Tag Archive | Rhetoric

Project Logicality | Moving Goalposts

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48Have you ever had a discussion with someone who never lets you convince them on some matter no matter the strength of the evidence? What’s going on when people, even perfectly sane, otherwise rational, and sincere people give excuse after excuse as to why the evidence and argument just isn’t ‘good enough’ to compel their assent no matter its truth or validity?

Note that it is easily possible to set the bar for evidence too low, but we can also make it impossible, or virtually so, to reach.

So here, I deal with a favored rhetorical tactic of cranks, pseudoscientists, grand conspiracy theorists, charlatans of all stripes, and yes, ordinary people in everyday discussion: the Moving Goalpost.

Most people are fairly closed-minded and find changing their stance on things uncomfortable. It takes good metacognitive skills, thinking about thinking, to correct this tendency.

The fallacy takes its name from an analogy with American football, in which the goalposts are always out of reach of whoever is carrying the ball, and continue to recede further still.

With this tactic, the more unreasonable the standard of proof for refuting or confirming the claim, the better. It involves either arbitrarily redefining one’s claims to put them conveniently out of reach of any disproof, or setting impossible standards from the very beginning.

The objective here is to avoid having to rescind whatever claims one is making, when one has a political, financial, personal, or ideological stake in a position. For some, no amount of evidence and reason is enough, and it shows in this use of rhetoric.

A couple of examples might be:

Show me just one experiment conducted in a lab on Earth that has ever created dark matter, directly measured gravity, manufactured a black hole, or generated controlled stellar fusion! Establishment Cosmology™ is silly, fallacious, and wrong!

This argument clearly sets impossible standards from the beginning.

It and what follows use a version of the “show me just one proof” gambit common among creationists and crank cosmology proponents (Sometimes those are one and the same!).

The next illustrates shifting standards of proof each time evidence is presented:

I want to see any example of a transitional species before I think evolution even remotely plausible! Just one!

Tiktaalik? Ambulocetus?

There are still gaps in the fossil record between those and what came before and after! Where’s the evidence for those??

You’ve filled in those gaps?

Now there are more gaps to fill! Fraud! Fake! Amoral evilutionist! Evolution is a sham!

It’s important to proportion to the claim just what criteria of evidence and logic you will accept, and to stick with that as your gold standard throughout. Set reasonable standards, then admit it and change your mind once those standards have been met.

Consistency might be called the bugaboo of small minds, but it’s what’s needed when assessing claims open-mindedly and rationally.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Project Logicality: What is Argumentation?

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in philosophy-related templates etc. Bust carved by Victor Wager from a model by Paul Montford, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post was originally published in 2011, and since then I’ve decided to give it new life and clear up difficulties in the text. I decided to use it once for the pilot entry of my current Project Logicality. I hope it adds to the online discussion of the virtues of reason despite the decidedly unreasonable tendencies of the human species.

What is it that I mean when I say ‘argument?’ When I use this term, I don’t mean quarrelsome bickering accompanied by yelling and screaming, nor do I mean a mere shadow of an argument where debaters try to undermine the legitimacy of each others’ position without attempting to reach a real understanding or settling anything.

When I say, “argument” I mean it in the context of any rational discussion with constructive intent, not an attempt to thwart constructive ends through fallacious means.

Here, I mean that the parties involved act to offer reasons, premises, rationales, and justifications for the statements, the claims, and the ideas that they put forth. They want others to accept these, not merely by pandering to their prejudices or appealing to their biases, nor upon the use of legal or physical force, but by winning the free assent of that audience — an audience treated as though it were in principle intelligent, educated, and capable of exercising rigorous critical judgment.

I refer to argument in the sense of modern argumentation theory, a vibrant field of study involving the making and use of messages to influence others, by appealing to their willingness to cooperate — this is essential for the conditions of a viable free society.

Any coherent social structure, especially a functioning representative democracy with a large number of people needs some means of mutual influence between its members, of and for the viability of its governing system, however imperfect its governing body in practice. Perfection in matters of human endeavor is a chimera.

