An Introduction to Evaluation

8 Factual Correctness

Section 1: Introduction

At the end of the last chapter we focused on logical strength, and some of the complications involved in deciding whether an argument is, or is not, logically strong.  In this chapter, we will look at factual correctness.  We will get a better sense for what factual correctness means, look at the process we must go through in deciding whether an argument passes this test, and think about some of the obstacles to making these judgments.  In addition, we will take a look at conditional claims because these commonly appear as premises and can be somewhat confusing.    After discussing the truth conditions for conditionals, we will take a look at a particularly common failure of factual correctness—the straw man argument—and lay out some rules of thumb for spotting and preventing it.

Section 2: Making Judgments about Factual Correctness

As we’ve seen, to evaluate an argument for factual correctness is to ask of each premise: is it likely to be true?  Although this is a straightforward question, and we make judgments of truth all the time, it will be useful to slow down and clarify a few elements of this process.  Here is an example we can work with:

Ex. 1:

Binge-watching TV shows is a superficial way of experiencing a story, since it doesn’t allow you to appreciate each episode.

Focusing on factual correctness we will ask: is it likely to be true that binge-watching doesn’t allow you to appreciate each episode?

Man looking at a sculpture spelling TV made out of TVs
“*Watching*Tv*” by Annelogue CC BY-NC 2.0

One of the first things you’ll notice when you start being more intentional about argument evaluation is that it involves paying close attention to language and the meanings of words.  What, for example, is meant by ‘binge-watching’ in this premise?  Moreover, who, exactly, is the premise talking about?  Is this talking about everybody, or most people, or what?  The point in asking these questions is not to be hyper-skeptical or to cast doubt on the premise.  After all, we often express ourselves incompletely or in ambiguous ways.  Rather, the point is to clarify the premise, so that we can decide whether it is likely to be true.  Often, the context will make the author’s intended meaning clear, but sometimes we’ll have to fall back on the Golden Rule of Argument Interpretation—what would make sense for the author to mean here?  In this case, the author probably means something like this: for most people, watching many episodes of a show in a row makes it difficult to appreciate each episode.

This process of clarifying premises highlights the dynamic between analysis and evaluation.  It has been useful to this point in the text to characterize argument analysis and evaluation as if they are wholly distinct processes.  In reality, however, we often need to go back and forth to effectively think through an argument.  In giving an author or speaker the benefit of the doubt, we implicitly bring our evaluative standards to bear.  At the same time, the process of evaluation can force us to return to analysis to clarify the issue at hand.

A second thing you’ll notice as you reflect on judgments of factual correctness is that we can be more or less confident that a premise is true.  There are some things that we are certain about.  You are probably certain that 1 + 1 = 2, for example.  We believe plenty of things that we aren’t certain about, however.  You might be very confident, but not certain, that it won’t snow (or be 90 degrees) today.  Furthermore, you might be less sure, yet nonetheless confident that traffic will be bad this afternoon or that the library is open until 9 pm.  Last, some things we think are true, but wouldn’t be all that surprised to be wrong about.  In these cases, we think only that the proposition in question is more likely true than false.  Now, the fact that we can be more or less confident about the truth of a premise raises a question for evaluation, namely: how confident do we have to be about a premise to judge that it is likely true?  Do we have to be certain about it? No.  Certainty is too high a standard. Rather, in claiming that a premise is likely true, we are saying only that in our view it is more likely true than false (although, of course, we can be more confident as well).

A third point to emphasize is that in judging whether a premise is likely true or not, we’ve got three options: ‘yes—I think the premise is likely to be true’, ‘no—I think the premise is not likely to be true’ (either because it is likely to be false or because it is as likely to be true as it is false), and ‘I don’t know—I can’t say whether it is more likely to be true than false or not.’  Because there are three options when it comes to individual premises, there are also three options when it comes to making judgments about the factual correctness of an argument.  When you think all the premises are likely to be true, then you think the argument is factually correct.  When you think at least one of the premises is not likely to be true, then you think the argument is not factually correct, and when you can’t say one way or the other whether both premises are likely to be true, then the argument is undetermined.  Again, soundness requires factual correctness, so if you think the argument is not factually correct or it is undetermined, then we cannot claim the argument is sound.

