A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Misogyny

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2016

Watching Trump is rather like an observing a submarine test: you wonder how low it can sink. Like an amazing sub, Trump keeps reaching new depths. An old recording of Trump was recently released which features the Republican candidate saying rather awful things. This has cost him the endorsement of some Republicans, but he still seems to be incredibly resistant to damage: he had managed to spew forth a stream of awful things such that any one of which would have been a career ending injury for almost anyone else.

While there have been some calls for Trump to leave the race, Trump has so far decided that he is staying in. As should be expected, Trump has presented a reply to the situation that includes his usual tactics.  While most would not consider Trump philosophical, he does say things that are certainly interesting to discus in this context.

Trump begins his response by pointing out that the recording is from 2005 and he asserts that he has changed since then. As such, he should not be criticized now for what he did then. This defense potentially has merit: if he has reformed, then while the recording shows that Trump was awful, that was then and this is now. From a moral standpoint, the main concern is whether or not Trump is still the same sort of person he was in 2005. Interestingly, Trump’s initial defense did not include claims that his remarks were out of character; presumably he accepts that this behavior was in accord with his character in 2005.

While there are no known recent remarks about women by Trump that exactly match his 2005 remarks, he does not seem to have reformed in any morally meaningful way. He casually and routinely engages in misogyny and sexism and this gives lie to his defense. As such, the 2005 remarks do reflect both who he was and who he is. If Trump had shown signs of moral growth, then this defense could have merit—there are certainly cases of people who redeem themselves and become better. Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence of this in Trump’s case.

Trump also endeavored to use a red herring (a rhetorical device in which someone attempts to divert attention from the original issue) to switch attention from his remarks. Rather, he hoped to get people to ignore them and focus instead on his assertions that “We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is totally broken.”

It could be countered that this is not a red herring because the character of a president does not matter in the face of such alleged problems. This approach does have potential merit and will be addressed in the context of Bill Clinton, who seems to have been used in another Trump red herring.

In his response, Trump also asserted that “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.” This could also be regarded as a red herring—the matter of whether Bill has said worse things or not is a different issue from the matter of Trump’s remarks. Even if Bill has said worse things, this proves nothing about Trump’s remarks.

As mentioned before, perhaps Trump’s defenders could make the case that Bill Clinton was an excellent president despite the things he allegedly said. Given that many successful leaders have had awful moralities in regards to their views of women, a case could be made here arguing that a leader who will do the job well should not be assessed based on such alleged failings. Put crudely, it does not matter what the leader wants to grab, because “it’s the economy, stupid.” While this does have some appeal, Bill’s behavior did have damaging consequences for him and the country, so there is clearly a downside to this quality in a leader. There is also the moral question of whether or not the tradeoff would be worth it, especially if a good leader could be found who was not a misogynist.

If Bill were running against Trump, then showing that Bill is just as bad would be a relevant response. This is because if Trump and Bill were equally awful in this regard, then Trump’s awfulness would not disadvantage him relative to Bill—at least under a rational assessment. To use an analogy, if a HP laptop and an Asus laptop had equally short battery life, then battery life would not serve as a reason to pick one over the other. But, of course, Trump is not running against Bill. He is running against Hillary. As such, it is no surprise that he also attacked Hillary by saying, “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

While attacking Hillary can also be regarded as a red herring in that it proves nothing about the matter involving Trump, it is certainly relevant in assessing the two candidates against each other. Trump is, in effect, trying to establish that Hillary is just as bad (or worse) than he is in regards to treatment of women. Trump does have some ammunition here—he can point to Hillary’s alleged role in the handling of the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued Bill in the 1990s.

While there certainly seem to be some legitimate concerns about Hillary’s behavior, she can point to an otherwise solid record on women’s issue. Even if the claims about her misdeeds are true, she can certainly make a much stronger case than Trump that she has changed since the 1990s. After all, the recording of Trump is more recent than the 1990s and Trump relentlessly affirms his misogyny, thus showing that he has not changed significantly. As such, while Hillary can, perhaps, be justly criticized for her actions in the 1990s, it would be a false equivalence to say that she is as bad as Trump in this regard.

