The out-group fallacy; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 13

The out-group fallacy, which we might also call the dehumanisation or “othering” fallacy, is the belief that a persons moral value changes depending on their relationship to you and people you perceive as being like you.

I’m not talking here about the fact that our relationships with people may change the responsibilities we have toward them; for example, that being in a caring relationship with someone increases the contribution you ought to make toward that persons welfare. Relationships like this, such as caring for a child or sick friend, are binding relationships which we all benefit from. It is not irrational for us to enter into relationships which create a special set of duties or responsibilities toward some individuals and not others (provided of course we support collective efforts to provide equivalent relationships for those who have lost those relationships, e.g. supporting collective efforts to find orphans adoptive parents).

What is irrational, however, is to believe that the lives, welfare or freedom of some people is intrinsically worth less than others because they do not bare specific relationships to you, or that they are not like you in the right sort of ways. When put like this I think it is plain that it is a simple mistake of reasoning to think, e.g. that the sudden death of a child in Kazakhstan is intrinsically not as bad as the sudden death of a child in Scotland (put yourself in their shoes, like your mother taught you). Depending on which nation/culture/people/family you identify most strongly with (put another way; what your in-group is) you will naturally feel some such deaths more keenly than others. But, but we ought not take the naturalness of this feeling as a guide to the intrinsic moral value of the now dead.

Like I said to do so is to commit a mistake in reasoning, but it is a deeply ingrained mistake. In working against this, we are not working against a mistake like applying the wrong rule to solving an equation, we are working against the biggest design flaw in human cognition. And it is an insidious design flaw. It is possible, for example, to make people like each other less simply by placing them in arbitrary groups like “team red” and “team blue”. When these groups are powerful social constructs, such as race, class or nationality this changes from being more inclined to not like someone to concert efforts to enslave, deprive or conquer. In other words, acting as though the lives, welfare and freedom of some is intrinsically worth less than others.

We are awash with examples like this, but I would like to focus on this recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In this piece Mayer-Cesinano attempts to justify peoples differential responses to the murders by Daesh in Paris and those in Beirut. This differential response, in terms of emotional response, social media sharing, out-rage from bigoted or isolationist groups and military actions undertaken by France and others could be seen as being based in the “some lives matter more” outcome of the out-group fallacy. Yet Mayer-Cesinano denies this, instead claiming that the differential response is simply a matter of how we naturally experience grief more strongly when the lives lost are close to us and that an attack by Daesh in Paris is more surprising than an attack by the same group in Beirut, simply because the land they control is closer to Beirut than Paris. Now there’s a good point in the vicinity of this later point, namely that someone living in London might rationally feel more personally threatened by an attack in Paris than one in Beirut, as it suggests an expansion of the areas which Daesh are trying to attack. But, it would have been helpful for Mayer-Cesinano to say that rather than just that the Paris attack defied expectations.

The bigger mistake Mayer-Cesinano makes is to ignore the intrinsically moral reactions to the attacks and how they differed. This is not simple a matter of differential grief, but rather a difference in the valuing of those who were killed. Specifically we have seen an increase in bombing and discussion of the possibility of sending ground troops to Syria in the wake of the Paris attack, but this reaction doesn’t occur, or doesn’t occur to the same extent when “non-western” people are killed. Keep in mind that this isn’t talked about in terms of a greater need for France to protect itself from murders in Paris than in Beirut, but specifically in terms of a greater need for retribution for the deaths in Paris. In other words, it matters more (morally) that people have died in Paris than in Beirut.

Now don’t get me wrong, I felt the Paris attacks more than those in Beirut, no doubt because of my relationships with Paris. I’ve been to Paris, but not Beirut, I have friends in Paris and not Beirut and the intellectual, moral and cultural achievements of France and its people are much more strongly part of my cultural narrative than those of Lebanon. Whilst all this makes my emotional reaction to those murders understandable, what it doesn’t do is justify a different moral valuing of the deaths, that would depend on the out-group fallacy and that is the mistake made by Mayer-Cesinano.

with love, DrNPC


Ad Hominem; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World Part 12

Sisters and Brothers,

Once again Australian politics has shown itself to be fertile ground for those of us who like to point bad reasoning when we see it (I’m shocked). For those who don’t know the climate change “debate” in Australia is essentially a running joke, with frankly bizarre conspiracy theories getting mainstream press, and many prominent politicians repeatedly claiming that either the climate isn’t changing, or that it is but Human activity has nothing to do with it. Or most amusingly that we shouldn’t have wind farms because they’re ugly (that is actually their best reason, not a shovel article).

