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Wednesday, April 30, 2003 ( 2:09 AM ) (Permalink)

Check It Out

Jared Diamond has an interesting lecture on ways in which social decision-making can go disastrously wrong, including problems with analogies:

"The remaining reason why a society may fail to anticipate a problem before it develops involves reasoning by false analogy. When we are in an unfamiliar situation, we fall back on reasoning by analogy with old familiar situations. That's a good way to proceed if the old and new situations are truly analogous, but reasoning by analogy can be dangerous if the old and new situations are only superficially similar.

"An example of a society that suffered from disastrous consequences of reasoning by false analogy was the society of Norwegian Vikings who immigrated to Iceland beginning in the year AD 871. Their familiar homeland of Norway has heavy clay soils ground up by glaciers. Those soils are sufficiently heavy that, if the vegetation covering them is cut down, they are too heavy to be blown away. Unfortunately for the Viking colonists of Iceland, Icelandic soils are as light as talcum powder. They arose not through glacial grinding, but through winds carrying light ashes blown out in volcanic eruptions. The Vikings cleared the forests over those soils in order to create pasture for their animals. Unfortunately, the ash that was light enough for the wind to blow in was light enough for the wind to blow out again when the covering vegetation had been removed. Within a few generations of the Vikings' arriving in Iceland, half of Iceland's top soil had eroded into the ocean. Other examples of reasoning by false analogy abound."

Sources: Jared Diamond, "Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?", Edge, 4/28/2003

Via: Critical Thinking on the Web

Monday, April 28, 2003 ( 1:13 AM ) (Permalink)


Q: "I have a question about an argument. Person A states that I am immoral because I eat meat, therefore causing animals to be killed, which is immoral, therefore I am immoral. I reply that I admit I cause animals to be killed, but do not believe that causing animals to be killed is immoral. In addition, I must point out to Person A that eating vegetables causes animals to be killed, also (collaterally), so the accusation is hypocritical. Am I engaging in a tu quoque fallacy? I don't think I am, since I'm not attempting to divert attention from my own guilt, which I do not even acknowledge. In other words, I'm not saying 'You, too'." — Lee

A: Sorry, Lee, but you can't get off the hook that easily. Putting aside the question of how in the world being a vegetarian causes animals to be killed (even "collaterally"), what you are doing is turning an unanswered criticism back on the critic. Whether you accept the criticism is beside the point, and most people who commit tu quoques don't accept the criticism. It is often because they do not accept it, and do not wish to accept it, that they use the fallacy. Instead of attacking Person A as a hypocrite, why not attack Person A's argument? Attacking the person instead of the argument is argumentum ad hominem, and attacking the person by accusing the person of the same or a similar thing is tu quoque.

Sunday, April 27, 2003 ( 4:25 PM ) (Permalink)

A "Bad Moves" Rising

Julian Baggini has a new "Bad Moves" column up, this one on quoting out of context, which he calls "selective quotation".

Saturday, April 26, 2003 ( 12:11 AM ) (Permalink)

WHO's on first?

Here's an excerpt from a report on the mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman, reacting to the World Health Organization's advisory against non-essential travel to the city, due to the SARS epidemic:

"Mr Lastman, in his rage, mistakenly criticised the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC). A doctor, standing beside him during his speech, prompted him with: 'WHO'. The Mayor repeated: 'the CDC'. The doctor repeated: 'WHO'—trying to correct him. But he kept thinking it was a question. She eventually spelt out: 'No, the World Health Organisation'. The Mayor said: 'Yeah them too.'"


Friday, April 25, 2003 ( 3:03 AM ) (Permalink)

Santorum's Slippery Slope

Stanley Kurtz makes some good points in a recent article on Senator Rick Santorum's controversial argument about the right to privacy. Kurtz correctly analyzes the argument as a slippery slope (causal variety), and points out that the widely-made criticism that Santorum was "equating" homosexuality with incest, among other things, is bogus. He does not "equate" homosexuality with these other things, nor does he even compare them. The most that he is guilty of is mentioning them in the same breath.

