Tag Archives: west wing

Logical Fallacy Friday: False Cause and Slippery Slope

Interior photograph of the Troyes Cathedral The false cause fallacy comes in a couple of different Latin flavors: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (with, therefore because of) and Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (after, therefore because of). Both variants occur when one argues that because two events have occurred in time together or seem to have some kind of relationship, one must have caused the other. An example of the Cum Hoc fallacy would be something like:

Whenever it rains, I see people holding umbrellas. The fact that umbrellas and rain go together must mean that taking an umbrella outside causes rain.

I’ll let Martin Sheen and Alison Janney demonstrate the Post Hoc fallacy for you.

In this clip from the second episode of The West Wing, the Press Secretary (played by Janney) is arguing that the President’s public wisecracks are creating public relations problems. She ties a joke he made about golf to the fact that a group of pro golfers canceled their White House visit and a joke he made about big hats to the fact that Texas went Republican during the general election. The President reminds her that just because the canceled visit and the electoral loss happened after he told the jokes doesn’t mean that the jokes caused those events. The punch line is that they lost Texas when the President learned to speak Latin.

First frame:  "I used to think correlation implied causation."  Second frame:  "Then I took a statistics class.  Now I don't."  Third frame:  "Sounds like the class helped."  "Well, maybe."Cause and effect are usually complex relationships that can be mediated by any number of factors. Scientists talk a great deal about the difference between correlation and causation.  Two variables that appear to be related to one another may be causing one another, or they may both be caused by a third variable.  Last semester, I took a Sociology class for kicks.  The title of the class was “Religion, Health, and Mortality,” and in it we discussed the surprisingly vast body of research that shows a relationship between regular church attendance and physical and mental health, measured in both objective (blood pressure, cancer risk, etc.) and subjective (self-reported sense of well-being) terms.  It’s a rather shocking but difficult to deny statistical relationship that could have some disconcerting policy implications if one isn’t careful about how one understands the causal relationship between the two factors.  Is it really attendance at church that makes people healthier?  Should doctors and policy makers then be recommending that everyone get their ass into a pew on Sunday, whether religion is meaningful to them or not?  Is this somehow a scientific argument for the preferability or even necessity of religious lifestyles?

No, probably not.  The relationship between regular church attendance and health is not at all clear cut.  Most social scientists and epidemiologists (not to mention most respectable theologians) have written off the possibility that God intervenes and grants better health to those who follow his dictates by showing up to church.  Furthermore, it isn’t likely that attending church has some kind of direct and immediate effect on health by, say, lowering your blood pressure during a sermon.  So, rather than a causal relationship, we are probably talking about a mediating or moderating relationship between religion and health.  Some hypotheses suggest that churches provide forms of institutional and social support that people are unlikely to find in more secular contexts, a theory that seems to be supported by the fact that religion has the strongest relationship to health among poor older women of color.  Other research suggests that the religious make-up of a community plays a significant role in health care delivery.  Church members may also play a role in the lives of co-religionists by encouraging the use of preventative care as well as offering free services and referrals.  Furthermore, there is some indication (supported by studies of Buddhists and Christians) that an active spiritual life plays a role in relieving stress and moderating the effects of negative life events (such as sickness or injury).

So, the answer isn’t to get everyone in the world to start going to church. The answer is to do more research to figure out how we might translate the support systems provided by religion and spirituality in secular contexts.

My students often get slippery slope and false cause confused. They are related, but while the Post Hoc fallacy postulates that X caused Y because X and Y are related in time, the slippery slope fallacy is about prediction: X will cause Y and Z, because Y and Z are the natural outcomes of X. Usually, the intent is to cause alarm about the supposedly horrible consequences of something. I could show just about any clip of Glenn Beck or of Jon Steward making fun of Glenn Beck to demonstrate this one, but my favorite slippery slope example comes from the film Good Will Hunting. Transcript below. Enjoy.

Will Hunting (Matt Damon):  Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks ’cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

Photo by Piotr Tysarczyk, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

Logical Fallacy Friday: Bandwagon Appeals

I’m going to keep this one relatively short today, as I have my sister’s wedding rehearsal in an hour and am also trying to climb out of a bureaucratic black hole (job, not wedding related).

