Category Archives: Argumentation

Don’t Trust Political Memes, and Don’t Share Them

Think of this post as a public service message.

In some ways, memes are the 21st century version of the comic strip or the political cartoon. They can be quite funny, and they make their point in just a second or two. Memes have been a boon for comic-strip-style humor. Someone needs to fill the void left by Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and a lot of people have ably volunteered. Anyone with a joke and basic computer skills can make a funny meme, and millions of people can share the fun. National distributors no longer serve as gatekeepers and censors, allowing some unique talents to shine that would have remained dark just a decade or two ago. This has been a wonderful development.

But for many reasons, political memes are typically riddled with factual errors and offer little more than confirmation bias. They should be shunned, not shared.

Here is a quick statistics lesson from one political meme I saw making the rounds recently. That’s not to pick on this meme specifically. There are millions like it, just as bad, floating around the Internet. This is just one I happened to see, though I should note that Turning Point USA has a poor reputation, even by its genre’s low standards.

Also keep in mind that this meme is on the correct side of its issue. Imagine how wrong the wrong ones can be! As Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Here is the meme:

turning point meme

Here is a list of things it gets wrong.

1: This meme is undated and cites no sources.

2: There is no publication titled “World Economic Freedom Index.”

3: For indexes that do exist, their data do not go back 60 years. They go back to 1970 for the Fraser/Cato index, and 1995 for the Heritage/WSJ index.

4: Venezuela does rank 179th in the 2018 Heritage/WSJ index. But it gives no rankings from roughly 60 years ago. If the 4th place figure comes from a different index, that is not a valid apples-to-apples comparison. But we don’t know where that figure comes from. None is cited. Google doesn’t turn one up, either. For all we know, some intern could have just made it up, and now people are sharing it.

5: Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998. His brand of socialism was 14 years old when Turning Point USA was founded in 2012, not 10 years before this undated meme was created.

That’s five errors in one meme that took less than ten minutes to dig up. That says more about Turning Point USA and political memes in general than it does about Venezuela’s ongoing tragedy.

Don’t trust unsourced political memes, don’t share them, and take people who heavily rely on them as seriously as they deserve–even, or especially, if they share your ideological priors.

Aristotle – The Poetics

Aristotle – The Poetics

A shorter work with useful insights for appreciating storytelling in general, and Greek drama and poetry in particular. Aristotle offers a key insight for making a character believable: a character’s every action and every word should be based on either necessity or probability.

The plot necessitates some actions on the character’s part. What the audience knows about the character’s personality dictates the probability that his reactions are believable. To use a lowbrow example, the reason it’s so funny when Homer says something intelligent on The Simpsons is that is so out of character.

Some of Aristotle’s other ideas about what makes good drama or good poetry seems to be his personal taste. This being subjective, it need not be taken as gospel.

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a morally neutral tool that can equally be used for good or bad purposes. It is important to use it wisely and only towards good ends. Athens having no professional lawyers, On Rhetoric was Aristotle’s guide to pleading one’s case in court, and to persuasion in general.

Aristotle first goes over the different elements of rhetoric, than turns his attention to the structure of an effective persuasive speech. Aristotle’s main concepts are the three pisteis of logos (logic and truth; basically the facts of the case), ethos (audience emotions about the orator as a person) and pathos (audience emotions about the orator’s arguments).

Another key Aristotelian concept of argumentative structure is the enthymeme, which has many forms, but always leaves at least one of its premises unstated. This is both a strength and a weakness. It can hide vulnerabilities, if only by failing to mention them. But to hide a weakness, it must have one in the first place.

The most famous example of an enthymeme is Hegel’s structure of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—with the unstated premise being that the synthesis is, in fact, plausible. This is often not the case.

This is the first place a skilled rhetorician should attack such an argument. But few people can identify such an argument on the fly when it is being made, let alone know where that weak spot is.

So in many cases, especially in ancient Athens’ non-professional legal system, enthymemes can be used on offense with little fear of having to play defense. Again, Aristotle stresses, rhetoric by itself is morally neutral. Its powers can be used for good or for evil, depending on who wields it. Use it wisely.

Rhetoric and Emotion

The beginning of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric has a lesson for staying informed despite today’s dominant political strategy:

Appeals to the emotions warp the judgment.

One of Aristotle’s main points is that rhetoric by itself is morally and ideologically neutral. A skilled rhetorician can use this weakness in human cognition for either good or evil. To do sound policy analysis, one must be aware when the emotional appeal strategy is being used, especially towards illiberal ends.

