A Pack of Memes

The internet continues to have memes which are wrong and in need of correction. I continue to be happy to offer my services!

Religion

Religion

I do not think the author of this gets how religion works. It is totally, completely within reason to say that if something is an affront to God, it should not happen. It is a short skip to making it illegal. Plenty of religions take this line, and in fact, it is pretty typical for this happen when the majority of stakeholders in a government follow the same religion. Even in the relatively secular laws of Western Europe and the United States, Christian theology and Christian faith animate the legislative process. This is fairly normal; if you elect a bunch of people with deeply held convictions, they will legislate those convictions.

I’m not against saying that we should consider this meme a civil ideal. But if people do not understand what is here, they do not understand how the law works. That is completely different. Religious law may, for example, forbid you to watch Doctor Who on Sundays; secular law requires that we not ban the airing of Doctor Who. (I look at Indiana, which bans the sale of alcohol on Sundays. I glare disapprovingly and move on.) But people may have a religious conviction and duty to make society in their God’s image, and they understand that theology perfectly well.

Ten Commandments of Logic

Ten Commandments of Logic

No.

Some fallacies are formal fallacies; they are shaped wrong. You cannot say, for example, that A therefore B and C therefore D implies A therefore D. This is the four term fallacy, and it occurs most often when B and C are subtly different or homophones. This kind of logic will never prove the conclusion. (The conclusion may, of course, be true through different logic.)

These are all informal fallacies. That means that they are content that is suspect. They are not wrong at face, however, and may represent imperfect heuristics for dealing with incomplete information or be appropriate in certain circumstance.

  1. Ad Hominem: One of the stronger informal fallacies, ad hominem can only be useful when the person’s character is material. In most arguments, bringing up a person’s supposed faults is a kind of derailing or failure to engage with the argument. But it can be useful in setting burdens; if someone is known to write falsely about a topic, it is worth starting there to direct scrutiny. But Shakespeare has this one in the end—“But soft! Does the Devil speak true?”
  2. Straw Man Fallacy: The straw man fallacy is one of the informal “fallacies” that is not really a fallacy per se. As long as the argument is done properly, it should be nominally correct. If something is a straw man, however, it fails to address some critical part of the original argument. It simply fails to clash with what came before it, even if it is true on its own terms. The straw man can be a useful rhetorical device—but proceed with caution. It should take the form, “This argument is similar to [weaker argument] which is incorrect, but it is different. Still, those differences do not negate the essential problem.” Thoroughly explained, it is arguably not a true straw man. Regardless, applying this commandment dogmatically eliminates a valuable rhetorical tact.
  3. Hasty Generalization: A full detailing of this is called a “statistics textbook”, but the essence is easy enough. Small depends very much on the topic at hand and some a priori assumptions we make about the sample. The bottom line is that the strongest forms of logic make no generalizations; induction is considered inferior to deduction.
  4. Begging the Question: Begging the question is also not a fallacy in a strict sense. It is just a case where you put down a tautology, something that is true by construction. This can be very powerful as a starting point or for correcting an analysis that abuses technical terms. It is also never wrong, it just does not get beyond the level of definition.
  5. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Things are complicated here. This is a strong informal fallacy in formal logic, but a weaker one in empirical science. In formal logic, we should be hostile to cause claims from the order. But when paired with a good reason, it can be moderately useful for suggesting an empirical model. Correlation may not imply causation, but we should probably look closer if we find correlation.
  6. False Dichotomy: The false does a lot of work in this one. Dichotomization is a powerful rhetorical tool, and can often illuminate a complicated problem if you can find two poles. But if the poles are bad representations or exclude either the middle or another choice, then it is less useful. The burden is on the person pointing out the dichotomy to point not at the existence of two poles, but rather find the unrepresented part and show it matters.
  7. Ad Ignorantum: Also a fairly strong informal fallacy. It is very rarely correct to point to a lack of information as anything but proof of lack of information. In fact, this one usually gets misused when we have a strong set of negative findings. Having not found, despite looking into a number of miracles, artifacts, and other reports evidence of a God or Gods is evidence of negative findings, not lack of information. (Caveat: there is a fairly clever way around this by pointing out that God might not be beholding to empirical science. Does not change the fact that we do not have evidence.)
  8. Burden of Proof: I liked this one enough to name my blog after it, but tread lightly. This applies to the question, “What proof do you have?” It is wrong to answer “What proof do you have?” (Do notice, this is largely a rehashing of ad ignorantum.) But it is completely, totally within reason to ask them to address your burden. “Where have I failed?” The burden of proof of a person raising a counter claim, “No, something else is correct,” is equal to that of the original claim. There is no benefit to being the second person to make a claim. This is probably the only one on here that might be a commandment, and it still gets abused.
  9. Non Sequitur: Another instance where you should tread lightly. The non sequitur is always wrong if judged a non sequitur, but it is always subjective as to whether or not the parts flow from each other. Sometimes it will be obvious. Sometimes it will be open to debate.
  10. Bandwagon Fallacy: This one is another one that is strictly true, but can be useful nonetheless. Stories of brave people standing up against a popular position that was later discarded are dime a dozen. But consensus is also a powerful tool, especially if the people who make up the pool of people coming to a consensus have something else go for them. It is technically an informal fallacy to point out that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe in global warming. It is also valuable information—people who consider the problem in a competitive environment overwhelmingly agree. With no other evidence, it is a poor argument, but it is raised in the context of other arguments, it is persuasive.

