The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Dying for lack of a cause

Continuing my series on logical fallacies, we come now to "non causa pro causa," or false cause.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

"After this, therefore because of this." The argument attempts to attribute cause to the thing that happened before. (See, also, "correlation is not causation.") This is essentially where superstitions come from.

Example: "I've created a million jobs since I'm president," a politician claimed after six months in office. It turns out, that job growth was consistent with (but slightly lower than) job growth under the previous office holder going back six years, making it improbable that the politician had anything to do with the jobs.

Another example: "Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news - it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!" By that criterion, so were 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. In fact, regulations governing air-transport flying were tightened in 2013.

Reductio ad absurdum

A "reduction to the absurd" tries to show that an assumption is false if a contradiction can be drawn from it. Usually, however, one or more of the premises of the argument is false.

The classic example uses a pair of syllogisms:

P1: A statesman acts in the public interest.
P2: Senator Jones is a statesman.
C1: Therefore, Senator Jones acts in the public interest. (Valid but possibly untrue.)

P3: Statesmen do not campaign for public office.
P4: Senator Jones campaigns for public office.
C2: Therefore, Senator Jones is not a statesman. (Valid but probably untrue given C1.)

The problem is probably premise #3. It's certainly the weakest link in the chain.

Another example: "America is the greatest country on earth, and we're making America great again." But...

Final example: "If your orders are always followed, then why was Private Santiago's life in danger?"

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to tease out the syllogisms of the last two examples.

Next time, a lot of questions, and squirrels.

Lunchtime reading

A diverse flock this afternoon:

Your coder will now resume coding his previously-coded code.

Scott Adams demonstrates bad-faith arguments

As I continue my series on logical fallacies, I'd like to note cartoonist Scott Adams' latest blog post.

For years, Adams has talked about how people see what they want to see in the president's speech and actions, but only he and other Trump supporters deal with reality. He claims that people who believe the president is a racist are hallucinating, and that the media perpetuate this hoax.

The post contains extensive demonstrations of many, perhaps all, of the fallacies the complete series will discuss. He also lies. I would actually call the post as a whole "gaslighting," from its main premise on down to the details he cites. (He concludes by saying, "Given the subjectivity of reality, [critics] won’t be able to read this blog post without being triggered into cognitive dissonance," which, if you has experience with abusive relationships, should make your skin crawl.)

Adams has a good command of English and propaganda. He knows what he's doing. So I'm going to use Adams' post from today as a final exam of sorts for the entire series on fallacies. Should be fun.

What goes around...

Continuing to look at material fallacies, we come to one of the most misunderstood and one of the most common.

Petitio principii

"Begging the question" does not mean that a question is hanging in the air, waiting for someone to ask it. (That's "raising the question.") It means that an argument rests on itself, as a foregone conclusion. As Aristotle defined it, "Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the expression in its widest sense) [of] failing to demonstrate the required proposition."

A famous example is the notion that "gay marriage isn't marriage because marriage is a union between a man and a woman." Um...no, see, you're using your own argument to support your own argument. How you define marriage may not actually be the correct (or legal) definition of marriage.

Or take a noted politician, who in January 2017 said "the news is fake because so much of the news is fake." He didn't even bother to cover up the abuse of logic.

Circulus in probando

A "circular argument" is similar, but the argument comes back around to itself rather than resting on itself. Example: "Smart people vote for my party, because it's a wise choice. And you can tell they're smart people, because they vote for my party." Round and round it goes.

Circular arguments differ from begging the question because there are more steps involved. Usually someone begs the question by using different words that mean the same thing; in a circular argument, you go around the circle.

Next time won't follow, absurdly.

You're accidentally wrong

Last week I identified and demonstrated seven fallacies of irrelevant conclusion, by which a person tries to win an argument using language that has nothing to do with the point being argued. Those fallacies actually fall under the larger heading "material fallacies." A material fallacy makes an error of argument, in contrast to a formal fallacy which makes an error of logic.

Before I get into specific kinds of material fallacies, let me describe the basic principle of syllogism. A syllogism has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Each of the premises has a common term; we call this "distribution" in that the common term is "distributed" between both premises. Without distribution, the syllogism is invalid.

Note that "invalid" means the logic is wrong; "untrue" means the conclusion is wrong.

Here's an example of a valid and true syllogism:

Major premise (MP): Men are mortal.
Minor premise (mp): David is a man.
Conclusion (C): Therefore, David is mortal.

The word "man" is distributed between the premises, making the conclusion valid. Since the major premise is true for all men, and the minor premise is true, then the conclusion is true.

So let's look at two kinds of fallacies where the logic is sound but the conclusions might be false.

Agrumentum per accidens (secundum quid)

An "argument by accident" suggests that because something applies in general, it applies in this specific case. Here, for example, is an argument you may have heard from a political leader in the past:

MP: People from Mexico have committed crimes. Generally true–but not in all cases.
mp: These people are from Mexico. Specifically true.
C: Therefore, these people have committed crimes. False.

