Category Archives: Critical Thinking

The Gun and I: Feeling & Thinking

English: The British Baker rifle

After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.

As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.

On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:


Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.

Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.


This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.

Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.

While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.

Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:


Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.

Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.

Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.

Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.


This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.

While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.

The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.


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Terrorism & Narratives

For most of us the idea that things just happen runs against our basic human intuitions. We try to impose order on chaos and find patterns in everything. In doing this we forge narratives to make sense of what might be utterly senseless. In the case of the slaughter in Orlando, people are struggling to explain and understand by weaving stories that match their understanding of the world. This is not, in general, to be condemned—it is part of how we endure the awful.

The narratives of explanation can quickly turn to narratives of exploitation; the weaving of a story to advance some ideological agenda. Sticking to the stereotypes, many liberals are weaving a narrative around guns—the ease with which they can be acquired, the special danger posed by semi-automatic weapons, the terrible threat of high capacity clips, and the scariness of “assault rifles.” On this narrative, one conclusion is that if there had only been more regulation, then the massacre might have either been much smaller or not occurred at all.

While the desire to do something through the law is understandable, the alleged shooter acquired his guns legally. While he is believed to have been a domestic abuser and was investigated by the FBI, he had no criminal record. Put simply, he passed all the reasonable tests for purchasing a gun and there was no evidence that he would commit a crime.

I have written extensively about the potential effectiveness of assault weapon bans and magazine restrictions, so I will not go into detail here. However, such bans do not address existing weapons and restricting clip size just means slightly more reloading or gun switching on the part of a shooter who lacks high capacity clips. That said, improved gun safety (one must not say “control” is something broadly accepted and can have a positive impact on reducing gun crime (or so it is claimed).

There is also a narrative about the blame: the general liberal view here is to reject collective guilt: the murderer is accountable but the fact that he claimed to be Muslim does not make Muslims complicit in his crimes. Many in the LGBT community have made this point very clear: they do not condemn or hate Islam because of what one Muslim did.

I have also written extensively about group guilt and here I agree with the LGBT community: Muslims are no more to blame for the shooting than Christians are to blame for the hate of God Hates Fags.

The general narratives on the right are rather different. Right after the bloodletting, there was the usual mobilization in defense of guns and the usual stock narratives went into reruns for the thousandth time. One of these was the story that if only people in Pulse were armed, then they would have been able to shoot down the attacker—this is the classic tale of the good guy with a gun. Some take this narrative as involving some victim blaming: if only they had been smart enough (or pro-gun enough) to be armed, then they would still be alive. Some focus on the laws that forbid guns from certain places—if only people could carry guns anywhere, there would have been armed citizens ready to blast the attacker.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed on studying gun violence (lobbied by the NRA and gun industry) means that the statistics needed to judge this matter rationally are not available. One would think that if the gun lobby folks truly believed the good guy with a gun theory, they would be funding research to prove their point. Their opposition should make one a bit suspicious about their faith in their own claim.

Some narratives endeavored to clarify the real victims of the killings: gun owners. As always happens after a mass shooting, there was a rush to tell a speculative tale about how this is the time that Obama is going to come for people’s guns. And, as always happens, gun sales start to spike upward. And, as always, Obama does not come for people’s guns.

The right has also generally stuck to the narrative of what they insist on calling “Islamic terrorism”—that Islam is the cause of such terrorists attacks. On the one hand, it is correct to consider religion as a motivating factor. On the other hand, the idea of collective guilt in regards to huge and diverse groups is rather problematic. While the folks in God Hates Fags claim to be acting from their faith, they do not therefore represent all Christians. If a Christian attacks an abortion clinic for religious reasons, that is not Christian Terrorism and his actions do not make all Christians accountable.

Ironically, the “Islamic Terrorism” narrative of the right is in accord with the narratives of groups like ISIS (or ISIL or whatever one wants to call these evil people). Their view is that they are Islam and that all of Islam should be at war with the West (including Western Muslims). The right’s narrative is that the West should be at war with all of Islam, so there is agreement between the right and ISIS on this matter. This should be taken as a good sign that those on the right who buy this narrative should rethink their position. Insisting that all of Islam is the enemy entails that many of our nominal allies would have to be reclassified as enemies as would many of our own citizens and citizens of allied states. This seems a foolish idea.

Trump, not surprisingly, has gone beyond even this narrative—after accepting congratulations (some Trump supporters see the Orlando attack as vindicating Trump) Trump pushed for his proposed Muslim ban once again. Trump claimed that the killer was born in Afghanistan and that his ban would have prevented the attack. As is so often the case with Trump’s stories, it is mostly fiction: the alleged killer is of Afghan descent, but he was born in America. As such, Trump’s ban would not have prevented the attack. While many are endeavoring to milk the massacre for political points, Trump deserves special mention for his handling of the matter—he really stands out in regards to his exploitation of the attack.


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Trump Rhetoric: naming Insulting & Mocking

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.

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Inheritance & Welfare

In general, conservatives tend to oppose welfare and similar sorts of social programs. They also tend to be protective of inheritance—for example, they refer to the tax on inheritance with the dysphemism “death tax” and have endeavored to battle this tax. While these positions might seem compatible, a strong case can be made that the arguments against social programs would also apply as strong criticisms of inheritance.

One stock criticism of programs like welfare is that receiving something without earning it is intrinsically wrong. People should, the reasoning goes, earn what they receive. This is often the logic behind proposals to make people work to receive social support.

On the face of it, inheritance would seem the same as unearned social support: a person just receives whatever is left to her. If receiving something without earning it is wrong, this would make inheritance wrong.

A sensible objection is that people sometimes do earn what they inherit. For example, young Lord Trump might have toiled in his father’s business, thus earning the inherited wealth from this business. The same would also apply to social programs. People often earned the social support they receive by the work they did before needing the support. For example, a person who was fired as part of boosting the stock value of the company would have earned unemployment benefits by his past labor. Those getting Social Security retirement benefits in the United States also paid in, thus earning what they received.

It might be contended that some do receive social support without having earned it through labor and hence it would be wrong for them to receive it. This same principle would also apply to unearned inheritance: so, if people should not get support on the basis of this principle, they should also not get an inheritance that is unearned.

