Straw Herring

Has this ever happened to you? You are in a discussion or debate, and the other party brings up something completely irrelevant for the explicit purpose of declaring it to be completely irrelevant. You didn’t put the issue on the table. Nobody else did either. It isn’t an established consideration; it’s not a point you would be expected to deal with when discussing the topic at hand. there was no need to cover the point at all, and nobody has actively suggested otherwise. The only person responsible for bringing the issue into the discussion is the one who wants us to know just how irrelevant that point really is.

One frequent, though trivial example of this would be the common rejoinder; “saying true doesn’t make it true.” How often does anyone suggest otherwise, or even loosely imply it? Yet people frequently haul this gem out so they can sound like they are answering a real argument. Perhaps the comment can serve to underscore the lack of support for a claim, but it does so by means of a feigned response to an argument nobody made. And because the person spouting this comment doesn’t actually attribute a claim to anyone, it’s a little more difficult to see his point as a straw man. It’s definitely a variety of red herring, but kind of a distinctive form of red herring. It is in fact an irrelevancy taking the form of a comment about an irrelevancy.

This happens often enough, I think it deserves a name. I christen it “the Straw Herring.”

A Truthity Gaffitation?

Introduction: On October 13, 2022, Minnesota Representative Angie Craig debated Tyler Kistner as part of her bid for re-election. During the course of this debate, she said; “I will never stop standing up for Big Pharma and standing against my constituents!” This was likely a mistake, but was this a mere misstatement or an instance of saying the quiet part out loud, so to speak? Breitbart News produced the argument in question in an effort to convince its readers that Craig’s comments were in fact a telling moment in which she revealed her true agenda

Key Facts:

Text: These paragraphs can be found in the middle of the article in question.

“In fact, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) noted that Craig’s slip of the tongue shows the truth, which is that she always stands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

“Angie Craig accidentally admitted the truth: she always stands with Pelosi and against the interests of Minnesota families,” said NRCC spokesman Mike Berg.

The congresswoman has voted with the Speaker 100 percent of the time in the current Congress and 99 percent in the last Congress. Additionally, during President Joe Biden’s time in office, she has voted with him 100 percent of the time.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: It might be interesting to actually break down the statistical information on votes relating to the pharmaceutical industry in more detail, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Statements: The argument includes a few complex statements which have broken up into their individual components. This in turn has left us with a couple instances of redundant statements. Some of this is reported speech, but the credibility of the source does not appear to be critical to the argument, so the source citation is treated here as a contextualization cue [a]. While Statement 1 is clearly the conclusion of the argument, as stated, it seems clear that the real point is to suggest that Craig really believes what she says in this instance, so a final unstated conclusion [5] has been spelled out here.

[1a] In fact, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) noted that Craig’s slip of the tongue shows the truth,

[2a] [Angie Craig] always stands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

[1b] “Angie Craig accidentally admitted the truth:

[2b] she always stands with Pelosi and

[3] [Angie Craig always stands] against the interests of Minnesota families,”

[a] said NRCC spokesman Mike Berg.

[4] The congresswoman has voted with the Speaker 100 percent of the time in the current Congress and 99 percent in the last Congress. Additionally, during President Joe Biden’s time in office, she has voted with him 100 percent of the time.

[5] [Angie Craig actively supports big pharma against the interests of her own constituents.]

[6] Nancy Pelosi consistently represents big pharma in Congress.

Diagram: The following seems to represent the reasoning of the argument, with statement 4 offering a statistical summary of Craig’s history of voting with Nancy Pelosi as evidence for a generalization that she always votes with Pelosi. This then is added to an unsupported side comment about how she stands against her constituents to argue for the notion that her statement was an accurate reflection of her actual politics, all of which is meant to show that she really does stand up for big pharma and against the interests of her own constituents.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Ad Hominem, Contextualization, Indexicality, Interactional Eclipse, Meta-Reasoning, Misstatement, Red Herring, Tell, Semantics, Statistical Reasoning, Unsupported Claims.

Ad Hominem: Insofar as this argument takes Craig’s summary statement as an indication of her real stance on big pharma, it provides an excuse to ignore the rest of her commentary on the topic at hand. In effect, this an ad hominem (circumstantial), in which an accusation about Craig’s real interest in the subject is used to dismiss the rest of her arguments on the subject.

