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.

Sarah Silverman Goes to Heaven

Introduction: This clip is part of a stand-up act from Sarah Silverman. her larger point in this segment appears to be that more established religions are as problematic as newer faiths often dismissed as cults. Within that larger argument, she produces a sub-argument against Christianity.

…Okay, Silverman doesn’t say ‘problematic’; she says ‘crazy.’

Key Facts: Sarah Silverman is well-established comedian. She has often specialized in shocking material, and she is frequently critical of religion.

Text: This text is taken directly from the transcript on the Youtube clip provided above.

“Christianity is super 00:26 old but it’s [ __ ] crazy I mean it’s 00:29 you’re born a sinner by being born you 00:34 are a sinner and you’re going to hell 00:38 but you can just apologize and then you 00:40 can go to heaven let me go if you’re a 00:44 murderer same thing it just apologized 00:48 and go to heaven you can be Hitler and 00:51 go to confession and say forgive me 00:53 Father I killed six million Jews and the 00:55 priest would just be like no problems 00:57 say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to 01:03 heaven Hitler goes to heaven is the name 01:09 of my band”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I commonly use this segment in a classroom exercise in which students are expected to pick a point of view they disagree with and explain why. This video is one of the options students may choose to criticize. My own ideas about this argument have thus been shaped by the thoughts of several dozen people who saw fit to take Silverman on, so to speak, in my classoom.

Statements: I have deleted some of the time stamps. Also, I’ve made some corrections. “Let me go” in the transcript should be “No big deal.” ‘It’ in statement 7 should be ‘it’s,’ and I omitted the past tense marker on apologized for this statement. I believe the rest is accurate. I’ve supplied a couple words necessary to render fragments into statement form, but mostly, I left the wording as originally presented in the text. I am leaving the very first comment out of the argument as it is more about the way that this sub-theme connects to Silverman’s larger comparison between established religions and new ones. The last comment is funny as Hell, but it’s not part of the argument.

Christianity is super old

but

[1] it’s crazy.

I mean

[2] you’re born a sinner

[2] by being born you are a sinner

[3] you’re going to hell

but

[4] you can just apologize and then you can go to heaven

[5] [It’s] no big deal.

[6] if you’re a murderer, [it’s] same thing

[7] it’s just apologize and go to heaven.

[8] you can be Hitler and go to confession and say forgive me Father I killed six million Jews and the priest would just be like no problems say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to heaven Hitler goes to heaven.

is the name of my band.

Diagram: This is the best way that i can think to represent the flow of logic in this argument.

The passage from statement 3 and 4 (you can just apologize and go to heaven) to statement 5 (it’s no big deal) is tricky. Statement 5 summarizes the significance of 4 i a way that let’s us know what the problem is as far as Silverman is concerned, but the schema (apologies fix everything!) is used in subsequent inferences. This creates a problem. If we see 5 as inferred from 4 and then move on to subsequent images without referring back to 4, then we lose the schema. If on the other hand we treat 5 a separate conclusion, then it seems to be unconnected to the rest of the argument, whereas it is clearly relevant to subsequent points. It is tempting to treat statement 5 as applying to multiple inferences, but that muddles the diagram a bit much. Another solution would be to treat statement 5 as part of the meaning of statement 4, a kind of elaboration. This is one of the problems with reasoning in real life. The question of what is being offered as evidence for what is not always clear in actual speech, so these diagrams can effectively misrepresent the reasoning involved by forcing a choice on a diagram which wasn’t actually clear in the presentation itself.

I think the solution here is found in statement 6 which asserts that murderers get the same treatment. The equivalence asserted in this passage strikes me as applying to the both statement 4 and 5, i.e. the schema and the way the insignificance of immorality under that formula.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Interactional Eclipse, reductio ad absurdum, motte and bailey doctrine, satire, straw man.

Interactional Eclipse: There are several ways in which the reasoning of this argument is substantially overshadowed by the social interactions at stake. To begin with, the shock value of Silverman’s act overwhelms any sense of the reasoning at stake. Believers may often be too offended to attend to the argument at hand. On the other hand, non-believers may enjoy the schadenfreude too much to think too carefully about the argument. I’ve seen both reactions. This problem is of course compounded by the sense many Christians have that this behavior is simply unacceptable, either because it is too rude, or because it is blasphemous, or both. That response can be all you get, in which case, no account of Silverman’s reasoning will be forthcoming. Likewise, some critics of religion may celebrate the argument simply on account of its subversive message, independent of the reasoning in question. the bottom line, is that a significant number of people will ignore the logic of this argument while focusing on its emotional impact and the social implications of Silverman’s verbal behavior.

