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June 29th, 2024 (Permalink)

After the Debate

The headline news about Thursday's presidential debate is President Biden's poor performance, but I'm not going to say much about that. If you're interested in the question of Biden's mental competence, you can watch the debate1 and judge for yourself, or read the many commentaries being written about it. I don't have anything to add to what many others have already written.

Instead, I'm going to comment on only a few general debate and argumentation points that caught my attention. I may have more to say in the future after I've had a chance to read the debate transcript carefully but, at this point, I'm reacting based on a superficial first read.

Also, this is not a fact check, so I'm not going to comment on the many falsehoods told by both candidates except when necessary in discussing argumentation.

  • The Debate: The level of argumentation in the debate was rock bottom, and not just on the president's part. This is not a new development, since it's been bad for many years, but this may have been worst presidential debate ever. Just as one example, consider the following exchange on the topic of abortion:
    Dana Bash, Moderator: This is the first presidential election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. … Former President Trump, you take credit for the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which returned the issue of abortion to the states. … As president, would you block abortion medication?

    Former President Donald Trump: First of all, the Supreme Court just approved the abortion pill. And I agree with their decision to have done that, and I will not block it. … Like Ronald Reagan, I believe in the exceptions, I am a person that believes and, frankly, I think it's important to believe in the exceptions. … But I believe in the exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. I think it's very important. … The problem they have is they're radical because they will take the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, and even after birth…. If you look at the former governor of Virginia, he was willing to do this. He said, we'll put the baby aside and we'll determine what we do with the baby. Meaning, we'll kill the baby. …

    Bash: Thank you. President Biden?

    President Joe Biden: It's been a terrible thing, what you've done. … But here's the deal, there's a lot of young women who are being raped by their in-laws, by their spouses, brothers and sisters, it's just ridiculous. And they can do nothing about it. And they tried to arrest them when they cross state lines.2

    I've edited out Biden's stuttering and stumbling over words in this passage, as well as a puzzling digression about immigration, but it's still hard to understand. My guess is that what Biden was trying to get at with his tasteless references to young women raped by relatives―including sisters?―is that women made pregnant by rapists or due to incest should have legal access to abortion. If so, this is a straw man3 argument since Trump had just accepted the rape and incest exceptions to abortion restrictions.

    Bash then asked a follow-up question:

    Bash: Seven states have no legal restrictions on how far into a pregnancy a woman can obtain an abortion. Do you support any legal limits on how late a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy?

    Biden: I supported Roe v. Wade, which had three trimesters. First time is between a woman and a doctor. Second time is between the doctor and an extreme situation. And a third time is between the doctor―I mean, it'd be between the woman and the state. … And if I'm elected, I'm going to restore Roe v. Wade.

    Trump: So that means he can take the life of the baby in the ninth month and even after birth, because some states, Democrat-run, take it after birth. Again, the former governor of Virginia: put the baby down, then we decide what to do with it. So he's willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby. Nobody wants that to happen.

    Biden: That is simply not true. That Roe v. Wade does not provide for that. That's not the circumstance. Only when the woman's life is in danger―if she's going to die―that's the only circumstance in which that can happen. But we are not for late term abortion, period, period, period.

    Trump: Under Roe v. Wade, you have late term abortion. You can do whatever you want, depending on the state. You can do whatever you want.

    Trump is also attacking a straw man in this passage, especially in his claim about killing babies after birth. The only evidence he offers for this is something supposedly said by a former governor of Virginia, which is weak evidence that any states actually allow infanticide or that Democrats in general support it.

    What do the candidates disagree about? Trump thinks that the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade was correct, and that abortion laws should be made by the states, whereas Biden supported Roe v. Wade and wants some kind of return to the situation before it was overturned. Beyond that, they disagree on what the decision allowed, which would have been an interesting legal dispute if either understood the law well enough to debate it. However, Biden's description of Roe v. Wade is quite confused, and Trump seems to think it allowed infanticide, which is incorrect4. So, they don't know what they're talking about.

