Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The 'Motte & Bailey' meme reveals what's wrong with political arguments in 2020
This medieval-themed meme highlights a shady yet all too common rhetorical move people make in arguments.
- The "Motte and Bailey Doctrine" was developed by philosopher Nicholas Shackel.
- It describes a rhetorical move in which an arguer advances an indefensible opinion, but when challenged falls back upon a similar yet easier-to-defend opinion.
- Motte-and-baileys have become a weapon of choice in political and culture-war arguments.
If there's one meme that ought to infect the internet hive mind, it's the "Motte and Bailey" meme.
It shows a 10th-century castle system called a motte-and-bailey, which consists of a courtyard next to a fortified tower on a hill. Above each is text outlining two arguments.
The format is sort of confusing at first glance. But once understood, it offers a solid way to visualize bad arguments because it highlights a shady rhetorical move common in political discourse.
Here's an example in a hypothetical argument about homeopathic medicine:
A: Homeopathic medicine can cure cancer.
B: There's no evidence showing homeopathy is effective.
A: Actually there are many ways for people to be healthy besides taking doctor-prescribed drugs.
Spot it? Person A started with a bold and controversial opinion that's hard to defend (homeopathic medicine cures cancer). But when challenged, they retreated to an uncontroversial argument that's much easier to defend (prescription drugs aren't the only route to good health).
Person B would probably agree: Sure, there are many ways to be healthy besides drugs. But then, having deflected the first attack, Person A could go right back to arguing for homeopathic medicine as a cancer treatment.
Motte-and-Bailey blank meme template, plus an explainer of how to use it, and an example. https://t.co/d7yT8HbjAf— Noah Smith 🐇 (@Noah Smith 🐇)1551208452.0
In 2005, philosopher Nicholas Shackel coined this move as the "Motte and Bailey Doctrine." (People often call it a fallacy, but Shackel wrote a blog post in 2014 explaining why he calls it a doctrine, and how "a myriad of persuasive fallacies" can be snuck into a motte-and-bailey.)
The name comes from a castle-defense system developed in the 10th century in northern Europe. One part was a courtyard area, called a bailey, where people would trade, eat, and work. On a nearby hill was a fortified tower called a motte. The motte was an unproductive place to hang out, but it was safe. So, during attacks, residents would flee the bailey for the motte, where they could ward off enemies.
In rhetorical terms, the bailey is the desired but hard-to-defend controversial opinion. The motte is the less desired yet defensible opinion that nearly everyone agrees with, and which the arguer retreats to if unable to defend the bailey.
In 2014, the psychiatrist Scott Alexander (not his real name) helped popularize the motte-and-bailey doctrine after writing about it on his blog Slate Star Codex, a popular rationalist hub. Alexander wrote:
"[The doctrine] draws its strength from people's usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I'm debating "does quackery cure cancer?", it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of "is quackery okay?" or "should quackery be illegal?", and from there it's easy to bring up the motte objection."
Overlapping with the Slate Star Codex community is a subreddit named after the doctrine called r/TheMotte, which describes itself as a place for people to "test their ideas in a court of people who don't all share the same biases." The subreddit calls on users to "always attempt to remain inside your defensible territory, even if you are not being pressed."
And then there are the memes. It's unclear who created the first one, or when, but since at least 2018 people have been posting motte-and-bailey memes to critique the often-shoddy ways in which people argue about issues ranging from immigration, to the problems of capitalism, to ideas about truth.
Motte-and-baileys aren't a new phenomenon. But it does seem like they're becoming a rhetorical weapon of choice in political and culture-war arguments.
"I think [the motte-and-bailey doctrine] is a very useful concept to have in my arsenal of concepts to analyze what's going on," Kenny Easwaran, philosophy professor at Texas A&M University and co-editor of the Journal of Philosophical Logic, told Real Clear Investigations. "It's behavior we've seen, but we see so much more of it now."
