defense. That demonstrates someone arguing in bad faith and they should be roundly mocked. Why? Because it is very likely that they would have cheered the actions that they are decrying if they produced results that furthered their narrative.

Ad Hominem. You think you’re better than I am.

ad hominem
Just one level better than name calling.

The ad hominem fallacy is a category of fallacies in which an argument or claim is rejected not on the merits of the argument or claim, but instead on the basis of a non-relevant fact or opinion about the person advancing the argument or claim. As demonstrated in the above chart, it is the 2nd least effective way to refute an argument, with number one being outright name calling. The fallacy occurs when the non-relevant fact or opinion is used to de-legitimize the claim or opinion. For you visual people out there, it goes like this:

1.Person A makes claim X.
2.Person B makes an attack on person A.
3.Therefore A’s claim is false.

I wrote previously on a specific flavor of ad hominem, the tu quoque argument, which generally describes the “you can’t have an opinion because you’re not perfect/you did the same thing” approach. The ad hominem is effectively a sleight of hand or a diversion away from the merits of a dispute to focus on the person making a claim.

What I find interesting is why the person using the ad hominem wants to focus on the person rather than the merits. Just speculating here, but whenever I use an ad hominem or someone uses it against me I realize that whomever uses the ad hominem really wants to have a conversation about how crappy they think the other person is and has no or little interest in the topic at hand. That’s just bad faith. Another common reason why an ad hominem is used is that during the course of the argument, someone’s feelings got hurt or they weren’t getting their points across and they want to come out as “the victor” on some level. Again, that’s bad faith.

So, I encourage you to take notice when you use this fallacy or see it used against you. If someone uses it against you, do not let them change the framing of the debate to your perceived personal failings. Those are immaterial. Take it as “some evidence” that this person does not really like you that much or respect you.**

If you find yourself using it, ask yourself why you’re going down that road. Are you being bested? Do you not like this person? Is there a better way to make your point? Do you care about making your point? You may be surprised by your answers.

**I’m not saying that mockery has no place. I’m saying that it is not a good way to prove your point. It is an excellent way to avoid improper framing as I detailed here. There’s a difference between mocking because someone doesn’t get it and not agreeing to their framing and going ad hominem from the beginning. 🙂

One thing leads to another


I hate the slippery slope fallacy. It is greatly overused and can be effective even though it is an informal logical fallacy. Many times I find myself itching to advance a slippery slope argument and it is difficult to stop myself. Recently I was discussing this issue online when a commenter that obviously went to a better school than I did said, “My law school professor said that a slippery slope argument is the type of argument one uses to divert attention while thinking of a legitimate argument”. I think that is spot on and remembering that piece of wisdom helps me to avoid using the slippery slope (for the most part–sometimes I have nothing else).

One source of consternation for me regarding the slippery slope is how the definition of the argument has changed over time. A slippery slope argument states that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant effect, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom. Traditionally, there had to be some sort of causal effect between the first step and the subsequent events. In modern usage, there does not need to be a causal effect. The first step and the subsequent events just have to be related somehow. Let’s look at an example of modern usage using some statements from perhaps the dumbest person ever to be a member of the United States House of Representatives, Louie Gohmert, on restricting ammunition capacities and same-sex marriage/polygamy/bestiality:

In fact, I had this discussion with some wonderful, caring Democrats earlier this week on the issue of, well, they said “surely you could agree to limit the number of rounds in a magazine, couldn’t you? How would that be problematic?”
And I pointed out, well, once you make it ten, then why would you draw the line at ten? What’s wrong with nine? Or eleven? And the problem is once you draw that limit; it’s kind of like marriage when you say it’s not a man and a woman any more, then why not have three men and one woman, or four women and one man, or why not somebody has a love for an animal?
There is no clear place to draw the line once you eliminate the traditional marriage and it’s the same once you start putting limits on what guns can be used, then it’s just really easy to have laws that make them all illegal.