    All the straw man attacks in this section of the debate conceal the fact that the candidates' positions on abortion are not so far apart, and it's hard to tell exactly where they do disagree. Outside of the Supreme Court issue, both oppose late term abortions and accept abortions for rape, incest, and to save the mother's life. What, if anything, do they disagree on? This is a question that a good debate would clarify, but this one only obscures the fact that Biden and Trump appear to agree more than disagree on the issue.

  • The Debaters: I'm not sure that we'll ever get a better debate without better debaters. Both of these men can barely form coherent sentences, let alone a coherent argument. Trump was somewhat more coherent than Biden, but that's not saying much. Both men descended into petty bickering, taking turns calling each other liars, whiners, suckers, and losers, then arguing about their golf games. At the end of that argument, we had this exchange:
    Trump: Let's not act like children.

    Biden: You are a child.

    They both were acting like children. I don't know whether it would have been any better if Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. had been on the stage, but it couldn't have been any worse.

  • The Format: The debate format worked well to suppress interruptions and filibustering, but it was not conducive to actual debating. For example, the following exchange occurred near the beginning after Biden had criticized Trump's record:
    Jake Tapper, Moderator: President Trump, I want to follow up, if I can, you want―

    Trump: Am I allowed to respond to him?

    Tapper: Well, I'm going to ask you a follow-up. You can do whatever you want with the minute that we give you. I want to follow up.

    What's the point of insisting on asking a follow-up question if the debater can do whatever he wants with the time? This just encourages the debaters to ignore the moderators' questions. If journalists are going to ask questions, there should be some attempt made to get answers to those questions; otherwise, why bother?

    As here, throughout the debate the moderators appeared to be mindlessly following a schedule of questions rather than allowing the debate to develop around an issue. At the end of the section on abortion, there was the following exchange:

    Biden: What's he going to do, in fact, if…he gets elected and the MAGA Republicans control of the Congress and they pass a universal ban on abortion, period, across the board, at six weeks, or seven, or eight or ten weeks, something very, very conservative. Is he going to sign that bill? I'll veto it. He'll sign it.

    Bash: Thank you. [Trump says something inaudible because his microphone is turned off.]

    Tapper: Let's turn now to the issue of immigration and border security.

    Why didn't the moderators allow Trump to respond? Here's a potential difference between the candidates on an important issue, and Trump appeared to want to respond to Biden's claim that he'd sign a nationwide ban on abortions, but Tapper insists on going on to the next issue. As a result, we don't find out what Trump's position is. I'm not sure whether this was a fault of the format, or the moderators' fault for unflexibly enforcing it.

  • The Moderators: For the most part, the moderators kept themselves out of the debate, and there were no Candy Crowley moments5. One of the general problems with allowing journalists to moderate debates is that it becomes an excuse for them to show-off rather than to facilitate debate. Bash and Tapper deserve credit for not having injected themselves into the debate by taking sides or grandstanding.

    Some commentators wanted the moderators to act as fact-checkers during the debate, but Tapper and Bash to their credit avoided trying to do so. It would be an impossible task, especially with these two debaters, since about every other claim they made was false. Fact-checking, like logic-checking, can and should wait until after the debate.

    That said, the moderators enforced the question-and-answer format and time limits too inflexibly, as indicated above. When an argument is developing in a direction that might actually reveal a difference between the candidates' positions, it should be allowed to unfold. Also, if the candidates are going to be allowed to ignore the questions, then drop the pretense of questioning. Simply announce an issue―abortion, say, or border control―then allow the debaters to state their positions and debate the issue.

  • The Second Debate: It will be interesting to see what effect this debate has on public opinion in the next few weeks. Biden and Trump were nearly tied in the polls going into the debate6, but presumably there will be a Trump bump after this, but how much of a bump?

    Also, worth looking at will be Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s polling. As I wrote earlier this month7, RFK, Jr. is likely to have sufficient ballot access by September to qualify for the second debate, but I thought then that the polls would keep him out of it. However, if many Democratic voters flee Biden, at least some are likely to run to RFK, Jr. rather than Trump. That may elevate RFK, Jr. in the polls sufficiently to qualify for the September debate.

