As this is being written at the end of November, Donald Trump is still the leading Republican presidential candidate. While some might take the view that this is in spite of the outrageous and terrible things Trump says, a better explanation is that he is doing well because of this behavior. Some regard it as evidence of his authenticity and find it appealing in the face of so many slick and seemingly inauthentic politicians (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are regarded by some as examples of this). Some agree with what Trump says and thus find this behavior very appealing.
Trump was once again in the media spotlight for an outrageous claim. This time, he made a claim about something he believed happened on 9/11: “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
Trump was immediately called on this claim on the grounds that it is completely untrue. While it would be as reasonable to dismiss Trump’s false claim as it would be to dismiss any other claim that is quite obviously untrue, the Washington Post and Politifact undertook a detailed investigation. On the one hand, it seems needless to dignify such a falsehood with investigation. On the other hand, since Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his claims could be regarded as meriting the courtesy of a fact check rather than simple dismissal as being patently ludicrous. As should be expected, while they did find some urban myths and rumors, they found absolutely no evidence supporting Trump’s claim.
Rather impressively, Trump decided to double-down on his claim rather than acknowledging that his claim is manifestly false. His confidence has also caused some of his supporters to accept his claim, typically with vague references about having some memory of something that would support Trump’s claim. This is consistent with the way ideologically motivated “reasoning” works: when confronted with evidence against a claim that is part of one’s ideologically identity, the strength of the belief becomes even stronger. This holds true across the political spectrum and into other areas as well. For example, people who strongly identify with the anti-vaccination movement not only dismiss the overwhelming scientific evidence against their views, they often double-down on their beliefs and some even take criticism as more proof that they are right.
This tendency does make psychological sense—when part of a person’s identity is at risk, it is natural to engage in a form of wishful thinking and accept (or reject) a claim because one really wants the claim to be true (or false). However, wishful thinking is fallacious thinking—wanting a claim to be true does not make it true. As such, this tendency is a defect in a person’s rationality and giving in to it will generally lead to poor decision making.
There is also the fact that since at least the time of Nixon a narrative about liberal media bias has been constructed and implanted into the minds of many. This provides an all-purpose defense against almost any negative claims made by the media about conservatives. Because of this, Trump’s defenders can allege that the media covered up the story (which would, of course, contradict his claim that he saw all those people in another city celebrating 9/11) or that they are now engaged in a conspiracy against Trump.
A rather obvious problem with the claim that the media is engaged in some sort of conspiracy is that if Trump saw those thousands celebrating in New Jersey, then there should be no shortage of witnesses and video evidence. However, there are no witnesses and no such video evidence. This is because Trump’s claim is not true.
While it would be easy to claim that Trump is simply lying, this might not be the case. As discussed in an earlier essay I wrote about presidential candidate Ben Carson’s untrue claims, a claim being false is not sufficient to make it a lie. For example, a person might say that he has $20 in his pocket but be wrong because a pickpocket stole it a few minutes ago. Her claim would be untrue, but it would be a mistake to accuse her of being a liar. While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, for Trump to be lying about this he would need to believe that what he is saying is not true and be engaged in the right (or rather) wrong sort of intent. The matter of intent is important for obvious reasons, such as distinguishing fiction writers from liars. If Trump believes what he is saying, then he would not be lying.
While it might seem inconceivable that Trump really believes such an obvious untruth, it could very well be the case. Memory, as has been well-established, is notoriously unreliable. People forget things and fill in the missing pieces with bits of fiction they think are facts. This happens to all of us because of our imperfect memories and a need for a coherent narrative. There is also the fact that people can convince themselves that something is true—often by using on themselves various rhetorical techniques. One common way this is done is by reputation—the more often people hear a claim repeated, the more likely it is that they will accept it as true, even when there is no evidence for the claim. This is why the use of repeated talking points is such a popular strategy among politicians, pundits and purveyors. Trump might have told himself his story so many times that he now sincerely believes it and once it is cemented in his mind, it will be all but impossible for any evidence or criticism to dislodge his narrative. If this is the case, in his mind there was such massive celebrations and he probably can even “remember” the images and sounds—such is the power of the mind.
