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.”


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.

The Negs of Net-Logic

Spend enough time on the internet and you will notice that its jargon includes a few terms about reasoning and argumentation. Most of these are short-hand criticisms for certain kinds of argumentative practice, which makes these terms a lot like fallacies. They are labels used to communicate a stock basis for rejection of an argument. There are, however, a few important differences between these terms and conventional fallacy lists. The vocabulary of net-logic is as likely to focus on the practical effects of argumentative tactics as it is to shed light on problems of logical support. Sometimes these issues compliment one another, and sometimes they simply don’t.

While this kind of practical focus may be problematic when applied to questions about the soundness of an argument, it is worthy of consideration in its own right. So, a few of these terms may help to shed light on real problems of argumentation and reasoning. Others might be used as instruments of abuse in their own right, effectively providing people with a ready means of dismissing thoughtful arguments and insulting those who produce them. On the whole, these terms seem to provide less insight as to the difference between their legitimate use and their abuse than the labels for conventional fallacies. So, use of these terms is just a little bit trickier.

The following list is offered as food for thought. Some of these terms may be more useful than others, but most should definitely be taken with a grain of salt.

Concern Troll: A concern troll is typically thought to be an individual who pretends to support a given position (e.g. feminism) while seeking to express a specific qualm they may have with that position (e.g. the notion that some feminists may be unduly sensitive to the verbal behavior of men). In reality, so the accusation goes, the concern troll is actually opposed to the position in question, and the concern is much more central to the critic’s agenda than he lets on. Efforts to address the troll thus prove fruitless, and over the course of the conversation it will become more and more clear that he has misrepresented his overall position.

For example, I have encountered a few individuals on various message boards who claimed to want help answering a specific argument by an avowed racist they met on some other forum. In each of these cases, the individual I encountered claimed to need help formulating an effective answer to the argument from the racist 3rd party. Given plausible answers, however, the individual in question replied by saying that he had already tried that approach. He then related the response he received from the racist third party in detail, and asked for help answering that new reply. This pattern repeated for as long as it took myself and others to realize we were in fact to a committed racist and the third party was a contrivance.

Of course the particular contrivance of a third party is hardly necessary to the agenda of a concern troll. He may just as easily take responsibility for the concern while pretending to minimize its significance in his overall thinking. Many feminists report a number of similar stories from men claiming to be sympathetic to their cause while continually pressing them on a single point.

One problem with use of the ‘concern troll’ as a criticism is that it may well be directed at someone who really does have a sincere concern about a position which they would otherwise happy to support. Ambivalence is a fact of human nature and most major social agendas come with at least a few problematic angles. Furthermore, argumentation often does have a polarizing effect, and so someone with a relatively minor disagreement may find that disagreement taking on ever greater significance over the course of a debate. To others, this could well be taken as a sign of insincerity and/or misplaced priorities. The option to dismiss someone as a concern troll makes it easier to ignore substantive issues even as it also enables people to call out others for deceitful argumentative practice. Recourse to the term may thus facilitate an unwillingness to consider legitimate concerns as well as those of disingenuous people.

Gaslighting: this comes from the 1944 fil, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the film Bermna’s husband does a number of things to make her question her sanity, one of them being to cause to cause the gaslights in her room to dim while denying that they have changed at all. The term gaslighting thus emerged as a colloquial description of efforts to break down another person’s sense of reality. The term has become ever more common in recent years, and this is particularly true of polemic discourse. People often accuse those they disagree with of engaging in gaslighting, often shifting the meaning of the term around as they do. Insofar as any (mis-)statements of fact might be described as involving reality, it is possible to spin a story of gaslighting up out of pretty much any source of disagreement. There is a world of difference between disagreements over what is real and calculated efforts to break down someone’s ability to make judgements about reality in the first place. Another trend goes in the opposite direction wherein people tend to the term almost exclusively when referring ironic criticisms (e.g. an abusive person accusing his victim of being abusive). Common usage thus seems to be skewing the term towards both broader and narrower idioms than its original meanings with the notion of breaking down someone else’s sense of reality being weakened in either of these trends.