Within this context Senator Larissa Waters yesterday asked whether the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a response to the Pope’s recent comments on climate change. This was also an attempt, I suspect, for Waters and her party the Greens — who are traditionally much better at communicating with those who self-identify as atheist — to highlight common ground with the Catholic Church. None-the-less the question is relevant because the Prime Minister strongly self-identifies as Catholic and so the Pope’s position may well lead to the Prime Minister changing his mind on climate change.

Now the response to Waters in the Senate is what I’d like to focus on here. Aside from some expected name calling (“bloody bigot” “disgusting”), Senator Barry O’Sullivan interjected asking Waters if she was married. How this is supposed to function as an attack on her escapes me, but none-the-less that was clearly the intent. Apparently we should not listen to women who aren’t married (this is a long running strategy from the Prime Minister’s, in fact conservative, Liberal Party who questioned former Prime Minister Gillard’s capacity to love because she was unmarried and had no children).

This argument is a prime example of what we call an Ad Hominem Fallacy. This fallacy takes the form of highlighting some irrelevant feature of a person, in this case their marital status, an using that to attack their argument, or question, or conclusion. When laid out like this the argument is clear fallacious:

Question: will the Prime Minister be changing his position on climate change in light of the Pope’s teachings?

Response: we shouldn’t answer that because the asker is not married.

Not only fallacious of course, but catastrophically sexist (male senators never have their questions rejected on the grounds that they aren’t married).

It’s important to distinguish the Ad Hominem Fallacy from some other arguments we see in the public sphere which sometimes look superficially similar. It is not committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy to question someone’s trustworthiness when you have specific grounds for thinking they might be lying. This is most relevant in cases of testimony. For example, we don’t ask the goalkeeper if the ball crossed the goal line because of well known biases that come with perceiving sport when a member of a team. In this case we treat the goalkeeper’s testimony that the ball didn’t cross the line as untrustworthy because we have good reason to suppose that their perception is biased (even if we don’t think they’re lying about what they saw). Similarly, despite what Joe Hockey would have us believe it is not committing the Ad Hominem fallacy to question someone’s qualifications to perform a specific professional job when they show evidence that they are not qualified for the job in question. Neither of these cases are instances of the fallacy because they deploy specific evidence regarding a person’s capacity to make a particular judgement or to complete a specific task.

Instances of the fallacy, in contrast, highlight some irrelevant, but apparently undesirable, feature of person to attack a question, argument or conclusion when stands independently of the person asking, arguing or concluding. Anyone could have asked Water’s question and it would have been relevant regardless of whether or not they where married.

with love, DrNPC

Once last note: to my mind the Ad Hominem Fallacy is the most basic mistake one can make in argument. It’s essentially responding to everything by saying “so’s your face”. If we are in an instance when Senator’s, who are presumably well educated, still think that this is an appropriate way to conduct themselves when discussing important issues like climate change, faith and leadership in the Catholic Church one really has to wonder if our education system is achieving the goals we, as a society, want it to. Perhaps it is time to properly fund education, end the absurd private/public division and the end the over the top political interference in the content of course we’ve seen this century.

Meditations on Moral Failure and Growth

A meditation is a funny thing to write. Not least because it is fundamentally unscholarly. That always bugged me reading Descartes, no sourcing of ideas, only the vaguest sense of who he’s responding to – without a historian to hand anyway. I don’t like that; being unscholarly. A bit of harder work, well a few months, and I could contribute something significant to the genuinely philosophical attempts to understand ourselves. I have no reason not to do that, except I sleep a lot.

Moral Failure”. That sounds funny too. It reminds me of the signs up in Sydney’s Hyde Park telling us to stay away during storms, in case of “Tree Failure”. What they mean, of course, is falling branches. I don’t know why they don’t just say that. What I mean is the failure of good people, and people who are trying to be good, to act morally.

The essence of moral failure is a lack of regard for the welfare, needs, desires, wishes, freedom and interests of other persons. At least that’s the kind I’m meditating on. I’m interested in this as a matter of personal growth. When I have failed to act morally – and it is at this point that my meditation runs the risk of becoming a suicide note – it has been a lack of regard for other persons which has made my actions wrong.

