How big (and how good) an argument can you fit into 140 characters?
If we are looking for simple arguments to begin learning the process of logic-checking, one can often find them contained in nuggets of discourse as small as the off-hand remark. For better or worse, those off-hand comments have now become a major form of political discourse, whose length is determined by the character limits of Twitter.
This dynamic was already established before the nation elected a President ready to take to Twitter to say whatever was on his mind, versus less-spontaneous Twitter feeds by politicians using the platform to communicate more controlled messages. So what might logic-checking tell us about President Trump’s tweet(s) of the day?
In this case, we’ll look at a pair of linked Presidential tweets (which brings the character limit up to 280) written during recent impeachment hearings:
For those unfamiliar with the person Trump is quoting, Ken Starr was the Independent Counsel who oversaw investigations into former President Bill Clinton, investigations that ended up with Clinton being impeached over issues related to lying about improper sexual conduct in the White House.
While the President does not link to the source of his Starr quote, it more than likely came from this exchange on Fox News during which the former Counsel claims that allegations against the current President do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
Now there are a number of ways we can approach this topic, from embracing it as gospel to dismissing it entirely. But in order to give it the logic-check treatment, we need to determine (1) the conclusion the President wants us to reach, and (2) the evidence he claims should lead us to that that conclusion.
What does the arguer want you to believe?
In this case, President Trump clearly wants us to believe that the charges against him are false, a conclusion reinforced by hundreds of statements he and his allies have made before and since the comments above were tweeted that characterize impeachment hearings as a sham, a fraud and a part of a coup d’état.
To evaluate an argument, however, we must first isolate it from other material (including heated commentary from all sides of the impeachment debate) and boil the argument down to just the evidence we are being asked to accept and the conclusion an argument tells us we are required to accept if we accept that evidence.
When placed into a structured argument, pieces of evidence are referred to as premises, so in this case the President is supplying a single premise -- that someone experienced in determining what charges should lead to impeachment has claimed that the current charges against Trump do not reach that level -- that leads to the conclusion of Trump’s innocence.
Is the Argument any Good?
Like in our last debate argument, the first step in the logic-checking process is not to determine if the premise is true, but to ask ourselves if accepting the premise requires us to accept the conclusion. In other words, it is the connection between the premise and the conclusion (called a “warrant” in logical argumentation, although we can also refer to it as “reasons for belief” or simply “reasons”) that we want to test first.
Like our previous debate example, it is quite easy to reject the conclusion, even if we accept the premise as true. After all, Ken Starr may have more experience than most of us developing a case against a President, but that doesn’t mean he has put in the time to understand the particulars of Trump’s situation as well as he did when he was given the role of an official investigator. From quotes appearing in other venues, he might be counseling caution, rather than giving a legal opinion, given the political chaos he saw triggered by previous impeachment proceedings. Finally, let’s not forget that more information has emerged, and will continue to emerge, in the days after Trump tweeted Starr’s original quote, meaning that opinion may no longer be timely.
All of this gives us ample reason to reject the President’s preferred conclusion, even if we accept his premise. We can also dig further into the premise in order to prove it false. But given that it doesn’t serve as the foundation of a strong argument, even if true, this means we can reject the President’s argument due to failure of warrant regardless of the truth or falsehood of the evidence.
In many situations (like this one), the problem we face in understanding the news is not a crisis of false facts, but rather a crisis of warrant (or lack thereof). As you will see in the examples we look at over the coming weeks and months, warrant/reason-for-belief are not matters of opinion but are as real as any piece of factual information. Internalizing that insight is the first requirement of becoming a critical thinker.