Some of Trump’s defenders have asserted that Trump did not say anything that other men do not regularly say. That is, what Trump did was not a problem because this sort of thing is a common practice. The easy reply to this defense is that an appeal to common practice is a fallacy: even if something is commonly done, it does not follow from this that it is good, justified or right. All that follows from something being commonly done is that it is, well, commonly done.

It could also be argued that it is hypocritical of men to criticize Trump because men have, no doubt, said or thought things equally as bad. While it is surely true that everyone has said or thought something awful, these tend to be anomalies for most men. Everyone has their awful moments and this should be taken into account when judging a person. If Trump had but this one blight on an otherwise decent character, then it would be reasonable to judge him by his consistent character rather than an inconsistent remark. However, these remarks are not an aberration for Trump—they are utterly consistent with his character.


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Don’t Say the C Words

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2016

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.


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Political Parties & Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2016

While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.

My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.

While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.

Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).

While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians:  a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.

One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.

Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.

This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).

As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.

This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.

I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.


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Tearing Down

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2016

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Politics has always been a nasty business, but the fact that examples of historic awfulness can be easily found does not excuse the current viciousness. After all, appealing to tradition (reasoning that something is acceptable because it has been done a long time) and appealing to common practice (reasoning that something being commonly done makes it acceptable) are both fallacies.

One manifestation of the nastiness of politics is when it does not suffice to merely regard an opponent as wrong, they must be torn down and cast as morally wicked. To be fair, there are cases in which people really are both wrong and morally wicked. As such, my concern is with cases in which the tearing down is not warranted.

I certainly understand the psychological appeal of this approach. It is natural to regard opponents as holding on to their views because they are bad people—in contrast to the moral purity that grounds one’s own important beliefs. In some cases, there is a real conflict between good and evil. For example, those who oppose slavery are morally better than those who practice the enslavement of their fellow human beings. However, most political disputes are disagreements in which all sides are a blend of right and wrong—both factually and morally. For example, the various views about the proper size of government tend to be blended in this way. Unfortunately, political ideology can become part of a person’s core identity—thus making any differing view appear as a vicious assault on the person themselves. A challenge to their very identity that could only come from the vilest of knaves. Politicians and pundits also intentionally stoke these fires, hoping to exploit irrationality and ungrounded righteous rage to ensure their election and to get their way.

While academic philosophy is not a bastion of pure objective rationality, one of the most important lessons I have learned in my career is that a person can disagree with me about an important issue, yet still be a fine human being. Or, at the very least, not a bad person. In some cases, this is easy to do because I do not have a strong commitment to my position. For example, while I do not buy into Plato’s theory of forms, I have no real emotional investment in opposing it. In other cases, such as moral disputes, it is rather more difficult. Even in cases in which I have very strong commitments, I have learned to pause and consider the merits of my opponent’s position while also taking care to distinguish the philosophical position taken from the person who takes it. I also take care to regard their criticisms of my view as being against my view and not against me as a person. This allows me to debate the issue without it becoming a personal matter that threatens my core identity. It also helps that I know that simply attacking the person making a claim is just some form of an ad hominem fallacy.

It might be objected that this sort of approach to disputes is bloodless and unmanly—that one should engage with passion and perhaps, as Trump would say, want to hit someone. The easy reply is that while there is a time and a place for punching, the point of a dispute over an issue is to resolve it in a rational manner. A person can also be passionate without being uncivil and vicious. Unfortunately, vicious attacks are part of the political toolkit.

One recent and reprehensible example involves the attacks on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the parents of Captain HumayunKhan (who was killed in Iraq in 2004). Khizr Khan spoke out against Donald Trump’s anti Muslim rhetoric and asserted that Trump did not understand the Constitution. While Trump had every right to address the criticisms raised against him, he took his usual approach of trying to tear down a critic. Trump’s engagement with the family led to bipartisan responses, including an extensive response from John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. Trump, against the rules of basic decency, continued to launch attacks on Khan.

