Can Straw Men Get Pregnant?

Introduction: Republican Candidate, Lavern Spicer posted this on twitter on July 15th, 2022. She is running for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. If successful, she will represent Distict 24 in Florida.

Key Facts: This comment is most likely offered in response to Congressional testimony by Berkeley Professor, Kiara Bridges. During a hearing on abortion access, Senator Josh Hawley asked Professor Bridges to clarify her unwillingness to simply say ‘women’ when referring to persons with the capacity to get pregnant. Bridges raised 2 concerns in response to this question: the fact that some women cannot get pregnant, and the fact that under some circumstances trans-men and other non-binary people can. Her comments have since become a popular target of criticism by right wing politicians and pundits.

Text: “Hey libs! MY HUSBAND IS ALL MAN and has never been able to get pregnant.

Any idea why?”

ANALYSIS

Comments: There has definitely been a lot of piling on when it comes to the exchange between Hawley and Bridges. A lot of conservative politicians and pundits have been using it to illustrate the absurdity of left wing (liberal and progressive) ideas about gender. Mostly, these argument do not engage the views of either Bridges or any actual thinking in liberal or progressive circles.

Statements: The full argument contains at least two missing assertions and one rhetorical question.

The rhetorical question has been rewritten here as statement 3.

The missing assertions are represented as statements 4 and 5. Statement 5 seems to be here main conclusion. Why? Because this tweet was not made in direct reply to Bridges or any of Bridges’ supporters. It is a general message sent out to the public at large. So, it seems unlikely that she is trying to engage any specific targets on any specific points. Her goal is to mock the opposition. Statement 4 is then necessary to represent her working understanding of that opposition. It can be represented in general terms (as statement 4a) or in terms specific to Bridges’ own testimony (statement 4b). Either way, the statement is likely to seem foolish to her intended audience.

[A] Hey libs!

[1] MY HUSBAND IS ALL MAN

[2] [He] has never been able to get pregnant.

[3] [Men cannot get pregnant.]

[4a] [Liberals think men can get pregnant.]

[4b] [Liberals think cis-gender men can get pregnant.]

[5] [Liberals do not understand gender.]

Diagram: I take statement 3 to be a conclusion drawn by abduction from statements 1 and 2. Statement is then added for contrast in order to draw the conclusion that liberals do not understand gender.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Abduction, Contextualization, Equivocation, Micro-Reasoning, Miscontextualization, Rhetorical Question, Semantics, Straw Man, Unstated Assertions, Voicing.

Abduction: As Spicer explicitly suggests that statement 3 is the explanation for statement 2, it seems best to treat the first inference as abduction. The argument seems plausible enough, but a bit depends on the meaning of ‘men.’ If the term is taken to include trans men, then it false and the explanation is too broad for the phenomenon in question. If it is taken to refer to cis-gender men only, then it is true, (At least I am unaware of any information that would contradict it) but this moves the problems in the argument into the inferences.

Contextualization: One of the interesting features of this argument is the way that it frames the nature of the conversation at hand. In it, Spicer addresses those she means to criticize directly. She refers to them as liberal, but of course her arguments are aimed at addressing comments by Professor Bridges, who is unlikely to identify herself as a liberal. Neither can it be taken for granted that liberals fully agree with Spicer. So, there are some real questions about Spicer’s sense of the discussion at hand.

Equivocation: insofar as Lavern Spicer is relying the biological impossibility of her husband’s pregnancy to discredit Dr. Bridges she is equivocating, because Bridges was not talking about cis-gender men (as she, Bridges, would put it). Bridges was talking about trans men. That Bridges uses the same term for both (Spicer probably wouldn’t) types of people does not diminish the error in equating one for the other. Spicer is using the notion that cis-gender men cannot give birth to discredit Bridges for acknowledging that trans men can. This is deceitful.

If Spicer were to address the issue directly, she would simply say that she and Bridges differ in the way they wish to talk about gender. Instead, she casts this as disagreement over a factual matter. She is not alone in this tactic.

Micro-Reasoning: This is an extraordinarily brief argument. As such, it’s author does not get the chance to clarify any of the points she is making. Still, it seems unlikely that its defects are simply the product of brevity. This tweet was meant to distort the issues.

Miscontextualization: Spicer frames her argument here as one directed at liberals, but is it really liberals she is taking issue with? As a proponent of critical race theory (CRT) Professor Bridges would be much better describes as a progressive than a liberal. Critical race theorists consistently oppose liberal approaches to law and other subjects, often describing their work as directly challenging classic liberal politics (which would include both moderate liberals and political conservatives). Also, the lengths to which Bridges goes in shaping her language to accommodate non-binary people would alienate a lot of liberals who may be content to call a trans-man a ‘man’ (something many conservatives refuse to do), but they will not necessarily reshape their language in other contexts so as to align their usage with the best interests of the trans community. Bridges views in this instance, at least, fall far to the left of liberal politics, so Spicer’s framing of the issue is quite misplaced. The effect of this distortion is to create the impression that a larger portion of the non-conservative public is implicated in the position she attacks than is actually the case. She is attempting to erase the middle ground on this issue, even as she seeks to marginalize the any who might be sympathetic to Bridges comments.

Rhetorical Question: when Spicer asks if liberals can figure out why her husband cannot get pregnant, she is of course telling us that they cannot. Hence, her rhetorical question has been reworded as statement number 3.

Semantics: The heart of this argument is a dispute over the language used to express gender. While progressives generally include trans men within their use of terms like “men,” conservatives typically insist on restricting the term to biological (cis-gender) males. Liberals and libertarians vary more widely in their approach to the subject. Ultimately, this argument is an attempt to stigmatize those adopting more inclusive use of the label by portraying them as unable to grasp standard biological facts.