It's hard to say why. You could blame the fall of nuance, increasing political polarization and the absence of a middle ground, and the tendency of social media to incentivize tribalism, to name a few.
It's also worth considering how motte-and-baileys change when they include moral claims. For example, it's one thing to pull a motte-and-bailey to advance an argument about, say, 18th-century economic theory. But hot-button issues change the game. Take debates about transgender and intersex athletes as an example.
An argument might unfold like:
A: Every transgender athlete should be able to compete in whichever gender category they identify with.
B: Wouldn't that give some athletes an unfair or even dangerous physical advantage?
A: Transgender people have been discriminated against for too long, it has to stop.
Everyone agrees with the motte: transgender discrimination should stop. But notice how it becomes much easier to advance the bailey when the motte is a sensitive moral claim that's (rightfully) taboo to disagree with?
You might have good arguments against the bailey. But if it's tied to a sensitive motte, you might decide it's not even worth challenging. After all, it can be costly to your reputation to even look like you're challenging a sensitive motte, even if you're actually questioning the bailey in good faith.
You can see this play out in political arguments. For example, a Trump supporter might argue for unprecedentedly harsh immigration policies at the U.S./Mexico border. (That's the bailey). If someone challenges that position, the Trump supporter could shame them for being unpatriotic, considering immigration reform is part of the Make America Great Again platform, and who doesn't want to make America great (motte)?
Similarly, someone might question Black Lives Matter's goal of disrupting "the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement" (bailey). They might get a reply like: "What, are you trying to argue that Black lives don't matter (motte)?"
It might sound like motte-and-baileys are always easy to spot. But as Alexander wrote on Slate Star Codex, "all fallacies sound that way when you're thinking about them."
- 6 logical fallacies politicians often use - Big Think ›
- The problem of living inside echo chambers ›
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
The Drake equation is an example of a broader issue in the scientific community—considering the sheer size of the universe and our knowledge that intelligence life has evolved at least once, there should be evidence for alien life. This is generally referred to as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi who first examined the contradiction between high probability of alien civilizations and their apparent absence. Fermi summed this up rather succinctly when he asked, “Where is everybody"?
But maybe this was the wrong question. A better question, albeit a more troubling one, might be “What happened to everybody?" Unlike asking where life exists in the universe, there's a clearer potential answer to this question: the Great Filter.
Why the universe is empty
Alien life is likely, but there is none that we can see. Therefore, it could be the case that somewhere along the trajectory of life's development, there is a massive and common challenge that ends alien life before it becomes intelligent enough and widespread enough for us to see—a great filter.
This filter could take many forms. It could be that having a planet in the Goldilocks' zone—the narrow band around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist—and having that planet contain organic molecules capable of accumulating into life is extremely unlikely. We've observed plenty of planets in the Goldilock's zone of different stars (there's estimated to be 40 billion in the Milky Way), but maybe the conditions still aren't right there for life to exist.
The Great Filter could occur at the very earliest stages of life. When you were in high school bio, you might have the refrain drilled into your head “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell." I certainly did. However, mitochondria were at one point a separate bacteria living its own existence. At some point on Earth, a single-celled organism tried to eat one of these bacteria, except instead of being digested, the bacterium teamed up with the cell, producing extra energy that enabled the cell to develop in ways leading to higher forms of life. An event like this might be so unlikely that it's only happened once in the Milky Way.
Or, the filter could be the development of large brains, as we have. After all, we live on a planet full of many creatures, and the kind of intelligence humans have has only occurred once. It may be overwhelmingly likely that living creatures on other planets simply don't need to evolve the energy-demanding neural structures necessary for intelligence.
What if the filter is ahead of us?
These possibilities assume that the Great Filter is behind us—that humanity is a lucky species that overcame a hurdle almost all other life fails to pass. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. Discovering nuclear power is a likely event for any advanced society, but it also has the potential to destroy such a society. Utilizing a planet's resources to build an advanced civilization also destroys the planet: the current process of climate change serves as an example. Or, it could be something entirely unknown, a major threat that we can't see and won't see until it's too late.