A final point has to do with the fact that there are different senses of the terms ‘true’ and ‘truth’ at work in everyday conversation, and this can lead to confusion when it comes to judging factual correctness.    As we will understand the term, a proposition is true when (and only when) the world matches what the proposition says.  This is really straightforward; for example, if you believe your friend Manan’s birthday is on Aug. 12th, and his birthday is on this date, then this proposition and your belief are true.  If not, then they are false.  While we often use the term ‘true’ in this way, we do not always do so.  In disagreements people sometimes say things like: “that’s your truth, but this is mine.”  Similarly, sometimes people advise us to “live your truth.”  In both of these cases, the word ‘truth’ is being used to mean ‘belief’: “that’s your belief, but this is mine,” “live your belief”.  It isn’t surprising that people sometimes use ‘truth’ to mean ‘belief’ since to believe something is to think that it is true.  Nevertheless, in this text we will carefully distinguish between ‘belief’ and ‘truth’ because we will need to clearly distinguish between true beliefs and false beliefs (and you can’t do this if ‘truth’ just means ‘belief’).

Section 3:  A Special Case—Conditionals

In many cases it is not too difficult to assess the truth of an author’s stated premises.  One kind of claim, however, can present some questions—conditionals.  We briefly introduced conditionals in Chapter 1, and in the meantime we’ve seen that they commonly appear as premises.  Recall the following examples:

Ex. 2:

You are legally eligible to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages in this state only if you are 21 years of age or older.

Ex. 3:

If the candle is lit, then oxygen is present.

Ex. 4:

You are not permitted to play poker at the Platinum table if you are not willing to bet at least $20 per hand.

These examples each express a relationship between two things; more specifically, that one thing is dependent or conditional on another.  Conditional claims can be expressed in a variety of ways.  However, we will call the ‘if….then…’ form seen in the Ex. 3 above, the Standard Form for Conditionals.  As we will see, each of the other examples can be expressed in Standard Form as well.

Standard-form conditionals have two parts: the part immediately following the ‘if’ which is called the antecedent, and the part immediately following the ‘then’ which is called the consequent.

If (…..antecedent…..), then (…..consequent…..)

As we’ve seen, premises can be ambiguous and conditionals are no different. Sometimes people use conditionals to express a strict conditional relation between two things.  When a person says, for example, ‘if a shape is a square, then it is a rectangle’ they are using a conditional to say that every square is a rectangle—no exceptions!  Let’s call conditionals that allow for no exceptions Strict Conditionals.  Not all conditionals are strict, however. Sometimes people use these claims to express a strong conditional relation between two things, but one that nevertheless admits of exceptions.  Suppose somebody says: ‘if you fall out of a third story window, then you will get hurt’.  In making this claim, they are not ruling out the possibility you won’t get hurt, they are just saying that it is very likely.  We will call conditionals that describe a regular pattern, but which nonetheless allow for exceptions, Strong Conditionals.

This distinction is important because determining whether a conditional is true or not depends on what kind of conditional it is.  If an author has proposed a strict conditional as a premise, then we need to ask whether this relationship always holds without exception.  If there is even one exception, then the strict conditional will be false.  Consider the following dialogue:

Ex. 5:

Kelly: If a person lies, then they have done something that is wrong.

Elena: I disagree; think about white lies.  If somebody asks if you like their outfit, and although you don’t think so, you say ‘yes’, I don’t think you have done anything wrong.  Do you?

Kelly: Well, I guess not.