Unstated Assertions: One of the central problems posed by this argument is the question of how best to characterize the points Bridges implies without stating openly. I do think it fair to suggest her goal is a general swipe at her political opposition rather than a focused attack on Bridges (hence, statement 5 as the conclusion). This raises the question of what does Spicer think liberals think. We can construe that broadly in the form of statement 4a or narrowly in the form of statement 4b.

Setting aside the question of whether or not Spicer has correctly identified those who believe as Bridges does, statement 4 might be fairly said to be true, but that would shift the problems with this argument into the inferences (making it a question of equivocation and/or straw man). If we adopt statement 4b instead, then the statement itself is false. There is no indication that even Bridges believes that cis-gender men can get pregnant.

Straw Man: Insofar as Spicer is attacking (and any who might agree with her), this argument commits the straw man fallacy, because Bridges does not saw that cis-gender men can get pregnant.

Voicing: Many of the problems in this argument arise out of the relationship between Spicer and those she means to criticize. This is complicated by two things; the fact that she is responding to Professor Bridges without naming her directly and her choice of ‘liberals’ as the stated target of her criticism. She thus gives voice to a point of view with an indefinite original source? Do really liberals really think this way? Does Professor Bridges? The answer to both of these questions is ‘no,’ albeit for different reasons. All of these are problems entering the argument through the process of voicing those Spicer means to criticize.

Evaluation: The argument fails because it does not actually engage the views of anyone out there. It either fails because statement 4b is blatantly false, or because the inference requires equivocation to make it work in the case that we use statement 4a to flesh out the argument. This argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: ultimately, this is an argument over the way people use language. Professor Bridges makes a point to speak of gender in a manner that maximizes awareness of transgendered identities. Many on the right wing of American politics are pushing back hard against this, insisting that words like ‘men’ and ‘women’ be used only for cis-gendered people and eliding entirely questions about intersexed people or anyone else who might think of themselves as non-binary. Liberals may seem caught in the middle, and libertarians seem to pick one approach of another. In any event, this is about vocabulary, and vocabulary is always a matter of choice. Progressives cannot force anyone else to adopt their language and conservatives cannot force anyone else to stick with more conventional usage. The closest either party can do is to malign the other side for making the wrong choices on the basis of certain value-based priorities. What arguments like this one attempt to do is resolve that quickly by dressing a practical choice up as a factual question. Spicer wants us to think ‘liberals’ are getting the facts wrong. She had to get several things wrong in order to do that.

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.

A Silent Pass?

Introduction: This quote appears expresses theme commonly appearing in progressive rhetoric of late, namely, the notion that phrases like “not all white people” are disingenuous and unnecessary responses to statements critical of whites. Similar arguments are made in other contexts of social justice advocacy and debate (e.g. sexism with “not all men.”)

Key Facts: The meme itself appears to be a quote from @chloemadaleine. I found a twitter account matching the name in question, but it is protected. So, I do not know of any particular details regarding the context in which this statement might have been made. As the meme is circulating about the net these days, it does occur to me that many will experience the argument with no more contextual than I have myself at this point.

Text: “If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now. Because you know that what you’re saying does not apply to you. If you’re offended, you’re racist. It’s simple.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: The quote above arises out of a problem in the rhetoric of modern progressivism, namely an effort to address concerns about larger, systemic, patterns of social injustice (in this case racism) while retaining rhetoric that still calls out specific people for specific forms of behavior. The notion that some people are racist and some people aren’t hearkens back to more conventional definitions of racism, treating it as a toxic personal orientation whereas the tendency to produce sweeping generalizations is driven largely by an interest in racism as a larger social force which by definition functions to benefit white people. Either definition of racism works just fine on its own, but contemporary social justice advocates (at least in popular circles) tend to invoke the individualized model as accusation even as they insist on larger systemic models when defining what does or doesn’t count as racism. There may be scholars who handle this with more consistency, but the rhetoric of social justice seems caught between its own paradigm and those it disavows without quite leaving behind.

Critics of contemporary social justice advocates typically have a much easier time of it, often insisting on personal models of racism as the only ones that count, thus rendering discrimination against white people pretty much the same as discrimination against persons of color. This too distorts a lot of important issues.

Statements: I am treating item ‘b’ as adding emphasis rather than as a substantive part of the argument. It was tempting to think of a missing assumption in the form of a biconditional statement to the effect that such statements are objectionable/offensive to white people if and only if the white people in question are racist, but this doesn’t seem necessary. The actual text from the meme itself is sufficient to make sense of the argument.

[1] If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now.

[a] Because

[2] [If you’re white and not racist] you know that what they’re saying does not apply to you.

[3] If you’re offended, you’re racist.

[b] It’s simple.”

Diagram: Unfortunately, the text only gives us one inference indicator [a] which tells us that statement 2 is a reason for something (surely, statement 1). Statement 3 is thrown in without any guidance as it to its relationship to the rest. So, we end up with several possible diagrams. We can start with an inference from 2 to1. Statement 3 is then either irrelevant commentary (diagram I), a second reason to accept statement 1 (diagram II), or a conclusion drawn from statement 1 (diagram III). Alternatively, statement 3 is a separate inference from statement 2 (diagram IV).

I’m inclined to think diagrams 3 and 4 are the most plausible, leaving us with either her last point as her main point or two separate conclusions, one suggesting that non-racists should not be threatened by statements about white racism and one suggesting that anyone who is threatened is guilty as charged, so to speak. Statement 3 packs a Hell of a punch, making it unwise to treat as irrelevant and also unlikely that the line was meant as a mere reason to think of something else. It either shares the stage wit the author’s first point as a final conclusion in its own right, or it was the whole point all along.

