Category Archives: Unqualified Authority

Argumentum ad verecundiam

Santa brought you a fallacy

USA Today recently reported that “not all Christians believe there is a War on Christmas.”  Most who don’t have this belief have the contrary belief – that not only that there is not a war on Christmas, but that the holiday is doing just fine and one doesn’t need to force it on the non-believers.

But Larry Thornberry at AmSpec sees a fallacy:

A recent USA Today story carried the headline “Not all Christians believe there is a ‘War on Christmas.’”  Hardly surprising. Not all Christians believe Elvis is dead. The obvious escapes many, pious or heathen.

The title of the piece is “Objection, Your Honor. Relevance?”

Two important things.  First, ad populum arguments are not failures of relevance.  Otherwise the fact that something is ‘traditional’ or ‘common sense’ wouldn’t lend any support to anything.  But it does – else conservatism would, at it’s core, be a fallacy.  Ad populum arguments suffer, instead, from problems of weak authority – the matter is whether there are other reasons undercutting the authority or the accuracy of those attesting.

Second, the analogy between those who don’t believe in a War on Christmas and those who believe Elvis is still alive is mighty ridiculous.  The difference between the two is that Elvis-death-deniers fail with empirical evidence.  War-on-Christmas deniers distinguish being oppressed from tolerance.


Ad populum seals it

A good deal has been made about Rick Perry's doubts about evolution and global warming.  And so the concern that we have yet another know-nothing Republican on our hands is pretty popular (though Hitchens has an interesting take, too, namely, that he's cynically just putting on).  Rich Lowry, over at National Review, has seen this game before, and he warns his readers that this is an old familiar canard, the "Anti-Science Smear" on Republicans.  Here's how he responds to the evolution line:

According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans think God created man in his present form, and 38 percent think man developed over millions of years with God guiding the process. Is three-quarters of the country potentially anti-science?

Seriously. That's the response about evolution. 

The trouble is that I am unsure that those three quarters polled by Gallup that day could answer many detailed questions about evolution.  They may not be anti-science, but they aren't science literate, at least most of them.  That's probably the case about many, many things. (I'd love to see if Gallup could produce a  percentage of people who think that there's a highest number.) Calling people who answer a poll question in a fashion that does not reflect the scientific consensus 'anti-science' is probably too quick, but calling a Presidential candidate who should know better the same is just about right.   Or else, perhaps, Hitchens is right, and he's just putting on for the cameras and the 75% that really think that way.

Someone to agree with me

I wish I had a flattering one-idea explanation for the outcome of Tuesday's election, where Republicans took a majority in the house, and made gains in, but did not take, the Senate (weren't they supposed to do that?).  But I know such an explanation would likely be inadequate.  One idea, I think, couldn't explain the entire complex thing.  Not even the one chosen by most political scientists (i.e., the people who study this stuff as a job)–the economy, the economy, the economy–could do the trick. 

But I'm not George Will.  He has studied the data, consulted with the nation's top political scientists and economists, and come to the conclusion that one idea–the idea he blathers about all of the time–happens to the be just the one that explains the election, the desires of the American people, and the failures of "liberalism":

It is amazing the ingenuity Democrats invest in concocting explanations of voter behavior that erase what voters always care about, and this year more than ever – ideas. This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government.

It's just false that Obama believes in "unlimited government" (or anything remotely close to it).  But perhaps few of George Will's devoted readers would likely believe that.  This notion–which pretty much drives the rest of this sorry piece of thinking–forms the basis of George Will's thinking about government, inasmuch as his thinking, to the extent that you can even call it that, is entirely defined by opposition to a fantasy opponent, one who holds beliefs no one really holds, and one who, tellingly, never utters the words he attributes to them.

So he spends the rest of this piece defining this liberal–citing not one thing a liberal in recent years has actually endorsed–but relying on the authority of someone else's hollow man:

Recently, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter decided, as the president has decided, that what liberals need is not better ideas but better marketing of the ones they have: "It's a sign of how poorly liberals market themselves and their ideas that the word 'liberal' is still in disrepute despite the election of the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow."

"Despite"? In 2008, Democrats ran as Not George Bush. In 2010, they ran as Democrats. Hence, inescapably, as liberals, or at least as obedient to liberal leaders. Hence Democrats' difficulties.

Responding to Alter, George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux agreed that interest-group liberalism has indeed been leavened by idea-driven liberalism. Which is the problem.

"These ideas," Boudreaux says, "are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else's contracts, social relations, diets, habits, and even moral sentiments." Liberalism's ideas are "about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of 'Big Ideas' that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people."

