I’ve come across the Argument From Analogy all too often and most recently I’ve see it in the form of, “if X is not responsible for the actions of a subset of X, then Y shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of a subset of Y.” A classic Argument From Analogy — the idea being, of course, that there’s some general principle that can be inferred from one case that will apply to another case. In this particular example, X and Y share two analogical properties for the purposes of the argument — both are defined as a group in some way and both have a subset of members acting out of accordance with the majority. To be specific, X is the religion of Islam and Y is “Gamergate.” I’m loathed to have to explain Gamergate, but a summation for the purposes of this piece might be: “A collection of people online who say they campaign for ethics in games journalism but also have associations to people who are directly threatening some female game developers and female commentators with rape, violence, misogyny and various other types of abuse.” The Gamergaters argue from analogy when they say that if one doesn’t hold the entirety of Islam responsible for the acts of terror perpetrated by a tiny minority, then one ought not hold them responsible for the acts of terror perpetrated by what they say is a tiny minority of their population.
Now that we have some basics laid out, let’s step back a bit and just look at the Argument From Analogy and see how it can be problematic. I think a good way to do this is to look at the critique of the Argument From Design (also known as “The Teleological Argument,” and more recently as “Intelligent Design”). The Argument From Design posits the existence of a creator (god) through an Argument From Analogy — some may be familiar with the notion of the watch and watchmaker. The argument goes: when we see a watch, in all its intricate complexity, we infer that this watch has not come to be by accident — it has clearly been designed to function in a particular way. And in understanding that it has been designed, we then must also infer that it has had a designer. The watch is then used in an analogy comparing it to the universe and it is argued the universe displays at least as much intricate complexity as a watch does, so it follows by analogy that the universe has been designed and has a designer (god).
Scottish philosopher David Hume famously attacked the Argument From Design on a number of fronts, but the one we are interested in is the strength of the Argument From Analogy. Wikipedia has an adequate enough piece on this:
He points out that for an argument from analogy to be successful, the two things that are being compared have to have an adequate number of similarities that are relevant to the respect you are analogizing them with. For example, a kitten and a lion may be very similar in many respects, however just because a lion makes a “roar” it would not be correct to infer a kitten also made a “roar”, because the similarities between the two objects are not similar enough and the degree of relevance to what sound they make is not relevant enough. Hume then argues that the universe and a watch also do not have enough relevant or close similarities to infer that they were both created the same way. For example, the universe is made of organic natural material however the watch is made of artificial mechanic materials.
This is known as the logical fallacy of the Argument From Weak Analogy. As the Fallacy Files piece points out, no analogy is perfect because in order to be so the two things being compared need to be so similar as to be indistinguishable — that is, a perfect analogy ceases to be an analogy and instead becomes a matter of identity (A = A). So, no Argument From Analogy can be perfect, however, some may be adequate enough to sustain the point being argued. Furthermore, even the most dissimilar things can likely be found to share some characteristics — however esoteric that connection might be.
Now, the question for the case of the Argument From Analogy put forward by the Gamergaters is: how strong is the analogy between the religion of Islam with its 1.5 billion adherents and Gamergaters and their few thousand (at best?) advocates? The answer is — not very strong at all. So weak, in fact, that the argument can not be sustained. For one, there’s a great deal of difference between someone’s religious identity and someone’s identity as a “Gamergater” — to pretend that the two are of equal import to the individual is disingenuous. The notion that someone might leave their religion because of the actions of a small percentage of adherents is unrealistic, but the notion that one might disassociate one’s self from a relatively small campaigning group because of the actions of a supposedly small percentage is not. Personally, if I was associated with a group seeking a goal and that group’s existence engendered extremely bad behavior in some, then I would certainly consider disassociating myself with said group if no means were forthcoming to negate that effect. Second, the scale is completely different in the two cases — it’s unrealistic to hold 1.5 billion responsible for thousands, but it’s far more realistic to hold thousands responsible for the actions of dozens or hundreds. That is, policing a community of 1.5 billion for extreme actions is far more difficult than policing a community of a few thousand for extreme actions. The complexity of the notion of a religious identity and the complexity of policing a community of 1.5 billion people are reduced to simplistic terms in order to make the comparison with the Gamergate identity and the Gamergate community seem reasonable.