Contextualization: Insofar as this argument turns on a question about the intent of a speaker (Craig), it is explicitly focused on context-specific information.

Indexicality: The Breitbart article rests a great of its case on the notion that Craig’s statement reflects a pattern actually present in her voting behavior. In effect, they are telling us that her voting pattern matches the significance of the statement in question, making it a truthful claim rather than a mere misstatement. They are thus treating her statement as a kind of indexical icon reflecting her actual politics. Whether or not voting in concert with Nancy Pelosi really constitutes a pattern of support for big pharma is another question, but the folks at Breitbart clearly think it does.

Interactional Eclipse: The real work of this article probably has less to do with the effort to convince people that Craig meant what she said than the effort to reinforce the framing of the issue. While readers may or may not come away thinking that Craig really means to support big pharma, the presupposition that Nancy Pelosi is uniquely supportive of big pharma is provided as an absolute given for this argument. In effect, the author is replacing questions about actual votes on actual issues related to medicine, which were the substance of Craig’s own arguments on the topic, with a simple rubric in which any association with Nancy Pelosi is taken to be evidence of support for big pharma. This impression is not contingent on accepting the conclusion of the argument, and it will have far more lasting impact than anything at stake in this particular argument. The long-term game for the author’s of this argument may have less to do with Craig or the election in question than the effort to poison the well for Democratic leadership. Likely, the normal value of an argument, as am effort to prove the truth of its conclusion is neither the practical goal nor the practical effect of this particular argument.

Meta-Reasoning: Insofar as this is an argument about an argument, the one made by Craig, this is an example of meta-reasoning, specifically it is an argument in which a statement completely out of line with the rest of her comments on the topic at hand may be taken as her real stance on the issue while setting aside anything else she has to say about the subject.

Misstatement: Given the argument Angie Craig was making before uttering the statement in question, it seems quite obvious that she misstated the point she meant to make. Whether this was an honest mistake or something akin to a liar’s tell or even a Freudian slip would seem to be the point of the argument Breitbart makes. Absent any good reason to believe this statement reflected her real views, however, it seems best to think of this as merely a misstatement and nothing more.

Red Herring: The notion that association with Nancy Pelosi constitutes support for Big Pharma is a red herring. The Breitbart piece makes no effort to establish its relevance. Still, Pelosi has taken donations from big pharmaceutical companies and one can find many articles from both the left and right taking her to task for their influence on her politics. Just how much this differs from Mitch McConnell and countless other Congressmen on both sides of the aisle is another question, but the issue here is not whether or not Pelosi handles the issue well; it is whether or not Craig does. An abstract comparison of Craig’s voting behavior to that of Pelosi works only if Pelosi is uniquely supportive, and really only if Craig can be shown to have been similarly supportive in key votes wherein the interests of big pharma actually diverge from those of the public. But of course anyone prepared to make such a case would hardly need to reference Pelosi in order to do so; they could just attack Craig’s votes directly.

Another red herring in this argument arises when you consider the fact that Craig’s record of voting with Nancy Pelosi includes votes on a vast range of different topics, many of which have nothing to do with big pharma. Breitbart’s use in this argument effectively converts a record of unrelated votes into evidence of support for big pharma. This is quite deceptive.

Finally, the very notion that one should take Craig’s statement as indicative of her stance on the issue while ignoring her comments about actual legislation (including her criticism of Kistner) constitutes another red herring. It is an effort to treat a mistaken wording as the answer to a substantive problem.

Semantics: What counts as “big pharma” remains largely unspecified throughout this entire discussion. Craig herself does not address that, nor do her detractors. It’s tempting to think of the phrase as a free-floating signifier in this debate insofar as all interested parties seem to be against it without necessarily needed any specific reason to do so, or even any significant sense of what it is that they are supposed to be against.

Another issue buried in the question about what is or isn’t big pharma would be a question about whether or not all things that benefit big pharma are necessarily bad for the American people. Craig seems to take it as a forgone conclusion that opposition to big pharma is a good thing, and her detractors sloppy statistical arguments carry forward that same assumption. This side-steps any questions about the value of any particular view and the possibility that while the interests of big pharmaceutical companies may sometimes diverge from those of the public, they may also sometimes coincide. Treating the issue as an abstract case of being for or against big pharma thus obscures legitimate questions about the pros and cons of particular votes.

