Bad Moves – Butterflies and Wheels http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org Discussing all the things Thu, 17 Oct 2019 00:31:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.20 The innocent have nothing to fear /2005/the-innocent-have-nothing-to-fear/ Tue, 25 Oct 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=675

"If a government takes offence at this, that government should be offended by the acts of its own citizens, if they are hateful."
Lynne Weil, US State Department communications director, the
Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2004

Last year, the US Congress ordered the State Department to “start rating governments throughout the world on their treatment of Jewish citizens.” Alarmed by an apparent rise of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, Congress decided that the situation needed monitoring.

Several countries, however, objected to this. But State Department communications director Lynne Weil argued that there were no good reasons for any government to object to such reporting. In essence, her argument was that if a country had no particular problem with anti-Semitism, then … Read the rest

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"If a government takes offence at this, that government should be offended by the acts of its own citizens, if they are hateful."
Lynne Weil, US State Department communications director, the Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2004

Last year, the US Congress ordered the State Department to “start rating governments throughout the world on their treatment of Jewish citizens.” Alarmed by an apparent rise of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, Congress decided that the situation needed monitoring.

Several countries, however, objected to this. But State Department communications director Lynne Weil argued that there were no good reasons for any government to object to such reporting. In essence, her argument was that if a country had no particular problem with anti-Semitism, then nothing in the reports would be objectionable to them. But if they did have a problem, then they should be concerned not with the reporting, but with the problem. Only anti-Semitic nations had anything to worry about, and quite rightly so.

This is a version of the very popular “The innocent have nothing to fear” argument, which is wheeled out whenever authorities wish to bring in new measures which increase surveillance or limit freedoms in the name of increasing security. For example, someone demands to search your luggage. You object to this intrusion on your privacy, but you are told that if you are innocent, you have no reason to object. After all, what are you trying to hide?

The argument is a particular species of false dichotomy. You are presented with a simple either/or choice. Either you’re guilty, and so should be exposed; or you are innocent, in which case nothing will be exposed, and so you have nothing to worry about. Either way, you have no legitimate reason to be concerned. Like all false dichotomies, the problem is that there is at least one more option than the two offered in the either/or choice.

In the case of “The innocent have nothing to fear” argument, the key point is usually that our objections have nothing to do with our guilt or innocence, but with our right to privacy. We don’t want to be scrutinised at every turn because constant scrutiny is an intrusion into our privacy. Consider, for example, that what we get up to in our bedrooms may be nothing to be ashamed of, but most of us still wouldn’t want others to stand around and watch. Potential voyeurs would not have a very strong case if they simply said, “Why not let us look? Doing something you shouldn’t be?” “The innocent have nothing to fear” is therefore usually an example of a red herring: the fact that we are not doing anything wrong is beside the point.

Lynne Weil’s argument is a red herring for a slightly different reason. It is not privacy violation that governments objected to, but what they saw as the particular focus on anti-Semitism as opposed to other forms of discrimination. State department diplomats were warning that the measures would open up the US government to charges of favouritism: focussing on anti-Semitism more than other, perhaps more widespread, forms of discrimination and oppression. Whether that is a good argument is of course another matter. What should be clear, however, is that because that, rather than any desire to cover up actual anti-Semitism, was the at least official basis of the concern, Lynne Weil’s response misses the point. What the innocent fear is not being found out, but living under an intrusive or unjust regime.

Julian Baggini’s latest book, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments, is published by Granta.

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Motivation speculation /2005/motivation-speculation/ Mon, 10 Oct 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=674

"That Darwinist authorities find public scrutiny of their theory so threatening indicates to me that there is a hidden insecurity in their intellectual position which will eventually become so visible it can no longer be concealed."
Phillip E. Johnson, Think, Issue 11

One of the most intractable puzzles in the history of philosophy is the problem of other minds. This isn’t the difficulty of knowing exactly what other people are feeling or thinking, but that of knowing whether other people have minds at all. Might they simply be senseless automata, behaving as though they had thoughts and feelings, but not really having them at all?

This kind of philosophical difficulty is of a different order to the everyday challenge … Read the rest

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"That Darwinist authorities find public scrutiny of their theory so threatening indicates to me that there is a hidden insecurity in their intellectual position which will eventually become so visible it can no longer be concealed."
Phillip E. Johnson, Think, Issue 11

One of the most intractable puzzles in the history of philosophy is the problem of other minds. This isn’t the difficulty of knowing exactly what other people are feeling or thinking, but that of knowing whether other people have minds at all. Might they simply be senseless automata, behaving as though they had thoughts and feelings, but not really having them at all?

This kind of philosophical difficulty is of a different order to the everyday challenge of working out what others are thinking. In that sense, we are actually pretty good at knowing the contents of other people’s heads. Most of us find feelings of boredom, irritation or attraction very hard to conceal, and often it takes just one look to detect someone’s mood.

What we detect in others is usually evident to the person we are scrutinising. But one of Freud’s more regrettable legacies is that he seems to have convinced a large number of us that we are better judges of others’ minds than those others are themselves. The subconscious may be hidden from ourselves, but it seems transparent to others.

There is a set of crass pop-psychology rules for making these sweeping judgements about people’s true motivations. One is the inverse-proportion denial rule – otherwise known as The Lady Doth Protest Too Much manoeuvre – which states that the more someone denies something the more likely it is to be true. As every schoolboy knows, someone who makes a big point of denying he is gay, for example, is probably gay himself.

Another related rule is the hatred equals fear rule, otherwise known as the cornered rat response. This states that the more someone professes to hate something, the more likely she is to actually be afraid of it. The ability to apply this rule is not usually mastered until we become self-righteous undergraduates.

Then there is the arrogance as insecurity rule, otherwise known as the soft-centre principle. This states that anyone who is judged to be excessively confident is almost certainly compensating for a deep-rooted insecurity. This can be confused with idiotically making excuses for people’s bad behaviour: “He may behave like a predatory love rat, but deep down he’s just insecure.”

The trouble with all these rules is that they are all utter rubbish. Of course, there are specific instances when they hold. Sometimes the person who aggressively denies his homosexuality, claims to hate “poofs” and acts more macho than Ernest Hemingway at a bachelor party, really is struggling to come to terms with his own sexual feelings for other men. But it might equally be the case that he’s just a bigoted, macho homophobe.

On many other occasions, these kinds of “explanations” are utterly bogus. Often people protest that something is not true because they really think it isn’t true, and the truth in this instance matters to them. I hate Earl Grey tea, but I’m not afraid of it. And some people are arrogant precisely because they’re not insecure about anything.

So much should be evident. And yet we still find people who in so-called intellectual discussions invoke just these kinds of crass psychological generalisations to support their case. Creation scientist Phillip Johnson’s swipe against the “Darwinist authorities” is one stunningly crude example. He very cleverly describes their resistance to people such as himself in terms of its being “threatening”, which is to already imply their reaction is not an intellectual but a defensive, psychological one. He then suggests that the vociferous nature of their defence against creation scientists is due to some “hidden insecurity”. Johnson seems so confident that his analysis is accurate that he even says the reaction of Darwinists “indicates” to him that they are insecure. Not “suggests” or “might indicate” but “indicates”. In a single sentence it manages to encapsulate facets of all three of the trite piece of amateur psychologising I’ve described: call it “The Cornered Rat has a Soft Centre and Protests Too Much” move, henceforth to be known as “Doing a Johnson”.

If we were to apply this kind of analysis back on the analyst, we might suggest that Johnson is so fixed in the rightness (and righteousness) of his own position that he cannot comprehend that people might just object to him on good intellectual and scientific grounds rather than just emotional ones. That may well be true, but it might equally well not be. If we want to criticise him, we should just point out that his attempt to play the analyst is trite and completely fails to address any of the serious issues. Speculating as to what subconscious psychological desire motivated him to do so may be good fun and tremendously interesting, but it is both futile and irrelevant to judging the soundness of his case.

Julian Baggini’s latest book, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments is published by Granta.

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Category Mistakes /2005/category-mistakes/ Mon, 11 Jul 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=673

" I get into trouble for saying that ‘Al Qaeda’ doesn’t exist, but there is no such organisation."
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 10 July 2005

The intelligentsia have never been keen on the “war on terror”, often for good reasons. Perhaps what irritates them the most is how the rhetoric of the campaign has been so simplistic, reducing complex situations to straightforward battles between good and evil, and blurring important distinctions between Saddam Hussain and Osama Bin Laden.

This justified scepticism, however, has led some to be too quick to dismiss every claim made by the American and British governments. Both have been accused of exaggerating the terrorist threat, sometimes by the same people who, when Madrid and … Read the rest

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" I get into trouble for saying that ‘Al Qaeda’ doesn’t exist, but there is no such organisation."
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 10 July 2005

The intelligentsia have never been keen on the “war on terror”, often for good reasons. Perhaps what irritates them the most is how the rhetoric of the campaign has been so simplistic, reducing complex situations to straightforward battles between good and evil, and blurring important distinctions between Saddam Hussain and Osama Bin Laden.

This justified scepticism, however, has led some to be too quick to dismiss every claim made by the American and British governments. Both have been accused of exaggerating the terrorist threat, sometimes by the same people who, when Madrid and then London were both hit, claimed that these attacks were inevitable.

The most knowing of these sceptical views is that Al Qaeda does not even exist. But what does this claim boil down to? What it means is that Al Qaeda is not a single, centrally-run, global terrorist organisation. The attacks in New York, Madrid and London were not all planned and directed by Osama Bin Laden and his team. Rather, autonomous cells, which may have had no direct contact with Bin Laden’s group at all, organised these attacks on their own.

To conclude, however, that Al Qaeda therefore does not exist is as premature as saying that, for example, we cannot talk about the French Resistance or Italian Partisans during the Second World War. These resistance movements could not be tight, highly-centralised movements with strict hierarchies. Rather, local groups often had to work more or less on their own. However, their shared goals and recognition of some kind of leadership meant it is often proper to talk about both movements as single entities.

