Heuristics and Hyperbole:
How Not to Argue (Part I)

Logic & Rhetoric — By on December 1, 2005 at 12:35 am

“Experience keeps a dear school,” said Ben Franklin, “but fools will learn in no other.” Unfortunately, experience�s curriculum is comprised almost exclusively of tests. That is why fools like me tend to have rudimentary knowledge about what to do while possessing a Pavlovian understanding of what not to do.
Because that is the case I thought I would share my insights on how not to argue. I would much prefer to write a series on the proper way to use logic and rhetoric but I haven’t the faintest clue what that would entail. All I can offer is a set of heuristics, commonsense rules intended to increase the probability of solving some problem, which might help others avoid the tuition costs of experience’s school for debate.
A heuristic, as Wikipedia usefully defines the term, is a way of directing your attention fruitfully. Because our cognitive abilities are finite, it often becomes necessary to find simple means of using such resources most effectively. Heuristics are not infallible, but they tend to provide suitable means of “directing our attention more fruitfully” to recurring problems we face.
An example of a rule of thumb that I find to be particularly useful in helping to avoid problems is to avoid, whenever possible, willfully stupid people. Intelligence is, of course, a relative concept and everyone (except for the World’s Smartest Person) is just a little less bright than someone else. Willful stupidity, however, is distinct from IQ because it consists of a moral failing: Choosing to be dumber than you have to be.
One way to recognize a willfully stupid person is to examine the role hyperbole plays in their rhetoric. Take, for example, those who, like Pulitzer-nominated author Stephen Pizzo, say that “George Bush is the worst president of the United States of America, ever. Hands down.” Whenever I encounter such people I walk the other way for fear that such stupidity might be contagious. For anyone to make such a claim would require a basic understanding of Presidential history, an objective standard for comparing other Presidents to George W, and an ability to make nuanced judgments. In other words, it requires the very skill set that would generally prevent a person from making such an inane claim in the first place.


(I should note that this is not just a failing of left-leaning progressives. Willful stupidity is certainly not a partisan issue; we heard the same sort of claims about Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The only difference is that Bush became President during the Age of the Blogosphere when the effects of echo-chamber ranting became more pronounced.)
The problem with making such a hyperbolic claim is that such exaggerations are not meant to be taking seriously. When the person who makes them treats them as if it were a rational claim then it shows that they themselves are not worthy of being taken seriously.*
The reason this is the case is that hyperbole is a form of metaphor, a figure of speech used to paint one concept with the attributes normally associated with another. As Aristotle explained, metaphors perform a role in learning. In order to understand a metaphor, the hearer has to find something common between the metaphor and the thing which the metaphor is referred to. As the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy explains:

[I]f someone calls the old age “stubble,” we have to find a common genus to which old age and stubble belong; we do not grasp the very sense of the metaphor until we find that both, old age and stubble, have lost their bloom. Thus, a metaphor does not only refer to a thing, but simultaneously describes the respective thing in a certain respect. This is why Aristotle says that the metaphor brings about learning: as soon as we understand why someone uses the metaphor “stubble” to refer to old age, we have learned at least one characteristic of old age.

Metaphor also can be considered to be a balance between the ground and the tension. The ground consists of the similarities between “stubble” and “old age” while the tension of the metaphor consists of the dissimilarities between the two concepts. The problem with hyperbole is that in amplifying the ground (the similarity) you also amplify the tension (the dissimilarities).
Even when the ground is strong, hyperbole causes the tension to be increased, thereby weakening the effectiveness of the metaphor. Though some might not see it as an instance of hyperbole, I believe a prime example is the phrase “the holocaust of abortion.” Even those who agree with the similarities between the terms “abortion” and “Holocaust” (the wanton slaughter of innocent human life) find it difficult to overcome the undeniable tension and differences. Although the intentions may be noble, the effect is that it merely produces a weak metaphor that denigrates both tragedies.
Hyperbole has a legitimate role in rhetoric. But when you want your audience to focus on the similarities in your comparisons you must downplay the dissimilar aspects. In order to more fruitfully direct their attention to your argument it is best to avoid exaggeration. Metaphors work best when they are fresh, not when they are loud.
But even when the arguments fail to convince your audience honing your use of metaphorical language can aid in shaping your own thinking. Sloppy, trite arguments should be avoided not only because they are ineffective but because they encourage you to become a sloppy, trite thinker.
* At this point you might be inclined to disagree with this particular rule of thumb. If so, then I recommend you consider how you apply it in your own life. Think of the people whose analysis and judgment you most trust, the ones you consider to be sober and scrupulous thinkers. Now think of the people who are most prone to exaggeration and to making comments that amplify certain aspects out of proportion to reality. I suspect that, like me, you won�t find much overlap between the two groups.