Statistical Reasoning: The Breitbart article tells us that Craig votes with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. In support of this, it links its readers to a post on Pro-Publica summarizing Craig’s votes in comparison to Pelosi’s for the years 21-22. The article does not break down the votes by topic. A point of clarification on the page reads as follows: “Correction (Nov. 15, 2019): This page originally included all votes on passage of a bill under the ‘Major Votes’ category. It now only includes votes designated as major by ProPublica.” The article concludes that the two voted in agreement 100% of the time.

A few significant questions could be raised about the statistical comparison, some of which have been mentioned elsewhere. If the difference between the results for ‘major bills’ and the total voting record I am unaware of it. How many of these bills are actually representative if issues affecting big pharma is another question. Whether or not any of them presented any significant difference between the interests of big pharma and those of the American people (or even those in Craig’s district) is yet another question altogether. And of course, none of this addresses the legislative process and any efforts made by either party to shape the legislation in question in support of or opposition to big pharma. The statistical argument made in Breitbart thus elides a number of important questions about the actual politics at issue.

Tell: The notion that someone could tell the truth, by accident so to speak, is often rooted in the notion that there may be some underlying psychological reason for the misstatement in question. Whether treating it as a kind Freudian slip or a liar’s tell (or that of a poker player), it is common to suppose that some deep-seated tension is leading to the unintended expression. Breitbart does not present an explicit claim to that effect, though some of the online commenters have. Their own strategy seems to have been to convince readers that the claim is true regardless of Craig’s reasons for saying it.

Unsupported Claims: The notion that Nancy Pelosi can be treated as a stand-in for big pharma remains entirely without support in this argument. Even if one grants that she supports big pharma, it would be reasonable to ask whether or not her support for the industry distinguished her from other members of Congress, include that if the Republican Party, or for that matter the candidate, Tyler Kistner. Absent evidence to that effect, the decision to treat Pelosi as a proxy for big pharma remains arbitrary. It is likely the argument rests on little more than a general sense of contempt that can be expected from Republican voters whenever Pelosi’s name comes up.

Evaluation: At the end of the day, this is little more than a red herring offered in support of a red herring. Craig misspoke and the Republican Party wants us to believe her gaff matters more than her explicit arguments on the topic. Toward that end, they remind us that she votes like Pelosi. this is irrelevancy piled on top of irrelevancy.

Final thoughts: I spent way too much time on this.

Sometimes you Argue the Bear

Introduction: My wife sent me this yesterday morning. She was down in Anchorage, but she wanted me to know about the bear, which reminds me that I really need to get active 911 on my own phone.

Key Facts: We get a few bear sightings a year in and around town here in Barrow.

Wildlife normally keeps an eye on bears near town, makes an effort to keep them out of town, and, when necessary puts down bears it deems a threat to the community.

‘Quyanaq’ means ‘thank you’ in Iñupiaq, the local indigenous language.

Text: “Please use extreme caution as a polar bear was spotted earlier this morning in the Browerville and Cakeeater area. Please be aware of your surroundings when outside. Wildlife was notified and has responded. If you spot a polar bear, please call the NSB Police Department at XXX XXX-XXXX to report the sighting. Quyanaq.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: This is kind of an interesting example of practical reasoning.

Statements: Much of the text above would not really constitute reasoning, so it can be left out. The argument is as follows:

[1] Please use extreme caution.

[a] as

[2] a polar bear was spotted earlier this morning in the Browerville and Cakeeater area.

[3] Please be aware of your surroundings when outside.

Diagram: It’s a simple serial argument. 2 ->1 -> 3.

We get one inference indicator [a], but no further explicit reasoning markers in the text. Statement 3 can be read as a more specific version of statement one, hence it seems to be the final conclusion of the argument.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Hyperbole, Interactional Eclipse.

Hyperbole: The phrase “extreme caution” might seem a little excessive in light of the actual precautions to be taken when bears are present in and around town. Folks might refrain from walking the beach and/or look around a bit more when going outside, but that is probably about it. In fact, this does appear to be what the notice is meant to engender. This is caution; it’s probably not ‘extreme’ caution.