Since I have a diverse group of friends, I was not surprised when I saw posts appearing on Facebook attacking Khan. One set of posts linked to Shoebat.com’s claim that Khan “is a Muslim brotherhood agent who wants to advance sharia law and bring Muslims into the United States.” As should come as no surprise, Snopes quickly debunked this claim.

Breitbart.com also leaped into the fray asserting that Khan “financially benefits from unfettered pay-to-play Muslim migration into America.” The site also claimed that Khan had deleted his law firm’s website. On the one hand, it is certainly legitimate journalism to investigate speakers at the national convention. After all, undue bias legitimately damages credibility and it is certainly good to know about any relevant misdeeds lurking in a person’s past. On the other hand, endeavoring to tear a person down and thus “refute” their criticism is simply an exercise in the ad hominem fallacy. This is bad reasoning in which an attack on a person is taken to thus refute their claims. Even if Khan ran a “pay to play” system and even if he backed Sharia law, his criticisms of Donald Trump stand or fall on their own merits—and they clearly have merit.  There is also the moral awfulness in trying to tear down a Gold Star family. As many have pointed out, such an attack would normally be beyond the pale. Trump, however, operates far beyond this territory. What is one of the worst aspects of this is that although he draws criticism even from the Republican leadership, his support remains strong. He is, perhaps, changing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a way that might endure beyond his campaign—a change for the worse.

It might be objected that a politician must reply to critics, otherwise the attacks will stand. While this is a reasonable point, the reply made matters. It is one thing to respond to the criticisms by countering their content, quite another to launch a personal attack against a Gold Star family.

It could also be objected that engaging in a rational discussion of the actual issues is too difficult and would not be understood by the public. They can only handle emotional appeals and simplistic notions. Moral distinctions are irrelevant and decency is obsolete. Hence, the public discourse must be conducted at a low level—Trump gets this and is acting accordingly. My only reply is that I hope, but cannot prove, that this is not the case.


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Divisive Obama?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2016

Official photographic portrait of US President...

One of the relentless talking points of conservative pundits and many Republicans is that Obama is divisive. Perhaps even the most divisive president in American history. It is, in fact, a common practice to engage in a point-by-point analysis of Obama’s alleged divisiveness. As should be expected, supporters of Obama deny that he is divisive; or at least claim he is not the most divisive president.

It is almost certainly pointless to try to argue about the issue of whether Obama is divisive or not. Since this is a matter of political identity, the vast majority of people cannot be influenced by any amount of evidence or argumentation against their position. However, one of the purposes of philosophy is the rational assessment of beliefs even when doing so will convince no one to change their views. That said, this endeavor is not pointless: while I do not expect to change any hearts (for this is a matter of feeling and not reason) it is still worthwhile to advance our understanding of divisiveness and accusations about it.

Since analogies are often useful to enhancing understanding, I will make a comparison with fright. This requires a story from my own past. When I was in high school, our English teacher suggested a class trip to Europe. As with just about anything involving education, fundraising was necessary and this included what amounted to begging (with permission) at the local Shop N’ Save grocery store. As beggars, we worked in teams of two and I was paired up with Gopal. When the teacher found out about this (and our failure to secure much, if any, cash) she was horrified: we were frightening the old people; hence they were not inclined to even approach us, let alone donate to send us to Europe. As I recall, she said the old folks saw us as “thugs.”

I have no reason to doubt that some of the old folks were, in fact, frightened of us. As such, it is true that we were frightening. The same can be said about Obama: it is obviously true that many people see him as divisive and thus he is divisive. This is also analogous to being offensive: if a person is offended by, for example, a person’s Christian faith or her heterosexuality, then those things are offensive. To use another analogy, if a Christian is hired into a philosophy department composed mainly of devout atheists and they dislike her for her faith and it causes trouble in the department, the she is divisive. After all, the department would not be divided but for her being Christian.

While it is tempting to leave it at this, there seems more to the charge of divisiveness than a mere assertion about how other people respond to a person. After all, when Obama is accused of being divisive, the flaw is supposed to lie with Obama—he is condemned for this. As such, the charge of divisiveness involves placing blame on the divider. This leads to the obvious question about whether or not the response is justified.

