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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 ›
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word Gets Around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.