Adventures in Ethics and Science

Argumentation: FAIL.

One of the big things philosopher-types like to do with their students is work on extracting arguments from a piece of text and reconstructing them. This can be useful in locating sources of disagreement, whether they be specific premises or inferences.

But some chunks of text that seem like they ought to have arguments that can be extracted and reconstructed end up being … opaque.

For example, this question and answer between Katie Couric and Sarah Palin (transcript by way of Shakesville):

Couric [on tape]: Why isn’t it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with healthcare, housing, gas, and groceries–allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy–instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

Palin [on tape]: That’s why I say, I, like every American I’m speaking with, we’re ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bailout. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are [glances down] concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed [glances down] to help shore up our economy. [glances down] Helping the–oh, it’s got to be about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So healthcare reform [glances down] and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief [glances down] for Americans, and trade we’ve–we’ve got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, um, scary thing, but 1 in 5 jobs being created in the trade sector today. We’ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout [is a part of that].

Unless I’m mistaken, asking one’s students to reconstruct the argument in Palin’s response would be seen as an unfair question — and rightly so. You’d likely receive responses like this:

To Prove: It is not better to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with healthcare, housing, gas, and groceries–allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy–instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess.

Proof

1. Healthcare reform is needed to shore up our economy. (premise)
2. Job creation is needed to shore up our economy. (premise)
3. One in five jobs created today are created in the trade sector. (premise)
4. Taxpayer money will fund the $700 billion bailout. (implicit premise)
5. Reducing taxes has got to accompany tax reductions. (tautology)
6. ???? (modus ponens?)
7. Job creation is trade is healthcare reform is tax relief. (constructive dilemma??)
8. Therefore, bailing out the big financial institutions is no worse than spending $700 billion helping middle-class families. (something here about “completeness”?)

The puppy has never been sadder.

Comments

  1. #1 Jared
    September 26, 2008

    I can honestly say that the “[glances down]” part really hits me. Wasn’t she supposed to be educated in journalism? I may have only sat in on a few (ok, quite a few) mass comm courses, but I know one thing you shouldn’t do is break eye contact to look at a sheet of paper WHILE you’re talking about it. It looks unprofessional and makes it look like you don’t know your own arguments. Whether she knows them or not is irrelevant, she appears to not know them.
    I do, however, notice one thing she does: she uses simple sentences in paragraphs that are only slightly more vacuous than Anselm’s ontological argument.

  2. #2 Neuro-conservative
    September 26, 2008

    Janet — I am disappointed that you would prefer a plagiarist for VP.

  3. #3 hip hip array
    September 26, 2008

    Well, we probably don’t have to fear that the effluvia quoted above was plagiarized, or ever will be. Moosellini remains a bad joke.

  4. #4 Donalbain
    September 26, 2008

    5. Reducing taxes has got to accompany tax reductions. (tautology)
    6. ???? (modus ponens?)

    7 Profit!!

  5. #5 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 26, 2008

    A plagiarist as opposed to a moron? That’s not a terribly difficult choice.

  6. #6 Colin Caret
    September 26, 2008

    Neuro, I didn’t see an endorsement of Biden anywhere in this post.

  7. #7 S. Rivlin
    September 26, 2008

    Colin,

    Conservatives tend to read into the unmentioned. If Janet compares Palin to a sad puppy, that must indicate that she prefers a plagiarist.

    I would appreciate an attempt by Janet to extract arguments from Neuro-conservative’s text and reconstruct them.

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    September 26, 2008

    I can see some clarifications are in order.

    This blog does not endorse any presidential or vice presidential candidates.

    A criticism of one candidate does not amount to endorsement of another (especially given that, on my ballot anyway, there are more than two choices for president and vice president).

    I’m against both incoherent argumentation *and* plagiarism. Anyone who would like to email me examples of major political candidates committing plagiarism in the last 8 years for me to blog about is invited to do so. (I’m setting the 8 year time frame so that there’s a chance of me being semi-topical and bringing new insight. Also, I’d like to entertain the possibility that people who have been called out for bad behaviors like plagiarism can maybe learn from their mistakes and figure out how to play by the rules going forward.)