That’s not why I acted immorally of course. I acted immorally out of misdirected anger and feelings of powerlessness. It feels as if everything that is easy for other people is hard for me and so I lash out. But it is not merely being motivated by anger that makes it wrong; even if that is a sign I should have been able to pick up on that I was at risk of doing something wrong. What makes it wrong is a failure to respect other persons as persons. If I where in a scholarly mood I’d call them “moral subjects”. Beings worthy of the full range of moral protections.

So I’m worried about the failure of people who are trying to be good – perhaps rather arrogantly I’ll include myself in that group – to act with regard for others. But why ‘good people’ and ‘people trying to be good’? Well, because that’s all of us. Contrary Catholic Doctrine and the evidence of the 20th century, humans aren’t born evil. Perhaps, even, as Yeshua tells Pilate in The Master and Margarita ‘There are no evil people in the world.’ It is our very essence to be social, if we were born with a lack of regard for other persons – at least those in our immediate groups – we surely wouldn’t have survived long enough for any of us to meditate on anything. Let alone morality.

Although we are born good, that goodness doesn’t easily extend to regard for all persons. The circle of people who’s interests we will naturally respect is really very small, for some of us as small as one, but most will include their family or football team. To extend the in group takes more than a little effort. It seems to me at least that the tendency to divide the world of persons into an in group who’s interests we respect and an out group who’s interests we don’t is the biggest flaw in humanity. Metaphorically it’s God’s biggest mistake and it’s a mistake because it makes acting morally effortful and invites moral failures.

Just as the history of the moral failure of myself and of good people is a history of failing to have regard for persons; the history of moral growth, of going from doing something obviously wrong to doing something obviously right strikes me as the history of expanding the set of people to whom we have regard. Persons are excluded from the group of people we protect at our convenience, because we can use them for something, and more often then not we know it’s wrong. We can tell that we know it’s wrong because these exclusions are accompanied by the most bizarre post hoc justifications. It was ok to enslave Africans because they supposedly lacked a soul, women could be excluded from science because they supposedly lacked intellectual capacity and refugees can be excluded from society because they are dangerous criminals and probably terrorists. Certainly they are not “us” enough.

We grow morally when we expand the group of those who we have regard for. We drop the absurd excuses for excluding them from the group of “us”, real people, who are worth protecting and we welcome them with open arms. This is what I need to do to stop treating people disrespectfully when I am angry at them or someone like them, and it’s what we need to do as a society, as a people, to grow beyond our moral failures. Big things give me hope that we can do this, we no longer endorse slavery (even if we make use of it in ignorance) and we have women scientists (even if they do face systemic disadvantages). Little things give me hope that we can do this too, #Teamhumanity is much more inclusive than Abbott’s team Australia.

But big things also punch back against hope. As I write this Scott Morrison has been promoted from the Minister for Torturing Refugees to the Minister for Disadvantaging Poor People. I’m desperately hoping that in a few months time I’ll look like a divisive partisan knob for the second title. But, I’m not optimistic. Morrison’s work on Asylum Seekers has been to make us see people running for their lives as a dangerous out-group, and thus not worthy of moral protections. His first act in social services was to set up poor people, presumably the dole bludgers the Telegraph et al wish us to exclude from the group of people who’s needs count for something, against people living with disabilities.

When people like Morrison are repeatedly elected to positions of power it makes the entire endeavor of avoiding moral failures seem worthless. Why should I, even in my limited personal sphere, bother trying to avoid moral failures when failing to act morally is encouraged and rewarded in our leaders? Because, trying is the right thing to do. There is no better reason to do something than that.

The Principle of Charity; or: bad reasoning in the real world Part 10

In having a debate aimed to get at the truth, some important truth, such as a morally and economically sound taxation policy for example, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to misrepresent others views. Aside from not being very nice it takes us further from our goal of discovering (or convincing others) of the truth. Why? Because it means that perfectly sensible views get lumped in with, and disregarded alongside, absurd views. Sometimes this happens by accident. In philosophy, for example, Daniel Dennett’s theory of consciousness is really hard to understand and so sometimes perfectly reasonable and smart people misrepresent his view. Saying things like he denies the existence of consciousness and what not. This is a shame but it happens. And if it happens in academia (with some exceptions, health research for example) there generally isn’t much lost in taking a few years to clear things up. At other times, however, it seems to be done on purpose, in attempt to, presumably, not find the truth, but “win” the argument for the sake of winning.

