William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The So’s-Your-Old-Man Fallacy

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I’m on the road for the next several days and won’t always have access to the Internet. So I’m reposting a series of classic fallacies. Regular service to resume early next week. This post originally appeared on 4 June 2014.

“Melvin Smedgrass, you stand accused of robbing the Fifth-Third Bank of Waters, Michigan, on November the third, last of $837 in cash. How do you plead?”

“Your honor, just last week in Troy a man robbed a bank and got away with more than $15,000.”

“Is that so? Then I guess you didn’t rob a bank. You are free to go. Bailiff, release the prisoner.”

If you find Smedgrass’s argument convincing, you’re qualified to comment on Internet blogs, or for a position on the staff of the editorial division of any major newspaper.

For as soon as somebody makes the claim “Mr Obama did X”, the paper would respond, “Mr Bush did Y”, with the implication that the proposition “Mr Obama did X” is false or unworthy of discussion. When, in fact and is obvious and is logical, whether the proposition “Mr Bush did Y” is true, false, or somewhere in between has no bearing whatsoever on whether the proposition “Mr Obama did X” is true.

The So’s-Your-Old-Man fallacy belongs on the playground, where it originated. It is only the child who thinks “You’re a big meanie!” is refuted by “So’s your old man!” The So’s-Your-Old-Man fallacy is also called the Sez-You! fallacy, which is the transliteration of the Latin non sequitur.

On the blog I often critique the failed philosophy of probability called frequentism. I say, “Frequentism is false because X”. Directly somebody comments, “I don’t like Bayesian priors” and considers she has given a knockdown rebuttal. Now it may be that every alternative to frequentism you or I can imagine is also false or is worse than frequentism. But in no way is this frequentism’s salvation if “because X” is valid. In order to participate soundly, you must attack X or remain silent.

Last week on Twitter I linked to an excellent, must-read article by the unfortunately “soul-patched” Dominic Selwood entitled, “How a Protestant spin machine hid the truth about the English Reformation.

Gist: Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce and a son coupled with Thomas Cromwell’s greed and his lust of the wealth of Catholic monasteries led the elite in England to pillage and purge and prevaricate until Catholics became as lepers. To not fall prey to today’s fallacy, be sure to read Selwood’s article before commenting on the particulars, which are anyway beside the point, and would in fact, if you were to comment in an effort to evade today’s main point, be a meta-instance of the fallacy.

My tweet prompted from a follower this in response: “Consider that the scientific revolution was very much build [sic] on the ideas that Protestants had laid.”

Now it may be true that “Protests laid the foundations of the scientific revolution”, or again it might be false, but whatever it is, it is utterly irrelevant to whether Thomas Cromwell was a no-good son-of-a-bitch glorified pompous thief.

Raw animal instinct is often the reason for the appearance of the So’s-Your-Old-Man. Your opponent has heard your claim, fears its truth, dreads the consequences of that truth, and lashes out with the first thing that comes to mind, usually something chosen to wound. We’ve all (me too) given in to the temptation. Even Bertie Wooster recorded an instance where he employed the fallacy: “‘Tinkety Tonk!'” he retorted to an argument. He admitted, “And I meant it to sting.”

As a debating tactic, the SYOM fallacy is hard to beat. The late Christopher Hitchens swore by it and was its master. I can’t recall an instance where he used it and his opponent wasn’t immediately distracted. As said above, the SYOM thrives like a cultivated weed on blogs, on television talk shows, and press conferences.

You are either on the giving or receiving side of “because X”. If receiving, just because you don’t have a retort in mind does not mean one does not exist. One may. If somebody says “because X”, and you think it invalid, your clear intellectual duty is to search out the invalidity without offering distractions. If you cannot discover a retort, and indeed agree the premises of “because X” are true, the argument itself valid and its conclusion sound, your sole duty is to accept the argument, even if you fear the sequelae.

If you are on the giving end and your opponent has opted for the SYOM, you may highlight it but that’s all. Then reissue “because X.” Be tenacious. Do not be distracted. Arguments are not feelings, though you must retain yours. Say, “You have forgotten to answer why not X. Here is why X in different words.” Ignore everything which is not a direct reply. Move on.

Update I originally had “So’s-Your-Brother” instead of “So’s-Your-Old-Man”, but Scotian below has convinced me this new version is better, more euphonious, and better aligned with history.

25 Comments

  1. In politics and applications of the law, precedent matters. So the comparison of a present malfeasance to a precedent has some validity in the popular mind that values “fairness” — whatever that’s conceived to be. Without the unstated premise that “fairness” reigns supreme, the SYB argument holds little water.