Of course, it is possible to be confused by the language and to assume that because we use singular nouns there must be singular, distinct entities they refer to. But it is our mistake if we do so, because nothing in logic or language demands that everything we talk of as a single entity is a simple, unified object.

Gilbert Ryle argued that this false assumption was an example of what he called category mistakes. These occur when we think of one thing as though it were another kind of thing, and so misunderstand its nature. One of his most vivid examples is of the tourist who demands to see Oxford University and is then puzzled when he is shown only colleges and libraries. He wanted to see the university, thinking it was a single building, not realising that the university was nothing more than the sum of its constituent parts.

There are many things that clearly do exist, yet cannot be pinned down to single entities or formal organisations. The anti-capitalist movement is one example. It is quite right to say that the anti-capitalist movement does not exist as a coherent political entity, but rash to say it therefore doesn’t exist at all. Likewise, many belief systems exist even in the absence of formal statements of doctrine or central organising bodies.

That is why it is wrong to say that Al Qaeda cannot exist in the absence of a global command and control system, with Bin Laden at the top and individual terrorist cells at the bottom. For Al Qaeda to exist, all it needs to be is a general movement with common aims, which takes inspiration and guidance from certain leaders, such as Bin Laden. It needn’t even formally share resources, tactics and information, although terrorist groups do this via the internet, whether they know the information providers or not.

Does such a movement exist? Peter Hitchens, taking his cue from Jason Burke’s widely admired Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, thinks not. Burke, however, did not write a book about something that doesn’t exist. Rather, as one reviewer put it, Burke’s real thesis is that “Al Qaeda as we know it does not exist” but that it is a “’formula system’ for terrorism, an exportable praxis”. Hitchens therefore goes further than Burke when he says there are only many groups “vaguely linked by a common ideology”. For all I know, Hitchens may be right. It would not be right, however, to claim that the lack of formal links between these disparate groups by itself shows Al Qaeda is a figment of the intelligence services’ imaginations. Too many mistakes have already been made in the so-called war on terror: category mistakes should not be added to them.

Julian Baggini’s new book, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments, is published by Granta.

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It worked for me… /2005/it-worked-for-me/ Sun, 19 Jun 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=672

"It would be interesting to see how the world would be different if Dick Cheney really listened to Radiohead’s OK Computer. I think the world would probably improve. That album is fucking brilliant. It changed my life, so why wouldn’t it change his?"
Chris Martin of Coldplay, Guardian Weekend 28 May 2005

Our ability to predict what will happen and detect order in the world depends upon a type of argument which is strictly speaking illogical. Induction is a form of reasoning which allows us to infer general principles from particular experiences. Sometimes we have many particulars to work on: countless observations have shown water to be H2O, so the hypothesis that all water is so composed seems pretty … Read the rest

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"It would be interesting to see how the world would be different if Dick Cheney really listened to Radiohead’s OK Computer. I think the world would probably improve. That album is fucking brilliant. It changed my life, so why wouldn’t it change his?"
Chris Martin of Coldplay, Guardian Weekend 28 May 2005

Our ability to predict what will happen and detect order in the world depends upon a type of argument which is strictly speaking illogical. Induction is a form of reasoning which allows us to infer general principles from particular experiences. Sometimes we have many particulars to work on: countless observations have shown water to be H2O, so the hypothesis that all water is so composed seems pretty secure. However, we often generalise on the basis of very few observations. If you have a new gadget, you press a button and something happens, and you assume the same thing will happen if you press the button again. This is because your reasoning is informed by many other similar experiences which create a general assumption about regularity in the function of buttons.

But as philosophers have long recognised, induction is a logical embarrassment. That is because, whether we base our generalisations on many instances or just one or two, we are still concluding that something is always the case on the basis of only a limited set of observations. Most fundamentally, we are also assuming that the future will be like the past, when we have no experience at all of what the future will be like.

Given the need to reason to inductively, and the great difficulty philosophers have had justifying inductive reasoning and setting out principles for its correct use, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is very easy to do it badly. The temptation to over-generalise on the basis of a potentially misleading particular experience can be almost irresistible.

Crass Chris Martin’s comments about Dick Cheney and Radiohead is an especially egregious example of the mistake. It is hard to believe that Martin really thinks listening to an album which is lyrically opaque and far short of a coherent political treatise would change the mind of someone who has spent a whole life developing a political outlook. Of course, it might, but it seems very unlikely it would. Yet Martin seems to be convinced of the album’s transformative power because “It changed my life, so why wouldn’t it change his?”

What Martin has ignored is that people’s reactions to music are extremely variable. So the fact that OK Computer changed his life is no guarantee at all it will change the lives of others. In fact, the evidence that it often won’t is staring him in the face, since Martin must know full well that some people hate that album.

When people over-generalise from a limited number of specific instances they are said to be reading too much into merely “anecdotal evidence”. But this phrase is a little misleading, since sometimes one or two instances are enough to form an at least tentative general hypothesis. It is not strictly the number of cases you base your reasoning on that counts, but on whether they are of the right kind.

It may be hard to specify precisely what the “right kind” is, but the typical features of the wrong kind are clear enough. As in the example of Martin, you cannot generalise from situations where there are known to be considerable variations in how people or things respond.

But there is another problem with Martin’s generalisation which is more typical of arguments from anecdotal evidence. People tend to assume that the examples they are generalising from have characteristics which they may not in fact have. Did OK Computer really change Martin’s life? Perhaps, but I am pretty sure it didn’t change him from a Cheneyite neo-con to an anti-capitalist. So it is not just that the album wouldn’t have the effect claimed for it on all people; it didn’t even have that effect on Martin.

This is why anecdotal evidence is inadequate to demonstrate the efficacy of medicines. If you take a tablet and feel better, it is natural to say “it worked for me”. But you don’t know that. You cannot know whether the tablet made you feel better, taking the tablet merely coincided with the start of your recovery, or whether the believing that you would start to feel better led you to do so.

So it is not only untrue that if something works for me it will work for you: often we are just jumping to conclusions when we say it worked for me in the first place. But, as I said, this kind of mistake is natural, because even justified generalisations are not logically justified. Induction is a strange but essential beast, and one it is hard to domesticate.

Julian Baggini’s new book, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: And Ninety Nine Other Thought Experiments, is published 7 July by Granta.

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Contorting to balance /2005/contorting-to-balance/ Sat, 04 Jun 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=671

“Evan Harris, Lib Dem MP and Honorary Associate of National Secular Society and Dr Jasdev Rai, Director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, discuss whether the play ‘Behzti’ in Birmingham should continue.”
The Today Programme, BBC Radio Four, 20th December 2004

I quite often get contacted by researchers for radio or television programmes as a potential contributor to some kind of topical debate. It’s common for nothing to come of the initial discussion, but on more than one occasion the reason for my unsuitability has left me concerned. As one researcher explicitly said, and others have implied, I am not extreme enough in my views.

This woke me up to the fact that all too often, “balance” in a … Read the rest

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“Evan Harris, Lib Dem MP and Honorary Associate of National Secular Society and Dr Jasdev Rai, Director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, discuss whether the play ‘Behzti’ in Birmingham should continue.”
The Today Programme, BBC Radio Four, 20th December 2004

I quite often get contacted by researchers for radio or television programmes as a potential contributor to some kind of topical debate. It’s common for nothing to come of the initial discussion, but on more than one occasion the reason for my unsuitability has left me concerned. As one researcher explicitly said, and others have implied, I am not extreme enough in my views.

This woke me up to the fact that all too often, “balance” in a debate is interpreted to mean, first, giving both sides of the argument equal opportunity to present their views, and second, to represent both sides at their most trenchant. But does this really present a balanced picture?

In one sense, of course it does: there is balance because there are two equal and opposite opinions. But the point of striving for balance is surely to represent the debate fairly. And I’m not sure this approach achieves that goal.

For example, Today is BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme, and it is always presenting “balanced debates”. One example was the discussion between Evan Harris and Jasdev Rai about the decision by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to cancel performances of the play ‘Behzti’ because of violent protests by Sikhs, who found scenes of a rape in a temple to be offensive. In many ways they were obvious candidates: Dr Rai stood up for the Sikh protestors (though not for violence) while Harris insisted on the rights of free speech in a secular society.

But the problem with this is that the issue is only really clear cut for those who, like the two contributors, stand at the extreme polls of the disagreement. Many others would think that there is a real difficulty here and that there is neither an inalienable right to perform whatever you want nor to demand that something you find offensive be banned.

There is something to be said for presenting a debate in terms of the two strongest cases that can be made on either side. But this can also lead to important distortions. This is particularly important in issues of great sensitivity such as ‘Behzti’. For presenting the argument as a clash of fundamentals exacerbates the sense that there is a huge gulf between the Sikh community and the majority. In reality, however, most people in both camps probably agree about a great deal. Glossing over this could have the serious effect of increasing tensions between and within communities.

The problem is that the traditional way of balancing is not just one way that debates are presented, but the formula that is almost invariably followed. The cumulative effect of all these discussions is to present a picture of a society which is dominated by adversarial conflicts and huge gulfs. The moderate middle ground, occupied by the majority, is left unrepresented, and so the striving for balance actually fails to fulfil its primary purpose of reflecting the opinions that are out there.

What is perhaps even worse is that to give both sides equal weight can severely distort what are actually important imbalances in a debate. This is typical of many scientific issues, where one rogue researcher is pitted against an opponent who represents the opinion of the vast majority. This is probably one reason why the public thought the claims that autism was caused by the combined MMR vaccine were more credible than they were. The media gave equal time to both sides of the argument (or perhaps even more to the minority view), which inevitably gave the impression the issue was much more uncertain than it really was. This kind of balance tips the scales in favour of the maverick.

