Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rhetoric, smoothly outlined

Something I did a number of years ago (I could tell you how many, couldn't I? If I could remember; I think it must have been 7) was to study critical analysis. That's the application of linguistics and sociology to, well, basically to refusing to believe anything people say to you ever again. As an example of how it's useful to someone who isn't a professional rhetorician, here's a discussion of the things I read in The iPhone Store Impending Disaster Myth. Mainly because that article is fairly close to the top of my RSS feed reader.

The first thing to note is the use of loaded language in the title - the hyperbolic phrase "impending disaster" and its syzygy with the word "myth" clearly setting the author's stall out. This is reinforced by the first paragraph:

According to the predictable opinion scribes [...]They’re wrong, here’s why.

That first sentence fragment paints the subjects of the author's post as thoughtless machines, churning out page after page of text reinforcing their unchanging opinion. Ironically that is exactly what we are about to read for the next several paragraphs. It's a convenient amalgamation of two rhetorical techniques; most obviously it is an ad hominem (to the man) argument. Attention is diverted away from the discussion of Apple's app store and onto the people with which the author disagrees. This then is the beginning of a straw man which will be constructed toward the end of the piece, sowing the seed in the reader's mind that the author's opponent does not have a relevant argument.

The final sentence, "they're wrong, here's why", is a trademark of this particular author (or maybe that's an example of confirmation bias on my part) and actually renders the rest of the article meaningless for most people. It tells us that the rest of the article is a repudiation (for why it isn't a refutation, read on, but the point of this sentence is some verbal sleight of hand to make you believe that a refutation is to follow) of the position the author has defined for the "predictable opinion scribes", which is either going to make you believe that what's coming up will be an excellent riposte or a boring diatribe, depending on the opinion you've already formed about this author. All that the remaining part of the article needs to do is to fill up past the end of the page so that you believe the riposte/diatribe really exists, and it performs this task with aplomb.

What happens from here is actually rather subtle. The author outlines the position he intends to oppose, followed by "here’s[sic] the facts they’re missing". But the next few sections, from "Developers, Developers, Developers" to "Why Platforms Win" contain an opinionated retrospective on the computing industry, using links to the author's own articles as references. Opinionated? Well, count the number of times the phrase "third rate, old technology" appears. It's actually only four, but it moves from what "IBM, Microsoft, and the PC cloners [Oxford comma sic]" were doing to "the Microsoft strategy". There's enough filler (26 paragraphs and 10 linked articles in the same style by the same author) that it could be easy to forget that segue occurred. A fact which doesn't escape the author:

If you made it this far, you may have forgotten that the first argument against Apple vetoing apps

Too right we might have forgotten. What we haven't forgotten is that we were told "here's why" the app store naysayers were wrong, but have actually been told why Lotus 1-2-3 outsold Visicalc. The author's argument follows the pattern "B follows A. C. Therefore A." Loosely the argument could be described as a "red herring fallacy", although a word I prefer is that the intervening text underwent a process known as "contextomy".

Anyway, before we got here, our author let his fa├žade slip a little:

Now let’s hammer away at the sappy pleading on behalf of developers who want Apple to cater to their whims due to the attractive populist concept of fairness in doing so.

Ooops! Now, do we think that the author is for or against people who disagree with Apple? Anyway, enough backtracking. Why don't we move forward from the end of my previous <q>?

[...] is that its decisions are unpredictable and arbitrary.

Now read the rest of that section. There's a good amount of text to describe why these decisions aren't arbitrary. Whatever happened to unpredictable? Oh, and for bonus points, look for where the final paragraph contradicts the earlier thrust of the section and reinforces the notion that arbitrary rejections have occurred.

The rest of the article carries on in the same vein, and having seen the way in which I automatically parse the earlier part you can probably guess how my cynical mind interprets the rest of the text. Oh, and speaking of cynicism, if you're still wondering why this is a repudiation and not a refutation, then my evil little mind-play trick worked! You've read at least part of every paragraph in the hope to get information I promised at the beginning; if only I'd put some adverts in the post somewhere. So to refute means to prove to be false, whereas to repudiate means to reject. The article we've just looked at is an internally inconsistent expression of the author's opinion, no proof having occurred. It's also an example of the informal fallacy of suppressed correlative. Apple's practices can't be bad, because Microsoft's practices are bad and Apple's are better than Microsoft's.

Well, that was fun! The next time you're talking to your boss (or better, your marketing people), listen out for those rhetorical devices and remember to stay critical :-).

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