Let’s unpack this statement to get at the fallacy. He almost gets to the fallacy on ammunition capacity but pivots to a popular argument on same-sex marriage to demonstrate a slippery slope. His argument is that allowing same-sex marriage will “make it easy” to allow bestiality and bigamy. He doesn’t demonstrate how this would happen, however. There is no causal connection between allowing same-sex marriage and bestiality/polygamy. These issues are just related in his mind. The slippery slope glosses over the fact that the justifications for allowing same-sex marriage are completely different from the justifications of allowing bestiality/polygamy. It also completely avoids the fact that there is very little support for bestiality/polygamy compared to SSM. In Gohmert’s world, a proponent for bestiality/polygamy would only have to argue, “But but we allow same-sex marriage, why not polygamy/bestiality????!” Do you really believe that the proponent’s argument would carry the day? We criminalize both polygamy and bestiality. We do not criminalize (with some exceptions) homosexual behavior. We treat these issues differentially. By using the fallacy, Gohmert gets to appeal to nihilism by changing the debate framing from same-sex marriage to the other two categories that are completely different. The merits of the arguments about SSM become immaterial. An SSM supporter would ostensibly have to support polygamy and bestiality in Gohmert’s world. That is ridiculous. Each of these issues should be taken individually.

So, what would be a proper use of the slippery slope? An argument where one can demonstrate the causality between the discreet steps. A leads to B which leads to C and so on to the end point of X. Gohmert’s example is that A leads to X but he doesn’t demonstrate how each step will do it (because he knows it won’t but wants to pivot to something that would scare people). The intervening events between A to X have to be factually based, not just alleged.

Keep an eye out for someone who uses the slippery slope in a fallacious manner. They’re deliberately and in bad faith misleading the argument. Ask them how the initial step leads to the end result. Make them get granular on exactly how the chain of events works. You’ll see that they have to make some sort of assumption or leap to tie it together.

Pragmatism not idealism

Since the election, I noticed that quite a few conservatives asked for their liberal acquaintances or anyone to explain why they voted for Obama or what the appeal of liberalism is. In the broadest sense this is a good thing as it could represent a move away from epistemic closure and tribalism. It is great that some conservatives thought they would win and thought their platform resonated with a larger portion of the electorate and want to understand why things did not turn out their way.

I saw some people on Facebook and elsewhere try to talk about why they feel the way they do and engaged in some of these discussions myself. Only one of these discussions went well for me (Thanks Brad J! You restored my faith in humanity). I began to wonder why these sorts of conversations are so difficult.

I noticed that a few of the Facebook conversations were proceeding in the same manner. A fairly staunch conservative would ask why liberalism is better and go to great lengths to say that they truly wanted to understand and that it wasn’t a trap, but as soon as someone tried to advocate the liberal position they began to attack it. I see that as a gigantic exercise in confirmation for the conservative and a waste of time and words. To really understand another position, a person needs to exercise intellectual empathy. Anderson describes it thusly:

the decision to enter into a person’s way of the seeing the world and look along with them. It is, in a sense, an imaginative exercise that goes beyond the “willing suspension of disbelief” toward the granting of principles and premises that we may very well like to reject in order to see how the whole framework holds together—if the whole framework holds together. Intellectual empathy is a form of seeing how. As in, “Oh, I see how you could think that. It’s wrong, but I can see how it might make sense.” It is an act that is aimed, first and foremost, toward the good of understanding, a good that persuasion may flow from but can never precede.

As Anderson discusses, the trick to intellectual empathy is that you don’t have to abandon your first principles. He posits that someone who is confident in her principles should be better able to engage in this type of discussion. However, he notes that chipping away at one’s opponents beliefs through this sort of conversation should not be the goal, it should only be a byproduct. This is exactly the point that I saw the Facebook conversations fail. The conservatives wanted to enter a point by point battle/refutation of liberalism, not understand it. The ones that swore up and down that they just wanted to “hear the other side out” were the ones that pushed back the most. They made the byproduct the goal. I view that as bad faith as there is no intent to agree or understand.