Kelly has put forth a strict conditional that says lying is always wrong.  Elena is suggesting that Kelly’s strict conditional is false, since it seems like there are exceptions—there are cases in which the antecedent is true (a person might lie), but the consequent false (it isn’t wrong).  Kelly agrees with Elena’s claim, and consequently agrees that the original strict conditional is false.  In general, a strict conditional will be false when there is even a single exception.  More specifically,

A Strict Conditional is false when (and only when) there is a case in which the antecedent is true and the consequent false, i.e. an exception.

In everyday reasoning, strict conditionals are relatively uncommon.  Most of the time we use strong conditionals; that is, most of the time we use conditionals to say only that the truth of the antecedent is usually accompanied by the truth of the consequent.  For example, this is what we tend to mean when we say things like:

Ex. 6:

If Matt has had the Chicken Pox once, then he won’t get it again.

Most people know that although it is very unlikely that a person would get Chicken Pox twice, it can happen.  So when we make this claim, we are not saying that the truth of the antecedent is always accompanied by the truth of the consequent, only that most of time a person who has the Chicken Pox will not get it again.

Given this, strong conditionals are false in different circumstances than strict conditionals.  Such conditionals do not, after all, claim that there are no exceptions.  Consequently, the fact that there is some circumstance in which the antecedent is true and the consequent false does not show that the conditional as a whole is false.  It follows that:

A Strong Conditional is false when (and only when) the truth of the antecedent is not usually accompanied by the truth of the consequent.

Let’s look at an example of a false strong conditional: suppose that a friend of yours will be doing some email correspondence with a person from Denmark, and worries that this person probably doesn’t speak English on the basis of the following strong conditional:

Ex. 7:

If a person is from Denmark, then they probably don’t speak English.

This strong conditional is false.  The truth of the antecedent (a person’s being from Denmark) is not usually accompanied by the truth of the consequent (not speaking English).  In fact, quite the opposite: over 80% of Danes speak English.

In most cases it will be clear that an author intends one kind of conditional or the other.  In ambiguous cases, however, we should assume the author intends a strong conditional.  The reasons for this is grounded in the Golden Rule for Argument Interpretation.  An argument with a strict conditional is, all things being equal, more likely to be factually incorrect (and hence unsound), since all it takes is one exception for the premise to be false. So, if we are giving our interlocutor the benefit of the doubt, we should interpret their conditional claim as a strong one.

Section 4: A Special Class Unsound Argument—The Straw Man

In the context of discussing factual correctness, it is worth drawing attention to a special class of arguments called “straw man arguments”.  Perhaps the best way to start is with an example.  At the first meeting of the year, Jasmin and Lauren are talking about issues the student council should take up this year:

Ex. 8:

Jasmin: The dorms are too loud at night.  Some of us have early classes or practice, but on most nights there are people talking loudly and playing music until 1 or 2 in the morning.  I’d like the council to think about some steps that we could take to limit noise at night.

Lauren: I disagree; college students are college students, and this idea that we are going to completely eliminate late-night noise is simply not realistic.

In response to Jasmin’s concern Lauren has given a straw man argument.  First, Lauren has misrepresented Jasmin’s concern.  Jasmin has asked the student council to consider some steps to limit noise, not to completely eliminate it.  Second, Lauren has criticized the misrepresented concern (on the grounds that it is unrealistic).  Thus, Lauren’s straw man creates the impression that Jasmin’s concern can be justly set aside, when really it hasn’t been discussed at all.  Hopefully, Jasmin will recognize this, and jump in to correct Lauren’s misrepresentation.

In general, a straw man argument is an argument that draws a negative conclusion about a claim, viewpoint, or organization on the basis of a misrepresentation of it.  A straw man looks like a real person from a distance, and is a lot easier to knock down. So too, it is often easier to reject a misrepresented position than it is to reject a genuine one.  Importantly, straw man arguments can be unintentional.  While sometimes people intentionally misrepresent their opponents’ viewpoints, in other cases we accidentally misrepresent others’ positions because of ignorance or confusion.  Recall that in our discussion of argument analysis in Unit #2 we were careful to stick close to the author’s words, and we did this, in part, to avoid accidentally creating a straw man argument.   Whether intentional or not, straw man arguments are common.  They are especially common in heated public debates in which cooperative dialogue has broken down.