  • http://impactedwisdomtruth.blogspot.com/2005/12/sounds-logical-to-me.html Impacted Wisdom Truth

    Sounds Logical To Me

    Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost writes a good synopsis of what constitutes useful argument and the proper use of metaphor.
    One of my pet peeves is over-the-top rhetoric that seeks to inflame and affect the reader or listener, and lacks cogent …

  • http://impactedwisdomtruth.blogspot.com Impacted Wisdom Truth

    Sorry about the double trackback, Joe. The first attempt returned an error so I sent it again.

  • http://bevets.com/grapevine.htm bevets

    Certainly we need subtlety and balance (Ecc 7.18), but I think you went overboard on the hyperbole metaphor. cf Luke 6.41-42

  • http://eternalperspectives.com/ Mike

    I think this post is the greatest ever in the history of the blogosphere. Or in recorded history, period!

  • http://unlocked-wordhoard.blogspot.com/2005/12/fresh-metaphor-refreshing-simile.html Unlocked Wordhoard

    Fresh Metaphor, Refreshing Simile

    In a post about hyperbole, Joe Carter had this to say “Metaphors work best when they are fresh, not when they are loud.”
    Carter and Wittgenstein must be ganging up on me, because just yesterday I took note of Wittgenstein writing “A good simile re…

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Excellent post indeed. It did a neat little job, well constructed and very sensible!

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com Mumon


    One way to recognize a willfully stupid person is to examine the role hyperbole plays in their rhetoric. Take, for example, those who, like Pulitzer-nominated author Stephen Pizzo, say that

  • Bryan K Mills

    Mumon, you’re just subtly trying to prove Joe’s point, right? You’re not seriously advancing that argument are you?
    Let’s go back just 1 president and compare.
    Assault on rights. How many people has Bush sicced the IRS on in response to criticisms of him?
    Corruption. How many Bush administration officials have been indicted, convicted, and jailed?
    Security Compromise. How much technology has Bush sold to the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions?
    Strategic issues. I agree that Bush’s record isn’t stellar in many of these issues, but I’ll take him over Clinton any day.
    Partisanship seems to have replaced any semblance of objective factual analysis. Spin rules the day. (And I’ll admit I’m guilty of the same more often than I’m comfortable with)

  • GotToBTru

    There are two verses in Proverbs 26 that apply here:
    4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you will be like him yourself.
    5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. (NIV)
    The best way to find out if someone is being willfully ignorant is to ask them to explain their statement. “What evidence has led you to that conclusion?” In this way, you start out from the assumption that v5 applies to this person. I know this tactic would have been incredibly effective on me in my brief period of omniscience during my undergraduate years. I honestly believed I had arrived at my opinions by reason and experience but very rarely had I really thought things through.
    Verse 4…you covered that already.

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com Mumon

    Bryan K Mills:
    Assault on rights. How many people has Bush sicced the IRS on in response to criticisms of him?
    You haven’t heard about that church that was making criticisms of both Bush and Kerry that the IRS went after? That hasn’t been the only case.
    Corruption. How many Bush administration officials have been indicted, convicted, and jailed?
    We have Scooter Libby, of course, for obstruction, the highest ranking person empoyed in the office of the president to be so indicted in over 100 years.
    And we don’t have more of course, because the Republican Congress has been toothless in its pursuit of other issues involved related to 9/11, the Cheney/Halliburton corruption, the nepotism of Brown, etc.
    But the potential apparent crime involved in the Libby case – the violation of the Espionage Act if not the Intelligence Indentities Protection Act- is in my memory the most serious criminal investigation in history.
    Security Compromise. How much technology has Bush sold to the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions?
    I think you’re trying to subtly make a “Clinton did worse” argument, but actually, this didn’t happen.
    But Bush did worse: more than a few of us remember the Aug. 6 PDB.
    More than a few of us remember that it was the Bush folks who gutted FEMA.
    And the best you have to counter that is a made up conspiracy?
    I’ll take him over Clinton any day.
    Why? Seriously? Because of something Newsmax fabricated?
    Spin rules the day. (And I’ll admit I’m guilty of the same more often than I’m comfortable with)
    I was not very happy with Clinton; he was a fool for doing the thing with Monica Lewinsky, and he did little – other than balance the budget except for the Social Security contribution- to improve America’s long term situation.
    Clinton though will go down in history as a better president than Bush, despite the extremist right’s attempts to continually smear him and blame him for everything.