If this is hyperbole, however, it’s pretty harmless. Those new to the area might stress over its implications, but those who have been here awhile will easily read the suggestion in light of moderate precautions.

Interactional Eclipse: Although the notice is meant to engender caution, and it contains an argument urging caution upon people, it is as likely to bring people out with cameras looking for the bear as it is to trigger any extra caution. So, the content of the argument may to be some degree overwhelmed by the social realities of life on Instagram.

Evaluation: The argument itself strikes me as sound. I don’t know about the sighting, but I have no reason to doubt it, and hyperbole aside, both the genral call for caution and the specific suggestions about awareness are warranted by the sighting.

Final Thoughts: I took my camera out for a quick drive, but I didn’t see any bear. …dammit!

Kettle Questions

The other day I was talking to a student, when I encountered a familiar pattern of conduct; a series of loosely related questions asked in rapid succession without any attention paid to the answers. I’ve certainly seen this before, and I’ve learned to regard it as something of a power play, or at least a kind of venting. Often, I figure the student is trying to overwhelm me with questions rather than get any actual answers. Alternatively, they are expressing frustration at their own sense of being overwhelmed, perhaps seeking to share that sense of frustration with the person they blame for it.

When facing such a barrage of questions, my first goal is to slow the conversation down and insist that the student listen to the answer to one question and show that they understand it before moving onto the next. Sometimes this means saving the discussion until after class so as to remove the stress of taking up class time in the presence of other students. Then I work my way through the questions one at a time, taking as much time as necessary to ensure the student gets the answer to each question before moving onto the next. This usually works, but it works partly because I have the leverage to dictate the pace of the conversation.

When I say that this works, I mean, that it works in the sense that I can put actual information back at the center of the conversation, and assuming the student is cooperating, I can then work my way through each piece of information one at a time. This works for me. Whether or not this works for the student depends on their own ultimate goals. Assuming they really want to continue with the class, this strategy effectively forces them to focus on the information rather than indulging their sense of frustration. If on the other hand, their goal is to rage-quit or pick a fight, this will most likely force their hand early; they will exit the conversation and then typically exit the course.

So, why am I rattling on about this? Because I don’t think this is a problem unique to teaching. Sometimes people ask questions for reasons that have nothing to do with soliciting information. Sometimes this is done through individual questions asked in tricky ways, and sometimes it’s done by asking a series of questions in a maximally disruptive manner. Of course, it helps if the person questioned is responsible for providing answers in some sense (a fact which keeps them planted in the line of fire, so to speak), but there are lots of roles that could set someone up for this; a public spokesman for any organization, someone engaged in official disputes of any kind, any boss addressing subordinates about a policy, or for that matter; any subordinate being questioned about their own (mis-)conduct. You can’t just arbitrarily subject people to the 3rd degree, but there are a broad range of contexts which could put a person in a position where they are expected to field your questions. In such instances, people will sometimes take advantage of the opportunity to weaponize those questions.

It’s a bit like kettle logic (hence, the coinage) insofar as each question asked might be perfectly reasonable in its own right, but coupled with other questions asked in the same conversation and taken in context, the questions effectively deter any serious effort to answer them.

What are the features of kettle questions?

  • They are usually asked in rapid succession, but not in a manner that facilitates efforts to group them up or take them in succession. This is more likely to occur in a verbal conversation than a written exchange. If the person asking the questions doesn’t provide time to answer each and/or if the one asked doesn’t have the chance to write each question down, the rapid-fire delivery makes it less likely that the person asked will be able to answer each question effectively.
  • Often a new question will be asked while someone is trying to answer the previous question. This prevents completion of the answers, and frustrates the person trying to answer them.
  • The order of the questions is incongruous. It isn’t that a second question is necessary to answer the first (that would make it a reasonable question); the second question actually changes the subject to some degree, forcing the person asked to shift their own attention in order to answer the new question. If she cooperates and tries to answer the second question, the fact that she didn’t finish the first answer then creates an opportunity to come back to it at the leisure of the questioner, perhaps creating a new shift in focus away from efforts to answer question number two, …or 3, or 4, or 13.

