February 2, 2007

Debating Ploys of the Smug and Stupid

A reader writes:

A reader once wrote to you about the way that liberals relentlessly employ the overlap fallacy: "Any Exception Disproves the Tendency."

Here are a few other tools I've found that liberals (and neoconservatives) frequently break out:

Argument from anecdote: Do I even need to give an example? The "apple pie" success stories of Mexican illegals in major newspapers will suffice to illustrate this sort of thing. Statistics are no match for sugar-coated anecdotes where liberals, neoconservatives, special interest groups, and open-borders libertarians are concerned. One of my favorite variants comes in the form of a rhetorical question suggesting that you need anecdotes of your own before you speak about an issue. Just mention the fact that the consequences of unrestricted Hispanic immigration are bothering you. Provide some statistics. Then (statistics be damned), the inevitable question is raised: "have you ever even taken the time to get to know Mexicans?" Not that they'll care what answer you give them.

Appeal to theoretical human potential: Actual human behavior seems to mean less to liberals than potential human behavior. I think this is one of the things that distinguishes liberals and neoconservatives from actual conservatives. For liberals, the fact that a person or people could conceivably do something often seems to be as good as if they actually do do something. Worried that Mexican cultural values are inferior to traditional Anglo-American cultural values when it comes to maintaining a First World country? "Sure, Mexican-Americans may not currently be as highly individualistic as Anglo-Americans, but no problem," the liberal will respond, "I see no reason why they couldn't be." The liberal is then happy to rest their case as if "could" solves the problem once and for all. They will simply ignore the reality that there is no force forcing Mexican-Americans to adopt such Anglo values. As a matter of fact, those traditional values are in decline among whites also. "But not to worry," the liberal might say, "we could regain those values if we really needed them."

Rubric argument: For this one, pick a relatively vague term like "social causes" and employ it as if it were something invested with a great deal more precision and explanatory power than it actually carries. One liberal commentator I came across on the internet indicated that because "social causes" could explain why women once did not attend universities in the numbers men did, that "social causes" could equally well explain why women did not comprise a high percentage of scientific and engineering graduates. What social causes is he speaking of? He didn't say, of course. He felt "social causes" was explanation enough.

The problem is that the liberal is combining a whole bunch of different things under the single rubric of "social causes" that may or may not have relevance to the issue. Historically there have been legal, economic, and familial reasons why women could not attend colleges. The fact that women now do in large numbers is evidence that none of those "social causes" apply today. Yet, even in the absence of those "social causes," women still make up a disproportionately low number of scientists and engineers. The very "social causes" the liberal refers to, far from offering an explanation of this fact, fail entirely to explain it. By appealing to a vague rubric the commentator disguises this fact and probably manages to fool himself in the process.

Squawk about qualifiers (and logical quantifiers) unnecessarily: Many liberals make a concerted effort not to understand what you mean. If I say that "young black men like rap music," in most circumstances I simply mean that "most young black men like rap music." I'm not ruling out the existence of young black men who don't like rap music. Even when it is abundantly clear that someone is speaking only in general terms, and even when common sense should be able to fill in the gap and qualify a statement, liberals rarely miss an opportunity to accuse someone of gross generalization when failing to explicitly qualify each and every statement on a politically incorrect topic. If you say, "blacks score lower than whites on IQ tests," some liberals invariably respond by accusing you of implying that "all blacks score lower than all whites on IQ tests." Of course, this never stops those same liberals from making blanket statements (often combined with horrible view accusations) about conservatives. "Why do those right-wingers continue to wage their war of hate against poor people in this country?"

The "Horrible View" Accusation: If you say that illegal immigrants are detrimental to American society, be prepared for preemptive accusations that you view Mexicans as Neanderthals or sub-humans. Liberals like to accuse their opponents of having horrible views of issues. I guess they employ this tactic because it is slightly more subtle than the plain old ad hominem attack while accomplishing pretty much the same thing.


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

30 comments:

SamC said...