This is an issue not of the content of arguments themselves but how they are framed. The concern is that certain views are already granted more respect or importance than they are due simply by the way they are debated and discussed. We need to be on our guard and remember that a “balanced discussion” can nevertheless be a hugely distorted one.

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Don’t You Look Pretty Today /2005/dont-you-look-pretty-today/ Tue, 03 May 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=670

"Mrs Hillier, who wore a dark trouser suit over a beige jumper edged in blue, has two children aged five and three, and greatly dislikes the “macho, aggressive” style of traditional Westminster politics."
Andrew Grimson, the Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2005

Forgive the pun, but clothes are not immaterial. William James went so far as to claim that “In its widest possible sense … a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his,” including “his clothes”. What we wear can be significant.

Andrew Grimson, in his daily election sketches for the Daily Telegraph, has mentioned clothes on several occasions. He remarked that Boris and Stanley Johnsons’ “scruffy appearance did not win universal approval”. He … Read the rest

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"Mrs Hillier, who wore a dark trouser suit over a beige jumper edged in blue, has two children aged five and three, and greatly dislikes the “macho, aggressive” style of traditional Westminster politics."
Andrew Grimson, the Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2005

Forgive the pun, but clothes are not immaterial. William James went so far as to claim that “In its widest possible sense … a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his,” including “his clothes”. What we wear can be significant.

Andrew Grimson, in his daily election sketches for the Daily Telegraph, has mentioned clothes on several occasions. He remarked that Boris and Stanley Johnsons’ “scruffy appearance did not win universal approval”. He also described the sports-casual look of Conservative candidate Ed Vaizey because it was “hardly the dress of a traditional Conservative”. In both cases, the reference to attire was entirely justified and non-gratuitous.

What, however, is the significance of Labour candidate Meg Hillier’s “dark trouser suit over a beige jumper edged in blue”? Grimson not only doesn’t say, he doesn’t even give us any clues. Given the context in which the description occurs, are we to think it reveals something about her view that the style of politics in Westminster is macho? If so, it is hard to see what that might be.

It is not as though it is Grimson’s style to mention appearance for the sake of adding some descriptive colour. The only thing he says about Robert Kilroy-Silk, a politician well known for his impressive tan and dapper style, is that “to many members of the working class he is a glamorous figure.” And apart from the examples already given, the only other significant reference to appearance Grimson makes over three weeks of sketches has been to point out that the Conservative candidate Anne Milton “has been compared in looks with actor Julian Clary”. Ouch.

Given the limited evidence, to deduce anything specifically about Andrew Grimson on the basis of his election sketches would not be fair. But in general, I think we know full well why some people’s appearance receives more attention than others: absence of the Y chromosome. Time and again reporters will mention what a woman is wearing, even though they would not do the same if the person in question were a man being discussed in the same capacity.

Many people, including many women, neither notice this nor care much about it if is pointed out. Perhaps, they’ll say, it’s just that men tend to look very similar – all with suits and ties – whereas women provide more aesthetic variety, for which they are noticed. There may be something in that. But there is surely also something in the complaint that to describe what a woman is wearing when it is irrelevant to the story in hand has the subtle effect of slightly undermining the seriousness of the woman in question. By placing some importance on how she looks, you take away some of the importance of what she says.

It is easy to dismiss such concerns as attempts to make mountains out of molehills. But perhaps a better analogy is with heaps and grains of sand. Each small instance, like a single grain of sand, is indeed insignificant by itself. But the cumulative effect of thousands of such reinforcements of stereotypes adds up, just as enough grains of sand will fill a desert. And that there are millions of such grains is indisputable. Just consider the William James quote I opened with. He talked not of a person’s self but a “man’s self”. By making the male the paradigm of the human, the female is inevitably relegated to second place.

There are other ways in which modes of speech reinforce what can variably be called the prevailing orthodoxy, the dominant ideology or entrenched prejudices. A respectful, serious lexicon and tone are used when talking about dominant groups, while others are implicitly dismissed with irreverence and levity. If the social order these ways of speaking reflect is questionable, that in itself is a reason to avoid contributing to their propagation.

That doesn’t necessarily mean these forms of speech contribute to bad arguments. Often, however, they not only reinforce prevailing orthodoxies, but draws some support from them. Whether intentional or not, and whether typical of him or not, when Grimson drew our attention to Hillier’s clothes, he was not only making an albeit miniscule contribution to the demeaning of women, he was also invoking that sense of female frivolity. It’s subtle, for sure, and may not have had any effect on our overall perception of Hillier. But even if it didn’t, the worry is not that there was a decisive contribution to the argument, but that such ways of talking infect our whole discourse, so that we don’t even notice how one half of society is being constantly undermined.

You may not be persuaded. But consider this: you don’t need to know what I’m wearing to judge the merits of my argument. And nor should you need to know how Meg Hillier, or any other woman, is dressed to judge the merits of theirs.

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Mood music /2005/mood-music/ Fri, 15 Apr 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=669

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?
UK Conservative Party election manifesto slogan 2005

Elections are a sobering time for people who like to think that arguments count, and that opinions can be shifted by reasoned arguments about the various positions held. For as the present general election in the United Kingdom is once again demonstrating, sound arguments have little to do with the success or failure of campaigns. What seems to matter most of all is the overall impression given by the various candidates. This is why all the main parties are quite justifiably very concerned with image. We might prefer it if the election campaign were a vigorous intellectual debate, but any party that showed a high-minded disregard for … Read the rest

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“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?
UK Conservative Party election manifesto slogan 2005

Elections are a sobering time for people who like to think that arguments count, and that opinions can be shifted by reasoned arguments about the various positions held. For as the present general election in the United Kingdom is once again demonstrating, sound arguments have little to do with the success or failure of campaigns. What seems to matter most of all is the overall impression given by the various candidates. This is why all the main parties are quite justifiably very concerned with image. We might prefer it if the election campaign were a vigorous intellectual debate, but any party that showed a high-minded disregard for its image would almost certainly lose ground against an opposition with more effective image management.

When a political party is making its case by, in effect, not really making a case at all but creating an impression, it can be hard to pinpoint errors of reasoning. Indeed, a really good campaign will only use slogans and arguments that are irrefutable. The Conservatives know this well. Consider some of their slogans: “What’s wrong with a little discipline in schools?” Why, nothing of course. “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Of course it isn’t. “Why can’t politicians be more accountable?” Good question!

If you like picking holes in arguments, there is some material to get your teeth into. “Put more police on the streets and they’ll catch more criminals. It’s not rocket science, is it?” Actually, it’s far from obvious that this is the way to bring down crime. The problem is that wandering bobbies are unlikely to bump into criminals on the job. One recent study suggested that it would take eight years for the average officer on the beat to get within 100 yards of a burglary in process.

But opportunities to pick holes like these are few and far between because the election is being fought using slogans that are on the whole correct. Where the sleight of hand occurs is that when these words and slogans are selected and put together in the right way, an overall impression is created which is distinct from that of the individual elements themselves. Each utterance, each slogan, is a single note which only helps create the “mood music” if it is played in the right place at the right time.

Several of the motifs for Conservative campaign’s mood music are very clear and catchy. One theme is fear. Speaking at the launch of his party’s Welsh manifesto, Conservative leader Michael Howard said. “I want criminals to look over their shoulders in fear – not the law-abiding public. And I use that word deliberately – fear.” This is clever stuff. Howard is talking about making criminals afraid of being caught, and who could be against that? But fear is a theme he keeps returning to, and it is hard to avoid concluding that the real aim is to keep hitting that note so as to create a climate of insecurity among the electorate, and the impression that the Conservatives are the ones who will reduce it.

So it is with talk of immigration controls, unruly schoolchildren and dirty hospitals. Cumulatively, the impression given is that we should be afraid, very afraid, especially of people who are different, such as gypsies and asylum seekers. Yet individually, the statements on all these issues are innocuous. “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” True.

This is, I believe, one of the most powerful rhetorical moves that can be made, precisely because it cannot be pinned down to errors in logic or dodgy inferences. It is hard even to establish that the move has been made. Because this is all about impressions created, not statements made, it can be claimed that anyone who interprets the mood music unfavourably has simply got the wrong impression. My perceptions, it will be argued, only reflect my prejudices.

However, it is no secret that the Conservatives are using the so-called “dog whistle” technique: saying things that deliver messages only the intended audience can hear. Since this whole strategy relies on there being implicit as well as explicit messages, the claim that things are being implied which are not actually being said can hardly be denied. The room for disagreement concerns only what those implied messages are.

I’ve focussed on the Conservative campaign, but all the political parties are playing the same game. They are trying to make us reach conclusions about their fitness for office, not mainly by providing arguments, but by managing our impressions of them. And much to the frustration of those who like a rational debate, you can’t fault their logic if logic is being completely bypassed.

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Percipi est esse /2005/percipi-est-esse/ Tue, 29 Mar 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=668

“Muslims in Britain are suffering soaring levels of Islamophobia and discrimination based on their faith, rather than the colour of their skin, a report published today says. […] Of British Muslims, 80 per cent said they had suffered Islamophobia.
The Independent, 22 November 2004

Percipi est esse is a (possibly ungrammatical) inversion of Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. Being a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality, it has nothing to do with claims about rises in Islamophobia or the like. However, “to be perceived is to be” neatly captures the way in which people often slide from the fact that something is perceived to be the case to the greater claim … Read the rest

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“Muslims in Britain are suffering soaring levels of Islamophobia and discrimination based on their faith, rather than the colour of their skin, a report published today says. […] Of British Muslims, 80 per cent said they had suffered Islamophobia.
The Independent, 22 November 2004

Percipi est esse is a (possibly ungrammatical) inversion of Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. Being a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality, it has nothing to do with claims about rises in Islamophobia or the like. However, “to be perceived is to be” neatly captures the way in which people often slide from the fact that something is perceived to be the case to the greater claim that it actually is the case.

