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.

A Meme of Race

ctzeorzw8aqoujcIntroduction: This meme uses an observation about three black men to make an argument about the relative significance of race and personal decisions in determining success or failure in life.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “3 men in 3 different positions. In America, color doesn’t define your future. Your choices do.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I don’t know anything in particular about the history of this meme, or about the specific circumstances of those men pictured in it. It’s probably fair to think of this as one round in the culture wars. The absence of context is of course one of the characteristics of argumentation-by-meme. In effect, this lack of context serves to encourage readers to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the issues in question.

Statements: The components of the argument are represented below. Two possible missing assumptions have been added (in blue).

[1] 3 men in 3 different positions.

[2] In America, color doesn’t define your future.

[3] Your choices do [define your future in America].

[4a][Success or failure is best explained in terms of a single cause.]

[4b][If race determined the success or failure in a person’s life, we would expect all three of the black men in this picture to occupy similar roles in life.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; false alternatives, micro-reasoning, missing assumptions, Modus Tollens.

False Alternatives: There are a few ways to model the reasoning in this argument, but it’s tough to get around the presentation of two (mutually exclusive) options as the total universe of possible explanations for success or failure in life.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most memes, this argument reduces a complex issue to an extraordinarily small text.

Missing Assertions: It may be helpful to think of this argument as resting on a missing assumption. I have supplied two different variations of this missing assumption. When either assumption is added, the inference is perhaps a bit more cogent, but the truth value of the assumption is questionable at best. So, adding these assumptions doesn’t improve the soundness of the argument too much, though it may help to clarify the nature of the issues in question.

Modus Tollens: Using Missing assumption 4b as a major premise, statement 1 appears to deny the consequent. Statement 2 could then be construed as a denial of the antecedent. It would take a little rewording to make everything match up, but the essential idea is there.

20161216_173528-copyDiagram: I can think of a several different ways to model the reasoning in this argument. I am presenting 3 of them here:

Option alpha: This approach leaves out the addition of a missing assumption. Statement 1 is thus taken to prove two separate claims, all on it’s own.

Option beta: In this example, missing assumption 4a is added to statement 1. The two together are taken to prove both statement 2 and statement 3. The additional assumption helps to explain why statement 1 might lead to statements 2 and 3, but as this assumption is of dubious truth value this simply transforms the problem from questions about the cogency of the inference to one about the truth value of one of its premises.

Option boo: In this version, statement 1 is combined with missing assumption 4b. The two together are taken to prove the truth of statement 2 (by Modus Tollens) which is then taken to prove the truth of statement 3.

Note: The reason statements 2 and 3 are represented here in the form of a serial argument rather than separate conclusions in a divergent argument is that the missing assumption focuses attention on statement 2 without contributing directly to statement 3. The notion that statement 2 would then provide evidence for statement 3 seems the best way to proceed from there.

Evaluation: No version of this argument comes out sound, because the argument turns on false alternatives no matter how you look at it. In option alpha, the false alternatives leaves conclusion 2 and 3 unsupported by assumption 1, so the inferences are neither valid nor cogent. In option beta, the false alternatives have been expressed directly in terms of a missing assumption, but that assumption is likely false. In option boo, the missing assumption has been articulated in terms of a conditional statement, but that statement too is clearly false. No matter how we set this argument up, it turns on an unrealistically narrow set of possibilities.

Why does every version of this argument turn on false assumptions? Because it addresses the question of what makes the difference in the lives of these men as though a single causative factor will account for the difference rather than a combination of different factors. The notion, for example, that race might make some outcomes more or less likely than others without totally determining the outcome is simply not considered in the text of this meme. So, whether race is construed as a direct biological cause (as overt racists would have it) or a social construction and the impact of social stigmas attached to racial identity (as those interested in social justice might suggest), the meme sets aside any efforts to consider how racial factors could interact with other issues such as class, religion, family background, or personal resilience to produce an account of these different life trajectories.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the sloppy argument, it’s tempting to suggest there is something prurient about this meme. It invites all of us to entertain questions about what makes the difference between success and failure for black men. For most of us, that is a question about someone else, a chance to dwell on the reasons for someone else’s failure. This doesn’t really pose active questions for its intended audience, not about their own lives.

Just for someone else.