Another is the modus volens, the "Gliding Argument". This is the technique where once they sense they are losing the the argument on points, they shift to a slightly different aspect of the same question and make you start all over again, pretending all the while they are doing nothing of the kind.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you write that liberals often assume that theoretical human potential equals actual human potential. Conservatives do the same thing in many instances.

Examples abound when it comes to retirement security. Conservatives expect that lower-income folks will take advantage of 401(k)s, IRAs and other tax-advantaged retirement accounts because... who wouldn't be that prudent? They seem to forget that one reason these folks have been poor for generations is that they aren't prudent and they have no concept of thrift. We would all be better off if the government mandated a certain level of participation in retirement plans.

Dave

Anonymous said...

Another example of the appeal to theoretical human potential is the neocon view that the Iraqis of course are eager to embrace secular modern democracy.

Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

Jewish Atheist said...

So conservatives make no such errors? Please.

How about that old favorite of the FIFTY PERCENT OF THE COUNTRY THAT DOESN'T BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION, most of them conservative? That if something hasn't been 100% proven, it's reasonable to believe it.

How about the fiscal conservatives? Humans are always rational. The free market will solve all problems. We can't trust government an inch, but corporations are good and holy.

Jewish Atheist said...

That if something hasn't been 100% proven, it's reasonable to believe it.

(I meant "disproven.")

Obama Bin Laden said...

The most dangerous fallacy is a soft-hearted short-term orientation. Nobody likes to see poor people hungry and unhappy, ergo a welfare state and a parallel suburbian society (a de facto segregated society where "liberals" are in abundance).

The welfare checks encourage the urban poor to live at a subsistence level, rewarding reproduction and punishing initiative (getting a job and working can be much harder than staying home and collecting govt cheese). Result, stangant communities with even less self-esteem. People working to raise themselves up typically have good attitudes, but welfare bums end up frustrated and angry. And still poor. What's that about good intentions and the road to hell?

Americans forget this, but life is tough. Sometimes the best help you can give a person is a swift kick in the butt to wake them out of their stupor. And those suburbians might not be rich enough to support all this govt nonsense forever.

Of course, consumerism, media circus democracy and employee-capitalism all train people to short-term thinking.

tommy said...

Dave,

They seem to forget that one reason these folks have been poor for generations is that they aren't prudent

You may be right about what poor people do about retirement. I don't know if "we would all be better off" if the government mandated retirement savings because we all aren't lower-income people lacking good judgment. Those poor people might be better off, however. That is another fallacy I find frequently with liberals: the idea that "what is good for the disadvantaged is good for us all."

In any event, I think your case is a little bit different than the "theoretical human potential" argument. The THP argument assumes that the line of reasoning ends at the point where some behavior is presumed possible and ignores the crucial question of whether or not it actually will occur. No prediction is made as to what people will do. None is assumed necessary because potential behavior is all that matters. In your case, conservatives are making a prediction about what people will do that doesn't pan out (or not giving a damn one way or another).


Jewish Atheist,

So conservatives make no such errors? Please.

I don't think anyone is arguing that. Funny though, your statement is an example of another bad tactic common to all political persuasions: complaining that any discussion of one political persuasion's faults without explicit mention of "the other guy's" implies that the other guy has no faults. We might call this the "Fairness Doctrine fallacy."

That if something hasn't been 100% [dis]proven, it's reasonable to believe it.

Yeah, that is pretty common to all sides. People become emotionally attached to certain doctrines and often demand an excessive amount of proof before they will even consider any other perspective. The unwillingness of most people on the left to contemplate a biological basis for racial differences in intelligence, in spite of a mountain of evidence, would be another example.

Anonymous said...

"The welfare checks encourage the urban poor to live at a subsistence level..."

The poor are poor because of low IQs, not welfare. Even if they were employed, they would still be poor since the only jobs they would be able to get are low-wage jobs (plus, they would spend a lot of their money on stupid stuff like $2000 spinning-rims).

Don't pretend that a little "tough love" will magically turn the poor into middle-class taxpayers.

agnostic said...