Turning back to my perceived thuggery at Shop N’ Save, while it was true that Gopal and I frightened some old people, the question is whether or not they were justified in their fear. I would say not, but since I am biased in my own favor I need to support this claim. While Gopal and I were both young men (and thus a source of fear to some), we were hardly thugs. In fact, we were hardcore nerds: we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, we were on the debate team, and we did the nerdiest of sports—track. For teenagers, we were polite and well behaved. We were certainly not inclined to engage in any thuggery towards older folks in the grocery store. As such, the fear was unwarranted. In fairness, the old people might not have known this.

In the case of Obama, the question is whether or not his alleged divisiveness has a foundation. This would involve assessing his words and deeds to determine if an objective observer would regard them as divisive. In this case, divisive words and deeds would be such that initially neutral and unbiased Americans would be moved apart and inclined to regard each other with hostility. There is, of course, an almost insurmountable obstacle here: those who regard Obama as divisive will perceive his words and deeds as having these qualities and will insist that a truly objective observer would see things as they do. His supporters will, of course, contend the opposite. While Obama has spoken more honestly and openly about such subjects as race than past presidents, his words and deeds do not seem to be such that a neutral person would be turned against other Americans on their basis. He does not, for example, make sweeping and hateful claims based on race and religion. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will think I am merely expressing my alleged liberal biases while they regard themselves as gazing upon his divisiveness via the illumination of the light of pure truth. Should Trump win in 2016, the Democrats will certainly accuse him of being divisive—and his supporters will insist that he is a uniter and not a divider. While whether or not a claim of divisiveness is well founded is a matter of concern, there is also the matter of intent. It is to this I now turn.

Continuing the analogy, a person could have qualities that frighten others and legitimately do so; yet the person might have no intention of creating such fear. For example, a person might not understand social rules about how close he should get to other people and when he can and cannot tough others. His behavior might thus scare people, but acting from ignorance rather than malice, he has no intention to scare others—in fact, he might intend quite the opposite. Such a person could be blamed for the fear he creates to the degree that he should know better, but intent would certainly matter. After all, to frighten through ignorance is rather different from intentionally frightening people.

The same can be true of divisiveness: a person might divide in ignorance and perhaps do so while attempting to bring about greater unity. If the divisive person does not intend to be divisive, then the appropriate response would be (to borrow from Socrates) take the person aside and assist them in correcting their behavior. If a person intends to be divisive, then they would deserve blame for whatever success they achieve and whatever harm they cause. While intent can be difficult to establish (since the minds of others are inaccessible), consideration of what a person does can go a long way in making this determination. In the case of Obama, his intent does not seem to be to divide Americans. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will tend to also accept that he is an intentionally divider (rather than an accidental divider) and will attribute nefarious motives to him. Those who support him will do the opposite. There is, of course, almost no possibility of reason and evidence changing the minds of the committed about this matter. However, it is certainly worth the effort to try to consider the evidence or lack of evidence for the claim that Obama is an intentional divider. I do not believe that he is the most divisive president ever or even particularly divisive in a sense that is blameworthy. It is true that some disagree with him and dislike him; but it is their choice to expand the divide rather than close it. It is like a person who runs away, all the while insisting the other person is the one to blame for the growing distance. In closing, what I have written will change no minds—those who think Obama is divisive still think that. Those who think otherwise, still think as they did before. This is, after all, a matter of how people feel rather than a matter of reason.


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The Gun and I: Backstory

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2016

English: Various donuts from the Dunkin' Donut...

Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.

Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.

Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.

Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.

Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.

Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.

While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.

Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.

Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.

While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.

While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.

Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.

Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.

When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.

While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.

While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.

When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).

Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.

I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.

That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.


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Trump Rhetoric: Naming, Insulting & Mocking

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2016

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.


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The Incredible Shifting Hillary

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on May 25, 2016

When supporters of Donald Trump are asked why they back him, the most common answers are that Trump “tells it like it is” and that he is “authentic.” When people who dislike Hillary are asked why, they often refer to her ever shifting positions and that she just says what she thinks people want to hear.

