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Archive for the category “Our Failed Media Experiment”

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.

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.

Tell me a story. And maybe I’ll believe it.

Our failed media experiment errs on the side of brevity. This is especially true for newspapers. Why? It could be that the market demanded it. It could be that the industry didn’t adapt well to technology and platform changes. It could be that it is much cheaper. Regardless, short articles (or even just a link) combined with pictures and slideshows and polls are ubiquitous. Instead of digging into an issue and doing some (gasp!) reporting, it is way safer to outline competing views on a subject with basic facts and let the readers decide in this age of industry consolidation.

As a result, long-form journalism is a dying art form. That is a shame because investigative reporting and excellent writing are necessary skills in order to write these longer articles. Short articles can answer the what and hint at the why. Longer articles can dig deep on the why and how.

Despite the journalistic trend, excellent long-form writing still exists. Longform is a great site www.longform.org It aggregates long-form journalism and categorizes the articles by subject, author and magazine for reference and search purposes. Longform links with an app called Readability so a user can save articles to be read later with a nice reader interface for tablets, phones and computers. www.readability.com Most of these articles come from magazines or local alt-weekly papers.

I found an article at Longform about the importance of a local newspaper to communities. The article is about New Orleans. Because New Orleans is a truly unique community steeped in tradition and has been through some recent hard times, it stands to reason that the local populace is balking at the recent takeover of their newspaper. I think that the reasons why the people the people object are interesting and the article presents them well.

http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2012/aug/27/new-south-journalism-sometimes-picayune/

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