Trump could, of course, be well aware that he is saying something untrue but has decided to stick with his claim. This would make considerable sense—while people are supposed to pay a price for being completely wrong and an even higher price for lying, Trump has been rewarded with more coverage and more support with each new outrageous thing he does or says. Because of this success, Trump has excellent reasons to continue doing what he has been doing. It might take him all the way to the White House.
At the end of October, 2015 the remaining Republican candidates engaged in what the media billed as a debate. Many people have been rather critical of the way the moderators managed the debate and the questions they raised. While some attribute their behavior to political bias and present it as evidence of the dreaded liberal bias of the media, a better explanation is that the main concern of the moderators was to maximize the number of eyeballs watching the event. Substantive questions about the nuances of policy and their answers tend to bore people. Questions that compare Donald Trump to a comic book villain and pit the contestants against each other are entertaining and more likely to draw an audience.
While the quality and intent of the “debate” moderators are matters of interest, my main concern in this essay is the matter of truth and its relevance to politics. I am well aware that the cynical view that truth matters in politics as much as Jek Porkins mattered in the attack on the Death Star. While people often shrug and make jokes about politicians being liars when the matter of truth in politics comes up, if truth does not matter much in politics, then we are to blame. We accept the untruths of those who share our ideology, though we pounce with ferocity on the lies of the opposing team. In fact, we even pounce on the truths of the opposing team. This is largely due to well-studied psychological biases. Fortunately, there are those who make it their business to assess the claims of the political class. Most notable among them is Politifact.
While politicians grow a bounteous crop of untruths in their minds, I will focus on one interesting example of Ben Carson and his relationship with Mannatech. Carl Quintanilla, one of the moderators, asked Carson about his relationship with this company:
Quintanilla: There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer. They paid $7 million dollars to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?
Carson: Well, it’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.
While some might regard this as a “gotcha” question or an example of the liberal media bias, it is actually as reasonable to ask this of Carson as it would be to ask Hillary Clinton about her various financial connections. These sorts of questions are legitimate inquiries about judgment, character and the sort of interests that might influence a politician. They also are relevant in terms of what potential scandals might emerge.
Carson was also given a clear test of character: would he bear false witness in regards to his own deeds and say something false or would he set himself free with the truth? His choice was to say he “didn’t have an involvement with them.” Unfortunately, this claim contradicts the known facts. The Wall Street Journal has laid out Carson’s ties to this company. Politifact has, not surprisingly, rated his claim as false. They did not, however, apply the lowest ranking, that of Pants on Fire.
No doubt aware that Carson had make an untrue claim, the moderator endeavored to press him on this point:
Quintanilla: To be fair, you were on the homepage of the website with the logo over your shoulder.
Carson: If somebody put me on their homepage, they did it without my permission.
Quintanilla: Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgement in any way?
Carson: No, it speaks to the fact that I don’t know those… See, they know.
At this point, the audience began to boo Quintanilla, presumably in defense of Carson. This was not particularly surprising: Fox New and conservative politicians have been pushing the “liberal media” and “gotcha” question talking points very effectively and a dislike for non-conservative media is very strong in many conservatives. To be fair to the audience, they might not have known that Carson said something untrue and that the moderator was endeavoring to make that clear—which is what should be expected in a forum that should involve challenging questions.
However, the audience did not need to be aware of the particular facts that made Carson’s claim untrue. There was no need for them to have done research since he refuted his own claim about not being involved with the company in his reply. Carson said, “I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” A reasonable interpretation of the claim that he “didn’t have any kind of relationship with them” is that he had no relationship with the company. Doing paid speeches for the company would certainly seem to be involvement and a relationship. The facts, of course, point to a significant involvement with the company. But, even without those facts, his own claim he was paid by the company shows that he was involved with the company.