As annoying as bad arguments are, it's probably worth more of our time to think of how to defuse them. The best way is to make those raising such objections appear plainly foolish. For example:

Anecdote. If you're debating a liberal, pre-emptively say: "And if anecdotal objections are raised, I could also say that I know some right-wingers who believe strongly in evolution and gun control." If debating a conservative, then "Sure, and I know some liberals who emphasize family values more than social justice."

Theoretical potential. "And if a 'theoretical potention' objection is raised, I could also note that humans are theoretically capable of flight -- if it weren't for that damned gravity."

And so on. The squawking about quantifiers is best dealt with by using the quantifiers, I think -- a cool-headed, disinterested person will know what you mean by "young black men like rap music," but anytime you're in an adversarial situation, you shouldn't leave any loopholes that your opponent can exploit. Adding a "most" or "tend to" here and there isn't a huge drain on resources, and is far outweighed by how much time it will save.

Anonymous said...

Argument from anecdote: the pro-immigration people have enshrined this ploy. Quote statistics until you're blue in the face, and the only reply is, "but the Mexican guys that work down the street seem nice."

Jewish Atheist said...

Funny though, your statement is an example of another bad tactic common to all political persuasions: complaining that any discussion of one political persuasion's faults without explicit mention of "the other guy's" implies that the other guy has no faults. We might call this the "Fairness Doctrine fallacy."

It's not a bad tactic; it's pointing out that faults attributed to a political group are really faults of homo sapiens rather than faults of the group.

Sailer is using this post to criticize liberals and neocons without mentioning that conservatives make the same (or parallel) bad arguments. Through omission, his post is misleading.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people of all political persuasions are prone to these fallacies.

Regarding #2 THP. This concept is one of the hallmarks of maturity. The ability to stop assuming will happen what you want to happen, and instead what is most likely to happen.

Anonymous said...

The problem with debating liberals or neo-conservatives is that they control the media. You can't debate someone if they don't give you the time of day. Therefore, these arguements about "diffusing" their ploys is largely irrelevant.

tommy said...

Peter,

Another example of the appeal to theoretical human potential is the neocon view that the Iraqis of course are eager to embrace secular modern democracy.

I think that is a little different from the THP fallacy, but it is closely related.

The Multiculturalists' Assumption:

Liberals and neoconservatives both tend to operate on an assumption that differences in cultures are trivial. When you ask most liberals what important things distinguish one culture from another, they tend to name only superficial differences like cuisine, music, and language. They rarely point to more serious contrasts like marriage patterns (think cousin marriage), tendencies towards tribalism or clannishness, different ethical systems, tolerance for other cultures, etc. If they name religion, they tend to mean superficial differences among religions like the way people pray and what they call their god. They don't think of moral or doctrinal differences in religions. This makes it easy to both downplay and celebrate differences in cultures as the situation demands. They can downplay differences because they assume they are trivial, carry few practical consequences, and are relatively amenable to change. All people want pretty much the same thing, right? In the neocons' case, that thing they assume everyone wants can be summed up with a quip from Full Metal Jacket, "we are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out." They can celebrate the differences because, well, don't you like Bob Marley and Mexican food too?

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I have found that successfully debating leftists requires me to have all the neccessary statistics for the battle "at the ready". For the immigration battle, this would include crime statistics (for each crime: rapes, murders, gang-associated vandalism, petty thefts, frauds, small rackets, ID thefts, etc.), percentage increases in out-of-wedlock births, drop-out rate increases, etc.

Pointing out the "stats" can overcome a lefty's one or two anecdotes (which are often lies anyway in my experience). In short, we have to have documentation of EVERYTHING to win, and win consistently. We have to deconstruct concocted, bogus studies like those underwritten on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The establisment, the left, and the neo-cons might get their ways on certain laws, but in the long run the practice of making them know the dishonest grounds by which they were passed (at least in their hearts and minds) should dispirit these movements to a degree.

