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.

The Meta-hypocrisy Shuffle

What is meta-hypocrisy?

It’s an odd notion, you read it from time to time on the net. …at least I do.

Anyway…

Roughly speaking, meta-hypocrisy occurs whenever someone’s comments of hypocrisy are themselves hypocritical. Usually, this involves a hypocritical accusation that someone else is a hypocrite (or that that they have behaved in a hypocritical way).

There are of course a number of ways this could happen, but what I mean by “The metahypocracy Shuffle” (the MHS) isĀ  the practice of hiding a hypocritocal stance by expressing it as an accusation of hypocrisy. This occurs when someone effectively flip-flops on a principle or value by accusing someone else of doing the same. In framing the issue as a problem with someone else’s ethics, an individual effectively casts her own stance as a metalinguistic response to their own views on the topic at hand. This effectively relieves her of responsibility to express a direct point of view on one or both polarities of the topic ay hand. Thus she can oppose the target of her criticism in both moments of his alleged inconsistency without clearly expressing an inconsistent view herself. In effect, her own inconsistency occurs as a social interaction while the inconsistency of her target is stuck with an inconsistency in his denotational texts.

This gambit renders the target of the accusation much more vulnerable to logical scrutiny and/or certain moral criticism than the person making the accusation, even though each has effectively changed their stance on the relevant principles at stake in the discussion. Because the accuser is only commenting on the hypocrisy of her target she enjoys the benefits of opposing him on both ends of his own inconsistency without ever stating a directly hypocritical stance on the subject. In effect, she gets the practical benefits of flip-flopping on a principle without e pressing an explicitly inconsistent stance on the issue at hand.

***

For example: Let’s say that we have a War. We’ll call this war Ping. Proponents of War Ping usually belong to Party Ticky. Those in party Tacky generally oppose it. Well, War Ping lasts for a while and then ends.

Some time after that, Party Tacky starts another War. This war is called Pong. The Ticky Party is really against War Pong.

Let’s imagine that Ralph belongs to the Ticky Party and Jimmy belongs to the Tacky Party. It should come as no real surprise that Ralph favored Ping and opposes Pong while Jimmy thinks Pong is a good idea, but Ping was really a terrible mistake. Both Ralph and Jimmy might have a problem insofar as they their political stances MIGHT seem inconsistent. Of course details matter, and it is quite possible that each could plead the merits of one war and condemn the foibles of the other in perfectly particular terms. It could very well be that one of those wars was a good idea and the other wasn’t. Also, either one could declare a change of heart on the value of war openly, thus explaining their change in approach as a matter of personal growth. There are lot of ways to get at the issue that might not raise legitimate questions of inconsistency.

…but if either Ralph or Jimmy (or both) has spent any time pleading the merits of military strength in general or railing against war in the abstract, then, (Sans an explicit change of heart) they definitely have a problem. Their stance is inconsistent, and given its moral dimensions, arguably hypocritical. Here it should be said that accusations of hypocrisy may not always be that substantive. Nevertheless, this is a common theme, especially in political and religious criticism, so actual hypocrisy, or even the mere perception of it, is not usually a trivial thing.

This is where the Meta-Hypocrisy Shuffle comes into play.

Ralph doesn’t have to say; “I was for Ping and against Pong, and here is why.” He doesn’t have to argue against Pong in direct terms at all, and he certainly doesn’t have to tell the whole world he has suddenly discovered the merits of pacificism. He can simply say; “Look at Jimmy! Jimmy was a Peacenik for Ping and now he’s all gung-ho for Pong. See now I told you that Jimmy is a goddamned hypocrite!” Ralph can even make this point whenever Jimmy (or even those agree with Jimmy) make the case for Pong. This enables Ralph to fully oppose anything Jimmy and his camp do to support war Pong without ever saying that he is in fact opposed to the war, much less that he himself has now reconsidered his views on war in general. In place of a direct stance on the war, Ralph just keeps telling us that Jimmy and his friends are inconsistent. The practical import of Ralph’s public statements is no more consistent than that of Jimmy, but in accusing Jimmy of inconsistency on the topic, Ralph is able to make Jimmy bear the brunt of any moral concerns about the shifting political landscape.

The fact that Jimmy could pull this same stunt on Ralph should be obvious. In fact, they can both do it at the same time, and if each preaches to his own choir, then the whole lot of them can enjoy the thought that the other guys are terrible hypocrites without ever even noticing (at least not in public) that they are just as inconsistent themselves.