Here is a made up example:

Person A: How do you get to the class webpage?

Person B: Well you, go to the school page and you look on the left side for a button that says…

Person A: I don’t know the word count for the essays. How long do my essays have to be?

Person B: You can find this on the syllabus, but the answer is…

Person A: I still don’t have a college email. How do I get one?

Person B: You do have a college email. Your college email is the one you used to send me a message yesterday.

Person A: Okay, so how do I get on the class web-page?

Person B: Well…

Person A: And when is the assignment due?

Appeal to Ignorance (Ad Ignorantiam)

The appeal to ignorance consists of an argument in which the lack of evidence against a claim is taken as sufficient warrant to believe the claim in question. In effect, this is an argument in which absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence. This is commonly regarded as a fallacy.

Burden of proof: The appeal to ignorance is complicated by circumstances in which one might reasonably argue that one side of a given debate carries a greater burden of proof than another. This is certainly true in criminal law wherein (at least in the United States) one is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This is also a common theme in debates over the existence of God (although its usefulness in this context is far less decisive). It is worth noting that such contexts are usually as much a function of social convention as direct concerns over evidence and truth value. The case for accepting an appeal to ignorance as a legitimate argument is thus largely built on the practical consequences of the position to be taken. Still, insofar as a burden of proof can be used to generate an argument to the effect that absence of evidence in support of one conclusion is sufficient evidence to draw its opposite is indeed an appeal to ignorance. So, the possibility that such arguments might in some contexts be compelling is at least a little problematic.

Micro-managing the Evidence: I run into a particular variation of this fallacy often enough to want to identify it as a common sub-type; I’ll call it “micro-managing the evidence.” This consists of an argument in which a given speaker demands that evidence for a given proposition must take a specific form, in effect, pre-emptively dismissing all other forms of evidence in favor of the position. This can be done either in the absence of any evidence at all or even in the face of evidence that doesn’t meet the form demanded by the author of the argument. In effect, this is an argument precluding the relevance of evidence which doesn’t meet the specific standard insisted upon by its author.

Of course , there may be good reasons to weigh certain kinds of evidence more than others, and social institutions may require that evidence take a certain form as a matter of convention, but absent such constraints, the demand that evidence take a certain form serves effectively (and often quite arbitrarily) to pre-empt other considerations. This is one more way of turning a lack of evidence into evidence of a lack, so to speak, and so it seems reasonable to consider it a variety of the appeal to ignorance.

Kettle Logic

The phrase “kettle logic” comes to us from Derrida who used it to comment on a dream-narrative described by Freud in a couple of his works. In the original story, a man was accused of returning a kettle he had borrowed in damaged condition. He responded by saying that he had brought it back in good condition, that it had been damaged when he borrowed it, and that he never borrowed it anyway. The phrase “kettle logic” is thus used to describe the production of multiple arguments in support of a single position, each of which might work on its own terms, but which contradicts other arguments produced by the same person.

Kettle logic is sometimes described as a fallacy in its own right, but this would make it redundant with the better known fallacies of inconsistency or contradiction. It is more helpful to think of the label “kettle logic” as describing something more than mere inconsistency between the arguments in question. It is a commentary on the willful disregard for consistency in certain approaches to argumentation. This isn’t exactly a fallacy, but it’s definitely fallacy-adjacent.

In Freud’s analysis, the inconsistency is put down to internal tensions worked out in a dream sequence, and of course people engaged in conscious reasoning could also express internal contradictions, but this isn’t necessarily the point of kettle logic. It seems more likely that those producing this kind of inconsistency are simply throwing everything they can against the wall to see what sticks. In effect, each new argument Significantly, the points they are making are not offered, arguendo, so to speak; the source is not offering hypothetical arguments. The sub-arguments in kettle logic really do assert facts that which other sub-arguments deny. The resulting absurdity stems from the fact that the source of kettle logic really seems to be making assertions about the real world, but they are doing so without any serious commitment to internal consistency on their own part. The effort to prove their point to a given audience has effectively over-ridden any concerns truth value and consistency.

