Ambiguous Etiologies

Introduction: The image at left is a screenshot of the pinned tweet on the twitter account of someone going by “Travis for President.” This appears to be an attempted commentary on vaccination mandates, as born out by his own comment just below the original post.

Key Facts: The post is clearly intended to comment on vaccination and/or mask mandates in relation to Covid19 mitigation. Covid19 is an infectious disease. Allergies are not contagious.

Text: “I hate allergy season. I took Claritin, but nobody else did so my allergy medicine isn’t working.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: It’s not entirely clear how serious to take the account or any of its arguments, but it’s posts are consistently aligned with the Trump movement in general, and the anti-vaccination movement in particular. So, it seems fair to think the source means for this argument to be taken seriously. It is possible that he also thinks of this as parody in some way, but if so, the focus on the irony is quite unclear.

Statements: One problem with this argument is that doesn’t attempt to refute a specific claim so much as a pattern of reasoning. It does so by satirizing that pattern. So, much of the actual reasoning is implied and we have to reconstruct many of the statements used in that reasoning. Each of the missing statements here seems strongly implied, but it is difficult to arrive at the actual wording of statement 6. I have presented two different versions, one [6a] attempting to describe the actual basis for vaccine mandates as I can get it and one [6b] presenting a more general expectation that medications must be generally applied to be effective in individual cases.

[a] I hate allergy season.

[1] I took Claritin.

[2] nobody else did

[b] so

[3] my allergy medicine isn’t working.

[4] [Allergy medication would not cease working as a result of these circumstances.]

[5] [Vaccine mandates are not reasonable.]

[6a] [Vaccines are mandated because broad use by the general public is critical to their success in preventing spread of disease.]

[6b] [Vaccines are mandated because broad use by the general public is critical to the success of any medication, even for those who use them.]

Diagram: This is a relatively simple argument. 1+2+[6]->3 is the explicit argument advanced in the tweet. 3+[4]->[5] introduces the implied criticism to arrive at a statement against vaccination.

Discussion: The following themes come up in this argument: Ambiguity, Analogy, Meta-Argumentation, Micro-Reasoning, Missing Assertions, Parody, Poe’s Law, Reductio ad Absurdum, Straw Man, Sub-deduction.

Ambiguity: Because much of this argument is implied, it leaves us with at least one tricky question. Does the author literally believe (or want others to believe) that vaccines and allergy medications are no different with respect to this issue? If the answer to this is yes, then we could represent that belief in the form of a missing assumption, but I can think of no relevant version of that assumption which would not be false. In the diagram above, I have used what I take to be a reasonable approximation of a pro-mandate position in statement 6a, but this would not help the author get to statement 3. Statement 6b incorporates the analogy between allergy medications and vaccines, which would make the inference stronger, but only by including an assumption that is clearly false, and which is NOT representative of the case for vaccine mandates.

We can move the problem around a little (putting it in the truth values of his assumptions or logical value of his inferences. What we can’t do is make the problem go away. One way or another this is a deeply flawed argument, so much so that it is tempting to think that it make be intended as a joke. It is, however, by no means clear that the author does not wish to be taken taken seriously, and it may well be that he hasn’t made up his own mind as to how serious he is about this argument.

Analogy: One way or another, this argument involves some form of analogical reasoning. The author is suggesting that allergies and viruses and their treatment are the same in at least some critical respect. What that is, he does not say, but most people would suggest that the contagious nature of a virus makes it significantly different from allergies in a way that is directly relevant to questions about the threats posed by others. It’s tough to see how anything could override this very substantial difference.

Meta-Argumentation: Insofar as the author of this argument is mocking the reasoning of those supporting vaccine mandates, he is engaging in an argument about the arguments produced by others. It might have been more interesting if he had referred directly to some specific pro-mandate text, but as it stands, he is presenting this as a kind of general parody of pro-vaccination rhetoric.

Micro-reasoning: As with most any tweet, this argument doesn’t really provide us with enough detail to understand its authors actual reasoning.

Missing Assertions: This argument contains three assertions which are missing from the original text, but strongly implied. I think statements [4] and [5] represent the author’s intent pretty well, but it is difficult to tell just how he would frame the specific wording for statement [6]. If statement 6 isn’t drawn broadly, then it will not produce any reason to infer 3 from statements 1 and 2, but if it is drawn broadly (as in version 6b), then it becomes a simple caricature of the actual pro-mandate position, and this effectively makes the entire argument a straw man. So, there is no way to make statement 6 work.