Motte and Bailey Doctrine: One interesting question here may relate to the question of whether or not there may be some Christians for whom this is in fact an accurate account, or even whether or not there may be some contexts in which Christians themselves produce an account of their belief that comes close to this. Simply put, Christians themselves may oversimplify their own beliefs in some contexts, bringing out more serious efforts to sort the moral significance of repentance only when pressed to do so. In this case, Silverman’s criticism would apply just fine to some versions of Christianity (those expressed in the Bailey, so to speak) while failing to address others belonging to the Motte.

Reductio ad Absurdum: This argument definitely fits the pattern of of a reductio ad absurdum. Silverman assumes for purposes of argument that an apology is what makes the difference between going to Heaven and going to Hell and infers from this the claim that Hitler could make it to heaven by simply apologizing for all he has done whereas others who have done little wrong in life would go to hell because they simply didn’t believe in God (and failed to apologize for their sins). Silverman, and many others would regard this as an unacceptably absurd approach to morality. The crucial question in this case is whether or not her sub-deduction succeeds, whether or she can really demonstrate that a simple apology gets Hitler into Heaven whereas the lack of it leads decent people to Hell.

Satire: It would be fair to suggest that Silverman’s presentation of Christianity here is satirical. Given this fact, some might suggest that it is a mistake to take her specific argument too seriously, but then how do we take it? There is no obvious reason to think that Silverman does not believe any given part o this argument, and there is no clear alternative to taking the argument as a serious effort to show us what is wrong with religion as she sees it. If Satire often accomplishes its goals by exaggerating tendencies in the object of its abuse, it also works sometimes by simply stripping away pretentious language and adopting alternative narratives which are just as plausible as the stories and language used by those less critical about that object of abuse. Arguably, that is what Silverman is trying to do here; to strip away a flattering narrative and show us what these beliefs mean without the reverent language in which they are normally presented. So, it seems to me that her argument stands or falls on terms pretty much the same as those iof any serious critic. Hell, this is a serious criticism, and it should be treated as such.

Straw Man: Because I include this video in one of my classes, I have had occasion to hear a couple dozen Christians respond to it. At some point or another, they invariably suggest that a simple apology is NOT an accurate description of what they actually believe. Whether this is about confession and contrition or being saved, they always emphasize the necessity of sincere regret accompanied by a substantial change of character and lifestyle. Silverman’s account would seem to suggest that even an insincere apology would get one in to Heaven. Discounting that, she certainly does not talk about the kind of transformation which is central to christian thinking on this subject. So, I do think it’s fair to suggest that Silverman is misrepresenting the beliefs in question.

Evaluation: The biggest problem with this argument falls squarely on statement 4 as a description of actual Christian thoughts about morality and the prospects for getting to Heaven or Hell.

I haven’t addressed the adequacy of this metaphysics. Many Christians might find this to be a childish caricature of their own beliefs. Silverman might respond by suggesting that some Christians (perhaps most) have expressed belief in just such a childish caricature, in which case, her argument may be fairly applied to them with a great deal more validity.

All of which is to say nothing of differences between Protestant and Catholic views on the subject.

The biggest problem lies in the question of whether or not it is fair to suggest that a mere apology is all that is at stake in Christian ideas about repentance. As stated above, I do think this is a straw man, as applied to the more serious thoughts of most Christians, but I do think there are some Christians for whom the criticism may be accurate, and even some contexts in which Christians in general may allow themselves to talk in ways comparable to those Silverman criticizes here.

Final Thoughts: As applied to most Christian thought, the argument is unsound because it amounts to a straw man fallacy. If there are Christians whose beliefs align with Silverman’s description, then frankly, I think the argument is sound.

Marjorie Taylor Greene Almost Has a Thought About the Vegas Shooter

Introduction: Marjorie Taylor Greene is a a U.S. Representative for Georgia District 14. She is also a known advocate of several conspiracy theories, and an advocate of Second Amendment rights. At some point in time, she posted this video explaining her views on a mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas. (Note: This appears to be a re-post by someone else; I still haven’t tracked down the original.) At some point, she also published this article republished by the Way Back Machine, in which she provides more detail (though not much more in the way of evidence) on her views about the subject.

Key Facts: The shooting in question occurred on October 1st, 2017. It was carried out by Stephen Paddock. He fired over a thousand rounds of ammunition into a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 60 people and wounding 867 others before killing himself. (I’m just going by Wiki here.) Although some sources have made assertions about the subject, at present, police have drawn no substantial conclusions about his motives for the shooting.