Furthermore, there are a great number of differences between the undesirable element in Islam and the undesirable element in Gamergate. In Islam, there is an entire history behind the creation, nurturing and outward promotion of a sect known as Wahhabism by, primarily, the Saudis. There is a great deal of financing and other support by the Saudis that goes into this world view. In contrast, the undesirable element of Gamergate has no similar historical context of support by a powerful benefactor. That is, there are causes in relation to Islam that are, at least, partly responsible for the presence of this undesirable element that have no analogous counterparts in Gamergate. To expect the same level of responsibility to exist within both communities does not follow — powerful forces are at work with regard to that particular aspect of Islam, but that is not so for Gamergate. In short, the “foe” is of an all together different nature in the two cases, so one might reasonably expect that Gamergaters have the power to do something about their bad element while not expecting the same of Islam.
Also, there’s a historical divide in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This deep divide helps fuel factional behavior that stokes the fires of the more radical element. Gamergate has no analogous fundamental ideological divide, thus their more radical element is not fueled in this way. To suggest, as the Argument From Analogy employed by Gamergate does, that the two elements are on par ignores the current reality of Islam as well as its historical context. To posit that the difficulty Gamergater’s have in dealing with their undesirable element is on par with the similar issue Islam has to deal with is nonsensical and blind to the wider context.
So, there are far too many fundamental differences between the two communities (size and the nature of the kind of identity each represents) as well as other historical and power relationships that make the analogy too weak to sustain the overall argument. How someone views the relationship between Islam and its undesirable elements can not constrain or inform on how one can view Gamergate’s relationship to its undesirable elements.
Arguments From Analogy are very dangerous — they have a high degree of rhetorical punch. That is, humans like to compare things and see similarities — extract general principles from specifics and then import them into different situations. One could even say we are hard wired to do so. This is a valuable trait much of the time, but it is also a trap waiting to corrupt our reason. Analogies are wonderful descriptive devices — they are excellent to use as a “hook” into a subject in order to get someone to understand the gist of a concept or new idea. However, as a prescriptive device (an argument for something) they can easily misfire logically but still maintain that high degree of rhetorical punch — that is, when wrong they can quite often still be convincing to a large number of people. I try to avoid using analogies as arguments. Descriptors, explanatory tools, etc. — yes, but not as standalone arguments. If your only argument is from analogy, then it would be wise to first see if you can find another argument. If not, then it will warrant immediate and close scrutiny to ensure you are not committing the fallacy of Argument From A Weak Analogy. The world doesn’t need another illusory watchmaker.
Last week saw Crimestopers UK launch a new campaign with the intention of alerting the public to the smell and signs of cannabis grow houses in the neighbourhood. One of the features of the campaign is a scratch and sniff card that when activated supposedly gives off the smell of growing cannabis. Also on the card are other signs the public should be on the lookout for in order to identify cannabis grow houses:
Crimestoppers came under almost immediate criticism on social media for the campaign and it is fair to say the majority of reactions were mocking and/or damning. Under the barrage of criticism and questions, Crimestoppers asserted that they are an independent non-judgemental charity, which works to pass anonymous information from the public to the police, and that their campaign is designed to target organized crime and not individuals. When I pointed out to them that their campaign was clearly making judgements by choosing to elicit specific types of information from the public they responded by defining their notion of non-judgemntal (my emphasis):
We are apolitical; we do not comment on government policy, or the police and we do not judge our callers, or anybody in the criminal justice sector. We only do what we are good at: receiving information anonymously from members of the public to pass on to the police to solve crimes.
Clearly they are doing more than this with the #weedthesigns campaign. They do have a section where they outline core activities which includes, “Help to reduce crime by running projects and campaigns in communities most affected by crime.” And I presume they deem this campaign to fall under that rubric as they are distributing the cards in targeted areas where the police have identified grow house concentrations in their report on cannabis cultivation (.pdf): UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis 2012. I’ll come back to this document later, but suffice it to say that it is prepared by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and, “…is the third UK-wide assessment of the scale and nature of, and the response of law enforcement to, this problem since 2008.”
At the very least, I think Crimestoppers need to rework their notion of non-judgemental because they are clearly doing more than, “receiving information anonymously” when they run campaigns. They attempted to compartmentalize the two activities when I critiqued them on this point, but I find that attempt wholly unconvincing given that there is no public identification of various “arms” of the institution — there is simply Crimestoppers UK and its “core activites.”