Poe’s Law: This argument beautifully illustrates a generalized version of Poe’s Law insofar as the utter absurdity of so much anti-vaccination makes it difficult to discern whether or not this utterly foolish argument is meant to be taken seriously or not.

Parody: The actual argument produced by this author is clearly a parody of arguments in favor of a vaccine mandate. The shear absurdity of this argument makes it tempting to think that it is actually offered as a parody of right wing (anti-vax) reasoning, but apart from the utter foolishness of this and other posts made on the account, the author gives us no specific reason to think he means to mock the anti-vax camp. It seems more likely that he really criticize vaccination mandates with this argument.

Reducatio ad Absurdum: This argument is an effort to reduce the argument in favor of vaccine mandates to an absurdity (in this case, the position that allergy medication won’t work if it isn’t taken by others). One could think of the first inference as his sub-deduction, predicated on some vague sense of the basis for vaccine mandates. To say that it fails is putting it mildly.

Straw Man: Insofar as the only version of 6 which would make the sub-deduction of the argument work is not represent of the pro-mandate position, this argument does appear to be a straw man. A more modest variation of 6 might eliminate this problem, but such a variation would fail to generate the necessary inference.

Sub-Deduction: The sub-deduction in this argument fails. Without statement [6], there is no reason to infer statements 3 from statements 1 and 2. Statement 6a still doesn’t get us there, and statement 6b does so only at the expense of being both manifestly false and completely unrepresentative of the case for vaccine mandates. the sub-deduction of this argument fails either way.

Evaluation: This argument fails, because the first inference is unsound.

Final Thoughts: Yes, I spent way too much time on this one.

Mike Lee’s Mulligan?

Introduction: On February 9th, 2021, the first day of the second Impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Republican Senator, Mike Lee of Utah, gave an interview on a show called “America’s Newsroom” at Fox News about his thoughts on the trial. He produced a few different arguments in favor of acquittal before one of the hosts for the show played him a clip of several Democratic politicians engaging in apparently reckless rhetoric and encouraging private citizens to confront Republican politicians over various matters. Asked if the Democratic Party wasn’t showing a double standard, Mike Lee’s response to that question is the argument we are looking at here.

Key Facts: Obviously, the events of January 6th are relevant to the topic of the impeachment in general.

Chuck Schumer’s remarks were made in March of 2020 regarding an abortion case then before the Supreme Court, prompting a rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts. Schumer later expressed regrets for the comments. No disciplinary actions were taken against him.

Maxine Waters comments were made in June of 2018 in response to the zero tolerance policies of Donald Trump. She received criticism for these comments from both Democrats (including Pelosi and Schumer) and Republicans (though more of the latter). No official disciplinary actions were taken against her.

Cory Booker’s Remarks were made in July 2018 at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. (They occur at around the 25 minute mark in the video clip.) Note that Booker’s remarks are not in response to any specific outrage, nor are they focused on any particular enemies; he wants his audience to confront congressmen about homelessness. Senator Rand Paul’s wife later called Booker out for encouraging behavior that led to harassment of her family and an attack on her husband.

For Donald Trump, the actions in question relate to the events of January 6th. He had been calling protesters to converge on Washington on the day in which Congress would count the electoral votes for the 2020 election. As Congress counted the votes, Trump called on those participating to converge on Congress (whether or not he urged peaceful or violent protest is open to debate). What followed was certainly violent. Protesters stormed Congress and shut down proceedings for some time. Seven people were killed, and many others were injured. At least some of the participants appeared to be prepared for violence at the outset, and may or may not have coordinated with officials in Washington to gain access to Congress and evens search for Congressional leadership (as well as Vice President, Mike Pence).

This leaves out a lot of important details, and much of what happened is still in dispute. For the present, that will have to do as far as my account here.

Text: I’m going to present a significant portion of the clip here, but the argument to be analyzed is the quote at the end from Mike Lee.

One of the hosts of America’s Newsroom, Dana Perino wrapped up a previous line of discussion and then prefaced a series of clips with the following comment: “I do want to ask you about this, the Republicans are gonna try and point out that there is a double standard. Take a listen to this.”