The bleak, counterintuitive suggestion of the Great Filter is that it would be a bad sign for humanity to find alien life, especially alien life with a degree of technological advancement similar to our own. If our galaxy is truly empty and dead, it becomes more likely that we've already passed through the Great Filter. The galaxy could be empty because all other life failed some challenge that humanity passed.
If we find another alien civilization, but not a cosmos teeming with a variety of alien civilizations, the implication is that the Great Filter lies ahead of us. The galaxy should be full of life, but it is not; one other instance of life would suggest that the many other civilizations that should be there were wiped out by some catastrophe that we and our alien counterparts have yet to face.
Fortunately, we haven't found any life. Although it might be lonely, it means humanity's chances at long-term survival are a bit higher than otherwise.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization.
- There is a great disconnect between the sciences and the humanities.
- Solutions to most of our real-world problems need both ways of knowing.
- Moving beyond the two-culture divide is an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
For the past five years, I ran the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, an initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Our mission has been to find ways to bring scientists and humanists together, often in public venues or — after Covid-19 — online, to discuss questions that transcend the narrow confines of a single discipline.
It turns out that these questions are at the very center of the much needed and urgent conversation about our collective future. While the complexity of the problems we face asks for a multi-cultural integration of different ways of knowing, the tools at hand are scarce and mostly ineffective. We need to rethink and learn how to collaborate productively across disciplinary cultures.
The danger of hyper-specialization
The explosive expansion of knowledge that started in the mid 1800s led to hyper-specialization inside and outside academia. Even within a single discipline, say philosophy or physics, professionals often don't understand one another. As I wrote here before, "This fragmentation of knowledge inside and outside of academia is the hallmark of our times, an amplification of the clash of the Two Cultures that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow admonished his Cambridge colleagues in 1959." The loss is palpable, intellectually and socially. Knowledge is not adept to reductionism. Sure, a specialist will make progress in her chosen field, but the tunnel vision of hyper-specialization creates a loss of context: you do the work not knowing how it fits into the bigger picture or, more alarmingly, how it may impact society.
Many of the existential risks we face today — AI and its impact on the workforce, the dangerous loss of privacy due to data mining and sharing, the threat of cyberwarfare, the threat of biowarfare, the threat of global warming, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the threat to our humanity by the development of genetic engineering — are consequences of the growing ease of access to cutting-edge technologies and the irreversible dependence we all have on our gadgets. Technological innovation is seductive: we want to have the latest "smart" phone, 5k TV, and VR goggles because they are objects of desire and social placement.
Are we ready for the genetic revolution?
When the time comes, and experts believe it is coming sooner than we expect or are prepared for, genetic meddling with the human genome may drive social inequality to an unprecedented level with not just differences in wealth distribution but in what kind of being you become and who retains power. This is the kind of nightmare that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Jennifer Doudna talked about in a recent Big Think video.
CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com
At the heart of these advances is the dual-use nature of science, its light and shadow selves. Most technological developments are perceived and sold as spectacular advances that will either alleviate human suffering or bring increasing levels of comfort and accessibility to a growing number of people. Curing diseases is what motivated Doudna and other scientists involved with CRISPR research. But with that also came the potential for altering the genetic makeup of humanity in ways that, again, can be used for good or evil purposes.