***

This isn’t really a fallacy, but it is fallacy-adjacent. Arguably, much of this could fall under the heading of a tu-quoque fallacy, but that label alone misses some of the dynamics here.

What makes The Meta-Hypocrisy Shuffle interesting to me is not only the perverse irony of the tactic, but the way it hinges on shifting layers of meaning. What makes this trick work is that it moves the inconsistencies of the target into explicit denotational text while at the time shifting the inconsistencies of the accuser into the subtext of the public discourse. It effectively expresses hypocrisy while at the same time hiding, all the while directing attention to the hypocrisy of someone else.

I also believe it is an extraordinarily common gambit.

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Note: The relationship between logical inconsistency and the more loaded significance of moral hypocrisy is really complex, and of course, questions about that relationship haunt this entire post.

Anyway, I think I’m going to save that topic for another day.

I mean; some folks might say that I should address questions about the relationship between inconsistency and hypocrisy in this post, but they probably didn’t think it was so important when they were writing their own blog post, right? What a bunch of hypocrites!

Begging the Variable

I don’t know is there is already a specific term for this error, but I have no doubt that it can be addressed with more conventional labels. Still, I think this is a common enough issue, that it might be worth giving it it’s own name, so I’m coining one here. Presumptuous, I know, but I’m doing it anyway. So,…

This occurs when somebody tries to counter quantitative research by raising the prospect of a confounding variable without considering the way the research might already have addressed that variable. For example, someone counters claims about anthropogenic global warming by stating that global temperatures vary considerably over time, thus ignoring the fact that such variations are considered in research on the topic to begin with. Another common example occurs when people try to counter a claim that links a given ethnic group with a stigmatized activity by speculating on the reasons someone specific might engage in the activity. (E.g. __% of this people commit suicide.” “…Well, maybe someone lost his job or his girlfriend left him.”) Absent a reason to believe the issue actually skews the results of the study, this information would not count as evidence against it; It might well help to round out the story, but it would not help to refute the initial observation.

Such suggestions should certainly be taken seriously if they are framed in terms of questions about methodology. Legitimate questions about the representativeness of a statistical sample or the possibility that a confounding variable could result in a misleading correlation are common, and they they are an important check on bad research, but this should be distinguished from variables raised as objections without addressing the methodology in any meaningful way.

What makes this style of reasoning an error is the complete absence of any attempt to engage the initial study (or studies). The allegedly confounding variable is offered as an alternative story preferred by the speaker without any serious effort to address the likelihood that it really invalidates the initial claims in question. In many cases, the appeal seems to be rooted in story telling. The speaker would simply rather tell this story than that one; the numbers don’t enter into it.

Arguably, this is just a variety of circular argument, but it is a very specific form of circular reasoning that seems common enough to merit some focus of its own.

The No True Scotsman Fallacy (Appeal to Purity)

This fallacy occurs when someone rescues a generalization from counter-evidence by introducing a spurious appeal to purity. The classic example can be found on Wikipedia:

Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person A: “But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

The problem of course is that the existence of an actual Scotsman who does in fact put sugar on his porridge should be sufficient evidence to disprove the initial claim. Instead, the speaker (Party A) dismisses the counter-evidence on the basis that it doesn’t really count because the party in question isn’t TRULY a member of the class in question. Significantly, what makes the difference in this case is nothing but the fact that the party in question is not acting in a manner consistent with the generalization.

We get this fallacy from the philosopher, Anthony Flew, and it reflects some of the themes of his larger body of work. The problem he was getting at here is a question of meaning. If counter-evidence doesn’t count, so to speak, then generalizations like those offered at the outset of such an argument don’t really tell us anything after all. What starts off as a false statement ends up as a tautology, which is not really an improvement.

The accusation that someone has committed this fallacy usually arises in the context of discussions about group membership and the people in those groups. Atheists and Christians will often accuse each other of producing the fallacy when talking about who does or doesn’t belong in either category. National identity will also give rise to the concern, and any other source of significant identity can certainly produce candidates for arguments which might be thought to commit this fallacy. There is no inherent reason to restrict this label to discussions of people, however. Notions like ‘true love’ can produce the problem just as easily as discussions about who is or isn’t a real Christian, a genuine atheist, or a true American. So can ideas about genres or music, books, or film.

People also tend to focus on instances in which a positive value is idealized and then defended from counter-evidence, but it can also be used to blunt criticism (e.g. “So&So isn’t really a criminal; it was just a misdemeanor.>)

The fallacy occurs whenever a spurious distinction is introduced in defense of a generalization.