Arguments

One of my favorite shows is “Get Up” on ESPN. I watch it pretty much every day because I like the main man and he has some interesting former athletes each day who provide us with pithy comments and even some provocative insights into the inner-workings of sports. Not all the guests are equally adept at such things as speaking, of course, but they all have opinions and are ready to share those with us — whether we want to hear them or not.

The problem is that the “discussions” among the guests (several of whom are regular and thus familiar to those who watch even a few times) frequently degenerate into shouting matches which we mistake for genuine arguments — complete with interruptions, or course. In fact, television seems to have gone in that direction because (I assume) that’s what viewers want to watch. Not this viewer. I tire of it quickly.

Recently, after the Super Bowl, three of the guests went after one another on the topic of whether it was the San Fransisco coach who lost the game or the quarterback. On the one side were two guests who insisted that the coach was at fault because the strength of San Fransisco’s football team all year has been its running game and they abandoned it late in the game when they could have run out the clock and kept the “magic man” Patrick Mahomes off the field. Not an unreasonable position since the “magic man” won the game for the Kansas City Chiefs. But the third guest — who tends to get louder as he becomes more frustrated when others do not agree with him — insisted that the coach called excellent plays but the quarterback failed to execute the plays. He called a number of passing plays late in the game and they failed to connect. If they had the coach would have been seen as a genius.

I may not be doing either of those positions justice, but you get the picture. These people were not arguing, they were bickering. The two are not the same. An argument has evidence which we call the “premises,” and that evidence supports the conclusion. The conclusion is only as strong as the evidence that supports it. The way to attack an argument is to attack the evidence — not the conclusion. But these folks were simply stating their opinions (again and again) without any attempt to support those opinions with evidence.

And, given the nature of their claims, evidence would probably not be forthcoming. This is because the claims themselves (the opinions) were of a counter-factual nature. IF certain things had happened THEN other things would inevitably happen. There is no way to support such an argument because the antecedent is counter to fact. The San Fransisco coach did not call running pays so we have no idea what would have happened if he did. And the San Fransisco quarterback did not complete his passes and we can only speculate what would have happened if he had. So the “argument” simply goes around in circles with no outcome possible.

The best we can hope for in such cases is that the claim is “plausible” based on previous experience. In this instance the case for the coach losing the game is more compelling because it is true that the strength of the San Fransisco team was its running game. But we have no idea how they would have done against the Kansas City defense at the end of the game.

The only way to settle such disagreements, heated as they were, would be for one person to reach across the table and throttle this opponent. And one of the guests was a former lineman of considerable size and my money would be on him to win that “argument.” But I speculate because the man did not reach across the table — even though he mentioned that his opponent was starting to “piss him off.” And we can only guess what might have happened he had actually done so.

And viewers like this?? The point is that we are subjected to such displays every day and the result is that we have no idea what a sound argument is and what might make it weak. To begin with there must be an argument. It must have a conclusion and there must be an attempt to support that conclusion with evidence. The conclusion is often (though not always) preceded by words such as “therefore,” or “thus.” Or followed by such words as “because.” These are called “indicator terms” and they may or may not be there. But if there is an argument present we can determine what the conclusion and the support are by providing the indicator terms ourselves. We can say “there will be much celebration in Kansas City this week: their team won the Super Bowl.” It is easy to see that the latter statement supports the former and we could simply provide an indicator term “There will be celebrating because their team won.” And in this case the evidence, or premise, in indisputable.

The point of all this is that with an argument it is possible to attack or defend it by considering the support. Without support (or premises) there is no argument. There is just disagreement — sometimes heated, but always pointless.

The Race Card

You have doubtless heard about the outrageous behavior of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, after virtually saving the N.F.C. title game for Seattle on Sunday. He not only blew his own horn so loud it drowned out the record crowd, but he also “dissed” his opponent and called Michael Crabtree — the intended receiver on the play in question — a mediocre player, giving the choke sign in the process. He is apparently a fairly bright guy and he has apologized for his behavior, after a fashion: “It’s who I am.” But he has been fined by the league for unsportsmanlike conduct and the talking heads have waded in, so we will doubtless be hearing about this behavior ad nauseam in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

The marketing people are hovering around Sherman like vultures circling a dead corpse, their mouths positively watering at the thought of the money to be made from this incident. And comments from various Monday morning quarterbacks have ranged from “bush league” to “refreshing,” as everyone and his dog enters into the discussion. But what I found most interesting was the virtual unanimity on “Around The Horn” — ESPN’s showcase for talking heads — in saying that Sherman’s behavior was not “over the top,” that since football is entertainment one would have to give Sherman high marks for the great entertainment value he has provided to spice up our drab, wretched lives. The talking  heads are all sports journalists and doubtless they see only grist for the journalistic mills. They are not known to give high praise for self-restraint and decorum; they prefer their emotions raw and juicy. They called the Seattle quarterback “boring.” I have blogged about this before, so I won’t go there, except to say that this is yet another example the entertainment industry is setting for our kids.