Argumentation as a field of study crosses paths with three other areas of intellectual endeavor:

First, it converges with Logic, the broader study of the structures we use in all processes of reasoning — this includes formal logic, mathematical and symbolic logic where the conclusion of a valid argument is alleged to be certainly true if the premises used to support it are also true.

But argumentation concerns itself more with informal logic, the everyday reasoning we engage in within typical discussions — in which the statements we wish to support do not follow with certainty, but to a degree of probability depending on the strength of our reasons and the willingness of the audience to accept them.

In argumentation, even the very idea of certainty depends on the audience addressed.

Language is important in informal logic, because informal argumentation depends heavily on the use of language as the content of the argument. Language is more than merely decorative window-dressing for an informal argument, but an essential part of the argument’s inherent meaning. The language that an argument is cast in cannot be taken from the argument itself without rendering it sterile and empty.

Second, argumentation converges with Rhetoric, originally one of the seven Liberal Arts — it is more than just vacuous or bombastic and flowery ornamentation in speech as is commonly supposed, but in the technical sense it is the broader study of how people are influenced by messages.

It is from Rhetoric that argumentation gets the concern with the requirements of an audience — its needs, disposition, and outlook must be considered by the arguer in making their case.

Third, argumentation crosses over with dialectic, a term that many people still associate with the concept of an opposition between grand historical forces, like the opposition of capitalism and communism depicted in Marxist social theory.

This concept has a different meaning, and dates at least since the Socratic method,  given in the dialogues of Plato, and others, in which fictionalized persons are seen to engage in a sort of give and take exchange of questions and answers to resolve a dispute or reveal the truth of a matter.

This sort of questioning is similar to the use of cross-examination of witnesses in modern legal courts by the prosecuting attorneys in a case to uncover inconsistencies in testimony and to reveal possibly questionable motives.

Argumentation is the meeting point of all of these fields, and with it, we can clarify our understanding of our positions, resolve disputes, reach sound decisions for collective actions we may undertake, engage in formal and often productive debates, and, with ourselves as the audience, think through personal problems we may face or get out of a rut.

Argumentation as a process of giving reasons for our claims is one of the most important abilities we have as humans, and no matter our level of education, we can all benefit from the ability to arrive at better answers to questions and make more sound decisions than we otherwise might.

Argumentation isn’t just for egghead academics: Clear thinking and having good reasons for what we believe and do are for everyone. As humans, we are not always rational, but we have a sense of reason, one that once nurtured and practiced can serve us and enfranchise us as informed, effective, and smart voters very well indeed.


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Course Review: Argumentation – the Study of Effective Reasoning

This course from the Teaching Company, taught by Northwestern University professor David Zarefsky, has long been one of my favorites where home study is concerned and life situation, tuition, textbook, and travel expenses make de facto college study cost-prohibitive.

This set of twenty-four thirty-minute lectures, in a set of four DVDs, is a good introduction to both the fundamentals and finer points of argumentation, the use of reason to gain the willing adherence of an audience to whatever case you wish to argue.

Of course, the point made in the very first lecture is that far from being mere bickering and quarreling, far better than a verbal fight, argumentation is not about these things, but the noble art of negotiation and deliberation by the process of offering reasons, acceptable and sound ones, for the claims we make.

This course, as Zarefsky tells you from the start, is not about winning more arguments with your spouse, convincing an atheist that God exists, nor about convincing a theist that there is no god.

There’s a selection of suggested textbooks for the course, though I’ve found the lectures will do perfectly fine on their own with the study guide booklet that is included. For my own purposes, I’ve gotten some of the textbooks because of the usefulness of delving deeper into the subject matter, and I have taken written drafts of study notes from each lecture on the most important points of the lessons.

Some criticisms, otherwise I’m a poor critic, but I’ll keep it constructive:

Zarefsky uses many examples and illustrations of the main points of each lecture, and most of these are helpful, though some are a bit overused and a couple of times I had to improvise once I got his point by coming up with my own.