It could be claimed that Carson meant something else by “involvement” and “relationship” and he could be defended on semantic grounds—much as Bill Clinton attempted a definitional defense regarding the word “sex” when pressed by the Republicans. To be fair, “involvement” and “relationship” could be taken to require more than being paid to give speeches. To use an analogy, while a hooker might be paid to provide a man with sex, this does not entail that she is involved with him or that she has a relationship with him. As such, the audience could be forgiven for booing the moderator for endeavoring to take Carson to task for saying an untruth. The audience members might have honestly believed that being paid to give speeches does not count as involvement or a relationship and presumably they would extend this same principle to Democratic candidates who have been paid by various interests yet are not “involved” with them.
When pressed by Jim Geraghty of the National Review about this matter, the Carson camp engaged in an intriguing semantic defense involving the path by which the compensation reached Carson and what actually counts as an endorsement. The reader is invited to view the video featuring Dr. Carson talking about Mannatech and judge whether or not this should be considered an endorsement. To my untrained eye, this seems indistinguishable from other paid endorsements I have seen. As such, it seems reasonable to hold that Carson spoke an untruth and some of the audience rushed to defend him for this. Neither is surprising, but both are disappointing. Especially since Carson’s poll numbers are doing just fine. Either his supporters do not believe he said untrue things or they do not care. Both of these explanations are worrying.
As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.
In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.
From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.
When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.
While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency. Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.
Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.
Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.
Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics. Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.
Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs. It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.
This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.
While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.
Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.
One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.
What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).
As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates. Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.
During a recent discussion, I was asked if I believed that a person who holds to the pro-life position must be a misogynist. While there are misogynists who are pro-life, I hold to what should be obvious: there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and being a misogynist. A misogynist hates women, while a person who holds a pro-life position believes that abortion is morally wrong. There is no inconsistency between holding the moral position that abortion is wrong and not being a hater of women. In fact, a pro-life person could have a benevolent view towards all living beings and be morally opposed to harming any of them—thus including zygotes and women.
While misogynists would tend to be anti-choice because of their hatred of women, they need not be pro-life. That is, hating women and wanting to deny them the choice to have an abortion does not entail that a person believes that abortion is morally wrong. For example, a misogynist could be fine with abortion (such as when it is convenient to him) but think that it should be up to the man to decide if or when a pregnancy is terminated. A misogynist might even be pro-choice for various reasons; but almost certainly not because he is a proponent of the rights of women. As such, there is no necessary connection between the two views.
The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not a pro-choice position is a cover for misogyny. The easy and obvious answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Since it has been established that a person can be pro-life without being a misogynist, it follows that being pro-life need not be a cover for misogyny. However, it can obviously provide cover for such a position. It is rather easier to sell the idea of restricting abortion by making a moral case against it than by expressing hatred of women and a desire to restrict their choices and reproductive option. Before progressing with the discussion it is rather important to address two points.
The first point is that even if it is established that a pro-life/anti-abortion person is a misogynist, this does not entail that the person’s position on the issue of abortion is in error. To reject a misogynist’s claims or arguments regarding abortion (or anything) on the grounds that he is a misogynist is to commit a circumstantial ad hominem.
This sort of Circumstantial ad Hominem involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.) for reasons against her claim. This version has the following form:
- Person A makes claim X.
- Person B makes an attack on A’s circumstances.
- Therefore X is false.
A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false.” As such, to assert that the pro-life position is in error because some misogynist holds that view would be an error in reasoning.
A second important point is that a person’s consistency or lack thereof in regards to her principles or actions has no relevance to the truth of her claims or the strength of her arguments. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:
- Person A makes claim X.
- Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
- Therefore X is false.
The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.
A person’s inconsistency also does not show that the person does not believe her avowed principle—she might simply be ignorant of its implications. That said, such inconsistency could be evidence of hypocrisy. While sorting out a person’s actual principles is not relevant to logical assessment of the person’s claims, doing so is clearly relevant to many types of decision making regarding the person. One area where sorting out a person’s principles matters is in voting. In the next essay, this matter will be addressed.
After Cecil the Lion was shot, the internet erupted in righteous fury against the killer. Not everyone was part of this eruption and some folks argued against feeling bad for Cecil—some accusing the mourners of being phonies and pointing out that lions kill people. What really caught my attention, however, was the use of a common tactic—to “refute” those condemning the killing of Cecil by asserting that these “lion lovers” do not get equally upset about the fetuses killed in abortions.