However, Kurtz's fulminations against the media are exaggerated, since in this case it is as likely that the failure to understand Santorum's argument is due to logical illiteracy as it is to liberal bias. Moreover, Kurtz also errs logically in giving Santorum's argument too much credit. The slope from homosexuality to incest, adultery, and polygamy, is not very slippery at all. There are obvious places for the Supreme Court to gain footholds to stop the feared slide: for instance, incest is not a purely private matter if there is a chance of procreation; adultery involves the breaking of the marriage contract; and polygamy has to do with the public recognition of marriage, not with what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms.


Wednesday, April 23, 2003 ( 1:13 AM ) (Permalink)

Support Spinsanity

Readers of this weblog know that I often point them to articles on Spinsanity, the least-biased of the media watchdog groups, who often point out logical fallacies in the news. They are currently conducting a fund drive, and I encourage everyone in favor of "countering rhetoric with reason" to support them to whatever extent you can afford.

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Monday, April 21, 2003 ( 10:12 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

I've expanded the entry for the fallacy of circumstantial ad hominem.

Saturday, April 19, 2003 ( 2:01 AM ) (Permalink)

Ad Hominem and Hypocrisy

Julian Baggini has a new "Bad Moves" column, on ad hominem charges of hypocrisy, though he doesn't identify the fallacy by name. This is interestingly similar to the kind of charges of inconsistency discussed by Michael Koplow below, with the difference that Baggini is talking about the kind of inconsistency between beliefs and behavior usually called "hypocrisy". According to these charges, the person who eats beef but declines to slaughter a cow is a hypocrite, and the person who supports a war but fails to sign up for military service is pragmatically inconsistent. We can see that these charges are ad hominem by using Koplow's comparison technique, for the arguments won't work against those who would gladly fight or willingly hunt. Hypocrisy may be a bad thing, but charges of hypocrisy are bad arguments against meat-eating or wars, or anything else that people may support but hesitate to do.

Sources: Julian Baggini, "Can't do it? Don't back it.", Bad Moves

Thursday, April 17, 2003 ( 1:49 AM ) (Permalink)

Check it Out

Ben Fritz of Spinsanity has another article on misleading, out of context quotations, this time focusing on criticisms of pessimistic wartime punditry.

Thursday, April 10, 2003 ( 1:23 AM ) (Permalink)

Misquotation Madness

Spinsanity has a rundown of a number of recent misquotes and misattributions, including the New York Times one previously mentioned here. The following example is especially interesting:

"In a March 11 Times profile of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, Nation columnist and MSNBC blogger Eric Alterman said, 'Reader for reader, [The Standard] may be the most influential publication in America.' The Standard, seeking to promote this quotation without identifying its left-liberal source, featured the statement in ads promoting the magazine in its March 24 (p. 36), March 31 (p. 31) and April 7 (p. 30) issues, attributing it each time to 'The New York Times,' despite protests from Alterman. Obviously, a statement quoted in a news story in no way represents the views of the newspaper."

This is a variant of the fallacious appeal to authority in which a quote is attributed to a prestigious publication in an attempt to get some of the prestige to rub off on the subject of the quote. For instance, a quote from a letter to the editor could be attributed to the publication without any indication that it is from a letter.

Sources: Ben Fritz & Brendan Nyhan, "A Spate of Misquotes and Misattributions", Spinsanity, 4/9/03

Saturday, April 05, 2003 ( 9:02 PM ) (Permalink)

Inconsistency, Ad Hominem, and Straw Man

Michael Koplow sent in the following insightful comments about the kind of charges of inconsistency often leveled at those who oppose abortion but support capital punishment, or vice versa:

"Let's imagine someone saying, 'This person who opposes abortion rights is in favor of the death penalty' or 'This person who opposes the death penalty is in favor of abortion rights' and ends it up with 'gosh, how inconsistent.'

