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.

A Masked Musket?

Introduction: This was posted to twitter on June 11, 2022. It is clearly an argument about the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Many similar arguments have been made online and in other contexts on pretty regular basis.

Key Facts: There are a few facts which might have bearing on the (de-)merits of this argument.

1: The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

2: Muskets were not the only weapons known to those writing the Second Amendment. They would of course have been familiar with canons. Muzzle-loading rifles had been used for hunting and even saw some use during the American revolution, and experimental forms of semi-automatic weapons such as the Gieardoni air rifle and the Belton flintlock had been developed by this time. Still, muskets were the predominant form of weapon used in warfare. I believe muzzle-loading rifles may have been more useful in hunting, but I am not entirely sure of this.

3: Much of the current discussion of gun control focuses on the prospect of banning assault weapons, or otherwise subjecting them to some form of stricter-than-usual regulation. What constitutes an ‘assault weapon‘ can be a difficult question. The difficulty is of course compounded by the controversial nature of the debate over gun control.

4: James Madison’s first official draft of the Second Amendment was proposed in 1789. The Second Amendment was ratified in 1791.

Text: “The Second Amendment is from 1789. So, technically, the second amendment only applies to muskets.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I am using this as a representative sample of a broad range of arguments about the meaning of ‘arms’ by gun control advocates.

Statements: There are two statements in this argument.

[1] The Second Amendment is from 1789.

[a] So,

[2] technically, the second amendment only applies to muskets.

Diagram: 1->2

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Availability Heuristic, Contextualization, Hedges, Indexicality, The Masked Man Fallacy, Micro-Reasoning, Semantics.

Availability Heuristic: It appears that the author assumes that muskets were the only weapons available in 1789, or the only ones who count as far as she is concerned. Either way, it’s a problem. While muskets were certainly the most prevalent weapon used in war, they were not the only weapons available. So, the notion that the Second Amendment can apply only to muskets does not literally work, even as applied to the weapons of the day.

Most likely, this is an expression of the availability heuristic. In other words, the author is letting her sense of the weaponry available at the time be defined entirely by the weapons most talked about in history books and movies (which deal most often with warfare). She may even be aware of some of the author weapons of the era, but they do not stand out in her mind so much as muskets.

Just how much this matters is another question. Experimental semi-automatic weapons were not widely available at the time, and even rifles were not the main weapons of war as of yet. (Also, she may mean to include muzzle-loading rifles in her own use of ‘muskets.’ A distinction between a smooth-bore musket and a muzzle-loading rifle is probably not that common in modern thinking about guns, at least not amongst the general population.

This is probably a trivial mistake. Insofar as the author is most likely trying to distinguish between muzzle-loading weapons available in the founding era from some construction of ‘assault weapons’ today, a significant difference would not be hard to establish. So, if this is a problem, it is probably not a problem critical to her argument.

Contextualization: The issue here arises because of the contextualization behind the Second Amendment. It is a text written in a particular time and place, but it is also a text written with future generations in mind. We also read this text today under the assumption that it must somehow be relevant now. In effect, this is a text with a exceptionally broad context insofar as its authors clearly meant to speak to people not yet born on matters not yet coming to pass. The problem is thus a question about how to manage the logical implications of a text with different practical implications at different times.

Hedges: The term “technically” is a hedge. Its use indicates that the author sees her interpretation as narrow in comparison to conventional meaning. For reasons mentioned below, it is doubtful that her interpretation of the Second Amendment is ‘technically’ correct.

Indexicality: Part of the problem here is a problem of reference and predication. The text of the amendment refers to something by means of a term, ‘arms.’ What that term means in semantic terms, is one thing. What real-world objects may be referenced through that meaning is another. The problem here is a question of what specific things are referenced by means of the term ‘arms?’ The term carries certain notions, but the actual objects reference by those notions have changed over time.

Masked Man fallacy: Probably the biggest problem with this argument is its confusion of reference by intension with reference by extension. The relevant term in question is ‘arms.’ What the author asks us to consider is the fact that this term was used in 1789 to refer to a much narrower category of weapons than we could use it for today. She concludes from this that the term applies only to that narrow range of weapons from 1789 rather than the full range of arms presently on the market for civilian gun ownership. In so doing, she derives a conclusion about intensional meaning of ‘arms’ from the extension of the original reference to muskets.

This seems like the opposite of the usual form of the masked man fallacy. This fallacy treats two terms as equivalent in meaning if they refer to the same actual things even when the equivalence is not known to a given subject (e.g. Lois Lane knows Clark Kent is in New York because she knows Superman is in New York and we know that Superman is really Clark Kent). In the case of this argument by contrast, a broad intension is denied, because of a limited initial extension (to muskets only) in its initial reference whereas there is nothing in the semantics of the term that suggests it must be so limited. Those who wrote, debated and ratified the Second Amendment may not have known about an AR-15, but we have no reason to believe its characteristics would not have qualified as a form of ‘arm.’ The direction of the inference is unusual for an application of the masked man fallacy, but the author is still confounding reference by intension with reference by extension.