Text: Here is the full text of the video clip. Obviously, some of the text below is not part of the actual argument.

“Hey Friends, I’ve got a question for you. How do you get avid gun owners and people that support the Second Amendment to give up their guns and go along with anti-gun legislation? How do you do that? Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is very likely to be conservative, very likely to vote Republican, very likely to be Trump supporters, very likely to be pro-Second Amendment, and very likely to own guns. You make them scared, you make them victims, and you change their mindset, and then possibly you can pass anti-gun legislation. Is that what happened in Las Vegas? Is that why, um, the country music festival was targeted? Because those would be the people, that would be the ones that we would relate to? Are they trying to terrorize our mindset, and change our minds on the Second Amendment? Is that what’s going on here? I have a lot of questions about that. I don’t believe Steven Paddock was a lone wolf. I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself, and I know most of you don’t either. So, I am really wondering if there is a, there’s a bigger motive there, and does it have to do with the Second Amendment, because what’s the best way to control the people? You have to take away their guns. So, that’s just my question today. This is Marjorie Greene with American Truth Seekers.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: What makes this argument interesting is the constant hedging. Greene is doing her best to put forward ideas without taking responsibility for them. The end result is quite a study of rhetorical manipulation and general evasiveness.

Statements: I found it really hard to dissect the statements in this argument, mainly because Greene is waffling her way through it. It’s normal to rephrase a rhetorical question as a statement for argument analysis, but it isn’t normal to deal with an argument that is so thoroughly saturated with them (along with other forms of innuendo). It seems somewhat unfair to Greene to just pretend her questions are statements, but it’s also unduly generous to pretend they are just questions. She is riding the fence line on just how much she wants to assert, and that poses a problem for how to interpret her approach to this.

I wanted to preserve some elements of the contextualization strategies here as I do think they are critical to the argument.

I am designating some the contextual information Greene presents with capital letters in place of numbers. Note also, that a rather large portion of this argument consists of rhetorical questions. I have added square brackets to the periods I used to replace what would normally be question marks to indicate which statements were originally phrased as questions.

[A] Hey Friends, I’ve got a question for you.

[B1] How do you get avid gun owners and people that support the Second Amendment to give up their guns and go along with anti-gun legislation?

[B2] How do you do that?

[1] Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is very likely to be conservative.

[2] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to vote Republican.

[3] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to be Trump supporters.

[4] Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to be pro-Second Amendment.

[5] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] and very likely to own guns.

[6] You make them scared.

[7] you make them victims.

[8] you change their mindset.

[9] [if you do this,] then possibly you can pass anti-gun legislation.

[10] [That is] what happened in Las Vegas[.]

[11] [That is] why, um, the country music festival was targeted[.]

Because

[11] Those would be the people, that would be the ones that we would relate to[.]

[12] [They are] trying to terrorize our mindset, and change our minds on the Second Amendment[.]

[11 and 12] [That is] what’s going on here[.]

[C] I have a lot of questions about that.

[13] I don’t believe Steven Paddock was a lone wolf.

[14] I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself.

[15] I know most of you don’t either.

So

[D] I am really wondering if there is a

[16] there’s a bigger motive there.

[17] [It has] to do with the Second Amendment.

[18] because what’s the best way to control the people[.]

[19] You have to take away their guns.

[E] So, that’s just my question today.

[F] This is Marjorie Greene with American Truth Seekers.”

Diagram: This took a lot more judgement calls than I like making, but here is the diagram.

Green’s Argument

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Accusatory Question, Anaphoric Pronouns, Argument from Incredulity, Burden of Proof, Double Negation, Gish Gallop, Hedges, Innuendo, Passive Voice, Provincialism, Redundant Assertions, Rhetorical Question, Straw Man, Unsupported Assertion.

Accusatory Question: Several of Greene’s questions effectively make an accusation for which she presents no evidence. By treating these as rhetorical question, as above, they are transformed into statements for which the evidence is questionable at best, but the rhetorical strategy is worth keeping track of in itself. Statements 10, 11, and 12 are the more obvious examples of this gambit.

Anaphoric Pronouns: A couple of sections of this argument turn on the use of anaphoric pronouns (i.e. pronouns that refer to a previously named entity. At least a couple of these are free-floating anaphors, i.e. pronouns used without a clearly established referent. We have a generalized “you’ in statements 1-9, for example, which seems to suggest that these are tactics anyone could use to manipulate others, but she is probably suggesting that someone in government (or more likely, an abstract government entity) is actually doing this. The ‘they’ in statement 12 would refer to the participants in some unspecified conspiracy, but once again Greene avoids telling us who it is that she is talking about. The “You” in statement 15 would of course refer to Greene’s friends (as mentioned in A), which in this case probably means something more like her fans and/or those who agree with her on this and similar topics. “Them” in statements 6-8 clearly refers to the conservative crowd referenced in statements 1-5.