    Given Biden's performance, I wonder whether he will back out of the September debate, assuming that he's still on the ballot then. If he doesn't, Trump might back out instead; after all, what's in it for him? It's unlikely that Biden will do worse the second time, and he might do better. Why would Trump risk that? Finally, if RFK, Jr. does rise in the polls sufficiently to qualify, one or both of the other candidates might back out. So, I think it's quite possible there won't be a second debate.


  1. "CNN Presidential Debate: President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump", CNN, 6/27/2024.
  2. "Read: Biden-Trump debate rush transcript", CNN, 6/28/2024. All quotes are based on this transcript though sometimes edited for length or clarity.
  3. See: Straw Man.
  4. See: "Roe v. Wade", Encyclopædia Britannica, 6/26/2024.
  5. See: Second Presidential Debate Logic Check, Part 2, 10/20/2012.
  6. See: "Latest 2024 General Election Polls", Real Clear Politics, accessed: 6/29/2024. Trump had a slight lead in the New York Times/Sienna poll results released on Thursday.
  7. See: Waiting for the Debate, 6/17/2024.

June 25th, 2024 (Permalink)

How to Lie with Quotations

It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.1

Advocates for social and political causes love to use quotations as "evidence" in support of their side. Some of these quotes are true, and others are not; but even those that are true can be misleading. In this entry, I'll enumerate three types of potentially misleading advocacy quotes.

I've previously listed the ways in which quotes can go wrong2, but there is another dimension along which we can classify them, namely, the purpose they serve. Why did the advocate choose this quote, of this person, at this time, and in this place? Advocates use quotes to support their position in a debate, so how are they supposed to do that?

Here, then, is a preliminary classification of advocacy quotes based on their purpose, not their accuracy. Even when such quotes are accurate―that is, not fabricated, misquoted, misattributed, or taken out of context―they can still be misleading.

  • The "Honest Abe" Quote: Advocates love to align their causes with revered public figures by using quotes to prove that they were on the same side. Abraham Lincoln is one such figure, which is why I name this type of quote after him, but there are many others: George Washington and other "Founding Fathers", George Orwell3, Martin Luther King, Jr.4, and so on.

    Even if "Honest Abe" quotes are entirely accurate they can still mislead. What Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or MLK, Jr. thought about a certain contemporary issue may be historically interesting, but it's weak evidence5. For one thing, such heroes and heroines lived long, long ago, in a place far, far away, and what was once a good idea may now be a bad one, and vice versa. For another, none of these great people were perfect, and sometimes their opinions were just plain wrong.

    Example: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

    This bogus quote, sometimes attributed to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson6, is a nice all-purpose one that can be used to defend any dissident cause.

  • The "Adolf Hitler" Quote: This is the reverse of The "Honest Abe" Quote. Instead of quoting a well-known good guy on your side, quote a bad guy on the other side. As with Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler is a stand-in for all the bad guys who are used to tar the other side, but it's also true that a lot of these quotes are attributed to him as the worst guy ever.

    For every cause, there is an equal and opposite cause: pro-life versus pro-choice, Republican versus Democrat, Liberal versus Conservative, and Coke versus Pepsi. Whichever side you're on, the other side is evil incarnate, and no doubt Adolf Hitler was on that side. Even if he wasn't, it's so easy to quote him as if he were. It stands to reason he was on the other side! No one reads Mein Kampf, not even Nazis, who can't read anyway. Why bother to check? Given this thinking, many alleged quotes of Hitler are pure fabrications, and a lot of the rest are impure.

    The same thing is true of "Hitler" quotes as is true of the "Honest Abe" variety: even when they're true, they're weak evidence7. Hitler died a long time ago, and what was once a bad idea may now be a good one, and vice versa. Moreover, not even Hitler was perfectly bad, and he was right about a few things, for instance, the Volkswagen Beetle8, cigarette smoking9, and that's about it.

