State your case

In response to this post about rent-seeking, Z A employs a few rant tactics that I think are common barriers to productive discussions. He (assuming Z A is a he) starts with a straw man fallacy.

Economics being the dismal science that it is, I still do not ascribe to the notion that all points are valid and that any moron on the street that tries to form a thought or opinion about the macro-economy has a valid or sound point.

No one, but Z A, has made this argument.

However, if ‘any moron on the street’ expresses an unsound thought or opinion about the macro-economy (or anything), I think it is more productive and compelling to explain why their point is unsound rather than discounting it because of who they are.

As my Mom would say, if you can’t say anything nice, it’s best not to say anything at all. That’s a good rule. I’ll modify to promote productive discussion. If you can’t or are unwilling to show why a point is unsound, don’t say anything at all.

Z A then moved on to explain why he values credentials:

Knowing what someones credentials are in most any case does help in knowing how much they have actually studied that subject.

However, it does determine whether their reasoning is sound or not.

I’ve been in my share of discussions that degraded to a battle of finding credentialed folks who agree with your position, then onto the crediting and discrediting of those credentials. That’s simply not productive.

I agree with what commenter, Grant Davies wrote in response to Z A:

I have always found it more important to weigh the value and the validity of what is presented…

An argument from authority or appeal to authority is a common fallacy (something where the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises).

The key form of this fallacy is assuming something is right because an expert says so, but the expert isn’t really an expert in that field.

A second form of this fallacy is assuming something is right because an expert says so, but the topic is something where there is not a great deal of consensus. This is where you get into the ‘battle of experts’ on issues that have experts on all sides.

I believe there is a third form of this fallacy, as well. Experts can be wrong. Experts, after all, are people, so they are subject to the same biases, preferences, simplifications and groupthink as the rest of us.

Experts may well be right about something. I don’t discount what they say just because they are experts. However, I have enough experience with experts being wrong that I have learned that skepticism is useful.

If something is true, I want to know why it’s true, not who believes it’s true or what credentials they have. What’s wrong with that?

Later, Z A wrote:

I could write for hours about the incorrect assumptions and arguments on here but what good would it do if the people I am writing to do not have clue one about real economic theory and thought or the history of those things?

Z A chose to write nine similar paragraphs on my blog about this subject. How did it advance the discussion on the topic?

Why not simply choose just one of these incorrect assumptions, state his case on why he thinks it’s incorrect and perhaps teach us a few things. Or, perhaps, maybe someone would respond to his points and he could learn something. My guess is that the latter is what Z A fears the most.

 

Straw man army

Much political debate nowadays is one side putting up a straw man fallacy while the other side tries to dismantle it — all of which takes away from productive discourse.

A straw man fallacy is usually an absurdly inaccurate representation your opponent’s position — so absurd that it’s easy to defeat, or knock down, like a ‘man made of straw’.

We begin using straw men right about the time we start talking.

“Mom! Brother called me a booger!”

“Brother, quit calling your sister a booger.”

“I didn’t. I told her she’s a selfish snot, because she will not share her toys with me.”

“Sis, we’ve discussed this. Share.”

Sis, won’t tell Mom what her brother actually said. She intuitively knows that her selfishness will not gain her much sympathy from Mom. Best leave that part out and turn make it seem her brother made an unprovoked malicious comment.

Using a straw seems to imply one of three things.

1. You know, like Sis, that your opponent’s position is stronger than you’d like it to be, so you carefully avoid the truth and construct the straw man.

2. You expect your target audience to be dumb and not recognize the straw man.

3. You’re dumb.

Most political ads are straw men. “My opponent wants to destroy something or the other! Don’t vote for him.”

These campaigners hope that you’re dumb and that the army of straw men they construct will sway your vote their way.

It must work to some degree. Straw men still exist. Unlike Mom, enough of us don’t call BS and request that the campaigners address the real positions.

Keep your eye out for straw men in this election season.

My red herring of the week

Sitting around the dinner table, talking about the Secret Service exploits in Colombia, I said:

Those Secret Service agents are so dumb. You never dispute a bill with a whore. That will cost you dearly.

Others at the table started to agree and then caught themselves, “…wait…they shouldn’t have done all that stuff to begin with.”

I was pleased the others were able to spot my red herring so quickly. We had a good laugh.

Beware combo fallacies

Hypocrisy is a common criticism leveled at free market advocates.

The criticism is that since free market advocates use and benefit from various forms of government programs like roads, Social Security, fire protection, Medicare, public education, libraries (I threw that one in there) and so on they are hypocrites for suggesting that such programs could be carried privately.

The implication is that unless free market advocates refuse to use these programs as a matter of principle they are not credible.

A couple examples from the last week stick out in my mind.  In one, a commenter on a local blog pointed out that Ayn Rand, libertarian heroine, relied on Medicare near the end of her life.