However, I hasten to add Steve..............most all of us know that some people are just so dishonest that they are like 24-hour-Johnny Cochrans politically, and will pursue their coveted ends (Marxism, 3rd-way B.S., neo-conservatism, socialism, oligarchism) by telling any whoppers necessary, and no amount of statistical history will hinder them, in fact they will just adjust their arguments and use you for debating practice in hopes you can hone their skills so they can fool someone else. Ive actually run into this.

Anonymous said...

Dave,

But the Government DOES force everyone to participate in a retirement plan: Social Security.

Alan

Anonymous said...

It's science v. religion or belief. Difficult to argue with a view that was not reached by concern for facts but instead by concern for one's "reputation," political/moral status, and/or wishful thinking.

It's important to note that open-borders types, anti-racists et al. did not reach their personal views from any kind of an honest orientation. Their mental state is closer to that of children playing "let's pretend." Thus, they can rarely be reached by an appeal to facts - unless the facts are so mountainous, and the crowd shouting these facts is so numerous, that they are forced to discover a "nuance" or altogether give up political posturing, out of pique.

Imagine a spoiled and conceited 6-year-old in charge of the world, and what you would say to convince him that there might NOT be a Santa Claus (assuming he lets you say anything at all).

Anonymous said...

How about that old favorite of the FIFTY PERCENT OF THE COUNTRY THAT DOESN'T BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION, most of them conservative? That if something hasn't been 100% proven, it's reasonable to believe it.

How about the fiscal conservatives? Humans are always rational. The free market will solve all problems. We can't trust government an inch, but corporations are good and holy.


These statements prove that you have no clue what the arguements and principles that underlie the idea of free markets are. To be fair, there are a lot of knee-jerk conservatives that don't get it either.

It is precisely because humans are not often rational that we need free markets and limited government. The dispersal of power in both systems is important in keeping a small group of people from totally fucking things up for everyone else. It's not meant to be perfect, "holy", or anything of the sort. Conservatives understand that men are imperfect things and often possess low character, which is why it's optimal for everyone to be able to chart their own destiny without too much outside interference. That way they can appropriately take responsibility for their own "irrational" decisions, and not have to suffer too greatly for the irrational decisions of those on top.

And really, whining about free markets is pretty much tantamount to arguing against evolution. History has provided more than enough proof that free markets are superior to and sort of command economy.

SFG said...

Ah, but does the fact that the free market is better than a command economy mean that there is no need for regulations on the free market? And once you accept the need for regulations, you can argue about what they are... Certainly I'm in favor of taxing gasoline and trying to bring CO2 emissions down so we don't mess with weather patterns.

I'd argue that while liberals, as you've mentioned, tend to argue for excessive mutability of human nature and always see things in terms of what could be (of course we can make those Mexicans or Iraqis behave the way we want!), conservatives tend to take the naturalistic fallacy and argue that what is, should be. I.E., gender roles as they existed in the 1950s are natural, so they are the ones that should exist.

(Isn't it fun to have both sides of the aisle on a bulletin board and not be threatened by PC?)

The problem you're going to have is that academia is so liberal that any studies with conservative outcomes in the social sciences get squashed. So peer-reviewed work for social conservatism might be hard to come by.

Jewish Atheist said...

These statements prove that you have no clue what the arguements and principles that underlie the idea of free markets are. To be fair, there are a lot of knee-jerk conservatives that don't get it either.

I'm not talking about the underlying arguments or principles; I'm talking about conservatives, most of whom are like most liberals in that they believe things for silly reasons. It's not fair compare a simple-minded liberal to a conservative professor of economics.

Sailer's implying that liberals (and neocons) frequently use fallacies and that conservatives don't. Just turn on any right-wing radio show in America to hear so many fallacies in so little time it'll make your ears bleed.

tommy said...

Jewish Atheist,

You really like that "Fairness Doctrine," don't you? For the record, the email was my own. Blame me. Don't blame Steve. I've never seen any indication Steve hesitates in calling out anyone when bothers him regardless of a person's political ideology.

But, lets see here.....