    Example: "This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration. Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!"2.

    This spurious Hitler quote is an attempt to smear the policy of registering guns and anyone who supports it by association with the Nazis.

  • The Boomerang Quote: This is a quote from your opponent's side―or at least claimed to come from that side―that can be turned back against it. The best boomerang quote is something your opponent said, but the next best is an embarrassing quote from one of the opponent's allies. Also, the other side has its heroes, and it will be put on the defensive if one of them seemed to say something that undermines its position, or even that's just offensive or politically incorrect.

    If you look hard enough, you're bound to find something that your opponent said that you can use as a boomerang, but if you're in a hurry you can always take something out of context. If you're just plain lazy, make something up.

    Example: "It is bigotry for public schools to teach only one theory of origins."

    This quote, allegedly said by Clarence Darrow during the Scopes trial, is supposed to turn back against those who support the teaching of evolution, as opposed to creationism, in public schools. The quote itself is not found in the trial transcript, but only in the writings of later creationists who appear to have created it10.

How can you avoid being lied to with any of these types of quote? First of all, be skeptical. When confronted by such a quote, always ask the skeptic's questions: Did he (or she) really say that? What was the context of the quote? Even if the quote is accurate, so what?

Be particularly skeptical of any quotes used to support a cause from Lincoln, the Founding Fathers, MLK, Jr., or any other cultural hero. Also, be especially skeptical of quotes of Hitler or other bad guys used for the opposite purpose. Be wary of a quote attributed to a famous or infamous figure lacking a citation. Even if such quotes are accurate, which they often aren't, they have little probative value.


  1. Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), chapter 5.
  2. See: How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 1: Four Types of Misleading Quote, 11/27/2020.
  3. See: Misquoting George Orwell, 6/20/2024.
  4. See: Misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr., 1/18/2021.
  5. See: Misleading Appeal to Authority.
  6. "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism (Spurious Quotation)", Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, accessed: 6/24/2014.
  7. See: The Hitler Card.
  8. Jonathan Glancey, "The VW Beetle: How Hitler's idea became a design icon", BBC, 10/21/2014.
  9. Tracy Brown Hamilton, "The Nazis' Forgotten Anti-Smoking Campaign", The Atlantic, 7/9/2014.
  10. See: Familiar Misquotations: Clarence Darrow, 6/23/2024.

Debate Watch Debate Watch
June 17th, 2024 | Updated: 6/21/2024 (Permalink)

Waiting for the Debate

The presumptive nominees of the two major parties have both now agreed to the rules for a debate to be sponsored by CNN on the 27th of this month1. Among other things, they agreed that the microphones of each candidate will only be on during the candidate's time, which should prevent the debate from degenerating into a repeat of the first debate between Biden and Trump in 20202. The same approach was successfully used in the last debate of that election year to prevent both interruptions and filibustering3. So, this is good news.

A positive difference from most previous debates will be the lack of a studio audience, which is something the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has never done as far as I know. To find presidential debates without an audience you have to go all the way back to the Kennedy-Nixon ones in 1960, which kicked off the current tradition of presidential debating. Studio audiences serve no purpose for the vast majority of us watching from the comfort of our own homes and occasionally they're a distraction. Why the CPD has always favored them, I don't know.

A potentially negative difference is the presence of two moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, both CNN reporters. Why two and not one? The CPD was responsible for moving away from panels of journalists taking turns questioning the candidates to a single moderator, and moderator duties were well-conducted by Jim Lehrer through a dozen debates. Lehrer died in 20204, and since then there have been some bad moderators5, but having as many moderators as debaters is a step in the wrong direction. A single moderator ought to be able to control two elderly men. I assume that the reason for having two for this debate is that Tapper and Bash are both "stars" at CNN, both wanted to do it, and no one had the nerve to deny one of them.