To most liberals, Alter hardly counts as a representative (hey, let's torture now!).  And besides, Will obviously distorts what Alter meant.  Alter probably meant something like: how can mildly progressive ideas about health care lose to people (just an example) who fear government taking away their medicare (but hey, go read it for yourself–it's a review of a zillion books about liberals).  That point, I think, deserves fairer consideration.

The funny thing about this passage, however, is the bolded part.  Will's assistant found someone else who shares the same hollow man he does in precisely the same way he does: a grand characterization, attributable to no one, full of ad hominem and invective.  And he cites that as evidence for his view.

Does David Broder read the Washington Post?

Two short points today. We’re still working out the kinks here.

First, my view is that we ought to redo our health care system. I think this is a matter of national security, much more say than the imaginary weapons of a fictional dictator. People here actually die from lack of adequate health care. Now, since it’s a matter of national security, and since we continue to pay richly for imaginary threats to our national security, we ought to not complain about things that are real. This is why this kind of stuff from David Broder) raises one’s blood pressure:

Acknowledging that “clearly, we need radical reconstructive surgery to make our health-care system effective, affordable and sustainable,” Walker cautioned that “what we should not do is merely tack new programs onto a system that is fundamentally flawed” — and rapidly driving the national budget into ruin.

He proposes a four-part test of fiscal responsibility for any health reform plan: “First, the reform should pay for itself over 10 years. Second, it should not add to deficits beyond 10 years. Third, it should significantly reduce the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded health promises that we already have. Fourth, it should bend down — not up — the total health-care cost curve as a percentage of” gross domestic product.

If only people had made this argument about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next point, the Lewin group is an insurance company-funded group. One ought not to cite them as independent and impartial observers. Following directly from the above:

An analysis by the Lewin Group shows that the Energy and Commerce Committee bill that was the basic blueprint for the House measure comes close to meeting the first of those tests and fails the other three, according to Walker, “by a wide margin.”

A separate Lewin Group study of the Finance Committee bill from which Majority Leader Harry Reid is working on the Senate legislation shows it is almost as much of a fiscal failure. It fails the fourth test, falls short on the third, and passes the first two only by assuming that future Congresses will force reductions in reimbursements to doctors and hospitals that lawmakers in the past have refused to impose.

Here is the Washington Post on the Lewin group on 7.23/2009:

Generally left unsaid amid all the citations is that the Lewin Group is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest insurers.

Doesn’t Broder read his own paper?

The stain of ignorance

In order further to induce skepticism about global warming, George Will now invokes the words of Mark Steyn, a man with no apparent education or expertise on climate science, who in turn rests his global warming denialism on someone who who has no education or expertise on climate science.  Will writes:

The costs of weaning the U.S. economy off much of its reliance on carbon are uncertain, but certainly large. The climatic benefits of doing so are uncertain but, given the behavior of those pesky 5 billion, almost certainly small, perhaps minuscule, even immeasurable. Fortunately, skepticism about the evidence that supposedly supports current alarmism about climate change is growing, as is evidence that, whatever the truth about the problem turns out to be, U.S. actions cannot be significantly ameliorative.

When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called upon "young Americans" to "get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon," another columnist, Mark Steyn, responded: "If you're 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you're graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade."

Which could explain why the Mall does not reverberate with youthful clamors about carbon. And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying.

For the Steyn reference, see here (for the lazy, Steyn's argument rests on the discredited paper of a non-scientist).  As a matter of logic, however, relying on the authority of someone else is a slightly more sound strategy than making stuff up–which is what Will did last time he talked about global warming.

The Green Hornet

The only thing that makes George Will madder (and more incoherent) than "global warming" are teachers' unions.  Just as teachers' unions have singularly (without any interference from any other causal factor) been able to destroy public education and all that's good in America, environmentalists aim to destroy the economy for their Marxist political agenda.  I wish I were kidding:

What Friedrich Hayek called the "fatal conceit" — the idea that government can know the future's possibilities and can and should control the future's unfolding — is the left's agenda. The left exists to enlarge the state's supervision of life, narrowing individual choices in the name of collective goods. Hence the left's hostility to markets. And to automobiles — people going wherever they want whenever they want.

Today's "green left" is the old "red left" revised. Marx, a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist, prophesied deepening class conflict but thought that history's violent dialectic would culminate in a revolution that would usher in material abundance and such spontaneous cooperation that the state would wither away.