Given that Trump has, at best, a distant relation with the truth it is somewhat odd that he is seen as telling it like it is. He may be authentic, but he is most assuredly telling it like it is not. While Hillary has shifted positions, she has a far closer relationship to the truth (although still not a committed one). Those who oppose Hillary tend to focus on these shifts in making the case against her. Her defenders endeavor to minimize the impact of these claims or boldly try to make a virtue of said shifting. Given the importance of the shifting, this a matter well worth considering.

While the extent of Hillary’s shifting can be debated, the fact that she has shifted on major issues is a matter of fact. Good examples of shifts include the second Iraq War, free trade, same-sex marriage and law enforcement. While many are tempted to claim that the fact that she has shifted her views on such issues proves she is wrong now, doing this would be to fall victim to the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which it is inferred that a person’s current view or claim is mistaken because they have held to a different view or claim in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, pointing out that a person’s current claim is inconsistent with a past claim does not prove which claim is not true (and both could actually be false). After all, the person could have been wrong then while being right now. Or vice versa. Or wrong in both cases. Because of this, it cannot be inferred that Hillary’s views are wrong now simply because she held opposite views in the past.

While truth is important, the main criticism of Hillary’s shifting is not that she has moved from a correct view to an erroneous view. Rather, the criticism is that she is shifting her expressed views to match whatever she thinks the voters want to hear. That is, she is engaged in pandering.

Since pandering is a common practice in politics, it seems reasonable to hold that it is unfair to single Hillary out for special criticism. This does not, of course defend the practice. To accept that being common justifies a practice would be to fall victim to the common practice fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which a practice is defended by asserting it is a common one. Obviously enough, the mere fact that something is commonly done does not entail that it is good or justified. That said, if a practice is common yet wrong, it is still unfair to single out a specific person for special criticism for engaging in that practice. Rather, all those that engage in the practice should be criticized.

It could be argued that while pandering is a common practice, Hillary does warrant special criticism because her shifting differs in relevant and significant ways from the shifting of others. This could be a matter of volume (she shifts more than others), content (she shifts on more important issues), extent (she shifts to a greater degree) or some other factors. While judging the nature and extent of shifts does involve some subjective assessment, these factors can be evaluated with a reasonable degree of objectivity—although partisan influences can interfere with this. Since Hillary is generally viewed through the lenses of intense partisanship, I will not endeavor to address this matter—it is unlikely that anything I could write would sway partisan opinions. I will, however, address the ethics of shifting.

While there is a tendency to regard position shifting with suspicion, there are cases in which is not only acceptable, but laudable. These are cases in which the shift is justified by evidence or reasoning that warrants such a shift. For example, I was a theoretical anarchist for a while in college: I believed that the best government was the least government and preferably none at all. However, reading Locke, Hobbes and others as well as gaining a better understanding of how humans actually behave resulted in a shift in my position. I am no longer an anarchist on the grounds that the position is not well supported. To use another example, I went through a phase in which I was certain in my atheism. However, arguments made by Hume and Kant changed my view regarding the possibility of such certainty. As a final example, I used to believe in magical beings like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. However, the evidence of their nonexistence convinced me to shift my view. In all these cases the shifts are laudable: I changed my view because of considered evidence and argumentation. While there can be considerable debate about what counts as good evidence or reasoning for a shift, the basic principle seems sound. A person should believe what is best supported by evidence and reasoning and this often changes over time.

Turning back to Hillary, if she has shifted her views on the basis of evidence and reasoning that justly support her new views, then she should not be condemned for the shift. For example, if she believed in the approach to crime taken by her husband when he was President, but has changed her view in the face of evidence that this view is flawed, then her change would be quite reasonable. As might be expected, her supporters tend to claim this is why she changes her views. The challenge is to show that this is the case. Her critics typically claim that the reason for her shifts is to match what she thinks will get her the most votes, which leads to the question of whether this is a bad thing or not.

A very reasonable concern about a politician who just says what she thinks the voters want to hear is that the person lacks principles, so that the voters do not really know who they are voting for. As such, they cannot make a good decision regarding what the politician would actually do in office.