  • http://www.vocatum.blogspot.com MM

    … didn’t Jesus use hyperbole?

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Joe Carter

    MM … didn’t Jesus use hyperbole?
    Sure, though I’m not sure he ever used it in the way in which I’m referring.
    There is nothing inherently wrong with using hyperbole for it does, as I noted, have a place in rhetoric. But becasue we live in a culture of exgerration it has lost much of its effectivness in being a useful means of communicating a point.

  • tom

    But the potential apparent crime involved in the Libby case – the violation of the Espionage Act if not the Intelligence Indentities Protection Act- is in my memory the most serious criminal investigation in history.
    Except that’s not what he was charged with. His account of a meeting differs from others’, and he maybe did lie, but if Fitzgerald had the goods on him for violating the Espionage Act, that’s what he would have charged him with.
    The silence is thundering.
    Now, consider; Every single woman who charged Bill Clinton with sexual harrassment or, worse, sexual assault was audited by the IRS.
    Bill Clinton’s Commerce Department okayed a technology exchange between Hughes Aircraft and China that gave China crucial missile-guidance systems. T his was approved after a Hughes bigwig donated money to the Clinton campaign.
    Who virtually emptied the White House of furniture and artwork upon moving out?
    Finally, how many associates of Bill & Hillary wound up in prison? Um, I think we’re up to about 10 or 12. The two are human tornadoes, leaving human wreckage in their wakes as they blissfully go on abusing people and power.

  • tom

    Oops, it was the Loral Corporation, not Hughes Aircraft, that made the donation to Clinton and sold critical technology (and shared other secrets about missile-guidance systems) to the Chinese.

  • Larry Lord

    “Who virtually emptied the White House of furniture and artwork upon moving out?”
    Wow. Talk about hyperbole.
    Is that part of the “trashing the white house” mythos?

  • windbag

    Thanks for that critical clarification, Tom. Your parade of 5+ year old, dead-horse character assassinations seems so much more credible, and so blisteringly relevant to contemporary politics, in light of the correction.

  • http://www.asininity.com pat

    Always remember that ignorance is curable but stupidity is forever.

  • Bryan K Mills

    “and he did little – other than balance the budget”
    Clinton balanced the budget because Congress made him do it. Without the Republican take over, it NEVER would have happened.
    But Presidents get credit/blame for the economy, so I’ll let that slide.
    But it is interesting that you give Clinton credit for this, when Congress was instrumental in its happening, yet Bush is solely responsible for the war, when the overwhelming majority of the Congress (and UN) sanctioned it as well.
    Maybe it’s a stretch to link these, but it seems rather absurd to me to not hold Congress and the UN responsible as well… IF you are going to argue that Iraq is a huge immoral failure.

  • Terry

    Mumon wrote:
    “Clinton though will go down in history as a better president than Bush, despite the extremist right’s attempts to continually smear him and blame him for everything.”
    Here’s what a Civil Right’s proponent — definately not a member of the ‘extreme right’ — said about Clinton’s record re his “1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”:

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    Hyperbole is very useful in certain situations, but the key is whether the person making the argument is (a) actually using hyperbole, and not just making willfully dumb, extreme statements; and (b) actually representing it as hyperbole, and not just making mendacious, extreme statements.
    Most of the more rabid Bush critics fail on one of these two, and a shocking number somehow manage to do both at once. Bush fans, of course, can be unwise, too.
    “Abraham Lincoln was arguably the worst President ever, on account of the damage he did to the federal system, which opened the way for the monolithic federal state of today.” One may or may not agree with the argument, but the hyperbole at the beginning (It would be hard not to say the Polk, for example, was worse) is legitimately used to underscore the argument.
    Cheers,
    PGE

