Thursday, June 28, 2012

SCOTUS and the Principle of Charity

I have talked quite a bit in several posts about the principle of charity. By this I mean that when reading someone's argument, you shold assume the most charitable interpretation of that argument possible. In many cases doing this will still yield a lousy argument, but it is a good idea nonethless.

I was reminded of this while skimming through the Supreme Court's decision (PDF) on the Affordable Care Act:
The text of a statute can sometimes have more than one possible meaning. To take a familiar example, a law that reads “no vehicles in the park” might, or might not, ban bicycles in the park. And it is well established that if a statute has two possible meanings, one of which violates the Constitution, courts should adopt the meaning that does not do so. Justice Story said that 180 years ago: “No court ought, unless the terms of an act rendered it unavoidable, to give a construction to it which should involve a violation, however unintentional, of the constitution.” Parsons v. Bedford, 3 Pet. 433, 448–449 (1830). Justice Holmes made the same point a century later: “[T]he rule is settled that as between two possible interpretations of a statute, by one of which it would be unconstitutional and by the other valid, our plain duty is to adopt that which will save the Act.” Blodgett v. Holden, 275 U. S. 142, 148 (1927) (concurring opinion).
Here, Chief Justice Roberts (the author of the majority opinion) notes a long precedence for the Court to employ a legal principle of charity in assessing the constitutionality of a law. Essentially he is arguing that if there is an interpretation of a law that is constitutional, the court must assume that interpretation.

This is more than a mere tangent in that the Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the individual mandate turns on this point. The Court actively ignores the text of the law (which specifically describes the consequences for not having insurance as "a penalty, not a tax"), and instead interprets the mandate as a tax on non-compliance rather than as a law requiring certain behavior. According to the Court, the government can't mandate the purchase of a certain product (in this case health insurance), but can tax individuals who don't. And this interpretation is a product of employing the principle of charity in interpreting the Affordable Care Act.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

No, it's nothing like rape.

One of the most horrendous and insidious False Analogies is to compare something to rape. Rape is, perhaps, the most heinous of crimes as it involves a complete subjugation of the autonomy of one person to another. In this sense it is very similar to torture (and one could probably make a good case that rape is a form of torture).  Given how abhorrent rape is, many people nevertheless feel the need to describe any personal insult or idea they dislike as a form of rape. As just one recent example, Michael Reagan, eldest son of former president Ronald Reagan and syndicated radio show host, argues that President Obama's recent Department of Homeland Security directive preventing the deportation of DREAM-Act eligible individuals is comparable to the rape of young boys. As he writes:
Emperor Obama obviously could not care less about helping the Latino population. When Democrats had control of both houses of Congress he did absolutely nothing for them.
Now he’s doing to Latinos what Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky allegedly did to the children of Pennsylvania — using and abusing them. With his short-sighted politicking, Emperor Obama has hurt the Latino cause in the long run. [emphasis added]
Now whatever one thinks of Obama's actions or motives here comparing them to rape is clearly ludicrous. Obama did not sexually violate anyone under his supervision in a locker room shower, and to compare his action to that is, quite simply, wrong and shameful. (It is also somewhat disturbing how Reagan seeks to subtly minimize the severity of Sandusky's crimes. This is another object lesson in the use of euphemism)

Another common version of this particular false analogy is the claim made by a fan that some revamp or sequel to a beloved work from their youth "raped my childhood." This is a charge most commonly leveled against George Lucas and his Star Wars film series, and is nicely summarized in this NSFW clip from Brian Posehn's stand-up routine:

Now this is a rather funny bit, and there is a certain expectation that a comedian (unlike say a radio broadcaster) will be over the top and hyperbolic (see also this NSFW episode of South Park). However, unless George Lucas acquires a time machine and travels back in time to sexually assault you as a child, he didn't rape your childhood.