Consider the Independent’s claims about the rise of Islamophobia. Their story was about a report which was entirely about the perception of Islamophobia among Muslims. It solely concerned whether Muslims felt as though they had been discriminated against on the basis of their religion, not whether they had been. However, the fact that there had been an increase in the number of Muslims who thought they had been so discriminated against was taken as demonstrating that actual Islamophobia had increased. That is one giant logical leap.

You need only consider other examples where the same inference could be made, to see the flaw. Ask white Britons on council house waiting lists whether they feel they have been discriminated against in favour of asylum seekers and ethnic minorities, and you’ll find a sizeable proportion believe they have, even when the facts show this is demonstrably not the case. If a newspaper were to report that discrimination against white working class people had increased solely on the basis of the perceptions of this group, most would see the error in the logic and object straight away. For the same reason, we should not accept that increased perceptions of Islamophobia demonstrate that there has been a real increase in Islamophobia. (This is not, of course, to deny that there has been such an increase, but merely to deny that the perception that there has been one is sufficient to demonstrate the fact.)

The slide from perception to reality also occurs in claims about religions and the paranormal. People say “I felt God’s presence”, “I heard the voice of my dead mother” or “I felt at one with the universe”, and take these feelings as proof that God is really there, that their mother had contacted them from beyond the grave or that they had indeed become one with the universe. But one need not deny that you felt any of things to doubt whether or not what you felt was actually caused by God, your mother, or a union with the infinite.

Given that the distinction is so clear, why do people fail to maintain it? I would conjecture that there are two main reasons. One is that language misleads. To say “I felt God’s presence” logically implies that God was actually present, just as to say “I saw the Eiffel Tower” implies that the monument you saw was the Eiffel Tower. But in both cases we are simplifying what a completely accurate, and hence more circumspect, report would say. A pedant would insist you said “I felt as though God were present” or “I saw what looked to me like the Eiffel Tower”, neither of which implies that what you thought you felt or saw was really there.

A second reason why we make this error is that often something’s seeming to be there is a reliable indicator that it is actually there. For everyday purposes at least, if you think you saw the Eiffel Tower you probably did. But this is not true of other experiences. With God, since there is no reliable way to distinguish really feeling his presence from merely seeming to, we cannot say that the latter is a reliable indicator of the former. And in the case of prejudice, even if it is true that on most occasions when people believe they are the victims of prejudice they really are, the evidence of perception is still not a reliable enough indicator that the prejudice is actually there.

Some important truths are so simple that rock songs can not only express them, but do so with greater clearly than more sophisticated prose. Radiohead’s song ‘There There’, contains the line, ‘Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.’ Since I can’t improve on this summary of the fallacy I want to describe, I’ve fallen back on an old trick: if you want to make your idea look cleverer than it is, use Latin. But, of course, just because if looks cleverer, it doesn’t mean it is.

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Scare-mongering /2005/scare-mongering/ Mon, 07 Mar 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=667

“More than 50 dangerous pesticides contaminate Britain’s food, official tests reveal. […] The revelation – in a survey of official testing results – will heighten concern about food contamination.”
Geoffrey Lean, the Independent on Sunday 27 February 2005

Geoffrey Lean, the environment editor of the Independent on Sunday, should not be a soft target for criticism. He has won numerous awards, including a special award for lifetime achievement in environmental journalism from the World Conservation Union, the Martha Gellhorn Prize, the Reuters-IUCN Media Award, and The British Press Award Scoop of the year. Yet finding faults in his report on the “more than 50 dangerous pesticides found in British food” is like shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish. In … Read the rest

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“More than 50 dangerous pesticides contaminate Britain’s food, official tests reveal. […] The revelation – in a survey of official testing results – will heighten concern about food contamination.”
Geoffrey Lean, the Independent on Sunday 27 February 2005

Geoffrey Lean, the environment editor of the Independent on Sunday, should not be a soft target for criticism. He has won numerous awards, including a special award for lifetime achievement in environmental journalism from the World Conservation Union, the Martha Gellhorn Prize, the Reuters-IUCN Media Award, and The British Press Award Scoop of the year. Yet finding faults in his report on the “more than 50 dangerous pesticides found in British food” is like shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish. In a small barrel. With a machine gun.

Lean’s piece uses a classic scare-mongering move: it points to the existence of a risk while downplaying or not even revealing the fact that the risk in question is extremely low. An obvious example of the dodginess of this move is the lightning rod marketer who turns up and says to you, “Did you know your house – yes your house – could be struck by lightning tomorrow, causing a fire which could kill you and all your family? Do you want to take that risk?”

Your answer would probably be yes, because you already know that your house could be struck by lightning, but you also know the risk is so low it’s not worth spending lots of money to avoid it. However, when someone confronts you with a risk you weren’t aware of, all this background information is not there, and the natural reaction is to be concerned. “Did you know your saucepans could give you Alzheimer’s?” Well, no, I didn’t. Gosh. Perhaps I should buy some safe ones…

When Lean tells us that British food contains “dangerous pesticides” without revealing the levels of these pesticides, he is making us more scared then we need be. It is like telling someone there is arsenic in the cup of coffee they have just drunk, when there is no more than a trace of the poison, not enough to have any significant effect on your body. Yet nowhere in his piece does Lean point to evidence that the levels of these pesticides are dangerously high.

Astonishingly, Lean actually pre-empts this criticism by claiming that “Many experts believe that there is no safe level for a cancer-causing chemical.” In other words, you should be scared by the mere presence of the harmful pesticides, irrespective of how low their levels are. But this claim is either patently false or not quite what it seems. For example, black pepper has been found to be a carcinogen, as have tannins, which are found in tea and coffee. Radon gas naturally occurs in varying concentrations, and only when these are high is there thought to be any cancer risk. Yet no credible expert believes that it is not safe to drink tea, grind black pepper on your pasta, or live somewhere where there are very low levels of radon.

This kind of frankly irresponsible reporting also allows the reporter to make a self-fulfilling prophesy. “The revelation … will heighten concern” wrote Lean. Well, yes it will, because he’s revealed it in a way designed to heighten concern. It will make people more worried, but it shouldn’t do so. Lean, however, has made it sound as though heightened concern is a reasonable and right response to the news. Readers are thus even more misled.

It is depressing that a serious newspaper like the Independent on Sunday should resort to such flagrant scare-mongering, but unfortunately it is not alone. Pick up almost any newspaper and, if a risk has been identified, the story will stress the mere presence of the risk and not its actual level. By doing that, it makes us more worried than we should be, but without actually lying. The sin here is a sin of omission. But however you look at it, the result is at least deceptive, if not an actual deception.

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Bold assertion /2005/bold-assertion/ Mon, 21 Feb 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=666

“Think about it: every time there’s a list of the 100 greatest records of all time, all those albums were recorded in two days.
Jack White, the White Stripes, Observer Music Monthly November 2004

Think about it? This is 2005! Why think when you can Google? A search for “greatest records of all time” will take you to Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll, in which you’ll find such classics as Sgt Pepper’s, OK Computer, Dark Side of the Moon and, er, Achtung Baby. Top of their poll was the Beatles’ Revolver. It’s a familiar selection, reflected in countless other polls and surveys. Among musicians and music writers, certain albums tend to do even better, notably the Beach … Read the rest

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“Think about it: every time there’s a list of the 100 greatest records of all time, all those albums were recorded in two days.
Jack White, the White Stripes, Observer Music Monthly November 2004

Think about it? This is 2005! Why think when you can Google? A search for “greatest records of all time” will take you to Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll, in which you’ll find such classics as Sgt Pepper’s, OK Computer, Dark Side of the Moon and, er, Achtung Baby. Top of their poll was the Beatles’ Revolver. It’s a familiar selection, reflected in countless other polls and surveys. Among musicians and music writers, certain albums tend to do even better, notably the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, a perennial critics’ favourite, chosen as the greatest album ever made by Mojo magazine in 1995.

Revolver was not recorded in two days. In fact, it was recorded over eight weeks and, like Sgt Pepper’s, is considered by many to be such a landmark album precisely because of the innovative and extensive use of technology, mixing and production in the studio. Brian Wilson spent four months recording the backing tracks alone for Pet Sounds. The recording of Dark Side of the Moon took place between June 1972 and January 1973. Ok Computer took several months, spread over a couple of years, to record. Need I go on? Jack White is plain, demonstrably, wrong, a fact his interviewer seemed to miss.

Getting your facts wrong is such a basic mistake that it barely registers as a bad argumentative move. Yet it is probably one of the most common and easily missed. Goebbels said that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it.” He could equally have said that if you state an untruth boldly and confidently enough, people are remarkably willing to accept what you say as true. This, incidentally, is a major problem with eye-witness testimony. Psychology experiments have shown that witnesses who are most confident about their recollections are both the most likely to be believed and the least likely to be accurate in their reports.

It seems that unless we have a particular reason to doubt the truth of a claim, we tend to assume it is right. And it would indeed be difficult to be sceptical about every claim we heard which we didn’t know for sure to be true. “Innocent until proven guilty” is the principle that allows us to get on with our lives without having to constantly stop and question.

However, what is most striking about the power of bold assertion is that it can make us accept things which even the briefest reflection would show to be false. You only have to think for a moment about what the so-called greatest records of all time are to realise straight away that very few were recorded in just a couple of days. Innocent until proven guilty, maybe. But so often we know the facts that show the bold asserter is guilty and let them off all the same.

Nor should we comfort ourselves that when the subject is more serious than top 100 albums, we are careful enough about the claims we accept. We often accept uncritically the things people say, particularly if we admire or support them, just as groundlessly as we dismiss claims made by their critics.