Where I will go is to Sherman’s comment in response to the reaction to his behavior, referring to those who find it offensive as “racist.” This raises a most interesting point. Are we not to judge a person’s behavior as offensive if that person happens to be a member of a minority? Isn’t it possible that Richard Sherman behaved like a jerk and, regardless of his race, that sort of behavior should not be tolerated? If we would be quick to condemn this action of a white player, wouldn’t it be racist NOT to mention it in this case because Sherman is African-American? I would have thought the idea is to treat everyone alike. In a word, are we to look the other way simply because a person happens to be a member of a minority and excuse his or her behavior no matter how offensive it might happen to be? I beg to differ!

I recall some years ago the comments made by an actress in a popular TV show who complained about the fact that she was not getting the attention she thought she deserved; she insisted that this was due to the fact that the folks who handed out awards were sexist. In fact, she was a terrible actress and deserved to be overlooked. But she attributed the fact that she was being ignored not to her lack of talent, but to prejudice on the part of those who should know better, as she saw it. I suppose it is easier live with the fact that our critics are racist or sexist than to admit that we have no talent or are behaving like fools: one finds comfort in the delusion.

The fact of the matter is that certain types of behavior, when engaged in publicly, are deserving of condemnation. If they were performed in private that’s another question. But public behavior sets an example, good or bad, whether we like to admit it or not. And when it is offensive, it should be duly noted and even condemned — if for no other reason than to send a message to those observing the behavior that such things are unacceptable — regardless of their “entertainment value.” It’s one thing to be tolerant, and I applaud the effort to expand our levels of tolerance in a country founded by Puritans. But it is quite another thing to insist on silence when it is clear that certain types of behavior are simply not to be tolerated. We are urged on all sides not to be “judgmental,” but there are times when judgment is called for. I am not talking about a call to arms, drawing and quartering, much less castration. I am talking about expressing concern and voicing objections. Indifference should not be mistaken for tolerance and held up as exemplary. And whatever “entertainment value” behavior such as that of Richard Sherman might have, it sets a terrible example for young kids watching their heroes parade before them strutting their stuff and ridiculing their opponents. Enough is enough. Some times, it’s just too much, regardless of race, creed, or religion.

A Fact Is Not An Opinion

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events — not facts. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact of simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the Baltimore Ravens will repeat as Super Bowl Champions, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “unless you are a really good bluffer, don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from more primitive animal species became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion; that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot. Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual when they are testable but they cannot be disproved. If there is no way, in principle, to test a claim it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. Karl Popper said this was the case with Freud’s and Jung’s theories: they cannot be tested and proved or disproved, therefore they cannot be regarded as scientific fact — no matter how useful they might prove to be in explaining human behavior.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make about the soul or the best basketball player ever could be tested or proved one way or the other, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion or belief. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is plausible. There are core samples that support the claim on the basis of the amounts of carbon dioxide in the air in the past 150 years — since the Industrial Revolution. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

Super Athletes

Now that the Baltimore Ravens have won their second Super Bowl it might be well for us to reflect on an incident that occurred the year before Baltimore won its first Super Bowl. After a night of drinking, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and a couple of his friends were involved in the death of two young men outside a bar. Lewis made a “deal” with prosecutors by providing evidence against the other two men who were involved in the knifing of the young men and he got off with a slap on the wrist. The NFL then fined him $250,000 and suspended him from football for a year. Since that time he has presented himself as a changed man, helping young people live their dream, so he says. Some might even say he has redeemed himself. I wonder: redemption involves contrition, it seems to me.

In an interview prior to this year’s Super Bowl, Lewis answered a question by Shannon Sharpe about those killings 13 years ago. Lewis’ response, as reported by Yahoo News,  was garbled and it raised more questions than it answered:

It’s simple,” Lewis said when Sharpe asked him what he would say to the families [of the two slain men].
“God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see. And if our system – it’s the sad thing about our system – if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”

Aside from the terrible grammar which we have come to expect from those college graduates who play football, this answer, as Boomer Esiason noted on a CBS pre-game show, was hardly satisfactory. Esiason was quite blunt:

“He was involved in a double murder and I’m not so sure he gave us all the answers we were looking for,” Esiason said. “He knows what went on there. He can obviously just come out and say it. He doesn’t want to say it. He paid off the families – I get all that, that’s fine. . . . I appreciate you [Sharpe] going down there and asking him that direct question. I’m not so sure I buy the answer.”