This general trend of comparing things one doesn't like to rape is extremely disturbing. In addition to being an obvious False Analogy it has a tendency to trivialize rape. The line of argument these false analogies suggest is as follows:
  1. Seeing a lousy film isn't very pleasant, but it is no big deal. 
  2. Seeing a lousy film is equivalent to rape. 
  3. Therefore, rape must not be that big of a deal either.
And this of course is exactly wrong. I think people who use this False Analogy think that because rape is so awful, a comparison will show how awful the thing they dislike is. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that analogies go both ways. You may be trying to argue that A is similar to B in some respect, but you are just as likely to end up making the case that B is similar to A in some other respect. Thus, when one employs analogies, one must do so with great care and sensitivity to the terms of the comparison being made.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I can't tell you if I am violating your privacy. That would be a violation of your privacy.

A Circular Argument (often called Begging the Question) is a fallacy in which one states or assumes the conclusion in one of the premises. The name is fairly descriptive in that one is arguing in a circle in which the conclusion is true because it is supported by the premise, but the premise in turn depends on the conclusion in order for it to be true. As Bradley Dowden puts it, "Circular reasoning occurs when the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end up with."

I was reminded of this fallacy when I cam across this article by David Sirota. In it, he links to this report from Wired's Spencer Ackerman discussing the National Security Agency's (NSA) response to a request for information on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretaps from two US Senators on the Intelligence Oversight Committee. FISA was a law originally passed in 1978 which set up procedures for the surveillance of communications between "foreign powers" and their agents in the US. This law was then amended in 2008 in the wake of a NYT report on how the government had enlisted major telecom firms to (seemingly illegally) aid the government in its surveillance efforts. Under this amended form, in addition to retroactively immunizing telecoms for their illegal activities, the government further relaxed the standards for allowing surveillance of US citizens. Since the law is up for renewal later this year, the aforementioned Senators, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) sent a request (PDF) to the NSA asking for, among other things, a rough estimate of how many Americans had been spied on. It is the response (PDF) to this request, authored by I. Charles McCullough III, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, that I want to focus on.

In this letter, McCullough argues that he can't satisfy Wyden and Udall's request because, "an IG review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons." Ignoring for now the obvious non sequitur (Wyden and Udall were only looking for a number, not the names of those surveilled), we see a very nice example of circular reasoning. In effect, McCullough is arguing the following: We can't give you information about the impact of this law on the privacy of US Citizens because that would violate the privacy of US Citizens; we can't allow you to evaluate whether this law violates privacy because that would be a violation of privacy.

If I can editorialize for a moment (which I can because this is my blog), I am not sure Kafka or Heller could come up with a more absurd demonstration of bureaucratic obfuscation.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Some more thoughts on Euphemisms and Dysphemism

Just about any word can be said to have a denotation and a connotation. The denotation of a word is the object or objects to which the word refers. The connotation of the word is the emotional reaction a word elicits. In the case of euphemisms and dysphemisms one is is replacing a word with another word that has a similar denotation but a different connotation.

In my earlier post on this topic (and in the George Carlin bit included) this was presented as a bad thing; as a debasing and abusing of language. There are, however, many situations where the use of dysphemism and euphemism are appropriate. For example, when talking to someone who has just lost a loved one it seems perfectly appropriate to use a euphemism for 'death' such as 'passed away' or 'lost.' In fact, it would be rude and extremely insensitive to do otherwise. Language is a powerful and subtle tool (arguably the most powerful humans have ever created), and it can be used for much more than the simple transmission of information. It is also the primary vehicle through which we relate to and interact with one another. Just as it can be used to wound and hurt others, it can also be used to heal and uplift. As La Fontaine wrote in his Life of Aesop, language is the best and worst there is.