CNN has also adopted, possibly at the behest of the two campaigns, the same rules used by the CPD to shut out other candidates. To qualify for the debate, candidates must be on enough state ballots to potentially win the electoral college, which requires 270 votes6, and also must score at 15% or higher on four recent polls. This is a bar so high that no third party or independent candidate has been able to reach it since Perot in 1992. Making matters worse is holding the debate so early in the year, which gives less time to gain ballot access.

The only candidate not from the two major parties who has even a slight chance of qualifying for the debate is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. However, RFK, Jr. is not yet on enough state ballots to qualify and has only three days to do so since the deadline is Thursday. The Kennedy campaign claimed earlier this month that they had met the ballot qualification for the debate, but that was based on having submitted enough petition signatures in several states to qualify, and the states still have to verify those signatures7. It's far more likely that he'll be on enough state ballots to qualify for the second debate, which is scheduled for September, assuming that the two major parties don't raise the bar in the meantime.

RFK, Jr. has already met the 15% standard in three qualifying polls, but again he has only until Thursday to do so in a fourth poll to qualify for this debate8. Is there even an acceptable poll with results coming out between now and then?

So, it's extremely unlikely that RFK, Jr. will be included in this debate. As for qualifying for the second debate, I expect that polling will be the hurdle that will trip him up, since he's likely to get on enough state ballots by September. The three polls that he did at least 15% in will be outdated by then, so that he'll have to do that well in four other polls between now and then. His current polling average is only about half what he needs to qualify, and the best that he's done in recent polls is 13%9. Of course, this could change in the next two months, but it will be hard for him to improve his polling numbers without the publicity that appearing in a debate would provide.

This is the catch that keeps independent and third-party candidates out of the debates: they can't debate without polling well and they can't poll well if they don't debate. That's some catch!

Update (6/21/2024): The deadline for qualifying for the first debate was yesterday and, unsurprisingly, RFK, Jr. failed to qualify10, so the debate will be between just the current and former presidents. As I wrote above, RFK, Jr. will probably be on sufficient ballots by September, but he'll have to raise his polling position to qualify for the second debate. That will be difficult to do without receiving more media exposure. If he doesn't qualify for the last debate, his chance of winning the election will probably be near zero.


  1. "CNN to Host 2024 Election Presidential Debate Between President Joe Biden and Former President Donald J. Trump on June 27", CNN, 5/15/2024.
  2. See: Debate Clinic, 10/1/2020.
  3. See: The Last Debate, 10/24/2020.
  4. "Jim Lehrer", Encyclopædia Britannica, 5/15/2024.
  5. See: Second Presidential Debate Logic Check, Part 2, 10/20/2012.
  6. Michael Ray, "How Does the Electoral College Work?", Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed: 6/17/2024.
  7. Jonathan J. Cooper, "Kennedy says he has secured ballot access in enough states to win. That's not yet true", Associated Press, 6/7/2024.
  8. Chris Cameron & Rebecca Davis O'Brien, "The Big Hurdle Between R.F.K. Jr. and the Debate Stage (It's Not a Poll)", The New York Times, 6/5/2024.
  9. "Biden vs. Trump vs. RFK Jr. polls", The Hill, 6/17/2024.
  10. Meg Kinnard, "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fails to qualify for CNN's debate. It'll be a showdown between Biden and Trump", Associated Press, 6/21/2024.

June 1st, 2024 (Permalink)

Are you smarter than an artificial intelligence?

Three children's blocks are arranged in a stack on a table. These blocks, you understand, are cubes made of solid wood that is painted a single, solid color: blue, red, green, yellow, etc. The top block in the stack is painted green, whereas the block at the bottom of the stack is yellow, but you don't know what color the block in the middle is.

To be clear: a yellow block rests on the table, a block of unknown color rests on top of the yellow block and, finally, a green block is on top of the block of unknown color. By "on top of" I mean that one block rests on the top of the other, touching it, and not simply that it is above it.

So, here's the problem: Is a green block on top of a non-green block? Non-green, of course, is any of the other colors: blue, red, yellow, orange, etc.

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