Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Queen for a Day (Part 11 of Fallacies)

Fallacies involve incorrect or invalid reasoning. Red herrings are a category of fallacy in which the response to an argument doesn’t address the argument, but rather offers a distraction from it. One class of red herrings consists of appeals to emotion, in which a given feeling is used as the evidence for or against a given proposition.

Argumentum Ad Misericordiam

“Would YOU like to be Queen for a day?”

The forerunner to today’s reality show epidemic, Queen for a Day, premiered as a radio show in 1945, only moving to television in 1956, and lasted until 1964. The format involved three different women talking about financial, health, or other emotionally gripping hard times they had recently experienced, and what they most needed to deal with it — medical care, therapeutic equipment, or a major appliance. An applause meter registered the level of sympathy, and the winner had her wish granted, along with other merchandise. (The runners-up also received prizes; no one went away empty handed.)

The appeal to pity (argumentum ad misericordiam) is a red herring fallacy because it doesn’t in itself prove or disprove the proposition at hand. The contestant with the worst problems or greatest need isn’t necessarily the one whose needs are greatest — the winner is the one most able to win the audience’s sympathy.

Pleading with the teacher for a better grade because an “F” means you can’t be on the football team doesn’t mean you deserve a better grade — but that’s not to say the appeal to pity isn’t effective, or that it’s automatically wrong to make or change a decision because of pity. As dustman-philosopher Alfred P. Doolittle so artfully argues in Pygmalion:
I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: 'You're undeserving; so you can't have it.' But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that's the truth.
He won’t win Queen for a Day, but it’s a fine argument nonetheless.

In the law, appeals to pity are not supposed to be made during the trial (though you can sneak it in if you can camouflage it as part of another argument), but they're completely appropriate during sentencing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ego Up Ego Down (Part 10 of Fallacies)

Within the world of red herrings, there’s a subcategory of appeals to emotion. (Red herrings are a category of fallacy in which the response to an argument doesn’t address the argument, but rather offers a distraction from it.) Some of the red herrings we’ve covered, such as an appeal to tradition or consequences, fall into this category. Unlike the ones we’ve covered already, these don’t have an official-sounding Latin title, just plain old English.

Appeal to Flattery

You, dear reader, are clearly someone whose interest in creativity, your orientation toward substantial accomplishment, and your bright shining intelligence is something I hold in awe.

You’re probably one of a very small number of people in the world capable of grasping my newest project management tool in all its ramifications. In capable hands — so terribly rare — these secrets make you unstoppable. People with only normal intelligence will surely fail.

For only twelve small payments of $19,999.99, you can be one of the select leaders of the project management community of the future. Don't you deserve it?

Call today.

Operators are standing by.

* * *

The appeal to flattery is also known as apple polishing and greasing the wheel. By inflating your ego, the arguer tries to implant the idea that if you don’t agree, it’s a sign of your stupidity, ignorance, cowardice, or some other unpleasant characteristic. Done too openly and too thick, it’s immediately transparent. Delivered more subtly, it can be difficult to resist.

Its opposite cousin, “pride and ego down,” is a formal technique used in military interrogation. Here’s the relevant section from Army Field Manual FM 2-22.3, the official guide for interrogators.

US Army Definition from FM 2-22.3 

8-45. (Interrogation) The emotional-pride and ego-down approach is based on attacking the source's ego or self-image. The source, in defending his ego, reveals information to justify or rationalize his actions. This information may be valuable in answering collection requirements or may give the [human intelligence] HUMINT collector insight into the viability of other approaches. This approach is effective with sources who have displayed weakness or feelings of inferiority. A real or imaginary deficiency voiced about the source, loyalty to his organization, or any other feature can provide a basis for this technique. 

8-46. The HUMINT collector accuses the source of weakness or implies he is unable to do a certain thing. This type of source is also prone to excuses and rationalizations, often shifting the blame to others. An example of this technique is opening the collection effort with the question, "Why did you surrender so easily when you could have escaped by crossing the nearby ford in the river?" The source is likely to provide a basis for further questions or to reveal significant information if he attempts to explain his surrender in order to vindicate himself. He may give an answer such as, "No one could cross the ford because it is mined." 