So!  Argumentum ad populum has to be one of my favorite fallacies, and by favorite, I mean “one most likely to make me start talking to my television.”  The bandwagon appeal states that because X is popular, X is a good idea.  Sit-com mothers have been striking this fallacy down with a hammer since the beginning of time:  “If EVERYONE jumped off a bridge…”

But the most ubiquitous version of this fallacy here in the U.S. is when talking heads go on the tee vee and begin blathering on and on about “what the American people want.”  (Do other countries have this?  I am curious.)  I will let Jon Stewart demonstrate:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
American Apparently
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

If you can’t see the video, it’s basically just clip after clip of pundits using “The American People” as the sock puppet for whatever initiative they happen to be shilling at that moment. Sometimes, said pundit is waving around a poll that demonstrates his point. Sometimes we get two pundits using poll data to make diametrically opposite points. You get the idea. The problem with argumentum ad populum gets to the heart of one of the most uncomfortable aspects of democracy: just because an idea is popular doesn’t mean that idea is objectively better or objectively right. The People are sometimes flat out wrong, or mistaken, or confused, or being led down the primrose path. The People aren’t always trustworthy. This is why the most significant Civil Rights injustices in the history of the United States were corrected via executive decree (The Emancipation Proclamation) or the courts (Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade).

What’s more, sometimes the data we use to determine What the American People Want is flawed. Time for a West Wing digression. I couldn’t find a clip for this one, but here’s the set-up: the President and his advisers have been listening all day to a pollster who claims that 80% of the American People support a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, an amendment that they believe is stupid but that the pollster claims could cinch re-election. Later on, at a fund-raiser, rival pollster Joey Lucas (played by the fabulous Marlee Matlin) explains that while that statistic is technically true, further polling reveals that most of those who said they would support such an amendment didn’t actually care about it very much, and only a tiny fraction said it would swing their vote.

The media narrative these days continues to be that most Americans hate or are ambivalent toward the health care reform bill passed this year, and various groups have been able to leverage those statistics to support their agendas, but popular opinion is rarely a homogeneous or uncomplicated thing. It is possible for vast groups of people to oppose or support something for a multitude of reasons.

By the way, “The American People” should totally be a drinking game. It might actually make television news watchable.

Hitting the Wall

This is me right now.

Embarrassing confession time: I’ve been having trouble with a non-blog related writing project for the past few weeks. Guys, it is so stupid. I’m trying to finish a damn conference paper. It is, for the most part, almost finished. The first two-thirds of it are pretty much locked.  The framework for the argument is laid out. I have quotes selected and notes ready to be revised into real copy waiting in a separate document. Basically, what I’ve been facing for the past several days is the task of laying down about 1000 words of close textual analysis and a brief conclusion. 1000 words. I can write 1000 words in half an hour. I did a 1000 word close analysis almost on a whim last week. I have, in total, written about 20,000 words on this blog just in the past 10 days or so. 1000 words is a wind sprint. Yet every time I sit down to finish this thing, nothing comes out but an incomprehensible stream of inane blather. Technically, those 1000 words are already typed out, but they are bad, bad, bad. Every time I look at that Word document, I want to scream. It makes me wish I actually drafted things long hand on paper so that I could start a trash can fire with all of the draft material I’ve sent into the nether of late, though that would probably also burn my house down.

So, the result is that I’m having nightmares and not sleeping well. This happens every once in a while, and whenever it does, I feel like I spend my days teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I try to distract myself with other reading and house cleaning and crap like that, but then I’ll read something infuriating on the internet or I’ll break a glass or something, and all the tension I’m feeling about not being able to finish that project comes bubbling to the surface but directed at something totally ridiculous. So, in the four days leading up this conference, I am either going to find a way to fix this paper, or I am going to have a meltdown.

I know why this is happening. It happened somewhere around Draft 5 of my dissertation prospectus last year. The shortest explanation is:  I desperately need a vacation. In the past six months, I have completed the following:

2 dissertation chapters
1 journal article
4 conference papers
1 fellowship proposal

All told, that comes out to about 75,000 words or over 150 double spaced pages of presentation/submission quality work. And that’s not even counting the reams of early draft material that got excised. About a third of that work was all done just in the month of April, so it’s probably not surprising that I’m tired. I’ve hit the wall with less under my belt than that before, so perhaps this is progress or something.

“Hitting the wall” has special meaning for marathon runners. The average trained runner burns about 100 calories per mile. The average body stores about 2,000 calories of ready-to-burn energy, which means that at about 20 miles (give or take), the marathon runner has reached the bitter end of their body’s reserves, and the body begins to revolt. Never having run more than 10 miles at time (and that was only once), I’m not entirely sure what this feels like, but I think you can approximate it if you’ve ever tried to do an intense workout on a totally empty stomach. I did that last week, and it ended in nausea and cramps and shaky hands and needing to guzzle a Dr. Pepper (sports drinks are gross) as soon as I got home. Long distance runners can try to delay the inevitable by–I kid you not–eating candy or taking hits off of those nasty energy gel packs.