A possible reply to this is that a politician who shifts her views to match those of the voters is exactly what people should want in a representative democracy: the elected officials should act in accord with the will of the people. This does raise the broad subject of the proper function of an elected official: to do the will of the people, to do what they said they would do, to act in accord with their character and principles or something else. This goes beyond the limited scope of the essay, but the answer is rather critical to determining whether Hillary’s shifting is a good or bad thing. If politicians should act on their own principles and views rather than doing what the people want them to do, then there would seem to be good grounds for criticizing any politician whose own views are not those of the people.

A final interesting point is to argue that Hillary should not be criticized for shifting her views to match those that are now held by the majority of people (or majority of Democrats). If other people can shift their views on these matters over time in ways that are acceptable, then the same should apply to Hillary. For example, when Hillary was against same-sex marriage that was the common view in the country. Now, most Americans are fine with it—and so is Hillary. Her defenders assert that she, like most Americans, has changed her views over time in the face of changing social conditions. Her detractors claim she is merely pandering and has no commitment beyond achieving power. This is a factual matter, albeit one that is hard to settle without evidence as to what is really going on in her mind. After all, a mere change in her view to match the general view is consistent with both unprincipled pandering and a reasoned change in a position that has evolved with the times.


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Trump’s Enquiring Rhetoric

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on May 4, 2016

As this is being written, Donald Trump is the last surviving Republican presidential candidate. His final opponents, Cruz and Kasich, suspended their campaigns, though perhaps visions of a contested convention still haunt their dreams.

Cruz left the field of battle with a bizarre Trump arrow lodged in his buttocks: Trump had attacked Cruz by alleging that Ted Cruz’ father was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald. The basis for this claim was an article in the National Enquirer, a tabloid that has claimed Justice Scalia was assassinated by a hooker working for the CIA. While this tabloid has no credibility, the fact that Trump used it as a source necessitated an investigation into the claim about Cruz’ father. As should be expected, Politifact ranked it as Pants on Fire. I almost suspect that Trump is trolling the media and laughing about how he has forced them to seriously consider and thoroughly investigate claims that are utterly lacking in evidence (such as his claims about televised celebrations in America after the 9/11 attacks).

When confronted about his claim about an Oswald-Cruz connection, Trump followed his winning strategy: he refused to apologize and engaged in some Trump-Fu as his “defense.” When interviewed on ABC, his defense was as follows:  “What I was doing was referring to a picture reported and in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it. No, I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a major story and a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications. …I’m just referring to an article that appeared. I mean, it has nothing to do with me.”

This response begins with what appears to be a fallacy: he is asserting that if a claim is not denied, then it is therefore true (I am guessing the “they” is either the Cruz folks or the National Enquirer folks. This can be seen as a variation on the classic appeal to ignorance fallacy. In this fallacy, a person infers that if there is a lack of evidence against a claim, then the claim is true. However, proving a claim requires that there be adequate evidence for the claim, not just a lack of evidence against it. There is no evidence that I do not have a magical undetectable pet dragon that only I can sense. This, however, does not prove that I have such a pet.

While a failure to deny a claim might be regarded as suspicious, not denying a claim is not proof the claim is true. It might not even be known that a claim has been made (so it would not be denied). For example, Kanye West is not denying that he plans to become master of the Pan flute—but this is not proof he intends to do this. It can also be a good idea to not lend a claim psychological credence by denial—some people think that denial of a claim is evidence it is true. Naturally, Cruz did end up denying the claim.

Trump next appears to be asserting the claim is true because it was “major” and repeated. He failed to note the “major” publication is a tabloid that is lacking in credibility. As such, Trump could be seen as engaging in a fallacious appeal to authority. In this case, the National Enquirer lacks the credibility needed to serve as the basis for a non-fallacious argument from authority. Roughly put, a good argument from authority is such that the credibility of the authority provides good grounds for accepting a claim. Trump did not have a good argument from authority.