Chuck Schumer: “I wanna tell you, Gorsuch. I wanna tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price.”

Maxine Waters: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them, they are not welcome.”

Cory Booker: “Please, don’t just come here today and then go home, go to the hill today. Get up, and please, get up in the face of some Congress-people.”

The segment comes back to Perino who adds: “Democrats are saying, of course, that that is different. How do you see it?”

Mike Lee: “Yeah, look, it’s not different. these are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business, and in many other businesses. Look, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile. and I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements, because in each instance, they’re making it deeply personal; they’re ceasing to make it about policy, and instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable, and that’s not helpful. I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.”

(Some conversational repair has been omitted.)

ANALYSIS

Comments: I am struggling a bit here with the proper language to describe this. In some cases, I feel like I have gone too far in attempting a neutral (or neutral-ish) descripton of key facts. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be too hard to gather what my own take on this is. I think Trump is damned guilty, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, I am trying to write this with an eye toward the possibilities at least that the issues in question are currently up for debate.

Liteally!

Statements: I’ve broken the argument up into the following statements. I supplied one implied conclusion, phrasing one version in terms of the figurative speech lee uses and one in terms approximating his likely literal intention.

[1] It’s not different.

[2] These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business.

[3][These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time] in many other businesses.

[4] Everyone makes mistakes.

[5] Everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile.

[6] I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements.

[a] because

[7] In each instance, they’re making it deeply personal.

[8] They’re ceasing to make it about policy.

[9] Instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable.

[10] That’s not helpful.

[11] I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.

[12a] [Trump should get a Mulligan.]

[12b] [Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th should not result in an impeachment conviction.]

Diagram: The biggest question I had about the diagram was how to fill in a couple some of the relevant information Lee doesn’t quite state himself. I thought the missing conclusion was fairly obvious, but I struggled with whether or not to spell out an assumption about just what the nature of Trump’s alleged transgressions really were. Senator Lee never actually says anything about the nature of Trump’s conduct, or possible transgressions, at least not in this segment. This leaves a gaping whole in the argument. Without more guidance as to just how Lee sees Trump’s own actions, I thought it best to refrain from attempting to phrase it for him.

I added some phrasing to this diagram suggesting a loose paraphrase for each of the major themes of the argument.

Discussion: This argument includes the following topics: Analogy, Double Negation, False Equivalence, Interactional Eclipse, Missing Assertions, Red Herring, Tu Quoque.

Analogy: What really stands out in this segment is an argument from analogy, namely the claim that Trump’s actions are comparable to those of a golfer in need of a mulligan (i.e. a second chance). This raises questions about just how fitting the analogy really is. Whether or not Trump’s actions (or those of the Democrats mentioned in the video) could be viewed as the moral equivalent of a botched shot in a game. More to the point, the question at issue would be whether or not his actions could be considered worthy of a second chance (given without penalties, and perhaps without an expression of contrition). A mulligan requires neither punitive actions imposed by others nor an expression of regret, nor a change of heart, so to speak, but such things are commonly expected of those who have committed moral transgressions. To the degree that Trump’s actions might be thought to have moral significance, this argues against the notion that giving him a second chance under the circumstances would be equivalent to granting someone a mulligan in golf.

A second analogy underlies the first, this being the comparison between Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th and those of the Democrats featured in the video. Even if the notion of a mulligan is not really applicable to Trump’s own actions, the comparison between his actions and those of the Democrats featured in this segment is the real point of the argument. Lee’s description of their actions underscores the notion that what was wrong with their actions is the degree to which they made politics personal rather that focused on issues. It seems likely that he meant to suggest that Trump’s actions were comparable.

Possible points of disanalogy? At least 2 of the Democrats (Schumer and Waters) in question were condemned by leaders within their own party, and one of them (Schumer) did express regret for his actions. The third (Booker) was not suggesting that people attack anyone personally, but rather that they take action to call the issue they cared about to Congress people instead of just attending the function at which he spoke. One could perhaps argue that Schumer and/or Waters ought to have faced some sort of disciplinary actions, especially if Trump is to face impeachment over his. Against this, one must weigh the prospect that Trump’s own actions amounted to an effort to incite a riot or even a general insurrection against the United States Government in a concerted effort to overturn the results of an election. One must also consider that lives were lost in this effort, and that Trump as well as many of the participants in the actual riot expressed clear intent to engage in actual violence (even lethal violence) at the outset of the events of January 6th. Somewhere in here, we must also consider the significance of unfounded accusations about the validity of the election and a massive effort to promote dubious arguments to the general public in advance of the calls for protest on January 6th. I know of no comparable case to be made in regard to any of the Democratic examples featured in this video.