What I am trying to get at here is that as critical thinkers we should think deeply and sensitively about language, and we should use language to expose lies and deception where that is appropriate, but we should also use it to heal and mitigate pain where that is appropriate as well. The context here is extremely important, and as good critical thinkers we should be as sensitive to that as we are to the words themselves.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Either you're with or or against us

A False Dilemma (sometimes called a false dichotomy) is a fallacy in which one artificially restricts the options available to one's rhetorical opponents. That is, one suggests that there are only two options when in fact there are a wide spectrum of potential choices available. The following video clip provides a nice montage of former president George W. Bush employing one of his favorite rhetorical fallacies, the False Dilemma:

These clips come, of course, from the period after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and were a core component of Bush's anti-terrorism rhetoric. This strategy was first laid out in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2011 (Bush made a similar false dilemma in this address which can be found on page 5). That this is a false dilemma should be obvious. One can certainly be opposed to terrorism and yet disagree with the how the US responds to it. For Bush to suggest that there are only two possible options is as clear an example of the false dilemma as one is likely to find.

As in the clips above, it is very common to combine a False Dilemma with a straw man. In setting up a false dilemma one makes one of the horns of that dilemma a straw man, thus pushing people to adopt the alternative horn. This is what we see in the above example. Bush is suggesting that if you do not support the US 100% then you are a hater of freedom and a terrorist. This again provides more rhetorical force for Bush's preferred option which is uncritical support for the US and its anti-terrorism policies.

Just to pile on a bit more, it is also worth mentioning that the US commitment to global freedom is fairly questionable as this piece from Glenn Greenwald highlights.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Ad Hominem

An Ad Hominem is a fallacy in which one tries to win an argument by attacking the character of one's opponent. There are many sub-varieties of Ad Hominem depending on the nature of the personal attack. In a recent back and forth between Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi and Felix Salmon from Reuters concerning a proposal to privatize street parking in New York City, we can see a nice example of an Abusive Ad Hominem, which is a direct attack on the character of one's opponent.

In Taibbi's initial piece he objects to the idea of politicians leasing a public asset for decades into the future in order to secure a short-term revenue gain today. As Taibbi puts it,
These deals involve a sitting executive selling off a valuable piece of city property at a steep discount to private financial interests (often, to friends or campaign contributors), in order to solve a current cash flow problem that, surprise, surprise, will still be there the year after you finish spending the proceeds of your sale.
Salmon then responds by misrepresenting Taibbi's position as being a concern about rising parking rates (an example of both the straw man and red herring),
Which brings me to Matt Taibbi’s latest tirade, complaining about the idea that New York could raise as much as $11 billion by selling off its parking-meter rights. Anybody who wins this contract will have a contractual obligation to implement smart variable-pricing technologies, which will have to include apps showing where the spots are, the ability to pay by phone, and other ways of making everybody’s life easier. How is this not a good thing? Well, Taibbi’s upset that prices will rise:
Meter rates in some New York neighborhoods are already at $5 an hour. A Chicago-style price hike for fat-cat investors might leave us paying thirty bucks an hour to oil barons in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in order to park for dinner in the West Village.
Though I suggests that Salmon is committing a fallacy in this misrepresentation, it may also be the case that Salmon is simply guilty of not employing the principle of charity and giving the strongest possible interpretation of Taibbi's article. Alternatively, he may just not be reading carefully. In any case Salmon concludes his response by committing an abusive Ad Hominem,
But even if Matt were somehow deserving of such a subsidy, which he isn’t, it’s a false economy: it might feel good to be able park for cheap, but it feels much worse to be stuck in traffic all the time. And the overwhelming majority of West Village diners manage to find a way of eating there which doesn’t involve a parking spot. Why should they subsidize Matt’s parasitical suburban lifestyle?  [emphasis mine]
 Aside from the misrepresentation of Taibbi's position, the Ad Hominem should be clear. Why does it matter where Taibbi lives? If he has a good argument, the location of his home or the kind of life he chooses to live is completely irrelevant to the points he makes. For Salmon to raise this issue and go even further by calling Taibbi a parasite is a classic example of the Ad Hominem. It is also worth noting how Salmon switches from using Matt Taibbi's last name when he is discussing the argument to using his first name when he levels the Ad Hominem. The use of an opponent's first name is a subtle though effective attempt to infantilize one's opponent in an attempt to make their arguments look child-like and immature, further strengthening the general tone of the Ad Hominem attack.