When HitchBOT was destroyed, a similar sort of response was made—in fact, when I have written about ethics and robots (or robot-like things) I have been subject to criticism on the same grounds: it is claimed that I value robots more than fetuses and presumably I have thus made some sort of error in my arguments about robots.
Since I find this tactic interesting and have been its target, I thought it would be worth my while to examine it in a reasonable and (hopefully) fair way.
One way to look at this approach is to take it as the use of the Consistent Application method, which is as follows. A moral principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.
Equality is the assumption that those that moral equals must be treated as such. It also requires that those that are not morally equal be treated differently.
Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.
Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.
The method of Consistent Application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations that are not relevantly different. This allows one to conclude that the application is inconsistent, which is generally regarded as a problem. The general form is as follows:
Step 1: Show that a principle/standard has been applied differently in situations that are not adequately different.
Step 2: Conclude that the principle has been applied inconsistently.
Step 3 (Optional): Require that the principle be applied consistently.
Applying this method often requires determining the principle the person/group is using. Unfortunately, people are not often clear in regards to what principle they are actually using. In general, people tend to just make moral assertions and leave it to others to guess what their principles might be. In some cases, it is likely that people are not even aware of the principles they are appealing to when making moral claims.
Turning now to the cases of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus consistent application could be applied as follows:
Step 1: Those who are outraged at the killing of the lion are using the principle that the killing of living things is wrong. Those outraged at the destruction of HitchBOT are using the principle that helpless things should not be destroyed. These people are not outraged by abortions in general and the Planned Parenthood abortions in particular.
Step 2: The lion and HitchBOT mourners are not being consistent in their application of the principle since fetuses are helpless (like HitchBOT) and living things (like Cecil the lion).
Step 3 (Optional): Those mourning for Cecil and HitchBOT should mourn for the fetuses and oppose abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.
This sort of use of Consistent Application is quite appealing and I routinely use the method myself. For example, I have argued (in a reverse of this situation) that people who are anti-abortion should also be anti-hunting and that people who are fine with hunting should also be morally okay with abortion.
As with any method of arguing, there are counter methods. In the case of this method, there are three general reasonable responses. The first is to admit the inconsistency and stop applying the principle in an inconsistent manner. This obviously does not defend against the charge but can be an honest reply. People, as might be imagined, rarely take this option.
A second way to reply and one that is an actual defense is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. The primary way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. For example, someone who wants to be morally opposed to the shooting of Cecil while being morally tolerant of abortions could argue that the adult lion has a moral status different from the fetus—one common approach is to note the relation of the fetus to the woman and how a lion is an independent entity. The challenge lies in making a case for the relevance of the difference.
A third way to reply is to reject the attributed principle. In the situation at hand, the assumption is that a person is against killing the lion simply because it is alive. However, that might not be the principle the person is, in fact, using. His principle might be based on the suffering of a conscious being and not on mere life. In this case, the person would be consistent in his application.
Naturally enough, the “new” principle is still subject to evaluation. For example, it could be argued the suffering principle is wrong and that the life principle should be accepted instead. In any case, this method is not an automatic “win.”
An alternative interpretation of this tactic is to regard it as an ad homimen: An ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:
- Person A makes claim X.
- Person B makes an attack on person A.
- Therefore A’s claim is false.
The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).
In the case of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus, the reasoning can be seen as follows:
- Person A claims that killing Cecil was wrong or that destroying HitchBOT was wrong.
- Person B notes that A does not condemn abortions in general or Planned Parenthood’s abortions in particular.
- Therefore A is wrong about Cecil or HitchBOT.
Obviously enough, a person’s view of abortion does not prove or disprove her view about the ethics of the killing of Cecil or HitchBOT (although a person can, of course, be engaged in inconsistency or other errors—but these are rather different matters).
A third alternative is that the remarks are not meant as an argument, either the reasonable application of a Consistent Application criticism or the unreasonable attack of an ad homimen. In this case, the point is to assert that the lion lovers and bot buddies are awful people or, at best, misguided.