Trump also uses a fascinating technique of “own and deny.” He does this by launching an attack and then both “owning” and denying it. It is as if he punched Cruz in the face and then said, “it wasn’t me, someone else did the punching. But I will punch Cruz again. Although it wasn’t me.” I am not sure if this is a rhetorical technique or a pathological condition. However, it does allow him the best of both worlds: he can appear tough and authentic by “owning it” yet also appear to not be responsible for the attack. This seems to be quite appealing to his followers, although it is obviously logically problematic: one must either own or deny, both cannot be true.

He also makes use of an established technique:  he gets media attention drawn to a story and then uses this attention to “prove” the story is true (because it is “major” and repeated). While effective, this technique does not prove a claim is true.

Trump was also interviewed on NBC and asked why he attacked Cruz in the face of almost certain victory in Indiana.  In response, he said, “Well, because I didn’t know I had it in the grasp. …I had no idea early in the morning that was — the voting booths just starting — the voting booths were practically not even opened when I made this call. It was a call to a show. And they ran a clip of some terrible remarks made by the father about me. And all I did is refer him to these articles that appeared about his picture. And — you know, not such a bad thing.”

This does provide something of a defense for Trump. As he rightly says, he did not know he would win and he hoped that his attack would help his chances. While the fact that a practice is common does not justify it (this would be the common practice fallacy), Trump seems to be playing within the rules of negative campaigning. That said, the use of the National Enquirer as a source is a new twist as is linking an opponent to the JFK assassination. This is not to say that Trump is acting in a morally laudable manner, just that he is operating within the rules of the game. To use an analogy, while the brutal hits of football might be regarded as morally problematic, they are within the rules of the game. Likewise, such attacks are within the rules of politics.

However, Trump goes on to commit the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy: since bad things were said about Trump, he concludes that he has the right to strike back. While Trump has every right to respond to attacks, he does not have a right to respond with a completely fabricated accusation.

Trump then moves to downplaying what he did and engages in one of his signature moves: he is not really to blame (he just pointed out the articles). So, his defense is essentially “I am just punching the guy back. But, I really didn’t punch him. I just pointed out that someone else punched him. And that punching was not a bad thing.”


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My Old Husky & Philosophy III: Experiments & Studies

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 8, 2016

Isis on the GoWhile my husky, Isis, and I have both slowed down since we teamed up in 2004, she is doing remarkably well these days. As I often say, pulling so many years will slow down man and dog. While Isis faced a crisis, most likely due to the wear of time on her spine, the steroids seemed to have addressed the pain and inflammation so that we have resumed our usual adventures. Tail up and bright eyed is the way she is now and the way she should be.

In my previous essay I looked at using causal reasoning on a small sale by applying the methods of difference and agreement. In this essay I will look at thinking critically about experiments and studies.

The gold standard in science is the controlled cause to effect experiment. The objective of this experiment is to determine the effect of a cause. As such, the question is “I wonder what this does?” While the actual conducting of such an experiment can be complicated and difficult, the basic idea is rather simple. The first step is to have a question about a causal agent. For example, it might be wondered what effect steroids have on arthritis in elderly dogs. The second step is to determine the target population, which might already be taken care of in the first step—for example, elderly dogs would be the target population. The third step is to pull a random sample from the target population. This sample needs to be representative (that is, it needs to be like the target population and should ideally be a perfect match in miniature). For example, a sample from the population of elderly dogs would ideally include all breeds of dogs, male dogs, female dogs, and so on for all relevant qualities of dogs. The problem with a biased sample is that the inference drawn from the experiment will be weak because the sample might not be adequately like the general population. The sample also needs to be large enough—a sample that is too small will also fail to adequately support the inference drawn from the experiment.

The fourth step involves splitting the sample into the control group and the experimental group. These groups need to be as similar as possible (and can actually be made of the same individuals). The reason they need to be alike is because in the fifth step the experimenters introduce the cause (such as steroids) to the experimental group and the experiment is run to see what difference this makes between the two groups. The final step is getting the results and determining if the difference is statistically significant. This occurs when the difference between the two groups can be confidently attributed to the presence of the cause (as opposed to chance or other factors). While calculating this properly can be complicated, when assessing an experiment (such as a clinical trial) it is easy enough to compare the number of individuals in the sample to the difference between the experimental and control groups. This handy table from Critical Thinking makes this quite easy and also shows the importance of having a large enough sample.


