Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but there’s a chemical compound known as dihydrogen monoxide that if you’re not already familiar with—you should be. Among other things, it is a major component of acid rain. It is known to be fatal if inhaled. And it may cause severe burns under certain conditions. Despite these risks, dihydrogen monoxide is widely used in industry as a solvent and coolant, in public buildings as a fire retardant and in agriculture for the application of pesticides. When used with pesticides the chemical remains even after the produce is washed. Several groups have called for a ban on the use of this substance but so far the US Government has not acted.
As its name implies, dihydrogen monoxide consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom—monoxide is the proper nomenclature for ‘mono-oxide’. Its molecular formula is H2O and its common name is water. The facts above come from a parody that first appeared nearly 40 years ago (for a full description see the Wikipedia link: bit.ly/3Hrrn2r). I use it here because it’s a really good example of a specious argument, which is the subject of this blog.
A specious argument is one that sounds reasonable and convincing but upon closer inspection it falls apart. It is often used to deceive an audience into believing a false claim or to support a dubious proposal. In my opening paragraph, everything I state is factually correct. But these facts are carefully selected and carefully worded to give a false impression. [Even the superscript references are correct. They all point to the Wikipedia page about the parody.]
This is important to me because most of my life I have worked to make science and technology understandable to non-technical audiences. I love seeing the lightbulb go off when folks understand something they previously thought was incomprehensible. So you can imagine how much it pains me whenever I see someone use a specious argument—instead of trying to help folks they are trying to prey on them!
Specious arguments can be found in all areas of human endeavor and the field of Broadband Internet is no exception. Because I’ll likely use this term in future blogs I thought I’d take the time and give it a proper explanation. The following is the most recent example. It may or may not technically be specious. As you’ll I’m still investigating it:
For the past 20 years, large incumbent operators have been trying to prevent or impede municipalities from building their own Fiber-to-the-Home networks. Early on the large operators openly worked with state governments to enact legislation barring municipalities from building such networks. Over time the operators’ strategies shifted to more subtle methods, such as challenging Muni applications for broadband grants. Operators are certainly within their rights to make these challenges. Indeed, I have no problem with their challenges when based on rational claims—for example, if the municipality violates its own policies. But I recently saw something that caught my eye.
The NTCA, which is one of the main associations for the Cable TV industry, was quoted in a press release about a recently introduced US Senate bill. They said the proposed legislation:
“…would encourage…applicants with demonstrated experience constructing and operating broadband networks in order to promote network construction that is on budget and on time”.
The way I read this, the NCTA is saying existing operators are more likely to construct a new network on budget and on time than a newbie to the field, like a municipality for example. That sounds pretty reasonable, right?
But when we say an operator has already ‘built’ a network we usually don’t mean that they actually performed the construction—they usually contract that out to network construction companies. In that case the issue of being on budget and on time usually hinges on the background and experience of the particular construction company—not that of the network operator.
So why was the press release worded the way it was? I don’t know. It could have been accidental. In my mind, to be guilty of employing a specious argument it has to be intentional. The press release was issued by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. The legislation was co-sponsored by him as well as Sens. Lujan (NM), Klobuchar (MN) and Fischer (NE). Since Amy Klobuchar is the senator from my state, I sent of an email to her asking for clarification. I’ll let you know what I hear.
In the meantime, I wrote this blog because I think specious is a good word to know and to be on the lookout for.