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March 31st, 2017 (Permalink)

Book Club: Winning Arguments, Chapter 1:
Living in a World of Argument

After the short introduction1, this is a long chapter. So, in order to keep my own comments as brief as possible, I'm going to concentrate on a story that Fish tells. I suspect that those who pick up the book primarily because of its title may be starting to get impatient by this point, but there are five chapters to go. Fish says almost nothing about "winning" arguments here, but he does tell a little story about "losing" one:

My six-year-old daughter, her mother, and I were sitting eating dinner. Conversation was difficult because my daughter was "interacting"…with our two dachshunds, who were under the table. I said to her…, "Susan, don't play with the dachshunds." She showed me her hands…and said, "I'm not playing with the dachshunds." I regrouped and tried again: "Susan, don't kick the dachshunds." She pointed to…her feet and said, "I'm not kicking the dachshunds." Determined to come up with a formulation so general and inclusive that it would leave no room for further argument, I said in a tone of (premature) triumph, "Susan, don't do anything with the dachshunds." …[S]he replied, "You mean I don't have to feed them anymore?"…

Two things were immediately clear. (1) This could have gone on forever: she would have been able to recontextualize any supposedly hard-and-fast statement I came up with in a way that altered its meaning and evaded its intended force. (2) My attempt to assert the authority of a father with the help of my adult rhetorical skills was a dismal flop. I am ashamed to say that I brought the matter to a close by slapping her…. I was showing myself to be both a bad father and a hapless debater.2

Why does Fish tell this story? He admits that it makes him look like a "bad father", but perhaps by confessing his own failure in argumentation he hopes that his adult readers will forgive him, since most will have experienced similar failures with young children. Kids pick up many argumentative tricks at a young age, and delight in using them to discomfit adults.

To me, this story shows the limits of dialectical argumentation3. I don't think that it shows Fish to be a "hapless debater", since no one can "win" the game that he ended up playing with his daughter. While I don't think that he should have slapped her, he was bound to "lose" the argument, since his daughter was clearly determined not to be persuaded. At such a point, an adult dealing with an uncooperative child has no choice but to abandon the effort as hopeless. Fish did so by resorting to an ad baculum which, as I explain elsewhere4, is really an abandonment of argument in favor of violence or threats of violence.

The moral of the story is an important one: you can't convince people who, for whatever reason, refuse to be convinced. Argumentation is a cooperative endeavor, and it's impossible to succeed when one side won't cooperate. This is what can make arguing with children so frustrating, since the child simply isn't interested in playing the same game that the adult is trying to play. Instead, they are often playing the "make the adult mad" game, which Susan clearly won.

Cooperation, of course, is a two-way street, which means that you cannot enter into argument determined to "win" at all costs. As with any game, to play you have to be willing to risk "losing". In argumentation, this means that you must be prepared to change your mind if the other side presents the superior argument. If, for whatever reason, you are unwilling to change your mind, then you are like six-year-old Susan. There's no way to force you to "lose" the argument, but that's because you're refusing to play by the rules.

It's not just children who sometimes refuse to cooperate. Fanatics of one sort or another, whether religious or political, are often unwilling to have their minds changed. There is no arguing with such persons. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like to believe that all disagreements can be settled through argumentation rather than force. Theoretically, they can, but only if both sides are willing to enter into argumentation in good faith, that is, with open minds. We not only live in a world of argument, but also in a world of other people and, unfortunately, some of them are unwilling to change their minds.


  1. See previous Book Clubs, Winning Arguments: Introduction (1/21/2017) & Introduction, Part Deux (2/2/2017).
  2. Pp. 9-10.
  3. That is, the kind of argumentation that takes place between two or more people, as opposed to the kind dealt with in logic texts.
  4. Ad Baculum.

Next Month: Chapter 2: Political Arguments

March 24th, 2017 (Permalink)

Wrong, Again

Last month, we learned that expertise is dead1, now we hear how it died: it was suicide!2 More accurately, it's the "experts" who have committed suicide, according to Glenn Harlan "Instapundit" Reynolds, and "expertise" that has died, that is, it's the "experts" and "expertise"―in scare quotes―that have perished. Good riddance!