  2. Briggs, “If you find Smedgrass’s argument convincing, you’re qualified to comment on Internet blogs”. Have you just insulted your readers?

    The proper expression is “so’s your old man”. This has the appropriate level of sting. The “so’s your brother” comment is likely to produce agreement or puzzlement. The only Google reference to “so’s your brother” is this post, whereas the proper expression has many.

  3. Briggs

    June 4, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Gary,

    But then a precedents argument is not a refutation of “because X” either, unless that precedent itself contains a refutation.

    A common use of the SYB is in abortion debates. One woman will say, “Abortion is immoral” to which another woman, and friend of the SYB, says, “Abortion is legal.” As if what is legal is moral.

    Scotian,

    Sez you!

  4. Briggs,
    Refutation rarely trumps raw animal instinct. In debates, do you want to be precise…. or win?

  5. Brandon Gates

    June 4, 2014 at 10:55 am

    I learned it as tu quoque from the Latin, “and you as well”. It’s a form of ad hominem fallacy, which also does not address arguments but rather the person speaking it. Such rhetorical devices are seductively easy to use reflexively. In most cases I’ve read, or used, them, the message seems to be, “your argument isn’t credible because you’re being a hypocrite.”

  6. The irony of hypocrisy is always lost on the Right.

    JMJ

  7. Brandon Gates

    June 4, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Briggs:

    As if what is legal is moral.

    Thank you, I so very much agree.

    Re: W. Bush/Obama. The argument had one form of use, in a very narrow application within the first year or so of Obama’s presidency, though still marginal. When the scope of the discussion was the economy and/or Treasury debt/deficits/bank bailouts, W. Bush’s policies were in part directly causal and could not be 100% pinned on Obama.

    Currently, when the discussion starts with “Benghazi!!!! ” (closely related to Banzai!!!! in tone), and the response is “Oh yeah? Iraq War”, the counter-argument fails. The one does indicate the other President was a bit more destructive, but neither of each others acts absolves the other of their misdeeds.

  8. Brandon Gates

    June 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

    The irony of hypocrisy is always lost on the Right.

    My irony meter just ‘sploded.

  9. Briggs

    June 4, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Jersey M,

    Perhaps you were looking for the Hypocrisy Fallacy?

    http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=7781

  10. Brandon Gates

    June 4, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    A more jocluar departure from the whinge-du-jour might be a game of “count the fallacies”. Having been raised on a steady diet of them in blissful ignorance, many species remain yet unknown to me, much less named.

  11. Meh. In a spirited discussion a couple of years ago regarding R. A. Fisher’s contributions to statistics, you at one point resorted to, “He held the Eugenics Chair.”

    I should have said shame on you then, but instead just exited the discussion out of disgust.

    So here I am saying what I should have said then: shame on you.

  12. Briggs

    June 4, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Mike B,

    Mea culpa.

  13. The tactic of, when under attack, to point out another’s worse flaws is not a logical argument — it’s merely designed to distract attention (usually by bringing in someone’s emotion to the extent logical objectivity is overwhelmed–but not always!), hopefully to the point of changing the subject entirely. If it works as intended, then it is not illogical, at least from the perspective of the one applying it.

    Sometimes, it is entirely valid: e.g. when a police officer pulls someone over for a ‘rolling stop sign’ & the violator says, “Hey!! THAT guy over there [pointing] is vomiting over the side of his car, driving over the neighbor’s yards and sideswiping cars, homes & kids bicycles” … at which point the officer’s abandonment of the stop-sign-violator for the drunk driver is probably a reasonable change in priorities.

    Law enforcement officials in building cases with arrestees & making additional arrests as a result and/or later trial plea bargains with prosecutors routinely apply this toward the sentencing of those charged with crimes. And we are thankful for that as doing so gets more human scum off the streets. I.E. Smedgrass’s argument in the blog essay has its valid place in many situations — and few will dispute the net-positive merits of making such deals with the accused as an otherwise unattainable greater-good is achieved.

    Because this appeal CAN, in some circumstances, be legitimate AND because it can be applied to a very human emotional response, it has a very strong staying power and can seem much more compelling than it is in situations where it isn’t [compelling].

    It’s only illogical for someone to be duped by it, or go along, when circumstances don’t really justify going along. But in too many cases it IS logical for the person needing to apply it–because it works.

    Context & perspective matters.
    “Logic” can be context/perspective/situationally dependent.