Furthermore, when pressed on the source of funding for the campaign, Crimestoppers UK disclosed that it is paid for by their law enforcement partners. So, we have the police using a so called independent charity as the public face for a police funded campaign. Again, that seems to violate the notion of Crimestoppers UK as non-judgemental and apolitical. A cynic might conclude that the police used Crimestoppers UK as the “front” of this campaign in a manner similar to that of a human shield — that is, knowing the kind of ridicule and critique the campaign would engender they chose to run it through a seemingly independent charity so as to deflect the critique from themselves.
In the first piece I wrote for this blog, Why I Feel Sorry For Peter Hitchens, I argued that the enforcement of unjust/inconsistent/widely unheeded laws can lead to disrespect for the law as a whole (including those that enforce it). Crimestoppers UK, in associating themselves with the police on this issue as the the public face of this campaign, have now also felt some of that same disrespect through the feedback generated by social media. To be clear, I assume Crimestoppers UK motives to be of the best intentions and I have no issues with the general notion of a conduit through which the public can anonymously pass information to police, but they also seemingly accept whatever the police pass onto them as prima facie true and without much, or any, critical reflection.
It might be helpful to just take a step back for a moment and look at why the campaign received the type of reaction that it did:
- There is a general and growing impatience with prohibition, particularly in relation to cannabis, in the mind of the public and with the failed “drug war” tactics that have been employed over the last 40 years — and the public see this campaign as the continuation of that policy and tactics.
- In distributing a scratch and sniff card with the aroma of growing cannabis the campaign does not distinguish between small personal grows and the intended target of organized crime’s grows. Cannabis smells the same whether grown by organized crime or a person growing it to alleviate health problems.
- Commercial grows employ methods to eliminate the odours of growing cannabis through carbon filtration of the exhausted air. Again, leaving the small personal grower in the campaign’s sights.
- There is a large demand for cannabis in the public and seeking to disrupt the supply is not popular with those who wish to consume it.
- There is a large variety of people involved with production and use of cannabis and the campaign is too broad stroked, so it ends up painting all those involved as “bad people” or associates of organized crime.
- The smell of growing cannabis is not that dissimilar to that of it being consumed (particularly by vaporization) and those unfamiliar with the smell are likely to confuse it with the smell of simple consumption — putting the consumer in the sights of the campaign.
- The campaign’s imagery includes hand guns seemingly growing out of flower pots alongside cannabis — setting up an association of the smell and signs on the card to that of violence, firearms and danger (more on this later).
- The campaign is likely to force more consumers into the hands of the black market and organized crime by scaring them away from growing their own supply — resulting in increased demand for the output of organized criminal enterprises.
So, a campaign that purports to target organized crime and the apparent concomitant harms that it can bring into neighbourhoods (firearms, violence, human trafficking, etc.) comes across as ill focused and likely to target those it says it wishes to exclude. Furthermore, it swims upstream against the growing tide of public sentiment on the issue and paints all those associated with cannabis in a negative light. How did Crimestoppers UK end up running such an ill defined campaign? The answer seems to be the information the police provided to them and their uncritical acceptance of it as true, correct and substantiated.
Let me just be clear here and establish that there is no doubt that organized crime is involved in cannabis production — it would be foolish to think otherwise — prohibition attracts organized crime like picnics attract ants. And there is no doubt that organized crime can bring with it violence and firearms — to what degree and the overall percentage of those involved so equipped will depend on the types of “organization,” the level of risk and reward as well as many other factors, I’m sure. However, when talking about such matters it’s of utmost importance that there is hard data available to base assertions, decisions and campaigns upon — and this seems to be where things fell down for the #weedthesigns campaign.
In a statement (.pdf) produced by Crimestoppers UK after the critique they received on social media they state:
The imagery used on the cards and posters for this campaign show a gun growing from a cannabis plant. This reflects the fact that cannabis farms grow and fund serious organised crime including violent, gang-related crime and firearms. This is the key objective of our campaign and this has been emphasized throughout all our communications.
The attempt to frame the imagery simply as a depiction of how cannabis farms can fund organized crime seems a lot like an afterthought to justify it in light of the criticism — for instance, if the funding of organized crime is the core message why not show money growing from the pots and being picked by a gangster? I very much doubt that the average viewer of the imagery will think about it as described in the above quotation — the blunt takeaway message is that cannabis farms = guns. If one puts out imagery where guns are associated to the smell and sight of cannabis growing, then it is one’s responsibility to have the relevant statistics to back up such a vivid representation. The impression that will stick in the minds of the public is that the odour from the card is cannabis being grown and where cannabis is being grown firearms are present. This imagery associated to the odour is not intended to be subtle or nuanced — there is only one thing this will engender in the minds of the public — fear. And the hope is that this fear will lead to an increase in reports of cannabis farms:
One would assume that if you put out such imagery and also link it to the smell of cannabis, then you have the statistics ready to hand on the number of firearms recovered/encountered per cannabis growing operation. It would be a basic piece of due diligence to perform before you print up material and distribute it to the public, no? Well, it seems that the answer to that question is, indeed, a “no.” I have asked Crimestoppers UK several times to provide that data and the best they have done is to point out that some of their information for the campaign has come from the UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis 2012 (.pdf) document produced by ACPO that I mentioned earlier.
