Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Examples of Sophistry

An anonymous member of the studio audience has decided to illustrate some of the behaviors that are common among those who care little for reason and truth. These illustrations include rhetorical flourish and verbal slight-of-hand that has the same effect as the magician's skill at distracting somebody from that which they wish to conceal.

A sophist is a person who seeks to use facts about the psychology of belief to manipulate others – often to their own disadvantage. A sophist is not a good person. He does not have desires that people generally have reason to promote. Instead of a love of truth, he has a love of manipulating others through deception – of being a type of political con man. This type of political con-man is responsible for a great deal of the suffering we see around us.

I wish to begin with the informal fallacy of as hominem tu quoque. This is a common practice where a person accused of a wrongdoing looks around for somebody else that they can accuse of the same wrong in order to disarm the critic. Ultimately, the person using this fallacy wants to create a diversion – a way of saying, "Let's not talk about my wrongdoing – let's talk about that person over there."

Annonymous provided us with an example of this in the folldowing:

Lastly, I would humbly point out that the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee endorsed Michael Moore's fraudulent "Fahrenheit 9/11"...which side has a culture of lies?

Which is an excellent example of, "Let's change the subject and talk about something else, quick!

Too often, the critic easily falls for this ruse and allows the conversation to get sidetracked. Soon the debate has moved on to the question of whether "that person over there" did anything wrong, and the question of whether the accused is guilty of any wrongdoing has now been forgotten. This has the same effect as letting the accused get away with whatever wrong he did, because the question of its wrongness is no longer being addressed. The accused, in this case, has deflected blame.

This is a useful tactic because, if the accuser does not accept the bait – if he does not fallow the sophist into this irrelevant distraction, then the sophist uses this fact to claim that the accuser is 'picking on' the accused.

Imagine having Ted Bundy on trial when the defense attorney mentions “Son of Sam,” precipitating a new discussion on the crimes of the Son of Sam while Ted Bundy walks out the door, ignored.

That type of defense is the same type of defense being employed here by bringing up the 9/11 conspiracy theories. The fool, in this case, is the prosecutor and the judge who allows the discussion to get derailed – who fails to object to the statements on the basis that they are irrelevant to the current discussion.

The fact remains that there is a politically potent culture that is all too eager to accept the wildest fictions from 'creationism' to the denial of global warming to facts about American history to claims intended to justify an attack on Iraq to claims about Obama’s birth and religion – a number of convenient fictions that support policies that are massively destructive in the real world.

The second example of sophistry that I want to bring to the fore is found in the entirely unwarranted focus on the piece of minutia concerning the number of people who believe that Obama is a Muslim. This is presented as if it is the central pillar on which the whole argument is built, and that if it can be disproved the whole argument falls down to the ground.

This is a lawyer's trick – a piece of rhetoric that is important to a person who cares more about the psychology of belief than about what is true. Criminal defense attorneys know that if they can create a shred of doubt on one small and substantially unimportant fact, that they can then plant a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind and thus get them to vote that their (guilty) client is not guilty. They go after the minutia, then exaggerate its significance as a way of manipulating the jury.

In fact, the focus on this minutia here is carried out as if the readers themselves are the jury – and the task is to get them to vote that the (guilty) accused is not guilty rather than to determine if a stated proposition is true or false.

One can debate the question as to whether 17% of Republicans believing that Obama is a Muslim is a significant percentage. But it does not change the fact that there is a politically powerful culture that is in the habit of accepting a long list of absurdities on matters ranging from human evolution to climate change to the legitimacy of invading another country.

Anonymous made the comment:

17%?! That's your evidence for suggesting there's some kind of epidemic of irrationality and dishonesty permeating the Republican Party?

The first point is that if 11% of the overall population, and 17% of a substantial segment of the population, had swine flu the term that would be used would have been much more severe than 'epidemic'. Particularly if the disease were as deadly and costly as the culture of fiction and nonsense has been.

If I were to list 100 absurd beliefs that the members of this culture of fiction and nonsense have adopted, there must necessarily be one that is the least widely accepted. The rhetorical trick described above would be to find this necessary fact and to focus all attention on it, as if it is representative of all of the facts. But it is not representative of all of the facts. In fact, the Sophist picked it precisely because it is not representative of all the facts. He picked it because it is an extreme example – the last widely accepted absurdity on a long list of widely accepted absurdities. This makes the maneuver fundamentally dishonest.

Yet, here again the sophist does not care about truth. The sophist cares about manipulating people through by applying elements of the psychology of belief. He shows this over and over again by engaging in behavior that a person with a love of truth would avoid, and only the person with a love of manipulating others through sophistry would embrace.

