The Electoral College Genetic Fallacy

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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.

I Still Hate the Phillies

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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.

Moving the Goalposts

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Sometimes thought of as the opposite of a Texas Sharpshooter, “moving the goalposts” is a way of changing the criteria for proving the validity of an argument, often after they have already been met. As Rationalwiki points out that certain movements seem prone to doing it more than others, but I’ve seen this fallacy used by a lot of people. Listserve debates are a common place for this as a rhetorical tactic, although listserve debates are generally a great source of examples of every form of logical fallacy.

Namesake Fallacy Day

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“No True Scotsman,” in addition to being the name of this blog, refers to a particular logical fallacy. Discussed in greater detail here, here, here, and here, the fallacy consists of redefining a class in such a way as to confirm a thesis. So, for example:

Alfred: No Michigander puts ketchup on a coney.

Wayne: I’m from Ypsilanti, and I put ketchup on coneys.

Alfred: No true Michigander puts ketchup on a coney.

This is a technique used with some frequency by political activists (from a lot of different orientations). But it’s a circular argument, and should be pointed out and possibly ridiculed.

Question Begging

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Others have addressed this topic before, in places with way more reach than this blog (like the New York Times. Ken Jennings wrote a bit about this a while back. So did Grammar Girl. There is even this.) So I’m not sure how much good this will do, but this one just annoys me too much not to write about.

The phrase “begs the question” is commonly used to mean “leads one to ask.” Even by people who should know better or by writers whose editors should know better. (e.g.here and here).  That is not really what it means. Or at least: that is not what it originally meant. This post is not about prescriptivism. “Begging a question” is when the supposed answer to a question assumes the contested fact or premise that the question is asking about. For some examples, try this and this). 

The first problem with the newer use is that it is a form of cliche or dead metaphor. It sounds evocative, like the statements already made are pleading with you to ask the next question. But like all etiolated phrases, it is really a weak placeholder for a more precise, original, or interesting use of language. It is an elision of more rigorous thought or explanation.

The second problem with this use is that it obscures the original fallacy. And it’s an important fallacy to be aware of, because it’s a common rhetorical trick, especially favored by politicians, as a way of shutting off argument, shifting the frame of an argument to one more favorable to them, or obscuring the lack of evidence to support a proposition.

Texas Sharpshooters

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A “texas sharpshooter” is someone who fires at the side of a barn and then draws bull’s eyes around the bullet holes. It’s a common logical fallacy used to show false causation. Watch out for claims based on isolated bits of data, especially if there is no broader context.

More here and here.