....from your own blog:

But I think that any African-Americans, Jews, Latinos, homosexuals, or White Christians who aren't racist or homophobic, do a dangerous thing in trusting that social conservatives' motives are pure. Today's Federal Marriage Amendment is yesterday's Anti-Miscegenation Amendment. Today's homophobia is yesterday's racism. And much of the anti-immigrant movement is today's racism.

Hmmmm.......

To be fair, you do have a later posted entitled, Let's Try to Keep an Open Mind, where you state:

I've been making the same mistake about conservatives' motives. I've assumed that many vociferous opponents of illegal immigration are barely-disguised racists and that opponents of welfare and affirmative action don't care about the poor and minorities.

But then there is this from an even more recent post:

When are people going to wake up? The "conservative" movement, in practice, is fundamentalist, authoritarian, and fiscally reckless. Those who defend it are equivalent to those who argue that the communist movement just hasn't gotten a fair shot.

Of course, if I was a liberal I might be tempted to call you out on a lack of qualifiers in that statement. Fortunately, I'm not a liberal and think you are speaking generally. Still, I didn't see anything about the well-documented fiscal recklessness of liberals in this article. By your own logic, by not including something about liberals in your statement, you must be implying that liberals are fiscally responsible.

See why I don't like the "Fairness Doctrine?"

Speaking of fallacious reasoning, I enjoyed that article you quote from a master of the art, Andrew Sullivan, that I found on your page:

Now I'd like you to use your imagination for a second. Let's assume the unthinkable: that America had embraced Mr. Bush's "Program" in the Second World War; that German, Italian and Japanese fighters had been waterboarded, subjected to the cold cell and techniques like "long time standing." Do any of you think for even a second that these nations would have been our allies and friends in the following generations? Think of how much darker, colder and more hate-filled our world would be than it is today...

We'll you might want to let Sullivan know that our soldiers had no problem summarily executing many German soldiers. Torture was probably more commonly practiced by our people than we care to admit. When a handful of German POWs killed a suspected collaborator at Camp Concordia during WWII, they reportedly had confessions extracted out of them by such means as forcing them to sit on heaters with their genitals exposed.

Given such cruelties as the Bataan Death March and the brutal treatment endured by individuals like Kurt Vonnegut in Germany, I don't think a little waterboarding or a few buckets of ice-cold water would have been held against the United States too long. All those nasty things that happened to our people during WWII haven't seriously soured our post-war relationship with Germany or Japan. Besides, I don't see us ever kissing and making up with the likes of al-Qaeda.

But that is Sullivan for you....

tommy said...

My bad. I meant to say Sullivan's citation of Scott Horton.

Anonymous said...

Tommy,

I stand by my statement that we would all be better off if everyone was mandated to contribute a certain percentage of their income (e.g., 5%) to retirement account such as 401(k)s or IRAs. If millions of poor people were compelled to contribute, that would be a boost to America's equity and bond markets, which would help everyone who invests.

It would also provide more capital for companies looking to expand, to increase R&D, etc. Also, by giving more Americans a stake in the broader economy -- and by facilitating the building of some inter-generational wealth -- it would increase optimism and reduce social tensions.

Alan,

Yes, the poor who work are required to participate in Social Security, but this isn't what I was referring to, for a few reasons.

1) With the EITC offsetting FICA taxes, most low-income folks don't pay into Social Security with their own money.

2) Social Security is a progressive defined benefit plan -- it's not enough to cover all of one's expenses in retirement and it doesn't allow one to build up any assets.

3) One of the reasons the poor stay poor is that Social Security is often their only retirement benefit: they haven't put away even a small amount on a systematic basis for their own retirement. For the lucky few low-income workers who have had someone else put money away for them -- for participants in employer-funded defined contribution plans (e.g., Florida state workers in that state's Investment Plan), they typically cash out these savings whenever they leave the job, before retirement.

Dave

Dave

Jewish Atheist said...

Tommy:

As you point out, I've made the same mistakes that Mr. Sailer is making. I think it's a natural tendency for people to assume the best about their allies and the worst about their opponents. I've tried to correct myself, as you fairly pointed out regarding my "Open Mind" post.