scarecrow with bird on its head
“Scarecrow” by Marxchivist CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most notorious straw man argument in recent public discourse comes from former Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin.  In opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Palin posted the following on her Facebook page:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.” (August 7th, 2009)

Former Gov. Palin is completely and obviously right that such a system would be downright evil.  We can all agree about that.  The problem is that her argument is not factually correct; the argument grossly misrepresents the health care proposal it was criticizing.  To be clear, to call Palin’s argument (or any other) a “straw man” is not to make a claim about the truth of the conclusion.  It is only to say that this argument misrepresents the position it is criticizing, and so does not succeed in really criticizing that at which it is ostensibly aiming.

A different kind of straw man misrepresents a claim, view, or organization by quoting their own words out of context.  A sentence can seem to have a very different meaning if viewed in isolation or out of its original setting, and people sometimes make use of this fact to criticize their opponents.  Consequently, we will call these examples Contextual Straw Man Arguments.  Most contextual straw man arguments are intentional misrepresentations.  Here are a couple of cases from political history.

In 2011 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign released an advertisement which quoted President Obama as saying “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The ad suggested that Obama himself recognized that in the 2012 election he would be vulnerable when it came to the economy.  On its face, these were Obama’s own words.  How could he have meant anything different?  As it turns out, this quotation was taken from a speech during the 2008 campaign and Obama was actually quoting someone within his challenger’s campaign.  Not only wasn’t Obama talking about the 2012 election, he was quoting his opponent!

During the same campaign the Democratic National Committee released a video which repeatedly showed Mitt Romney saying “I like being able to fire people” interspersed with video clips from movies and television of other people saying “you’re fired.”  The video suggested that Romney was a callous jerk out of touch with average people.  Again—these were Romney’s own words—what else could he have meant?  As it turns out, Romney was not referring to people, but rather to insurance providers.  He said:

“I want individuals to have their own insurance…That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.” (Jan. 9th, 2012)

Romney’s point was that choice in the marketplace is a good thing.  His claim was that being able to switch from one insurance provider to another gives your provider an incentive to deliver high-quality service.  One can disagree with Romney’s claim, but he certainly was not saying that he likes to fire people!

Section 5: Recognizing and Avoiding Straw Men

A straw man’s “natural habitat” is criticism, and we want to be on the lookout for them whenever a claim, viewpoint, or organization is criticized.  Now, to spot a straw man argument is to spot a misrepresentation, and so the more one knows about a person or organization’s view, the easier it is to spot misrepresentations of that view.  Unfortunately, we do not always have this knowledge.  In this case, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.

First, if you don’t know much about the idea or organization that is being criticized—look it up!  To be sure, we do not have the time, interest, or energy to look up the subject of every criticism.  However, in cases where it matters, we should not endorse an objection to a view without having good reason to believe that the representation on which it is based is accurate.

Second, ask yourself: “how plausible is the view the critic attributes to his or her opponent?”  The less plausible the attributed view, the more suspicious you should be that the critic has misrepresented the view.  To give just a few examples, if a person or group is represented as thinking that: criminals should be allowed to run free, that our national parks should be strip-mined, or that we should return the economy to the barter system, you should suspect a straw man.  It is not that people or organizations never have extreme or implausible views, it is just that, again, we should be confident that they have the view before we criticize them for it.

Third, who is the critic?  Is the critic a neutral third-party, or is the critic part of an organization or entity that is opposed to the idea or organization in question?  As we will see, we are subject to a variety of biases (conscious and unconscious) that can lead us to misrepresent ideas, and this is especially the case if there is some incentive or benefit for doing so.  Thus, the less neutral the critic, the more suspicious we should be that we are looking at a straw man argument.