This does not mean that the actions of all 3 Democrats featured above is beyond reproach; but it does undermine Lee’s efforts to cast them as essentially the same problem posed by Trump’s role in the events of January 6th.

To say that the analogy is strained would be putting it mildly.

Double Negation: Statement number one; “It’s not different” is of course equivalent to saying the behavior is the same.

False Equivalence: As noted above (in Analogy), there are good reasons to believe the Democratic behavior above is not equivalent to that of Donald Trump, which would make this an example of false equivalence. Arguably, this is the main thrust of Lee’s argument, an effort to convince the public that what Trump did was no more than what each of these Democrats did.

Interactional Eclipse: As a Senator, Mike Lee, is officially on the jury for this impeachment trial. He is also, a player in the events of the 6th. What his role was on that day is up for debate, but the point is that he is himself implicated in the debate over impeachment. His likely stance on this matter is thus something of a foregone conclusion, and his arguments may thus be taken with a grain of salt. As with the rest of the impeachment, there is a very real sense in which we know what the major parties are likely to do, and their stated reasons for doing so may have little to do with the reasons for their actual decisions on the matter. This is not entirely unusual with argumentation, but it is at least a little more of a problem in a highly political trial. (By political here, I mean that the actual vote to convict or acquit will be made by political actors without the benefit of normal trials for either civil governing criminal evidence.)

At least one feature of Lee’s argument is directly effected by the politics of the situation. He never makes a case for the exact equivalence of Trump’s actions to those of the Democrats. To do so, he would have to say what he thought Trump might have done wrong, but as an active ally (and possible co-conspirator) of Trump, he is not going to do that. The argument would be more coherent if he did, but the social context in which the argument takes place makes this a bad strategy.

Missing Assertions: The final conclusion of Lee’s argument is unstated. He is obviously suggesting that Donald Trump too should be allowed to take a mulligan, so to speak. I have framed the final conclusion of the argument (statement 12) in terms of both the metaphor itself (12a) and in in terms of its substantive political significance (12b).

Red Herring: In one respect, we could address lee’s remarks as a simple red herring. He is responding to an indictment of Donald Trump by addressing questions about the behavior of someone else. This is clearly a diversion tactic.

Tu Quoque: The accusation that Democrats have themselves misbehaved in a manner to that of Donald Trump is in another respect an example of the tu quoque variation on the ad hominem fallacy. We might even say that 1, 2, or all 3 of these Democrats behaved wrongly. This does not mean that Trump did not do anything wrong. Neither does it demonstrate the he should not be convicted in an impeachment trial. If, perhaps all three of the Democrats in question are equally worthy of impeachment (which is doubtful), then this as easily proves they should have been impeached as it proves that Trump should not. Their guilt or innocence is not material to questions about Trump’s actions on and leading up to January 6th.

Evaluation: I’m just taking each of the major themes in turn.

2+3 -1: It isn’t clear just what impulse Lee is talking about Neither is it clear that any impulse explains Trump’s actions leading up to the events in question. Neither statement 2 nor 3 appear to be true, so this is unsound.

4+5 -> 1: It isn’t clear what it means to say that everyone deserves a mulligan. Some errors might be more worthy of a mulligan than others. Neither of the premises behind this argument distinguishes between acceptable errors and those that are simply unacceptable. This one too is unsound on account of its untrue premises.

7+8+9 ->10 It isn’t entirely clear that the premises here are meant to prove 10; they may all be just elaborations of the same point. In each case, this seems like a fairly reasonable way of describing the problem with the Democrats statements featured in the video (Booker’s speech might be an exception). In any event, I find the claims plausible and the conclusion does follow reasonably. This part of the larger argument seems fine to me. Sound.

