Logic and Antonelli

So the kerfuffle de jour is a rhetorical counter strike from Puppy nominee Lou Antonelli that can be read here http://louantonelli.blogspot.com.au/2015/06/puppies-in-heartland.html .

There are many issues with what he wrote the most substantial of which are sweeping claims without supporting evidence. Most notable among them being:

In 2012, when Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee for president, most of the leading lights in the s-f  literary world combined their hatred for people of faith with their hatred for Republicans by attacking Romney in the most vile language. Quite frankly, I personally believe there are some things you should never say to or about people, regardless of the subject. In light of the attacks on Romney, is it any wonder all the Mormon s-f writers went off the reservation?

Which is a powerful statement that you would expect to be followed by equally powerful examples of key leading lights saying terrible things. I can well imagine that somebody somewhere in American SF must have said something unpleasant about Mitt Romney but oddly Antonelli quotes nobody.

There are other examples but this blog is not for puppy kicking per-se but rather talking cats, graphs, stats and logic. Luckily Mr. Antonelli has kindly provided some rich examples to discuss – with the exception of talking cats. Even better, most of the rich ore is contained in one paragraph:

In the places I have been this summer, the fans – if not people of faith and Republicans themselves – know people who are and have friends who are, and they don’t have that visceral hatred towards the average American that the Puppy Kickers have. If the U.S. had a parliament instead of a Congress, we’d have a Republican Prime Minister. As someone who’s followed politics both personally and professionally for as long as I have. I know the only reason the Democratic Party gets as many votes as it does is the relentless ballot box stuffing in the big cities. Most Americans vote Republican.

There are three delightful things for the hobbyist logician there:

  • A counterfactual
  • A case of ‘begging the question’ or circular reasoning
  • A lack of explanatory parsimony

Begging the question.
The description of this fallacy dates back to our old friend Aristotle. While a similar phrase is used colloquial these days to mean ‘raises a question’, the term is used in reasoning for types of circular arguments that essentially assume what they seek to establish.

Antonelli’s question begging is not overt and he probably wasn’t aware of it but it is here: “I know the only reason the Democratic Party gets as many votes as it does is the relentless ballot box stuffing in the big cities.”

To see why it is question-begging you need to follow the logical implications and make one leap of inference. The leap of inference is that we should assume that Democrats want as many votes as possible and hence if they are going to stuff ballots that they would do so wherever possible. That Democrats don’t win elections everywhere is why Antonelli singles out the big cities. Yet why only there? That is an easy question to answer because Democrats are politically stronger in the big cities and control various levels of government in the big cities. Now why is that? Well as Antonelli has claimed maybe because they have been stuffing ballot boxes…but that has taken us back round to the initial assumption. The Democrats could effectively engage in electoral shenanigans in areas in which they are politically strongest and likewise the Republicans. So shenanigans can explain some aspects of regional power between political parties (particularly gerrymandering) but it is a self-limiting explanation.

Which takes me neatly to an English Franciscan monk. William of Ockham was a medieval philosopher most famous for his principle known as ‘Occam’s razor’. In general the best way to consider the principle is that you should be parsimonious when it comes to explanatory hypotheses. If something can be explained with one variable there is no need to add another. If one person could have stolen your car then there is no need (without additional evidence) to assume two people did so.

What has parsimony got to do with Democrats or Antonelli? The issue is whether we need ballot stuffing at all to explain why the Democrats are stronger electorally in America’s big cities. The answer is, no we don’t and it isn’t a useful explanation. Swim briefly across the Atlantic and consider an electoral map of the UK – zoom in on Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Swansea, Edinburgh. You will see a lot of votes for Labour (or in Scotland the equally leftwing SNP). Jump to the other side of the world and you will see a similar pattern in Australia. Back to Europe and look at Germany or France or head to Israel or to any country with a vibrant representative party democracy and you will big cities will have a substantial tendency to vote for the left hand side of their respective political spectrums.

Counterfactuals are wonderful things. They are rhetorical delight but a bit of a logical nightmare. A counterfactual is any claim that is intentionally based on something that is not actually true but which is being used to show some sort of truth about the world we live in. For example the signs for a housing development near a major road or train-line that says “If you lived here you would be home by now”.

The problem with counterfactuals lies with a nasty issue in propositional logic. Essentially any false proposition implies (logically) ALL propositions. This can be a little hard to get your head around but a key to making sense of that is to understand that logical implication is not a causal relation. When a logician says A implies B they are not saying the truth of A changes the truth of B. Read about it here http://www.cut-the-knot/do_you_know/falsity.shtml .

So logic has some trouble with claims of the sort: If X then Y where X is know to be false. However one neat way around this is to consider all counterfactual statements as occurring in a PARALLEL UNIVERSE! SF-logic.