So, I’ll now turn to that document. It’s a reasonably detailed document covering commercial cannabis cultivation attempting to set out definitions of commercial cultivation, trends in production methodology and threats from organized crime groups (OCGs). In the foreword it talks about:
“…the continued threat from OCGs involved in the commercial cultivation of cannabis and related criminality such as burglary, human trafficking, kidnap, violence and the use of firearms.”
And the very next section (page, in fact) of the executive summary it continues:
The threat from the domestic commercial cultivation of cannabis in the UK is increasing. There has been an increase in robberies, burglaries and violence (including the use of firearms) linked to cannabis farms.
So, I think it’s quite easy to see where Crimestoppers UK arrived at the notion to use the imagery of guns growing next to cannabis in their campaign. Here we have two mentions of firearms, increases in violence and other types of crime all within the space of the first two pages of the document. Fair enough, this is a fairly robust document in terms of statistics, charts and graphs showing us the number of cannabis farms discovered over various timescales, the number of plants recovered, the number of farms per 100,000 population in the different regions of the UK, etc. Given all this information and that firearms were mentioned twice in the first two pages of the document, it should be a simple matter to include along with the total number of farms the number of farms where firearms were recovered or total number of firearms recovered overall from all farms. However, apart from those two prominent mentions at the beginning of the document firearms are curiously missing from mention in the rest of the document.
I find this odd since the quote above (and repeated in Crimestoppers UK campaign material) clearly makes the assertion that there is an increase in firearm usage linked to cannabis farms — in order to determine an increase there must be baseline statistics and current statistics from which to chart the change. There is no quantitative information given at all to say how large the increase is and what it has changed from. Even then, just to say “there is a 100% increase” is relatively meaningless without hard numbers because 1 firearm incident per 10,000 farms then increasing to 2 firearm incidents per 10,000 farms, for example, is a 100% increase but hardly significant. However, we are not even given such a loose percentage increase statistic — we are given no statistics whatsoever. Keep in mind, those quotes above are from the foreword and the executive summary — the second under the rubric of “Key Inference.” To give such prominent placement to these assertions and not back them with hard, verifiable statistics seems bizarre, to say the least.
I made two requests to the Hackney Metropolitan Police Service, when they entered the #weedthesigns discussion on Twitter, for the statistics on the number of firearms recovered/encountered per cannabis grow operation, but have been met with silence. These numbers must exist — I can’t imagine the police not documenting encountering/recovering firearms and the circumstances (at a cannabis farm) under which the incidents took place. We know the number of commercial cannabis farms is known from the ACPO report, so it’s simply a matter of producing the statistics on firearms encountered/recovered and doing some quick mathematics to arrive at a ratio of firearms per cannabis grow operation. That number would then give us a hard statistic on the prevalence of firearms associated with cannabis farms on which we could asses overall risk of firearm exposure to the communities where grow operations are located.
Until such time that the statistics are forthcoming the whole #weedthesigns campaign can only be seen as fear mongering — instilling fear in the public for purposes of engendering an increase in reports of possible cannabis farms. These are the tactics of an increasingly outmoded “drug war” era and the public have less and less tolerance for them as time goes by. People do need to be informed of risks, but that information needs to be based on evidence, statistics and sound reasoning — not vague assertions and frightening imagery.
Even if hard data emerges showing a substantial risk in communities from a significant increase in the prevalence of firearms associated with cannabis farms, the #weedthesigns campaign still needs a fair bit of work to clarify its message:
- It equivocates between an effect of cannabis and a harm created by prohibition:
Cannabis isn’t the harmless drug people often think it is. Organised crime gangs that grow it can bring crime, violence and intimidation into a neighbourhood.
- And it borders on contradiction with the previous point when it goes on to say:
Gangs don’t want to draw attention to the houses or flats they use as farms. They’re often quiet and unassuming.