  • Alan Leventhal

    I accidently came across your website and was amused about the comment, “George Bush is the worst president of the United States of America, ever…”. As an evangelical Jew who regards Jesus as one of the greatest prophets, ever, I still find it hard to argue against the author of the above quote, Stephen Pizzo. For sure, there have been worse presidents than George Bush, but, I doubt there has never been a president who has done as much damage. Even more worrying, are the good people who have been taken in by his absolutely phoney Christianity and patriotism. From the moment he entered the political arena it was clear that here was a weak, immature man with no moral compass or shred of compassion. Given his extreme inauthenticity and corruption, it’s no surprise that he and his party are imploding. Never before in the history of this country, have we had leadership with so much innocent blood on their hands. Since you genuinely seem to be serious Christians, I wonder how you plan to deal with the social and spiritual disarray amongst his dwindling followers and how we can cleanse ourselves of his immoral actions.Maybe it’s time we stopped worrying about the proper way to argue, and focussed more on doing what God would have us do. Sincerely, Judeo-Christian

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    “Alan Leventhal” reveals amazing levels of either ignorance or mendacity. I’d love to grant him ignorance, but his rhetorical ham-fistedness in trying the “reluctant opponent” stratagem suggests that the malicious disregard for truth is more fundamental than the misprisions of history in his comments. Not that I believe for a moment “Alan Leventhal” is his real name.

  • Larry Lord

    Bryan
    “But it is interesting that you give Clinton credit for this, when Congress was instrumental in its happening, yet Bush is solely responsible for the war, when the overwhelming majority of the Congress (and UN) sanctioned it as well.”
    Sure, little buddy.
    And Congress and UN had the “same intelligence” the president had, right?
    Keep on reciting the script.
    You may not realize it, but when you say such things, you reveal yourself to be a stooge.
    And a stooge for what exactly?
    For a plan to kill a whole mess of people.
    Flash forward to the present. In order to get our soldiers out of Iraq while the country is led by George Bush — a true believer in his own greatness if there ever was one — our representatives in Congress realize that they must pretend that “we won.”
    So now we will hear about “the victory” for a little while as we start extracting ourselves from the civil war we started (who’s surprised that happened? anyone?).
    The US has been down this road before.
    The crud is only beginning to hit the fan for Bush and his cronies.
    Watch and see.
    Meanwhile, I anxiously await the next post from Joe informing us about the latest blows to “Darwinism”. For some reason that aspect of this blog seems to have dried up, as has the warmongering.
    A good thing.

  • http://centuri0n.blogspot.com centuri0n

    I don’t agree with the hyperventilators who say “George Bush is the worst president of the United States, ever,” — because I lived through the Carter years, and the Ford Years — but I know why they say it. It doesn’t have anything to do with historical accuracy or nuanced judgments. It also doesn’t have anything to do with stupidity — because I’ll bet a pizza that you can find people who are othewise not-stupid who have said things as boldfaced as this about President Bush.
    It has to do with their view of political rhetoric. See: Democrats do not view political rhetoric as based on logic or facts. If they did, they wouldn’t be Democrats. Their view of political rhetoric is late-night college BS sessions. That is to say, the one who talks the longest, the loudest, and makes the greatest spectacle of the other side of the argument by any verbal means necessary is the one who “wins” the argument because the other side is supposed to shut up when they do this.
    Calling the President “stupid” is itself incredibly naive — even Carter, who was an iept leader, or Clinton, who was not an inept leader but had no periferal discipline, was not stupid (history can be more forgiving to someone who is stupid rather than self-absorbed). Let’s see: could a stupid person figure out that (as the rumor has it) Karl Rove is smart enough to “really” run things? Or is Rove actually stupid, too?
    Moreover, what does it say about the DNC that a “stupid” man with “stupid” advisors beat them twice for the White House?
    Those implications do not occur to those who throw this rhetoric around, and it is because they are not engaged in logical, methodical reasoning: they are involved in cloying emotionalism. It’s not just evident in the common rhetoric of that party: it starts at the top with the DNC Chair (it has for almost 20 years, so it’s not just Dean’s fault).
    It is dismissive to say that people like Stephen Pizzo are ‘willfully stupid’. It misses the real weakness of the position they are adopting.