A second stock criticism of social support programs is that the resources could be better spent. For example, it could be argued that eliminating benefits in favor of tax cuts for businesses would be more beneficial. After all, some claim, the poor waste the money on drugs –at least that seems to be the reasoning behind mandatory drug tests for recipients of support. This sort of utilitarian reasoning should also apply to inheritances: money that would be squandered by the idle rich like Paris Hilton should be used where it would do far more good, such as funding education or infrastructure repairs (perhaps replacing the lead pipes used to transport water).

A reasonable reply is that a person has the moral right to decide how her possessions will be distributed after her death—this is a matter of choice. In contrast, social programs involve the takers taking the money of the makers (presumably to squander on drugs). Thus, a relevant difference here is the matter of choice. Inheritance is chosen, being taxed to support the takers is not.

The easy counter to this, at least in a democratic state, is that providing such support is a choice: the citizens have decided that this is what they want. As such, the people have chosen, thus making it a matter of choice.

An individual can raise the objection that she did not chose to provide for the takers—she does not want her tax dollars going to them. As such, there is an important distinction between inheritance and social support.

I do admit that there is a certain appeal in the idea of a pay-as-you-go state system that also allows choice. That is, citizens would pay for the services they use (such as schools, roads, the legal system, defense, police and so on) and they can volunteer to pay for other things. Naturally, citizens who elected to not pay into the social support programs would be ineligible for benefits in these systems—so the makers who wish not to contribute would need to hope that fickle fate or poor decisions did not transform them into takers.

Despite the appeal of such a system, it seems likely that it would result in the collapse of civilization. This is the sort of argument Locke used when arguing why the citizens need to go along with the decision of the majority: the alternative is the destruction of the political body.

A final stock objection against social programs is that they have a harmful impact on the moral character of the recipients. Some common claims are that social support destroys the incentive to work, breeds a culture of dependence and destroys self-respect. These are, it is claimed, are the consequences of getting something for nothing.

These same consequences should also arise from inheritance, which is also getting something for nothing (the matter of earned inheritance and support was addressed above). As such, if social programs should be eliminated on this ground, so should inheritance. Mary Wollstonecraft argued at length in support of the claim that inherited wealth is morally deleterious in her Vindication of the Rights of Women.

One reply to this is to argue that there is relevant difference between the two: most inheritances are very small and thus do not destroy incentives or breed dependence. For example, if a young person receives $1,000 from an inheritance, that will not suffice to destroy his incentives or breed dependence. This is because $1,000 will not last long. In contrast, social support can provide a person with enough to live on, thus allowing dependence to take root and incentive to rot away.

This argument does show that small inheritances would be fine, but would show that substantial inheritances would have the harmful effects attributed to the social programs. If having bare survival support from the state suffices to create dependence and destroy incentive, then receiving considerable wealth from an inheritance should inflict massive harm on the recipient. As such, if people need to be protected from the harms of social support, they must also be protected from the terrible danger presented by significant inheritances. Since most people receive little or no inheritances, the majority of people will be safe from this harm and their inheritances should be allowed. However, the wealthy are in danger proportional to their wealth and must be protected from this dire threat to their independence and ambition.

It could be countered that only the poor are especially vulnerable to the danger of unearned wealth and the wealthy can, in general, safely accept it without harm. This is certainly an empirical matter and objective research should suffice to show whether this is true or not.

It would seem that many of the arguments against social support would also apply to inheritance. As such, if these arguments work against social support, they should also work against inheritance. But, perhaps so much social support would not be needed if wealth were less concentrated.


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The Incredible Shifting Hillary

When supporters of Donald Trump are asked why they back him, the most common answers are that Trump “tells it like it is” and that he is “authentic.” When people who dislike Hillary are asked why, they often refer to her ever shifting positions and that she just says what she thinks people want to hear.

Given that Trump has, at best, a distant relation with the truth it is somewhat odd that he is seen as telling it like it is. He may be authentic, but he is most assuredly telling it like it is not. While Hillary has shifted positions, she has a far closer relationship to the truth (although still not a committed one). Those who oppose Hillary tend to focus on these shifts in making the case against her. Her defenders endeavor to minimize the impact of these claims or boldly try to make a virtue of said shifting. Given the importance of the shifting, this a matter well worth considering.

While the extent of Hillary’s shifting can be debated, the fact that she has shifted on major issues is a matter of fact. Good examples of shifts include the second Iraq War, free trade, same-sex marriage and law enforcement. While many are tempted to claim that the fact that she has shifted her views on such issues proves she is wrong now, doing this would be to fall victim to the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which it is inferred that a person’s current view or claim is mistaken because they have held to a different view or claim in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, pointing out that a person’s current claim is inconsistent with a past claim does not prove which claim is not true (and both could actually be false). After all, the person could have been wrong then while being right now. Or vice versa. Or wrong in both cases. Because of this, it cannot be inferred that Hillary’s views are wrong now simply because she held opposite views in the past.

While truth is important, the main criticism of Hillary’s shifting is not that she has moved from a correct view to an erroneous view. Rather, the criticism is that she is shifting her expressed views to match whatever she thinks the voters want to hear. That is, she is engaged in pandering.

Since pandering is a common practice in politics, it seems reasonable to hold that it is unfair to single Hillary out for special criticism. This does not, of course defend the practice. To accept that being common justifies a practice would be to fall victim to the common practice fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which a practice is defended by asserting it is a common one. Obviously enough, the mere fact that something is commonly done does not entail that it is good or justified. That said, if a practice is common yet wrong, it is still unfair to single out a specific person for special criticism for engaging in that practice. Rather, all those that engage in the practice should be criticized.

It could be argued that while pandering is a common practice, Hillary does warrant special criticism because her shifting differs in relevant and significant ways from the shifting of others. This could be a matter of volume (she shifts more than others), content (she shifts on more important issues), extent (she shifts to a greater degree) or some other factors. While judging the nature and extent of shifts does involve some subjective assessment, these factors can be evaluated with a reasonable degree of objectivity—although partisan influences can interfere with this. Since Hillary is generally viewed through the lenses of intense partisanship, I will not endeavor to address this matter—it is unlikely that anything I could write would sway partisan opinions. I will, however, address the ethics of shifting.