There are experts, and then there are "experts". It would be good news if "expertise"―that is, the pretense at knowledge where there is none―died. However, the problem is not that expertise, or even "expertise", has died; both are alive and thriving. The problem is that people have difficulty telling the one from the other.

Reynolds is alluding to our New Book from last month, The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols; or, more precisely, to an excerpt from that book.3 The excerpt is useful because Nichols tells us there what the book's title means:

By the death of expertise, I do not mean the death of actual expert abilities, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors and lawyers and engineers and other specialists. And most sane people go straight to them if they break a bone or get arrested or need to build a bridge.3

Well, that's a relief; but that's what he does not mean. What does he mean?

…[I]ncreasingly, citizens…want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up here or there along the way. This is a very bad thing.3

So, Nichols seems to be worried mostly about the phenomenon of "instant expertise", that is, the notion that a layperson can become an expert by means of a few minutes spent at "the University of Google" or Wikipedia. I, too, worry about this "Jenny McCarthy Effect", but what can be done about it?

Reynolds, in contrast, seems to think that the "experts" have brought this sort of thing on themselves:

In the realm of foreign affairs, …recent history has been particularly dreadful. Experts failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, …and then failed to deal with the rise of Islamic terrorism that led to the 9/11 attacks. Post 9/11, experts botched the reconstruction of Iraq, then botched it again with a premature pullout. On Syria, experts in Barack Obamaís administration produced a policy that led to countless deaths, millions of refugees flooding Europe, a new haven for Islamic terrorists, and the upending of established power relations in the mideast. In Libya, the experts urged a war, …only to see―again―countless deaths, huge numbers of refugees and another haven for Islamist terror.2

Contra Reynolds, I take this as evidence that there is no expertise on predicting the future, especially about such social and political events as "the fall of the Soviet Union" or "the rise of Islamic terrorism". To the extent to which foreign policy experts claim expertise in predicting such events in advance, to that extent they are pseudo-experts. It is not wrong to ignore the advice of people who don't know what they're talking about.

No doubt foreign affairs specialists, such as Nichols, know a lot more about a lot of things than do most of the rest of us, such as where the Ukraine is on a map4. About those things they are experts, but that doesn't make them prophets.5

All of this gives me a feeling of deja vu, for good reason: About seven years ago, we did a Book Club on David Freedman's book Wrong6, subtitled: "Why Experts Keep Failing Us…". So, apparently the experts have been dying off for at least seven years now, which may let Trump off the hook for having killed them.

However, as it turned out, the so-called experts who were "wrong" and kept failing us, according to Freedman, were the pseudo-experts who appear on television and are quoted by journalists in their articles. I don't find it a great revelation that such "experts" are wrong; in fact, it's exactly why they're not real experts. They don't know what they're talking about, and it's no mistake to ignore their advice.

The danger here comes from failing to separate the real experts from the pseudo-experts. If the prominent failures of the bogus experts lead people to reject all expert advice, then they're in for trouble.

I agree with Reynolds, to some extent at least, that the experts have brought some of this on themselves. How have they done this? By over-reaching―by exceeding the limits of their expertise, especially by getting political5―and by not being candid about those limits. They too often exaggerate the probability of their judgments being correct, and play down uncertainty. Nichols is certainly aware of this:

Experts can go wrong…when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. This is less a failure of expertise than a sort of minor fraud―somebody claiming the general mantle of authority even though he or she is not a real expert in the specific area under discussion―and it is frequent and pernicious and can undermine the credibility of an entire field.3

Nichols also addresses a question that I raised previously1, namely, what are his credentials for writing a book on expertise?