On a side note: The demonstrative ‘that’ in “[11 and 12] [That is] what’s going on here[.]” is a bit ambiguous. I take it to refer to events as described in both statements 11 and 12, though it could refer to either one individually.

Argument from Incredulity: Statements 13 and 14 both present refusal to believe a proposition (the notion that Paddock acted alone) as evidence for its opposite. This is the argument from incredulity. As, Greene is actually suggesting a lot more specific than that he had help, this raises other problems as well (straw man concerns and burdens of proof).

Burden of Proof: Taylor uses double negation to assert a few unspecified assertions about possible conspiracies (e.g. statements 13 and 14). In effect, saying that paddock did not act alone is what she offers in place of a clear theory as to who helped him and what evidence she has for this. Significantly, this is one of the few areas where Greene does not disguise her assertions as question, but she still gives herself cover by hiding a specific assertion in the negation of its opposite. Arguably, it would be on her to spell out the assertion she means to make and provide evidence for it. Instead she merely uses the argument from incredulity to deny the negation of her unspecified accusations.

Double Negation: As mentioned above (in Burden of proof), Greene denies that Paddock acted alone in order to suggest that he had help. This helps her evade the need to make specific assertions as to what help he had, but to the point at hand, her argument turns on double negation.

Gish Gallop: For a short clip, Majorie Taylor Greene does incude an awful lot of objectionable material in here. I think it would be fair to call this a Gish Gallop.

Hedges: Greene uses words like “Maybe” (statements 1-5) and “possibly” (in statement 9) to avoid committing to her assertions. She tells us that she is “wondering” about this. Like her use of rhetorical questions and her use of double negation, these hedges enables her to evade responsibility for anything she gets wrong. If her accusations are clearly disproven, then she may of course say that she was only raising the possibility. In effect, she is using this language to avoid taking responsibility for the argument she is making.

Innuendo: This isn’t the most technical term, but all this adds up to an argument that works by innuendo. Greene implies a great deal more than she asserts.

Passive Voice: One of the advantages of passive voice is that you can use it without a ‘by-clause’, thus avoiding the need to specify who is actually carrying out the action in question. You see this in statement 11, talking about why the country music festival “was targeted” without saying by whom. Clearly, Greene does not mean Paddock alone, but she never tells us who else might be involved. Along with all the other hedges, her use of passive voice here enables her to skip that piece of information.

Provincialism: Greene’s statement 16 could be viewed as a appeal to provincialism. (Alternatively, it could be an appeal to popularity – i.e. the Bandwagon fallacy – but if I had to make a call, I would say that it’s bandwagon.) She appears to be trying to generate the impression that people in her own circles would certainly share her views on this topic.

Redundant Assertions: There are a few redundant assertions here, some such as statements 11 and 12 which appear to be repeated with different wording, and some (statements 1-5) which occur which several different propositions within one whole statement are spelled out individually. None of this is a problem with Greene’s reasoning, but it could trip up someone doing an argument analysis (fingers crossed).

Rhetorical Questions: As noted repeatedly above, Greene uses a lot of rhetorical questions. Statements 9-12 in the list above were actually phrased as questions. She begins with a question, repeated twice, and ends by saying that she is raising questions. Somewhere in the middle, Greene suggests that she is actually raising questions. It seems best to treat this as acknowledging some level of doubt, but Greene is in effect making an argument here. She is suggesting that the scenarios (or something like them) she raises are actually the case. Combined with her use of double-negation to affirm some unspecified scenario other than the prospect that Paddock acted alone, her use of rhetorical questions adds up to an argument in favor of some unspecific conspiracy theory.

In any event, the questions mentioned above have been rewritten as statements here.

Straw Man Argument: I’m not real sure about this one, but there is at least one sense in which Greene’s argument could be seen as resting on a straw man. Al though it appears that the police treat Paddock as a lone actor, the notion that his actions are not the result of a conspiracy to take away guns from American citizens simply does not rest on the notion that Paddock acted alone. Any number of scenarios involving additional parties would fall far short of the conspiracy Greene is suggesting.