While there is a tendency to regard position shifting with suspicion, there are cases in which is not only acceptable, but laudable. These are cases in which the shift is justified by evidence or reasoning that warrants such a shift. For example, I was a theoretical anarchist for a while in college: I believed that the best government was the least government and preferably none at all. However, reading Locke, Hobbes and others as well as gaining a better understanding of how humans actually behave resulted in a shift in my position. I am no longer an anarchist on the grounds that the position is not well supported. To use another example, I went through a phase in which I was certain in my atheism. However, arguments made by Hume and Kant changed my view regarding the possibility of such certainty. As a final example, I used to believe in magical beings like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. However, the evidence of their nonexistence convinced me to shift my view. In all these cases the shifts are laudable: I changed my view because of considered evidence and argumentation. While there can be considerable debate about what counts as good evidence or reasoning for a shift, the basic principle seems sound. A person should believe what is best supported by evidence and reasoning and this often changes over time.

Turning back to Hillary, if she has shifted her views on the basis of evidence and reasoning that justly support her new views, then she should not be condemned for the shift. For example, if she believed in the approach to crime taken by her husband when he was President, but has changed her view in the face of evidence that this view is flawed, then her change would be quite reasonable. As might be expected, her supporters tend to claim this is why she changes her views. The challenge is to show that this is the case. Her critics typically claim that the reason for her shifts is to match what she thinks will get her the most votes, which leads to the question of whether this is a bad thing or not.

A very reasonable concern about a politician who just says what she thinks the voters want to hear is that the person lacks principles, so that the voters do not really know who they are voting for. As such, they cannot make a good decision regarding what the politician would actually do in office.

A possible reply to this is that a politician who shifts her views to match those of the voters is exactly what people should want in a representative democracy: the elected officials should act in accord with the will of the people. This does raise the broad subject of the proper function of an elected official: to do the will of the people, to do what they said they would do, to act in accord with their character and principles or something else. This goes beyond the limited scope of the essay, but the answer is rather critical to determining whether Hillary’s shifting is a good or bad thing. If politicians should act on their own principles and views rather than doing what the people want them to do, then there would seem to be good grounds for criticizing any politician whose own views are not those of the people.

A final interesting point is to argue that Hillary should not be criticized for shifting her views to match those that are now held by the majority of people (or majority of Democrats). If other people can shift their views on these matters over time in ways that are acceptable, then the same should apply to Hillary. For example, when Hillary was against same-sex marriage that was the common view in the country. Now, most Americans are fine with it—and so is Hillary. Her defenders assert that she, like most Americans, has changed her views over time in the face of changing social conditions. Her detractors claim she is merely pandering and has no commitment beyond achieving power. This is a factual matter, albeit one that is hard to settle without evidence as to what is really going on in her mind. After all, a mere change in her view to match the general view is consistent with both unprincipled pandering and a reasoned change in a position that has evolved with the times.


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The shame of public shaming

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Public shaming is not new. It’s been used as a punishment in all societies – often embraced by the formal law and always available for day-to-day policing of moral norms. However, over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have moved away from more formal kinds of shaming, partly in recognition of its cruelty.

Even in less formal settings, shaming individuals in front of their peers is now widely regarded as unacceptable behaviour. This signifies an improvement in the moral milieu, but its effect is being offset by the rise of social media and, with it, new kinds of shaming.

Indeed, as Welsh journalist and documentary maker Jon Ronson portrays vividly in his latest book, social media shaming has become a social menace. Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015) is a timely contribution to the public understanding of an emotionally charged topic.

Shaming is on the rise. We’ve shifted – much of the time – to a mode of scrutinising each other for purity. Very often, we punish decent people for small transgressions or for no real transgressions at all. Online shaming, conducted via the blogosphere and our burgeoning array of social networking services, creates an environment of surveillance, fear and conformity.

The making of a call-out culture

I noticed the trend – and began to talk about it – around five years ago. I’d become increasingly aware of cases where people with access to large social media platforms used them to “call out” and publicly vilify individuals who’d done little or nothing wrong. Few onlookers were prepared to support the victims. Instead, many piled on with glee (perhaps to signal their own moral purity; perhaps, in part, for the sheer thrill of the hunt).

Since then, the trend to an online call-out culture has continued and even intensified, but something changed during 2015. Mainstream journalists and public intellectuals finally began to express their unease.

There’s no sign that the new call-out culture is fading away, but it’s become a recognised phenomenon. It is now being discussed more openly, and it’s increasingly questioned. That’s partly because even its participants – people who assumed it would never happen to them – sometimes find themselves “called out” for revealing some impurity of thought. It’s become clear that no moral or political affiliation holds patents on the weaponry of shaming, and no one is immune to its effects.

As Ronson acknowledges, he has, himself, taken part in public shamings, though the most dramatic episode was a desperate act of self-defence when a small group of edgy academics hijacked his Twitter identity to make some theoretical point. Shame on them! I don’t know what else he could have done to make them back down.

That, however, was an extreme and peculiar case. It involved ongoing abuse of one individual by others who refused to “get” what they were doing to distress him, even when asked to stop. Fascinating though the example is, it is hardly a precedent for handling more common situations.

At one time, if we go along with Ronson, it felt liberating to speak back in solidarity against the voices of politicians, corporate moguls, religious leaders, radio shock jocks, newspaper columnists and others with real power or social influence.

But there can be a slippery slope… from talking back in legitimate ways against, say, a powerful journalist (criticising her views and arguments, and any abusive conduct), to pushing back in less legitimate ways (such as attempting to silence her viewpoint by trying to get her fired), to destroying relatively powerless individuals who have done nothing seriously wrong.

Slippery slope arguments have a deservedly bad reputation. But some slopes really are slippery, and some slippery slope arguments really are cogent. With public online shaming, we’ve found ourselves, lately, on an especially slippery slope. In more ways than one, we need to get a grip.

Shaming the shamers

Ronson joined in a campaign of social media shaming in October 2009: one that led to some major advertisers distancing themselves from the Daily Mail in the UK. This case illustrates some problems when we discuss social media shaming, so I’ll give it more analysis than Ronson does.

One problem is that, as frequently happens, it was a case of “shame the shamer”. The recipient of the shaming was especially unsympathetic because she was herself a public shamer of others.

The drama followed a distasteful – to say the least – column by Jan Moir, a British journalist with a deplorable modus operandi. Moir’s topic was the death of Stephen Gately, one of the singers from the popular Irish band Boyzone.

Gately had been found dead while on holiday in Mallorca with his civil partner, Andrew Cowles. Although the coroner attributed the death to natural causes, Moir wrote that it was “not, by any yardstick, a natural one” and that “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.”

