Walker’s Wonderland of illogic

Noted neuroscience researcher Antonio Damasio points out that Descartes’ Error was to assume that we are primarily thinking creatures.   This is false and causes us to conduct poor and ineffective analysis of politics.

We see politicians making logically absurd propositions  all around us, yet we are surprised when such candidates enjoy the support of many thinking voters.  To illustrate, consider the following: The state of Wisconsin’s legislature decided to impose a requirement that voters present photo ID before voting.  Progressives objected stating that there has been virtually no voter fraud cases and that the measure is instead politically motivated since it will disproportionately impact progressive voters.  The League of Women voters filed suit, to which the Governor’s office made this brief response.

For Immediate Release
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Governor Walker Statement on Photo ID

In reaction to a lawsuit today challenging the law requiring photo identification to be presented when voting, Governor Walker issued the following statement:


There are more photo ID’s currently issued than there are registered voters in Wisconsin.


Requiring photo identification to vote is common sense—we require it to get a library card, cold medicine, and public assistance.  I will continue to implement common sense reforms that protect the electoral process and increases citizens’ confidence in the results of our elections.Ensuring the integrity of our elections is one of the core functions of government.  Photo ID moves Wisconsin forward.

If this were the legal argument the Governor intends to make, then any Judge would dismiss it out of hand.

  1. Is this a valid Causal proposition?: Observing that one state document was acquired in greater quantity than voter registrations in the same period does not cause all individuals with the second document (registrations) to have the first document.   Unless some correlation is made based on the higher issuance of photo IDs, then we can’t assume there is a causal connection with anything related to voters.  The fancy name  causation fallacies  (Non Causa Pro Causa) with an uncorrelated factor in the premise is  Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc.
    But that doesn’t seem quite right- so maybe Walker intended:
  2. Maybe a Category proposition?:  The  governor’s argument might be restated that: registrations are given to voters, IDs are given to voters, therefore all registered voters have IDs, especially since more IDs are given out than registrations.   The fancy name for the part up to “especially” is a category error, like the syllogistic fallacy in Alice in Wonderland:  Serpents like eggs, girls like eggs, therefore girls are serpents.

If Walker actually intended a logical proposition, we are indeed in a Wonderland of preposterous illogic but the disturbing reality is that none of it seems to matter to voters.  Walker’s response is purposely vague in order to obscure the logical errors.  How the premise ties to the unstated conclusion is omitted, so it is impossible to classify the fallacy except with a catch all like “non sequitur” or Ignaratio Elenchi  (more on that classification here)

So is the solution to make the population more skilled in argumentation and logic?  The western democracies are highly educated and it doesn’t seem to be making much impact.  It will come as no surprise that Walker’s statement has nothing to do with logic, or a legal argument.  We often turn away from such propositions sometimes for valid reasons, when we trust our instincts that something can be legally valid, without being morally valid.

Both progressive and a conservatives feel that something deeply illegitimate is going on with the Walker story.  For many it’s part of something larger- a feeling that something is deeply not right in the world- That there are nefarious hidden forces at work that are undermining that which is good about the world. That is where we are as the 99%. Totally common emotional feelings.

Clothing our common emotion, the force of our feelings are channeled into utterly opposing logical propositions. Walker’s supporters believe that not all those who are registered to vote are all legitimate voters. There is a deep feeling that Obama is not legitimately their President, and their minds struggle for an explanation of how it could be that he is in fact their President. We progressives engage in the same thinking- we feel that a vote is not fair if the views of the population are being controlled by propaganda (progressives cite FOX propaganda, and conservatives cite the Left dominated mass media other than FOX).

On this particular issue, what Walker and other conservatives were capitalizing on were the following premises floating around in the minds of conservatives:

  • Registrations are given to voters
  • Identity cards were given to legitimate voters
  • More Photo IDs were given than Registrations
  • Legitimate voters have Photo IDs

There are two strong frames that provide structure for these disjoint premises.  Their strength is measured in their resonance with the same frames active in number of other conservative issues.  The first is identity.  “How is it possible our state voted for Obama”? sounds the Identity and Legitimacy themes.   “Who were these voters really?”  is merely the Identity politics variation of  “Who is Obama really?” (Kenyan, Muslim, radical militant?)  For conservatives in denial, the theme if illegitimacy is strong.  Obama as an illegitimate president (eg. the birther’s claim), elected by illegitimate voters.

So pealing back the skin on this issue, the real premises are not from logic but from the emotional feeling something is deeply wrong, and something must be done as Walker’s release states, to restore  “integrity” and “citizens’ confidence in the results of our elections.”

If this is what significant portions of the population sincerely feel, it is like saying the last elections were rigged.  It is silly to confront the Walker at the level of logic and measures of legal merit and simply mock the right’s crazy talk.  An effective analysis must engage the emotions from which the issues spring and defuse them.

Our country’s founders in the 18th century were children of the Enlightenment and like Descartes assumed we are something we simply are not. The republic is founded on an inverted assumption. It is in fact quite irrational to insist that we are rational creatures. It is not that issues make us feel one way or another.  It is that we all have strong emotions about how things are, then we frame issues around those feelings.

At the bottom of it, we are emotional creatures.  We start with our feelings- from deep in our brain stems, guiding the organizing of sense data into perceptions, proceed up to  our  frontal lobes which help us amplify and refine our feelings about our world,  and what others mean, dressing them in the clothes of intentionality, rational propositions and so on. But in our nakedness we are all emotional organisms, not logic machines balanced on two sticks to propel us through life on trajectories without meaning.

It matters not one tiniest bit whether or not we have a convincing rational proposition  to bludgeon the opposition with. This is the delusion of the children of the enlightenment. The children of political science departments. The children that believe themselves to be performing penetrating commentary and analysis.

Two different women are visible

They are not speaking to the emotions of those who do not share their points of view. In fact, what they are doing is helping the opposition entrench their supporters  further into their foxhole perspectives, rather than getting them to understand other emotional vantage points from which alternate gestalts are possible- to see the young girl in the picture rather than just the old lady, or vice versa.

That is the path towards common action, and that is what the president was directing himself towards in his self criticism about narrative in Suskind’s book on Obama. A common narrative is at the heart of it. People look at narratives and frames as a way to package a policy. That is completely backwards. You start with the narrative- the emotional frame- and your existence as a leader and our existence as a nation sufficiently united to achieve legislation stems from that narrative.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-10-28, in cognitive science, identity, legitimacy, logic, Scott Walker. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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