Turning to straw man arguments in our own reasoning, it might seem easy, given the examples above, to avoid using them. We might think that all we need to do is to abstain from purposefully misrepresenting other’s ideas.  It is not so simple, however.  The problem is that although some cases of straw man argumentation are intentional, many are not.  As we will see, it can be very easy to accidentally and unintentionally misrepresent others’ views.  Sometimes this happens because the views in question are unfamiliar or complicated, other times this happens because we are unknowingly biased in one way or another.  As such, we need to be careful before criticizing others’ viewpoints that we have accurately represented them.  One strategy for avoiding accidental straw man arguments is to ask yourself prior to developing your criticism:

Would a proponent of this view accept my characterization of it?

Asking this question also puts you in a position to develop a more nuanced criticism.  After all, since you already have a proponent of this view in mind, it is easier to imagine how they might reply to your objection, and easier to avoid biased reasoning (as we will see in the next chapter).

Exercises

Exercise Set 8A:

#1:

List in descending order of confidence three propositions you believe are true.

Exercise Set 8B:

Directions: Drawing on your basic knowledge, determine whether the following conditionals are likely being used to express strict or strong conditionals. Write ‘Strict’ or ‘Strong’.

#1:

If I am late, then my mom will be mad.

#2:

If a person has murdered another person, then they have killed another person.

#3:

If the Sears tower is the tallest building in the world, then it is taller than the Empire State Building.

#4:

If (s)he graduates from college with high honors (and is trying to get a job), then (s)he will get a good job right after graduation.

#5:

If you ever saw the Beatles play live, then you are older than 45.

#6:

If you eat expired yogurt, then you are going to get sick.

Exercise Set 8C:

Directions: Identify the misrepresentation in each problem.  Then say how you would reply.  

#1:

A: I don’t think that the U.S should have invaded Iraq in 2003.

B: Oh, I see, so you don’t support the troops.  I, for one, think that it is our obligation as citizens to support the troops during wartime.

#2:

A: I am not in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana use.  I just don’t see many benefits, but a lot of costs.

B: Are you serious?  What do you think…that everybody is going to walk around high all the time?

#3:

A: The new statewide standardized tests don’t do a good job measuring what is really important.  Moreover, it leads teachers to spend undue time teaching test-taking strategies.

B: Critics of the new statewide standardized tests think that schools do not need to be held accountable.  But public schools are receiving taxpayer funds and the public needs to know what they are paying for.

#4:

The TSA recently announced that it will be using full-body scanners in many of America’s busiest airports.  These scanners are excellent tools for uncovering contraband without an intrusive personal search.  Predictably, all kinds of people have objected to the use of these scanners, claiming that they violate their privacy.  To the critics I say: I am sorry, that you are uncomfortable with your body, but public safety outweighs your body issues.  I suggest that folks stop complaining, and start thanking TSA employees for their important work.

#5:

A: I won’t be voting for Bill 891 because there are cheaper and more effective ways to monitor who and what is coming across the border.

B: Unlike A, I am interested in the security of the American people, and will do everything within my power to protect them from external dangers to their health and prosperity.

#6:

Proponents of gun control are totally unrealistic.  They want to ban the use and ownership of all firearms in the United States so that not even the police will be able to carry guns, and hunters and target shooters will have to give up their sports.

#7:

A couple car shopping:

A: I like this one; it fits our budget and is pretty reliable.

B: True, but I am not convinced.  It is just such a boring car in terms of style.

A: I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were looking for a Ferrari—c’mon you know we can’t afford that!

Exercise Set 8D:

#1:

What is the problem with Ben’s reasoning in the following case?

Hansa: A train is coming, get away from the edge of the platform!

Ben: Why?

Hansa: Uh…because if you fall off the edge, you’ll get hit by the train and die!

Ben: That is a poor argument Hansa, I mean, I heard that one time somebody fell off a platform, got hit by a train, and lived! 

#2:

Do you recall having seen a Straw Man Argument?  If so, explain.  If not, create your own straw man argument.  Try to make it something that a person might realistically offer.

 

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Arguments in Context by Thaddeus Robinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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