Ronson does not make the point explicit in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but what immediately strikes me is that Moir was engaging in some (not-so-)good old-fashioned mainstream media shaming. She used her large public platform to hold up identified individuals to be shamed over very private behaviour. Gately could not, of course, feel any shame from beyond the grave, but Moir’s column was grossly tasteless since he had not even been buried when it first appeared.

Moir stated, self-righteously: “It is important that the truth comes out about the exact circumstances of [Gately’s] strange and lonely death.” But why was it so important that the public be told such particulars as whether or not Cowles (at least) hooked up that tragic evening for sex with a student whom Moir names, and whether or not some, or all, of the three young men involved used cannabis or other recreational drugs that night?

To confirm Moir’s propensities as a public shamer, no one need go further than the same column. She follows her small-minded paragraphs about Gately with a few others that shame “socialite” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson for no worse sin than wearing a revealing outfit to a high-society party.

You get the picture, I trust. I’m not asking that Moir, or anyone else, walk on eggshells lest her language accidentally offend somebody, or prove open to unexpectedly uncharitable interpretations. Quite the opposite: we should all be able to speak with some spontaneity, without constantly censoring how we formulate our thoughts. I’ll gladly extend that freedom to Moir.

But Moir is not merely unguarded in her language: she can be positively reckless, as with her suggestion that Palmer-Tomkinson’s wispy outfit might more appropriately be worn by “Timmy the Tranny, the hat-check personage down at the My-Oh-My supper club in Brighton.” No amount of charitable interpretation can prevent the impression that she is often deliberately, or at best uncaringly, hurtful. In those circumstances, I have no sympathy for her if she receives widespread and severe criticism for what she writes.

When it comes to something like Moir’s hatchet job on Gately and Cowles, and their relationship, I can understand the urge to retaliate – to shame and punish in return. It’s no wonder, then, that Ronson discusses the feeling of empowerment when numerous people, armed with their social media accounts, turned on badly behaved “giants” such as the Daily Mail and its contributors. As it seemed to Ronson in those days, not so long ago, “the silenced were getting a voice.”

But let’s be careful about this.

Some distinctions

A few aspects need to be teased out. Even when responding to the shamers, we ought to think about what’s appropriate.

For a start, I am – I’m well aware – being highly critical of Moir’s column and her approach to journalism. In that sense, I could be said to be “shaming” her. But we don’t have to be utterly silent when confronted by unpleasant behaviour from public figures.

My criticisms are, I submit, fair comment on material that was (deliberately and effectively) disseminated widely to the public. In writing for a large audience in the way she does – especially when she takes an aggressive and hurtful approach toward named individuals – Moir has to expect some push-back.

We can draw reasonable distinctions. I have no wish to go further than criticism of what Moir actually said and did. I don’t, for example, want to misrepresent her if I can avoid it, to make false accusations, or to punish her in any way that goes beyond criticism. I wouldn’t demand that she be no-platformed from a planned event or that advertisers withdraw their money from the Daily Mail until she is fired.

The word criticism is important. We need to think about when public criticism is fair and fitting, when it becomes disproportionate, and when it spirals down into something mean and brutal.

Furthermore, we can distinguish between 1) Moir’s behaviour toward individuals and 2) her views on issues of general importance, however wrong or ugly those views might be. In her 2009 comments on Gately’s death, the two are entangled, but it doesn’t follow that they merit just the same kind of response.

Moir’s column intrudes on individuals’ privacy and holds them up for shaming, but it also expresses an opinion on legal recognition of same-sex couples in the form of civil unions. Although she is vague, Moir seems to think that individuals involved in legally recognised same-sex relationships are less likely to be monogamous (and perhaps more likely to use drugs) than people in heterosexual marriages. This means, she seems to imply, that there’s something wrong with, or inferior about, same-sex civil unions.

In fairness, Moir later issued an apology in which she explained her view: “I was suggesting that civil partnerships – the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting – have proved just to be as problematic as marriages.” This is, however, difficult to square with the words of her original column, where she appears to deny, point blank, that civil unions “are just the same as heterosexual marriages.”

Even if she is factually correct about statistical differences between heterosexual marriages and civil unions, this at least doesn’t seem to be relevant to public policy. After all, plenty of marriages between straight people are “open” (and may or may not involve the use of recreational drugs), but they are still legally valid marriages.

If someone does think certain statistical facts about civil unions are socially relevant, however, it’s always available to them to argue why. They should be allowed to do so without their speech being legally or socially suppressed. It’s likewise open to them to produce whatever reliable data might be available. Furthermore, we can’t expect critics of civil unions to present their full case on every occasion when they speak up to express a view. That would be an excessive condition for any of us to have to meet when we express ourselves on important topics.

More generally, we can criticise bad ideas and arguments – or even make fun of them if we think they’re that bad – but as a rule we shouldn’t try to stop their expression.

Perhaps some data exists to support Moir’s rather sneering claims about civil unions. But an anecdote about the private lives of a particular gay couple proves nothing one way or the other. Once again, many heterosexual marriages are not monogamous, but a sensational story involving a particular straight couple would prove nothing about how many.

In short, Moir is entitled to express her jaundiced views about civil unions or same-sex relationships more generally, and the worst she should face is strong criticism, or a degree of satire, aimed primarily at the views themselves. But shining a spotlight on Cowles and Gately was unfair, callous, nasty, gratuitous, and (to use one of her own pet words) sleazy. In addition to criticising her apparent views, we can object strongly when she publicly shames individuals.

Surfing down the slippery slope

Ronson discusses a wide range of cases, and an evident problem is that they can vary greatly, making it difficult to draw overall conclusions or to frame exact principles.

Some individuals who’ve been publicly shamed clearly enough “started it”, but even they can suffer from a cruel and disproportionate backlash. Some have been public figures who’ve genuinely done something wrong, as with Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who fabricated quotes to make his stories appear more impressive. It’s only to be expected that Lehrer’s irresponsibility and poor ethics would damage his career. But even in his case, the shaming process was over the top. Some of it was almost sadistic.

Other victims of public shaming are more innocent than Lehrer. Prominent among them is Justine Sacco, whom Ronson views with understandable sympathy. Sacco’s career and personal life were ruined after she made an ill-advised tweet on 20 January 2013. It said: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She was then subjected to an extraordinarily viral Twitter attack that led quickly to her losing her job and becoming an international laughing stock.

It appears that her tweet went viral after a Gawker journalist retweeted it (in a hostile way) to his 15,000 followers at the time – after just one person among Sacco’s 170 followers had passed it on to him.