Unsupported Assertion: Greene makes a unsupported assertions in this argument. She provides no evidence, for example, for her assertion that Paddock did not act alone (statements 13 and 14). She also suggests (in the form of rhetorical questions in 10, 11, and 12) that the country music festival was targeted for purposes of undermining gun-owners rights. Phrasing these as questions helps to diffuse the expectation that evidence should follow, and one does. Statements 16 and 17 are also unsupported. All of these assertions are just as controversial as the conclusion of her argument, and at least as questionable as to their truth values. It isn’t simply that these are starting premises; the problem in each of these cases is that the notions Greene puts forth fly in the face of the currently common take on this event, and she makes these assertions without offering any evidence in support of them.

Voicing: In statements 13 and 14, Greene is effectively voicing the stance of her presumed opposition. She does so for the purpose of refuting them, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that she is conjuring a definite sense of her political opposition for the moment. That opposition is of course present by implication not only in the dialogue over what happened in this shooting, but also in the story itself, as the presumed source of the conspiracy she wants us to believe was behind the attack. In rejecting their views, she is of course also rejecting the politics of the conspiracy. Given her assumptions about the conspiracy, calling it out and rejecting the views of those who deny the conspiracy is performatively fighting against the conspiracy, even against the shooter insofar as she hopes to defeat his presumed goals. She doesn’t hit this theme that hard, but the implication is probably part of the appeal of her position, and part of what makes it so hard to reason with people like Greene.

Evaluation: Hm…

1-5 -> 9: Statements 1-5 each rely on an intuitive sense that an attack on gun owning conservatives might cause them to change their minds on the Second Amendment. I do wonder what social psychologists might say on the subject (particularly as regards dissonance reduction theory), but these statements seem plausible, and I think they do add up a general sense that such an event could (hypothetically) help someone who wants to restrict the rights of gun owners which is the point of statement 9. Push comes, to shove, this sub-theme strikes me as a marginally sound argument.

6-8 -> 9: This is just a more abstract argument about psychological impact. It’s vague, at best. There is a certain intuitive appeal, but its’ not clear how all this works. I don’t find this sub-theme convincing, though my concerns are mild at worst. It just isn’t clear that people would respond to such a traumatic event by changing heir views on gun ownership and gun rights. It is at least as likely that they will respond by adopting conspiracy theories and using those theories to double-down on their defense of gun ownership.

This really isn’t where the real problems in Greene’s argument reside, but if I have to make a call, I’d say this one is unsound.

11 -> 10. Statement 10 is a proposition about what actually happened. Statement 11 is a statement about the affiliation of people targeted. the one does not add up to the other. This is unsound because the inference itself is weak at best.

13+14 -> 10. This one is unsound because 13 and 14 are unsupported. Also, the prospect that Paddock may have had help from someone does not add up to evidence for the kind of conspiracy she is asserting. This argument fails on both the truth value of its premises and the logic of inference. Unsound. Really unsound.

15 -> 10. This is an appeal to provincialism fallacy. Unsound.

16=19 -> 10: Each of the assumptions of this argument is unsupported and unlikely to be true. Hence, the argument is unsound.

9+10 -> 12. If we assume 9 and 10 are true, then 12 logically follows. The problem is of course the fact that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that statement 10 is true. The argument is unsound, which is putting it mildly.

Overall: This argument is about as bad as they get.

Final thoughts: This is how conspiracy theory works in terms of rhetoric and reasoning. It is a great study in the means by which a demagogue (or a wannabe demagogue) makes accusations without taking responsibility for them.

The Straw Man Fallacy

This is one of the more well known informal fallacies in the study of logic. It occurs when one party misrepresents the stated position of another in the course of attacking it. It gets its name from the notion that one is attacking a straw version of the real position instead of confronting that position on its own terms. It thus results in a misleading claim that one has refuted the actual position in question while avoiding any direct engagement with it.

Often this fallacy is committed by accident, the likelihood of which is increased by the fact that people who disagree already have different ways of looking at things (and hence it should be no surprise that they often misunderstand each other). It can also be a very deliberate strategy, used either to deceive an audience, or simply to control the terms of a conversation. Whatever the reasons for doing so, if a criticism is directed against an inaccurate portrayal of another’s position, it commits the straw man fallacy.

To use a simple example, let us assume a student walks into class. The clock on the wall indicates the student is 5 minutes late, so I point this out and mark them down as late for class. The student suggests that the clock is fast and that she isn’t really late. I respond by asking her if she thinks she can come to class any time she wants with no consequences for her grade. In this example, my response would commit the fallacy of the straw man by construing her own argument about the accuracy of the clock as a willful refusal to take the official start time for the class seriously. A more reasonable response might have been to suggest that the clock was accurate after all, or (perish the thought!) to concede that my student was right and reverse the decision to mark her as late for class.