***

This does raise an interesting question; is kettle logic more likely in opposition to a claim rather than in support of one? If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then this might explain the lack of interest i consistency. It is as if the author of the kettle logic has no investment in the truth value of her own stories, even though she presents them as factual. Her overall goal remains the negation of a claim rather than the construction of a true account, so she sees her goal as a zero-sum game. If she wins, everything goes back to zero, and no beliefs are genuinely affirmed. Naturally, this would be frustrating to anyone who expects an honest account, even from someone taking up a negative position in regards to a given claim.

***

It’s worth noting that criticism will often draw from different sources coming from the same side of a given controversy in order tor produce something that looks like kettle logic. This is particularly true of satire. If one person in a given party for example denies that the kettle was returned broken, and a different person says it was broken to begin with while a third insists the kettle was never borrowed, it would be easy enough to bundle them altogether, attribute them to a common voice, and thus generate the appearance of internal contradiction from the variations within the actual positions of different people sharing a common general stance.

Misplaced Concretism/Reification

The fallacy occurs whenever someone mistakes an abstraction for a real thing. Of course people wouldn’t normally do this, but people often speak about abstractions in ways that attribute reality (even physical reality) to them without thinking about it. In some cases, this is so common that people may be excused for their confusion.

Misplaced concretism can occur when people apply causal reasoning to abstractions, confuse a model for the thing in represents, take the value of money as an objective property, or attribute agency to an abstract entity.

When someone speaks of government, for example, as a making a decision; they effectively attribute the actions of real people acting under the authority of government for those of an abstract entity. In some cases people may take it a step further and attribute motivations or even emotions to this ‘government’ rather than thinking about the emotions and motivations of the specific people who actually make decisions on behalf of government entities.

It should be noted that certain patterns of figurative speech such as personification or metonymy effectively imply a degree of reification without necessarily entailing literal belief in the implications.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

This phrase is used for a cluster of related problems in reasoning. It can be explained in at least three different ways:

  • as an error that occurs when ‘the ought’ is derived from the ‘is’. (We have David Hume to thank for this formulation.)
  • as an equation of goodness with some natural property such as pleasantness that normally (or perhaps invariably) accompanies it. (This one comes from G.E. Moore.)
  • as an assumption that nature and natural things are clearly more valuable than things which aren’t (i.e. things that might be thought of as artificial). (Nobody specific gets credit for this one.) This is sometimes referred to as the “appeal to nature,” which is often treated as a separate fallacy altogether.

These three constructions of the fallacy are closely related to one another, but they are not identical. Each of them involves different conceptual problems.

***

Is/Ought: In the first instance, the problem arises in the effort to derive a moral principle from an objective reality. This can be seen, for example, when the notion that certain sexual activities may be more dangerous than others is used to advance a moral obligation to refrain from doing them. (People often engage in dangerous activity without triggering a sense of moral transgression.) It can also be seen, for example, in larger philosophical questions such as the notion that one ought to act in such a manner as to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people or the idea that certain behavioral characteristics have evolutionary advantages can be used to produce specific ideas about right and wrong. There may or may not be reasonable ways of tackling these issues, but at least some of these inferences appear to bring an unjustified value judgement into the equation.

One might even suggest that most of them do.

***

Natural Property: In the second instance, the problem lies in equating goodness with a more tangible (natural) quality. This effectively enables a speaker to evoke a sense of objective reality when speaking of moral qualities, but of course the problem lies in the connection between the designated natural quality (e.g. good health or physical pleasure) and its alleged moral significance. Whether or not a reasonable case can be established for such a connection is of course an interesting and very complex philosophical question, but it is common rhetorical practice to base this on little to no reasonable justification, hence it’s fallacious status.

***

Appeal to Nature: Here the problem lies in more practical distinctions such as natural childbirth versus a C-section, relying on natural immunity versus taking a vaccine, using contraceptives, using cosmetics, etc. While a case might be made for the advantages of some of the “natural” options, it is also common for people to assume the natural quality speaks for itself and the artificial option is clearly bad. Whether or not that is really the case is actually an empirical question.

Needless to say, this variation can be reversed. Someone may take artificial or technologically ‘advanced” approaches to life choices to be an obvious improvement over nature in itself. This too would vary from case to case.