The fact remains that there is a segment of the population that embraces a culture of fiction and nonsense that includes such things as young-earth creationism, denial of evolution, denial of global warming, acceptance of fictions justifying the invasion of Iraq, false claims about Obama regarding the pledge of allegiance, his religion, and his birth, and who are now gullibly accepting nonsense about health care reform. This culture has inflicted a great cost on us today and will cost our children even more. The answer is not to surround people with messages of fear from all directions, but to tackle the moral failings of this culture of fiction and nonsense directly for the morally reprehensible qualities that it has.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

A charitable read of your comments would be that you are a sloppy and/or impatient reader of the things people say to you. You wrote your original response in the comments without thinking about my actual words, and wrote this extended response without reading my further explanation.

A not-so-charitable read of your comments would deem this the latest in your growing history of twisting and lying about the words of people with whom you disagree to impugn their integrity. That does not strike me as the sort of thing that "a person with good desires" would do.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

You make an accusation without providing any evidence to back it up - suggesting that the accusation has value, whether or not it can be shown to be true does not.

Anonymous said...

How 'bout you explain how this one isn't a naked smear, then we'll talk about your greatest hits?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Morally, it is the responsibility of the accuser to provide evidence supporting the truth of the accusations, not the responsibility of the accused to prove that they are innocent.

In this post, I made my accusations and I provided my evidence.

If you wish, you may now argue in your own defense.

However, it is not a legitimate defense to say that the making of accusations itself is wrong. This would be like a criminal in a court case arguing that the case should be thrown out because, "The prosecuting attorney is saying mean things about me."

anton said...

Right on, Alonzo!!

Great Post!!

It would appear that this "anonymous" is one of the "slime balls" of which you write.

Thom Blake said...

This isn't a court. You're just a jerk. I find it hard to believe you're going to be a person responsible for making the world better.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

One of the positions that I have defended in this blog is that the moral standards governing accusations of wrongdoing are well captured in the principles governing a court of law.

These include the principle that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the accusor has an obligation to provide evidence in support of the accusation.

This means:

(1) Defining the moral crime (in this case, 'sophistry') in such a way so as to identify its properties including those properties that make it worthy of condemnation (sophistry pollutes public debate and promotes fictions that do real-world harm).

(2) Demonstrating evidence that the actions of the accused have those qualities that define the moral crime (fallacious arguments that attempt to divert attention from the subject at hand or misrepresent core facts such as treating an extreme example as a typical example).

The same as would happen in a court of law.

Or, more precisely, a court of justice.

Kip said...

"A not-so-charitable read of your comments would deem this the latest in your growing history of twisting and lying about the words of people with whom you disagree to impugn their integrity."

How can anyone "impugn the integrity" of an Anonymous person? That's just more sophistry it seems to me.

Mario said...

It sounds like you’re saying, “Don’t look at me--look at those conservatives over there. They believe all these silly things because of a logical flaw in their argument.”. Your post would be intellectually honest if you had pointed out logical flaws in both conservative and progressive positions. Unless you don’t think there are any logical fallacies in the progressive point of view; in which case your argument is sound intellectually and perfectly valid.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mario

That is like saying that it is intellectually dishonest to accuse a black person of murder unless one accuses a white person as well - or to prove that a German is lying in the absence of proving that a Frenchman or Englishman has also lied.

Whether a person is guilty of such a transgression is independent of who else might also be guilty.

Mario said...

"A sophist is a person who seeks to use facts about the psychology of belief to manipulate others – often to their own disadvantage. A sophist is not a good person. He does not have desires that people generally have reason to promote. Instead of a love of truth, he has a love of manipulating others through deception – of being a type of political con man. This type of political con-man is responsible for a great deal of the suffering we see around us."

If an article was written about criminals and only black felons were mentioned the author might be accused of racism. “Whether a person is guilty of such a transgression is independent of who else might also be guilty.”—really?

Your point would be valid if your post was about logical fallacies in conservative arguments. As this was apparently not your stated purpose—as illustrated by the quote I copied—it makes you look less objective and more partisan. Possibly this was your intention, but it is hardly worthy as intellectual discourse. Repeatedly in your post you say that the “sophist” does this or the “sophist” does that—not the conservative sophist does this or that.

Society already has too many unbearable, partisan commentators who demean the art of discourse. Take your pick; the insufferable Rush Limbaugh or any number of less famous, but equally brainless commentators on my local “progressive” radio station. They battle on all sides of the political spectrum. Are you no better than them? It would be refreshing to have someone to read and follow who wasn’t just another pseudo-intellectual conservative/progressive snob.

If your purpose was to write something your progressive friends would agree with you succeeded. If your purpose was to try to convince some backward thinking conservative to change his/her way of thinking—try again. If your purpose was to enlighten and educate—epic fail!

Brian said...

It's amazing how we've all lost our humility. Do we always have to "win"? Do we always have to save face? Cannot one person lose an argument and say, "You have a point there, let me reconsider and let's learn from each other?"

Maya Tate said...

This is true, Brian, we do need to do this. All of you have good points, but do read this comment.