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.”


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.

Meta-Missing Evidence

Introduction: This was posted on June 30, 2022. It is part of the general public debate over gun control and Second Amendment rights.

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: A common argument on this topic suggests that the Second Amendment is essentially a reference to muskets, not the kind of weapons currently available to the American public. See here for example.

3: The Belton Flinklock is certainly not the only non-musket available at the time. 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. The Gieardoni air rifle provides one additional example of an experimental semi-automaic rifle. 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.

4: 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.

5: While Washington is known to have ordered 100 of these for his troops during the American revolution, there is no evidence that he received them or that his troops actually used them. By most accounts, the deal simply fell through.

Text: “The Belton Flintlock could fire 20 rounds in 5 seconds. That’s 50% faster than a modern AR-15. George Washington commissioned 100 of these in 1777 — 14 years before the second amendment. Next time a left winger mentions ‘muskets’, remind them how little they know about history.”


Comments: For reasons best explained here, I regard the claim that the Second Amendment refers only to muskets as completely indefensible. The prospect that modern weapons pose problems today that America’s founding fathers may not have anticipated is very real, but that is a political question; it does not point us to a narrow construction of the Second Amendment. If one were to use existing weapons available at the time, there are better candidates for consideration than the Belton Flintlock. Raising the prospect of its use in the revolution without acknowledging the fact that it simply wasn’t is both unethical and intellectually unhelpful.

Statements: There seems to be an unstated intermediate conclusion in this argument. I have presented 2 different variations (5a and 5b), one specific to the issue of semi-automatic weapons which are increasingly controversial in current debate and another, more moderate conclusion to the effect that the framers of the Second Amendment would have been familiar with weapons other than muskets. I do believe the author is going out of his way to touch upon the former, but the latter would provide him with less to prove while still enabling him to challenge efforts to reduce the meaning of the Second Amendment to muskets.

Statement 4 is framed in snarky terms, but it is essentially a rejection of the notion that the meaning of the Second Amendment can be reduced to muskets. I have accordingly suggested a couple variations on this, one which is limited to the modest question of whether or not the Second Amendment is only about muskets and one extending to the specific question of whether or not the Second Amendment can or should be seen as applying to semi-automatic weapons.

[1] The Belton Flintlock could fire 20 rounds in 5 seconds.

[2] That’s 50% faster than a modern AR-15.

[3] George Washington commissioned 100 of these in 1777 — 14 years before the Second Amendment.

[4] Next time a left winger mentions ‘muskets’, remind them how little they know about history.

[4b] The meaning of the Second Amendment cannot be reduced to muskets.

[4c] The meaning of the Second Amendment extends to semi-automatic weapons.

[5a] The framers of the Second Amendment were familiar with weapons other than muskets.

[5b] The framers of the Second Amendment were familiar with semi-automatic weapons.

Diagram: There are two inferences in this argument. The first is a linked argument (1+2+3 proving 5) and one simple argument (with 5 proving 4).

Because there are a couple variations of statements 4 and 5 (and we could imagine more variations on each), this leads to several different ways of understanding the argument. I would suggest that there are two significant variations to consider; one which focuses on simply countering the claim that the second amendment can be reduced to muskets (thus using statements 4b and 5c) and one addressing the issue of semi-automatic weapons (thus using 4c and 5b). The diagram looks the same either way; it’s just a question of which versions of statements 4 and 5 would be referenced by those numbers.

For purposes of clarity: I will refer to the different versions of this argument from here forward as the “Muskets-Only” and the “Semi-Automatic” variations. The former construes the argument in terms of statements 4b and 5a, and the latter uses 4c and 5b.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Counter-Argument, Meta-Reasoning, Missing Assertions, Poisoning the Well, Suppressed Evidence, Tokenism.

Counter-Argument: Whatever else this argument does, it clearly offers evidence countering claims coming out of the gun control camp. In one version of the argument, the Belton Flintlock is offered in response to claims that the Second Amendment can only refer to muskets and in another, it is offered in response to the claims that the second Amendment should not be extended to semi-automatic rifles. Either way, the fact that George Washington ordered 100 of these muskets could certainly count as evidence against the claims in question. That evidence is, however, seriously undermined by the lack of evidence that the order was ever fulfilled. The author implies that Washington had a hundred of these, but most likely didn’t, and that leaves us with the fact that the weapon was not widely available. So, there is little reason to believe its existence could have been weighed heavily in discussions about the Second Amendment.

Meta-Reasoning: As a counter-argument, this one addresses questions about what is and what is not good reasoning. Rule treats arguments reducing the meaning of the Second Amendment to muskets as unsound in view of the existence of this weapon and its implied use by Washington’s armies. This leaves out questions about the relative significance and availability at the time. It is one thing to say that such weapons did exist; it is quite another to say that their presence was sufficiently significant to shape the thoughts of those framing the Second Amendment.

This does leave me with one interesting question; did anyone bring these weapons up in relevant discussions at the time? I do not know the answer to this question.

Missing Assertions: Insofar as this argument contains a missing intermediate conclusion, it does raise questions about how to formulate a missing statement. Here, the challenge is figuring out how much of this arguments is aimed at simply countering the muskets-only theory adopted by some advocates of gun control, and how much of it is specifically aimed at showing us that semi-automatic weapons were already known to those involved in creation and ratification of the Second Amendment. Rules final conclusion suggests the former is the main point of the argument, but at least some of his comments clearly address the more specific theme of semi-automatic weapons.

Poisoning the Well: Insofar as Rule uses the word ‘left winger’ he might be thought to be poisoning the well. the phrase could be construed as an insult, and indeed, he probably means t as an insult. Rules intended audience probably also sees it as an insult. That said, comparable language is often used for the right and the insult is hardly strong. It’s a trivial concern.

Suppressed Evidence: The biggest problem with this argument is the suppressed evidence. Rule tells us that Washington ordered 100 of these weapons, thus creating the impression that these were used in the American revolution. As the weapons were never supplied, this gambit is highly deceitful. Once we factor this information into the argument, we are left with a claim about a weapon that was known at the time, but not one that was a significant factor in events of the day. So, it’s relevance to the thinking of those developing the Second Amendment is sketchy at best.

Tokenism: The mere existence of this weapon does not change the fact that muskets were the predominant weapon used by soldiers at the time. Those writing the Second Amendment would certainly have been aware of muzzle-loading rifles (as opposed to smooth-bore muskets), but experimental weapons like this were not widely used at the time. The relevance of this unfulfilled order to the thinking of America’s founding fathers is marginal at best, negligible is more like it.

Evaluation: By either construction of this argument, the problems of suppressed evidence and tokenism wreck the inference from statements 1 through 3 to 4. The argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: This is a good example of a crappy argument thrown out in support of a perfectly good conclusion. Either construction of this argument ends with a conclusion that is perfectly defensible on grounds having nothing to do with the argument Run Rule presents here. Would that settle the larger gun control debate? Not even close. But we could certainly rule out at least one implausible argument in favor of gun control and/or against a meaningful right to bear arms. Nothing in Rule’s post helps us get to accomplish this.