Gish Gallop: This rhetorical practice is named after the Creationist Duane Gish. It refers to a rhetorical technique in which the speaker/author produces so much erroneous reasoning that it becomes difficult for an opponent to know where to begin a refutation.  The original argument contains so many errors of fact and reasoning, and those errors carry so many complex connections that the effort to refute them simply becomes overwhelming.

As the direct reference to Gish indicates, this term has its origins in the specific frustrations of non-believers engaged in debate with Christian apologists. Usage of the term reflects this origin insofar as it is almost exclusively used by non-believers to denigrate the rhetoric of at least some believers.

Arguably, use the term itself yields a circular argument of sorts in which the erroneous nature of the reasoning in question is assumed rather than demonstrated through the accusation that it constitutes a Gish Gallop. That said, the phrase does point to an interesting problem, one which may not limited to the specific patterns of debate between creationists and their critics.

It is a common observation that it is far more difficult to explain an error than it is to produce it. Under normal circumstances, this is just a fact of life, or at least of critical thinking, and those interested in argumentation and debate must simply grin and bare it. It does create the possibility that a speaker may cynically generate a range of problematic claims and arguments in the knowledge that it is simply easier to produce them than it will be to refute them. Recourse to a term that calls people out for doing this may not facilitate direct refutation, but it may help to explain a desire to avoid further dialogue with an individual using such strategies.

The perception of overwhelming error may also be due to less nefarious causes. It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some instances in which one feels overwhelmed by the shear quantity of error in a stretch of reasoning may be due to radical differences in world view. If a critic starts with a broad range of assumptions differing radically from those of the author she hopes to critique, it may become difficult to select a good starting point for her criticisms. In such cases, the issue would not be cheap debate tactics so much as the practical difficulties of reasoning across radically different conceptual schemata. An honest disagreement on a whole bunch of points will be just as frustrating as the effort to dismantle the arguments of someone who has consciously inflated the number of points at issue.

One might differentiate honest cases of broad disagreement from the conscious use of a Gish Gallop by the degree to which its source will cooperate in efforts to narrow the debate and/or to identify the central basis for disagreement. Someone hoping to drown an opponent in a flood of dubious claims will just keeping adding controversial claims to an ongoing argument whereas someone actively trying to reason could be expected to set aside trivial disagreements where possible and focus on central points of disagreement.

Godwin’s Law: This principle is named for its author, Mike Godwin. It dates back to the early years of the internet. According to Godwin, he developed the principle as part of a deliberate effort to counteract the prevalence of instances in which people compared each other to Nazis on the old Usenet. Realizing such analogies had become a very popular meme (in the sense described by Richard Dawkins), Godwin sought to produce a counter-meme, one he hoped would be effective in reducing the more reckless use of the Nazi comparison. He called his counter-meme “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.” Godwin stated the law as follows: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

In other words, if an argument continues long enough, someone is going to compare someone else to a Nazi.

Godwin typically describes his rule as a means of counteracting trivial comparisons between Nazis and aspects of contemporary life and politics. The rule suggests that Nazi analogies are the inevitable result of frustration in the face of disagreement. It thus discourages use of such analogies by rendering all of them suspect on the basis of Godwin’s somewhat light-hearted formulation.

The seemingly universal implications of the rule, as stated, have lead many to think of the law as a reason to reject any and all comparisons to Nazis. Some even take the law to entail something like a win/loss condition in a game. Anyone invokes a comparison to Nazis, so the thinking goes, has already lost the argument. Thus Godwin’s efforts to resistant flippant use of Nazi comparisons may have given rise to equally flippant responses which may be directed at even the most thoughtful basis for comparison. Godwin himself has suggested that some Nazi comparisons may play a constructive role in public dialogue. How one tells the difference between the sort of flippant comparison which Godwin’s Law was meant to deter and those which may be worth considering, the law itself doesn’t help us to answer.