So, cannabis farms are “often quiet and unassuming” and they also “bring crime, violence and intimidation into a neighbourhood.” Which is it? To be fair, the quote does say “can bring crime, violence and intimidation…” — but that’s exactly the point that needs hard statistical evidence to back it up — what’s the probability ? It seems to suggest it’s low if we are to take the “often quiet and unassuming” point seriously. The message just isn’t clear — and that’s because the campaign, as a whole, uses an appeal to fear as its driving force. As long as you’re frightened enough of the possible implications (guns, violence, intimidation, etc.) you won’t spend time looking at the details — you’ll just accept the assertions and comply by reporting every instance where you smell something similar to the aroma on the card.
I had what looked to be, at one point, a promising exchange with the Hackney Metropolitan Police in relation to their Operation Hawk and the numbers of firearms recovered on site at cannabis farms during the operation. They (and other services running the operation) had been tweeting running statistics over the two days of the operation on the number of searches, arrests, cannabis farms uncovered, etc., so it seemed reasonable to get the stats on the number of firearms recovered from the cannabis farms. At one point they tweeted the total number of farms uncovered was twelve, so I asked for the statistics on the number firearms recovered from those farms — they chose to use that request to highlight the firearm recoveries, from the operation as a whole, to all of their followers by beginning their response tweet with “Hi” and then my twitter handle. This is a little bit underhand in that no context is supplied (my request for the data specifically about farms) as well as a bit opportunistic — they could have easily provided the information to their followers in a stand alone tweet without turning our exchange into a platform to simply promote their operation’s results. Not a big deal, I suppose — more of an etiquette thing, but still somewhat transparent. The important thing was that I had an offer to supply the actual statistics I am interested in after I clarified I was after the numbers on the firearms recovered from the farms.
Well, a day went by and the operation had concluded, but no reply was forthcoming after the offer to get the numbers for me. So, I prompted them with another tweet reminding them I was still waiting and requested the number for the total of thirty-four farms the now complete operation had uncovered. I was told they were very busy operationally and they would respond when they could. Three days of silence went by, so I did my own research looking through the #OpHawk tweets and the write ups of the various searches and found that every mention of a firearm recovery had not been at a cannabis farm. That is, they were from dealer locations where class A drugs were found or in other circumstances. So, I sent another tweet telling them what I had done and that the number appeared to be zero and to correct me if I was wrong. I also mentioned they might see zero firearms as good news and to say publically that no firearms were found at the thirty-four cannabis farms might be okay. Their response was to point me to their page on Freedom Of Information requests if I required any additional information. In short, they aren’t going to fulfill their two offers to provide the information short of a Freedom Of Information request. I ended by pointing out that they were very freely disseminating information when it suited their purposes, but now that there appears to have been zero firearms located at thirty-four cannabis farms — which runs counter to their desired narrative and the #weedthesigns campaign — they have decided to clam up and require a FOI request for any further disclosure on the subject.
It’s a shame. Instead of spreading fear the police and Crimestoppers should be disseminating actual factual information. That there appears to have been no firearms recovered from thirty-four cannabis farms is good news — it can only not been seen as good news if there is some agenda or narrative to protect and this fact runs counter to that purpose.
UPDATE (June 2014):
They’re back! Guess they figured if they laid low for a year the laughter and mocking will have died down and they can finally get rid of the huge stack of unused scratch ‘n sniff cards. Can ya #weedthesigns again? Well, can ya?
I thought it might be a good idea to talk about a methodological principle that can be prescribed positively — that is, instead of looking at a fallacy or error in reasoning it might be nice to look at a way to approach an argument that maximizes its rationality.
Many people upon first encountering the principle of charity assume it has something to do with giving to charity, being kind to those less fortunate or other types of charitable efforts. It really has nothing to do with those activities and I’ll leave one’s involvement in such things up to the individual reader. The term “charitable,” as used in the principle of charity, refers to being charitable towards an other’s assertions or arguments when first encountering and assessing them. The simplest way to define this notion is to say that being charitable is actively seeking to maximize the rationality of another’s arguments. This may seem like an odd idea at first glance since many times we seek to do exactly the opposite. That is, many times we encounter arguments or assertions we disagree with — sometimes vehemently — and we are actively seeking to argue against them or discredit them. The principle of charity does not exclude us from critiquing arguments, positions or assertions, but it does require us to critique the strongest possible versions of these entities. Again, this may seem odd since it appears to be counterintuitive to find the strongest possible version of something and then proceed to attempt to find flaws, weaknesses and even show that it is fatally broken. However, in approaching our assessments of other’s arguments by utilizing the principle of charity we actually make our analysis much stronger and less likely to rebuttal.