As a final note, Taibbi responds to Salmon here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Piling on the Santorum

I must admit, I do enjoy writing about former Pennsylvania Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He seems so obsessed with the sex lives of other people and he is a great source of logical fallacies and terrible arguments. Witness the following video:

(the link to the vid)

The fallacy I want to focus on in this video is False Analogy. Before getting to the fallacy, I should quickly say that an analogy is a comparison between two things, one well-understood, one less so. The point of an analogy is to aid in comprehension of the less well known thing by comparing it to something that is more familiar or understandable. In practice analogies can often be tricky because  there can often be as many similarities as dissimilarities between the terms of the comparison. Nevertheless, there are clear instances when a fallacy goes awry, and this is the False Analogy: an analogy in which the comparison isn't really apt or appropriate.

In the clip above Santorum makes the following analogy: calling a same sex-union marriage is equivalent to calling a napkin a paper towel in that a napkin has certain metaphysical or ontological properties that make the label 'paper towel' incorrect in the same way that marriage has certain metaphysical or ontological properties that make allowing same-sex couples or polygamous/polyandrous groupings incorrect (I think I reconstructed that accurately, Santorum is not the clearest speaker in the world, and he seems to be speaking extemporaneously in the video).

Putting aside Santorum's shaky grasp of metaphysics, it should be pretty clear why this is a bad analogy. In particular, the case of a physical object and a societal contract are very different. Despite Santorum's claim that marriage predates civilization, it should be obvious to any clear-thinking person that marriage (particularly the kind that is sanctioned by the state, which is what these debates are about) is ultimately a contract, and contracts don't exist without a society and some sort of legal or cultural framework for the enforcement of those contracts. In addition, societies set rules regarding what kinds of contracts are and aren't legitimate as well as who is allowed to enter into a contract. In the US, for example, one can't enforce a contract that sells one person into slavery. Even if one were to draw up a piece of paper with legal sounding language spelling out the terms of the arrangement and both parties signed and were notarized, this contract would be considered null and void because one isn't allowed to make that kind of contract in the US. Similarly, in many states one can't enforce a marriage contract between members of the same-sex. In either case, there is no ontological or metaphysical component to these contracts, they are merely conventions adopted by particular societies, and as with any social convention society can decide to change or modify it. Prior to the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virgina in 1967 it was illegal in many states for a black person to marry a white person of the opposite sex. In that decision the Supreme Court redefined the legal conventions around marriage making such unions legitimate. Again, marriage is nothing more than what states or societies define it to be. It is this important difference between social conventions and physical objects that renders Santorum's argument a False Analogy.

Same-Sex Marriage, Bestialty and Slippery Slopes

A Slippery Slope is a fallacy in which one argues that change in one direction will inevitable lead to further disastrous change in the same direction. The idea here being that if we start down some slope of change we will inevitable find ourselves sliding all the way to the bottom. One of the more common versions of the slippery slope that one finds in contemporary American politics (though less and less as views change and evolve) is the claim that legalizing marriage between two men or two women will inevitably lead to the legalization of marriage between a man and an animal or between an adult and a child. For example, in 2008 then presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said:
Marriage has historically, as long as there’s been human history, meant a man and a woman in a relationship for life. Once we change that definition, then where does it go from there?
Well, I don’t think that’s a radical view to say we’re going to affirm marriage. I think the radical view is to say that we’re going to change the definition of marriage so that it can mean two men, two women, a man and three women, a man and a child, a man and animal. Again, once we change the definition, the door is open to change it again. I think the radical position is to make a change in what’s been historic.
This is a pretty clear example of the slippery slope argument. Just because we modify the definition of marriage to include two men or two women does not imply that we will then necessarily broaden the definition to include pedophilia or bestiality or polygamy (though, I should note the argument for polygamy is much more reasonable than for the other two). In fact, if one thinks a little bit about what marriage actually is, it will become clear that these two sorts of relationships would be impossible to legalize. In particular, it must be noted that marriage is primarily a contractual relationship. This means that in order for such a relationship to occur both parties must be able to enter into a contract. And this is simply not possible for an animal or a child.