I honestly don’t know which of these possibilities, or some combination of the two, is at play in Amanda Vanstone’s recent opinion piece for the SMH. Nonetheless it seems Vanstone has not met her burden under “the principle of charity”. Simply put this principle asks us to go to as much effort as possible to accurately represent the views of those we disagree with and to not irresponsibly attribute to them false claims or bad arguments without very good reason. In other words we should assume, failing evidence to the contrary, that those we disagree with are also engaged in the activity of attempting to determine the truth.

This doesn’t seem to have been done by Vanstone in her claim that those who are critical of the amount of tax payed by the largest companies and income inequality are over-generalizing from the existence of tax cheats. If we consider the actual positions of those who do advocate higher tax rates on the largest companies and who push for income equality we find arguments that income inequality and low tax on large companies is bad for the economy. Robert Reich famously makes the argument that income inequality reduces the spending power of the middle class thus considerably reducing the amount of money moving through the economy. Other arguments exist in public discourse as well of course. Some advocates of the “mining tax” (resource minerals rent tax) made a moral argument that seeing that resources belong to a nation and are mined at the bequest of the government that it is only fair that the profits from such mining be shared.

Without needing to endorse these arguments we can see that Vanstone has not engaged with them whatsoever, whilst at the same time dismissing their conclusions as supposedly grounded in a bad over-generalization. This is a shame as seeing as the bad over-generalization doesn’t, in fact, underlie the conclusion that large companies should be taxed more than they are at present or that we should push for greater income equality, Vanstone’s argument doesn’t give us reason to deny these claims. Yet Vanstone’s misrepresentation of the views of those she disagrees with creates the appearance that her argument does give us reason to deny them.

In sum we need to be charitable in interpreting each others arguments, we need to if we are to determine important truths. In other words, it’s fine to disagree with me, but please disagree with what I actually say, not some weird caricature of it.

with love


Appeals to authority; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 9

Here is a song which I’ve come across (yes from Bioshock infinite): Jane Russell – Give Me That Old Time Religion

I thought I’d share it with you because it’s a particularly good example of a fallacy known as an appeal to authority. Each verse centers on one of the singers identifying a powerful authority (the prophet Daniel, Paul and Cylus, Abraham Lincoln, President Eisenhower) who believes something called “the old time religion”*. Following the this the singer states she believes (or should) believe in this thing too, apparently because the authority figure does**. This fits nicely the fallacious form

authority figure, X, believes proposition, P, therefore P is true.

I take it as fairly obvious why this is a fallacy, namely that the truth of any idea is not determined by who believes it. To decide if something is true we need to look at the idea itself and the evidence/arguments for it. Just because someone has good knowledge in one area, say they know slavery is bad, or how to win the 2013 federal election, it doesn’t follow that they have good knowledge in another area, say about what faith is best, or the first f’n thing about climate science.

At any rate I just thought I’d share this with you as a nice example of the fallacy.

with love, DrNPC

*it really doesn’t matter what this means for my point this here

** YES! it is sexist that all the singers are women and all the authority figures are men

Necessary, sufficient and probabilistic causes; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 8

The Roger Meyers jr objection

The Roger Meyers jr objection

Here is a meme from the usually very funny ‘nerds do it better’ facebook page. They present here what we might call the crusades objection, or, as I’d prefer the Roger Meyers Jr objection, to the thesis that some modern media be it games or cartoons cause violence. The objection is simply that violence existed before video games and so video games cannot be a cause of violence. This nice bit of silliness is so poorly reasoned that it is no surprise that John Swartzwelder places it in Meyers’ voice. Yet here, nerds do it better seem to be taking the objection seriously.

What exactly is wrong with the Meyers’ objection? Well, it confuses three distinct claims. If we claim that video games cause violence we could be making two claims: the first is that video games are necessary for violence to occur. To say one thing is necessary for a second thing to occur means that only if the first thing occurs does the second. This reading (i.e. the worst of the three) of the claim the video games cause violence hypothesis seems to be behind the Meyers objection as presented by nerds do it better. Video games, the meme suggests, can’t be causes of violence because violence occurs even when video games could not possibly have been present. If this is an objection to anything it is surely not an objection to the claim that video games cause violence because no one, anywhere, ever, would claim that video games are the only cause of violence. That is, it would be silly to suppose that games are a necessary cause of violence.