In one lecture, (#13, Reasoning from Parts to Whole) he uses hypothetical emails from Teaching Company customers to clarify a discussion of arguing from general to specific and from specific to general and how either can be inductive or deductive. Once was sure I got it, I translated it into a discussion of generalizing and classifying about sand-worn stones found on a beach, used in an old post of mine (Here).

All in all though, Professor Zarefsky’s a top-notch instructor, and I would be very pleased to study under him as a classroom environment teacher now that I’m used to his style.

The course as a whole is extremely information-dense, and that’s a good thing, though it’s spaced out nicely in the format of the twenty-four lessons it’s recorded in. I recommend having a pen and note book or the digital equivalent handy while watching or listening to these — there’s a lot to take in, even as spaced out as they are, and you may want to get the more subtle but vital points of each lesson as well as the well-illustrated ones.

I recommend this course for anyone interested in developing their skill in rational deliberation and decision-making in a world where we are all too often divided and polarized in our positions, a world in which the climate of debate is poisoned by the forces of unreason and dogmatic bullheadedness.

Sunday Evening Commentarium for 2013/05/26

I’m involved in a new writing project for this blog, and this post you’re reading now is an endeavor of mine to publish at least one original piece of material each week. I’ll be posting on things that annoy me, things that interest me, and things that make me go WTF??

This edition will be all those in one.

At the local game shop I went to this weekend, during a talk with friends, whose opinions on certain matters are quite divergent from mine, I was chided for giving an argument that undermined itself, allegedly for being qualified in probabilistic terms, rather than couched in certain ones.

Personally, I think that’s very strange, and even occult, that an argument about contingent matters of fact could be undermined by an admission that one could be wrong.

That sounds to me more like intellectual honesty…

What my friend sees as a weakness in argument, a lack of certitude, is being misapplied to the wrong type of argument. While he may have been thinking “deduction,” I was thinking “induction.” And inductive argument is not logically certain, either from the form or the content of an argument. Inductive argument is strong or weak instead of strictly valid or invalid.

After all, that’s what most scientific reasoning is like — concerning the more or less probable rather than the absolute and certain — at least in my experience concerning all the scientists I’ve read and have chatted with online. And I don’t think that that’s unique to just those I’ve come across.

Rhetorically, I suppose, confidence, or rather, its appearance, is an advantage. We are more often apt to lend more credence than we should to the statements of those who seem sure of themselves.

But what I know about skeptical thinking tells me that the appearance of confidence is far from a reliable indicator of competence, and may in fact show the opposite. Bluster does not equal brains.

Not just those I disagree with either, but anyone without a proven record of expertise in their field.

What undermines an argument for me is the use of language and buzzwords attempting to appeal to ideals, values, beliefs and moral judgments — emotive things — one may not share with the speaker, especially when there is no concern shown for the audience spoken to or about, the use of not just loaded language, but truly inflammatory loaded language as if to rally the troops and dismiss the enemy in one shot.

This is what I see on most political websites, especially on propaganda outlets of the far right and far left that see a lot of traffic, of which many such site owners seem inordinately proud, perhaps thinking that popularity equals accuracy, or seeking to convey that impression to their more uncritical readers.

Unfortunately for far too many people, otherwise sensible, this works. But only those already inclined to agree with the speakers or writer’s views to begin with. There’s that whole thing about confirmation bias, with a slant toward tribalism leading to political polarization and a shutdown of rational discussion through useless media shouting matches.

Add to that an ignorance of the basic concepts and principles of cogent argumentation, and you have the sad situation this country is in right now, where no one wants to talk or listen to each other. It’s a climate of toxicity, dangerous to a functioning democracy and a powerful  tool of political corruption.

Despots like it when their subjects can’t or won’t get together and talk with each other. The opposite often leads to revolutions, or fair elections, which simply will not do to oligarchs who wish to keep their ill-gotten power and gerrymandered votes.