  14. RE: ‘ How a Protestant Spin Machine Hid the Truth About the English Reformation’

    THAT seems like a bit of propaganda itself; there the author asserts the English were taught that the earlier English were disillusioned with Catholicism for a variety of reasons & switched to Protestant (to put a lengthy intro & article into a sentence). The “fallacy”.

    I’d always been taught just what the author explained in some detail — That King Henry VIII wanted a divorce, couldn’t get one from the Pope, so broke from the Catholic Church, etc. Plays & movies (e.g. “A Man for All Seasons” by a British playwright no less in 1966) have been around for decades/generations. So where, really, was the historical revisionism, the “fallacy,” occurring the referenced author/article had to remedy?

    Apparently in the introduction to the author’s own article.

    Looks to me like that author concocted a problem [that didn’t really exist] and set it straight [by summarizing what’s been widely known & common knowledge for decades]. The polite conclusion is that the author had some romantic childhood misconception & finally did a bit of study of well-known-&-long-taken-for-granted history & has regaled us with his long-overdue epiphany not realizing the profundity of his prior ignorance.

    If there’s any historical revisionism going on its that author’s assertion (intro material to his article) that, in the year 2014, people didn’t really know Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce set in motion the Protestant Reformation & thought it was something else.

    And THAT is a common tactic — present an issue (people thought the English wholeheartedly shifted to Protestantism), attribute it to someone (English historical revisionists with a selfish agenda), and then present the facts as they are. The problem arises when your audience already knows the facts & knows that those facts have been common knowledge (unlike being asserted) for generations and the issue asserted does not exist. Then one looks like a dope. At least in this case the author did justice to the story once he got to telling it.

  15. Brandon Gates

    June 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Ken:

    The tactic of, when under attack, to point out another’s worse flaws is not a logical argument

    Agree, it’s a rhetorical device. If the original attack was against a personal flaw, responding in kind is understandable, but still wrong. Such a response to a logical argument is right out.

    The response need not be a personal insult, nor even be directed at the argument’s originator. Ex: “You cannot use Darwin to support atheism because Darwin was an angnositc.”

    A popular form not against a third party: “Killing innocent unborn children and opposing capital punishment are inconsistent.” The converse form is frequently seen as well.

    Likewise: “The Bible says X here but not-X there; therefore the whole book is false,” is problematic.

    When none of the above chicanery is going on, the thing I most commonly observe are attacks against the weakest point of a single argument. Sometimes victory is declared outright, but an accomplished rhetorician often leaves the conclusion ambiguous.

  16. Hopefully you realize that when someone replies to “Obama did x” with “but Bush did y,” on many occasions it’s the short form of “why are you complaining about Obama doing x when you had nothing to say about Bush doing y? Do you, perhaps, have other than an objective, factual agenda?”

  17. The response that the protestant revolution contributed to the growth of science though it be a fallacy is not a response to the accusation against Thomas Cromwell and any spin machine. it is beside the point, as anyone can see with a grain of common sense.
    ………………………….
    On your other points
    Thomas Cromwell was a benefactor of the City of London (the self governing City within the Walls) of which I grew up a proud citizen. so I like him.

    Henry had to contend with a French take over of the Papacy and the Church and had his own European problems like those of present day Britain. but that is also beside the point. he had to secede from the pan European system where smaller states owed allegiance to greater states and FRance was in takeover mode.
    So this view that Henry was a complete villain is though it is in the history texts
    not quite accurate.

  18. Briggs

    June 5, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Rob,

    Motivation and circumstance can tell us why somebody used a fallacy, but they can’t remove it. “Mr Obama did X” has to be judged on its own merits.

  19. Wow, I am honoured. This is going on my CV. 😉

  20. I think “so’s your old man” might be a bit dated. Should probably be the ” Y tu mama tambien”. The kids would relate better.

  21. Brandon Gates

    June 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    APL: Hmm, as an admitted outsider looking into el barrio, “Y tu mama tambien todos los dias, esé!” is looking for trouble. An’ in the ‘hood; sheeeeii…. I KNOW that’s right — you don’t be talkin’ ’bout no one’s momma.

  22. Obama is a non sequitur. His campaign was based on the non sequitur, “If you don’t vote for him, it’s because you’re a racist.” This is EXACTLY the same form of reasoning used by Kevin Williamson’s critics.

  23. Ye Olde Statistician

    July 11, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Your old man is on the wrong side of history.

  24. Some crowd you’re gathering here, Briggs. Starting to look like a Trump rally.

    You conservatives ought to take a good hard look at the crowds you’ve drawn.

    JMJ

  25. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

    July 12, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    A lawyer friend of mine, when he encounters this fallacy, is fond of replying: “Objection: Nonresponsive.”

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