Micro-Reasoning: It is probably safe to say that some of the problems mentioned here are directly due to the brevity of the argument.

Semantics: The argument is explicitly about the meaning of the text in question, and many of the problems mentioned here are also a function of questions about meaning.

Evaluation: Insofar as the argument commits the masked man fallacy, or something very close to it, this argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: There are of course many different variations on this argument, some of which may avoid the problems outlined above. What we know is what was written at the time and what weapons were in use at the time. How those who wrote it might assess the costs and benefits of the Second Amendment today is an entirely different question. It might be fair to suggest that the difference between guns in 1989 and guns today should lead us to recalculate the costs and benefits of the Second Amendment. What doesn’t work is an argument deriving a narrow intention from the general terminology based on a factual comparison between the weaponry of 1789 and that available today. You could say; “things have changed and so we should rethink this.” What you can’t say with reasonable force is that the framers meant for the Second Amendment to apply only to the weapons generally available at the time.

Epistemic Idioms

Certain stock words and phrases commonly used by the public carry obvious epistemological implications. They convey a certain sense of the way that truth and falsehood enter into our conversations. This is a list of such words and phrases. To say that it is incomplete is putting it mildly. I will add more as time goes on.

Absolute Truth: We often hear something described as an absolute truth. What’s fascinating about this is the implication that some truths might not be absolute. Presumably, one could draw the distinction by considering the number of contingencies that might affect the truth value of a statement, but that opens the door to relative truth values, and if some truths could be made relative by contingencies, then how do we really preempt all such contingencies once and for all? Maybe that can be done. Most likely though, the inclusion of ‘absolute’ here tells us more about the confidence level of the person asserting the truth than anything about the truth functions of the statement in question.

Agree to Disagree: This is a common thing to hear in the midst of an informal debate. If it means nothing else, it certainly seems to be a suggestion that the parties in question should set aside their disagreement and move on. This could be done so as to focus on some other point of disagreement, or it could be done so as to remove an unpleasant topic from discussion altogether. Either way, the point is clearly to set some point of disagreement aside.

I don’t think it unfair to suggest that the phrase also implies something about doing so without malice, as if to add; ‘no hard feelings.’ This too could be very positive, but in context, it can be a problem. Personally, I have lost track of the number of times, someone said this to me shortly after misrepresenting my own side of the dispute, often outrageously so. I have also heard it said in direct response to very decisive arguments from the other side, effectively calling off the fight while the speaker is on the ropes, so to speak. This is at least a little frustrating. Doing so while keeping a straw man on the table, so to speak, is even more frustrating. In the spirit of agreeing to disagree with no hard feelings, I think it fair to say that the decision to end a dispute this way should not be used as a strategic ploy. It assumes an honest account of each other’s views and an honest chance to air those views with one another. Absent this, it’s tough to see where the ‘agree’ comes into the phrase ‘agree to disagree.’

Everything is Relative: I often describe this as a kind of pop-relativism. The phrase is commonly used to advance some sort of relativism and/or to undermine the possible objectivity of an existing claim or fact. Absolutists often like to suggest that this is a self-contradiction, because this phrase too would be relative in the event that everything is relative, but there is no particular reason to believe the a relativistic interpretation of this statement would be a problem. Perhaps the notion here is that the statement is universal (as opposed to particular), but the difference between universal and particular statements isn’t really the point of relativism. The problem with this phrase is really more that it simply doesn’t tell us enough to make heads or tails of it. The more interesting versions of relativism tell us what is relative to what and provide a more definite sense of what is entailed in the relativity. If this phrase tells us anything it is probably something about the speaker, namely a readiness to qualify apparently objective truths in terms of some as-yet unspecified contingencies.

Heart of the Matter: This can obviously be used in a variety of contexts. When it is used in the context of debate or critical inquiry, it seems to suggest that whatever it describes is more important than other things that have come up in discussion. What makes certain propositions, questions, or inferences more important than others is a different question. It is of course to be expected that the different parties to a dispute may have a different sense of what constitutes the heart of the matter. There must still be some clear point of conflict, but each will have a different sense of what matters most in the dispute. So, which is really the heart of the matter? One or both versions of the core values at stake? Or the specific implication that puts them in conflict with each other?

Misstatement: This term is used to describe an error. It is commonly used to suggest that a speaker has made a poor word choice. In many cases, it carries the implication that the error in question is not significant and/or that the speaker did not mean to misrepresent the facts of the matter. For this reason, the term can provide rather convenient cover for those caught quite deliberately saying something that just isn’t true.