8-47. The objective is for the HUMINT collector to use the source's sense of pride by attacking his loyalty, intelligence, abilities, leadership qualities, slovenly appearance, or any other perceived weakness. This will usually goad the source into becoming defensive, and he will try to convince the HUMINT collector he is wrong. In his attempt to redeem his pride and explain his actions, the source may provide pertinent information. Possible targets for the emotional-pride and ego-down approach are the source's— 

o Loyalty. 
o Technical competence. 
o Leadership abilities. 
o Soldierly qualities. 
o Appearance. 

8-48. There is a risk associated with this approach. If the emotional-pride and ego-down approach fails, it is difficult for the HUMINT collector to recover and move to another approach without losing his credibility. Also, there is potential for application of the pride and ego approach to cross the line into humiliating and degrading treatment of the detainee. Supervisors should consider the experience level of their subordinates and determine specifically how the interrogator intends to apply the approach technique before approving the interrogation plan.

Often the two techniques are used together. An interrogator may flatter and build up the ego of a subject, only to turn around and belittle him, which often speeds the extent to which the subject works to justify and defend the behavior you want to learn about.

Of course, none of this would never work on you.

You’re way too smart.

Not to mention good looking.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Enemies List (Watergate, Part 2)

My occasional series tracing the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal began with the establishment of the Plumbers Unit on July 1, 1971. A little bit earlier, on June 24, 1971, came the very first version of what grew into the Nixon Enemies List. It wasn't originally part of the Watergate scandal, though, and only turned into a criminal action on August 16, 1971.

Over time, the Enemies List grew, eventually numbering 576 names (though a few were duplicates). The first version, known as the "Opponents List," consisted of a mere twenty names, in order of importance.

  1. Arnold Picker (United Artists)
  2. Alexander Barkan (AFL-CIO)
  3. Ed Guthman (LA Times)
  4. Maxwell Dane (Doyle, Dane and Bernbach)
  5. Charles Dyson (Dyson-Kissner Corporation)
  6. Howard Stein (Dreyfus Corporation)
  7. Allard Lowenstein (Nassau County congressman)
  8. Morton Halperin (Common Cause)
  9. Leonard Woodcock (UAW)
  10. Sterling Munro (AA to Sen. Jackson)
  11. Bernard Feld (Council for a Livable World)
  12. Sidney Davidoff (aide to Mayor Lindsay)
  13. John Conyers (Detroit congressman)
  14. Samuel Lambert (NEA)
  15. Stewart Rawlings Mott (Mott Associates)
  16. Ron Dellums (California congressman)
  17. Daniel Schorr (CBS)
  18. S. Harrison Dogole (Globe Security Systems)
  19. Paul Newman (actor, not yet a food manufacturer)
  20. Mary McGrory (WaPo columnist).

Discrediting, embarrassing, and distracting these people would become a central political objective of the Nixon administration.

That's not necessarily or automatically wrong. Identifying and fighting your political opponents is perfectly normal, and many tactics are perfectly legal and legitimate. Using the power of incumbency to harness the Federal government to attack them for you, however, is not.

The Enemies List entered the Watergate scandal on August 16, 1971, when White House counsel John Dean explained in writing what the list was for, and how it was to be used. Here's Dean:
"This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies." (Emphasis added.)
From that point on, it was a crime, and as such fell into the cover up, a project managed by John Dean. (Much of the Watergate cover up had little to do with the actual break-in, but rather trying to keep the lid on the many other illegal activities of the White House staff, most notoriously the Plumbers Unit.)

Strangely, it was Dean himself who first revealed the existence of the Enemies List during his marathon testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee. Daniel Schorr managed to get a copy of the list and read it on the air — unaware that he himself was on it until he came to his own name.

Interestingly, for all the political and moral fallout from the Enemies List, it turns out that nothing much actually happened on the "screw our political enemies front" that used Federal resources. The Congressional Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation concluded that people on the  list had not been subjected to an unusual number of tax audits.