Discussion: This topic raises the following issues; Ad Hominem, False Alternatives, Interactional Eclipse, Masked Man Fallacy, Micro-Reasoning, Motte and Baily Doctrines, Bo True Scotsman Fallacy, Satire, Thought Policing, Transposition.

Ad Hominem: The suggestion that any whites who object to generalized statements about white racism must therefore themselves be racists is a classic ad hominem. It effectively refutes any concerns they might offer on the basis of a direct personal attack. Whether this is best thought of as a simple ad hominem (abusive) or the more complex ad hominem (circumstantial) is another question. As it does effectively comment on the motives and biases that whites bring to the issue, it is probably best to consider it a circumstantial.

False Alternatives: Insofar as this argument asks us to distinguish between white people who are racists and those who are not, this argument presents us with false alternatives. In fact, it does so on terms which should not arise at all in account taking the possibility of systemic racism seriously. Simply put, if racism is a feature if society as a whole, then the issue is not who is or is not racist; it is whether or not their specific words and deeds are contributing to racism in any way. It should go without saying under such a view that anyone could fall into racist patterns of thinking and talking. We can even suggest that white people might be more prone to this than others, or at least that we may plug into these patterns in particular ways. What we cannot do with any consistency is divide people (white or otherwise) into a simple binary set of those who are racist and those who are not.

Interactional Eclipse: Insofar as the argument accuses any white person objecting to statements about white racism of being racist in their own right, its interactional significance is rather high. It effectively sends a signal to white people that they should think twice before expressing disagreement. Drawing this line in the sand, so to speak, may well prove more significant than any of the intellectual merits of the argument.

Masked Man Fallacy: One of the more interesting angles to this argument lies in the way it uses definition by extension to answer problems arising from definition by intention. Many of the problems alluded to here arise when statements about white racism appear to implicate whites as a universal class. This can be done explicitly (by saying “all whites” or something to that effect) or by implication (e.g. “white people are like…), which suggests a universal implication without explicitly asserting the quantifier. Either way, a good portion of the objections here come directly from concerns about the possible unfairness or inaccuracy of such categorical assertions. The argument then asks those concerned about such problems to think of themselves as the exception and hence to drop their objections. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that the objections arise precisely because such statements do not admit of exceptions. In effect, the argument answers a question about the intentional meaning of an assertion (everyone?) by virtue of an unspoken extensional consideration (well, not me!).

It should also be said that some white people might object to categorical assertions about white people without necessarily thinking of themselves as the exceptions.

Micro-Reasoning: This was likely a tweet to begin with, and the argument is certainly short. There is only so much precision that can be expected of reasoning presented with such brevity.

Motte and Baily Doctrines: I think it’s fair to see this argument as an attempt to shift between motte and baily (perhaps to defend the bailey from the motte). If we imagine a qualified statement (e.g. ‘some white people do x’) as the motte and a categorical assertion along the same lines (e.g. ‘white people do x’ or even ‘all white people do x’) as the bailey, this argument appears to be a case of someone trying to defend the bailey from the confines of the motte. In effect, the author is saying that there is no need to assert the existence of exceptions because you can just imagine yourself as one of them.

No True Scotsman Fallacy: Normally this fallacy is applied in an effort to defend a positive generalization, but you could see this argument as an invitation for people to imagine themselves as the obvious exception to a negative generalization. You may fit in this awful category, but you’re not REALLY one of them. You get a pass! And since you get a pass, there will be no need to question the generalization, which I won’t be rethinking, because anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative also gets that free pass and we are all good, right?

This too is the NTS fallacy.

Satire: I’ve been dumping on this argument pretty hard, but there is at least one way of thinking about it that might redeem the argument a bit, as a sort of satirical ladder which must be pulled up after one has climbed it. It is as if the author is entertaining the prospect of an exception, only to suggest that that is in itself absurd. What if I really do try to imagine myself as a non-racist? Sure, I’m liberal. Sure, I have black friends (and other clichés). Sure, I disavow racism, and try hard not to discriminate, but can I really say that I am completely free of racist thoughts and deeds? What about that one thing I said last year that I’m still kicking myself about? And then there was that one time, …I mean, I didn’t mean to, but… The point here is that while we can distinguish between people whose personal orientation is more or less consciously racist, we probably cannot point to a person whose thoughts and deeds do not reflect racist assumptions under any circumstances. This is at least one of the implications of systemic racism.

By this approach, the point of the argument would be to let the would-be exception struggle with their own self-awareness a bit, and in the end hopefully conclude they are not so free of racism after all. In effect, the argument starts off by letting people try to make a distinction between racist and non-racist white people only to realize the distinction is untenable.

Whether or not this is what the original author had in mind, I cannot say. I do think that much of the rhetoric for which this kind of argument could be offered as a defense is far more personal and far less subtle than would be consistent with this approach. Simply put, when someone is called racist, the implication is virtually always about their own personal orientation and even moral characteristics. Such accusations are not (normally) about abstract connections to large-scale patterns of social inequity.

Thought Policing: Insofar as the argument effectively stigmatizes any dissenting views, this does suggest a degree of thought policing. That will work better in some contexts than others, but then again it also appears more in some contexts than others.

Transposition: In diagram 2, the inference from 3 to 1 would work by transposition. This is also true of the inference from 1 to 3 in diagram 3. Suffice to say that those inferences are deductively valid.