In addition, the first part of this passage is a good example of the Ad Populum or Appeal to Tradition in that Huckabee is arguing that because marriage between a man and a woman is traditional it would be wrong to change it. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sex Ed and Straw Men

During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, the Republican nominee John McCain released the following ad:

This is a great example of a Straw Man. A Straw Man is a fallacy in which one attempts to win an argument or debate by intentionally misrepresenting the position of one's opponent. This misrepresentation generally takes the form of assuming that the opponent adopts the most extreme version of a view possible. The idea here is that it is much easier to knock down a straw man than a real person, so one creates a false version of an opponent's position; a version that is much easier to knock down. This is a fallacy of course because, when one commits a Straw Man, one is no longer arguing with a real person, but with a false construct one has created in one's own mind.

In the clip above, the McCain campaign is suggesting that Barack Obama supported a bill to teach kindergartners about sex, something that, on the face of it, sounds wildly inappropriate. It makes it sound like Obama was supporting something along these lines (NSFW). However, if we look a little more closely at what the bill Obama supported actually did we can see that the above campaign ad seriously distorts Obama's position. And this, of course is exactly what one does when one Straw Mans.

As a final note, I want to stress the importance of employing the principle of charity when engaging in debate or discussing someone's views. That is, when reconstructing someone's position or argument you should always give the most charitable interpretation of that position possible. In this way, Straw Men are avoided, and genuine debate and discussion can occur.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The family I can understand, but the dog?

This should make for an interesting article:

Amphiboly or Amphibology is another one of the errors first identified by Aristotle in his Sophistical Refutations.  This is an error in which the grammatical structure of a sentence allows for multiple interpretations. In the example above, the headline writers clearly intend to say that Rachael Ray finds inspiration in three different things: cooking, her family, and her dog. However, as the headline is written it appears that the source of Ms. Ray's inspiration is cooking her family and dog!

Newspaper and magazine headlines are often an excellent source for examples of this error in that these writers are attempting to cram a great deal of information in a great deal of space, and this often leads to ambiguous grammatical constructions.

Another common mistake in newspaper headlines is Equivocation in which one uses a word that has multiple denotations and it isn't clear which denotation is meant. Sometimes, as in the example above these are clearly accidents, but in other cases one suspects that the headline writer is intentionally deploying this kind of ambiguity in order to draw the readers attention. I hope that is what was going on here:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Some Further Thoughts on Composition and Division

I wanted to make a few additional comments about the Fallacies of Composition and Division. In particular, there are some challenges that arise in correctly applying these two fallacies. As I noted previously, it is clearly an example of Composition if one argues that, "Each piece of this machine is  inexpensive, therefore the whole machine is inexpensive." This is clearly fallacious because the quality of 'inexpensive' does not clearly transfer from parts to whole. But what about this very similar argument, "Each piece of this machine is very expensive, therefore the whole machine is expensive"? Here it does appear that 'expensive' is a quality that would transfer from parts to wholes. If we go in reverse, "The whole machine is expensive, therefore each part is expensive," we have a clear example of the Fallacy of Division. However, "The whole machine is inexpensive, therefore each part is inexpensive," does appear to be a legitimate inference.

So, what is going on here? The simple answer is that words are tricky. A more complex answer is that there are some kinds of attributes that do transfer from parts to wholes but not vice versa, and some kinds of attributes that transfer from whole to parts, but not vice versa.  The key take away from all this is that one must exercise care in applying and labeling fallacies. In the case of these informal fallacies, one can't just identify a certain argumentative form and automatically identify any argument that has that form as fallacious. One can't just say, "you made an inference from parts to wholes, therefore your argument is fallacious." Instead, one must look more deeply into the actual content of the argument and explore what exactly is being asserted before one can identify it as a fallacy. In effect, one must be sensitive to the language used, what that language means, and how it functions in a particular context.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Corporations, Persons and Division

Following up on yesterday's post, I want to look at the converse of the Fallacy of Composition, the Fallacy of Division. Like Composition, this fallacy was identified by Aristotle in his Sophistical Refutations. In this fallacy, one begins with a claim about the whole, and then draws a conclusion about the parts (essentially dividing the whole into its parts). A classic example would be, "This car is heavy. Therefore, every part of the car is heavy." The fallacious reasoning here should be obvious.