The gist of the tactic is, presumably, to make these people seem bad by presenting a contrast: these lion lovers and bot buddies are broken up about lions and trashcans, but do not care about fetuses—what awful people they are.
One clear point of concern is that moral concern is not a zero-sum game. That is, regarding the killing of Cecil as wrong and being upset about it does not entail that a person thus cares less (or not at all) about fetuses. After all, people do not just get a few “moral tokens” to place such that being concerned about one misdeed entails they must be unable to be concerned about another. Put directly, a person can condemn the killing of Cecil and also condemn abortion.
The obvious response is that there are people who are known to condemn the killing of Cecil or the destruction of HitchBOT and also known to be pro-choice. These people, it can be claimed, are morally awful. The equally obvious counter is that while it is easy to claim such people are morally awful, the challenge lies in showing that they are actually awful. That is, that their position on abortion is morally wrong. Noting that they are against lion killing or bot bashing and pro-choice does not show they are in error—although, as noted above, they could be challenged on the grounds of consistency. But this requires laying out an argument rather than merely juxtaposing their views on these issues. This version of the tactic simply amounts to asserting or implying that there is something wrong with the person because one disagree with that person. But a person thinking that hunting lions or bashing bots is okay and that abortion is wrong, does not prove that the opposing view is in error. It just states the disagreement.
Since the principle of charity requires reconstructing and interpreting arguments in the best possible way, I endeavor to cast this sort of criticism as a Consistent Application attack rather than the other two. This approach is respectful and, most importantly, helps avoid creating a straw man of the opposition.
The murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina ignited an intense discussion of race and violence. While there has been near-universal condemnation of the murders, some people take effort to argue that these killings are part of a broader problem of racism in America. This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America as well as consideration of data from today. Interestingly, some people respond to this approach by asserting that more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. Some even seem obligated to add the extra fact that more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites.
While these points are often just “thrown out there” without being forged into part of a coherent argument, presumably the intent of such claims is to somehow disprove or at least diminish the significance of claims regarding violence against blacks by whites. To be fair, there might be other reasons for bringing up such claims—perhaps the person is engaged in an effort to broaden the discussion to all violence out of a genuine concern for the well-being of all people.
In cases in which the claims about the number of blacks killed by blacks are brought forth in response to incidents such as the church shooting, this tactic appears to be a specific form of a red herring. This fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.
This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
- Topic A is under discussion.
- Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
- Topic A is abandoned.
In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:
- The topic of racist violence against blacks is being discussed, specifically the church shooting.
- The topic of blacks killing other blacks is brought up.
- The topic of racist violence against blacks is abandoned in favor of focusing on blacks killing other blacks.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. In the specific case at hand, switching the topic to black on black violence does nothing to address the topic of racist violence against blacks.
While the red herring label would certainly suffice for these cases, it is certainly appealing to craft a more specific sort of fallacy for cases in which something bad is “countered” by bringing up another bad. The obvious name for this fallacy is the “two bads fallacy.” This is a fallacy in which a second bad thing is presented in response to a bad thing with the intent of distracting attention from the first bad thing (or with the intent of diminishing the badness of the first bad thing).
This fallacy has the following pattern:
- Bad thing A is under discussion.
- Bad thing B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to A (when B is actually not relevant to A in this context).
- Bad thing A is ignored, or the badness of A is regarded as diminished or refuted.
In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:
- The murder of nine people in the AME church, which is bad, is being discussed.
- Blacks killing other blacks, which is bad, is brought up.
- The badness of the murder of the nine people is abandoned, or its badness is regarded as diminished or refuted.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that something else is bad does not entail that another bad thing thus has its badness lessened or refuted. After all, the fact that there are worse things than something does not entail that it is not bad. In cases in which there is not an emotional or ideological factor, the poorness of this reasoning is usually evident:
Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Well, some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “Yeah, so much for your broken arm being bad. You are just fine. Get back to work.”
What seems to lend this sort of “reasoning” some legitimacy is that comparing two things that are bad is relevant to determining relative badness. If a person is arguing about how bad something is, it is certainly reasonable to consider it in the context of other bad things. For example, the following would not be fallacious reasoning:
Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “That is worse than one broken arm.”