Number in Experimental Group

(with similarly sized control group)

Approximate Figure That the difference Must Exceed

To Be Statistically Significant

(in percentage points)

10 40
25 27
50 19
100 13
250 8
500 6
1,000 4
1,500 3


Many “clinical trials” mentioned in articles and blog posts have very small samples sizes and this often makes their results meaningless. This table also shows why anecdotal evidence is fallacious: a sample size of one is all but completely useless when it comes to an experiment.

The above table also assumes that the experiment is run correctly: the sample was representative, the control group was adequately matched to the experimental group, the experimenters were not biased, and so on for all the relevant factors. As such, when considering the results of an experiment it is important to consider those factors as well. If, for example, you are reading an article about an herbal supplement for arthritic dogs and it mentions a clinical trial, you would want to check on the sample size, the difference between the two groups and determine whether the experiment was also properly conducted. Without this information, you would need to rely entirely on the credibility of the source. If the source is credible and claims that the experiment was conducted properly, then it would be reasonable to trust the results. If the source’s credibility is in question, then trust should be withheld. Assessing credibility is a matter of determining expertise and the goal is to avoid being a victim of a fallacious appeal to authority. Here is a short checklist for determining whether a person (or source) is an expert or not:


  • The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.
  • The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.
  • There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.
  • The person in question is not significantly biased.
  • The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.
  • The authority in question must be identified.


While the experiment is the gold standard, there are times when it cannot be used. In some cases, this is a matter of ethics: exposing people or animals to something potentially dangerous might be deemed morally unacceptable. In other cases, it is a matter of practicality or necessity. In such cases, studies are used.

One type of study is the non-experimental cause to effect study. This is identical to the cause to effect experiment with one rather critical difference: the experimental group is not exposed to the cause by those running the study. For example, a study might be conducted of dogs who recovered from Lyme disease to see what long term effects it has on them.

The study, as would be expected, runs in the same basic way as the experiment and if there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups (and it has been adequately conducted) then it is reasonable to make the relevant inference about the effect of the cause in question.

While useful, this sort of study is weaker than the experiment. This is because those conducting the study have to take what they get—the experimental group is already exposed to the cause and this can create problems in properly sorting out the effect of the cause in question. As such, while a properly run experiment can still get erroneous results, a properly run study is even more likely to have issues.

A second type of study is the effect to cause study. It differs from the cause to effect experiment and study in that the effect is known but the cause is not. Hence, the goal is to infer an unknown cause from the known effect. It also differs from the experiment in that those conducting the study obviously do not introduce the cause.

This study is conducted by comparing the experimental group and the control group (which are, ideally, as similar as possible) to sort out a likely cause by considering the differences between them. As would be expected, this method is far less reliable than the others since those doing the study are trying to backtrack from an effect to a cause. If considerable time has passed since the suspected cause, this can make the matter even more difficult to sort out. The conducting the study also have to work with the experimental group they happen to get and this can introduce many complications into the study, making a strong inference problematic.

An example of this would be a study of elderly dogs who suffer from paw knuckling (the paw flips over so the dog is walking on the top of the paw) to determine the cause of this effect. As one might suspect, finding the cause would be challenging—there would be a multitude of potential causes in the history of the dogs ranging from injury to disease. It is also quite likely that there are many causes in play here, and this would require sorting out the different causes for this same effect. Because of such factors, the effect to cause study is the weakest of the three and supports the lowest level of confidence in its results even when conducted properly. This explains why it can be so difficult for researchers to determine the causes of many problems that, for example, elderly dogs suffer from.

In the case of Isis, the steroids that she is taking have been well-studied, so it is quite reasonable for me to believe that they are a causal factor in her remarkable recovery. I do not, however, know for sure what caused her knuckling—there are so many potential causes for that effect. However, the important thing is that she is now walking normally about 90% of the time and her tail is back in the air, showing that she is a happy husky.


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