Ronson offers his own interpretation of the Sacco tweet:

It seemed obvious that her tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a self-reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune to life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?

In truth, it’s not obvious to me just how to interpret the tweet, and of course I can’t read Sacco’s mind. If it comes to that, I doubt that she pondered the wording carefully. Still, this small piece of sick humour was aimed only at her small circle of Twitter followers, and it probably did convey to them something along the lines of what Ronson suggests. In its original context, then, it did not merely ridicule the plight of black AIDS victims in Africa.

Much satire and humour is, as we know, unstable in its meaning – simultaneously saying something outrageous and testing our emotions as we find ourselves laughing at it. It can make us squirm with uncertainty. This applies (sometimes) to high literary satire, but also to much ordinary banter among friends. We laugh but we also squirm.

In any event, charitable interpretations – if not a single straightforward one – were plainly available for Sacco’s tweet. This was a markedly different situation from Jan Moir’s gossip-column attacks on hapless celebrities and socialites. And unlike Moir, Sacco lacked a large media platform, an existing public following, and an understanding employer.

Ronson also describes the case of Lindsey Stone, a young woman whose life was turned to wreckage because of a photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the photo she is mocking a “Silence and Respect” sign by miming a shout and making an obscene gesture. The photo was uploaded on Facebook, evidently with inadequate privacy safeguards, and eventually it went viral, with Stone being attacked by a cybermob coming from a political direction opposite to the mob that went after Sacco.

While the Arlington photograph might seem childish, or many other things, posing for it and posting it on Facebook hardly add up to any serious wrongdoing. It is not behaviour that merited the outcome for Lindsey Stone: destruction of her reputation, loss of her job, and a life of ongoing humiliation and fear.

Referring to such cases, Ronson says:

The people we were destroying were no longer just people like Jonah [Lehrer]: public figures who had committed actual transgressions. They were private individuals who really hadn’t done anything much wrong. Ordinary humans were being forced to learn damage control, like corporations that had committed PR disasters.

Thanks to Ronson’s intervention, Stone sought help from an agency that rehabilitates online reputations. Of Stone’s problems in particular, he observes:

The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh [an operative for the rehabilitation agency] to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

This is not the culture we wanted

Ronson also quotes Michael Fertik, from the agency that helped Stone: “We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformist,” Ronson concludes sadly, “but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

This is not the culture we wanted. It’s a public culture that seems broken, but what can we do about it?

For a start, it helps to recognise the problem, but it’s difficult, evidently, for most people to accept the obvious advice: Be forthright in debating topics of general importance, but always subject to some charity and restraint in how you treat particular people. Think through – and not with excuses – what that means in new situations. Be willing to criticise people on your own side if they are being cruel or unfair.

It’s not our job to punish individuals, make examples of them, or suppress their views. Usually we can support our points without any of this; we can do so in ways that are kinder, more honest, more likely to make intellectual progress. The catch is, it requires patience and courage.

Our public culture needs more of this sort of patience, more of this sort of courage. Can we – will we – rise to the challenge?

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Trump’s Enquiring Rhetoric

As this is being written, Donald Trump is the last surviving Republican presidential candidate. His final opponents, Cruz and Kasich, suspended their campaigns, though perhaps visions of a contested convention still haunt their dreams.

Cruz left the field of battle with a bizarre Trump arrow lodged in his buttocks: Trump had attacked Cruz by alleging that Ted Cruz’ father was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald. The basis for this claim was an article in the National Enquirer, a tabloid that has claimed Justice Scalia was assassinated by a hooker working for the CIA. While this tabloid has no credibility, the fact that Trump used it as a source necessitated an investigation into the claim about Cruz’ father. As should be expected, Politifact ranked it as Pants on Fire. I almost suspect that Trump is trolling the media and laughing about how he has forced them to seriously consider and thoroughly investigate claims that are utterly lacking in evidence (such as his claims about televised celebrations in America after the 9/11 attacks).

When confronted about his claim about an Oswald-Cruz connection, Trump followed his winning strategy: he refused to apologize and engaged in some Trump-Fu as his “defense.” When interviewed on ABC, his defense was as follows:  “What I was doing was referring to a picture reported and in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it. No, I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a major story and a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications. …I’m just referring to an article that appeared. I mean, it has nothing to do with me.”

This response begins with what appears to be a fallacy: he is asserting that if a claim is not denied, then it is therefore true (I am guessing the “they” is either the Cruz folks or the National Enquirer folks. This can be seen as a variation on the classic appeal to ignorance fallacy. In this fallacy, a person infers that if there is a lack of evidence against a claim, then the claim is true. However, proving a claim requires that there be adequate evidence for the claim, not just a lack of evidence against it. There is no evidence that I do not have a magical undetectable pet dragon that only I can sense. This, however, does not prove that I have such a pet.

While a failure to deny a claim might be regarded as suspicious, not denying a claim is not proof the claim is true. It might not even be known that a claim has been made (so it would not be denied). For example, Kanye West is not denying that he plans to become master of the Pan flute—but this is not proof he intends to do this. It can also be a good idea to not lend a claim psychological credence by denial—some people think that denial of a claim is evidence it is true. Naturally, Cruz did end up denying the claim.

Trump next appears to be asserting the claim is true because it was “major” and repeated. He failed to note the “major” publication is a tabloid that is lacking in credibility. As such, Trump could be seen as engaging in a fallacious appeal to authority. In this case, the National Enquirer lacks the credibility needed to serve as the basis for a non-fallacious argument from authority. Roughly put, a good argument from authority is such that the credibility of the authority provides good grounds for accepting a claim. Trump did not have a good argument from authority.

Trump also uses a fascinating technique of “own and deny.” He does this by launching an attack and then both “owning” and denying it. It is as if he punched Cruz in the face and then said, “it wasn’t me, someone else did the punching. But I will punch Cruz again. Although it wasn’t me.” I am not sure if this is a rhetorical technique or a pathological condition. However, it does allow him the best of both worlds: he can appear tough and authentic by “owning it” yet also appear to not be responsible for the attack. This seems to be quite appealing to his followers, although it is obviously logically problematic: one must either own or deny, both cannot be true.

He also makes use of an established technique:  he gets media attention drawn to a story and then uses this attention to “prove” the story is true (because it is “major” and repeated). While effective, this technique does not prove a claim is true.

