Category Archives: False Cause

A different explanation

George Whittman, at the American Spectator, has a suggestion to Bill Clinton: Stay Home.  Apparently, Clinton makes for accommodationist foreign policy with Muslims. Clinton opined that Islamic terrorism in Northern Nigeria was caused by economic troubles, and he suggested economic development of the North as a means of reducing the trouble. Whittman rebuts Clinton:

Clinton must have known that his statement was a direct attack on Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan who had earlier responded sharply to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour when she suggested poverty and corruption were behind the rise in Nigerian terrorism. President Jonathan had vigorously replied that Boko Haram was “definitely not a result of poverty.…Boko Haram is a local terrorist group.”

Note, by the way, that the form of that explanation is as follows:  q does not explain p, because p.  Apparently, being an Islamic terrorist is causa sui.  Silly Clinton.

She loves me not

The standard critical thinking examples of fallacies, many argue, just don't ever occur in real life.  No one, for instance, would ever allege that the stock market is tanking on account of someone's appearance on a TV show.  Right?  Wrong.  Take the following interchange between Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera  (Via TPM).

“Representative? You know what, as we’re talking the market is selling off once again,” she told Grijalva. “Every time members of Congress come on, and I’ve got to tell you sir, I think you’re contributing to the fears that we’re going off the fiscal cliff because it doesn’t sound like there’s any compromise in what you’re saying. Do you care that markets are selling off dramatically when it looks like you guys can’t come to a deal?” 

What makes this hilarious is the implication that the stock market, with all of its wonderful complexity, was glued to CNBC, and CNBC's narrative of compromise, such that its hopes sank like a teenage boy at a high school dance when that compromise didn't appear to be imminent.

Sadly, the person who made this comment has a job as a journalist in the financial industry.  One might believe that knowledge, with all of its requirements of believing correctly and evidence and such, might be paramount.

Regrettably, no.

Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.

Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

Post torture, ergo propter torture

Bill O'Reilly is happy Osama Bin Laden is dead.  Apparently, because there are political points to score.  OBL's assassination vindicates the use of torture, and that's cause to do a Bill O'Reilly in-your-face move. Like this:

[T]he big story to emerge from the action is that coerced interrogation gave the CIA vital information used to track bin Laden to his lair. . . .  Of course, that exposition is embarrassing to the left, including President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton, who are all on record as saying coerced interrogation does not work. Apparently, they were wrong in a big way.

Ah, so coerced information.  Yes, the result of enhanced interrogation.  Erm, torture.  OK, just so we're clear.  Yes, so, in your face, liberals and lefty-pansies!  And how do we know this?  Well, the story is clear:

The record shows that just three men were waterboarded: Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Rahim al-Nashiri, all al-Qaida big shots. Under duress, KSM gave up vital information that crippled his terror group and ultimately led U.S. authorities to watch bin Laden's top Pakistani courier. Eventually, that man led the CIA to the compound outside Islamabad.

Well, not so clear.  We captured KSM back in 2003, and he got about 183 sessions with waterboarding.  And then seven years later, we got OBL.  Case closed, right?   Well, no. If waterboarding works the miracles it supposedly does, then why did it take seven more years until we had the actionable intelligence to move on OBL?  If waterboarding works, then shouldn't we have caught him, like, earlier?  And, as I understand it (see the article here in Slate), KSM actually denied knowing the person known as OBL's courier.  That's, like, not what I'd expect as the slam-dunk case for enhancing interrogation.  'Cause aren't the tortured people supposed to say things that are true, instead of false?  That is, if torture works the way torture's supposed to work.  By 2005, remember, folks were saying the OBL trail had "grown cold".

Yeah, so here's another hypothesis.  We eventually stopped the simulated drownings of these folks and returned to the standard forms for interrogation — building trust, going over stories, treating prisoners with dignity.  And once that started working, then we started getting better intelligence.  There was an improvement in surveillance, and with info from Hassan Ghul (who was never waterboarded), OBL got tracked down.  Who knows… maybe the torture delayed the information coming out instead of hastened it.

But still, the far left won't budge. No matter what the facts are about the effectiveness of coerced interrogation, they will deny them. Infuriating.

Yep, it's infuriating, all right.  Infuriating.

