The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

You're accidentally wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agrumentum per accidens (secundum quid)

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

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

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

Another one:

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

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

Converse accident (hasty generalization)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red herring

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

Argumentum ignoratio elenchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is on you, Wayne LaPierre

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

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

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

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

Awe and Force

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

Argumentum ad vericundiam

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

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

Argumentum ad baculum

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

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

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

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

Three unrelated articles

First, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott takes a second look at the 1999 film Election:

The movie has been persistently and egregiously misunderstood, and I count myself among the many admirers who got it wrong. Because somehow I didn’t remember — or didn’t see— what has been right there onscreen the whole time.

Which is that Mr. M is a monster — a distillation of human moral squalor with few equals in modern American cinema — and that Tracy Flick is the heroine who bravely, if imperfectly, resists his efforts to destroy her. She’s not Moby-Dick to his Ahab so much as Jean Valjean to his Inspector Javert.

Second, with Lake Michigan at record-high water levels for the second month in a row, several of Chicago's beaches have disappeared:

This year, the buoyant water has swallowed at least two Chicago beaches entirely and periodically closed others. It has swiped fishermen from piers, swimmers from beaches and submerged jetties, creating hazards for boaters. It has flooded heavily trafficked parts of lakefront bicycle and pedestrian pathways, leaving some stretches underwater and others crumbling.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this summer is that these perils have occurred while the lake has remained mostly calm.

“Fall is the time of the year when wave conditions are historically the most severe on the Great Lakes,” said David Bucaro, outreach manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District. “We’re at a calmer period right now. There’s been some summer storms. But that October, November time period is when we really experience historically the most powerful coastal storms. That’s the conditions that we’re monitoring and are most concerned with.”

Should be fun this fall.

Next, writing for the LA Times, Rebecca Wexler points out that data-privacy laws giving law enforcement the power to snoop on electronic devices is deeply unfair to defendants for an unexpected reason:

Social media messages, photo metadata, Amazon Echo recordings, smart water meter data, and Fitbit readings have all been used in criminal cases. The new laws would limit how defendants can access this key evidence, making it difficult or impossible for defendants to show they acted in self-defense, or a witness is lying, or someone else is guilty of the crime.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, which was approved in 2018, allows law enforcement officers to obtain data from technology companies and prohibit those companies from immediately notifying the person they are investigating. Such delayed notice may be necessary to investigate someone who is dangerous or likely to destroy evidence or flee. But the law does not give defense investigators the same right to delay notification to witnesses or others — who might well pose a threat to the defendant — when they subpoena data from tech companies as part of the defense’s case.

I will now rejoin a long-running data analysis project, already in progress.

The movement to kick Chicago out of Illinois

These movements crop up from time to time, and it's not going to happen in my lifetime. But the Tribune did a lengthy report on the latest effort to separate Chicago and the rest of Illinois into two states:

Over the past two years, the movement to divide the state of Illinois into two states — Cook County in one, the other 101 counties in the other — has been gaining support. In February, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker was pursuing an agenda for Illinois that included new tax and abortion policies, Halbrook refiled a resolution in the state legislature, HR 101, in which he and six co-sponsors asked the U.S. Congress to recognize Chicago as the 51st state. “I hear it a lot from my constituents, that we need to be separate from Chicago,” Halbrook says. “I thought yep, this is what we need to do.”

G.H. Merritt, a Lake County woman who founded New Illinois, the group hosting the Mount Vernon event, starts her presentation after the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. She points out to the crowd — now using New Illinois brochures to fan themselves as the overwhelmed air conditioning loses its grip — that the idea of a state split isn’t new. In fact, groups from either downstate or Chicago have tried to secede from Illinois several times since 1840, when a group of northern counties asked to be given to Wisconsin. (The state line was set above the tip of Lake Michigan in 1818.) In the 1970s, a group of western counties dubbed themselves the Republic of Forgottonia. And in 1981, a Chicago legislator pushed a secession bill through the state Senate, as a public poke at downstate counties for complaining about CTA funding. The bill was tabled by then Speaker of the House George Ryan. Most recently, downstate legislators proposed a split in 2011, after election data showed that in 2010 Gov. Pat Quinn won only three downstate counties — and gained the governorship by carrying Cook County.

I mean, honestly. Why would anyone in Chicago want a "Southern Illinois" on our border with two Republican senators? Our current polarization is exactly the reason some sensible rejiggering of borders in the US won't happen. You want South Illinois? Great; admit Puerto Rico and DC at the same time.

John Judis on the Democratic Party

The journalist believes we need to get our act together:

The main point I would make is this: even if you accept the fact that the candidates are currently trying to stake out pluralities among Democratic primary voters and not yet seeking to woo the greater public, they are not doing a very good job of it. And that really worries me.

I'm not so worried. We've typically had this sort of circus in the early stages of an election season, and with the actual event more than 15 months way, we've got time.

Lunchtime reading

Yep, one of these posts.

Back to coding...

Maybe I was too harsh on Dan Coats

Everything I'm learning about John Ratcliffe, the president's likely nominee for Director of National Intelligence, suggests he's orders of magnitude worse than the guy he's replacing:

The intelligence community will fight hard against a threat to its culture of avoiding open partisanship, former senior CIA operations officer John Sipher told NBC News. "It's all about professionalism and taking the world as it is. There is no such thing as Democratic or Republican intelligence. It is what it is, no matter how inconvenient."

Dan Coats, the former Indiana senator whose departure as DNI paved the way for Trump to pick Ratcliffe, appeared to live by that code. He discussed intelligence assessments in public that were at odds with Trump's worldview, and he focused on the issue of Russian election interference, an issue Trump appears to view as a threat to his legitimacy. As NBC News has previously reported, that candor contributed to a strain between Coats and Trump that led to the former's departure.

Ratcliffe, by contrast, has focused on what he believes was misconduct at the heart of the Russia investigation and has spent little time talking about Russia's interference in the American political system.

Ratcliffe, 53, has little experience in national security or intelligence. He was elected in 2014 with the support of the Tea Party, ousting 91-year-old incumbent Republican Ralph Hall. Ratcliffe had been the mayor of Heath, Texas — population 7,000 — from 2004 to 2012.

Reactions from Republicans to Trump's selection of Ratcliffe were tepid. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, which will hold Ratcliffe's confirmation hearing, waited a day before congratulating Ratcliffe in a statement that did not quite endorse him.

The basic point I made Sunday stands: both Coats and Ratcliffe are party hacks, but Coats at least has experience and a surprising pattern of not just telling the president what he wants to hear. Ratcliffe doesn't seem to have that temperament. So in one more department, all we can do is hope that the career professionals will do their jobs well, and resist the partisan hackery from their political bosses.