Personal Truth (e.g. Your Truth / My Truth): This is another pop-relativism. It suggests that different people have different truths. There are of course a few different ways that we can take this. One of the more viable interpretations of this phrase is the notion that someone’s personal truth would be something about their personality, personal experiences, or attitudes. In this case, the truth is less a question about the world around the person in question than something about their own psychology. I do think their is a viable interpretation with a bit more objective focus. this would be the notion that different people focus on different things. A dog trainer might know a great deal about the behavior of a given dog, and in particular, about the likely responses a dog will have to certain motivations. A veterinarian looking at the same dog will know more about the health of the dog. Each of these could thus be described as having a different truth in relation to the dog. So, there are at least some reasonable interpretations of the phrase.

All of that said, however, I do think most of the times I have heard it used, it is effectively an effort to side-step questions about the actual truth value of claims made by actual people. Someone making questionable accusations against a group of people might be said to be speaking his truth (thus reserving the option to suggest that they too have a truth). Whether or not any specific accusation actually squares with the facts can thus be set aside in favor of an effort to respect the perspective of each party to the discussion (perhaps with the implication being that the truth of the particulars might get a mixed score). It comes with a vague sense that questions about the actual truth value of specific claims made by any given party are somehow contingent on their mental state, even as it sets aside any effort to settle questions about what is and what is not true.

Said the Quiet Part Out Loud: This phrase is used to describe an utterance which appears to express unwholesome motivations on the part of the speaker. In some cases, the speaker might suggest they had misstated something. In others, those using this description simply find an implication in the words other than the one intended by the speaker. In either case, the implication is that the utterance in question reveals an underlying truth about how things actually work and/or the motivations of the original speaker for their own words and deeds. Whether or not this accusation is reasonable probably varies from case to case.

Tell (Includes ‘Liar’s Tell’): A tell is quirk of behavior that serves to indicate something about the person exhibiting it. In poker, it might be an indication that a player is bluffing or that he has an exceptionally good hand. In rhetoric, the term is more likely to be applied to something that indicates deceit. This is literally an ‘index’ in the sense used by C.S. Peirce (and later the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein); i.e. a sign that indicates something in the immediate context of a speech event. My mother, for example, used to say she could tell when my father was lying because his nose turned inside out (not literally of course; you’d have to have seen his expression to know what she was talking about). In effect she used his expression to read his intent, or rather, to determine that she was misleading her. Of course, once she accused him of this, he couldn’t help but smirk in exactly the way she described, thus giving off the appearance of confirming her initial accusation. It was all very amusing. This illustrates one of the hazards of those trying to read a tell; the behavior in question is always much more complicated than people assume. A quirk that could be a sign of deceit could also be a sign of something else. Also, the accusation itself can be made disingenuously, and maintained disingenuously as a means of refusing to consider what another person has to say.

Truth Hurts: This is a form of meta-argumentation in which the person using the phrase casts objections made by another party to something already spoken or written as proof that the claims of the original are true after all, and that discomfort with that truth is the reason for the objections. This phrase can be applied to objections based on rudeness or cruelty, but it is also used to characterize objections involving complex and substantive arguments against the original. In effect, use of the phrase discounts the possibility that the objections have any merit. In most cases, use the of the phrase thus amounts to a kind of circular argument or begging the question. It is probably fair to say that people sometimes object to a statement because it describes a reality they would prefer not to hear. It is probably also fair to suggest that people sometimes use this idiot to dismiss substantive objections and real questions about the truth value of the initial utterance.

Two Sides to Every Story: This is a common rejoinder to strong opinions. In most cases, the implication is not merely that there is another point of view on the topic, but that that other point of view actually does have merit, perhaps even that it is equally valid. Sometimes, this is a point well taken. I know, I have certainly come to appreciate the other side of a dispute after reluctantly considering it in the wake of hearing this phrase or some comparable message. That said, sometimes, the other side of the story is just dead wrong, either because those taking it are making some mistake, or because they are lying about the matter. The existence of two sides does not ensure that they have equal value.

A lot depends, I suppose, on what means by ‘story.’

That said, if there is nothing else we should take from this rejoinder it would be the notion that we should take the time to consider the other point of view in a given dispute. Maybe, we will accept it as valid in some sense or another, and maybe, we’ll just get even more harsh once we know what kind of bullshit the other guy is trying to pull. Either way, it’s worth knowing what the other side of a given dispute is.

There is another problem with this saying in that it actually doesn’t go far enough. I often find myself wanting to say in response to this; “only two?” As long as we are entertaining different perspectives, it’s worth bearing in mind that disputes can often be looked at through a great variety of different opinions and that the appearance of two major contenders in a controversy is often a function of assumptions coon to both. Take away those assumptions and all sorts of interesting possibilities arise.