There are two more, rather more sensible, readings of the claim that video games cause violence. Suppose we didn’t claim that video games were necessary for violence, but rather, that they were sufficient. This would mean that whenever video games are played, violence ensues. Now such a claim wouldn’t be subject to the Meyers objection, but neither would it be true. All that is needed to show this is false is a single instance of someone playing a video game and not becoming violent. It is very unlikely then that anyone is claiming that video games are a sufficeint cause of violence, and even if they were to they’d be easily corrected. So what is the claim being made by those who state that video games cause violence?

The third and more sensible reading of the hypothesis that video games cause violence understands ’cause’ to refer to a probabilistic relation. Rather then being all that is needed for violence (a sufficient cause) or being required for violence (a necessary cause) we are to understand that video games simply make it more likely that violence will occur. If this were true then if we were to find a large group of people who had never played video games before and have half of them play games and half of them not (say they play only non-violent games), then those who played the violent games would committ more acts of violence. But it would not have to be the case that only those who played violent games became violent (as would be the case if games were a necessary cause) nor would it be the case that everyone who played the violent games became violent (as would be the case if games were a sufficient cause).

All in all then the Meyers objection is just a bit silly, based as it is on a confusion between necessary and probabilistic causes. It is fine, of course, to disagree with the hypothesis that video games cause violence but in doing so one should disagree with the claim as intended by the authors of the claim and not a bizarre caraciture of the position that Roger Meyers jr would manipulate us into believing.

Roger Meyers Jr, presenting his famous objection.

Roger Meyers Jr, presenting his famous objection.

Selecting evidence to fit convictions; or, bad reasoning in the everyday world part 7

Political op-ed pieces are a goldmine for those seeking to identify instances of poor reasoning and “Abbott, the thinking person’s Prime Minister” by Nicolle Flint is no exception. This piece seems to have pissed a lot of people off today- mostly for its political content- but as, so often is the case, the problem isn’t just agenda pushing but the fundamental flaws in the thinking behind the agenda pushing.

The flaw I want to highlight today is the manner in which examples are selected to fit a pre-determined conviction. Instead the author ought to examine all relevant evidence and have the evidence drive the conclusion. This can be extremely difficult to do, because of well known selection biases which lead people to seek evidence consistent with what they already believe and discount problematic facts. We see in this article no attempt by the author to overcome such biases and the result is a series of conclusions supported by single examples and ignoring what have been very public counter examples.

Ok so let’s look at instance number one:

Flint says “Charges of sexism and misogyny appear truly farcical when measured against the care and respect expressed in these opening pages for his wife Margie, former girlfriend Kathy and her biological son Daniel, whom Abbott and Kathy long believed to be their biological son.”

What Flint does here is argue to the conclusion that Abbott is not sexist or Misogynist because he clearly loves his family. You might also note that this is a poorly chosen example on Flint’s part as believing in gender equality doesn’t have much to do with whether or not you love your family, but rather whether you treat all people as persons regardless of gender, but that’s not my main point today. The bigger problem here is that one example for the conclusion is chosen, where-as many well known counter examples are ignored. For example, as many have reported Abbott once said this:

“‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up, every year…’”

On this face of it this is a very sexist comment. Now it might be possible for Flint to suggest that this statement is misused if taken as evidence of sexism (perhaps it was sarcasm?) but instead of considering this evidence it is ignored. Thus, we see Flint’s argument relies on selecting examples which fit the conclusion.

The second instance I want to note today is that Flint suggests that Abbott is a sensitive and compassionate person and cites as evidence of this his discussion of Christopher Pearson. However, other public statements from Abbott such as repeated statements to “turn the boats back” (eg) suggest otherwise, or at least that his compassion are not universal. again instead of taking  this evidence seriously as a potential counter example Flint simply ignores it.

In order to support a conclusion all relevant evidence must be considered and the author of this piece hasn’t done so. By selecting evidence which supports a prior conviction and ignoring well known counter examples the author fails to support their conclusions.

with love