Antonelli’s counterfactual is this one: if the U.S. had a parliament instead of a Congress, we’d have a Republican Prime Minister. A simple logical analysis would be that the US doesn’t have a parliament instead of a congress which unfortunately implies that I am the pope (or to put it another way “Camestros is the Pope” and “the US has a parliamentary democracy” are both equally true.)

Now logic is being very unfair to that statement but we can pop into a parallel world and consider it without me having to wear a mitre or drive a pope-mobil.

So is Antonelli’s claim true? Put another way – is there a rational possible world that is as like to our world as possible BUT in which the US has a parliamentary democracy AND in which the Prime Minister is a Republican. The answer is sure, maybe.

The simplest case is one that has the US as is suddenly by some deus ex-machina process suddenly lose its executive branch and the houses of its legislative branch suddenly be constituted as a parliament and the text of the US constitution change accordingly. How this occurred we will not question. In this case there is a good chance the Prime Minister would be a Republican but it isn’t certain. Parliamentary democracies have much tighter party discipline than in the US legislatures but in any parliament the PM has to ensure that they have a solid majority in the lower house. This can give some members of parliament (MPs) a lot of power and as US politicians tend to be less dependent on their party for funding, the possibility of rouge MPs demanding concessions before guaranteeing their vote to support a putative Prime Minister is a real one.

However it is even more complicated than that if we assume that recent congressional election were for a parliament instead of congress. If this were the case American’s would have been voting in a general election for a combined legislature/executive and, if other parliamentary democracies are anything to go by, the party leader would be a key part of that election. In our counterfactual world this would have been a parliamentary election with Chicago MP Obama versus, say Mitt Romney MP for wherever he is. Would the Republicans really have won that general parliamentary election? Who knows. We do know that overall the US has been splitting closish to 50-50 in presidential elections on the popular vote. Without knowing the constituency boundaries, turnout or voting system it is best to guess 50-50 but with maybe slightly better odds for the GOP because of superior gerrymandering power.

In addition parliamentary politics is a very different game. Every vote in the lower house on legislation is, to some extent, a vote of confidence in the executive/Prime Minister. In the US if the majority party loses a vote on a piece of legislation it is a set back – it doesn’t put the position of the President in doubt. Additionally every PM can be deposed by his fellow MPs – even powerful figures such as Margaret Thatcher. In this parallel universe US party politics is a very different beast and even if the PM was a Republican, the Republican party would not necessarily be one Mr Antonelli would recognize.

Of course all Antonelli meant was that Republicans have done well electorally in the House of Representatives but that is not a point that supports his overall argument. Worse yet if we flip this round and apply the notion to WorldCon and Hugo voting we get a very odd counterfactual – what if the Hugo awards were decided by a US style congress? Oh! Better yet what if the Hugos were decided by an Electoral College? I’ll save that for another post.

So kudos to Lou Antonelli. What he wrote was nonsense but at least one paragraph provided me at least with lots of great interest.

2 thoughts on “Logic and Antonelli

  1. My favourite was the line “Most Americans vote Republican”. I am happy to admit that this is technically true, but only in the sense that most English people* vote Conservative. It hinges upon the assumptions that (a) a narrow majority of those who actually vote is enough to justify the belief that they can therefore impose their will uncontested upon everyone else, and that (b) those who did not vote (who may be a very sizeable minority of the electorate) do not deserve any consideration, since – after all – they had the opportunity to vote. Both of these factors are contributing factors to the dangerously fragile state of modern western democracies (although to be honest, they are fairly minor by comparison to the horrific short-term gesture politics that our 24-hour media cycle enforces – I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with the President of China, but he said that we were probably doomed sooner than we think and he may be right.)
    It also assumes that someone who votes Republican does so because they have made a considered opinion of the issues and not simply because of tribal affiliation. It has been repeated demonstrated that people have very different reactions to policies if they consider them in isolation and if they are told that they have been proposed by a specific party. (This is one of the factors behind what happened to the Liberal Democrats in the UK 2015 election – their support is generally not nearly as tribal as that of the two main UK parties.)

    And yes, the notion that the Democrats only win their seats in big cities due to ballot stuffing made me laugh quite a lot for most of the reasons you cite (my own reaction was “…and therefore it must follow that the Republicans only win their seats in rural areas due to ballot stuffing too.”)

    *I say English here because Scotland in particular clearly doesn’t vote Conservative.


  2. I haven’t crunched the numbers but US politics is a three way fight between the Democrats, GOP and not voting at all. Most America do not vote for the Republicans and most do not vote for Democrats and most don’t vote for either because of the three way split (i.e. non-voter+ Democrats out number Republicans, non-Voters + Republicans out number Democrats). Must check the numbers on that though…

    Well gerrymandering and voter-id measures help too 🙂

    Fair to say both parties use local political power to boost their numbers but they both need the numbers in the first place. I suspect most Democrat shenanigans are Democrat v Democrat.


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