Below is another example from the comment section at Cafe Hayek, where a commenter charges Don Boudreaux with this hypocrisy:

I take it you (and your blog buddies) vehemently oppose support of any kind of “welfare state;” though, I’m betting you have no problem with the many and various forms of corporate welfare that abound, or the state university systems which apparently provide for your education and career, or the Internet (still regulated by the GAC) which provides a very public platform for your right-wing ideology…and I could go on, but you get my point.

Don responded: “I oppose ALL government programs, including support for higher education.”  Great.  But, I think Don’s response is unnecessary.  He took the commenter’s fallacious bait.

The hypocrisy criticism is a combo fallacy.  It combines a red herring (aka ‘changing the subject’) fallacy with an ad hominem (aka ‘name calling’).

Whether Don is a hypocrite, or not, has no bearing on whether he is correct.

The roots of this combo fallacy tactic can be traced to Kindergarten recess. It should not be so becoming for supposedly well-educated and bright folks to use as adults.

The ad hominem part of this combo fallacy is a personal attack (“hypocrite”) meant to put the accused on the defensive and respond to the red herring.

If you change the topic of conversation away the merits and demerits of free market vs. government to defend yourself against the hypocrite charge, the red herring fallacy succeeds and little productive discussion will take place about the original subject.

When faced with this combo fallacy, I think it’s best to keep to the topic at hand.  Here’s an example of a response that could do that:

Whether or not I’m a hypocrite has no bearing on the correctness of my point.  Would you like to discuss my point?

What is fallacy?

In a conversation this evening, I mentioned that one motivation for this blog was to combat fallacy.  My counterpart said that I was the first person, besides himself, in years he has heard use that word.

That caused other conversations where I pointed out fallacies to flash through my mind.  I often receive bewildered looks when I say that word.   I assumed the looks reflected disagreement.  But, maybe they simply didn’t know what I meant and they didn’t want to ask.

I admit, before I became familiar with the term I would not have known.  I think the non-intuitive nature of the meaning of fallacy may be on par with economic rent.   Neither term is used enough in everyday language to have gained an intuitive understanding.

For example, most people intuitively know that profits can be made in capitalism.   They do not intuitively know that profits can also be made from economic rent.  Economic rent is such a blind spot, in fact, that most folks commonly mistake profits from economic rent as profits from capitalism.

They also mistake fallacy for legitimate argument.

So, what is a fallacy?

A fallacy is faulty reasoning where the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises given.  A fallacy doesn’t necessarily say the conclusion is wrong, just that the conclusion can’t be made from the premises given.

Here’s an example of a fallacy:

It rained here today, so it will not rain tomorrow.

My premise is that it rained today.  My conclusion, based on that premise, is that it will not rain tomorrow.   But, rain today usually has no bearing on whether it will rain tomorrow.

Notice, my conclusion may be correct.  It may not rain tomorrow.  But most people will agree that the logic I used to arrive at my conclusion is not correct.

Fallacies come in many varieties.   There are common fallacies that you have probably heard of like ad hominem attacks or red herrings and many more.

Over the years, I have found the list of informal fallacies at the Nizkor Project website to be a handy and valuable resource for checking and re-checking to help me identify fallacy.

Being able to spot and identify fallacies is like the Jujitsu of discussion allowing you to make progress without having to state and defend a case of your own.  Simply pointing out incorrect reasoning turns the argument back on your discussion partner and causes them to rethink their logic.

Most important, it often focuses the discussion on the root cause of the disagreement — the faulty reasoning on which the conclusions are based.

“He’s so intelligent”

On ZombieHero’s blog, we’ve been discussing the appeal to authority/expert fallacy that was used by the left to describe Obama.  Commenter yttik reminded me of an example that went something like “Obama is so intelligent that it’s like he’s playing 11 dimensional chess,” so the rest of us should just basically watch and admire because there’s no way our intellect could grasp what he’s trying to do.

I’m interested in finding concise and compelling sentences that might cause someone who holds this belief to question it.

Thomas Sowell says that the incorrect beliefs we hold tend to be those that we do not bear direct consequences for being wrong.  For example, when I put my hand on a hot stove because I believe it won’t hurt I quickly learn that my belief is incorrect.  The consequence for being wrong was direct and instantaneous.

However, if I believe that someone is so much more intelligent than I and that I should just trust his solutions for the economy and government, Continue reading

Liberal Noise

Ironically enough, the following Letter to the Editor appeared in The Kansas City Star on May 23 under the title “Conservative Noise”.

Why would any intelligent, fair-minded liberal or conservative listen to the putrid garbage spewed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck? It just boggles the mind to think that anyone thinks that these two promote our Constitution. They do nothing but promote hate, denigrate our president and hope for his failure, and consequently, the failure of our country.

It’s too bad that both of these “patriots” didn’t keep their promise to leave the country if health care reform passed. Now that would not only be a great good riddance but would truly promote our Constitution.

Delores Mair

When I come across folks like Delores, I challenge them to get a piece of paper and a pen and listen or watch an hour of their shows and write down the points they made that they disagree with or support their claims and then come back and we’ll talk, otherwise you’re just creating noise.