Trump was also interviewed on NBC and asked why he attacked Cruz in the face of almost certain victory in Indiana.  In response, he said, “Well, because I didn’t know I had it in the grasp. …I had no idea early in the morning that was — the voting booths just starting — the voting booths were practically not even opened when I made this call. It was a call to a show. And they ran a clip of some terrible remarks made by the father about me. And all I did is refer him to these articles that appeared about his picture. And — you know, not such a bad thing.”

This does provide something of a defense for Trump. As he rightly says, he did not know he would win and he hoped that his attack would help his chances. While the fact that a practice is common does not justify it (this would be the common practice fallacy), Trump seems to be playing within the rules of negative campaigning. That said, the use of the National Enquirer as a source is a new twist as is linking an opponent to the JFK assassination. This is not to say that Trump is acting in a morally laudable manner, just that he is operating within the rules of the game. To use an analogy, while the brutal hits of football might be regarded as morally problematic, they are within the rules of the game. Likewise, such attacks are within the rules of politics.

However, Trump goes on to commit the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy: since bad things were said about Trump, he concludes that he has the right to strike back. While Trump has every right to respond to attacks, he does not have a right to respond with a completely fabricated accusation.

Trump then moves to downplaying what he did and engages in one of his signature moves: he is not really to blame (he just pointed out the articles). So, his defense is essentially “I am just punching the guy back. But, I really didn’t punch him. I just pointed out that someone else punched him. And that punching was not a bad thing.”


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Philosophy & My Old Husky III: Experiments & Studies

Isis on the GoWhile my husky, Isis, and I have both slowed down since we teamed up in 2004, she is doing remarkably well these days. As I often say, pulling so many years will slow down man and dog. While Isis faced a crisis, most likely due to the wear of time on her spine, the steroids seemed to have addressed the pain and inflammation so that we have resumed our usual adventures. Tail up and bright eyed is the way she is now and the way she should be.

In my previous essay I looked at using causal reasoning on a small sale by applying the methods of difference and agreement. In this essay I will look at thinking critically about experiments and studies.

The gold standard in science is the controlled cause to effect experiment. The objective of this experiment is to determine the effect of a cause. As such, the question is “I wonder what this does?” While the actual conducting of such an experiment can be complicated and difficult, the basic idea is rather simple. The first step is to have a question about a causal agent. For example, it might be wondered what effect steroids have on arthritis in elderly dogs. The second step is to determine the target population, which might already be taken care of in the first step—for example, elderly dogs would be the target population. The third step is to pull a random sample from the target population. This sample needs to be representative (that is, it needs to be like the target population and should ideally be a perfect match in miniature). For example, a sample from the population of elderly dogs would ideally include all breeds of dogs, male dogs, female dogs, and so on for all relevant qualities of dogs. The problem with a biased sample is that the inference drawn from the experiment will be weak because the sample might not be adequately like the general population. The sample also needs to be large enough—a sample that is too small will also fail to adequately support the inference drawn from the experiment.

The fourth step involves splitting the sample into the control group and the experimental group. These groups need to be as similar as possible (and can actually be made of the same individuals). The reason they need to be alike is because in the fifth step the experimenters introduce the cause (such as steroids) to the experimental group and the experiment is run to see what difference this makes between the two groups. The final step is getting the results and determining if the difference is statistically significant. This occurs when the difference between the two groups can be confidently attributed to the presence of the cause (as opposed to chance or other factors). While calculating this properly can be complicated, when assessing an experiment (such as a clinical trial) it is easy enough to compare the number of individuals in the sample to the difference between the experimental and control groups. This handy table from Critical Thinking makes this quite easy and also shows the importance of having a large enough sample.


Number in Experimental Group

(with similarly sized control group)

Approximate Figure That the difference Must Exceed

To Be Statistically Significant

(in percentage points)

10 40
25 27
50 19
100 13
250 8
500 6
1,000 4
1,500 3


Many “clinical trials” mentioned in articles and blog posts have very small samples sizes and this often makes their results meaningless. This table also shows why anecdotal evidence is fallacious: a sample size of one is all but completely useless when it comes to an experiment.

The above table also assumes that the experiment is run correctly: the sample was representative, the control group was adequately matched to the experimental group, the experimenters were not biased, and so on for all the relevant factors. As such, when considering the results of an experiment it is important to consider those factors as well. If, for example, you are reading an article about an herbal supplement for arthritic dogs and it mentions a clinical trial, you would want to check on the sample size, the difference between the two groups and determine whether the experiment was also properly conducted. Without this information, you would need to rely entirely on the credibility of the source. If the source is credible and claims that the experiment was conducted properly, then it would be reasonable to trust the results. If the source’s credibility is in question, then trust should be withheld. Assessing credibility is a matter of determining expertise and the goal is to avoid being a victim of a fallacious appeal to authority. Here is a short checklist for determining whether a person (or source) is an expert or not:


  • The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.
  • The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.
  • There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.
  • The person in question is not significantly biased.
  • The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.
  • The authority in question must be identified.


While the experiment is the gold standard, there are times when it cannot be used. In some cases, this is a matter of ethics: exposing people or animals to something potentially dangerous might be deemed morally unacceptable. In other cases, it is a matter of practicality or necessity. In such cases, studies are used.

One type of study is the non-experimental cause to effect study. This is identical to the cause to effect experiment with one rather critical difference: the experimental group is not exposed to the cause by those running the study. For example, a study might be conducted of dogs who recovered from Lyme disease to see what long term effects it has on them.

The study, as would be expected, runs in the same basic way as the experiment and if there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups (and it has been adequately conducted) then it is reasonable to make the relevant inference about the effect of the cause in question.

While useful, this sort of study is weaker than the experiment. This is because those conducting the study have to take what they get—the experimental group is already exposed to the cause and this can create problems in properly sorting out the effect of the cause in question. As such, while a properly run experiment can still get erroneous results, a properly run study is even more likely to have issues.

A second type of study is the effect to cause study. It differs from the cause to effect experiment and study in that the effect is known but the cause is not. Hence, the goal is to infer an unknown cause from the known effect. It also differs from the experiment in that those conducting the study obviously do not introduce the cause.

This study is conducted by comparing the experimental group and the control group (which are, ideally, as similar as possible) to sort out a likely cause by considering the differences between them. As would be expected, this method is far less reliable than the others since those doing the study are trying to backtrack from an effect to a cause. If considerable time has passed since the suspected cause, this can make the matter even more difficult to sort out. The conducting the study also have to work with the experimental group they happen to get and this can introduce many complications into the study, making a strong inference problematic.