I’m going to go on to discuss a few common ways varieties of straw man arguments. It’s unlikely that others will recognize these variations by name (especially since I am coining these terms as I write them), so I wouldn’t suggest using this vocabulary to call-out people’s mistakes, but I want to suggest a few common variations on the straw man, just as food for thought, so to speak.

…also I seem to like run-on sentences.

It should also be noted that several of these concerns are rather closely related. Misplaced Literalism could for example be construed as a specific case of an uncharitable interpretation. Also, the following categories are not intended as a complete list. It is simply an effort to discuss some of the more common variations of this particular fallacy.

The Bale of Hyperbole: This version of the straw man fallacy is very straight forward. It consists of systematic exaggeration of the position one wishes to criticize. If someone says for example that Christians have at certain times in history committed atrocities in the name of Christ it would be a straw man to treat this as equivalent to the notion that Christianity is the root of all violence. If someone says the Republican party is not a racist institution, it would be a straw man to say that they had pretended the party was entirely innocent or that it had no racists among its membership.

One common feature of the bale of hyperbole is the manipulation of qualifiers (and quantifiers). ‘Some’ becomes ‘all’; ‘often’ becomes ‘always’; ‘difficult’ becomes ‘impossible’, etc. It isn’t always that obvious, but sometimes one can spot this fallacy by simply looking to see if the qualifiers used in a criticism match those of the original argument.

Misplaced Literalism: This occurs when a critic treats figurative speech as though it were intended literally. The original argument thus comes across as a caricature, and the author’s real point is set aside in favor of an attack on the language of its presentation.

The Straw Rule: This variation occurs when one concocts a rule which is supposed to explain a judgement she wishes to criticize. The implications of the straw rule are then shown to be absurd and the conclusion is easily drawn that the entire judgement is foolish in the extreme. One may utilize a straw rule in place of an actual principle in the hopes that no-one notices the difference, but what makes this particular version of the straw man tempting is the fact that people often fail to explain the basis of their judgements. It is then quite easy to fill in the gaps of the other guy’s argument with a rule that would explain the judgement in question by committing its author to absurd consequences.

Examples? Party A says she opposes her government’s effort to wage a particular war and party B then proceeds to explain why pacifism is a terrible philosophy (thus ignoring the possibility that Party A may be opposed to the particular war in question but not to all war). Party C says that she thinks the Washington football team ought to change its name from the Redskins to something less offensive and Party D proceeds to suggest that she must also change the name of the Minnesota Vikings, the Boston Celtics, etc. (This response ignores the possibility that the Redskins may be uniquely offensive and/or harmful to Native Americans while addressing an idea that all references to ethnic identity are inherently objectionable.) In both of these cases, the responding party has attributed a specific value judgement to the original argument which simply wasn’t there. It might have been fair to ask for some such principle and then to scrutinize the one put forth by the first party, but to supply the principle in terms bordering on caricature is a form of straw man.

The Whipping Boy: This variant of the straw man involves a tricky problem; how do you deal with a general theme incorporating a broad range of different specific arguments? Some of those arguments may be stronger than others, and some may be foolish in the extreme. Sometimes a theme may come up in a conversation without fleshing out the details. In such cases, one has to choose the variation(s) of a theme she wishes to refute. The Whipping Boy occurs when someone chooses to respond only to the weakest variations of a theme while ignoring its strongest versions.

If for example one were to address libertarian views on national health care, it would be easy enough to mock those claiming that such a policy amounts communism (especially when such comments appear to assume that this in itself is enough to show that national healthcare is a bad thing). It is much more difficult to address those concerned about the relative inefficiency of government programs and/or the likelihood that such systems are inherently more prone to corruption than market-based approaches to health care. These latter arguments would require thoughtful engagement whereas knee-jerk red-baiting comments are easily dismissed. One would be committing this version of the straw man if she were to dismiss the entire field of libertarian concerns about national health care while fielding only a response to the notion that such a system is communism.

It should be added that there may be good reason to comment on the weaker versions of a given theme, not the least of them being that such variations may well be among the more popular ones. There may even be times when one wishes to comment only on such variations, and that may be entirely appropriate, providing that one limits the scope of one’s conclusions to those variations. The Whipping Boy Occurs when one trashes the weak versions of a theme while drawing conclusions about the full range of views represented in this theme.