Not convinced? A few paragraphs ago I made a claim about what experiments had showed about the reliability of eye witness testimony. Do you know whether that claim is true or not? If you don’t, did you stop and question it? Probably not, unless you are sceptical of me or this column in general, and were actively looking for points to undermine. You probably just accepted it as true because you have no particular reason to doubt me and it sounds plausible. Operating by those principles works most of the time and saves us a lot of trouble. But it also makes it all too easy for people, deliberately or not, to take advantage our tendency not to question simple assertions. No dodgy reasoning is required if you can get a simple falsehood accepted. And doing that is easier than we might hope.

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It didn’t work then, so… /2005/it-didn-t-work-then-so/ Sun, 06 Feb 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=665

“Crime and terror would be better addressed with 10,000 more police and a national border force, rather than wasting £3 billion on ID cards that didn’t protect people in the US or Spain and which would curtail British rights and liberties.”
Lib Dem chairman Matthew Taylor, on the Queen’s speech debate, 23 November 2004

Bertrand Russell once told the story about the Turkey who, noting that he had always been fed at 9 am, concluded that “I am always fed at 9 am” held as a general rule. On Christmas morning, it therefore came as a bit of shock when, instead of getting feed down his neck, he got his neck wrung.

The moral of the story is that although … Read the rest

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“Crime and terror would be better addressed with 10,000 more police and a national border force, rather than wasting £3 billion on ID cards that didn’t protect people in the US or Spain and which would curtail British rights and liberties.”
Lib Dem chairman Matthew Taylor, on the Queen’s speech debate, 23 November 2004

Bertrand Russell once told the story about the Turkey who, noting that he had always been fed at 9 am, concluded that “I am always fed at 9 am” held as a general rule. On Christmas morning, it therefore came as a bit of shock when, instead of getting feed down his neck, he got his neck wrung.

The moral of the story is that although we have no choice but to base our expectations of the future on the experience of the past, as they say in adverts for investment products, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

Just how we do reliably infer facts about the present and future from the past is the so-called problem of induction, and it has bothered philosophers for centuries. But although the deep philosophical issues remain unresolved, we have some idea what, for practical purposes, counts as drawing an unwarranted conclusion from the past.

Matthew Taylor’s objection to ID cards counts as one such unjustified inference. He points out that ID cards failed to stop terrorist attacks in New York and Madrid. He doesn’t explicitly draw any conclusions from this, but it only makes sense for him to mention these facts if he thinks they are relevant to judging the merits of Britain’s proposed scheme. This he does, as he says the money the scheme requires would serve security and crime-fighting better if spent on “more police and a national border force”.

As an argument this is no better than the old “my grandmother smoked 20 cigarettes a day and lived to 101” chestnut. The right response is, so what? No one says that if you smoke you will definitely die because of your habit. The claim is only that it massively increases your chances of an early death, and no individual chain-smoking centenarian can make that claim untrue.

In the same way, there are lots of ways you can increase you chances of living longer, and the case of someone who didn’t smoke, drank little, exercised everyday and wasn’t overweight, but who dropped dead of a heart attack aged 32, doesn’t change these general facts.

On 9/11, of course New Yorkers weren’t protected by compulsory ID cards, because the US doesn’t have them. In Madrid, they didn’t stop a terrorist attack. But not even their most passionate advocates claim that ID cards are a foolproof prophylactic against terrorism. Like the healthy man who drops dead, the ID-carrying Spaniards who were killed on 9 March 2004 prove nothing about the contribution identification might make to security.

The error of thinking they do is compounded when you consider that we are not even comparing like with like. Britain is not considering adopting the Spanish system, so even if their system did fail to protect its citizens, the British version might well do so. When learning from the past, we have to take into account how present facts and circumstances are different from the past ones we are comparing them with.

The general problem is a too-quick move from “it didn’t work there and then” to “it won’t work here and now”. Several things can contribute to a gaping chasm between the premise based on past experience and the conclusion about what to do now. The first is if the “it” is not the same – or at least sufficiently similar in all the relevant respects – in both cases. The second is if the circumstances of here and now differ in relevant respects from those of there and then. And the third is if the sense of “work” shifts. A measure which is designed to increase or decrease the likelihood of something happening can “work” even if on a particular occasion it didn’t stop or cause that thing to happen. Bans on drunk driving work to reduce road deaths, but they don’t stop all of them. Taylor’s invocation of Madrid in the ID cards debate is weak partly because it falls victim to the first error, but mainly because it is an example par excellence of the third.

I must conclude, however, by stressing that none of this shows that ID cards are a good idea. If you think I’ve argued that, then you need to read an earlier Bad Move.

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Fallacy of equivocation /2005/fallacy-of-equivocation/ Mon, 17 Jan 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=664

“[John Woods] was scheduled to be on the Pan-Am flight that exploded above Lockerbie in 1988 killing all 259 people on board. He cancelled at the last moment and went to an office party instead. […] On September 11, 2001, John left his office in one of the twin towers seconds before the building was struck by a hijacked aircraft. […] Why do some of us seem to be blessed with an extraordinary amount of good luck, while others suffer misfortune after misfortune? According to Anne Watson, co-author of The Book of Luck, published this week, luck doesn’t even exist. “I believe that what we commonly consider to be luck is something that lies within our control,” she says.”
Julia

Read the rest
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“[John Woods] was scheduled to be on the Pan-Am flight that exploded above Lockerbie in 1988 killing all 259 people on board. He cancelled at the last moment and went to an office party instead. […] On September 11, 2001, John left his office in one of the twin towers seconds before the building was struck by a hijacked aircraft. […] Why do some of us seem to be blessed with an extraordinary amount of good luck, while others suffer misfortune after misfortune? According to Anne Watson, co-author of The Book of Luck, published this week, luck doesn’t even exist. “I believe that what we commonly consider to be luck is something that lies within our control,” she says.”
Julia Stuart, the Independent, 23 November 2004

Anne Watson was lucky to have a full page of a national newspaper devoted to her book, but her good fortune did not extend to its being written by someone who was careful to represent its content accurately. That she could be lucky and unlucky at the same time would not surprise her, as she is well aware that we use the one word “luck” to describe a number of different things; a fact Ms Stuart ignored, enabling her to hook her story on the amazing tale of John Woods.

There are many words in our language that have multiple meanings. We commit the fallacy of equivocation when we use one word in two senses as if they had the same sense, and draw unjustified conclusions as a result. To take a somewhat frivolous example, it is like arguing that cheese goes mouldy when it ages, Donald Trump is a big cheese who has aged, and so Donald Trump has gone mouldy. The words may be the same, but a “big cheese” is not a big cheese.

In the same way, there is luck and there is luck. But in this case, the difference is not so glaringly obvious. The luck that Anne Watson writes about concerns people’s perception of their fortune and their tendency to succeed. In other words, it is the feeling we have about ourselves and others that we have had the breaks in life, irrespective of whether the good or bad outcomes are the result of chance, destiny or our own actions.

Watson, like another writer discussed in the article, Richard Wiseman, believes that this kind of luck has very little to do with random chance or the forces of destiny. Rather, people who take a positive attitude, persevere and take responsibility will have more success. They may appear to be lucky, but their “luck” is actually a result of their outlook and behaviour. What we call luck in these cases is just the appearance or perception of luck, what we might call subjective luck.

The crucial point is that this has nothing to do with another kind of luck, call it objective luck: the good or bad consequences of events we have no control over. Neither Wiseman nor Watson is foolish enough to claim that being positive and persistent can protect you against this kind of bad luck, or bring you its good variant. Being a lucky person in the Wiseman/Watson sense does not immunise you against random misfortune. No amount of positive thinking, willingness to learn from mistakes or taking responsibility for their actions could have protected those on the beach at Banda Aceh when the Tsunami struck, on Pam Am Flight 103 on 12 December 1988, or in the World Trade Centre on the morning of 9/11.

What Ms Stuart has done is to ignore this distinction and simply talk about luck simpliciter. Although the content of the piece should make it clear that John Woods’ experience has nothing to do with the theses of Wiseman and Watson, hooking the piece on that story encourages the reader to draw a false inference that commits the fallacy of equivocation: There is “no such thing as luck” (the piece’s headline); John Woods seemed to have been lucky; therefore he wasn’t lucky at all, but the kind of person whose outlook and behaviour make him less likely to suffer from “bad luck”. Once we make the proper distinctions, however, the false inference cannot be made: Subjective luck has nothing to do with objective luck; John Woods was objectively lucky; therefore being the kind of person whose outlook and behaviour make him less likely to suffer from subjective “bad luck” would not have saved him if he had been objectively unlucky.

That, however, would mean there was not justification or rationale for using Woods’ incredible good fortune as a hook for the piece. But as we all know, in journalism, the truth should never get in the way of a good story.

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Partial defence = support /2005/partial-defence-support/ Thu, 06 Jan 2005 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=663

“In the Guardian last week, the eminent philosopher, Julian Baggini, announced that, contrary to appearances, New Labour’s plans for identity cards were an idea which should be embraced by the left.”
Nick Cohen, the Observer, 5 December 2004

Bad moves can be made by readers as well as writers. When those readers are writers themselves, the result can be flagrant misrepresentation of someone’s position, which is very irksome for the inaccurately portrayed party.

I have been at the receiving end of this kind of thing several times now, and a pattern seems to be emerging. Time and again, people mistake a partial defence of something for full support of it. It seems impossible to point out that something can … Read the rest

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“In the Guardian last week, the eminent philosopher, Julian Baggini, announced that, contrary to appearances, New Labour’s plans for identity cards were an idea which should be embraced by the left.”
Nick Cohen, the Observer, 5 December 2004

Bad moves can be made by readers as well as writers. When those readers are writers themselves, the result can be flagrant misrepresentation of someone’s position, which is very irksome for the inaccurately portrayed party.

I have been at the receiving end of this kind of thing several times now, and a pattern seems to be emerging. Time and again, people mistake a partial defence of something for full support of it. It seems impossible to point out that something can be said for x or y without someone who should know better interpreting that as meaning that, on balance, you think x or y is a good thing.