An example of this would be a study of elderly dogs who suffer from paw knuckling (the paw flips over so the dog is walking on the top of the paw) to determine the cause of this effect. As one might suspect, finding the cause would be challenging—there would be a multitude of potential causes in the history of the dogs ranging from injury to disease. It is also quite likely that there are many causes in play here, and this would require sorting out the different causes for this same effect. Because of such factors, the effect to cause study is the weakest of the three and supports the lowest level of confidence in its results even when conducted properly. This explains why it can be so difficult for researchers to determine the causes of many problems that, for example, elderly dogs suffer from.

In the case of Isis, the steroids that she is taking have been well-studied, so it is quite reasonable for me to believe that they are a causal factor in her remarkable recovery. I do not, however, know for sure what caused her knuckling—there are so many potential causes for that effect. However, the important thing is that she is now walking normally about 90% of the time and her tail is back in the air, showing that she is a happy husky.


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Philosophy & My Old Husky II: Difference & Agreement

Isis in the mulchAs mentioned in my previous essay, Isis (my Siberian husky) fell victim to the ravages of time. Once a fast sprinting and long running blur of fur, she now merely saunters along. Still, lesser beasts fear her (and to a husky, all creatures are lesser beasts) and the sun is warm—so her life is still good.

Faced with the challenge of keeping her healthy and happy, I have relied a great deal on what I learned as a philosopher. As noted in the preceding essay, I learned to avoid falling victim to the post hoc fallacy and the fallacy of anecdotal evidence. In this essay I will focus on two basic, but extremely useful methods of causal reasoning.

One of the most useful tool for causal reasoning is the method of difference. This method was famously developed by the philosopher John Stuart Mill and has been a staple in critical thinking classes since way before my time. The purpose of the method is figuring out the cause of an effect, such as a husky suffering from a knuckling paw (a paw that folds over, so the dog is walking on the top of the foot rather than the bottom). The method can also be used to try to sort out the effect of a suspected cause, such as the efficacy of an herbal supplement in treating canine arthritis.

Fortunately, the method is quite simple. To use it, you need at least two cases: one in which the effect has occurred and one in which it has not. In terms of working out the cause, more cases are better—although more cases of something bad (like arthritis pain) would certainly be undesirable from other standpoints. The two cases can actually involve the same individual at different times—it need not be different individuals (though it also works in those cases as well). For example, when sorting out Isis’ knuckling problem the case in which the effect occurred was when Isis was suffering from knuckling and the case in which it did not was when Isis was not suffering from this problem. I also looked into other cases in which dogs suffered from knuckling issues and when they did not.

The cases in which the effect is present and those in which it is absent are then compared in order to determine the difference between the cases. The goal is to sort out which factor or factors made the difference. When doing this, it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to fall victim to the post hoc fallacy—to conclude without adequate evidence that a difference is a cause because the effect occurred after that difference. Avoiding this mistake requires considering that the “connection” between the suspected cause and the effect might be purely a matter of coincidence. For example, Isis ate some peanut butter the day she started knuckling, but it is unlikely that had any effect—especially since she has been eating peanut butter her whole life. It is also important to consider that an alleged cause might actually be an effect caused by a factor that is also producing the effect one is concerned about. For example, a person might think that a dog’s limping is causing the knuckling, but they might both be effects of a third factor, such as arthritis or nerve damage. You must also keep in mind the possibility of reversed causation—that the alleged cause is actually the effect. For example, a person might think that the limping is causing the knuckling, but it might turn out that the knuckling is the cause of the limping.

In some cases, sorting out the cause can be very easy. For example, if a dog slips and falls, then has trouble walking, then the most likely cause is the fall (but it could still be something else—perhaps the fall and walking trouble were caused by something else). In other cases, sorting out the cause can be very difficult. It might be because there are many possible causal factors. For example, knuckling can be caused by many things (apparently even Lyme disease). It might also be because there are no clear differences (such as when a dog starts limping with no clear preceding event). One useful approach is to do research using reliable sources. Another, which is a good idea with pet problems, is to refer to an expert—such as a vet. Medical tests, for example, are useful for sorting out the difference and finding a likely cause.

The same basic method can also be used in reverse, such as determining the effectiveness of a dietary supplement for treating canine arthritis. For example, when Isis started slowing down and showing signs of some soreness, I started giving her senior dog food, glucosamine and some extra protein. What followed was an improvement in her mobility and the absence of the signs of soreness. While the change might have been a mere coincidence, it is reasonable to consider that one or more of these factors helped her. After all, there is some scientific evidence that diet can have an influence on these things. From a practical standpoint, I decided to keep to this plan since the cost of the extras is low, they have no harmful side effects, and there is some indication that they work. I do consider that I could be wrong. Fortunately, I do have good evidence that the steroids Isis has been prescribed work—she made a remarkable improvement after starting the steroids and there is solid scientific evidence that they are effective at treating pain and inflammation. As such, it is rational to accept that the steroids are the cause of her improvement—though this could also be a coincidence.

The second method is the method of agreement. Like difference, this requires at least two cases. Unlike difference, the effect is present in all the cases. In this method, the cases exhibiting the effect (such as knuckling) are considered in order to find a common thread in all the cases. For example, each incident of knuckling would be examined to determine what they all have in common. The common factor (or factors) that is the most plausible cause of the effect is what should be taken as the likely cause. As with the method of difference, it is important to consider such factors as coincidence so as to avoid falling into a post hoc fallacy.

The method of agreement is most often used to form a hypothesis about a likely cause. The next step is, if possible, to apply the method of difference by comparing similar cases in which the effect did not occur. Roughly put, the approach would be to ask what all the cases have in common, then determine if that common factor is absent in cases in which the effect is also absent. For example, a person investigating knuckling might begin by considering what all the knuckling cases have in common and then see if that common factor is absent in cases in which knuckling did not occur.

One of the main weaknesses of these methods is that they tend to have very small sample sizes—sometimes just one individual, such as my husky. While these methods are quite useful, they can be supplemented by general causal reasoning in the form of experiments and studies—the subject of the next essay in this series.