Lewis blames the “system” for failing to get to the bottom of things. That system let the two men Lewis testified against go free because of insufficient evidence and charged Lewis himself with a misdemeanor. The murder has never been solved and the parents of the two slain youths still burn with hatred and anger at Lewis for the role he played in the death of their sons, whatever that might have been. He has nothing to say to the parents of the two men, apparently.

But, once again, we hear the bromide: “God never made a mistake.” It’s not Ray’s doing, somehow, it’s God’s doing. And He wouldn’t make a “mistake.” He wouldn’t have allowed Ray Lewis to become so successful if he had done those terrible things. That’s not how things work — at least according to Lewis. And one does wonder where Ray Lewis got his theology degree and how he knows what God would or would not do. But that consideration aside, we cannot help but note that Lewis never really answers the question what happened that night outside the bar. We may never know, but we can be certain that Lewis does.

In my view, Ray Lewis is the personification of what is wrong in professional sports — and we see it in the case of a number of other famous athletes who are never asked to account for their actions. But as long as they continue to win we forgive them. We ask only that they light up the field or the golf course, not that they live exemplary lives — despite the fact that these people are the only heroes our kids will ever know. That’s the way the culture works: it places athletes on a pedestal and insists that we give them their due homage. We adulate people because of what they can do in the sports arena or how much money they earn, not what kind of people they are. Ray Lewis will undoubtedly make it into the Football Hall of Fame. He was a great player, but is not much of a man.

Our True Religion

Brace yourselves! Here it comes again: The Super Bowl, once again reminding us what we truly worship in this country. It isn’t football, per se, or even this particular football game, which is merely a pageant. Rather, it is the Almighty Dollar that pulls the strings behind the pageants, professional and collegiate — and, increasingly, high school. Like any true religion, professional sports provides us with a deity, the Almighty Dollar, together with a panoply of saints in the form of the athletes themselves — who disappoint us from time to time, but we worship them just the same. And it’s not a once-a-week thing for an hour, it fills every nook and cranny of our empty lives, giving us something to talk about over coffee or beer during the week, including fantasy games we can play to keep us attuned to what is going on daily.

TV is itself a constant reminder of what really matters to us — not only in form of the games we watch, but also the inspirational shows, like “Fox News” that tells us 24/7 that money is what counts. So when we tire of talking with one another about last weekend’s game, we can commiserate with each other about the sad state of the economy, vowing to vote out the rascals who are taking money out of our pockets. Again, the Almighty Dollar reigns supreme. Our true religion fills our lives the way Christianity filled the lives of the poor Europeans during the middle ages when cathedrals were being built and church was attended every day — sometimes twice a day — by all and sundry. Religion provided the main focus of nearly every life and there were no unbelievers. This still appears to be the case; only the religion has changed.

To focus for a moment on one aspect of our true religion, the game of football itself is great fun to watch and the athleticism of the participants is remarkable and at times unbelievable. But the game has taken on a life of its own and now possesses a power over us that is deeply disturbing. We watch captivated by the sheer brute force exhibited on the field or the TV set. This may indeed be a healthy release of sadistic impulses, as some have suggested. But it does show us at our worst at times as we glory in the violent spectacle that these professional, and semi-professional, athletes put on for us.

But behind it all lurks the specter of filthy lucre: money. Buckets filled with it in the form of TV revenue, profits from memorabilia sales, food sales in the second largest feeding frenzy of the year, the obscene salaries of the players — not to mention the profits garnered by the owners themselves — and the sale of the TV sponsors’ products through the clever ads that we look forward to each year at this time. We tend to get wrapped up in the event itself and forget that this spectacle is being set before us to divert attention away from the fact that what this country worships above all else if the Almighty Dollar. And this deity holds sway each year at this time in all its glory.

It’s not so much that this one game each year sweeps us up in its dazzle and glitz. That’s not a bad thing in itself. We need diversion at times, especially in times of economic woe. But the powers behind the spectacle are insatiable. They influence not only the professional games at all levels, but also the “amateur” games at the collegiate level, bringing about innumerable examples of shame and disgrace (witness Penn State of late, which is only the latest in an extended series of scandals that go back beyond memory). And now, thanks to TV networks like ESPN, the reach of the profit-grabbers is extending to the high schools where games are regularly televised, including “All-America” all-star games sponsored by the armed forces. And we are asked to watch as high school players make the decision which college to attend — an event that is staged to increase dramatic effect as the high school student picks up the hat of his chosen college, to his mother’s chagrin. All are designed to dull our awareness of what is really taking place, as Tocqueville noted in 1831: “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The Super Bowl brings in plenty!

In the end, the game will be played and discussed ad nauseam on TV for weeks and months to come. It will be enjoyed by millions here and abroad. It is well worth watching (yes, I will be watching). But it is also wise to remind ourselves from time to time what it’s all really about, namely, the Almighty Dollar. That is, truly, this country’s ultimate object of worship. The game is just a game.