Philosophy Dude-Bro: As a label for a person rather than a behavior, this term sticks out a bit, and it’s problematic in the extreme, but I think it’s worth a little consideration. The label is typically used to describe someone who wants to engage in philosophical debate at inappropriate times and places. More specifically, it’s someone who wants to hold a philosophical debate in a socially charged setting such as a protest (see this blog post for an extended rant about PDBs and Pro-life demonstrations). I would think it fair to use the term in reference to any situation in which an individual ignores important points about the socio-political context in which a discussion takes place while trying to engage others in intellectual debate.

For example, Were a politician to use race-baiting language in the process of discussing immigration, it would a PDB move to ignore that language while trying to use this as the jumping off-point for a thoughtful discussion of immigration policy.  Certainly there should be a time and a place for thoughtful discussion of immigration policy, or any other controversial issue, but the effort to start such conversations ought not to ignore significantly inflammatory rhetoric, or worse, to legitimize efforts to inflame a racist audience by treating such efforts as a philosophical stance.

I should add that the gendered nature of the term is not an accident as those using it to criticize others are often feminists expressing irritation at men who wish to discuss issues of direct consequence to women in highly theoretical terms. In principle a woman could be the culprit (and a man could certainly be the one fielding the charge), but in practice, the term has generally been used by women to criticize the behavior of men.

Final Note: Of all the terms in this already sketchy list, this may be the sketchiest.

It could well be charged that my effort to include the term in a general discussion of reasoning and error is already an example of PDB behavior. Perhaps, I should leave the term to those with more specific political interests.

…in which case, I’d say that’s a fair cop. Guilty as charged.

Another problem here takes us back to the notion that this is a label for a person rather than a specific description of a behavior or a feature of argumentative discourse. There is definitely an element of ad hominem in this label insofar as it invites us to think of people in terms of stereotypes, and it uses those stereotypes to dismiss their contributions to a discussion or event. All that said, I think the phrase does call attention to a problematic sort of behavior.

Poe’s Law: This adage dates back to discussion on the Creationism & Science discussions at Christian Forums in 2005. It’s author was Nathan Poe, a skeptic and a regular participant at Christian Forums who made the following remark: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is uttrerly (sic) impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” Originally made in passing, the comment has since then become an artifact of internet discussions.  Its application has been broadened first to include Fundamentalist Christians and then extremists of most any sort.

In its most general sense Poe’s Law refers simply to the very real possibility that what one person may regard as an obvious parody will be indistinguishable from an actual position taken by somebody somewhere. Certain groups may be more likely than others to produce the kind of stance which is indistinguishable from conscious parody, but the problem is hardly unique to any one world view.

rule 34Rule 34: There are a number of minor variations of this rule (which comes from Peter Morley-Souter). Perhaps the most popular version simply states; “If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.” The rule refers to the existence of parody porn covering a broad range of subjects (most notably, Calvin and Hobbes). Rule 34 suggests the possibility that someone somewhere may produce pornographic material using reasoning and argumentation as its subject matter.

The possibility of argument-parody-porn probably doesn’t help us much in the study of logic and critical thinking, but a slightly more interesting prospect is worth considering, namely the possibility that some people may produce arguments for prurient reasons. This would likely occur in cases wherein argumentation borders on pure mockery, and in particular to instances in which the mockery itself sheds no real light on the issue in question. Examples might include images of Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim and/or those in which George W. Bush have been skewed to make him look more like a chimpanzee. Such mockery is often mixed in with more serious criticism, but it certainly adds nothing of substance to any serious consideration of the issues. One could perhaps dismiss such gimmicks as unsound reasoning, but it’s worth considering the possibility that some who produce them may in fact be engaged in a project having little to do with actual reasoning. This may not quite be porn, but it’s damned close. It should of course go without saying that this kind of political-porn could easily take the form of actual pornography.