This is a material fallacy, because it turns out while this syllogism is perfectly valid, it's just not true. That is, it's false (not to mention racist and offensive) because while there are some people from Mexico who have committed crimes, not all of them have; therefore, it overgeneralizes to say that any random group of Mexicans has committed crimes.

Another one:

MP: Prosecutors charge people with obstruction of justice when they find evidence of it. Generally true.
mp: The president has not been charged with obstruction of justice. True.
C: Therefore, there is no evidence that the president obstructed justice. False.

Again, arguing from a generality to a specific case is logically valid, but in this specific case, the president has not been charged with a crime despite the evidence, not because no one found any.

Converse accident (hasty generalization)

This fallacy comes from thinking a specific case represents the general case. This time the conclusion may be true, but probably isn't, and it may also be invalid:

MP: Health care is a complicated subject. True.
mp: I didn't know that health care was a complicated subject. True.
C: Therefore, "nobody knew health care was complicated." False.

In this case, the speaker takes a specific case of ignorance (his own) and incorrectly infers that everyone else has the same lack of basic policy competence.

Another example: "Another historic trade blunder was the catastrophe known as NAFTA. I have met the men and women of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Hampshire, and many other States whose dreams were shattered by NAFTA."

While NAFTA may have caused unfortunate consequences for the men and women with whom the president spoke, to say that it was generally bad for the country as a whole overgeneralizes from those few examples.

Next time: we'll go around in circles, because that's how I roll.

It's the future! Our flying cars are nigh!

French inventor Franky Zapata piloted a jet-powered hoverboard across the English Channel yesterday, covering 32 km in 22 minutes, including a refueling stop on a boat:

Mr. Zapata’s first attempt to cross the English Channel had been intended to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the first flight between continental Europe and Britain, made by the French pilot Louis Blériot.

“What I have done is a lot smaller, but I followed my dream, and that’s huge,” Mr. Zapata told the BFM TV channel.

His device, a gas turbine-powered contraption fueled by five small jets, can theoretically fly up to 175 km/h at an altitude of 15 m to 20 m for about 10 minutes.

Last year, the French Defense Ministry pledged nearly $1.5 million to his company, Zapata Industries, to develop the device, which was featured at a military-sponsored convention.

Oh, right. So I don't get a flying car, but the French Army gets a bunch of them...

Still, this is a very cool achievement. And civilians will get jet-powered hoverboards someday.

Red herring

No one really knows where the term "red herring" came from, though some speculate it came from the idea that drawing a fish across your path would confuse the dogs tracking you. In epistemology, a red herring is an:

Argumentum ignoratio elenchi

Literally, an "argument of ignorance of the grab," or an argument of irrelevant conclusion that doesn't fit into the other categories. A person using a red herring will attempt to draw the argument away from anything relevant with a distraction.

For examples, I will point to our country's greatest source of fallacies of irrelevant conclusion:

"Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?" Blaming the media ("fake news") is a red herring. Invoking Nazi Germany is offensive—and also a red herring. Both attempted to turn discussion away from the contents of the "leaks" on to a discussion of the media, and who knows what else.

"All Republicans support people with pre-existing conditions, and if they don’t, they will after I speak to them. I am in total support. Also, Democrats will destroy your Medicare, and I will keep it healthy and well!" To deflect attention from the Republican Party's explicit opposition to mandating insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions, the third sentence drags an (equally false) red herring across your path. (Note that lies may take the form of fallacies of irrelevant conclusion, but they may also present a valid argument. We'll look deeper at the distinction between truth and validity later in this series.)

"Despite the negative press covfefe". Whatever this meant, it distracted people from an actual, substantive policy discussion policy for almost a week.

When someone uses a totally irrelevant statement to deflect from the argument you're actually having, call them on it, and don't get taken in.

This is on you, Wayne LaPierre

Twenty-nine people died and 52 were injured in two mass shootings yesterday. Years of lying about the second amendment to encourage gun sales, and buying votes not only for legislation but also to confirm judges (including on the Supreme Court) have led to this.

I believe Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association since 1991, is the person most responsible for our current firearms laws. So far in 2019, he bears substantial responsibility for the 252 mass shootings that have taken 281 lives and ruined 1,025 others. (Today is the 216th day of the year. Do the math.) He shares responsibility with the Republican Party and its willful exploitation of fears of "others" that, when combined with easy access to deadly weapons, allows narcissistic and unstable young men to kill dozens of people at a time.

We are the only country in the world where this happens. We are the only country in the world where a substantial number of otherwise-literate people believe that a well-regulated militia requires everyone to carry an AR-15. We are the only country in the world where average people can walk down the street armed to the teeth legally. We are the only country in the world where it's easier to get a gun permit than a driving license.

We are the only country in the world where this happens.