The Etymological Fallacy

This error occurs when assumes that past the meaning of a word determines its present significance. This often takes the form of a literal account of the etymological origins to determine its meaning in the remote past, coupled with an assumption that has direct implications for present-day word usage. For many, such information is assumed to reveal a timeless ‘true’ meaning which is properly understood to underlie all uses of the term in question. At other times, the fallacy consists of no more than the use of an old definition of a term in contexts wherein contemporary definition would be more appropriate. With or without the assumption that an etymology reveals a ‘true’ meaning, the etymological fallacy enables those producing it to dismiss explicit efforts to define terms at variance with past usage and/or to ignore current discourse implicitly at variance from past usage of the word.

Words change their meaning. This is a social fact. Some might argue that it shouldn’t, but this is a bit like making a case against gravity. Whatever the merits of prescriptivist approaches to the meaning of vocabulary (as opposed to those advanced by descriptive linguists), it is no excuse for misrepresenting others or refusing to address others on their own terms. So, efforts to force the issue by insisting on old definitions in the face of contemporary usage is unhelpful, to say the least. Often it is outright deceptive.

Under a Bastard, Therefore on Account of the Bastard / Human Cornucopia

It is common to assume that most significant trends in the political economy of a nation can be explained by the executive in charge at the time they happen. Is something good happening in the county? Well, if you like the President, then it is clearly because of his leadership. Are terrible things happening? Well if you hate the bastard in charge, then it is clearly his fault. (Alternatively, silence is usually sufficient to handle the matter in the event that bad things happen under the guy you like or good ones happen under someone you think of as a terrible leader.) The assumption that a leader you support is responsible for the good and one you don’t is clearly the cause of the bad rolls rather easily off the tongue or the keyboard, but that assumption itself is built on a lot of other assumptions.

…many of them quite sketchy.

Of course this is not entirely unique to the Presidency or any comparable executive offices found in other nations. kings, queens, emperors and prime ministers can easily find a place in this rhetoric, but can also be applied to less powerful forms of leadership. State local officials, school boards, or even municipal leadership can get this treatment. Folks will apply this assumption to all sorts of leadership, but there does seem to be something about a national executive that invites people to see them as sufficiently powerful to be the cause of most anything that needs a cause to explain it. They are also uniquely responsible for responding to national challenges, regardless of the actual cause of those challenges, and the rhetoric of responsibility shades easily into ideas of causation. So, a perfectly reasonable effort to hold a leader responsible for dealing with a problem that occurs on her watch can easily take the form of a not-so-reasonable effort to blame them for the existence of the problem in the first place.

For years, I found myself repeating the line “Post Cheeto, ergo proper Cheeto” in response to those giving Donald Trump credit for the upward economic stats that occurred under his presidency (often without acknowledging that these were a continuation of trends starting under Obama). Insulting digs aside, it is tempting to think of such ideas as a variation of the post-hoc fallacy. Still, the issue here is not really reducible to a timeline. At least part of the thinking behind these efforts to give an executive credit (or blame) for things they didn’t really bring about themselves has more to do with the role of authority in creating economic change. So, the rationale for the inference is as much about unrealistic ideas about how authority works as it is a clear sense of a timeline.

There is big difference between saying that a politician is responsible for dealing with a problem, or even saying that he is not doing a good job of dealing with a problem, and saying that he was the cause of it to begin with. There is also a big difference between saying that specific actions taken by a leader of any type have had specific effects (good or bad) and merely assuming that they must be the cause because they appear to be in charge (and of course the actual limits of authority are a big part of the baggage that must be unpacked to sort out how some of these problems occur and just what we can expect leaders to do about them). The casual assumption that your guy must have been the cause of all the good things happening around you or that the other bastard must be the source of all the misery converts an empirical question about the effects of specific actions on a political economy into a stock narrative. The leader you love becomes a human cornucopia from whom all things delightful and delicious flow, and the one you hate becomes the bastard who explains everything from the price of milk to the pothole down the street.

Any specific claim that a leader has caused things to happen on their watch should be supported by some form of evidence to that effect. The casual assumption that someone is in charge and therefore whatever happens on their watch can be attributed to them on that basis alone is problematic, to say the least.

This isn’t quite a post-hoc fallacy.

Let’s just say it’s post-hoc adjacent.