Schrodinger’s Asshole (alt. Shrodinger’s Douchebag): This phrase refers to the practice of making wildly outrageous claims and deciding whether or not one is serious about them based on the responses he gets afterwards. Faced with serious and/or compelling criticism, an individual employing this tactic may well claim later that she was just joking the whole time (perhaps adding that her critics need to lighten up). If on the other hand, no-one produces a serious criticism, she may stick to her argument (perhaps even taking the silence as a tacit form of agreement). Her reasoning thus occupies a state somewhat like the superposition of Schrodinger’s cat; it may or may not be taken seriously in its initial form. The question will only be answered over the course of future discussion and at the convenience of its original author.

The obvious point of this gambit is to avoid taking responsibility for the arguments one produces.

So, how does one know if the source of a given argument is playing at Schrodinger’s Asshole? In some cases, the answer may lie in the personal history of the individual in question. Does she often plead humor after producing an apparently serious argument? Does she return to the serious argument after playing the just kidding card? Such behavior could over time provide reason to doubt the sincerity of an individual. In some cases, one may find that disclaimers have been built into an argument so as to provide its author with a plausible out in the event that she gets serious criticism. In effect, the initial argument itself contain mixed signals as to the seriousness with which it is intended.

Sealioning: This refers to a passive-aggressive approach to discourse wherein an individual makes persistent requests for evidence, clarification, etc. to someone who is not interested in debate. Such an approach would normally seem to be the hallmark of reasoned discourse, but the key to this practice lies in the disingenuous nature of the questions. In effect, a sealion asks these questions, not for the purpose of gaining extra knowledge or even trying to understand the others’ position. He asks them in order to watch the other party spin his own wheels trying to come up with an answer. Answering someone using this tactic is largely a waste of time, but it is a waste of time easily confused with a serious attempt at reasoned discussion.

Apparently, the term has its origins in an amusing cartoon by David Malki.


As with most of the negs on this list, the problem with objections to sealioning is that they require a tricky judgement call. To know if someone is sealioning you have to know whether or not they are making an honest effort to understand a position, and dishonest or overly impatient accusations of sealioning are roughly as likely as the dishonesty of actual sealioning. So, how would one tell the difference? Often this is read by the response to answers received. If a questioner persistently misrepresents the answers they have been given, that is probably a bad sign. Other tips might include an unacknowledged prior positions or a persistent refusal to engage the information actually provided.

Shifting the Goalposts: This expression is commonly used to describe an effort to change the point of a dispute at the convenience of one or another party. This may be done so as to enable someone to claim they have proven a point which was much easier to demonstrate than the original topic of disagreement, or it may be done so as to claim a point has not been substantiated by insisting that some new and much tougher claim was the real point all along. Either way, the problem is that someone has changed the sense of what was to be proved in the first place surreptitiously in the course of the argument.

It’s worth bearing in mind people could change their mind about the scope of an issue; that is not the problem. The problem here lies in the unacknowledged shift of goals after having already agreed to a common sense of the issue in the first place.

Tone Policing (alt. Tone Argument): This phrase typically refers to criticism focusing on the emotional display (the tone) of an individual rather than the substance of her position. Tone policing thus becomes a kind of red herring fallacy in which the points offered by a given speaker (or more rarely, an author) may be dismissed on the basis of concerns that she is rude, arrogant, or otherwise difficult get along with.

In recent years, tone policing has been strongly associated with efforts to dismiss minorities, feminists, or those belonging to the lesbian and gay community. Tone policing thus represents a common strategy for dismissing the under-privileged, one which focuses on the righteous anger that such individuals may feel at their own mistreatment by those with more social capital. This isn’t to suggest that tone policing is exclusively a function of privileged folks, and to some degree this concern may reflect very specific trends in contemporary status politics, but it seems fair to suggest tone policing may be unusually effective at silencing the voices of those in unusually vulnerable positions.

It would probably be a mistake to reject all criticism focusing on the affect display of a speaker. There may well be legitimate concerns about the social consequences of an aggressive communicative style. What seems unequivocally unacceptable here though is the substitution of such concerns for any consideration of the points made by the individual target of a tone-based criticism. If a critic speaks exclusively or primarily to the tone of a speaker while ignoring substantive arguments, the end result is a criticism which does little to advance anyone’s understanding of the issues in question.