This is not a sci-fi movie plot. The main difference between biohacking and nuclear hacking is one of scale. Nuclear technologies require industrial-level infrastructure, which is very costly and demanding. This is why nuclear research and its technological implementation have been mostly relegated to governments. Biohacking can be done in someone's backyard garage with equipment that is not very costly. The Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection brings this point home in terrifying ways. The essential problem is this: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is virtually impossible to enforce any kind of control. The genie will not be pushed back in.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization
What, then, can be done? Such technological challenges go beyond the reach of a single discipline. CRISPR, for example, may be an invention within genetics, but its impact is vast, asking for oversight and ethical safeguards that are far from our current reality. The same with global warming, rampant environmental destruction, and growing levels of air pollution/greenhouse gas emissions that are fast emerging as we crawl into a post-pandemic era. Instead of learning the lessons from our 18 months of seclusion — that we are fragile to nature's powers, that we are co-dependent and globally linked in irreversible ways, that our individual choices affect many more than ourselves — we seem to be bent on decompressing our accumulated urges with impunity.
The experience from our experiment with the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement has taught us a few lessons that we hope can be extrapolated to the rest of society: (1) that there is huge public interest in this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities; (2) that there is growing consensus in academia that this conversation is needed and urgent, as similar institutes emerge in other schools; (3) that in order for an open cross-disciplinary exchange to be successful, a common language needs to be established with people talking to each other and not past each other; (4) that university and high school curricula should strive to create more courses where this sort of cross-disciplinary exchange is the norm and not the exception; (5) that this conversation needs to be taken to all sectors of society and not kept within isolated silos of intellectualism.
Moving beyond the two-culture divide is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise; it is, as humanity wrestles with its own indecisions and uncertainties, an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
New study analyzes gravitational waves to confirm the late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- A new paper confirms Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- The researchers used gravitational wave data to prove the theorem.
- The data came from Caltech and MIT's Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem is correct, a new study shows. Scientists used gravitational waves to prove the famous British physicist's idea, which may lead to uncovering more underlying laws of the universe.
The theorem, elaborated by Hawking in 1971, uses Einstein's theory of general relativity as a springboard to conclude that it is not possible for the surface area of a black hole to become smaller over time. The theorem parallels the second law of thermodynamics that says the entropy (disorder) of a closed system can't decrease over time. Since the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area, both must continue to increase.
As a black hole gobbles up more matter, its mass and surface area grow. But as it grows, it also spins faster, which decreases its surface area. Hawking's theorem maintains that the increase in surface area that comes from the added mass would always be larger than the decrease in surface area because of the added spin.
Will Farr, one of the co-authors of the study that was published in Physical Review Letters, said their finding demonstrates that "black hole areas are something fundamental and important." His colleague Maximiliano Isi agreed in an interview with Live Science: "Black holes have an entropy, and it's proportional to their area. It's not just a funny coincidence, it's a deep fact about the world that they reveal."
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are "ripples" in spacetime, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, that are created by very violent processes happening in space. Einstein showed that very massive, accelerating space objects like neutron stars or black holes that orbit each other could cause disturbances in spacetime. Like the ripples produced by tossing a rock into a lake, they would bring about "waves" of spacetime that would spread in all directions.
As LIGO shared, "These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself."
The gravitational waves discovered by LIGO's 3,000-kilometer-long laser beam, which can detect the smallest distortions in spacetime, were generated 1.3 billion years ago by two giant black holes that were quickly spiraling toward each other.
What Stephen Hawking would have discovered if he lived longer | NASA's Michelle Thaller | Big Think www.youtube.com
Confirming Hawking's black hole area theorem
The researchers separated the signal into two parts, depending on whether it was from before or after the black holes merged. This allowed them to figure out the mass and spin of the original black holes as well as the mass and spin of the merged black hole. With this information, they calculated the surface areas of the black holes before and after the merger.
"As they spin around each other faster and faster, the gravitational waves increase in amplitude more and more until they eventually plunge into each other — making this big burst of waves," Isi elaborated. "What you're left with is a new black hole that's in this excited state, which you can then study by analyzing how it's vibrating. It's like if you ping a bell, the specific pitches and durations it rings with will tell you the structure of that bell, and also what it's made out of."
The surface area of the resulting black holes was larger than the combined area of the original black holes. This conformed to Hawking's area law.