I recognize that I myself risk that transgression [i.e., the transgression mentioned in the previous quote]. But my observations and conclusions are informed not only by my experience of being an expert in my own area but also by the work of scholars who study the role of expertise in society and by discussions I have had with many other experts in a variety of fields.3

Reynolds has some good advice for the experts in his penultimate paragraph:

If experts want to reclaim a position of authority, they need to make a few changes. First, they should make sure they know what theyíre talking about, and they shouldnít talk about things where their knowledge isnít solid. Second, they should be appropriately modest in their claims of authority. And, third, they should check their egos. …[V]oters are under no obligation to listen to you unless they find what you say persuasive.2

Sources & Resources:

  1. New Book: The Death of Expertise, 2/28/2017.
  2. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, "The suicide of expertise", USA Today, 3/20/2017.
  3. Tom Nichols, "How America Lost Faith in Expertise", Foreign Affairs, March-April 2017.
  4. Nichols' example.
  5. See Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment (2005), or for a brief take: Louis Menand, "Everybody's an Expert", The New Yorker, 12/5/2005. The book seems to show that its title is an oxymoron.
  6. Book Club: Wrong, Introduction, 9/16/2010.

March 18th, 2017 (Permalink)

For Want of a Comma a Lawsuit was Lost

Note: This is a guest post from occasional Fallacy Files contributor Lawrence Mayes:

A court was asked to decide the meaning of a piece of Maine's employment legislation which determined which activities are liable to attract overtime pay. The legislation had been poorly drafted and there was ambiguity about its exact meaning, that is, whether a group of delivery drivers employed by a dairy were entitled to the extra pay or not.

The state's law says the following activities do not count for overtime pay: "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1. Agricultural produce; 2. Meat and fish products; and 3. Perishable foods."

The question to be answered boils down to: how many activities are listed in the first phrase (eight or nine)? And is "distribution" (what the drivers do) one of them?

Strangely, the drafter of the law chose to use a run-on list for the activities but a numbered list for the commodities. Had he used the numbered list instead of the first phrase then things would have been much clearer. So to get started, let's list the activities using two lists such that the two possible meanings are unambiguously clear:

List 1 List 2
  1. canning
  2. processing
  3. preserving
  4. freezing
  5. drying
  6. marketing
  7. storing
  8. packing for shipment or distribution of
  1. canning
  2. processing
  3. preserving
  4. freezing
  5. drying
  6. marketing
  7. storing
  8. packing for shipment
  9. distribution of

The drivers claimed that the meaning intended by the legislation was that implied by the first list and that therefore their activity of distribution did attract the overtime payments.

I would support the drivers; part of my argument would be that the meaning of the words "shipment" and "distribution" are so close in this context as to be inseparable and it could be argued that the drafter chose them for that very reason to cover all bases―they were intended to be used together to describe a single activity.

The moral of this tale (if there is one) has nothing to do with the rules of grammar (so called) but more to do with ensuring clarity in anything we write and the avoidance of ambiguity. Should we write something that's unclear then no amount of simply messing around with punctuation is likely to put it right. If the law drafter had used the simple list, as above, or just reordered the activities (i.e. "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, distribution or packing for shipment") then the lawyers would be poorer and the diary drivers richer (though probably not correspondingly so).


Fallacy: Amphiboly

March 15th, 2017 (Permalink)


The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by oneís willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge oneís beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

Thatís why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree…. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider―and not merely to tolerate grudgingly―points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. Whatís more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen oneís understanding of the truth and sharpen oneís ability to defend it.

None of us is infallible. … This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. …[S]omeone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations―evidence, reasons, arguments―led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

All of us should be willing―even eager―to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engageóespecially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held…beliefs. …

Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.

Source: Robert P. George & Cornel West, "Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression", Princeton University, 3/14/2017

March 12th, 2017 (Permalink)

A Straw Ban

Some recent headlines:

Why Trump's travel ban is still a Muslim ban

Donít Be Fooled, Trumpís New Muslim Ban Is Still Illegal

Did President Trump sign an executive order (EO) banning Muslims from traveling to the United States? Well, no, but with headlines such as the ones above, you could be forgiven for thinking he did.