I think this happens with writing or any other kind of creative work as well. Graduate students usually figure this out the first semester they sign up for three courses that all have 20+ page papers as their final project. One of those papers is going to suck, maybe two of them, depending on how hard your semester was. But at least one execrable seminar paper is pretty much guaranteed in that situation, because for some reason, most brains just can’t do much more than that. Undergraduates who wait until the last minute to write all of their papers figure this out too and wind up turning stuff in that’s incomplete or just not turning it in at all. Pacing yourself helps, but I think that no matter what, we eventually reach a point where our energy reserves, creativity-wise, are just sapped. When you reach that point, you’re just done. The magic won’t happen any more.

Of course, my fear is always that it will never come back, that I’m just through. Finished. Washed up. Cut off before my career could even get started. If writing (or drawing, or making music, or whatever creative work you do) is the source of your identity. If you know that your career prospects are in some very real way attached to it. (Yes. SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. DEAL WITH IT.) If you feel that writing is your major contribution to the world, then hitting the wall produces existential terror.

The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, captures this beautifully. Seriously, if you know the feeling I’ve described above, bookmark this clip and watch it whenever you hit that point. It will make you feel just a little bit better. In this scene from “Arctic Radar,” Toby Ziegler is sitting down to write the President’s second inaugural address after a long, harrowing campaign season. Watch how this scene is shot, with the Seal of the President looming ghost-like in the background to remind you just how high the stakes are. The other character here is a speech writer who has been sent by Toby’s deputy to help write the address, and Toby has given him an assignment to figure out if he’s up to the task. I like to think that Aaron Sorkin (or whoever) wrote this scene with the full knowledge of exactly how this feels, where–not for want of effort–“there’s just no blood going to it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t go to Atlantic City right now. I have to finish this paper, the conference being in four days and all. But afterward, I think it will be time to just take a couple of weeks. I can’t afford to go anywhere, but I can go to the book store and pick out something that just looks fun to read, preferably something with sexy people on the cover. I can re-watch the last three seasons of Mad Men. I can bake cookies. I can write long, rambling posts on this blog to remind myself that I still have words, even if I’m not able to hammer out that next dissertation chapter right away. And I can remind myself that it will, eventually, come back. It always has.

Taking a break has always been pretty hard for me. I think it’s just because we live in a culture that devalues rest, that shames us for being unproductive and wasting time. I actually think that rest can be a form of production. Taking a break from creative work is ultimately part of the invention process. It’s the carbo-loading period. It’s that day of rest in your week of athletic training, where you give your muscles time to repair themselves. Recently, Kate Harding confessed on her blog that her writing process includes a “talking about it in bars stage,” and that such a stage really is essential. Sometimes, that space in which you aren’t yet really producing anything is when the ideas really come, when problems with a project that seemed insurmountable suddenly get worked out.

It’s hard to trust in that process, though, because like I said, we live in a culture that tells us we can never stop, even for a second (academic writing advice columnists are pretty bad about this too). It’s easy to believe that if you take a break, you will never actually get back to the project itself, or never return to writing, that you will lie on the sofa for the rest of your life and never touch the keyboard again. Finding the size acceptance movement and intuitive eating, strangely, has helped me get over that feeling a bit. Intuitive eating teaches you that allowing yourself to have one french fry does not mean that you will just go ahead and eat ALL THE FRENCH FRIES IN THE WORLD. Taking a step back from writing for a couple of weeks does not mean that you will waste away, unproductively, for the rest of your life.

But, you know, deadlines exist. Sometimes you have to crank something out even though you know it’s not going to be your best work, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days, though I’ll likely also be venting in this blog about it. I’m not writing an inaugural address. I’ll be lucky if half a dozen people show up to hear this paper. The stakes are really not THAT high.

And vacation starts on Friday.

Logical Fallacy Friday: The Straw Man

Actually a wickerman.

Welcome to the inaugural Shitty First Drafts Regular Feature!  Logical Fallacies week was always my favorite part of teaching rhetoric.  I got to show funny videos, mock public figures, and make a game out of students matching the quote to the appropriate fallacy.  Occasionally, this would backfire a little bit, as a few intelligent students would learn that you can pretty quickly throw a fallacy label on any argument you don’t particularly like.  Labeling arguments as straw men, ad hominem attacks, or red herrings is a pretty effective derailing method.  So, as both a fun exercise and a public service, I thought I would devote each Friday to explaining one logical fallacy until I eventually run out.

So, the Straw Man!  Most people are familiar with this one, I think.  The straw man fallacy is where you present the weakest possible version of a position so that it’s easy to rebut.  The straw man is so flimsy that it cannot resist your attacks.  It just sits there mute and ridiculous-looking while you tell it how terrible it is and how everything it represents is evil.  Then you and your friends can set fire to it and do a heathenish dance of celebration as you watch the evil, evil straw man disintegrate in the flames. I’m fairly certain that O’Reilly and Olbermann have literally done this on television.  Ok, maybe not.  But a little effigy burning would probably be more interesting than the usual bloviating that happens on those shows.

