Modern Sophistry

Somewhere on this blog I posted a long tirade against the religion of economics. One of the things I wanted to include, but did not, was something on the lack of curiosity. The reason I left it out is I thought it might make for a good blog post on its own. This site does not write itself so I have to keep the ammo bucket loaded. That and it is not really peculiar to the monks in the econ department. It is a characteristic of all reformers and ideologues. Whatever the object of their concern, they never bother to ask why it is the way it is. If they do offer some explanation, it is always a self-serving one.

Homosexual marriage is the most obvious example. The advocates never ask why marriage has been boy-girl for ten thousand years. Instead they mutter some nonsense about religion, but that’s as far as they go. Libertarians are the worst offenders. When they start ranting about the state licensing marriage, they act like it sprung from nothingness. Their own ignorance is held up as if it were a mirror, reflecting a newly discovered hole in conventional wisdom.

This weird lack of curiosity leads to logical errors. A good example is in this post on Steve Lansberg’s site. The deliberate ignorance is right there at the start.

I have a question that has only provoked a lot of confused righteous indignation in other forums, and I wonder if TBQ readers might have more thoughtful responses, if we phrase it as a logic puzzle.

My question: I don’t see why it’s good policy to give criminal defendants a Fifth Amendment right to silence in their own trial, as opposed to giving them the same rights and obligations as third-party witnesses (who can be subpoenaed and required to answer questions).

First we get the victim act. That’s a topic for another day. What comes next is the weird admission that he does not understand basics civics. That would be fine if it were just an admission and a plea for help. Instead, it is wrapped in indignation, as if it is the fault of the rest of us that this guy does not know basic civics. The implication is that the Fifth Amendment is illogical because the author does not understand why it exists. The burden is now on everyone else to alleviate him of his ignorance.

This is a common trick from fanatics pushing some cause. They frame their own ignorance as a sort of universal ignorance that they have just stumbled upon. Having discovered this hitherto unobserved irrationality, they offer up an alternative and then challenge everyone else to 1) justify the current arrangements or 2) offer an alternative to their proposal that they think is better.

However, every time I’ve asked this question, people have reacted as if I was suggesting that the state should be allowed to torture people into confessing. Obviously that’s not what I’m asking. I just don’t see a principled reason why defendants can’t be required to answer a question that is relevant, subject to the rules laid out in paragraph 3.

He repeats the victim stuff in order to shift the focus from his own ignorance onto the reader. The use of neutralized logic phrases is particularly annoying. “Obviously that’s not what I’m asking” avoids the charge, without ever addressing it. It also makes it appear the invisible audience to whom he is referring is irrational. The poor guy is an island of rationality in a sea of mean spirited loons!

The funny part is that he is suggesting the state torture people into confessing. Maybe he knows that and that’s why he is shifting the focus from what he is suggesting onto straw men. If the state can punish you for lying to agents of the state and they can force you to answer questions, the honest answering of which could lead to punishment, the state is compelling you to bear witness against yourself. The lever may not be jumper cables to the genitals, but imprisonment with violent sodomites is no less compelling.

Anyway, the comments are worth reading. Comment #6 takes the author’s tactic and turns it around on him. Clever.

You’ve done a good job of comparing fifth amendment rights to the ability of the state to subpoena third parties. It makes perfect sense to me that if it’s acceptable for state to subpoena third parties, it should also be acceptable to subpoena the accused. I hold the position that the state should NOT be able to subpoena the accused OR third parties though. To convince me, you’ll need to provide good reasons why the state should have this particular coercive power in the first place.

I don’t think it is intentional. This sort of sophistry is so common, people do it without even knowing it now. All logic expressions imply a set of conditions that would make them false. For instance, all men are human is a logical expression. To falsify this, we would need a man who is not human. That does not mean it can be falsified. It is the legendary flaw in Popper. There are scientific fast that cannot be falsified, because they are fact, as eternal as 2+2=4.

What the modern sophist does is insert taste or opinion into the search for truth. “Vanilla ice cream is the best” is not true statement. Everyone knows that, I hope. All swans are white, however, is a logical statement. Bolting on “you have to convince me that all swans are white” invalidates the logical expression. Of course, it sets up a standard that can never be met.

Putting it together you get what looks like a deductive examination of an existing rule, law or custom. What you really get is ignorance framed as a question and a petulant demand from the questioner. it is not an affirmative argument or even a logical expression. It’s a temper tantrum.