Ten Hard Questions for Libertarians

Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, Jason Brennan has a brilliant bit of satire that reminds me of one of my favorite Voltaire quotations: “I have only ever addressed one prayer to God, and it is very short: ‘My God, please make all our enemies ridiculous.’ God has granted my wish.”

Of the ten questions Jason poses, I was saddened to realize that I have been asked at least four of them, without irony, in various contexts, including on air.

How to Shut Off a Great Debate

Aaron Ross Powell has an excellent, thought-provoking  post over at libertarianism.org on how many of classical liberalism’s opponents tend to argue against libertarian caricatures that have very little to do with the real thing. This talking past one’s target instead of to it hurts both sides. Progressive and conservative thinkers would benefit from testing their ideas against quality opponents. And libertarians/classical liberals are unfairly tarred. Ad hominem attacks are getting in the way of what could be an enlightening intellectual discussion for everyone involved.

Aaron held his fire to one common attack fallacy, that state equals society. But there are more. One of them has been around for at least 80 years, when Hayek made his first public lectures in the 1930s at the London School of Economics. One of those lectures later became the title chapter of volume 3 of his collected works, The Trend of Economic Thinking. His familiar lament appears on pp. 14-15 of that book:

 No serious attempt has ever been made to show that the great liberal economists were any less concerned with the welfare of the poorer classes of society than were their successors. And I do not think that any such attempt could possibly be successful.

Instead, (classical) liberal apathy towards the poor is simply assumed. The argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. The primary concern of many progressives is helping the poor.
  2. Libertarians tend to favor different economic policies than progressives.
  3. Therefore, libertarians do not care about the poor. QED.

This is not a rigorous argument. Steps 1 and 2 are mostly true. But an Olympic-caliber long jumper couldn’t make the leap to step 3. It denies the possibility that the two sides simply prefer different means to similar ends.

This is a shame. There is a wonderful debate just waiting to be had on a number of fronts. Are the poor better served by letting economic processes emerge from the bottom up, or by expertly managing the economy from the top down? Which focus is more important to bettering the lot of the poor, absolute poverty or relative poverty? Is it better to approach the economy as a biologist, seeking merely to understand evolving market processes, or is it better to be an engineer, with an aim to tinker, fix, and improve specific outcomes?

Classical liberals tend to prefer the first answer to each of those questions; progressives tend to favor the second answer to each. But to the extent that the two sides engage each other at all, it tends to be of roughly the same tenor and quality as the “they don’t care about the poor” argument outlined above. An honest debate requires the end of such reflexive ad hominem attacks.

Adam Smith himself, painted by people who haven’t read him as the ultimate atomist individualist, based his whole defense of free markets on his belief that they would bring the masses out of poverty and into prosperity. This was his highest priority. His belief in the deep interconnectedness of people across the world, brought together by our shared natural tendency to truck, barter, and exchange, is also why economics is inherently a social science.

But reading Adam Smith can be a chore, which is why few people bother. Let’s look instead at the raw data, as provided by Jim Gwartney and many others in the annual Economic Freedom of the World report. They find that, in absolute terms, poor people are far less poor in relatively free-market countries than in more controlled economies.

This opens up an entirely new area for honest intellectual debate. Nothing close to a pure free-market economy exists on Earth. So is this free-market prosperity due to the free-market elements that do exist, or is it due to the mixed economy’s more constructivist elements? To my knowledge, this debate has not happened. This is largely because of thought-closing fallacies such as Powell takes on in his post, and the ones I discuss here and elsewhere.

How to Lose an Argument

Thomas Erskine defended Thomas Paine after authorities decided to persecute him for the radical ideas contained in his Rights of Man. Here, Erskine tells a story that explains to Paine’s prosecutors why someone who threatens force during an argument is almost surely wrong:

You must all remember, gentlemen, Lucian’s pleasant story: Jupiter and a countryman were walking together, conversing with great freedom and familiarity upon the subject of heaven and earth. The countryman listened with attention and acquiescence while Jupiter strove only to convince him; but happening to hint a doubt, Jupiter turned hastily around and threatened him with his thunder. ‘Ah, ha!’ says the countryman, ‘now, Jupiter, I know that you are wrong; you are always wrong when you appeal to your thunder.’

Quoted from J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought, pp. 130-31.

He’s right. An argument can only truly be won on the merits.The world would be a better place if more people realized that.