Evaluation: Obviously, I do not consider this argument sound. Whatever the diagram, the main problem is the implausibility of the central notion that one might object if and only if she is racist. There are a few different ways to imagine this connection, but none of them really work, So, statement 2 doesn’t work as a starting premise for any version of this argument.

Final Thoughts: There is another problem at the root of all those associated with this argument. It’s choice people make in their rhetoric, and that choice involves a real trade-off in terms of the impact one makes on a conversation. Simply put, qualified statements don’t have anywhere near the impact that generalizations (even implied generalizations) can generate. Once people can imagine themselves as one of the good guys, it becomes all to easy to do just that and a nation full of people who know damned well there is a problem can’t seem to find anyone actually responsible for doing anything about it. Also, it doesn’t help that qualified statements are often quantified in vague ways. Changing “all whites are racist” to “some whites are racist” or even “many whites are racist” weakens the claim without actually adding much in the way of precision. Under these circumstances, the temptation to go with a generalization is certainly strong. Leaving out quantifiers altogether (e.g. ‘whites are racist’) still gives an author the strength of a generalization while reserving the possibility of admitting exemptions when pressed about it. So, this kind of quasi-universal language seems to have become a common solution to the problem.

Not surprisingly, a range of would-be allies and folks who fancy themselves as non-racist or even anti-racist are uncomfortable hearing statements that implicate them in racist thought and practice. Hence, the “not all…” rejoinders. Naturally, such responses weaken the impact of the claims in question and often serve to derail the conversation altogether as people haggle over the possibility that some white folks might not be so bad. Strong advocates of social justice thus have an interest in silencing these rejoinders, some of which might be thought of as sealioning or engaging in philosophy dude-bro behavior. Hence, we get arguments like the one presented here.

The problem is that the problem is real, just as the original problem is real.

Pardon me: The problem (with this argument and others like it) is that the problem (of exceptions to sweeping generalizations) is real, just as the original problem (racism) is real.

People have to decide which of these matters more to them and what they want to do about it. This argument reflects a clear choice of priorities; but it also reflects an attempt to force the issue in some very problematic ways.

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.

Scratch A Hasty Handler

Introduction: On March 30th, 2020, Dave Rubin whose talk show, The Rubin Report appears on BlazeTV tweeted the message here in response to tweet by comedian, Chelsea Handler.

Key Facts: Handler is commenting on the trial of Dereck Chauvin, a police officer accused the murder of George Floyd during an arrest in May, 2020. A video of Chauvin pressing his knee onto Floyd’s neck for roughly 9 minutes during the incident went viral shortly thereafter, putting this case in the national spotlight.

BlazeTV the channel which features Dave Rubin’s show was created by Glenn Beck. It is generally considered to be a conservative operation.

Chelsea Handler had her own television show from 2017 to 2015, Chelsea Lately, on the E-Network. Her politics is generally considered liberal to progressive.

Text:

Handler: “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”

Rubin: “Scratch a progressive, find a fascist.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: It is entirely possible that either or both of these individuals are engaging in outrage farming.

Statements: As Rubin is using Handler’s comment as evidence for his own comment about progressive politics, the issue is how best represent that argument. We would frame it as an unspoken assumption Rubin, thus spelling out the entire argument as a representation of his own reasoning or we could frame it as a kind Dialectic in which Rubin is responding to Handler.

A second question relates to the significance of Rubin’s conclusion. It seems reasonable to suggest that the terms of the phrasing imply an “if, then” construction, hence option 2b. It also seems reasonable to take Rubin as advancing a general statement about progressive politics, hence 2c. Both of these require some rewriting, raising questions about how accurate the paraphrasing might be.

[1a] “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”

[1b] [Chelsea Handler said] “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”

[2a] Scratch a progressive, find a fascist.

[2b] [If you] scratch a progressive, [you] find a fascist.

[2c] [Deep down, progressives are fascists.]

Diagram: Each statement comes in different versions, but the diagram looks the same either way.

1 -> 2

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Ad Hominem, Dialectic, Hasty Generalization, Hyperbole, Micro-Reasoning, Missing Assertions, Outrage Farming.

Ad Hominem: Insofar as Rubin responds to Handler, by using her evidence as grounds for a generalization about progressive politics, his comment is certainly a personal attack, albeit one against a collective target. As he does not appear to be using this as a means of refuting her own claim so much as a means of attacking progressive politics, it seems unlikely that this would qualify as an ad hominem fallacy.

Dialectic: As this argument plays out in an exchange between two different people, it seems reasonable to think of it as a form of dialectic, albeit not a very profound one.

Hasty Generalization: I think, this is the heart of the argument. Rubin is using a single comment from a single progressive celebrity as the basis for a comment about progressives in general. To say that this is a hasty generalization is putting it mildly. There may also be a question about whether or not Handler’s comment, objectionable as it may be, really amounts to fascism, but the inference remains a hasty generalization in any event.

Hyperbole: It seems unlikely that Dave Rubin really thinks Handler’s comment shows us that progressives are fascists, though that is the literal import of his own comment. So, it is probably best to think of this argument as hyperbolic.

Micro-Reasoning: Both Handler’s and Rubin’s posts are single comments. Although there is reasoning here, it is extremely brief, making it hard to assess the actual nature of the reasoning.

Missing Assertions: If we try to represent the entire argument as coming from Rubin, then we have to construct a sentence that represents handler’s own comment as a fact in his own argument. It’s a simple matter of translating the quote function in twitter into the form of a statement containing a quote. This is statement 1b.