A common effective and procedurally sound methodology when arguing is to anticipate your interlocutor’s response or objection before he or she can actually articulate said objection. So, if you can say something like, “it may be tempting to counter that my proposal of ‘X’ is invalid because of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’, but neither is relevant here for the following reasons…” then you can make your case and deal with objections to it in one statement. In essence, if you can put yourself in the position of your opponent, then you can anticipate his or her next move and counter it even before it is made. This is a very powerful way to argue and shows you have a full understanding of the issues relevant to the argument.
The principle of charity takes this tactic one step further and states that we should seek to find objections to our opponent’s argument and actively seek to find responses to them. That is, we also work on behalf of our opponent’s argument when we are thinking of objections to it — we find an objection, think what might be a counter to it, then think what might be argued against that counter and so on. In this way we are able to discover what the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument will look like — we seek to resolve contradictions, clarify terms, eliminate fallacies and understand as best as possible the point that is being made. Once we have done this we should have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument.
Once we have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument we can then move forward with a critique. One of the advantages of working this way is that we may now find that what we thought was a weak, incorrect or absurd notion is actually very strong, reasonable and rational. That is, we may find the argument has no substantive weaknesses and therefore it is our position that needs to change. In short, we may find we are wrong. It may be that the original version of the argument was simply put in such a poor manner that it appeared weak or absurd, but once we have worked it through to its strongest possible version we find that this is no longer the case. This is advantageous because we have avoided a likely long drawn out argument that would end with this realization anyway. Also, we have gone from a position of incorrectness to a position which is more correct — in short, we’ve learned something and altered our view based upon that knowledge. This can only be seen as a negative if we care about winning more than we care about correctness, rationality, knowledge, understanding, etc.
Assuming we find that the strongest version of our opponent’s argument still has weaknesses, then we can move forward with a critique of that version of the argument. Again, we save time because we do not need to go through a long drawn out process of argumentation with our interlocutor; instead, we can “cut to the chase” and show how even if we concede the best possible case to our opponent that it is still not good enough to stand up to our objections. In this way we leave very little room for our opponent to maneuver as we have covered the available rebuttals and positions already ourselves. Of course, it is conceivable our interlocutor is able to find new ground in something we may not have considered, but we have still greatly simplified and clarified the process of argumentation by covering most of the ground ourselves.
When arguing our aim should be to reach a maximal point of understanding — even if that means we find our position is weaker than first anticipated. I hold a very strong opinion that if the principle of charity were widely known and regularly utilized we could eliminate the great majority of poor arguments, “flame wars,” enmities and “shouting matches” that tend to be the hallmark of our human interactions when we disagree. In short, if we cared more about finding the best positions, the “most truth” and maximizing rationality instead of simply being concerned with winning and feeling victorious, then real substantive conflict could be avoided. From the link I posted above:
This attitude, if maintained, frees the conditioned mind and enables it to absorb and understand the new.
It’s difficult at times and everyone is susceptible to putting forward an uncharitable characterization of a view or argument in order to refute it because, well — it’s easy. The less charitable you are to an opponent the easier it is to appear to undermine, counter, refute or even mock, ridicule and belittle his or her argument — to put it bluntly, because you are being less than fair. It’s the kind of thing children tend to do because they are generally more concerned with winning than being fair. But we all fall under the spell of uncharitable interpretations at times — sometimes consciously and sometimes not. In short, we can all do better at adhering to the principle of charity — myself included, of course. So, next time you hear an argument, position or opinion you disagree with try to first see what the best possible case for it might look like and base your reply upon that best case. In the vast majority of instances you’ll come away with a better understanding and a better argument in the end.
A fairly recent development in the online world is the creation of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. These are university level courses provided by university professors and staff for free to the public over the internet. I found out about this new development a few months ago and have completed one course offered by the University Of Toronto on introductory programming in Python via Coursera and have a second course close to completion on interactive programming in Python offered through Coursera by Rice University. I’m also working my way through another course from Harvard University, a general introduction to computer science, offered through a different outfit called Edx.
