Larry Confronts Towering Strawmen

By S.D. Plissken | May 22, 2018

Economic Development Committeeman Larry Brown rose to speak during last night’s [May 21st’s] Public Comment portion of the Milton Board of Selectmen Meeting. (The full text of Brown’s comments appear in indented italics).

Larry Brown. Our Public Comment has been moved around and people don’t remember the meetings from about three meetings ago [April 16], but what I wanted to do was talk about a topic which I am sure is heavy on your minds, which is the old Greek philosophers, specifically Sophists, who had a bad reputation for a good reason.

They were the kind of philosophers who had arguments that were plausible, self-serving, and knowingly deceptive. They specialized in the destruction of fair discussion by questions that could by their very nature have no direct answer.

Few Sophist works survive from antiquity. Most of what we “know” of them was written by their detractors. (Imagine a future in which an ancient Democrat’s description of the ancient Republicans is all that is known about them (or vice versa)).

Brown does not cite or refute any actual Sophist arguments, but merely repeats the prejudicial characterizations of those ancient opponents. He is employing here a Prejudicial Language fallacy (also known as variant imagization), as well as a Composition fallacy, on his way to a full-on Ad Hominem fallacy.

To denigrate the original speaker of April 16th as a Sophist should require some proof. Even if the original speaker’s opinions overlapped to some degree or in some respect those of the ancient Sophists would not by itself make him a Sophist. To assert such is to engage in a Composition fallacy. (Hitler liked dogs, so people who like dogs are evil).

To then employ alone these unanswerable ancient pejoratives and a Composition fallacy to characterize the original speaker as a wicked Sophist is to engage in an Ad Hominem fallacy or attack, i.e., to speak to the supposed characteristics of an opponent rather than to address their arguments. (There’s a lot of that going around these days).

Example: “How can you say you are moving forward when one-sixth of the voters don’t want the town to exist?” Or, “why should we pay for the mistakes of past assessments?”

Brown’s reframing of the original speaker’s arguments so that he might answer something other than those arguments is a use of the Strawman fallacy. The original speaker (April 16th) made that final point about the results of the March election only as an answer to an assertion by Chairman Thibeault that he felt he spoke for the “entire board and the entire community.” It had little, if anything, to do with seeking explanation of the “moving forward” or “change” aspects of Chairman Thibeault’s statement, which was the principal issue.

Brown was answering a question that had never been asked, at least not as he presented it. There was nothing Sophistic in pointing out that the recent election results proved that Chairman Thibeault did not speak for the “entire” community. The original speaker was proffering a valid counter-example to Thibeault’s assertion of a wider mandate than he actually has.

The two new Selectmen rushed to disavow the actions of the prior board (which had then included now Chairman Thibeault) as having nothing to do with them. So, at least when speaking of the prior board’s actions, or lack thereof, Chairman Thibeault was not speaking for the “entire board” either.

The original speaker had refuted Chairman Thibeault’s assertions of representing the “entire” board and community in the tax matter at hand with valid counter-examples. Nothing Sophistic about it.

As to the first, five times as many voters wanted this town to continue and the actions, structure, and the very election of the new board are an example of that moving forward.

As noted above, Brown is here creating and refuting an argument that the original speaker never made. But his own refutation argument – that a five-sixths majority should compel the actions and fortunes of a one-sixth minority, with no stated limit – is fascinating, if somewhat appalling. The minority should be compelled by a majority to participate in a polity they abhor or in actions they oppose.

Brown is putting forward an Appeal to Numbers (argumentum ad populum) fallacy. That is precisely why the U.S. was designed as a democratic republic and not as a democracy. It did compel participation, but it also incorporated safeguards intended to protect the natural rights of minorities (or, at least, of minorities that it considered to be within its polity). Otherwise, what would be the likely fate of permanent minorities, such as the red-headed, the left-handed, those of minority ethnicity, religion, etc.? Not to mention those with dissident opinions.

The Athenian Democracy executed Socrates, a Sophist, by voting for him to drink poison hemlock. They regularly exiled dissidents by “ostracizing” them, i.e., voting citizens into compulsory exile with potsherd ballots (“ostrakon”). Then followed the Tyrants and the Athenian Empire. And then they fell.

As to the second, absent criminal intent, malfeasance, and the explicit penalties in a contract of record, in a court action it will cost more than the cost of the injury alleged and the simple [?} have little chance of success. That’s the reality.

This is not an argument against the justice of seeking a refund for poor services. It employs instead an Appeal to Consequences fallacy (Argumentum ad Consequentiam). The expense of action or likelihood of success should determine our actions, rather than the truth of the complaint or the pursuit of justice.

But the original speaker framed it somewhat differently. He asked instead, if, as we have been told, the original mass assessment was defective, why are not seeking a refund?

That contains within it the possibility we might not have been told the truth or, at least, not told all of it. It would have been possible for Chairman Thibeault to admit finally to what has become increasingly obvious: that he, the prior board, and other town officials were at fault. The original speaker allowed for such an admission. Were that the truth, there would be no need to seek legal action against the former assessing contractor.

In his two agenda items, the original speaker actually questioned how we could safely “move forward” or “change” without knowing the truth of what had happened. It was the town officials that had for months shifted blame onto the prior assessor. The original speaker appears to have called their bluff. The Town Administrator began to speak instead of the prior assessors having done things differently, rather than incorrectly, as she and the Selectmen had either stated or implied over a number of months. She also admitted that the then Selectmen had used a “sample ‘reval’ [revaluation]” in setting the rates. So, the original speaker elicited some truths previously obscured. Socrates would approve.

Assessing is an art, not a science.

That would be frightening indeed, if true. How would one ever know an assessment was invalid, as opposed to not quite suited to one’s artistic taste and sensibilities? Not to mention the problem of balancing the artistic tastes of taxpayers versus those who benefit from increased taxes.

If you want more information you can go to the DRA website and you can look up the mathematical formulas which set equalization. The Municipal Association has an article written by Stephen Hamilton, who I knew when I was in municipal and county government. He has been for years the person in charge of the Property Appraisal Division of the DRA and his comments on classical statistics and small sample overrepresentation and the goal of central tendency are still very much on target for assessing today.

Here Brown concludes with an Appeal to Authority fallacy (argumentum ad verecundiam). As an argument, it counts for nothing. Hamilton’s work likely has merit, but none of it has been cited to any particular purpose. It just sounds good.

So, the comments come late and thank you for your work.

Brown failed to show that original speaker employed any Sophist techniques at all, nor did he show why that would have been a bad thing. Nor did he respond to anything that the original speaker actually said. On the contrary, it was Brown himself  who employed quite a few logical fallacies and “merely” rhetorical devices in his comments.

Perhaps, for some reason of his own, he intended to provide us with a practical demonstration of his notions of Sophism?

References:

Milton Board of Selectmen. (2018, April 16). Milton Board of Selectmen Meeting, April 16, 2018. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/IK0JE0Yi3mw?t=3986

Milton Board of Selectmen. (2018, May 21). Milton Board of Selectmen Meeting, May 21, 2018. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/SrojxJNx1ck?t=82

Wikipedia. (2018, May 19). List of Fallacies. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

Wikipedia. (2018, May 20). Sophist, Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophist

 

Author: S.D. Plissken

I thought he'd be taller.

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