This ruse is usually so effective that eventually, you forget that you created the straw man in the first place, that it was thrown together using the most oversimplified, misinterpreted version of the position you hate, that in your dissociative haze of rage and cognitive dissonance, you transformed a complex argument with many subtleties and nuances and exceptions and suspended judgments into a cartoon villain.  You forget how exactly you got from this:

A person with whom you may have a reasonable agreement.

To this:

A cartoon that does not exist in the real world.

The straw man is where fact meets fevered imagination.  It is a diversionary tactic that absolves you from having to engage with actual ideas.  Do either of these statements sound familiar?

Conservatives want to roll back Civil Rights.

Liberals want to turn America into a Communist state.

The reason these straw men work is because they are relatively easy to turn into slogans:  “MY OPPONENT LIKES TO PUNCH PUPPIES AND THINKS WE SHOULD ALL PUNCH PUPPIES TOO.  IF YOU DON’T WISH TO SEE PUPPIES PUNCHED, VOTE FOR ME!”  Ok, it’s not exactly like that.  One of the reasons why these work is because they are familiar enough that they sound sort of like something a conservative or a liberal might think.  But no one on either side is actually arguing for either.  Many conservatives are critical of policies like affirmative action and resent the government trying to enforce equality (like in the military) before social attitudes are adjusted, but no mainstream conservative that I have ever heard has seriously argued that we should go back to separate drinking fountains and Jim Crow.  Similarly, many liberals are critical of capitalism and the socio-economic inequalities it produces and want to see the government directly involved in reducing those inequalities through welfare, universal healthcare, etc., but there are no mainstream liberals that I am aware of that have Stalin posters on their walls and want the government to completely take over the means of production.

Ok, it’s time for a West Wing digression.  There was this episode once where Toby, a White House staffer thought he had found a way to fix Social Security and was reaching out to members of Congress he thought might be willing to help work out a compromise.  There was a heavy-handed bit of irony in the second act, when the deal was falling apart, in which Toby tells his new assistant that there used to be this Republican in the House who could have probably solved the whole partisan clusterfrack.  This guy had wanted to work on Social Security in the past, but the moment that he went on the record as maybe, perhaps, one day considering possibly, under some certain circumstances raising the retirement age, Toby and another staffer had hit him with an attack ad showing 90 year-olds working in a factory.  So, the guy lost re-election to a Democrat who was too concerned about his own re-election to help out.  The most depressing part of that episode was when they intimated that the reason we haven’t fixed Social Security yet is because that would make it impossible for politicians to campaign on the promise of fixing Social Security.  Creating Straw Men is usually about winning the argument rather than solving the problem.

While it is important to recognize straw men for what they are and attempt to avoid them in our own speech and writing, the term “Straw Man” gets abused an awful lot.  Sometimes, when someone disagrees with you in a way you don’t like, it’s fairly easy to go OMG STRAW MAN! as a way of refusing to engage the critique.  Sometimes, claiming that you’ve been misrepresented is a way of avoiding the fact that someone just put a spotlight on your argument and a whole bunch of roaches crawled out.  So, I guess this is where straw men accusations can sort of also become straw men themselves.  I think this happens a lot when Person #1 in a debate indicates that what Person #2 just said is racially insensitive or offensive to women or disabled people, etc, citing Person #2’s words.  So, for example:

Person #2:  If she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt, she wouldn’t have been assaulted.  Women need to take responsibility for their own safety.

Person #1:  The suggestion that female victims are somehow responsible for their own assault is victim-blaming and misogynist.

Person #2:  I’m not a misogynist!  She just called me a misogynist!  I can’t possibly be expected to reason with this crazy person!

This sort of derail works because we know that Racist, Sexist, and Homophobe all fall into the category of Really Bad Things to Be Called.  So now everyone is concentrating on that mean, mean name Person #1 called Person #2 instead of addressing the critique, which is that victim-blaming arguments help perpetuate a culture of misogyny that lets perpetrators off the hook because “she was asking for it.”

I wish I could prescribe an easy way out of this trap.  I tell my students that in order to avoid a Straw Man Fallacy, the best thing to do is make sure you are really paying attention to other people’s arguments and to cite specific examples and exact language whenever possible.    The thing is that at some point we all use logical fallacies.  They are easy to use and often effective, and no one is immune to resorting to them.  Awareness of what they look like and why they are problematic and how you may be prone to them helps, though.  The more you know and all that.