For example, a while back, someone on the widely-respected Crooked Timber blog attacked a previous Bad Move saying “the whole argument was undermined by the blatant political stance of the writer.” (See Armando’s comment, fifth one down.) What he then went on to say was true “according to Baggini” just wasn’t what I said at all. What seems to have happened is that Armando saw that I had, on one specific point, defended Blair and criticised one of his opponents, and he had therefore assumed that I in general supported Blair. This ignores the fact that in other columns I have used Blair’s speeches as examples of bad moves. This seems to me a classic example of mistaking a partial defence for full support, so that to defend Blair just once is to adopt a “blatant political stance”.

Nick Cohen has recently made the same mistake. In a Guardian article, I tried to argue that the debate over compulsory ID cards in the UK was dominated by concerns about limits on freedom from government “interference” and neglected legitimate concerns about how far governments are entitled to get involved in our daily lives to increase, on balance, our freedom to act.

Whether or not my argument was a good one, I quite clearly stopped short of commending ID cards, saying that I did not suspect the measure “would reap a big enough dividend in terms of increasing our positive freedom to go about our business safely” and describing the plan as “half-baked”. But it seems this was not clear enough, for once again, partially defending the home secretary David Blunkett and seeing some merit in the grounds of his arguments was quickly confused with being a supporter of him and his measures.

Cohen was perhaps being deliberately mischievous. After all, his description of me as an “eminent philosopher” is an ironic in-joke. (He used the term previously in an openDemocracy exchange and, when I corrected him, he made “an unreserved apology” saying “I withdraw the slur at once and promise never to repeat it.”)

But mischief alone surely can’t explain this, as no self-respecting, eminent columnist would consciously go into print having got their facts so clearly wrong. And if Cohen was indeed sincere, it shows how easy it is for people to confuse partial defence with support.

I don’t know what the origins of the mistake are, but I would speculate that they reside in the desire to divide the world into clearly opposing camps – the “us” and the “them”. If you tend to think in this way, partial defences can look like signs and signals of what someone really believes. In such a binary world, for me to admit that Blair or Blunkett has a point is therefore a sign that I’m a closet authoritarian Blairite. Well, maybe I am! But the key point is that the partial defences I have described show no such thing, for I have also partially defended the political opponents of these people and I can’t be a closet supporter of everyone. Not, that is, unless my own powers to embrace contradiction are more developed than I thought.

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High redefinition /2004/high-redefinition/ Mon, 06 Dec 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=662

“I am not a drink driver: it just happened to be a one-off.”
Celebrity chef Keith Floyd, Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2004

Marion had never sung before in her life. Then one day at a pub karaoke, she bravely took to the stage, belted her lungs out and received an enthusiastic response from a crowd numbed from endless bad Celine Dion impressions. “You’re a great singer,” said one of the punters. Marion replied, “I’m not a singer; it just happened to be a one-off.”

Geoff was one of the impressed drinkers. When he got home to the wife he hated, he found her dunk and singing “My Heart Will Go On” in precisely the kind of way that makes … Read the rest

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“I am not a drink driver: it just happened to be a one-off.”
Celebrity chef Keith Floyd, Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2004

Marion had never sung before in her life. Then one day at a pub karaoke, she bravely took to the stage, belted her lungs out and received an enthusiastic response from a crowd numbed from endless bad Celine Dion impressions. “You’re a great singer,” said one of the punters. Marion replied, “I’m not a singer; it just happened to be a one-off.”

Geoff was one of the impressed drinkers. When he got home to the wife he hated, he found her dunk and singing “My Heart Will Go On” in precisely the kind of way that makes you actually admire Dion’s vocal artistry. For him it was the final straw. He grabbed a kitchen knife and killed her. In court, he said, “I’m not a murderer; it just happened to be a one-off.”

How many times do you need to do something to be classified as a doer of it? Too be a singer, writer, painter or actor, for example, you need to have done more than once sung, written, painted or acted. But if you murder, conquer, discover or visit just once, you are a murderer, conqueror, discoverer or visitor.

The rules vary from activity to activity and cannot be completely formalised. Consider what it means to be a winner. Sometimes, one win is enough. The England football team is a world cup winner, in virtue of a sole victory back in 1966. In other contexts, however, we use the term winner to describe someone who has a capacity to repeatedly win. Often, which context applies will be unclear.

Of course, so much of language is like this. The precise meanings of words can vary. Sometimes we exploit this in order to put a more favourable gloss on events. This is surely what happened in the case of Keith Floyd. Floyd was convicted for driving three and half times over the legal alcohol limit. The result was a head-on collision in a narrow country lane. Luckily, no one suffered more than minor injuries.

Does that make Floyd a drink-driver? That depends on whether the sobriquet is more like “murderer” or “singer”. Context does mean that there is some latitude of usage here, but surely, in general, “drink-driver” is more like “murderer” (linguistically, not morally, of course). If someone if found guilty of drink-driving only once, they are described as a “convicted drunk-driver”.

However, despite confessing he felt “ashamed” and “mortified”, Floyd did not seem willing to accept this. He didn’t want to be known as a drunk-driver. Thus he shifted the meaning of the term so that it becomes narrower. So narrow, in fact, that it no longer applied to him.

This move is called high redefinition and it’s a common way of making credible denial possible. Perhaps the most common example is when people deny that they have deceived anyone. Normally, this works by focusing on the requirement that deception requires intent. Then intent is defined so narrowly that even in a case where it could easily be foreseen that a misunderstanding would arise and the person did nothing to prevent it, deception is denied because that was not the clear, sole and specific aim of the person accused.

High redefinition is the sibling bad move to low redefinition, the subject of a previous column. In our karaoke case, if Marion had come out of the pub claiming to be a singer, she would have been guilty of that move: broadening, rather than narrowing, the scope of a term so that it applies to the case you want it to.

The point about both high and low redefinition is that they exploit the genuine elasticity and imprecision of language for self-serving purposes. Often, a case could be made for using the words in the broadened or narrow sense. What is always objectionable and sometimes sly is when this change of scope is accompanied by the pretence is that the terms are being used in their ordinary senses. We are free to stretch the meanings of words if we have good reason. But we should not do so covertly and without good reason.

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The gambler’s fallacy /2004/the-gamblers-fallacy/ Fri, 19 Nov 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=661

‘Dunfermline are due a win at Tannadice.’
Dunfermline defender Scott Wilson, Daily Record, 30 October 2004

When people say they are “due a win”, in sport, gambling or, more metaphorically, in life in general, they are more often than not doing little more than expressing a hope born of despair. But sometimes they also believe that in a very literal sense their luck is due to change.

The idea, usually vaguely rather than explicitly held, is that nature balances things up in the long run, so a recent run of results going one way requires a balancing set of results going the other. Otherwise, as Hamlet might put it, the world is out of joint.

Perhaps the clearest evidence … Read the rest

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‘Dunfermline are due a win at Tannadice.’
Dunfermline defender Scott Wilson, Daily Record, 30 October 2004

When people say they are “due a win”, in sport, gambling or, more metaphorically, in life in general, they are more often than not doing little more than expressing a hope born of despair. But sometimes they also believe that in a very literal sense their luck is due to change.

The idea, usually vaguely rather than explicitly held, is that nature balances things up in the long run, so a recent run of results going one way requires a balancing set of results going the other. Otherwise, as Hamlet might put it, the world is out of joint.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that many people do think like this is the popularity of web sites that tell you how many times numbers have been picked in national and state lotteries. (You can find one such “resource” here.) The fact that people consult these sites only makes sense if they believe that past selections can provide some kind of indicator of the likelihood of future ones.

The futility of this kind of analysis is evident from the fact that you could interpret the past data in two totally opposite ways. On one view, the numbers that come up most frequently are luckier, and so should be selected. On the other, the ones that have come up least frequently are overdue for an appearance. So which do you pick?

The answer is neither. The former is mere superstition, and the latter is a muddle-headed way of thinking about random events which falls prey to what is known as the gambler’s fallacy. The fallacy rests on a misapprehension about the probability of random occurrences. Take the toss of a fair coin. The chances of it coming up heads or tails is 50/50. That means that if you toss it 100 times, it is likely to come up heads about as often as it will come out tails. But note it is more likely that the outcome will be an unequal amount of heads and tails than exactly 50 heads and 50 tails. That’s because each toss of the coin is a distinct event and does not affect the tosses that follow or precede it. So if there have been 49 heads and 50 tails, nature does not “know” that a head is due. Rather, that 100 th toss, like the other 99 that preceded it, is as likely to come up heads as tails.

On that analysis, it is a misunderstanding of the nature of probability as it relates to statistical averages over a series of events that is the problem. Another source of the mistake is to misapprehend the nature of unlikely events. For example, the chances of tossing ten heads in a row is one in 1,024. (My maths may actually be wrong here, but it doesn’t matter as the general point being made is, I am sure, right!) Let us say that we have tossed a coin nine times in a row and it has come up heads every time. So surely, people feel, since the chances of a series of ten is so unlikely, it must be more likely that the next toss is tales rather than heads? Wrong. The unlikely (1 in 512, I believe) sequence of nine heads prior to this toss does not affect the outcome of the tenth toss. What is really unlikely has already happened. The probability that a tenth head will be tossed from this starting point is thus not 1 in 1,024 but 50-50, because it all hinges on one toss which, like all the others, is an evens bet.

Although it is a straightforward fallacy to suppose past random events affect the outcome of future ones, you might nonetheless justifiably see an unlikely series as being evidence that the sequence isn’t random at all. For example, if a coin has been tossed heads nine times in a row, you might bet on heads for the tenth on the basis that you suspect the tossing isn’t random. That’s perfectly reasonable, just as long as you understand that the mere occurrence of the unlikely series does not in itself show that the tossing has not been fair. It is of the nature of unlikely events that they will occasionally happen.

