February 09, 2007
How lying about motives can make motives relevant
While it might be a generational thing (possibly aggravated in my case because I had a classical education of the old school variety), I'm often frustrated by what seems like an utter failure of simple logic. I'd say "logical error" except that attacking arguments by focusing instead on things like people's sources of income, their political affiliation, their race, or even their position on other issues not related to the argument, are not so much errors in logic as they are complete failures to use logic.
It is as if people are content with saying, you are wrong because you are on the other side of this issue. Well, duh! Of course he's on the other side. Isn't that supposed to be the starting point of the argument?
One of the most common forms this classic ad hominem attack takes is to claim that an opponent works for or has been paid by some entity perceived as a malefactor.
The first time I experienced this personally, I had called the offices of a San Mateo County Supervisor who was seeking to prohibit gun shows, which I saw as a violation of the First Amendment. Before I could even state my position, I was asked, point blank -- "Are you a member of the NRA?" After I said I was, I was told that they had "heard enough from the gun lobby" and "we want input from ordinary citizens."
I'll never forget it. My argument was nullified without my being heard, much less addressed. I was considered a "lobbyist" -- simply because I had joined an organization and paid $35.00 or whatever it was. Not only was this deeply insulting, but it was profoundly illogical. Had I not bothered to join the NRA, my argument would have been exactly the same. And it would be exactly the same even if the NRA had paid me $10,000.
The lack of logic seems so painfully obvious that I don't see why extended discussion is necessary. So why do I get so frustrated? Perhaps my education is the problem; I was trained in logic and debate according to the old school -- and an "argument" that someone's affiliation or employment negated his logic would have been considered so pathetic that it would have generated laughter -- and if that was all that was presented, a failing grade. But what was considered logical failure in my youth can mean political success today, and it frustrates me. I'm often forced to wonder whether the rules have changed, and if they have, whether I wouldn't be more successful practicing simple demagoguery, say, as a rhetorical thug working as a scruple-free political operative. (Probably just what they're looking for right now.)
Arnold Kling had an excellent anaylsis of this problem in his discussion of Type C (consequences) and Type M (motives) arguments:
A hypothetical example of a Type C argument would be, "Well, Arnold, studies actually show that the minimum wage does not cost jobs. If you read the work of Krueger and Card, you would see that the minimum wage probably reduces poverty."The problem is that they work, or else people wouldn't use them.
But none of this is new. What is new is to see evidence of a dramatic increase in the use of these sorts of illogical attacks -- to the point where allegations that someone is being paid are now considered so persuasive that they're being made up.
The worst part about this is that the shift in the debate creates an appearance that an illegitimate argument is now legitimate.
In a recent example, scientists who didn't take money from Exxon were accused in the British tabloids of taking money from Exxon.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as propaganda from British tabloids, except that a few days ago the "news" crossed the Atlantic where more respectable media outlets, including the Washington Post, are reporting the story in what has become all too typical pack fashion. A CNNMoney.com report offered that, "A think tank partly funded by ExxonMobil sent letters to scientists offering them up to $10,000 to critique findings in a major global warming study released Friday which found that global warming was real and likely caused by burning fossil fuels."Ah, but here's the problem: by forcing these scientists and Exxon and AEI to jump through these hoops, what is being lost is that even if they had been taking money, it would have had nothing to do with the legitimacy of their arguments.
In the public mind (I hope that's the right word), the argument over whether they were paid implies that it is logically relevant to the debate.
It worries me to think that illegitimate arguments are becoming legitimate.
Returning to my experience with the San Mateo County Supervisor's office, suppose they had simply told me that I was a member of the NRA and that I had not been. If I denied being a member of the NRA, that itself could be taken as an admission that this utterly irrelevant argument was relevant. And the more this happens, the less people will realize what is going on.
If this nonsense keeps up, they might as well just ask, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a Global Warming Denier?"
And if the answer is "yes," isn't that the end of the debate?
In my old high school days, it would have been -- for them!
But instead of getting an "F" in logic, they win the debate.
By illogical and nearly unanimous acclamation.
posted by Eric on 02.09.07 at 09:46 AM
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