Sam: “Indeed it is.”
Joe: “But having a broken arm must still suck.”
Sam: “Indeed it does.”
Because of this, it is important to distinguish between cases of the fallacy (X is bad, but Y is also bad, so X is not bad) and cases in which a legitimate comparison is being made (X is bad, but Y is worse, so X is less bad than Y, but still bad).
As part of my critical thinking class, I cover the usual topics of credibility and experiments/studies. Since people often find critical thinking a dull subject, I regularly look for real-world examples that might be marginally interesting to students. As such, I was intrigued by John Bohannon’s detailed account of how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.”
Bohannon’s con provides an excellent cautionary tale for critical thinkers. First, he lays out in detail how easy it is to rig an experiment to get (apparently) significant results. As I point out to my students, a small experiment or study can generate results that seem significant, but really are not. This is why it is important to have an adequate sample size—as a starter. What is also needed is proper control, proper selection of the groups, and so on.
Second, he provides a clear example of a disgraceful stain on academic publishing, namely “pay to publish” journals that do not engage in legitimate peer review. While some bad science does slip through peer review, these journals apparently publish almost anything—provided that the fee is paid. Since the journals have reputable sounding names and most people do not know which journals are credible and which are not, it is rather easy to generate a credible seeming journal publication. This is why I cover the importance of checking sources in my class.
Third, he details how various news outlets published or posted the story without making even perfunctory efforts to check its credibility. Not surprisingly, I also cover the media in my class both from the standpoint of being a journalist and being a consumer of news. I stress the importance of confirming credibility before accepting claims—especially when doing so is one’s job.
While Bohannon’s con does provide clear evidence of problems in regards to corrupt journals, uncritical reporting and consumer credulity, the situation does raise some points worth considering. One is that while he might have “fooled millions” of people, he seems to have fooled relative few journalists (13 out of about 5,000 reporters who subscribe to the Newswise feed Bohannon used) and these seem to be more of the likes of the Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan as opposed to what might be regarded as more serious health news sources. While it is not known why the other reporters did not run the story, it is worth considering that some of them did look at it critically and rejected it. In any case, the fact that a small number of reporters fell for a dubious story is hardly shocking. It is, in fact, just what would be expected given the long history of journalism.
Another point of concern is the ethics of engaging in such a con. It is possible to argue that Bohannon acted ethically. One way to do this is to note that using deceit to expose a problem can be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, it seems morally acceptable for a journalist or police officer to use deceit and go undercover to expose criminal activity. As such, Bohannon could contend that his con was effectively an undercover operation—he and his fellows pretended to be the bad guys to expose a problem and thus his deceit was morally justified by the fact that it exposed problems.
One obvious objection to this is that Bohannon’s deceit did not just expose corrupt journals and incautious reporters. It also misinformed the audience who read or saw the stories. To be fair, the harm would certainly be fairly minimal—at worst, people who believed the story would consume dark chocolate and this is not exactly a health hazard. However, intentionally spreading such misinformation seems morally problematic—especially since story retractions or corrections tend to get far less attention than the original story.
One way to counter this objection is to draw an analogy to the exposure of flaws by hackers. These hackers reveal vulnerabilities in software with the stated intent of forcing companies to address the vulnerabilities. Exposing such vulnerabilities can do some harm by informing the bad guys, but the usual argument is that this is outweighed by the good done when the vulnerability is fixed.
While this does have some appeal, there is the concern that the harm done might not outweigh the good done. In Bohannon’s case it could be argued that he has done more harm than good. After all, it is already well-established that the “pay to publish” journals are corrupt, that there are incautious journalists and credulous consumers. As such, Bohannon has not exposed anything new—he has merely added more misinformation to the pile.
It could be countered that although these problems are well known, it does help to continue to bring them to the attention of the public. Going back to the analogy of software vulnerabilities, it could be argued that if a vulnerability is exposed, but nothing is done to patch it, then the problem should be brought up until it is fixed, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” Bohannon has certainly brought these problems into the spotlight and this might do more good than harm. If so, then this con would be morally acceptable—at least on utilitarian grounds.