Turning then the the Ilya Shapiro article I discussed in connection with Composition, we see Shapiro commit the Fallacy of Division later in the article when he writes:
Similarly, when you tax corporations, you’re taxing the people who ultimately profit from corporate activity: officers, directors, and, most directly, shareholders.  Of course, all these people also pay individual income taxes so, in effect, that income is being taxed twice.   I’ll leave it to my colleague Dan Mitchell to explain why that might be bad and how otherwise to reform our tax code, but the fact of the matter is that raising corporate taxes does in fact constitute raising taxes on people — which you have to be against if you want to become the Republican presidential nominee.
Leaving aside the political calculation and benefits behind making such an assertion, we can see clearly here how Shapiro moves from a claim about the whole corporation to a claim about the individuals that make up that corporation. In effect he argues that because corporations are made up of people, when one taxes a corporation one taxes the individuals who make up that corporation. Again the fallacious reasoning here should be obvious. In particular, it is easy to imagine a situation where the government taxes a corporation, that corporation is unable to pay its taxes so the corporation declares bankruptcy in order to avoid paying or to restructure its tax burden. When this happens, the individuals who make up the corporation do not also declare bankruptcy, and the tax burden of the corporation does not transfer to those individuals. Thus, the claim that taxing corporations amounts to taxing the individuals who make up the corporation is not only factually false, but also an example of the Fallacy of Division.

More generally, it is often the case that as with the article discussed above one finds Composition and Division together. Essentially, both are the result of mereological errors. Very quickly, mereology is the study of the relations between parts and whole. As we have seen above, both Composition and Division arise from a confused or mistaken understanding of this relationship.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Corporations, Persons and Composition

For this post I plan to move away from the video clips of prior posts and focus on a particular line of argumentation that one finds whenever questions of political campaigns and money come into play. This current election cycle (2012) looks to be the first billion dollar election in US history with each campaign (Obama and Romney) likely to spend over $1 billion in an attempt to become or remain president of the USA. This issue is closely tied to a recent Supreme Court Decision, generally referred to as Citizens United. At stake in this case (among other things) was what rights (particularly free speech rights) corporations have. I don't want to get into the details of the case, but instead focus on some of the comments and justifications of the Supreme Court's decision.

On major line of justification that one can find, for example at the Libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute, suggests that corporations should have rights because they are made up of people with rights. As Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute puts it, "corporations don’t have constitutional rights because they’re corporations, but because they’re made up of individuals, who don’t lose their rights when they associate (in corporate form or otherwise)." The line of thinking appears to be that because individuals have rights, and because a corporation is just a collection of individuals, that collection should possess rights possessed by the individuals who make up that collection. This is, in fact, a nice illustration of the Fallacy of Composition.

The Fallacy of Composition is one of the oldest fallacies known, having been identified by Aristotle in his Sophistical Refutations (I don't suggest reading this text for help understanding these fallacies unless you are fluent in ancient Greek. As the translator notes, verbal fallacies, like puns, don't translate well). In this fallacy, one draws a conclusion about a whole based on attributes of the parts. The key here is that one starts with a claim about parts, and then draws a conclusion about the whole. A classic example would be, "Each part of this machine is inexpensive, therefore the whole machine is inexpensive." The fallacious reasoning here should be clear in that one could have a machine made up of one million parts, each of which costs $1, which, when put together would obviously cost more than $1 Million.  The same fallacy also occurs in the context of groups such as when one draws a conclusion about a group based on the attributes of the members of that group. For example, "Every ship in the fleet is ready for battle, therefore the whole fleet is ready for battle." 

