Archive for the tag “fallacies”

I need a fix. I need a front. I need a new approach, a new approach.

The mid-2000’s were a high-water mark in contrarian thinking.  “Out of the box” approaches dominated the business, policymaking, writing, and personal arenas.  2005, in particular, stood out for writing that advanced this phenomenon.  Malcolm Gladwell’s follow up novel Blink and Leavitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics were runaway best sellers.  I eagerly read them during that summer and noted a shared theme about thinking differently.  For Freakonomics, it is thinking differently about economics/culture and for Blink it was thinking differently about, well, thinking.

After I read those, I had a new arrow in my quiver.  I started to try to approach thorny issues by looking at them in a “completely new way”.  It’s not easy to do.  I found myself coming up with fantastical rationales (because they had to be different than conventional wisdom) to reach what was 99% of the time the opposite to the established understanding.  I was essentially picking an outcome and backfilling the justification with fluff and “thinking differently”.  I’m not saying that Gladwell, Leavitt & Dubner, et.al. do this same thing.  They’re far more rigorous in their investigation and methods.  They picked specific issues that lent themselves to the application of a different approach.  But I only applied their conclusion that thinking differently was beneficial and led to results.  Once I realized this my excitement was tempered.  Contrarianism can work but doesn’t always work.  The Freakonomics bunch went on to form a cottage industry based on the book.  There’s a movie, a radio station, and a blog that churns out more examples of how going against the grain of “mainstream” understanding can open one’s eyes to the “right” answer.  Over the years I’ve noted that they’re falling into the same trap I did.  I admit it’s got to be tough to keep coming up with subjects that prove their beliefs.   But sometimes (not all of the time) I suspect that they’re starting with a preferred conclusion and backfilling.

The legacy of contrarianism-mania is that we all have a convenient scapegoat if we see a conclusion that we don’t like.  “Yeah that’s the conventional wisdom, but have you read Freakonomics?”  I get that sort of argument quite frequently in the odd corners of the interwebs I visit and in good old meatspace as well.  Things really crystallized for me on this when I saw the following (paraphrased) comment in one of my online haunts in response to the assertion that contrarianism is a “brand”:

Contrarianism is not a brand. It’s more a business model to pitch that you can bash an egghead without doing the learning. It’s like gold ads for the willfully ignorant and conspiracy minded.

There’s something to that. I started to think about the people in real life that advanced the “did you read Freakonomics quasi-appeal to authority arguments to reach their preferred conclusion. Maybe you know these sorts. The guy who in his online bio states that he’s “Doing stuff better than you” and for education says “At the public library” but hates socialism with a white-hot intensity. Or the guy who never showed any interest in learning much about the world that got way into talk radio and now is a geo-political expert. I also noticed when and how they unleashed the argument. It essentially concedes the argument and asks to ignore all of the established evidence. It’s a suspension of belief argument. I’m extremely wary of those sorts of lines of thinking–just as I’m wary of appealing to “common sense”. But I’m still willing to be convinced. The existence of one “looking at things differently” or appealing to process just isn’t determinative in every case.

So if you hear this sort of appeal to the authority of “thinking differently”, have some pause. Is this the sort of issue that lends itself to the new approach? Are there some significant leaps of logic required to get to the proposed conclusion? Or are you being asked to forget what you know to be true just because that approached worked on another separate issue? Or are you allowing someone who doesn’t want to do the hard work of learning and knowing a subject to pretend they’re an expert?


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.

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.

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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