"There are two possibilities here.

  • "First, it's possible that your opponent starts with assumptions and values that are different from yours, and using this different framework ends up with positions that may seem inconsistent to you. In this case your opponent is not being inconsistent, and this lack of inconsistency is irrelevant to the argument about either abortion or capital punishment.
  • "Second, it's possible that your opponent's positions actually are inconsistent with each other. In this case, the inconsistency between the positions is irrelevant to the argument about either abortion or capital punishment.

"Of course, a person's arguments should be internally consistent, as well as consistent with actual facts. If an argument is not so consistent, it's reasonable to attack it on those grounds. But to attack a person's position on one issue because it's inconsistent with his/her position on another issue—let's call such positions 'apparently incompatible' for the duration—is both an ad hominem attack and a straw personage attack. It's a very seductive attack—it doesn't look ad hominem because you appear to be sticking to positions the opponent holds.

"Suppose an opponent of yours—Opponent A—has apparently incompatible positions on abortion and capital punishment and you want to attack his position on abortion. Meanwhile, Opponent B has the same position on abortion as Opponent A, but has an apparently compatible position on capital punishment. Then you can use the incompatibility attack on Opponent A but not on Opponent B. But they hold the same position on abortion. The fact that you can use an attack on A's position on abortion and not on B's, even though it is in fact the same position, shows that the attack is ad hominem—it sticks to A because of something that is irrelevant to A's position on abortion. Although you may not be attacking A's personality, you are still using an irrelevant fact about A to attack A's position.

"It is also a straw man argument. Suppose you point out that A holds supposedly incompatible positions on abortion and capital punishment, and you use this to attack his position on abortion. What happens if A comes back and says, 'My goodness, you're right! My positions are incompatible! I have changed my mind on capital punishment, and it is now compatible with my position on abortion. Thank you for setting me right!' Meanwhile, you've used your argument against A's position on abortion, and it didn't do much good. I've presented the situation in a cartoonish way, but the point is that attacking the supposed incompatibility leaves both positions untouched. It is a straw man attack because attacking the supposed incompatibility is much easier than arguing against an actual position your opponent is taking, and it leaves that position unharmed."

( 8:42 PM )

More Misquotation

In a current article on John Kerry's inflammatory call for "regime change" in the U.S., Spinsanity's Bryan Keefer notes the following:

"In response…the Republican National Committee has promulgated some spin of its own. An email to supporters over the signature of Deputy Chairman Jack Oliver claimed that 'These [Kerry's] comments are just the latest example of Democrat leaders blaming America first…Joe Lieberman called President Bush a "greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein."'

"Lieberman, however, said no such thing. On February 27, Lieberman stated at a campaign stop that 'When more people around the world see the current American president as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein, then you know something is really wrong with his foreign policy.' Clearly, Lieberman was making reference to world opinion—not stating that Bush is such a threat. The RNC email strips Lieberman's quote of any context in an utterly dishonest attack. It remains to be seen if this misquotation becomes another media myth."

Friday, April 04, 2003 ( 8:28 PM ) (Permalink)

Check it Out

Eugene "Slippery Slope" Volokh gives out a well-deserved "Quoting Out of Context Award".

Thursday, April 03, 2003 ( 8:28 PM ) (Permalink)

April Fool?

If any evidence is needed that quoting out of context can be a serious business, consider the following correction in today's New York Times:

"A front-page article on Tuesday about criticism voiced by American military officers in Iraq over war plans omitted two words from an earlier comment by Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of V Corps. General Wallace had said (with the omission indicated by uppercasing), 'The enemy we're fighting is A BIT different from the one we war-gamed against.'"

This was in an article in which the misquote is the primary attributed evidence that the war plan was flawed. Perhaps it was only A BIT flawed.


Tuesday, April 01, 2003 ( 5:39 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

I've revised the entry for the Volvo Fallacy.

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