The larger problem for me is the framing of the issue. It presents a classic false choice: conservative or liberal? Most people don’t fit into those ideological boxes. It also presumes that liberalism and conservatism operate in the same ideological manner. They don’t. Conservatism by definition and in practice requires a preference for idealism over pragmatism. Liberalism is rooted in the pragmatism of philosophers like John Dewey and others. The focus is on results, not process. Avoiding being ideologically rigid is baked into liberalism. That makes it difficult to have a purely ideological argument, for me.

There are some things we can’t control which serve to define us. The movement of a political party on the ideological scale changes where an individual sits on the scale in relation to the party. A nominal conservative can find herself outside of mainstream conservative ideology but not change her core beliefs in any way. For this reason and others, I don’t intend to be a “liberal” for the rest of my life. I don’t intend on outsourcing the totality of my vision or belief to any ism. I have my core beliefs that over time are challenged and sometimes changed. In a two party system I try to make the best choice I can. I think most people do the same.

So next time you really want to know someone’s opinion, just listen. Try to reap the benefits (as Anderson discusses in the above link). The goal should be solely to understand. Ask questions to further understanding, not to poke holes or refute the position. You may still change their mind by asking them to clarify or explain. When someone has to reduce abstractions into words, they may realize the holes in their beliefs themselves. Or maybe you’ll learn something or see things in a different way….

January has April showers and two and two always makes a five.

I’m planning on doing a series of posts on logical fallacies. Let me get this out of the way first. I am just as guilty as anyone for using fallacies. That does not mean I am unqualified to opine on them (this is an example of a fallacy to be covered later, the tu quoque). The more interesting angle to me is why I or others use them.

In the broadest sense, a fallacy is an error in reasoning. Fallacies are not factual errors. Zooming in just a bit, a fallacy is when the premise or premises of an argument don’t support the conclusion to the necessary degree.

The Straw Man

The straw man fallacy is ubiquitous in today’s discourse. It occurs when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. Some common ways to do this are: quoting an opponent’s words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent’s actual intentions; inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical; and oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.

Let’s look at an example. “Senator Jones says that we should not fund the attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can’t understand why he wants to leave us defenseless like that.” See the game there?

So, why do people attack straw men instead of their opponents’ actual positions? First off, it is much much much easier to argue against the extreme of a potential position than it is to argue against a nuanced position. I see it as a preference for contempt over understanding. It is more fun to thunder against an opponent and dismiss them entirely than to listen and maybe learn something from your opponent. The flip side to this is that your opponent has zero incentive to accept or listen to your viewpoint when you are showing bad faith by (deliberately?) misstating their position.

Second, it is much easier to maintain an ideological viewpoint and/or internal narrative by assuming your opponent is as ideological as you are. We live in a period of hardened beliefs. Instead of highlighting where we agree, we choose to highlight how we differ. If a proponent of the straw man is forced to consider that his opponent may not be as crazy as he believed, he may have to acknowledge that his position could be crazy. It is quite easy to avoid this. Just assume that all “reasonable” opponents do not exist or are lying.

Third, our failed media experiment conditions us to believe the stereotypes about our opponents. The sad thing is that the media has an incentive to foment hate and misunderstanding. Those things create clicks/views/book purchases/etc. I believe that adopting this focus is completely wrongheaded. Those sorts of “arguments” are for entertainment purposes. We have to live with each other and are trying to exchange ideas about governing, which has very real effects.

The use of the straw man is one of the principal reasons that we talk past each other. As I said above, it is a bad faith starting point. It is extremely difficult to achieve any sort of result when we are locked in tribalistic combat. By definition, the only acceptable results would be the eradication of the opponents’ position in this ideological game. We should all take a step back. I promise to try not to assume the worst about my opponent’s position and to listen and understand that position to try to make headway that benefits us both.

If you see a straw man argument (and it may be you that uses it), take a second to acknowledge it. Ask yourself, why is this tactic being used here? Bad faith? Easier argument? Is this person so enraptured with tribalism that it is fruitless to engage? What do I want to achieve in this interaction? We don’t necessarily have to shout at each other from ideological poles.

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