10+11->6: Again, I think this is a fairly reasonable argument about the significance of the Democrat statements in the video, and perhaps even about politics in general. One might find it frustrating to see Mike Lee advocating a principle he (and Trump) do not necessarily follow themselves, but that is not a reason to reject his conclusion here. (To do so would be to engage in the tu quoque fallacy.) Sound.

1+6 -12: The real problem here is the truth value of statement 1. Lee’s psychological commentary on motivations and generalizations about everyone needing a mulligan do nothing to establish any serious position on Donald Trump’s role in the events of January 6th. So, Lee does nothing, NOTHING, to show that the behavior of the Democrats is comparable to that of Trump.

The lack of a clear statement about what Trump did wrong is perhaps to be expected. After all, why would he make even the beginnings of a case against Trump’s actions or his character at the start of a trial in which he clearly hopes will end in acquittal? Nevertheless, it leaves the entire comparison without one of its key components. We know only what happened in the Democrat examples, not how the significance of those examples compares with anything Trump did.

As I have indicated in various places (mainly Analogy) here, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s actions could reasonably be described as equivalent to those of the democrats in question. Simply put, calling for rude and verbally aggressive behavior is not equivalent to inciting a insurrection that got 7 people killed, and countless others injured, to say noting of the attack on our nation’s government. This is essentially what Trump is accused of doing. We an debate whether or not he is guilty, but if he is guilty of doing that, it probably isn’t the kind of thing that gets anybody a mulligan.

Literal or metaphorical.

We could spell out a missing assumption addressing the significance of Trump’s actions in support of statement 1, but it would just be a false assumption and so we would still end up with no reason to accept statement 1 as true.

This inference is unsound because statement 1 is untrue.

Overall: Unsound. The arguments leading to statement 1 do not address Trump’s actual conduct, and evidence suggests that his conduct is not comparable to that the the Democrats in the video. Neither is his conduct sufficiently trivial to warrant the analogy Senator Lee is using.

Final Thoughts: No, Donald Trump does not deserve a Mulligan.

Wisdom of the Oompa Loompas

Introduction: This argument is a (hopefully) well known part of the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor, which was produced in 1971. In this film, the Oompa Loompas, mysterious workers at the chocolate factory sing a number of songs amounting to criticism of the children featured in the story. Each of the Oompa Loompa songs effectively points out the misconduct of an individual child and makes a case for changing that behavior.

This particular passage is the tune the Oompa Loompa’s sing at Violet Beauregarde, a girl who obviously likes her gum.

Key Facts: It’s worth considering that the Oompa Loompas play the role of a chorus in much the same manner that the convention was used in old Greek theater. In this case, they deliver a moral lesson which not only speaks to the characters in the story but also echoes lessons many parents might have given their own children.

Text: Here tis!

“Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while
It stops you from smoking and brightens your smile
But it’s repulsive, revolting and wrong
Chewing and chewing all day long
The way that a cow does.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I got nuthin!

Statements: In the following, statement 5 is rewritten so as to spell out the comparison. Statement 6 is the implied conclusion of the entire argument. It comes very close to matching statement 1, but it also entails the negative implications of chewing too much, which is of course the main thrust of the moral lesson.

[1] Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while.

[2] It stops you from smoking.

[3] (It) brightens your smile.

[4] It’s repulsive, revolting and wrong chewing and chewing all day long.

[5] [Cows chew gum all day long.]

[6] [Gum should be chewed in moderation.]

Diagram: the diagram for this argument seems pretty straight-forward to me. Two reasons to say gum chewing is okay in moderation and one to show that it’s bad to chew gum too much. These two combine together to suggest a general proposition about doing the one and not the other.

Note that an alternative approach might be to spell out a more explicit negative statement about the need to avoid excessive gum chewing. This would perhaps capture the immediate significance of the lesson directed at Viola in the wake of her blueberry gum fiasco, but it has the down-side of complicating the signifcance of the counterpoint (that gum chewing is good when done in moderation), so I have opted here to treat the point as a more general lesson. Either approach seems plausible to me.

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Analogy, Appeal to Emotion, Causation, Missing Assertions, Moral Reasoning, Voicing.

Analogy: The Oompa Loompas compare shewing gum to the behavior of a cow chewing cud. Whether or not this is a good reason to avoid chewing gum is another question.

Appeal to Emotion: The main thrust of the analogy to cows chewing cud appears to be an appeal to emotion.