So if there were one rhetorical fallacy that really stands out, one that I see the most of in online and real-time discussions of politics, or religious apologetics, hands down the most obvious would be be loaded language, seconded by false dilemmas, quote-mining and poisoning the well.

It’s a good idea not to assume without reason that your audience knows certain things, but don’t treat them like gullible idiots either — never cynically assume stupidity, and don’t talk down to them — underestimation is a weakness, as many a failed politician has learned when the voting process has not been improperly influenced in his favor.

The greatest sin in any argument is to ignore or insult the audience one writes or speaks to, and writing in a deliberately inflammatory manner may win one converts among those who already agree, but while useful in that regard, it just puts off everyone else, especially those outside of the rhetorical echo chamber who can see it — or hear it — for what it is.

Sunday Evening Commentarium is a regular installment posted at 6:00 PM Eastern Time each Sunday, on a question or matter bringing itself to my attention during the previous week.

Reason, Reasoning & Unreasonableness II

It’s been argued that one who wears his position on his sleeve, rather than hiding it by a cloak of clever, reasonable-sounding rhetorical deceit is more to be trusted, that open and guileless unreason is preferable to rational trickiness.

Well, maybe, but it’s not that simple.

It isn’t necessarily the case that someone with an extreme position or unreasonable stance will display it openly, nor are any discussions with him likely to be effective. Not all unreasonable types are guileless simpletons…In fact many are quite intelligent and indeed, quite tricksey.

I’d personally prefer dealing with reasonable people when at all possible, as I’ve enough logical literacy to pick out and identify most of the fallacies they might commit. But against a skilled bullshit artist, one may have to apply a bit of care to avoid being taken…

…and equating open unreason with trustworthiness is not the way to do this.

Let’s examine why, by examining hypothetical unreasonable people having a goodly amount of intelligence:

Firstly, the unreasonable are more likely to make unreasonable demands in negotiations or discussion, demands so unreasonable as to be difficult and costly, or impossible to meet even in principle.

Secondly, the unreasonable, in making any offers or claims, they are more likely to make ones that are too good to be true, and which cannot be fulfilled or be factually correct.

Neither of these things will be obvious, when done by canny extremists.

This is why any such offers and claims should make one instantly suspicious no matter who makes them. No authority is infallible, no matter how venerated or prestigious or amicable.

Thirdly, and finally, the unreasonable are more likely to hold an extreme position, one difficult to negotiate over or otherwise rationally discuss for any number of reasons, and if intelligent, they will know this, and be even more likely than a more reasonable sort to use flawed logic to cloak his unreasonable stance and make it seem less extreme than it really is.

This is typical in those cases where a rationally indefensible position is being advocated, and the advocate has a vested interest in convincing others, especially by masking his arguments and making them appear stronger than they really are.

Logical fallacies are the tools of unreason and first line of attack of the dishonest.

Given these assumptions, I’d much prefer discussing things with more rational types, as they are less likely to make unreasonable demands, make unreasonable claims and offers, or have a need to resort to clever-sounding fallacies to obfuscate their true intent and position, all other things being the same, including intelligence.

You can, after all, reason with them. Not so for unreasonable types, even when their extreme views are obvious. That just means that they’re more dangerous and disagreeable, not more trustworthy.

A reasonable individual would probably have a more defensible position, a more justifiable stance, and is thus likely to have a better command of good arguments, or at least more reason to use them, and less of an incentive to resort to clever rhetorical tricks to mislead the unwary about the quality of his arguments.

I understand the reluctance of people to trust who they may see as deceptively shrewd, reasonable-sounding-but-tricky people, and prefer the more open, seemingly guileless, simple folk as more trustworthy no matter the leanings of their stated position and attitudes, but this is a simple, and simply misleading false contrast.

People with extreme positions and views aren’t necessarily open about it — the intelligent ones often aren’t.

But it’s not their intelligence that should be mistrusted, it’s their extremism, which may be expressed as a dangerous, dogmatic ideology that lets them to deceive, defraud, kill, or otherwise harm others with a clear conscience.