The green left preaches pessimism: Ineluctable scarcities (of energy, food, animal habitat, humans' living space) will require a perpetual regime of comprehensive rationing. The green left understands that the direct route to government control of almost everything is to stigmatize, as a planetary menace, something involved in almost everything — carbon.

He gets to this astoundingly moronic conclusion (that global warming is a myth perpetrated by "the left") by two main arguments.  First, he uncritically accepts of the word of a poorly qualified climate change deniers and climate change danger skeptics.  This time it's not Michael Crichton, science fiction author, but Nigel Lawson (that's Nigella's father), former British Cabinet member.  I can't determine what his specific expertise is here.  But it's obvious that he doesn't deny the fact of global warming–something which Will seems to do here.  He merely denies that it's a bad thing.  He writes (Will's quote):

"Over the past two-and-a-half-million years, a period during which the planet's climate fluctuated substantially, remarkably few of the earth's millions of plant and animal species became extinct. This applies not least, incidentally, to polar bears, which have been around for millennia, during which there is ample evidence that polar temperatures have varied considerably."

According to him at least, the climate is changing.  To be fair, of course, he'll probably deny that the cause is the presence of unabsorbed carbon in the atmosphere.  But that's a different claim from the one he's making above.  Scientists would agree of course that the earth's temperature has changed considerably over the years.  But not so drastically.  And not, at least not recently, because of carbon in the atmosphere. 

Will's second argument is inconsistent with this first one.  He writes

Want to build a power plant in Arizona? A building in Florida? Do you want to drive an SUV? Or leave your cellphone charger plugged in overnight? Some judge might construe federal policy as proscribing these activities. Kempthorne says such uses of the act, unintended by those who wrote it in 1973, would be "wholly inappropriate." But in 1973, climate Cassandras were saying that "the world's climatologists are agreed" that we must "prepare for the next ice age" (Science Digest, February 1973).

This one holds that the climate is probably not changing, or that climatologists should not be believed, because in the 70s there was concern (in the popular media) about "a new ice age."  In other words, Will suggests there is some kind of inconsistency in the arguments of current climatologists because an article or two (and he always cites specific articles on this point–good for him!) claimed the opposite of what they now claim.  This, of course, hardly makes them inconsistent.  Besides, reports from the 70s popular media ought not be held up against the work of actual scientists.  You might hold it up against the current disaster-media complex, but that would be something else entirely.

In one final bit of craziness, he concludes the above paragraph with the following warning:

And no authors of the Constitution or the 14th Amendment intended to create a "fundamental" right to abortion, but there it is.

Lest you think we won't slide down the slippery slope to less autonomy of personal choices, just look at what happened with Roe v. Wade.   


George Will loves to use the word “traduce.” It’s one of those words that sounds real smart, but in the end just conceals the absence of actual reasoning:

>In 1943, the Supreme Court, affirming the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses children to refuse to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag in schools, declared: “No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Today that principle is routinely traduced, coast to coast, by officials who are petty in several senses.

>They are teachers at public universities, in schools of social work. A study prepared by the National Association of Scholars, a group that combats political correctness on campuses, reviews social work education programs at 10 major public universities and comes to this conclusion: Such programs mandate an ideological orthodoxy to which students must subscribe concerning “social justice” and “oppression.”

Teachers at public universities are not “officials” in the same sense as those enforcing the saying of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” At best, they are officials enforcing “orthodoxy” in a very extended and analogous sense.

The real presumption of this piece, however, consists in Will’s sneering (always sneering he is) and ironic dismissal of social work. He doesn’t think, so it appears, that social work rises above the level of shallow opinion-mongering–the kind that gets protected by the First Amendment. He writes:

>In 1997, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) adopted a surreptitious political agenda in the form of a new code of ethics, enjoining social workers to advocate for social justice “from local to global levels.” A widely used textbook — “Direct Social Work Practice: Theory and Skill” — declares that promoting “social and economic justice” is especially imperative as a response to “the conservative trends of the past three decades.” Clearly, in the social work profession’s catechism, whatever social and economic justice are, they are the opposite of conservatism.

If it’s so clear, then he wouldn’t need to say clearly. It isn’t clear. And it’s only a textbook. A textbook, as a professor who employs them can attest, isn’t some kind of set of beliefs to which one must subscribe and whose contents one must slavishly and mindlessly repeat. The study of any discipline, as Will seems to think, doesn’t consist in the inculcation of doctrinal maxims–anecdotal evidence (as Will goes on to offer) doesn’t establish that fact.