The simple reason there is no simple reason

David Brooks illustrates today that there's a simple, singular reason people employ the oversimplified cause argument scheme:

Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

That simple reason is that we believe some kind of Brooksian dichotomy: people are either x or y, etc.  My question: so we've been making dichotomies (I don't think we have–Brooks has), and this is too simple, and this is the simple reason why there is no simple reason.  This refutes itself.


Some maintain that arguments are dialogues and such therefore be evaluated as such.  I have my doubts about this view, because so many of the arguments I encounter seem to be monologues, or at least the critical parts of them don't have anything to do with dialoguing with someone who disagrees with you (assuming the back-and-forth exchange is what is meant by "dialogue").  They seem–the critical parts–to be old-fashioned inferences of the inductive variety, or variations thereof.

Here's an example.  Today George Will argues ("superbly" according to some twitterers) that collective action to address an economic crisis is bad.  His argument, such as it is, goes something like this:

1.  During the depression, FDR's NRA attempted  price-fixing as a tool of economic recovery;

2.  One of those charged with overseeing this program admired Mussolini;

3.  Those who attempted to sell goods or services for less than the fixed price were punished  (just like in Cold War Poland);

4.  Today, as in the Great Depression, the government is trying to aid recovery:

Today, as 76 years ago, economic recovery is much on the mind of the government, which is busy as a beaver — sending another $26 billion to public employees, proposing an additional $50 billion for "infrastructure" — as it orchestrates Recovery Summer to an appropriate climax. But at least today's government is agnostic about the proper price for cleaning a suit.  

5.  But, in 1937 the Great Depression got worse:

In 1937, FDR asked in his second inaugural address for "unimagined power" to enforce "proper subordination" of private interests to public authority. The biggest industrial collapse in American history occurred eight years after the stock market crash of 1929, and nearly five years into the New Deal, in . . . 1937.

6.  Therefore:

The NRA lives on, sort of, in this Milton Friedman observation: Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet, put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.

That's the best I can do with this argument.  In the first place, Will hasn't done anything to show that price-fixing (or the New Deal) caused the industrial collapse of 1937.  Second, there seems to be no analogy between stimulus spending on teachers, firefighters and police (among others) and arguably misguided price-fixing in the Thirties.  

Now had this been some kind of back and forth of a dialogue, WIll might have anticipated that.  But he didn't.   

Mysterious ways

As I head off to vacation, let us marvel at Newt Ginrich marvelling at God's mysterious ways (courtesy of Media Matters):

newtgingrich As callista and i watched what dc weather says will be 12 to 22 inches of snow i wondered if God was sending a message about copenhagen

newtgingrich After the expanding revelations of dishonesty in climategate having a massive snow storm as obama promises our money to the world is ironic

newtgingrich There is something jimmy carter like about weather service upgrading frrom winter storm to blizzard as global warming conference wants US $ 

But he was not alone.  There was disagreement about the meaning of the snow storm.  Here is Erick Erickson at the not-worth-evaluating Red State blog:

Over at Talking Points Memo, Brian Beutler chronicles the follies of the Democrats and health care.

Joe Lieberman has gone back to Connecticut in advance of the blizzard. This leaves the Democrats needing Republican votes to get back to health care.

At the end of the article, Brian writes, “[D]on’t be surprised to hear a new Republican talking point: Even Mother Nature hates health care reform.”

I hate to correct him, but actually the talking point is that God hates the Democrats’ health care deform. With funding death panels and abortions, of course the Almighty would send a snow storm or, in Brian’s words, a snowpocalypse to shut down Washington.

Oh, and kudos to Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council for organizing the “pray-in.” Looks to be working.

I am tempted to think the second of these is a joke, but the "death panels" remark seems to be serious. 

He Almost Made It

George Will wouldn't let us down and make it through a column without an awful argument. Last three sentences in a column, that on a cursory reading at least was not that unreasonable. Throughout most of the column, he lambasts Obama for liberal opportunism, cynical budget manipulation, and his lack of qualifications for his job, all of which seems mildly cheap. But then he comes through for us:

One afternoon last week, cable news viewers saw, at the top of their screens, the president launching yet another magnificent intention — the disassembly and rearrangement of the 17 percent of the economy that is health care. The bottom of their screens showed the Dow plunging 281 points. Surely the top of the screen partially explained the bottom. 

I can't say whether there is such a causal relationship between Obama's speech and the Dow Industrial drop, but I worry a bit that Will is confusing MSNBC's immediate feedback stuff with the Dow Industrial Averages.