Uncharitable Interpretation. The principle of charity is one of the more subtle features in the study of logic and argumentation. It is a rule of thumb suggesting that when interpreting an argument, one should try to construe it in the strongest terms possible. it comes into play when critics fill-in the vagaries of an original argument in a manner that makes it highly convenient for any subsequent criticism. It’s not clear that such strategies clearly constitute examples of a straw man fallacy insofar as the uncharitable interpretation will not precisely contradict the stated language of the original argument. Yet, this more subtle strategy does enable a critic to avoid direct confrontation with the more substantive ideas she wishes to attack, So, one might not think of an uncharitable interpretation as a fallacy in the most precise sense of the term, but it remains a problematic form of argumentation. When dealing with an uncharitable interpretation, one may wish to acknowledge a certain adequacy when taken at face value, but it is equally fair to note when stronger versions of the original argument would survive a given criticism.

Phil Robertson’s Argument from Rape

Introduction: On March 20th, 2015, Phil Robertson spoke at an event known as the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast in Florida. The Duck Dynasty star is an outspoken evangelical Christian who has espoused right wing political views on a number of occasions. Robertson’s talk included an elaborate rape fantasy which soon generated a great deal of controversy.

The full speech can be heard on True News. Critical Responses can be found on Right Wing Watch as well as a number of other sources. The excerpt used below came from Time Magazine.

Key Facts: Most of Robertson’s critics have focused on questions about his representation of atheism, it should be noted that the purpose of his speech is to show that faith in God is central to morality. The passage presented below follows a reading of comments from the psychologist Orval Hobart Mowrer. Mowrer’s comments had focused on the effort to eliminate the concept of sin from psychology, efforts Mowrer appeared to regard as unsuccessful (at least as Robertson quotes him). Robertson provides no source citation for the Mowrer quotes which he finishes up by noting that Mowrer committed suicide. (The implication appears to be that Mowrer’s work in secular psychology led to the suicide. This narrative would be complicated by Mowrer’s own embrace of Christian messages.) Robertson’s overall point thus advances the general notion that all moral consciousness stems from acceptance of Jesus. Robertson further asserts that a broad range of worlds views are simply attempts to escape this fact. His remarks about atheism must be taken as a sub-argument toward this larger conclusion.

Text:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

ANALYSIS

Comments: The central argument of this passage is folded into a story. It may be best to group much of the details of the story into one statement.

Statements: I am grouping most of the story scenario itself into one single claim. I’ve tried to isolate the rest of the claims made in this argument below and presented them in bold. No effort was made to clean up the punctuation after doing so, and various bits and pieces that don’t contribute to the logic of the argument are left dangling, so to speak. Anyway, here it is!

***

I’ll make a bet with you.

[1] Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say,

[2] ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3] Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[4] There’s no right or wrong,

now is it dude?’

[1] Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say,

[5] ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this?

But you’re the one who says

[6] there is no God,

[4] there’s no right, there’s no wrong,

so

[7] we’re just having fun.

[8] We’re sick in the head,

have a nice day.’

***

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Indirection, interactional eclipse, paraphrasing, reduction ad absurdum, redundant assertions, rhetorical questions, straw man, and voicing.

Indirection and Interactional Eclipse: Most of the controversy over this passage has bypassed any straight-forward evaluation of Phil Robertson’s argument to focus on questions about why he would want to field such an elaborate rape fantasy in the first place. This does not exactly go to the logic of the argument, but it is a perfectly legitimate question.

Such imagery is likely generate significant (negative) emotional response. When delivered in person, an argument portraying someone as the victim of graphic violence serves to intimidate or anger its target, so much so that any rational dialogue is likely to end. But of course Phil Robertson isn’t exactly talking to atheists. He is speaking to an audience of believers (though his speech was recorded and hence shared with a wider public). This illustrates a common feature of Christian apologetics, namely its use of indirection. Phil frames his argument as one against atheism, but it is actually an argument intended for an audience consisting primarily of true believers. It’s probative value as a means of furthering debate with unbelievers thus takes a back-seat to its value as a message to the faithful, and any adverse reactions by atheists would thus have little meaning to Phil or his audience (except perhaps for the side-benefit of generating Schadenfreude.

In the end, we are left with a kind of rhetorical pornography, an argument that plays ironically to the prurient interests of its audience without doing much to advance the soundness of their position.

Paraphrasing: The argument requires some paraphrasing to piece together. Three rhetorical questions require rewording (see below) and the opening teaser line needs some fleshing out. I’m inclined to see it as a reference to statement number 5. If you were to finish the thought, I think it would look something like this:

[5] [Atheists will object to the actions taking place in this story.]