  • http://gideonstrauss.com Gideon Strauss

    I do hope it’s okay to be sloppy, provided you are not trite. By some standards I am very sloppy. But I don’t think I am trite, at least not most of the time …

  • The Raven

    All right. I’ll take a swing at this one.
    First – regarding Joe’s posting. The entire notion of “argument” in the sense that he’s forwarding it is very much worth examining. Many of us who frequent weblogs and post comments on them are familiar with argumentation – whence “flamewar.”
    But as we mature and develop our faculties, some of us learn that a truly productive discussion is one in which both participants leave the engagement with food for additional thought. That is, the quintessential debate is one that surpasses the mere sum of its parts.
    Only the immature and intellectually incapable approach discussion with the spirit of the “zero-sum game,” as a combative exercise from which there will emerge a “winner” and a “loser.” Such thinking is sheer nonsense and most of you reading this grasp the point, I’m sure.
    True suasion is a far more complex matter. When you want to convince someone of the rightness of your belief, the correctness of your ideas, you don’t slap that person in the face, you engage them, flatter their sense of self, draw them forward and present to them the ineffable beauty of truth itself. Truth, as we know, is always recognizable prima facie.
    Which brings us to the statement: “George W. Bush is the worst president, ever.”
    That is a true statement. He’s worse than Harding, far worse than McKinley, worse than Taft, even. And I’ll tell you why. Stay with, Bush supporters, and maybe you’ll learn something.
    First off, we really must insist that our leaders be literate. Disparage Clinton all you like, but you can’t deny that he had charisma, you can’t gainsay the notion that he read widely and wrote well. Bush, on the other hand, has written… nothing. His presidential library will be entirely ghost written. This is a serious matter and no joke. Our presidency is not something to be awarded to a person who does not read nor write.
    Bush has little concern for the environment save as a source of potential exploitable revenue. This runs against the grain of most former presidents who recognized the immense value of America’s geophysical assets. Our parks, our prairies, our vast ranges of clear open space and biodiversity. Up to now, we’ve preserved a great deal of it at tremendous expense and cost. Bush is flushing it down the toilet.
    Torture. Ugly word. Ugly deed. Perhaps the most venal sin imaginable. Watch Bush struggle and flail for the right to waterboard people, the ability to strip them naked, the power to hood them and make them scream in pain. It’s against everything we know to be moral and define us as a people. Of all the civilizations this planet has ever known, America has always represented the very best. Bush threw that down on the ground and danced on it. He spit on it. He crapped on it. He made you and me complicit in the loss of hope itself.
    The Patriot Act, the Clean Skies Intiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Homeland Security Agency, everything that he’s championed is a testament to the foresight of George Orwell’s 1984, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that he is, verily, the embodiment of what the Christian Bible describes the Antichrist to be: The emergence of pure evil made incarnate.
    I don’t know how any of you (I’m not talking about Larry Lord or any of the other bright minds here) could possibly turn on your televisions and watch Bush speak and come to any other conclusion that we are being led by a stuffed suit, a puppet, a tool of powerful corporate forces, but that’s exactly what’s happening and the press – our media – has been hamstrung to the extent that it cannot fully expose the mendacity of this administration. But the time will soon come when we are presented with another turning point.
    When the next clear choice presents itself, think hard in the voting booth. Ask yourself if the choice you are about to make aligns true to the spirit of our country, or if it only stands to benefit the status quo. I don’t know about you, but I want something very different from what we have today.

  • windbag

    All I can say to the Raven is ‘thank you’ for your swing. A succinct (clearly abridged) articulation of some of the unavoidable truths we all as a nation now must confront in the wake of this administration’s actions. And a rare read on this list. Surely you’ll now encounter some version of the empirically-demonstrated misrepresent/obfuscate/ignore response here but, regardless, I appreciated reading your thoughts.

  • Larry Lord

    I join windbag in saluting the Raven.
    I also salute our troops for doing their best in Iraq under the worst possible circumstances. Most of them, I’m sure, had no idea what a debacle this would turn into.
    And I might toss in a bit of criticism of Howard Dean for his statements about not winning anything in Iraq.
    Dean may be speaking the truth (I certainly think so). But the key to getting the troops out of there is to pretend otherwise. In fact, Dems and Republicans should pretend that, in fact, WE HAVE WON!!!! Hooray! Hooray! Yeah!!!! We won!!!! We won the War in Iraq!!!! Victory!!!! Victory!!!!! Victory!!!!
    Now that that’s over, Mr. President, let’s bring the troops home.

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    Well, Joe, at least your commenters gave you plenty of examples for next time you want to write about willful stupidity.
    Again.
    Cheers,
    PGE

  • Larry Lord

    Well, Joe, at least your commenters gave you plenty of examples for next time you want to write about willful stupidity.
    Ad hominem.