Mini-Hitchens History of Religion

christopher-hitchens-religion-ideasIntroduction: This meme contains a quote from Christopher Hitchens.

Key Facts: The line can be found on page 64 of Hitchens’s book God is Not Great. Hitchens larger argument may well be worth looking at in another post. For purposes of this discussion, however, we are focusing on the use of this meme.

Text: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: In itself, this meme does not clearly present an argument. It seems fair to suggest, however, that the meme is commonly used to discredit religious thoughts. So, we will focus on the prospect of using the meme to generate an argument in opposition to religion. This will necessitate reconstruction of a missing (or implied) assertion.

Statements: The very first sentence contributes little to the point except perhaps a sense of urgency. If we add an implied conclusion (represented in square brackets), this argument has two statements.

[1] One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on.

[[2]] [Religious beliefs are false.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; genetic fallacy, micro-reasoning, missing assertions.

Genetic Fallacy: Insofar as the argument uses the origin of religion as a reason to reject the truth of religious beliefs, it is likely a good example of a genetic fallacy.

Micro-Reasoning: As with many meme, the reasoning here suffers a bit from its brevity. In this case, the meme hints at an unstated conclusion, perhaps even pointing to one not entirely consistent with that of Hitchens original text.

Missing Assertions: This meme contains only one line. If it suggests an argument, as I think it does, that argument contains at least one missing assertion (in this case, a conclusion).

Diagram: This one is pretty simple.

1 -> [2]

Evaluation: There are two items to evaluate in this argument. The truth of premise 1 and the relevance of the inference. The argument comes up short on both counts.

Premise 1 is questionable at best insofar as it takes religion to be a primitive (and erroneous) effort to explain the world in the absence of reasonable scientific methodology. It isn’t clear though, that the point of religious institutions and or mythic narratives of ancient people is to explain objective phenomena. Neither is it obvious that ancient people’s were ignorant about the world around them. Of course, the meme itself doesn’t entirely make it clear to whom Hitchens refers when he is talking about prehistory, but at least some peoples with not actively recording their own history had a quite sophisticated understanding of many things. Did they understand the details of modern chemistry or physics? No. But that hardly qualifies as not having “the smallest idea what is going on.”

The inference from 1 to [2] provides no support for the conclusion. This is a classic genetic fallacy. If there is any reason to suppose any given religious tenet is wrong, it is not because of its origins.

Final Thoughts: I can think of two contextual problems that could undermine this analysis; my construction of the argument may not be representative of Hitchens’s own intent and it may not be representative of the specific intent of those who circulate the meme.

Hitchens’s intent: Here, I think the solution is simple. It doesn’t really matter. The original context of the quote has been jettisoned in the production of the meme. People circulate the meme itself without necessarily attending to its source. It’s worth keeping in mind that the meme itself doesn’t present Hitchens’ full argument on the history of religion or the significance of that history in polemic dispute, but that should not stop us from addressing the significance of the meme itself as it is circulated about the net.

Intent of Those Circulating the Meme: Here we come back to the one sentence nature of this meme (and it should be noted that other versions include more wording). It’s almost tempting to suggest that this isn’t an argument at all, because it doesn’t draw a conclusion from a premise. I do think it’s fair to suggest that the meme is normally offered with the intent to discredit religion. One has only to formulate the missing conclusion. In effect, this takes the meme to be an expression of an argument against religion by those circulating it. If someone circulates the meme for other reasons, then presumably, this entire analysis would not apply.

Michael Moore’s Thoughts on Snipers

Introduction: On January 18th, Michael Moore posted a tweet widely regarded as a comment on Chris Kyle and on the movie Sniper depicting Kyle’s service in the military. Given Moore’s status as a left wing activist and critic of the Iraq War, it should come as no surprise that he would object to a film that seems to portray Kyle as a hero. Moore seems to suggest that Kyle is nothing of the kind, eve going so far as to imply that Kyle is in fact a coward.

Key Facts: It’s worth noting that much of Hollywood’s portrayal of snipers would fit more in line with Moore’s comments in this instance. Snipers usually make their way into a film as a menace to the heroes, or as complex characters with a deeply ambivalent sense of their own role in combat. It is only in more recent depictions that they have begun to occupy the relatively more straight-foreword role of heroes in films such as Blackhawk Down.

Text: Here is a screenshot of the tweet.

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