Awe and Force

Continuing The Daily Parker's occasional series on logical fallacies, let's look at two more fallacies of irrelevant conclusions.

Argumentum ad vericundiam

An "argument to awe" uses reputation rather than evidence to score a point. The most common example involves a testimonial, either positive or negative, as when someone argues for or against a premise by pointing to the president's endorsement of the premise.

A similar, implicit argument to awe occurs when an advertiser puts a famous actor in a commercial to endorse a product or service. Actors, like most people, tend to have expertise in their own field but not so much expertise outside of it. Not to mention, the advertiser pays for the endorsement, which may affect what the actor is willing to say on camera.

Argumentum ad baculum

An "argument to force" relies on fear of injury or expectation of an unrelated benefit to sway an audience. The famous "argument he couldn't refuse" is an argument to force in its clearest form. "Either your brains or your signature will be on this contract" does not show why the contract would be in the best interests of the counterparty.

Fear, too, is a force. When the president argues in favor of a border wall because "they're rapists" or because "precious lives are cut short by those who have violated our borders," he's arguing to unsubstantiated fears and prejudices, not to whether a wall will make us safer as a nation, whether relative to other immigration policies or even in the absolute.

A bribe is an opposite, but no less fallacious, example of force. Arguing that support of a premise will bring someone a financial reward unrelated to the benefits of the premise itself uses force rather than logic to persuade. Note that this differs from, say, arguing that a policy will benefit the listener. "I will contribute $10,000 to your campaign if you support this bill" is an argument to force; "this bill will lead to a net public benefit of $10,000 through these mechanisms" is an argument in favor of the bill.

Next time, I'll go over one more fallacy of irrelevant conclusions, because it's Friday.

If I were President

Tonight I'm looking at the resignation of Dan Coats and the likely appointment of John Ratcliffe for the office of director of national intelligence (DNI), and struggling to understand how narcissism survives.

I don't really give two cents about either Coats or Ratcliffe, other than to say they're both well-established toadies and lickspittles. Ordinarily I would make an obscene gesture at either's appointment and move on with my life because, after all, Republicans are always going to prefer toadies and lickspittles to competent people, and we have a Republican president.

And yet, my objection to Coats' demonstrated performance as DNI and Ratcliffe's likely performance as DNI hinges entirely on the fact that they're both toadies and lickspittles. Because they're not the outgoing and incoming undersecretaries of agriculture for soybean producition, they're the outgoing and income directors of national fucking intelligence. You can appoint Mickey Mouse to handle our caribou migration efforts, but for DNI? Are you stupid?

Political executives, be they elected presidents or unelected dictators, need clear and unbiased intelligence about the world to function effectively*. I look at Francis Walsingham, the first modern DNI the world has ever seen, and (I believe, though I may be wrong) the model for Varys in Game of Thrones. Walsingham never spared Elizabeth's feelings, and taught her how to rule a country in the process.

But think about what that requires from the executive: maturity, patience, trust, a long view. Think about President Obama sitting back in the situation room while his subordinates carried out a military operation that but for luck and timing would have ended his presidency, trusting them, letting them work, knowing that they were all on the same team, and taking responsibility for the outcome no matter what that was.

Contrast that with this guy, who fired Dan Coats in favor of John Ratcliffe, and will consequently get only the intelligence that is safe to convey to the ruler.

On a related note, someone has finally clarified the meaning of the entirety of Ecclesiastes 10:16. I've often quoted the first bit of it, but I've also felt like that's kind of like only quoting only half of the second amendment. It's not; and here's why.

The entire verse is translated thus, in the three most popular English versions:

KJV: Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!

NIV: Woe to the land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.

GNV: A country is in trouble when its king is a youth and its leaders feast all night long.

(O holy dog, do I hate the Good News version, however accurate enough it is in its banality. What a capitulation to illiteracy. But I digress.)

I quoted these translations because the original Hebrew has, shall we say, some ambiguity.

So I asked a Rabbinical student to chase down the full meaning of the passage, and got a good answer. The bit about having a child as king works on the plain language. And in fact I used the verse as the introduction to my senior thesis at university about the machinations between two men to rule as Edward VI's regent that kept England in a cold civil war from Henry VIII's death until after Jane Grey tried to usurp Mary.

I digress again.

According to a lot of Talmudic discussion, the bit about "eating in the morning" means the princes, who would have an expectation of piety and propriety attached to their offices, choose to eat breakfast before morning prayers, thus elevating their carnal needs above their worship of God.

Even as allegory, I can see the wisdom of it. Also I can see how it fits with our current situation. Those guys 3,000 years ago faced the same idiocy we face today, and tried to warn us about it. Good thing the people who read the Bible every day know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, the most explicit, and least poetic, translation I can offer is this: "When your ruler lacks the capacity to judge right and wrong, and the ministers of state care only for themselves, you are bloody right fucked."

Yes we are.

La di da, la di da...

* "Effective" is not an endorsement. It's just a reading of history.