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.

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