Regarding my post on Sullivan and torture in WWII, I believe I admitted in the comments that I was wrong.

Still, I didn't see anything about the well-documented fiscal recklessness of liberals in this article.

On the national stage, it appears to me that Democrats have been more fiscally responsible than Republicans for quite some time. Who we label a "liberal" vs. a "conservative" is a bit confusing, though.

SFG said...

"Besides, I don't see us ever kissing and making up with the likes of al-Qaeda."

We don't really consider the Russians enemies anymore, though we are pretty suspicious of Putin.

Not that I'm saying it's coming anytime soon but history can surprise you.

(You're right that torturing their prisoners during the war wouldn't mean much after the war...but we're not actually at war with any particular country, which makes things rather more difficult.)

Sideways said...

We don't really consider the Russians enemies anymore, though we are pretty suspicious of Putin.
Yeah, but we're still pretty suspicious of Russian communists

Anonymous said...

From the post:

"If I say that "young black men like rap music," in most circumstances I simply mean that "most young black men like rap music.""

Exactly, thank you.

In case anyone wants to look this up further, "young black men" in the sentence "young black men like rap music" is, technically, a generic noun phrase.

The semantics are very complicated and far from totally worked out at even the highest levels of academia, but one of the things about generics is that exceptions to what is predicated of them may exist without invalidating the predication.

For example, if I say "bears have four legs", and you find me a three-legged bear, that does not necessarily have bearing on the truth of my sentence.

From a comment:

"The poor are poor because of low IQs, not welfare. Even if they were employed, they would still be poor since the only jobs they would be able to get are low-wage jobs (plus, they would spend a lot of their money on stupid stuff like $2000 spinning-rims)."

The jobs available in our societies for those with low IQs do not condemn them to poverty. Unskilled labor, sans poor immigration policy, is sill in demand, and in a modern, prosperous country can be compensated with more than enough for a person to find food and shelter more readily than could be found by most in human history.

Those with low IQs spending on spinning rims rather than saving for retirment is a problem, but it is a problem of spending wisely. It is not a problem of low IQ's necessarily preventing them from, in our society, obtaining gainful employment that meets their basic human needs.

Anonymous said...

"Exactly, thank you."

Well... not exactly.

What if 90% of bears get a left-front-leg wasting disease, and end up with three legs?

Then you might be left with the truth value of "most bears have four legs" and "bears have four legs" being different.

There's things with ideal types going on with generics that isn't going on with a quantifer like "most", but it's complicated.

Going back to the men and music example, it might be the case that use of the generic implys that there is some essential factor of young black men which causes them to like rap music. This use might be prickly to someone who wants to think that all people are highly mutable and that racial categories don't relate to anything essential.

So, using "most" with the phrase instead of just using the generic would probably help avoid ruffling feathers.

REF said...

SFG misrepresented traditional social conservatism a bit here:

"I'd argue that while liberals, as you've mentioned, tend to argue for excessive mutability of human nature and always see things in terms of what could be (of course we can make those Mexicans or Iraqis behave the way we want!), conservatives tend to take the naturalistic fallacy and argue that what is, should be. I.E., gender roles as they existed in the 1950s are natural, so they are the ones that should exist."

That's close, but it isn't the case. The intellectually conservative perspective (not dogma) is one that is informed by history, tradition and a respectful awareness of "what has worked to get us here." It has nothing whatsoever to do with "what is natural." It has everything to do with moving into change with the intent of being faithful stewards of the time-tested in order to give future generations a chance to continue to build upon it. Conservatives weigh the direction and pace of change against what history and common sense seem to prescribe.

For instance, when some change is offered up merely for the sake of change or for the sake of benefiting the desires of a few today, such as radically altering the law regarding something as fundamental as the structure of families, a conservative first asks: Is this something we want to leave to future generations as a legacy? Or is it, rather, a risky and radical tinkering with foundational norms and folkways that might bode poorly for our progeny and their children?

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