Special Pleading in the Time of Cholera


As we move through these strange times, one fallacy to keep a close eye on is a special pleading. The short version is that a special pleading is an argument that a particular case doesn’t follow a generally applicable rule. Arguments about exceptionalism, uniqueness, and justifications for deviations from rules almost always fall into this pattern. 

Sometimes special pleadings are just examples of magical thinking or mindless optimism (i.e., “This terrible thing affecting the whole economy won’t impact me because reasons,”) but they are often more deceptive. They can be used to justify failing to implement unpopular responses recommended by experts or to institute sweeping uses of state authority. More prosaically, they are often used to excuse personal mistakes or lapses in judgment and checking oneself against self-justification is a useful exercise. And as various political actors try to relax pandemic-related restrictions, we are likely to hear more of them. We already hear plenty of examples in healthcare policy, usually as ways to argue why universal healthcare is uniquely impossible in the United States, and it would unsurprising if we didn’t hear more regarding the pandemic. 

But here’s the thing: sometimes a special pleading is justified. There are situations where the general rule might not apply. But you need to interrogate very closely what the reason that justifies it would be. Many of the purported justifications for a break from a rule are really a distinction without a difference. Before you claim that some situation is unique, spend the time to figure out why it unique, and tease out the implications of that uniqueness.


Expressive Words to Use Against the Trump Clique


Criticizing the President is great, but it’s important to remember that the office insulates its holder from the impact of some amount of criticism. That’s why it’s important to go after the accomplices too. People like Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon ought to be unemployable after their affiliation with this administration. To help, here’s a list of pejorative terms for people helping the administration, most of which are underused:

  • Collaborator
  • Quisling
  • Vichyist
  • Recreant
  • Prevaricator
  • Fink
  • Tergiversant
Some of these are not perfect synonyms and refer to cowardice or evasion, rather than pure collaboration, and there are subtleties in each, so be sure you’re using the right word.

The Electoral College Genetic Fallacy


As we prepare to inaugurate a president who failed to win the popular vote, either by majority or plurality, the normal background noise about eliminating the Electoral College is being amplified. It feels more momentous this time, in part, I think, because the President-Elect drew support from the most outwardly nationalist, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic part of the electorate, and it is impossible to justify protecting those interests through an anti-democratic mechanism (as opposed to “small states,” or “rural interests,” for which you might be able to come up with a reasonable justification for greater electoral representation, such as relative lack of economic clout).

I would probably be okay with eliminating the Electoral College. On balance, I think it’s not a great idea. But there are serious arguments for keeping it, such as some of the ones laid out by Judge Posner in this article. And if you want to argue for its abolition, those are the kinds of arguments you need to engage with.

Instead, what my (admittedly unscientific) observations suggest is that the more common argument being made (aside from the simplistic and reductionist population argument), is that the Electoral College should be eliminated because its original purpose was to give the slave states greater power.

That is an example of the genetic fallacy, where the origin or source of a thing is used to determine its current validity or virtue. The argument that the electoral college was created to further a white supremacist agenda is right. It is an important historical fact, and I don’t think you can understand modern America without understanding the ways in which the original structures of the United States were both explicitly designed for the purpose of and implicitly justified by maintenance of white supremacy. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether the Electoral College is a good idea now, as it is presently used.

One particular example of why this is important is the question of whether voters in large states have their votes diluted or amplified in the current system. In a purely numerical sense, it’s an easy question: the mal-apportionment of Electoral College votes makes a vote in the more populous states less valuable than a vote in a smaller state. But as Judge Posner points out, the use of a winner-take-all system for larger states means that there is a disproportionate pay-out for more modest gains in the electorate there, and that means that big states get much more attention from candidates. And if you accept Judge Posner’s argument, then the Electoral College becomes a way to amplify the votes of racial minorities, who tend to be more strongly represented in the larger states, even if its original design was meant to do precisely the opposite.

I’m not sure that Judge Posner is right. It’s an empirical question, and a complicated one at that. What I do know is that dismissing the Electoral College wholesale on the basis of the racism of the political and racial elites of the late 18th Century does not make logical sense. If you want to convince someone that we should get rid of it, it is insufficient to show that part of its original justification was bad; you need to go further and show that its current use is bad.

The 5 Best Primers on the Alt-Right


With the election of Donald Trump, I’ve seen a lot of questions flying around about the “alt-right.” These are the five best articles I’ve read describing the group or its development. If you have any others, please feel free to share.

  1. A good explainer from Vox: Dylan Matthews, The alt-right is more than warmed-over white supremacy. It’s that, but way way weirder, Aug. 25, 2016. 
  2. Buzzfeed News published a more conventional story on the history of the alt-right late in 2015: Rosie Gray, How 2015 Fueled The Rise Of The Freewheeling, White Nationalist Alt Right Movement, Dec. 27, 2015. 
  3. Media Matters put out a good description of the key symbols, with links to primary source materials: Oliver Willis, What Is The “Alt-Right”? A Guide To The White Nationalist Movement Now Leading Conservative Media, Aug. 25, 2016.
  4. The New Yorker’s short take: Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Is the Alt-Right for Real?, May 5, 2016. 
  5. A piece from The Awl describing the Neo-Reactionary movement, one of the referents/related strains of thought: Park MacDougald, The Darkness Before the Righi, Sept. 28, 2015. 

As an aside, I’ve also seen a lot of people insisting that we ought to refer to them as “white supremacists,” or at least “white nationalists,” in place of “alt-right.” I don’t have a serious disagreement with that, but the semiotics of naming in politics is too complex for me to wade into, and because the articles above use the phrase “alt-right,” I’m using it here.

Born to Inveigle


One category of old joke includes law firm names like “Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe.” Most of these jokes are not very good, and I prefer the baseball stathead jokes from Parks & Rec. But once in a while, you come across something perfect. Like the fact that this article (don’t ask why I needed to read it) quotes someone who works at a “a consulting agency for brand designs” who has the actual last name “Shillum.”

I Still Hate the Phillies


A remarkably stupid sentence:

“Even if confirmation bias is in play, that means there’s something to confirm.” -Barry Petchesky, On Philadelphia Fans, Deadspin.com, 4.19.2016, available here.

The author seems to have a rudimentary understanding of confirmation bias, but does not understand how a “hypothesis” works. Confirmation bias is when one credits information that supports a hypothesis, while disregarding information that discredits that hypothesis, solely because the information supports or discredits an existing preconception. It typically refers to the exact opposite of what Petchesky is trying to describe: people seeing evidence of things that don’t exist purely because they want to see it. By the logic of the sentence above, every time a proponent of intelligent design sees evidence of the Flood, we should take that itself as evidence of the Flood.

This should in no way be read as a defense of Philadelphia sports fans. We can show why they are awful without falling for confirmation bias or Petchesky’s terrible understanding of confirmation bias.

Talkin’ Baseball


For the first time in nearly a decade, I’m starting the baseball season with optimism. I’m sure the Mets will find some way to make me regret that, but for now, here’s a distinction most baseball fans ignore:

When a batter hits a ball into fair territory, and the ball leaves the playing area, but does not do so on the fly (and at least 250 feet from home plate), the batter is awarded a double. See MLB Rule 6.09(e)-(h). The typical example of this is a ball bouncing over the outfield fence. Most fans would call this a “ground-rule double.” But it’s not. It’s an “automatic double.” A “ground-rule double” is one that is awarded based on the idiosyncratic rules of particular ballparks. Another summary is here.