Besides, social work, on account of its “social” work, stands in marked contrast in its orientation and objective from every single one of George Will’s conservative ideological principles. But that fact alone does not, as Will seems to think, mean its equally unjustified and ideological.

Morality tales

Sometimes you read the same column over and over again. Today provides one example. A still very confused Robert Samuelson writes:

>But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: We simply don’t have a solution for this problem. As we debate it, journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale — as Newsweek did — in which anyone who questions its gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed as a fool, a crank or an industry stooge. Dissent is, or should be, the lifeblood of a free society.

A little context. Newsweek featured a story about industry-funded global warming deniers–the oil and auto-industry types that claim the global warming “consensus” isn’t all that, or that “consensus” shouldn’t be the basis of such judgments, or worse, that the whole thing is a hoax dreamed up by Al Gore for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.:

>Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. “They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry,” says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration. “Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That’s had a huge impact on both the public and Congress.”

The article concerns the ridiculous amount of coverage the naysayers have gotten–especially in light of the strength of their view. But Samuelson seems to think this amounts to squelching dissent. Worse than this, he thinks global warming is an undeniable scientific fact. But he also seems to think that people who deny undeniable scientific facts ought to have equal time or consideration when it comes to public discourse–for every global warming story, perhaps, we ought to have a global warming denier present the “con” position. For every story about DNA, then, perhaps we ought to have someone represent the homuncular theory of human reproduction–dissent is the lifeblood of a democracy after all.

Few scientists would want to squelch dissent about any topic. But many would rather the media played things differently, that it represented scientific authorities (and cranks) in their proper context. Dissenters–such as science fiction novelists–perhaps ought not to get any coverage in a story about a scientific fact. But unfortunately that’s not the case. And the net result of the controversy style of press coverage is the confused mind of Robert Samuelson. While he thinks global warming is a reality we should do something about, he doubts whether anything can be done to stop it. Even he ought to realize that that is a separate question from whether it occurs.

Besides, this–like any other scientific question–is a fundamentally moral question. Do I believe things that have basis in reality, or do I deny them in the face of all evidence?

Real customers, not actors

Sometimes it’s important to point out things that are false. Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon portray themselves as “vocal critics” of the administration on Iraq. As a result, their credibility on Iraq increases–if the “vocal critics” say the surge is going well, then it must be. Well, Glenn Greenwald does everyone a favor and points out just how false the “vocal critic” or “critic” appellation is for O’Hanlon (in particular).

The important thing about Greenwald’s work, of course, is that it undermines the premise of Pollack and O’Hanlon’s argument. They have just returned from Iraq, stuffed with anecdotes about energized troop morale for the brilliant leadership of General Petraeus:

>Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administrations miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily victory but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Having established their credible skepticism, they launch into an anecdotal and impressionistic assessment of events on the ground:

>After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Really–“the moral of our troops” is second only to the heat?

>Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

>Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

>In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local Sunni sheiks all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups who were now competing to secure his friendship.

In Baghdads Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.

And so on. Juan Cole pointed out the hollowness of the “shopping evidence”: people shop even in wartime. But the rest of the piece continues in the same vein: anecdotal observations of an optimism reminiscent of administration press releases whose credible authority rests entirely on the deeply misleading (or just plain false) claim of skepticism at the beginning of the piece.

Let them eat yellow cake

Sometimes one can only laugh. Yesterday, for instance, Michael Gerson–former speech writer to George W.Bush–turns his attention to Iraq. Keep in mind that Gerson’s man, in Gerson’s words, was fantastically wrong about Iraq. But he was wrong about Iraq in the company of another man–Tony Blair, the now former British PM. This is why the following is so dumbfounding:

>One of the most infuriating problems in Iraq seems to generate precious little fury.

>In a kind of malicious chemistry experiment, hostile powers are adding accelerants to Iraq’s frothing chaos. Iran smuggles in the advanced explosive devices that kill and maim American soldiers. Syria allows the transit of suicide bombers who kill Iraqis at markets and mosques, feeding sectarian rage.

>This is not a complete explanation for the difficulties in Iraq. Poor governance and political paralysis would exist whether Iran and Syria meddled or not.

Not to mention sectarian rage. But no mind:

>But without these outside influences, Tony Blair told me recently, the situation in Iraq would be “very nearly manageable.”

Tony Blair! Those who listened to Tony Blair (and Bush, and many, many others) the first time found themselves in a bloody mess. You’d think that Gerson, architect and first person witness of the nonsense that put us there, might perhaps be sensitive to question of diminished credibility. Just a whisper perhaps.

But then again, maybe not.