Outrage Farming: While I am focusing on Rubin’s argument here, Handler’s own comments are hardly helpful. Many regard Chauvin’s guilt as obvious, but denying someone their day in court is problematic to say the least, and Handler too may be engaging in hyperbole here. It seems likely that both of these figures are engaging in rhetorical brinkmanship with the intention of riling up their critics as well as their fans. In this case, the anger some may feel at Handler for taking an extreme position may be the point. The same may be true of Rubin’s comments.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound as it is a hasty generalization.

Final Thoughts: Twitter does not seem to encourage moderation. Then again, neither do the careers of pundits or political comedians.

Hatch Schmatch!

Introduction: On Thursday, March 25th, 2021, newly appointed Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge spoke at a White House press briefing. During this talk, a reporter asked her about some political races in Ohio. After initially declining to answer to answer a question about filling her old seat in the House of Representatives, she responded to a follow-up question about an upcoming Senate race for Ohio by discussing the Democrat’s prospects for winning the seat. Subsequently, reporters began asking questions about whether or not she had violated the Hatch Act in providing these answers.

This tweet is one of many in which apparent supporters of the Biden administration expressed varied levels of frustration over the criticism in view of the previous administration’s record of frequent violations without consequences.

Key Facts: As indicated in this article by CNN, there is some question about whether or not answering questions about Democratic prospects in upcoming elections violates the act inasmuch as it borders on actively using the office and the press conference to advance partisan messages.

As also indicated in the CNN article, members of the Trump administration frequently violated the hatch act without significant consequences. I think it fair to characterize many of these violations as flagrant.

Text: The top tweet in the image to the left is the argument in question. I left the second tweet in as it is an example of the sorts of questions Haley Sheley was responding to. Anyway, the argument is as follows:

“I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist. So, I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

(Emphasis in original)

ANALYSIS

Comments: In case it isn’t obvious, “GFTOH” means “Get the fuck out of here!”

Statements: The argument is as follows:

[1] I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist.

So

[2] I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

Diagram: The diagram is simple enough.

2 -> 1.

Discussion: This argument raises the following questions; False Equivalence, Micro-reasoning, Moral Reasoning, Qualification, Tu Quoque.

False Equivalence: As the argument certainly involves some questions about comparisons here, it might be tempting to ask questions about whether or not this is an example of false equivalence, but if there is a disparity in the actions compared in this instance, it is probably one that points the other direction, so to speak. As the author of this argument points out, correctly, I think, the Trump administration is guilty of far greater violations than the one which Fudge is accused of making.

Micro-Reasoning: This is a brief argument dealing with a complicated issue. It might well be that problems with the reasoning here stem partly from the limitations of micro-blogging.

Moral Reasoning: As this argument is about misconduct, it does raise questions about the nature of moral principles, but these questions are complicated by the legal and political context of the principles at stake. It would be fair to suggest that the Hatch Act imposes moral responsibilities on government officials. On the other hand, these obligations are complicated by the viability of the political system. There are legitimate questions about whether or not one is still obligated to follow a law that has been virtually ignored for 4 years. Likewise, there are questions about whether or not such an obligation can be reasonably imposed on one political party alone.

Qualification: As noted above one of the points this author makes in her tweet is established by the all-caps to emphasize the term “MAY.” In effect, she is reminding us that it is by no means clear that Secretary Fudge actually did break this law by answering a question raised by a professional journalist in the context of a press conference. In effect, “may” qualifies the claim in question by reminding us that it is simply a possibility, not an established fact.

Tu Quoque: As an argument dismissing a criticism of one person by pointing out that her political opponents are guilty of the same misconduct, this seems like a classic case of a tu quoque fallacy, but there are a few things that might argue against this judgement.

First and foremost, this is not an argument directed against the Trump administration itself. It is directed at the news media for raising the question in the first place. The argument is thus less of a ‘you too’ than a ‘him too.’ So, the issue might not be so much a question of evening the score, so to speak, than one about what kind of standard has been applied here.

Many have questioned whether or not journalists are applying a double-standard here, but many journalists certainly did question Trump officials regarding violations of the Hatch Act. Any concerns about he lack of consequences for these violations probably lie with the political process rather than a clear bias on the part of the news media.

Secondly, this is not your run-of-the-mill he-did-it-too argument or situation. In this instance, the violations of the previous administration were frequent and flagrant. Under the Trump administration, the Hatch Act fell into virtual disuse as officials willfully defied the act without significant consequences. Questions about whether or not it is acceptable to uphold the principle of a law, as applied to one party, so soon after the other has all but nullified that law in practice are not exactly equivalent to the normal point of this fallacy. It is not simply a question of whether or not someone else did it too; the point here is that this application suggests a very serious double-standard.

The point of the Hatch Act is to curtail partisanship in government service, and there are real questions about whether or not the act still serves that purpose. If it applies only to the actions of Democratic officials, then arguably, the Hatch Act serves only to exacerbate the very partisanship is is meant to combat.

Third, any comparison between the actions of the Trump administration and those of Secretary Fudge would surely suggest her own actions are on a scale far short of her predecessors. Once again, the problem here is one of an extreme double-standard.

Even in light of these three considerations, I’m inclined to think this remains a tu quoque fallacy, however, partly because of the particular conclusion drawn in this instance. It is literally a refusal to consider the question. While, there are legitimate questions about what the Hatch Act means in the wake of four years of willful disregard, direct refusal to consider the issue entirely doesn’t raise those questions in a helpful manner. In the end, the reasoning is still problematic.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound because it commits the fallacy of tu quoque.

Truth of Premise 1: It is worth noting that the President himself is not covered by the Hatch Act, so his own statements about his political opponent during a campaign rally on the White House lawn would not violate the law. That said, the actions of staff in setting up the event certainly would.

