Philosophers’ Argument Check: In this episode Socrates vs. Giuliani

With this post we start a new series here at PEA Soup: Philosophers’ Argument Check. The idea is to assess arguments before the public using the tools of philosophy but in a way that is designed to be accessible to non-philosophers. The format should mimic the “fact check” format used elsewhere. All are welcome to send us submissions for this new format. Think of this as part of the effort to demonstrate that philosophy teaches us tools that are useful in thinking about issues that matter to us all.

PHILOSOPHERS’ ARGUMENT CHECK:

“The news media does not determine the outcome of elections.”

VERDICT: TRUE BUT IRRELEVANT

All of the major news organizations now tell us that President Elect Biden has won the election. In an effort to persuade us that the election has not yet been settled in favor of President-Elect Biden, many Republicans have pointed out that the news media does not determine elections, the people do. And that is obviously right. President Elect Biden won because of how the people voted, not because the news media called the election in his favor. When functioning well, what the media does is not make it true that someone won, but rather to reliably indicate to us when the available information about how people voted settles the election. And they have tended to perform this role quite accurately.

Consider an analogy. Suppose it is important to me to know what the temperature is outside. A reliable thermometer indicates that it is 40 degrees. I am tempted to think I thereby learn that it is 40 degrees. But someone comes up to me and says, “Thermometers don’t determine the temperature!” And there is something right about that. It is not 40 degrees because the thermometer says so, rather the thermometer says so because it is 40 degrees. But that is no reason to doubt that I can learn what the temperature is by reading the thermometer.

The appearance of a legitimate argument here is a result of ambiguity concerning the word “determines.” In one sense of the word, thermometers do not determine the temperature. It is not cold because the thermometer says so, rather the thermometer says so because it is cold. In another sense of the word, I can reliably determine, or correctly assess, the outside temperature by consulting the thermometer. Even though President Elect Biden did not win because the media said so, we can learn the fact that he won the election by seeing that the media said so.

11 Replies to “Philosophers’ Argument Check: In this episode Socrates vs. Giuliani

  1. Here’s a suggestion for a future post: Trump: “You know why we have so many [coronavirus] case numbers? Because we do more testing than any country in the world. . .”

  2. I see this all the time also in controversial public policy issues, including abortion. In response to some argument that, say, not all humans are persons, based on the definitions of each, someone often replies “Who gets to decide which humans are persons? If anyone can do this, this leads to the holocaust, slavery, etc.” But of course, the proposal was never that just anyone at all gets to authoritatively decide this, but rather that if we use relevant concepts and logical argument, we can find out the truth of this matter (I assume here there is some objective truth to this & other moral claims). It is indeed possible for anyone to use this technique to reach the truth of the matter, but that’s not at all the same thing as authorizing that person–independently of whether they are using the right argumentative technique or not–to decide such facts willy-nilly, so this response is a way of side-stepping the actual argument for why this particular way of thinking is likely to reach the truth, and focusing only on the person/source of the argument. Similar responses are, I think, used occasionally against arguments for gun control and other laws which might restrict some persons’ liberty, wealth, etc., to suggest that we can’t let just anyone do this on any basis. This slides into a kind of slippery slope argument, but many versions of it take the form of confusing a reliable epistemic source with something which determines or grounds the truth in question, as in the election example.

  3. Wes: true, but it plays a key role in an argument explained in the following paragraph, particularly the second sentence thereof.

  4. To do this correctly, let’s separate the argument from the evaluation of the argument. Also, arguments are neither true nor false. The evaluation is just what any other fact-checking website does: it evaluates a statement rather than an argument. When I read about what this was going to be—an evaluation of public arguments or an argument checker—I got excited. I have often wanted to take part in something like this. But it is just a fact-checker with a philosophical angle. It’s the first one, though. I’m keeping my hopes up and might even try to contribute.

  5. Wes, I agree that David Sobel could have done a better job of laying out the argument, with its component premises and conclusion, before analyzing the one premise as “true but irrelevant.” But I disagree that this is just fact-checking. For Sobel is specifically checking not just the fact’s truth-value, but also its relevance to an argument, i.e., the support it gives to a certain conclusion (viz., that we should not yet consider Biden the president-elect). The fact cannot support the conclusion, precisely because the argument for his being the president-elect on the basis of media-reported facts is not what Giuliani suggested that it was, so he was in effect straw-manning the latter. Incidentally, it would also have been good to say more about Giuliani’s comment; where was it found, in what context, etc. So I thank you for your comments here, and hope that they can lead to more precise philosophical analyses of public-issue arguments.

  6. Hi Scott,

    If we did a better job of laying out the argument charitably, then (a) I think we ought to make it appear as if the premises are relevant, but (b) we’d actually point out the false premise.

    So, simply, if the argument is something like:

    P1: If Biden is the president-elect, then the media does make it true that someone won.
    P2: The media does not make it true that someone won.
    C: Biden is not the president-elect.

    Then instead of saying P2 is true but irrelevant, we say P1 is false. Biden is the president-elect, and the media does not make it true that someone won. So, nobody should be convinced that Biden is not the president-elect by this valid reasoning. Of course, the original argument might be invalid, but that’s another story.

    All the best,
    Wes

  7. … alternatively, as I believe you suggest, Scott, the original argument is something Giuliani reconstructs and then objects to. So Giuliani reconstructs the “news media’s” argument as:

    P1: If the media makes it true that someone won, then Biden is the president-elect.
    P2: The media does so.
    C: Biden is the president-elect.

    Then we construe Giuliani as providing an objection of the form:

    OP1: …
    .
    .
    .
    OPn: …
    OC: The media does not make it true that someone won.

    In that case, though, perhaps Giuliani’s argument is not so interesting. Rather the response to Giuliani’s objection is that nobody has made the original argument. In any case, I hope that we get something much more like what the comments are suggesting in the future.

  8. Yes, I assume there are typically many ways of filling out an informal argument one encounters in the wild. I thought I made clear that the central aim of the argument I wanted to talk about was one that treated the fact that the media does not determine elections as somehow helping along the claim that the election is not yet settled for Biden. One might flesh out a variety of bad arguments that move from that premise to that conclusion. I hoped I illustrated, and debunked, one such thing that seemingly a person who moves from the premise to the conclusion might well have had in mind.

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