Reduction as Absurdum: The overall structure of the argument is that of a reductio. Phil Robertson doesn’t attend much to the details, and hence his sub-deduction leaves a lot to be desired, but it would seem he is trying to show us that atheism leads to a contradiction of sorts.

Redundant assertions: Claim number 4 is made twice. Robertson further alludes to claim 5 at the outset of the argument, though he only makes the claim explicit later in the argument,

Rhetorical Questions: Claims 2, 3, and 5 actually take the form of questions. The following revisions may be used in order to transform them into statements.

[2a] [It is] great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3a] [It is] great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[5a] [There should be] something wrong with this?

Straw Man: The most common complaint relating to the logic of this argument is that Phil Robertson has misrepresented atheists to the degree that he assumes all atheists reject the notion of moral values. There are of course a good many atheists who would object to the notion that there is no right or wrong, and they would object strenuously to the notion their own views amounted to such a position. From this standpoint, Robertson’s argument misrepresents atheism. It isn’t even particularly subtle about it.

It should be noted that Christian apologists often field a somewhat more moderate version of this argument by suggesting that atheist may be moral and decent people, but that they are unable to provide an adequate philosophical basis for any moral attitude they may have. Phil’s argument seems to share in this approach at least to the degree that he makes little effort to base his position on the claims of actual atheists (though his Mowrer quote seems to provide a token effort along these lines). In the end, this simply isn’t Phil Robertson’s approach. he isn’t merely suggesting that atheists lack for a sound philosophical account of their morality. His argument explicitly attributes to atheists claims rejecting moral values.

Although there are certainly atheists who also reject morality altogether, Phil Robertson is wrong to equate this position with atheists in general. His argument is accordingly a pretty clear case of a straw man.

Voicing: This argument contains voicing insofar as the rapists in his story appear to be speaking for Phil himself. Their words constitute his argument. Hence, the characters in the story provide a voice for the author of the argument.

Diagram: It’s tempting to abandon the hope of diagraming this argument. Aside from the lack of explicit explicit reasoning indicators Phil Robertson does seem to jump around a bit. I think I can make sense of the general flow of ideas here, but this seems to rely on more imaginative reconstruction than I would prefer. It isn’t entirely clear for example just what Phil thinks is a reason for what, or more importantly, whether he distinguishes some of these propositions from each other at all. That said…

The key to the argument here is to remember that Phil is attacking the moral sensibilities of atheism. The whole narrative is a reduction ad absurdum directed against those sensibilities, so we begin with the core assumption to be refuted (claim number 6). Phil seems to derive two specific consequences from this, that there will be no consequences for bad behavior (claim 2)and that there is no right and wrong (claim 4). Phil thus infers from claims 3 and 4 that there is nothing wrong with the behavior in the story (claim 3) and that it should be construed either as mental illness (claim 7) or mere fun (claim 8). He then assumes that an atheist will want to object to the behavior anyway (claim 5), thus refuting the initial assumption (number 6) which he started with.

Back of the envelope alright!

Back of the envelope alright!

Evaluation: I’ll just call attention to a few problematic steps in the argument. Note that it is in claims 2 and 4 that the Straw man mentioned above enter Robertson’s argument.

A) The inference from 6 to 2 is weak at best. Without God, people may still be accountable to other people and/or social institutions.

B) The inference from 6 to 4 is likely nil. If absence of a a God entails a lack of moral values, Phil Robertson has done little to show this. Of course that is the point of the overall argument, but the presence of that notion here as an assumed basis for the inference in question would do little but make this a circular argument. In any event, the inference from 6 to 4 lacks force.

C) The inference from 2 and 4 to 3 is strong to deductively valid insofar as it would be difficult to imagine how general statements about the lack of moral values or consequences would be reconciled with the notion that there is something wrong with the specific behavior in the story. (The problem of course lies up above in the diagram.)

D) The inferences to 7 and 8 are a little beside the point. Each is little more than an elaboration of the main point which is contained in claim 3.

E) The final inference to a rejection of statement 6 is weak. At best Phil Robertson’s argument would establish a desire to believe in god, perhaps even a need for such a being in moral philosophy. It would not prove that such a being does exist.

F) Ultimately, the argument is unsound. Atheism does not logically entail the nihilism Robertson associates with it, and the moral problems Phil advances would not prove that atheists were wrong to reject belief in God if he had establish them properly.
Final Thoughts: Some might think it unwise to treat such an argument as worthy of analysis. At this point, I’m not entirely sure that they are wrong.