What does the EO do?1 It orders a 90-day moratorium on immigration to the U. S. from six majority Muslim nations. It does not ban Muslims from other majority Muslim countries from entering the U. S., nor does it ban Muslims from non-majority Muslim countries, nor does it allow non-Muslims to enter from the six banned nations. So, it's not a "muslim ban" in any normal sense of the English words.

The above headlines are both from articles arguing against the EO in the opinion pages of publications, as editors seem to be carefully avoiding the phrase in the headlines of news articles, as well they should. "Muslim ban" is a straw man argument2 wrapped up in two words, smuggling in the―at least―controversial claim that the EO represents a ban on Muslims entering the U. S.

Those advocates using the phrase are attempting to take advantage of widespread ignorance about what the EO actually does. Given the first amendment to the constitution, a ban on members of a specific religion would run contrary to a strong and long-held American tradition against religious discrimination. So, if the authors of the opinion pieces under the above headlines can just convince their readers that it really is a ban on Muslims, they will gain support for their opposition. After all, how many people will actually read the EO for themselves?3

I am not here defending the EO. There are other, better reasons to oppose it than the bogus claim that it bans Muslims4, but I'm not opposing it, either. I'm taking no position on whether it's a good idea or not. Rather, I'm pointing out that calling it a "Muslim ban" is misleading rhetoric intended to set up a straw man only to then knock it down.


  1. Laura Jarrett, "What Trump's travel ban does, and how it's changed", CNN, 3/7/2017
  2. Straw Man
  3. "Full Text: Trump's New Executive Order On Travel, Annotated", NPR, 3/6/2017
  4. Andrew Sutitollup, "Calling Donald Trumpís Travel Freeze a 'Muslim Ban' Is a Very Bad Idea", Medium, 2/2/2017. An interesting article arguing against the first, now-revoked executive order, without claiming it was a "Muslim ban"―indeed, arguing against doing so. Many of the reasons given for opposing the first EO apply equally to the second.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Phil Fassieux for bringing this issue to my attention. Of course, any opinions expressed above may not necessarily reflect Phil's views. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. No animals were harmed during the making of this post.

March 7th, 2017 (Permalink)

Using Venn Diagrams to Solve Puzzles, Part 2

In Part 11, you saw how to solve puzzles involving two classes using two-circle Venn diagrams. Also, in the last logic lesson you learned how to add a third circle to the Venn diagram2. Put these two things together and you should now be able to solve puzzles with three classes. The technique for solving such a puzzle is the same, so if you learned how to solve the two-class puzzles you should be able to solve the three-class ones without further ado. However, the three-class puzzles are more complicated and, thus, a little harder than the two-circle ones, but that's good! Here's one to try on for size:

Unlike some other ice cream shops, Harlequin's has only three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. A recent statistical study revealed the following facts about Harlequin's ice cream cone business:

  1. 94% of Harlequin's customers bought at least one ice cream cone.
  2. The percentage of customers who purchased just vanilla ice cream was two percentage points greater than the percentage who bought both chocolate and strawberry but no vanilla.
  3. Only 4% of the shop's customers purchased a triple-dip cone with all three types of ice cream.
  4. 33% of customers bought at least one scoop of strawberry ice cream, but only 6% bought no other flavor.
  5. The percentage of customers who bought both chocolate and strawberry (and possibly vanilla as well) was one percentage point greater than the percentage of those who purchased just strawberry.
  6. 57% of customers did not purchase a scoop of vanilla.

What percentage of Harlequin's customers bought both chocolate and vanilla but no strawberry ice cream?

Previous Puzzles: If you're interested in working additional puzzles that can be solved using this technique, see the following:

  1. A Bookshop Puzzle Contest, 5/29/2014
  2. A Puzzle in Wonderland Forest, 6/30/2014
  3. A Prize Puzzle for a Rainy Day, 7/26/2014


  1. Using Venn Diagrams to Solve Puzzles, 1/18/2017
  2. Lesson in Logic 16: The Third Circle, 2/16/2017

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