ymeskhout

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My kingdom for a truly universal footnote format

I wanted to include very basic examples first:

For example, observing that most birds can fly, assuming that flight is a necessary trait for being classified as a bird (composition), and subsequently excluding penguins from being birds because they don’t fly (division). Or observing that mammals tend to have fur, assuming fur is a necessary trait for being a mammal, and therefore excluding dolphins as not mammals. Or observing that weapons tend to cause bleeding and therefore excluding blunt instruments like clubs and batons. The list goes on.

I am planning yet another follow-up to outline more contentious examples. Basically, almost any dispute  that is based on a disguised query and hinges on specific categorization matches the fallacy. Some of the prominent examples that come to mind, with the sticker shortcut label italicized:

  • Was January 6th an insurrection?
  • Is Israel committing a genocide?
  • Are IQ tests a form of eugenics?

All of these questions appear to be a disguised query into asking whether X is a "really bad thing". But instead of asking this directly, they try to sneak in the connotation through the label. Similarly, the whole debate over whether transwomen are women is a hodgepodge of disguised queries that try to sneak in a preferred answer through the acceptance of labels. In each of these examples, we're better served by discussing the thing directly rather than debating over labels. Does this help clarify?

he is not only willing to have an affair, but he’s willing to break the law to hide it.

This too is another example of the fallacy I'm describing. The fact that OJ Simpson was acquitted of a double homicide doesn't change my mind that he did in fact kill two people, all it tells me is that the legal system did not find him guilty of the allegations. If someone started every conversation about OJ with "exonerated celebrity football player OJ Simpson", it's obvious what connotations they're trying to convey without having to communicate them directly.

I'm sorry, but this is exactly the fallacy I'm describing in my post. Sometimes the innocent is convicted, and sometimes the guilty is acquitted, which means the only thing that makes "convicted" true in all circumstances is "the legal system has deemed an individual guilty of the allegations". Nothing more. Now, you may certainly make very plausible Bayesian predictions about the fact that someone has been convicted, but they will always be probabilistic rather than determinative.

Consider the hypothetical where Trump's conviction gets overturned or vacated, maybe because of some procedural defect, what would change? For me, it wouldn't change the fact that Trump constructed a convoluted scheme to pay hush money to a porn star he had an affair with in an attempt to hide this fact from the voting public. The only thing that would change from the conviction getting overturned is whether "the legal system has deemed an individual guilty of the allegations".

I don't believe that anyone actually holds the syllogism you describe, because a consistent application would mean that even folks like Nelson Mandela (convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life) would be unfit to serve as president. Instead, what I gather people are doing is some combination of the composition/division fallacies:

A (being convicted of a felony) implies B (being a bad person).

B (being a bad person) implies C (being unfit to be president).

Therefore, A (being convicted of a felony) implies C (being unfit to be president).

I disagree that there is such a thing as objective "centrality", just as I disagree there is such a thing as objective definitions. All language is made-up, and it's only useful to the extent others share your (arbitrarily designated) meaning or boundaries. There are scores of real-life examples that clearly illustrate this, such as the fact that the word for 'sake' refers to all alcoholic drinks in Japanese, or how some languages make a distinction between maternal/paternal aunt/uncle, or how Russian treats light blue and dark blue as separate colors, etc.

Even setting that aside, the only insight you glean from determining whether a member is central to a category or not is...whether a member is central to a category or not. If you use category membership itself to glean any other information about a member, this is exactly the sticker shortcut fallacy I'm describing.

Statutory and other legal interpretation is exempt from my critique here, because the meaning of a word is very often explicitly spelled out in legislation (hence why legalese is so tedious to read). When the meaning is ambiguous, judges resort to specific canons of interpretations (such as legislative intent, ordinary meaning, historical meaning, rule of lenity, etc.) that are based in legal precedent.

I think this post might be a good illustration of the sticker shortcut fallacy I'm describing. Instead of directly describing the information you want to impart, you're instead relying upon the label dredging up enough 'good enough' connotations attached to it.

  • I think it's non-fallacious to use language as a shorthand, the same way we say "do you want to play baseball?" rather than "do you want to play a bat-and-ball sport played between two teams of nine players each, taking turns batting and fielding?"
  • What information, specifically, do you believe "Trump: convicted felon" conveys except that "a jury reviewed evidence and were convinced that Trump committed a particular offense categorized under New York state law as a felony"? I mean this question very narrowly.
  • On this point, I concede your argument. To the extent anyone is operating at the "sticker" level (e.g. we don't support law-breakers) then pointing out that their preferred candidate is a law-breaker is indeed a valid rebuttal. But if it's deployed outside that narrow purpose, then it becomes fallacious.

If the problem is ad hoc application, then it doesn't matter if the archetype is "central" or not, no?

My objection to "MLK is a criminal" is that it has to make too many unannounced jumps to get to its conclusion. The principle I can glean from this type of denouncement is something along the lines of "[Criminals] should not be honored by statutes" but whether or not this is a good argument depends entirely on what definition of [criminal] we're using. If we adopt a barebones definition of the word, we'd end up with something like "[anyone who has ever broken any law] should not be honored by statues" which immediately is exposed as unconvincing, which is why they have to hide behind the connotation. That's why I argue the problem isn't whether it's "central" but rather using labels as reasoning shortcuts.

Indeed, it's the same fallacy.

Edit: for those who disagree, can you explain why? I don't believe that "Trump is a convicted felon" tells us anything new except that a court found him guilty of a felony. I'm not trying to be pedantic here, but so what? If people are actually interested in the connotation avalanche that is attached to that label (such as 'bad person', 'dishonorable', 'malicious', etc) then why not just use those direct descriptions instead?

It's interesting hearing about your background. One of my approaches when I negotiate cases with prosecutors is that I openly admit the strengths of the government's case. I've recently had a factually innocent client who was charged as an accessory to burglary, but it seemed obvious to me she had no idea what the other people were up to. When I talked to the prosecutor, I fully acknowledged "This aspect does indeed look bad for my client, but..." and I've always wondered whether this approach has any effect. In this particular instance I did get the case dismissed (and many others like it), but I'm curious if it's a lesson I can continue extrapolating.

I think I recognize the power I wield in these circumstances. However, it only exists because I work to ensure my credibility doesn't get diluted too often.

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