What isn’t reasonable is to believe that previous coin tosses, spins of the roulette wheel, or pieces of misfortune in competitive sport add or subtract something to the probability that the same chance events will or not occur the next time. And that’s why neither luck nor natural forces will ever make you due a break just because you’ve been on a losing streak. Sorry, Dunfermline football club.

Note: this is the 50th Bad Move. Many thanks to everyone who has followed the series and commented on it. I am planning at least 50 more before the series draws to an end.

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How else do you explain it? /2004/how-else-do-you-explain-it/ Sun, 31 Oct 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=660

Down inside, we are all born apart from God, and we grow up selfish and demanding our own way. What the Psalmist said of himself is also true of us: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). And one sign of our sin is that we don’t want God’s way in our lives, and we are in rebellion against Him and His will. How else do you explain the evil in the world?
Rev. Billy Graham

Is a bad explanation better than no explanation at all? If you have no idea why your mug suddenly shattered and someone suggests it had spontaneously gained consciousness, realized the futility of its existence and … Read the rest

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Down inside, we are all born apart from God, and we grow up selfish and demanding our own way. What the Psalmist said of himself is also true of us: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). And one sign of our sin is that we don’t want God’s way in our lives, and we are in rebellion against Him and His will. How else do you explain the evil in the world?
Rev. Billy Graham

Is a bad explanation better than no explanation at all? If you have no idea why your mug suddenly shattered and someone suggests it had spontaneously gained consciousness, realized the futility of its existence and committed suicide, would it be wise to accept that explanation, provisionally at least, until a better one is forthcoming?

Clearly there are some explanations which are worse than no explanations at all. Yet humans don’t seem comfortable living with the unaccountable. We even talk of things themselves demanding an explanation, when really it is us doing the demanding. Perhaps then we crave explanations, and this craving sometimes leads us to accept things we really have no good reason to.

How else do you explain the rhetorical force of asking how else you explain something? Asking a question like this shifts the onus from the claim-maker to the person accepting or rejecting the claim. Instead of having to provide evidence or arguments to defend her position, the claim-maker is demanding that the person assessing her view either offers a better explanation or shuts up. But this shifting of onus is unreasonable. If you offer an explanation, it is up to you to show that it is a good one, not for me to show I have a better one. My rejection of your explanation does not require that I have a better one to hand. In the same way, if someone writes a terrible poem, it’s no defence for them to argue that you couldn’t write a better one.

So, of course, my own use of “How else do you explain” at the start of the last paragraph is itself an example of how not to argue. Whether you accept my earlier speculation that human craving for explanation in part explains the rhetorical appeal of “How else do you explain it” should not depend on whether you have a better explanation.

This move is very often used by people whose views would otherwise seem quite outlandish to outsiders. Believers in the paranormal, for example, accept implausible explanations because they see them as the only way to dissolve the mysteriousness of various phenomena. In the absence of good explanations, they settle for crazy ones. Aliens, ghosts and psychic forces fill the gap which sensible explanations cannot fill. But sometimes we just don’t know enough to explain why something happened. The rational response in such circumstances is not to hold on to the only available explanation, no matter how batty, but to accept we don’t know.

Billy Graham’s use of the tactic is interesting in several respects. He skilfully combines plausible ideas acceptable to many with some more doctrinally-specific ones. The idea that we are in some sense born with an inherent capability, or even tendency, to be selfish and do wrong is widely accepted. But he puts this idea together with concepts of separation from God, and sinfulness, so when he asks how else we explain evil in the world, one of the most obvious answers – that human beings are not intrinsically good – is already part of his own. In effect, it forces many people to, in part, agree with him, creating the impression that they don’t have an alternative explanation at all.

Of course, in some sense, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what other explanations there could be. The key point is the spirit of the request. It can be part of a genuine search for answers: I’m at a loss here, I only have this rather poor explanation and I’d really appreciate a better one. But so often the real purpose is to make the lack of alternatives seem like a reason for accepting the one poor explanation being offered. No matter how you explain the appeal of this argumentative move, it is surely not a good one.

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It’s a free country /2004/its-a-free-country/ Thu, 14 Oct 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=659

At 3.15pm protesters moved towards the barricades facing the Houses of Parliament. "Come on, chaps, it’s a free country," said our half-blind friend. Scuffles broke out; police hats flew in the air. People were being pushed from behind and couldn’t go back. Women raised their hands in an attitude of surrender as the batons came down. An old man in a tweed suit and tie staggered out, blood pouring from his head.
Leanda de Lisle, the Guardian, 17 September2004

Who were these protestors storming the British parliament, only to be beaten back by baton-wielding policemen? Anarchists? Anti-globalisation campaigners? Foot soldiers in the class war? In a surprising way, perhaps the last guess would be right. The clue is in … Read the rest

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At 3.15pm protesters moved towards the barricades facing the Houses of Parliament. "Come on, chaps, it’s a free country," said our half-blind friend. Scuffles broke out; police hats flew in the air. People were being pushed from behind and couldn’t go back. Women raised their hands in an attitude of surrender as the batons came down. An old man in a tweed suit and tie staggered out, blood pouring from his head.
Leanda de Lisle, the Guardian, 17 September2004

Who were these protestors storming the British parliament, only to be beaten back by baton-wielding policemen? Anarchists? Anti-globalisation campaigners? Foot soldiers in the class war? In a surprising way, perhaps the last guess would be right. The clue is in the use of the word “chap” by one of the activists. As any Brit instinctively knows, chaps are members of the aristocracy and upper-middle class. But what could have moved such bastions of the establishment to revert to tactics more associated with the radical left?

The answer is that, after years of promises, the government looks finally set to ban hunting with hounds. Supporters of the hunt have surprised many people with the strength of conviction expressed in their resistance to the law. Their main tactic has been to deny that hunting is a form of fun for posh people, and so even the malicious politics of envy which some claim is the real driver for abolition is premised on a mistake. Rather, hunting is part of a rural way of life which the metropolitan political class who want to ban it just don’t understand.

As usual, the debate is complex, and it is not my intention to attempt to resolve it here. What is of interest for present purposes is how the cry of “it’s a free country” is used by the campaigners to legitimise their hunts and their protests. The half-blind man in Leanda de Lisle’s article used it as his battle-cry, as protestors surged forward into police lines. More generally, the pro-hunt lobby sees abolition of the hunt as an attack on the freedom to pursue their own way of life.

But, although it has a stirring ring, saying that we live in a free country rarely gets us anywhere. In the case of the protests, there is not a free country in the world where protestors can do what or go where they like. For obvious reasons, the nation’s parliament is subject to restrictions of movement. So it is obviously absurd to suggest that, because it’s a free country, protestors are entitled to try to encroach on an area protected by the police. Yet this is what the protestors did, and they reacted with horror when the police refused to let them pass and beat them back. Perhaps the man who uttered the cry was metaphorically as well as literally half-blind.

Does the fact that Britain is a free country help the pro-hunt case more generally? Not at all. We are not free to do all sorts of things that cause harm to people, animals and even the environment. Indeed, among those who defend hunting on the basis that they are free to do as they will, you can be sure there are those who oppose abortion, and would be unimpressed by a woman asserting that she can do what she wants with her foetus, since it’s a free country. In both cases, the appeal to our freedom is a red herring, since the crux of the issue is whether we are causing unjustifiable harm. If we are, it is perfectly acceptable for a free country to make the causing of such harm illegal.

The most saying “it’s free country” can do is draw our attention to the presumption of liberal societies that we should be allowed to do what we want unless it harms others. But that “unless” is crucial. When the causing of harm is the issue – to our security, animal welfare or that of the unborn child – the focus of the debate must shift, and the free nature of the nation loses relevance.

Incidentally, this is not the only piece of persuasive but woolly rhetoric employed by the pro-hunt lobby. Many frequently claim that the ban is crazy because it turns otherwise law-abiding people into criminals. But criminals are often otherwise law-abiding. Obeying all the other laws is no defence against breaking one. Can you imagine someone pleading in their defence, “M’lud, I confess that I broke the plaintiff’s legs. But given that I am otherwise law-abiding, it would crazy to turn me into a criminal by convicting me for that!”

You could try of course. After all, it’s a free country.

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Tu quoque /2004/tu-quoque/ Fri, 01 Oct 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=658

The onnagata [male actors in the kabuki theatre who play female roles] justify their perpetual monopoly by saying they believe that women are too close to femininity to capture its essence…
Richard Eyre, Guardian Review 21 August 20004

Looking back at the rationales the dominant classes used to offer to justify their oppression of others, it is remarkable how paper-thin their arguments often were. Unless we are prepared to say that people just used to be more stupid, the most likely explanation is that the reasons people offer for their beliefs often have very little to do with the real reasons why they hold them. It also seems that we are good at convincing ourselves of the rationality of the … Read the rest

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The onnagata [male actors in the kabuki theatre who play female roles] justify their perpetual monopoly by saying they believe that women are too close to femininity to capture its essence…
Richard Eyre, Guardian Review 21 August 20004

Looking back at the rationales the dominant classes used to offer to justify their oppression of others, it is remarkable how paper-thin their arguments often were. Unless we are prepared to say that people just used to be more stupid, the most likely explanation is that the reasons people offer for their beliefs often have very little to do with the real reasons why they hold them. It also seems that we are good at convincing ourselves of the rationality of the most irrational of prejudices. That would not be a very reassuring diagnosis for those who wish human action to be rationally guided.

The reasoning of the onnagata is a striking example of privilege being given a pseudo-rational gloss. The problem with their justification for excluding women from the kabuki theatre is that the principle they appeal to, if true, seems also entail that men should not portray men. If “women are too close to femininity to capture its essence” why aren’t men too close to masculinity to capture its essence? That would require that men played women and women played men, not that men should play all roles.

Although that might seem straightforward, this kind of objection has to be treated with extreme caution. It is of the general type “tu quoque”: you’re another. This argumentative move works by showing that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it. In this case, the reason the onnagata give against women playing women applies equally to male onnagata playing men.