Some courses will provide a certificate of completion if you complete and pass the course (different criteria depending on course). The certificate holds no official status or weight in terms of accreditation from the institutions, but would be something worth a resume or C.V. mention, at least. The main advantage is that you get the opportunity to learn material from university professors and institutions as they would teach to their fee paying students — for free! Lectures are provided each week via video recordings and different forms of evaluation are possible from machine testing (computer grading) to peer review.
Given the recent interest in my piece on slippery slope arguments, thanks to a Tweet from Stephen Fry pointing to it, I thought it might be helpful to mention a MOOC that has just started a week ago on reason and argumentation through Coursera — “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” I’m not enrolled in the course, so I can’t speak to the specifics, but a cursory glance shows that it resembles most introductory university level courses on the subject given through Philosophy departments. For those who might wish to increase their understanding of the subjects of fallacies, reason and argumentation it looks to be well worth the time and effort.
There are lots of good books and websites (see: The Fallacy Files and Your Logical Fallacy Is ) on critical thinking, logic and fallacies, but unfortunately there’s still widespread ignorance of such things. So, I think it’s always a good idea to discuss common errors in reasoning with a view to explaining why they are errors.
The “Slippery Slope” is one of the most frequently misused and misunderstood argument forms — because those who employ it believe it to be a strong argument form when it is, in fact, the exact opposite. It’s a commonly used phrase and most who use it are attempting to show that if one does “A” then a chain of events will occur which will eventually lead to the undesirable result “D”, for example. The imagery is quite simple: by initiating “A” one has stepped out onto the top of a steeply angled and slippery incline, so one will slide from the top of the incline all the way to the bottom without being able to stop — and at the bottom lies the undesirable outcome (“D” in our example). Therefore, by initiating “A” one has really set a course for “D” because “A” leads to “D” and we can’t stop that journey once we’ve begun. So, the only way to avoid ending up at “D” is to not initiate “A.” Here’s a little graphic:
As we can see, “A” leads straight down the slope to “D” passing through the two intermediate points of “B” and “C” — we’ve slid right from the top to the bottom without being able to stop. This would be all well and good if the chance of going from “A” to “B” is 100% and the chance of going from “B” to “C” is 100% and from “C” to “D” is 100%. In short, if each link in the chain is a certainty. In that case we would have something known as a hypothetical syllogism or “chain argument” in logic. The reason for the name “chain argument” should be fairly obvious: each step (“A”, “B”, “C”, etc.) can be likened to a link in a chain and as long as each link is at 100% strength, then the chain itself will be at 100% strength. So, as long as each step is certain, then we can be certain that if we begin at “A” then it is certain we will end up at “D” — we can be certain of sliding right to the bottom of the slope.
Where the Slippery Slope quickly weakens is when there is not certainty that each link in the chain will occur — where there is only a probability that one or more links will follow on from the previous link. Let’s take a look at another graphic:
Here we have an example of a Slippery Slope where the transition from “B” to “C” gets a bit sticky and there is only a 70% chance that getting to “B” means proceeding on to “C.” See what that does to the final chance of arriving at “D” now? In the previous graphic each link was 100% certain, so we could go right from “A” to “D” knowing there was a 100% chance of getting to “D” from “A.” Now we can only be 70% certain that if we initiate “A” that it will result in “D.” That is, 3 times out of 10 doing “A” will not lead to “D” as a result. One might be tempted to think those are still pretty good odds, but that is simply one flaw in one link — let’s look at what happens when there are flaws in more than one link. Here’s another graphic:
We now have a situation where each link in the chain has only a 70% chance of leading to the next link — see what that has done to the chance of ending up at “D” now? The weaknesses are cumlative: meaning that each time there is less than certainty the diminished chance acts on the previously diminished chance quickly weakening the overall chance of ending up at the bottom of the slope. Now we have a situation where two thirds of the time we will not end up at the bottom of the slope — two thirds of the time “D” does not occur. Add in more links and the final chance will plummet further. This is a fairly simple example with only four links at quite a high probability of 70% — imagine what happens to an argument with six, ten, fifty or over one hundred links — a common characteristic of most slippery slope arguments is that the starting point is far removed from the undesirable end point.
The crucial point to understand is — Slippery Slope arguments are inherently weak arguments. When someone argues using a Slippery Slope they are using a very suspect methodology that should never be accepted at face value. One always needs to look at the number of potential links in the slope and the likeliness of each link occurring. Most times when someone is using a Slippery Slope argument they are attempting to dissuade the initiation of an action by arguing the inevitability of a resultant undesirable situation — they are generally not employing a hypothetical syllogism (“chain argument”) and therefore the outcome is not certain — only probable. That means that it’s very unlikely a given Slippery Slope situation will be inevitable — and if it is found to be, then it’s a hypothetical syllogism. Some may, indeed, prove to be highly likely — but a Slippery Slope always needs to be carefully examined.