Relevance of the inference: This really is a lot more complicated judgement call than usual, but I do think it fair to say this is a tu quoque fallacy.

Final Thoughts: At the end of the day, America is better off when public officials do in fact refrain from using their office to promote partisan politics. Secretary Fudge’s comments are probably not a serious violation of this principle, but they do touch upon ‘dangerous territory,’ to borrow language from the CNN article. If there a serious questions about whether or not this law has been violated before, or even whether or not this law can be applied to both parties when relevant, these questions are probably not properly addressed by ignoring questions about Fudge’s behavior in this instance. It is highly unlikely that serious publishment would be warranted in this case, but the question itself seems reasonable, and that question is exactly what this argument denies outright.

No Billionaires!

Introduction: This is a tweet from a prominent twitter poster named, Ryan Knight (@proudsocialist). He has additional presence on social media. Knight is usually considered a far left, progressive.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “Billionaires would not exist without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet. I don’t believe the people or the planet should be exploited. Therefore, I don’t believe billionaires or the decrepit capitalist system that made them should exist.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: the biggest concern I have with an argument like this is just the level of abstraction. The terms are just too big for me, the categories too sweeping to make judgements about an argument like this with any degree of confidence. I mainly post it here, because it’s kind of an interesting example of Modus Tollens.

Statements:

[1] Billionaires would not exist without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet.

[2] I don’t believe the people or the planet should be exploited.

[a] Therefore,

[3] I don’t believe billionaires or the decrepit capitalist system that made them should exist.”

Diagram: 1+2->3.

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Micro-Reasoning, Modus Tollens, Moral Reasoning, Qualification.

Micro-Reasoning: It’s a tweet, so the argument is brief. This is compounded by the sweeping nature of the claims made about complex economic arrangements. In a larger and more complex argument, perhaps Knight could define his terms and develop a substantial case for his position. Here, we are left with summary judgements about his own beliefs. This leaves readers to do but agree or disagree on the basis of little other than their own ideological assumptions about the nature of capitalism.

Modus Tollens: The first sentence (statement 1) could be loosely translated as a conditional statement (“If Billionaires exist, then “without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet.” The second premise then denies the consequent, and the conclusion denies the antecedent (with additional commentary on the “decrepit capitalist system.” That commentary could be treated as a distinct claim in its own right (one which is not contained in the premise). It could also be treated as a rhetoric flourish, leaving us with a Modus Tollens.

Moral Reasoning: It’s difficult to say on what basis Knight makes judgements about what ‘should’ or ‘should’ not exist. That would always be a tricky question, but it’s a little more difficult in the sort of arguments you get on twitter. Here at least, the question remains unanswered. Those familiar with Knight’s account may have a better sense for how to answer that question.

Qualification: One important qualifier for those argument lies in the fact that Knight isn’t necessarily talking about the real world at all. Both statements 2 and 3 are explicitly about what he believes. If we take him literally this is just a statement about his belief states. Under many circumstances we might ignore the qualifier and treat these statements as descriptions of the real world after all, but without more information about how Knight wishes to define the key terms and build up supportive arguments, it may be better to just accept the narrower significance of these statements as the one intended here.

Evaluation: Treating the argument as Modus Tollens means of course that it is deductively valid, which means the truth of Knight’s premises are the only substantive questions at issue. Were I to evaluate the truth of his premises, I would want to raise some questions about how he means to define the terms ‘capitalist,’ ‘workers,’ and ‘exploit,’ at the very least. I would also want to know how he arrives at his judgements about what ought to be. Adopting the narrowest interpretation of statement 2 makes things a bit simpler, but that doesn’t help much. I would accept Knight’s word on his own beliefs, but that still leaves a lot of questions about key terms in statement number 1. Perhaps, I could imagine a version of the statement which would, but it’s probably stretching the principle of charity a bit far to adopt this interpretation in the face of so many questions. I’m inclined to regard the argument as unsound due to the questionable truth of its premise. A more detailed version of the argument could well change that evaluation.

Final Thoughts: Really, I was just amused to find Modus Tollens on twitter.

Pinterest Politics

Introduction: This is just a couple of posts from two random netizens on Pinterest. What we are interested in is the exchange between “Patty” and “Mary.” Specifically, we are interested in the argument produced by Mary.

Key Facts: Actually, this is beside the point, but it’s worth knowing that the quote in the meme which started this conversation is in fact spurious. According to Monticello.org, there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote this.

It is perhaps a little bit more relevant to that the statement by “Patty” was made in the last days of the Trump Presidency, after the insurrection of January 6th and shortly before Joe Biden is to take office. She is clearly referring to Donald Trump in her own statement. There is a strong likelihood that “Mary” took this to indicate that Patty is a liberal, in which case her statement is actually a personal dig at Patty, independent of anything it says about Pinterest.

Text: The relevant text is as follows:

Patty: “Pinterest is patriotic. I fear only what the unstable man might do next now that he is cornered.”

Mary: “Pinterest is far from patriotic. As liberal as you can get…”

(Ellipsis in original)

ANALYSIS

Comments: Beyond, the 2 key facts mentioned, above, I have nothing to add here.

Statements: The argument is entirely contained in Mary’s post.

[1] Pinterest is far from patriotic.

[2] [It is] as liberal as you can get.

[3a][Liberals are not patriotic.]

[3b][liberalism and patriotism are mutually exclusive.]

Diagram: As I see it, there are two ways to diagram this argument, depending on whether or not you wish to spell out the assumption that liberals are not patriotic.

Without the missing assumption: the diagram is as follows:

2 -> 1.