Causation: Both statements 2 and 3 suggest a causative relationship between chewing gum and some desirable effect. Whether or not these claims are justified is open to question, but they are sufficient to suggest that this argument involves a degree of causal reasoning, unsupported as the argument is in it’s current form. (Damned Oompa Loompa’s never cite any peer-reviewed papers!)

Missing Assertions: As is common in a great deal of reasoning, the actual conclusion of this argument is unstated in the original song. There are a couple different ways to think about what that final conclusion would be, but in its original form, the implications are left unstated.

Moral Reasoning: As the argument in question here is about how people (and in particularly children) should moderate their fum-chewing, it raises familiar questions about what it means to say that someone should or should not do something.

In this tune as well as the others, the Oompa Loompas seem to emphasize the negative effects of the behavior in question which suggests that this argument might be best construed in consequentialist terms. They are suggesting that excessive gum-chewing will make someone look foolish, or at least cowlish.

Voicing: I think it’s fair to suggest that the Oompa Loompas speak for the show in this and their other songs, in effect providing a moral lesson directed specifically at the children in the viewing audience. When Viola and the others produce arguments expressing their own vies on these topics, they appear to be voicing the imagined voices of children in need of correction. The events of the story then reveal the foolishness of their actions, and the Oompa Loompas arrive to drive the point home with a specific moral lesson. That moral lesson is a real lesson directed at children who may be trying to decide how to deal with issues such as how much gum should I chew.

Evaluation: I’m not going to do a complete evaluation here, but I will mention a couple of specific themes.

Statement 2: As part of a lesson directed at children this is an odd point to make at the very least, but presumably it could be interpreted as a claim relevant to the conduct of adults which would also be a concern to children. Either way, we could ask whether or not chewing gum actually stops people from smoking. That those trying to kick a smoking habit often chew gum in place of it would seem to suggest that there may be some connection here, at least in this specific context, but it is by no means clear that gum chewing in general serves to keep people from smoking,

Statement 3: I am not at all sure that this statement is true, either in general or in specific contexts such as right after a meal.

5->4: This inference is questionable at best. Presumably, the point of the analogy is to suggest that one would not wish to behave as a cow does, but it isn’t clear that there is any objective reason for this preference. Neither is it clear that moderate gum-chewing would be any less comparable to chewing cud than constant gum-chewing. Arguably this is a pretty naked attempt to trigger an emotional reaction.

Final Thoughts: The temptation to finish with an Oompa Loompa tune about good reasoning is very strong here, but I am going to show restraint, and I think the Oompa Loompas would be proud.

A Hopi Comments on American Music

Introduction: This story appears in the book, Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov. It is attributed to Fred Coyote of the Wailaki people. Wailaki and Hopi are two different Native American peoples. This is nevertheless a story about an exchange between a Hopi elder and an anthropologist.

Key Facts: Hopi dwell in a relatively dry region of northern Arizona. As with a lot of indigenous peoples, they have seen their share of anthropologists intent on learning about their ways. The story thus begins with a perfectly plausible exchange between an anthropologist and a Hopi elder about Hopi music and its relationship to the environment. A final twist in the story reveals a completely different point.

Text: Peter Nabokov, Ed., Native American Testimony, Revised Edition. 1978. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. It can be found on page 392-393. Note that the section quoted below begins after several paragraphs of narrative in which the anthropologist in question keeps asking a Hopi elder to explain various songs only to find each time that the song is about water.

And so it went all afternoon. And every time the old man would sing a song, the ‘anthro’ would say, ‘What’s that about?’ And the old man would explain it. It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.

And the anthropologist was getting a little short tempered. He said, ‘Is water all you people sing about down here?’

And this old man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here. Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need.’ And he said, ‘I listen to a lot of American music. Seems like most American music is about love.’ He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?’

ANALYSIS

Comments: Anthropologists take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. Still, the reaction of anthropologist in this story seems counter-intuitive. Hell, I think lots of anthros would be happy to find such a clear and consistent pattern in their notes. Still, he makes a good stand-in for the many non-native voices that have had bad things to say about Native American practices.

Statements: For purposes of this analysis, I have omitted much of the narrative framing and focused on the arguments attributed to the Hopi elder. I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the first few sentences (and much of the larger text that was omitted here) in terms of one simple assertion (statement 1). I believe this is a fair estimation of the point behind these comments lead up to. I have also taken the liberty of rewriting the final question as a statement (number 7).