    I’m comparing *myself* to the sad puppy. This logic makes *me* sad.

    I hope that clears things up.

  9. #9 Robert Bird
    September 26, 2008

    Why should logic play a part in choosing which Presidential candidate to vote for? I thought we were supposed to elect the one with the most compelling fantasies, and imagine real hard until reality stops being so mean.

  10. #10 PhysioProf
    September 28, 2008

    Palin is a complete fucking nightmare. What is really pissing me off right now is the tendency for all legitimate criticism of Palin’s complete incompetence for the job of Vice President–let alone President were McCain to die in office–and extremist far-right-wing woman-hating racist theocratic views to be dismissed as sexism.

    McCain chose her for a number of reasons. One is that she will appeal to the sickest-fuck far-right-wing theocratic racist woman-haters at the base of the GOP.

    Another is that she provides an opportunity for a nice little right-wing GOP ratfuck: women got shafted by sexism when Clinton lost to Obama, and women will get shafted by sexism again if McCain loses to Obama.

    A third is that she provides an opportunity for GOP operatives to deflect legitimate criticism of her utter incompetence and deranged far-right-wing theocratic views by crying “sexism” every time they are pointed out. Anyone who watches the fake-ass “political analysis” theater on teevee sees this occurring all day every day.

  11. #11 Aaron Durst
    September 28, 2008

    You are suffering from the false belief that she is trying to prove the following “8. Therefore, bailing out the big financial institutions is no worse than spending $700 billion helping middle-class families…”. In fact, her argument rejects the implicit assumption in the question that rather than doing the bailout the government could just spend $700 billion helping middle class families spend on healthcare, housing, gas, and groceries.

    Instead, she is arguing that the nation needs the bailout so that the economy does not implode, and at the same time it is doing this, the government can cut taxes and spending so that middle class families have $700 billion extra to spend on healthcare, housing, gas, and groceries. In essence, her argument is that the government needs the bailout so that it can have both the bailout and the extra $700 billion for middle class families. Does she prove this argument or make it very well? No, but it would take an economics degree to explain the logic behind her argument. And even if she were able to make that argument, many economists would disagree with her and say that she is wrong.

  12. #12 Comrade PhysioProf
    September 28, 2008

    Dude, she wasn’t making any “argument” at all. She was just reciting a word salad of deranged right-wing economic talking points. She was gibbering.

  13. #13 synapse
    September 28, 2008

    @Aaron Durst: I did not extract that message from her words at all. Nowhere did she say, “The nation needs the bailout so that the economy does not implode,” which is not a complicated idea. Her answer strikes me as very similar to what people say when they only kind of understand English; they key into one or a few words in the question (like “healthcare” and “middle-class families”) and recite talking points that involve those words. I know Sarah Palin knows English, so it’s very disturbing that she can’t come up with a coherent answer to what is, after all, a question that she should have thought about and could have anticipated.

  14. #14 Jared
    September 29, 2008

    This is why I stated the “[glances down]” portions are so telling. She tried to hit on all of her talking points and it ended up a word salad which was unpalatable. She didn’t even seem capable of connecting her talking points. In a conversation, even a few sentences, it is possible to connect “bailout” with “healthcare” without it appearing like a third-grade essay on “what I did this summer.”
    Example:
    The bailout is necessary for healthcare due to the companies in question purchasing debt from major loans to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to retool and modify production equipment for new treatments as well as for companies to expand. Without these two companies being bailed out this time, liquidity in the loan market would evaporate.
    *note, I’m not saying it would, it’s just an example of a way these talking points could have been put together. I studied biology, and I knew that much about the bailout, why didn’t someone running for the second-most powerful position in the country know it?

  15. #15 Brandon
    September 29, 2008

    In fairness, I think Palin’s actual answer to Couric’s question is pretty clear: It’s not really better to spend it on the bailout, which is why people are justifiably angry, but it’s unfortunately necessary because…and then it all goes south, since she obviously has no clue why there should be a ‘but’ at all (Health care reform! Err…that doesn’t sound quite right. Something about shoring up the economy. Ah! Job creation! And health care reform!).

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