With the missing assumption added, the diagram is as follows:

2+[3(a or b)] -> 1.

Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; False Alternatives, Micro-Reasoning, and/or Missing Assertion.

False Alternatives: The assumption that liberalism and patriotism are mutually exclusive political views is questionable at best. This could be viewed as a form of false alternatives, though that is a bit unusual. Most accounts of the False Alternatives treat it as narrowing the range of relevant possibilities to 2 when other options exist. In this case, the problem is the unwarranted assumption that the two categories cannot go together (i.e. that someone cannot be both a liberal and a patriot). We could see this as forcing a choice between two options or as excluding at least one 3rd option (i.e. the choice to blend them). Either way, we end up seeing the options assumed by Mary in this argument as unwarranted.

It’s probably best to restrict the application of a false alternatives in this argument to the first version of the diagram as it would then apply to the inference from 2 to 1. If we are looking at the second diagram, the same problem manifests itself in the form of a false premise [3 (a or b)].

Micro-Reasoning: This is a really brief exchange, so we get all the usual problems that go with trying to evaluate an argument made short-hand. That said, this kind of reasoning was common long before the net, and Pinterest certainly allows more text than either of these two used. It does not appear that Mary was struggling to fit her message into a small medium. Most likely, she said what she had to say in those two statements.

Missing Assertions: What got me interested in this example was the unstated (though hopefully clear) assumption that liberals are not patriotic. There are several ways to spell out this assumption. I have provided two, but it really doesn’t change the argument much either way. Any way that one cares to formulate the missing assumption, we end up with an unsupported (and likely false) assumption. In any event, this is a good example of an unstated assumption.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound by either model presented above (and most likely any reasonable model one could provide). If one does not spell out the unstated assumption, then the argument commits the fallacy of false alternatives. If one does spell it out, then the argument simply proceeds from a false assumption.

Final Thoughts: This is hardly a difficult judgement call, but it is an extraordinarily common form of reasoning.

Rocky Mountain Way

Introduction: In 1973, Joe Walsh released “Rocky Mountain Way” with his band at the time, Barnstorm. It became a regular feature of Eagles shows during Joe Walsh’s tenure with the band. This is one of the lyrics to that song.

Key facts: N/A

Text:

“And we don’t need the ladies
Cryin’ ’cause the story’s sad, uh huh
Rocky Mountain way
Is better than the way we had
Yeah-ah-ah.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: The only thing about this passage that is of particular interest is the use of ”cause.’

Statements:

[1] “We don’t need the ladies cryin’ cause the story’s sad.”

[2} “Rocky Mountain Way is the better than the way we had.”

[3] [The story is not sad.]

Diagram: This is a simple argument.

2 -> [3] -> 1.

Discussion:

Inference Indicators: The only significant question here is whether or not the word ”cause’ is used here as an inference indicator. If the author is using ’cause to indicate that “the story is sad” is actually a reason for believing that “we don’t need the lady’s cryin’,” then this line actually contains two statements which together constitute an argument in themselves, but of course this is absurd. If anything, the sadness of the story would be an argument against needing the lady’s to cry. Instead, it is best to think of the song as denying the inference itself. We don’t need “the lady’s cryin’ ’cause the story’s sad.” It is the whole notion of the story being sad as a reason to have the lady’s cryin’ that is denied. If pushed, we could sat that the denial applies to the inference itself.

Argument Recognition: There actually is an argument in this stanza, it just isn’t the argument you might expect if you had just learned to recognize ‘because’ as an inference indicator. The actual argument runs something along the following lines.

[2] “(The) Rocky Mountain Way is better than the way we had.”

So,

[3] “The story is not sad.”

So,

[1] “We don’t need the lady’s to cry ’cause the story is sad.”

Meta-argumentation: Oddly enough, this example still uses ”cause’ as an inference indicator, but the inference in which it is used that way is denied by this argument, so it’s usage in this example is just part of the statement denied in the song. Walsh is not using the word to point to any reason for believing any specific conclusion.

Micro-Reasoning: It’s just 2 lines and a missing assertion. I’ll bet Walsh would be surprised to find anyone thought to treat it as an argument for purposes of logical analysis.

Evaluation: The only substantive truth claim here would be whether or not the Rocky Mountain way was better than the way we had, and only Joe would really know the answer to that question, because the assertion is really expressing something about his personal experience and the experience of people around him.

The rest of the argument really isn’t that interesting.

Final Thoughts: Just an interesting example of ‘(be-)cause’ used in a way that doesn’t add up to an argument.

David Silverman on Atheist Bilboards

Introduction: This is a tweet from David Silverman (President of American Atheists) defending the practice of placing billboards critical of religious views in public places.

Key Facts: David Silverman is the President of American Atheists which is a non-profit organization promoting the interests of nonbelievers in the United States. Under Silverman’s leadership, American Atheists have put up a number of public billboards promoting atheism and criticizing religion. These billboards have themselves drawn criticism from religious figures and in some non-believers as well. Some of the criticisms have been directed at specific themes and specific statements included in the billboards. Others have been directed against the general wisdom of putting such statements out into the public.

Text: This is the tweet in question.

DavidSilvermancropped

ANALYSIS

Comments: Two general points come to mind when considering this argument.

One is the possibility of a double standard in reference to billboards expressing a stance on religious topics. Christians in particular have been accustomed to producing such statements for as long as some of us can recall. The placement of anti-religious sentiments on a public billboard is however a relatively new practice, and it may draw more criticism due in part to the unusual nature of the messages. Simple confirmation Bias may be another factor insofar as the bulk of the public is unlikely to agree with an overtly atheistic message.