Returning to the example from Shapiro above, we can see the same sort of fallacious reasoning at work. When he argues that corporations should have free speech rights because the members of that corporation have free speech rights he is committing the fallacy of composition by starting with a claim about the members of a group (the corporation) and then inferring a conclusion about the whole group. Again, the fact that the individuals in the group have a certain right to free speech does not imply that the group as a whole should have the same right.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Red Herrings and Lipstick on Pigs

A Red Herring is a fallacy in which one tries to introduce an unrelated topic into a discussion in order to derail the conversation or distract from the original issue. A very nice example of this fallacy comes from this September 9 ad for John McCain's 2008 US Presidential campaign:

John McCain Lipstick on Pig Ad re: Gov... by RevSpitz

In order to recognize this as a red herring, we need to unpack some of the details and context of this ad. As Politifact notes, the initial clip comes from then Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. The second clip comes from an Obama campaign speech delivered a few weeks later. If one looks at the full context of the quotation from Obama, one finds that the McCain ad deliberately pulls the quote from its original context (an example of eduction). What Obama actually said was:
John McCain says he's about change, too. And so I guess his whole angle is, 'Watch out, George Bush! Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics, we're really going to shake things up in Washington.' That's not change. That's just calling something the same thing something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.
Seeing the comment in context, it is clear that Obama is not talking about Sarah Palin, but is instead talking about McCain's presidential platform (I leave aside the question of whether the criticism is accurate as it is not relevant to my larger point).

Now the McCain campaign clearly understood that Obama was not making a sexist comment directed at Sarah Palin yet they nevertheless produced and aired a national ad claiming exactly that. Why? The reason is clear and relates directly to the subject matter of this post. They were trying to change the political conversation away from discussions of the relevant party platforms of the two candidates to a political conversation that put the Obama campaign on the defensive. Though the McCain campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, this particular ad did succeed in its goal of distracting the media and derailing the political conversation. All one needs to do is a quick Google search on "McCain Lipstick on Pig ad" and you will find many media sources from that period treating the ad as raising a legitimate question. And this, of course, is exactly what one tries to do when one deploys a Red Herring.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Scare Tactics

For this post I want to talk about an interesting article I came across a few years back with the following headline:
Feds release chilling footage of damage Faisal Shahzad could have done if Times Square bomb worked [emphasis mine]
This is an excellent example of the Appeal to Emotion, specifically Scare Tactics. As the name suggests, an Appeal to Emotion is a fallacy in which one tries to convince people to endorse some claim by stirring up the emotions of her audience rather than provide a reasoned justification. There are lots of different kinds of Appeal to Emotion, depending on what emotion is being appealed to. One of the most effective versions of the Appeal to Emotion is Scare Tactics in which the emotion appealed to is fear. As anyone who has been paying attention to post 9-11 US politics will know, Scare Tactics are one of the favored methods politicians use to win elections and gain support for the policies they pursue. This headline and the article that accompanies it are a good example of how central scare tactics are to US policy. As the article notes, a major component of the prosecutions argument for life imprisonment is a video purporting to show what could have happened if Shahzad had succeeded. Shahzad did not succeed, and the article even suggests that Shahzad was incompetent. However, fears about what could have happened were stoked by the prosecution and then amplified by the media in articles such as this one. The point of all this should be obvious: keep the American populace in a state of fear and terror so that they will continue to support politicians, their policies, and the growing police surveillance state.

Whenever I think about this issue, I often think of the following clip from Family Guy. It is always surprising to me when real life is just as absurd as a cartoon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Family Guy and the Post Hoc Fallacy

For this post, I want to discuss and provide an example of the Post Hoc Fallacy (full name: Post hoc ergo propter hoc; after this, therefore because of this). The Post Hoc fallacy is a type of False Cause fallacy, and a False Cause is a fallacy in which some kind of correlation is mistaken for a causal relation. In the case of the Post Hoc, the fallacy lies in the assumption that because one event follows another the first event must have caused the second. This fallacy is clearly illustrated in the following clip:

The Post Hoc fallacy here lies in the assumption that because contracting herpes came after buying the car from a newspaper ad the two events must, therefore, be causally connected. The fallaciousness of the Post Hoc Fallacy is revealed by the extreme temporal distance between the two events.