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Philosophy & My Old Husky I: Post Hoc & Anecdotal Evidence

dogpark065My Siberian husky, Isis, joined the pack in 2004 at the age of one. It took her a little while to realize that my house was now her house—she set out to chew all that could be chewed, presumably as part of some sort of imperative of destruction. Eventually, she came to realize that she was chewing her stuff—or so I like to say. More likely, joining me on 8-16 mile runs wore the chew out of her.

As the years went by, we both slowed down. Eventually, she could no longer run with me (despite my slower pace) and we went on slower adventures (one does not walk a husky; one goes adventuring with a husky). Despite her advanced age, she remained active—at least until recently. After an adventure, she seemed slow and sore. She cried once in pain, but then seemed to recover. Then she got worse, requiring a trip to the emergency veterinarian (pets seem to know the regular vet hours and seem to prefer their woes to take place on weekends).

The good news was that the x-rays showed no serious damage—just indication of wear and tear of age. She also had some unusual test results, perhaps indicating cancer. Because of her age, the main concern was with her mobility and pain—as long as she could get about and be happy, then that was what mattered. She was prescribed an assortment of medications and a follow up appointment was scheduled with the regular vet. By then, she had gotten worse in some ways—her right foot was “knuckling” over, making walking difficult. This is often a sign of nerve issues. She was prescribed steroids and had to go through a washout period before starting the new medicine. As might be imagined, neither of us got much sleep during this time.

While all stories eventually end, her story is still ongoing—the steroids seemed to have done the trick. She can go on slow adventures and enjoys basking in the sun—watching the birds and squirrels, willing the squirrels to fall from the tree and into her mouth.

While philosophy is often derided as useless, it was actually very helpful to me during this time and I decided to write about this usefulness as both a defense of philosophy and, perhaps, as something useful for others who face similar circumstances with an aging canine.

Isis’ emergency visit was focused on pain management and one drug she was prescribed was Carprofen (more infamously known by the name Rimadyl). Carprofen is an NSAID that is supposed to be safer for canines than those designed for humans (like aspirin) and is commonly used to manage arthritis in elderly dogs. Being a curious and cautious sort, I researched all the medications (having access to professional journals and a Ph.D.  is handy here). As is often the case with medications, I ran across numerous forums which included people’s sad and often angry stories about how Carprofen killed their pets. The typical story involved what one would expect: a dog was prescribed Carprofen and then died or was found to have cancer shortly thereafter. I found such stories worrisome and was concerned—I did not want my dog to be killed by her medicine. But, I also knew that without medication, she would be in terrible pain and unable to move. I wanted to make the right choice for her and knew this would require making a rational decision.

My regular vet decided to go with the steroid option, one that also has the potential for side effects—complete with the usual horror stories on the web. Once again, it was a matter of choosing between the risks of medication and the consequences of doing without. In addition to my research into the medication, I also investigated various other options for treating arthritis and pain in older dogs. She was already on glucosamine (which might be beneficial, but seems to have no serious side effects), but the web poured forth an abundance of options ranging from acupuncture to herbal remedies. I even ran across the claim that copper bracelets could help pain in dogs.

While some of the alternatives had been subject to actual scientific investigation, the majority of the discussions involved a mix of miracle and horror stories. One person might write glowingly about how an herbal product brought his dog back from death’s door while another might claim that after he gave his dog the product, the dog died because of it. Sorting through all these claims, anecdotes and studies turned out to be a fair amount of work. Fortunately, I had numerous philosophical tools that helped a great deal with such cases, specifically of the sort where it is claimed that “I gave my dog X, then he got better/died and X was the cause.” Knowing about two common fallacies is very useful in these cases.

The first is what is known as Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”).  This fallacy has the following form:

  1. A occurs before B.
  2. Therefore A is the cause of B.

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim.

While cause does precede effect (at least in the normal flow of time), proper causal reasoning, as will be discussed in an upcoming essay, involves sorting out whether A occurring before B is just a matter of coincidence or not. In the case of medication involving an old dog, it could entirely be a matter of coincidence that the dog died or was diagnosed with cancer after the medicine was administered. That is, the dog might have died anyway or might have already had cancer. Without a proper investigation, simply assuming that the medication was the cause would be an error. The same holds true for beneficial effects. For example, a dog might go lame after a walk and then recover after being given an herbal supplement for several days. While it would be tempting to attribute the recovery to the herbs, they might have had no effect at all. After all, lameness often goes away on its own or some other factor might have been the cause.

This is not to say that such stories should be rejected out of hand—it is to say that they should be approached with due consideration that the reasoning involved is post hoc. In concrete terms, if you are afraid to give your dog medicine she was prescribed because you heard of cases in which a dog had the medicine and then died, you should investigate more (such as talking to your vet) about whether there really is a risk of death. As another example, if someone praises an herbal supplement because her dog perked up after taking it, then you should see if there is evidence for this claim beyond the post hoc situation.

Fortunately, there has been considerable research into medications and treatments that provide a basis for making a rational choice. When considering such data, it is important not to be lured into rejecting data by the seductive power of the Fallacy of Anecdotal Evidence.

This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. The fallacy is considered by some to be a variation on hasty generalization.  It has the following forms:

Form One

  1. Anecdote A is told about a member (or small number of members) of Population P.
  2. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on Anecdote A.

For example, a person might hear anecdotes about dogs that died after taking a prescribed medication and infer that the medicine is likely to kill dogs.

Form Two

  1. Reasonable statistical evidence S exists for general claim C.
  2. Anecdote A is presented that is an exception to or goes against general claim C.
  3. Conclusion: General claim C is rejected.

For example, the statistical evidence shows that the claim that glucosamine-chondroitin can treat arthritis is, at best, very weakly supported. But, a person might tell a story about how their aging husky “was like a new dog” after she starting getting a daily dose of the supplement. To accept this as proof that the data is wrong would be to fall for this fallacy. That said, I do give my dog glucosamine-chondroitin because it is cheap, has no serious side effects and might have some benefit. I am fully aware of the data and do not reject it—I am gambling that it might do my husky some good.

The way to avoid becoming a victim of anecdotal evidence is to seek reliable, objective statistical data about the matter in question (a vet should be a good source). This can, I hasten to say, can be quite a challenge when it comes to treatments for pets. In many cases, there are no adequate studies or trials that provide statistical data and all the information available is in the form of anecdotes. One option is, of course, to investigate the anecdotes and try to do your own statistics. So, if the majority of anecdotes indicate something harmful (or something beneficial) then this would be weak evidence for the claim. In any case, it is wise to approach anecdotes with due care—a story is not proof.