There are two reasons why this move is not be quite as obviously powerful as it might first seem. First, very often the alleged lack of consistency on which the move depends may require some establishing. In the case of the onnagata, for example, it is arguable that I haven’t yet shown that the principle can in fact be turned against them. I have not, for example, considered the possibility that the onnagata have some good reasons for thinking that women are closer to femininity than men are to masculinity. If that were the case, there would indeed be a reason why women shouldn’t play women which doesn’t apply to men playing men.

Nonetheless, the tu quoque move does at least force us to confront the apparent inconsistency. The onnagata, if they are at all interested in defending their practices rationally, would either have to accept the inconsistency or explain why it is not an inconsistency after all. Either way, we are taken closer to the heart of the issue.

The second problem with tu quoque is that it is not a means of identifying which principles and arguments are actually wrong. Let us say, for example, that we are satisfied that the onnagata are guilty of inconsistency. Does that mean that they are wrong to say that women are too close to femininity to capture its essence, or does it simply mean that they are right, but that they should also accept that men are too close to masculinity to capture its essence?

The choice is between giving up the principle that leads to the inconsistency; or holding on to it and accepting other principles that remove the inconsistency. Nothing about tu quoque tells us which option is more rational.

When we realise that there is a tu quoque response, it often feels as though we have found the magic bullet that will destroy our opponent’s position. It can therefore come as something of a shock when we find them perfectly willing to bite that bullet. If someone is inconsistent, they are wrong about something. But if we want to nail down which thing that is, we need to rely on more than just tu quoque.

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Ought without can /2004/ought-without-can/ Thu, 09 Sep 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=657

The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Menzies Campbell, said the government should use its influence with the US president, George Bush, to secure [the] freedom [of nine Britons detained for more than a year at Camp X-Ray and at Bagram air base after being taken prisoner during military action in Afghanistan].
The Guardian, 25 April 2003

The principle that “ought” implies “can” is usually attributed to Immanuel Kant, although he never actually said anything quite so pithy. (See chapter eight of the Critique of Practical Reason for his more convoluted expression on the idea.) Whether we credit Kant with the discovery or not, the principle itself is pretty self-evident. It makes no sense to say we ought to do something … Read the rest

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The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Menzies Campbell, said the government should use its influence with the US president, George Bush, to secure [the] freedom [of nine Britons detained for more than a year at Camp X-Ray and at Bagram air base after being taken prisoner during military action in Afghanistan].
The Guardian, 25 April 2003

The principle that “ought” implies “can” is usually attributed to Immanuel Kant, although he never actually said anything quite so pithy. (See chapter eight of the Critique of Practical Reason for his more convoluted expression on the idea.) Whether we credit Kant with the discovery or not, the principle itself is pretty self-evident. It makes no sense to say we ought to do something unless we can actually do it. It is absurd to say “you ought to be eight foot tall” or “you ought to eradicate world poverty by dinner time” since neither of these are genuine possibilities. How can you have a duty to do what is impossible?

The logic of the principle is clear enough, and frequently ignored. People call on politicians to do what is not within their power, or athletes to perform above their capabilities. For instance, in Britain, many people felt that the world’s greatest woman distance runner, Paula Radcliffe, ought to have performed better at the Olympics, where she retired from the two races she competed in. What they don’t seem to have taken seriously is the probability that Radcliffe was performing as well as she could. For whatever reason, she wasn’t able to win on those days.

The example of Paula Radcliffe is instructive, because although the “ought” implies “can” principle is crystal clear in theory, in the real world, “impossible” carries more than one sense, some looser than others. Radcliffe could never have run the marathon in one hour, not because it is logically impossible but because it is physically impossible. That means there is nothing logically wrong with saying she ought to run that quickly. Rather, the problem is a failure to appreciate the facts concerning what is physically possible.

Where things become more tricky, and more interesting, is that in ordinary discourse it is perfectly legitimate to say something is not possible even though there is nothing either physically or logically preventing us doing it. Radcliffe, for example, could almost certainly have finished the race if she had put her all into it. To say she couldn’t do so, and that therefore we are wrong to say she should have done so, is to say that the obstacles were such that it would be unreasonable or unrealistic to expect her to have done so.

That may seem to extend the reach of “ought” implies “can” too much. We have moved from can’t (logically) through can’t (physically) to can’t (realistically) where the notion of what is “realistic” is somewhat vague. It would certainly be accurate to describe this version of the principle as an adjunct or extension of the core one and not simply a corollary of it. But I think we need something like it in order to make the principle really effective in critical thinking about the real world.

Consider, for example, Menzies Campbell’s statement about what the British government ought to have done about the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It may be that he was reported a little loosely, and what he meant to say was that the government should use its influence to try to get the prisoners released. Whether you agree with him or not, there is nothing incoherent about that. However, even if that is what Campbell meant, there were plenty at the time who thought the government ought to do more, namely, actually secure the release of the prisoners. And it can only make sense to say it ought to have done that if it actually could do so. But it is not at all obvious that the government could realistically have done this. Certain measures, such as threatening a trade war or resorting to other extreme measures, remained physically possible, but politically impossible.

We can see the “ought” implies “can” principle as therefore having two versions. One concerns the link between duty and what is logically or physically possible and should be uncontroversial. But arguably the more interesting and useful version, though also the more controversial and imprecise one, is that we cannot say people ought to do what “realistically speaking” they cannot. Any controversies such a principle would generate I would suggest are more a consequence of how we define what is realistic, and do not show any intrinsic flaw with the principle itself.

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Genetic fallacies /2004/genetic-fallacies/ Sun, 22 Aug 2004 12:00:00 +0000 /?p=656

Cow’s milk is meant for baby cows. Which helps explain why this foodstuff is a leading cause of unwanted reactions to foods that can give rise to a variety of health issues such as nasal congestion, sinusitis, eczema and asthma.
Dr John Briffa, Observer Food Monthly, August 2004

Don’t get me started on “health food”. Doesn’t anyone smell a rat when they go into a shop dedicated to “natural” remedies only to be confronted by rows and rows of bottles, pills and supplements? Why is it that it seems every infusion in the world is good for you except for the everyday, normal tea we know and love? Why are stimulants such as guarana considered good while caffeine is … Read the rest

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Cow’s milk is meant for baby cows. Which helps explain why this foodstuff is a leading cause of unwanted reactions to foods that can give rise to a variety of health issues such as nasal congestion, sinusitis, eczema and asthma.
Dr John Briffa, Observer Food Monthly, August 2004

Don’t get me started on “health food”. Doesn’t anyone smell a rat when they go into a shop dedicated to “natural” remedies only to be confronted by rows and rows of bottles, pills and supplements? Why is it that it seems every infusion in the world is good for you except for the everyday, normal tea we know and love? Why are stimulants such as guarana considered good while caffeine is bad? Why are the cereals we eat all the time, such as wheat, to be avoided while all the others are fantastically healthy? Do you detect a pattern here? The only principle I can see that explains all this is that the purpose of health food shops is to make life as awkward as possible by banning us from consuming all the common foodstuffs that surround us. Virtue means taking the hard path.

But I digress, before I’ve even started. The problem with Dr Briffa’s argument about cow’s milk is not that it is an example of this kind of demonising of the everyday staple. (Although it might be that too – funny how goat’s milk is usually considered to be healthy.) No, Briffa’s argumentative aberration (which is what I’m supposed to be focusing on) is that he fails to account for the fact that the origins of something may not tell us what we need to know about its present use or nature.

Even if we allow ourselves to talk loosely about what things in nature are “meant” for, it should be obvious that this does not tell the whole story about what they can be used for. By Briffa’s logic, a chicken’s thigh is meant to help it stand up and walk. Does that mean we should be wary about eating it, because it wasn’t meant for eating? What about honey, another favourite of health food shops? That was “meant” for bees not humans. As for eggs, well, they were “meant” to be baby animals, not omelettes.

I could go on, of course. But the point is so simple and obvious more examples are not needed. The fact that something originally evolved in nature not as a human food stuff does not mean we shouldn’t eat it. In fact, if we only ate what was unambiguously meant for us to eat, then we’d starve to death as soon as we stopped breast feeding. For breast milk is the only foodstuff that evolved especially for us.

This doesn’t just reveal an interesting fact about nature, but one about reasoning. For in general, nothing about something’s present nature follows by logical necessity from facts about its origins. Consider how the etymology of words, is often interesting but irrelevant to present usage. “Generous”, for example, has its origins in the Latin generosus , which means “of noble birth”. (See the Online Etymology Dictionary.) But that doesn’t mean that to say someone now is generous implies something about their family background. Words change their meanings just as objects change their uses, so knowing an original use or meaning does not tell us what the current use or meaning is.

I say that in general nothing follows about present nature from origins because there are some qualifications to the general rule. For example, Saul Kripke called “rigid designators” those words that name objects and thus have their reference fixed in perpetuity. “Gold” for example, is whatever the stuff called gold happened to be. If Kripke is right, the origins of the word “gold” at least tell us what stuff should now be called gold. But even in this example, our understanding of the nature of gold does change over time and is not constrained by the pre-scientific ideas of those who first named the precious metal.

The phrase “genetic fallacy” was originally coined to describe the confusion between the origins of a belief and its justification. A belief may be justified even if it first emerged unjustified. For instance, the belief that acupuncture can relieve certain pains may be justified even though its origins are with a theory of chi energy flow which is thoroughly unjustified. At the very least, the mere fact that the origins of the belief do not justify it does not show it lacks all justification whatsoever.

Appeals to origins do seem to have a strong rhetorical force. If something’s origins can be traced back the Nazis, the military, agribusiness or imperialism, it instantly becomes less attractive. Similarly, if something has its origins “in nature”, indigenous communities, or social justice movements, it instantly gains some credit. But although the history of an idea or practice may tell us something about its merits today, it need not do so. If something’s origins matter, we need to be shown why they do.

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