A similar example of the fallacy can be found in the Simpson's episode "Much Apu About Nothing." Unfortunately, video clips of this scene are unavailable, so I will refer you to this discussion of it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bill O'Reilly Demonstrates his (Argument from) Ignorance

For this post, I wanted to take a look at this great video of Bill O'Reilly discussing some issues in astronomy:

Though O'Reilly commits a number of fallacies in this short video, I wanted to focus specifically on the Argument from Ignorance that the video commits. An Argument from Ignorance is an informal fallacy in which one argues that something must be false because it hasn't been proven true or that something must be true because it hasn't been proven false. In the clip above O'Reilly argues that because he doesn't understand how the sun, moon and stars came into existence it must have been God.

Now technically speaking, this is actually an example of a sub-version of the Argument from Ignorance: the Argument from Personal Incredulity. This is a fallacy in which an individual's lack of understanding or inability to comprehend some feature or explanation of the universe is provided as evidence for an alternative account. In effect, O'Reilly is arguing that because he personally doesn't understand astronomy and the astronomical account of the origin of the solar system, that account must be false. That this is a fallacy should be obvious in that one's lack of understanding is only ever evidence for one's lack of understanding.

The major difference between these two is that the Argument from Ignorance relies on some global lack of understanding while the Argument from Personal Incredulity relies more on the ignorance or lack of understanding of a particular individual. The Argument from Ignorance goes, "We (society or science as a whole) don't understand X, therefore X must be false," while the Argument from Personal Incredulity goes, "I don't understand X, therefore X must be false."

In addition to this obvious Argument from Ignorance, there are a number of other fallacies committed here, but I leave that discussion for the comments.

One final note, Mars has two moons.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Euphemisms and Dysphemisms

Euphemisms and dysphemism are two related deceptive features of language in which one changes the impact of what one says through word choice. In the case of a euphemism, one substitutes a word that has positive emotional associations for a word that has negative or neutral emotional associations ('ethnic cleansing' for 'genocide'). A dysphemism is just the opposite; substituting  a word with negative emotional associations for a word with positive or neutral associations ('partial-birth abortion' for 'intact dilation and extraction'). Perhaps the best discussion of this topic can be found in the following video segment from the late, great George Carlin:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Definitions Matter

For my first post I wanted to talk about definitions. This is spurred by a recent New York Times article discussing the Obama administration's definition of the word 'combatant.' Before I discuss the specific issues raised in the article, I just wanted to remind people how important definitions can be. In philosophy, as in many domains of human inquiry, many debates are often, ultimately, debates about what a word means or how it should properly be used, i.e debates about definitions. In many cases, being clear about definitions often resolves disputes once the disputants realize that they were arguing about different things or that they actually agree once the terms are properly defined.

We can see evidence of this point in the NYTimes article mentioned above. Of particular interest is the administration's definition of the term 'combatant.' According to the article:
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
What this means is that the US government uses a very broad definition of the term, such that almost anyone who ends up being killed can be described as a combatant. This serves as a very important rhetorical device because it then allows the government to claim a higher rate of success for aerial strikes. In fact, it even allows the Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to claim, “there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop.” This is because of the definitions adopted by the Obama administration. It is only by employing such a broad definition of 'combatant' that the government can then claim that there are no civilian casualties. If the government were to employ a definition that more closely matches what we tend to mean when we use the term 'combatant' then they would be forced to acknowledge the significant civilian casualties caused by our aerial bombardment of the Middle East.

As Glenn Greenwald then goes on to note (here and here), the media in the US uncritically accept the government's definitions, leading to distortions in reporting and a further propagandizing of the American people.

This last point ties in to some important issues with media, particularly the propaganda model of the media developed by Chomsky and Herman.  In particular, this is a nice illustration of the jingoistic biases of the American media as well as the dangers of the media relying only on government sources for reporting on the activities of the government.