[1] Hopi songs are virtually all about water.

[2] For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here

[3] [The reason for the theme in question is] Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people.

[4] to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need

[5] I listen to a lot of American music

[6] Seems like most American music is about love.

[7] [Americans need love.]

Discussion:

Analogy: This is a good example of analogical reasoning The Hopi elder in this story begins with an explanation for the musical themes of his own people and then infers a similar explanation for the American public in general.

Explanation: The word ‘because’ in this argument could trip people up, particularly if they have recently been circling inference indicators in order to help them learn the difference between reasons and conclusions. In this instance, the ‘because’ isn’t really using the statement that follows to prove anything. It is suggesting that the rest of statement 3 is the cause of statement 1. Of course this text still presents us with an argument, but that argument involves a claim about the best explanation for the  central observations made by the anthropologist. Sorting the explanation from the rest of the argument is crucial to getting the argument right.

Redundant Assertions: Statement 1 is a very simplified version of the main point behind much of the text in the actual story.  The narrator, the anthropologist, and the Hopi elder all affirm the truth of the claim (though the anthropologist does so through a rhetorical question). Statement 1 thus expresses the point in each of the following claims:

{1a} “It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.”

[1b] “Is water all you people sing about down here?”

[1c] “Yes.”

Rhetorical Questions: The question: “He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?'” is rhetorical. It has been rewritten as statement 7.

Voicing: At face value, this isn’t even an argument. It’s a story. The argument is plot a development that unfolds within the story itself. The author nevertheless uses the story to voice an argument about mainstream American culture. In effect, the argument of the elder is the argument of the narrator.

Diagram: This is the diagram as I see it.

argI reckon statements 1 and 2 combine to prove 3, effectively telling us that a need for water is the reason for the prominent musical theme. Statement 3 is then used as an anecdote illustrating the truth of 4. Statement 4 is then used as the major premise, taken in conjunction with 6 (a new observation about Americans in general) to prove statement 7.

Ouch!

I figure statement 5 is an effort to provide evidence for statement 7.

This isn’t the cleanest argument structure you could find, but I’m pretty confident about most of it. The inference from 3 to 4 is the shakiest part of the diagram. It’s a big jump, and we could probably imagine a few different ways to look at the relationship between those statements. Still, people often derive a general principle from a single example. They may have unstated reasons for doing so, but this type of inference isn’t all that unusual.

Evaluation: I don’t see fallacies in this argument, and I don’t see deductive validity.  Most of the inferences here provide a little evidence for the conclusion, but they might be considered more suggestive than definitive. The result is a bunch of judgement calls.

1+2 -> 3. The notion that need for water is the best explanation for the musical theme emphasizing it is certainly plausible. We could explore other explanations, and knowing how to weigh them would raise questions not really covered in the argument. Is the argument enough? Hard to say, so I would consider this inference ‘moderate’.

3 -> 4. This is a Hell of a jump. The inference is ‘weak’ at best.

5 -> 6. This would be a kind of argument from authority. It’s a light version of authority, but the speaker is essentially using his personal experience to back the truth of his observation about American music. The strength of the inference thus rests on his authority to report that experience accurately.

Of course, listeners might find that statement 6 resonates with their own experience in listening to American music in which case they might not need an argument.

Either way, the inference is ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

4+6 -> 7. Once again the inference is reasonable, but we could probably find other explanations for the prominent theme in American music. What really accounts for the prominence of ‘love’ themes in American music is a tough question, though the Hopi elder certainly makes a plausible case. I would consider this inference ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that this whole thing could seem rather petty to some readers. Why is the Hopi elder taking a dig at Americans in general? But of course explicit contrasts between the merits of mainstream American culture and that of Native Americans are very much a part of the history of Indian-white relations. That’s why it appears in Nabokov’s book. Whether or not this particular story is true, we can certainly find numerous instances in which non-natives have taken it upon themselves to comment on the short-comings of Native American culture, and unfortunately numerous cases in which such views informed actual policies with harmful effects.  The dig taken at mainstream American culture should probably be understood in this regard. It is as much an effort to counter-balance aggression from outsiders as it is a direct criticism of American culture.