The essence here is that informal fallacies are complicated and subjective. As far as a Ten Commandments of Logic go, this is a poor offering that misses what makes logic tick.

Perspective

Perspective

With our new understanding of informal fallacies, I now give you e being a bit more of a hardliner about them. This is a useful thing to keep in mind—and a Marcus Aurelius quote for the win! But this actually the opposite of the false dichotomy. It is an informal fallacy to suggest that just because there are two perspectives, the truth must lie between them. This is a very, very useful heuristic, but some things really are polar. Some arguments really are wrong. I 100% endorse checking for the excluded middle if you hear two arguments, but I’m not guaranteeing you’ll find it. At all, in any way.

Social Security

Social Security

This last meme is one of those things that is true but a bit misleading. Social Security is in fact accounted for as a trust. Legally speaking, workers who put money in are owed money back.

But saying that social security is funded by American workers misses elements of the whole game. Who pays income tax? Where, pray tell, does most of the money that goes to sales tax start from? What the Federal Government did was borrow money against their trust books. The trust still has plenty of funds, but it is in the form of illiquid bonds. The government could at any moment make social security liquid again by buying back its own bonds from the trust. In fact, it will have to at some point.

That is important, but a lot gets made out of the fact that social security is solvent because we could make other parts of the government insolvent. It is a shell game on every side. Sure, the GOP is being duplicitous (perhaps unknowingly) by suggesting social security is going to run out of money. But the point that there is not quite enough taxes to go around remains when liberals suggest paying back social security.

You’re welcome internet, you can now be a little more correct!

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One thought on “A Pack of Memes

  1. I remember learning about informal fallacies and suddenly finding them everywhere. I felt a bit stupefied at first. How could I have bought into so many things that are “fallacies”?

    You’ve pointed out some interesting things here. Sometimes we must accept informal fallacies simply because we aren’t experts in everything and we have to live with some uncertainty.

    False cause is one I’ve thought about quite a lot, especially in the context of scientific claims. There’s a point at which you question certain studies and wonder whether or not the correlation is true. For instance, I can’t help but wonder if many of the claims like “eating or drinking x will cause people to be healthier because such and such a group/population does so and they are healthier” are false causes. The correlation gets stronger as more and more external factors are taken into account. Do those people also get a lot more exercise than we do? Do they eat other things that might also affect their health? Do they have genetic differences that should be taken into account? The closer you get to isolating the x in question, the stronger the correlation. Yet it’s still correlation. Still, we must believe at some point.

    Then there’s the glorious tautology, which makes for memorable song lyrics: “There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.” 🙂

    Like

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