A second concern lies in the potential obfuscation of specific concerns about specific billboards. While this particular tweet addresses the issue in the abstract, some of the concerns raised about these billboards have been about very specific details about specific billboards put out by American Atheists, This is particularly true of those raised by unbelievers – whom Silverman presents as the party he intends to answer here.

Statements: The argument is set out as follows. Two missing statements [4] and [5] have been added. [4]  helps to seal the relevance of statements 2 and 3 to the rest of the argument and [5] is most likely the intended conclusion of the argument.

[1] Atheists who object to billboards attacking religion are ALSO victims of religious indoctrination.

[2] Lies deserve death.

[3] [Lies do not deserve] Protection.

[[4]] [Religious claims are lies.]

[[5]] [Atheists ought not to oppose billboards attacking religion.]

Discussion: Issues raised by this argument include the following; ad hominem, Interactional eclipse, micro-reasoning, missing statements, the principle of charity, provincialism, and thought policing.

Ad Hominem: The assertion that critics (atheist or otherwise) of billboards promoting atheism are victims of religious indoctrination is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If there is a non-fallacious way to interpret that suggestion it would be to treat it as a simple explanation to be taken at face value. In others words, it would be possible to simply think of this as an empirical question about the motivations of a select group of people. The second statement in the tweet, however, belies this interpretation as it makes it clear Silverman means to argue with his critics. This is not simply a diagnosis; it is an attempt to undermine the credibility of billboard critics.

Interactional Eclipse: To the degree that this argument constitutes a form of thought policing, it is explicitly an attempt to subvert efforts to engage in critical thinking about the value of anti-religious billboards through appeal to social dynamics. Whatever the value of the argument, any resulting debate is more likely to generate more heat than light.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most (if not all) tweets, the brevity of this argument is a problem, hence the need to supply nearly as many missing statements as those clearly expressed.

Missing Assertions: The intended conclusion of this argument is most likely some statement intended to discourage unbelievers from engaging in criticism of billboards promoting atheism. I have accordingly supplied statement 5 as an attempt to express this missing statement.

I would also suggest an additional Missing Assumption (statement [4] that religious views are lies). If this assumption is not true, then both statement 2 and 3 fail to produce anything of value in the argument.

Principle of Charity: It isn’t entirely clear whether Silverman means to suggest this argument applies to all instances in which atheists prove critical of billboards attacking religion or simply those who do so on principle (I.e. those who object categorically to the creation of such billboards instead of those with particular objections to specific billboards). His wording could facilitate either interpretation, and it is likely those who agree with him will include parties adopting each interpretation.

For purposes of keeping the discussion thoughtful it is probably best to treat this argument as applying only to those who object to such billboards in general. The alternative would in effect amount to a blank check to produce any content (no matter how foolish) critical of religion without fear of counter-criticism from other atheists. That would hardly be a reasonable position, so it’s not the most productive interpretation of the argument to pursue here.

Provincialism: Insofar as this argument seems to be encouraging atheists to be less like religious people, it could be viewed as an appeal to provincialism. Essentially, the appeal here is something along the lines of; ‘this is how WE act” or even “this is how WE should behave.” Well, WE (i.e. atheists) may or may not typically fall prey to religious indoctrination, but that appeal isn’t very cogent.

Thought Policing: One of the more compelling features of this argument lies in its implied comparison with believers. It is not merely that Silverman is suggesting that his atheist critics have been indoctrinated; he is reminding atheists that the conduct in question is unbecoming for unbelievers..This is classic thought policing., which goes a little beyond the normal ad hominem to invoke peer pressures and trigger loyalties associated with group membership. Just how significant such loyalties may be for atheists is an interesting question, but the argument still works this angle. The social dynamics at issue thus overshadow the rational significance of the argument itself.

Diagram: I take it that 2 and 3 are intended (with missing assumption [4] to prove statement 1, which is in turn intended to demonstrate the truth of the missing conclusion (statement 5).

2+3+[4] -> 1 -> [5].

 

Evaluation: Let’s consider both inferences:

2+3+[4]=>1. The truth of each of the assumptions in this inference would certainly be debatable. It isn’t clear that religious claims are all untrue (much less that they are lies), nor is it clear that lies deserve death (which is presumably a metaphor indicating the discrediting of such claims and a hope that they will eventually cease to circulate). If we assume by protection that Silverman means only protection from criticism (and not protection from coercive sanctions, then perhaps statement 3 fairs reasonably well in the truth evaluation, though a creative thinker could probably find a reason to protect at least some lies.

The inference itself fairs no better. It isn’t clear that objections to the billboards are offered in an attempt to ‘protect’ religion. Nor is it clear that the billboards play any constructive role in advancing the demise of religious beliefs.

If one doesn’t assume the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s intent, the problem becomes still sharper insofar as specific concerns about specific billboards may well address the effectiveness of those billboards in advancing a critique of religion.

4 -> 5: This is arguably an ad hominem (circumstantial) and/or an argument from Provincialism, as outlined above. In either event, the inference would be fallacious. Also, the argument side-steps the possibility that atheists might have reasons to oppose the billboard campaign other than latent sympathy for religious sentiment.

Also, if we do not adopt the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s position, it seems clear that atheists (even those who genuinely hope to confront religion whenever possible) may have a number of concerns about specific messages contained on specifi billboards.

I think the argument has to be considered unsound.

Final Thoughts: In the end, this argument does strike me as a simple effort to engage in thought policing. It effectively urges atheists to support their own camp regardless of any concerns they may have about the specific messages placed on these billboards or the general effectiveness of public billboards as a means of challenging religious views.