The Nazi deathcamps, the Killing Fields of Cambodia (now Kampuchea, I think), the ethnic cleansings of Kosovo, religious wars throughout history, etc… are all classic examples of the things people are motivated to do when they are convinced of having absolute knowledge. That belief is itself an extreme view, and in the history of science and philosophy has shown to be a fruitless and failed pursuit.

I don’t distrust reasonableness or intelligence — these things in themselves are nothing to fear — instead, I’m wary of possible aggression, manipulativeness and general dishonesty from those with extreme views no matter their level of intelligence.

So extremism to me does not scream “TRUSTWORTHY!!,” open or not, instead it’s a warning sign to keep my distance and alert others that this individual may be dangerous in some way and is not to be trusted.

I value reasonableness as a virtue, and if you are afraid of someone who may feign that combined with deceit to scam you, it’s not the reason you have to look out for, it’s the deceit.

And that, mein fiends, requires a healthy dose of skepticism, not a knee-jerk rejection of rationality.

No one ever said not being fooled was easy, except those who then get fooled.

Christopher Hitchens Tribute

Christopher Hitchens died yesterday, and for a time the hashtag #GodIsNotGreat was the top trending tweet on Twitter… ironically fueled by the confused rage of the misguided faithful themselves who took it as an affront to their beliefs!

I never met Hitchens, but I found him perhaps the greatest rhetorician of this age in his argumentation with the likes of Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig.

Peace out, Hitch… We’ve got your back.

Courtesy of

A Problem with a Possible Fix

Quarter of Arizona

Image via Wikipedia

I remember something from my studies that has lately come into sharp relief with current political events and especially with the recent and terrible tragedy in Arizona this last weekend.

BTW, my deepest sympathies go out to the friends and families of the deceased…

I refer of course to the failure of public communication that has happened in this country, the very same that Professor Dave Zarefsky of Northwestern University pointed out in the first lecture of a course he teaches on argumentation.

Within the last few years, and I’ve noticed this going on myself in personal dealings, there has been an increasing trend toward associating and interacting mostly if not only with the like-minded, an unwillingness to engage in reasoned debate in and of considering differences of opinion to be insurmountable — effectively just giving up without even trying — and in thinking them to be weaknesses, a disintegration in the processes of compromise, constructive discussion of the issues, and any attempt at a healthy mutual understanding.

These last are things any well-functioning democracy surely needs to exist, a very different situation from our increasingly moribund political climate.

Lately, the situation has turned toward the radicalization, the polarization of, partisanship on both sides of the social continuum, with a general tendency to engage in toxic rhetoric, often with violent or military motifs, as though those speaking are literally going to war with a hated enemy in an apocalyptic final battle rather than having a disagreement.

That, and demonization, childish name-calling and finger-pointing, like among little kids at a playground during recess, only more potentially dangerous…

I notice this just as much among some liberal progressives as among the more outspoken Tea Party extremists.

And shame on both…

It seems as though people have forgotten how to talk to each other, preferring to shake their fists in anger and shout at each other as if that were somehow reasonable, justified, even acceptable, in a civilized society.

It is none of those things…

Like Zarefsky, I propose that there is at least a partial fix for this, a solution that has a fair chance at doing some good: wide dissemination of the techniques, assumptions, mindset and philosophical underpinnings of proper argumentation to as large an audience as can be managed with the medium employed.

Maybe this blog could achieve that to some degree…

I’m going to be implementing the things I’ve learned in my studies of argumentation, in the hopes that it will do some real good, that the information will be seen by and be of use to those who may have a need for it.

I’m not interested, for those who may ask, in indoctrinating anyone. But like with many of my logical fallacy and other skeptically-themed posts, I am concerned with assisting any who wish to find out rather than just opine with certitude.

…Something about leading a horse to water, but not…

Oh, you get the idea. Incisions, incisions, said the surgeon. I’m going to enjoy this.