Often times the arguer also ignores the fact that we can frequently choose to stop our slide down the slope by exercising our will to choose as individuals and societies — we can set limits to certain actions in law and by social convention. The arguer’s aim is to present a situation where real choice is taken out of the equation in order to simplify the argument down to a forced binary choice of initiating “A” or not initiating “A.” By presenting the argument as if there is no real choice, no braking point on the slope, the arguer seeks to strengthen the overall argument by forcing a false dichotomy — an artificially limited choice between the two alternatives of: “A” which means not avoiding “D” or “Not A” which means avoiding “D.“ In the vast majority of cases, the situation is much more subtle and nuanced — and when someone argues in such a way to grossly simplify the situation you should be wary that it is because complexity, nuance and careful consideration hurts his or her case. In short, the arguer is pulling a fast one in order to hide inadequacies in the overall argument.
So, next time someone says something like, “But that would put us on a slippery slope to…” understand it’s probably quite unlikely and almost definitely not a certainty. At the very least, when you hear the phrase you should be aware that a careful examination of the case is immediately warranted.
EXAMPLE: Interestingly, just hours after I posted this there was a good example on UK Channel 4 News of an appeal to a Slippery Slope in a piece discussing gun control in the US in the wake of the Aurora shootings (at 2:55):
The arguer states that, “it [gun control] is a Slippery Slope once you start down that path taking away our freedoms.” Imagine how many intermediate steps there could conceivably be between initiating some form of stricter gun control (e.g. simply banning large magazines as is suggested in the video) and the end point of “taking away our freedoms” — then consider the example above with only four stages in the slope and how quickly it weakens. The arguer attempts to end the discussion before it starts by making it seem that if we take even the tiniest measure of gun control, then the state will end up “taking away freedoms” wholesale. He also ignores the fact that society can choose to draw the line where it wishes (put the brakes on at any point on the slope) and, for example, control the availability of weaponry but not remove rights to free speech, assembly, etc. Or, simply control the availability of certain types of weaponry and ammunition without banning all weapons outright.
Another political protest by Canadians flared up on Twitter this weekend under the hashtag of #DenounceHarper. This weekend was Canada’s birthday holiday celebration of Canada Day (July 1st), and among the cheery tweets by the people emerged a strong trend in telling Prime Minister Stephen Harper what they think about him — it was not pretty. Harper’s administration has had a growing authoritarian bent to it doing things like proroguing parliament (twice) when things looked difficult, silencing/intimidating scientists on environmental matters, planning an internet snooping regime, planning an airport snooping regime by recording all conversations taking place, stifling political debate in the house and forcing through legislation, etc. In short, a lot of authoritarian/undemocratic things. Take a look at the hashtag #DenounceHarper for a nice snippet of the political mood in Canada right now.
Could something like #DenounceCameron take off in the UK as an outlet for displeasure with the current government and its leadership?
Just a quick post to outline a twitter protest technique used to great effect recently by Canadians. A couple of months ago Canadians were faced with the introduction of bill C-30 which proposed greatly expanding online surveillance and relaxing rules about access to the data resulting from said surveillance. Canadians responded on Twitter by tweeting to the minister responsible for the bill, Vic Toews, under the hashtag of #TellVicEverything. They did not tweet their direct opposition to the bill; but rather, they acquiesced to the notion of intrusive surveillance by incessantly tweeting inane personal details about themselves to the minister under the hashtag #TellVicEverything. They gave the minister a taste of information overload and also highlighted the absurdity of such intrusive measures. The hashtag trended heavily for a couple of days and the Twitter activity really enabled the mainstream media to come onto the story forcefully. It was also a good opportunity for humour with tweets like, “I lost an email from my work account yesterday. Can I get your copy?” The government has now stepped back and is “considering amendments” — the bill has proceeded no further than its initial reading.
I believe that the people of the U.K. should now respond to the government’s recent suggestion of similar intrusive internet surveillance in a similar manner. We can tweet to @Number10Gov under the hashtag of #TellDaveEverything letting Dave know all of our mundane personal details. Good natured and good humoured is the trick — #TellDaveEverything with cheer, wit and humour. Let him know how absurd and ineffective such measures are.