Deep Throat famously told Bob Woodward that his opinion of the Nixon men was that the weren't that smart, and I suspect that's true. There's a Three Stooges quality about Watergate, a bunch of overprivileged rich kids playing at superspy intrigue and failing miserably. Being on the Enemies List didn't appear to hurt many of Nixon's enemies, but its revelation severely backfired on its creators.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Little. Yellow. Different. (Fallacies, Part 9)

Red herrings are responses to an argument that don’t address the substance of the argument — they’re distractions. This week we’ll look at two related red herrings: the appeal to tradition and the appeal to novelty.

Argumentum ad antiquitatem

Tycoon and inventor Alfred Lee Loomis is one of the most important 20th century scientists you’ve never heard of. A nephew of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, it was Loomis who was asked to review the famous Einstein letter suggesting that FDR investigate the fissionable properties of U-235 as a potential military weapon. Loomis, who knew Einstein well, said he thought it was a good idea.

During the First World War, Loomis worked at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and told stories about his time there. When working with a cannoneer unit, he was puzzled by one of the soldiers, who always walked about 50 paces in back of the rest of the company, and who stood stock-still for hours at a time with one arm slightly raised. Upon investigation, Loomis learned what the man was there for: he held the horses.

The horses were already gone by then, of course, but the soldier remained on duty. Why? It was tradition. There had always been someone delegated to do that job, so he remained.

The appeal to tradition, formally known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, is an argument that a proposition is true because it is in line with some tradition. It’s right because it’s always been that way.

This fallacy rests on two shaky assumptions:

  1. The old way of thinking or behavior was correct when it was introduced.
  2. Nothing materially has changed to alter it.

The argument against gay marriage, for example, rests primarily on the appeal to tradition: gays have not been permitted to marry in most cultures and time periods; therefore, gays should not be permitted to marry in this culture and in this time period. Arguments against blacks or women having full citizenship often rest on this particular fallacy as well.

Argumentum ad novitatem

The pain reliever Nuprin used to advertise its product in three words: “Little. Yellow. Different.” Of them, the third is the key. Nuprin, one is supposed to infer, is a superior pain reliever because it’s newer.

If it’s not necessarily true that traditional is better, neither is the reverse assumption a reliable guide to truth. The appeal to novelty, or argumentum ad novitatem, argues that a proposition is true simply because it’s new and modern.

Newer and more modern may indeed be superior. Next year’s computer will likely have more powerful features than last year’s. Software version 4.3 probably has fewer bugs than 4.2. The claim becomes a fallacy when the newness itself is the only argument being made for it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tension, Apprehension, and Dissension Have Begun (Fallacies, Part 8)

Red herrings confuse the issue by distracting you from the actual argument. From ad hominem attacks against the arguer to ad populum appeals to mass sentiment, they form a major subcategory of logical fallacies. Today, we’ll cover argumentum ad metum,  the appeal to fear.

Argumentum ad metum

FUD, “fear, uncertainty, and doubt,” is a marketing tactic that spreads negative information about a competitive product as a way of making it less desirable as an option. Former IBM executive Gene Amdahl (after starting his own competing company), described its use by his former company this way: “FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products.”

It used to be said, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” and if you can position yourself as the safe choice, it’s a very powerful argument indeed. The trouble it, it’s a logical fallacy, part of the “appeal to fear,” or argumentum ad metum (sometimes argumentum in terrorem).

It’s a traditional parental argument. “A Red Ryder BB Gun? You’ll shoot your eye out!” In politics, it’s “Vote for Candidate X and it’s the same thing as voting in a Communist dictatorship!” In school, it’s “If you don’t make good grades, you’ll never amount to anything in your life.”

Reduced to its logical form, the fallacy is clear:

  1. Either P or Q is true.
  2. Q is frightening.
  3. Therefore, P is true.

There are a few tricks to using the appeal to fear. First, fear appeals are “nonmonotonic.” That means the persuasiveness isn’t increased with the amount of fear. One study of public service messages about AIDS found that if the messages were too fearful, they were rejected. In addition, a persuasive appeal to fear has to provide you with a way to cope, an action you can take. Don’t buy that BB gun and you’ll keep both eyes. Make good grades and you’ll be sure to make a good living. Buy IBM, and you’ll never be fired.

But none of these is guaranteed.