Category Archives: Complex Question

Adventures in false dilemmas

Here's the title of Howard Rich's post at American Spectator.

Barack Obama: Socialist or Nouveau Fascist?

Rich argues that Socialism isn't quite right about Obama's policies, as he does let many who have done well keep their spoils.  So it's fascism.  But the fascism label, Rich concedes, "isn't perfect".  That's why he calls it Nouveau Fascism. You see… when the term doesn't work, just call it a new version of that! 

I admire those who are wrong

The other day the Washington Post published a piece by a professor of politics at the University of Virginia (Gerard Alexander) called "Why are liberals so condescending?" (we discussed it here).  It remains today a few days later one of the most emailed articles on the Post's website, so it's worth looking at it in more detail.  To be fair to this juvenile piece, however, would be a labor of many days, so I'd just like to point out a few quick items. 

First off, the title has the ring of a complex question: that is two questions, one unfairly assumed to get to the other.  What the author ought to establish is whether liberals are more condescending than conservatives (in similar circumstances), or whether liberals are particularly condescending.  Once he established this, then he can ask the follow up question: why are they this way to such a degree (as we have established)?  His failure to understand this elementary logical notion makes me look down on him.

Second, the author is silly.  Not to be an even-hander here, but I think liberals are no less "condescending" than conservatives.  I'd suggest, in fact, that such labels and broad generalizations are really meaningless.  Turns out, in fact, that such equivocal terms were used to great effect by this author.  You see, liberals are one solid group, each one guilty of the sins of the other, while conservatives were always able to avoid group guilt.  Here's an example:

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

Before I comment on what I wanted to comment on, here and throughout the piece the author doesn't bother to counter the claims against "conservatives."  Perhaps he takes it as self-evident that what Mooney said (in his well-documented–I didn't say "true"–book) is false.  I can think of a couple of Republicans, for instance, whose ignorance of science is concerning.  Here's Republican Senator Jim DeMint on the snowstorm this past week in Washington:

It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries "uncle"

I find myself looking down on Jim DeMint, an extremely wealthy, powerful, and capable man for the idiotic thing he said.  It's obvious that he doesn't know jack about the science behind global warming.  This same claim of many other prominent "conservative" and "Republican" leaders and intellectuals. 

Back to what I think I was going to comment on (it's now several hours from when I wrote that line above, so I don't really remember what I was going to say)–Alexander's characterization of Mooney's book disregards its content in order to criticize its form.  This, I think, is a hopelessly dumb and unproductive way of interacting with people with whom you disagree.  Not only does Mooney have an argument, but, judging by the numbskull policies of the last eight years, he might even have a good one.  But you can't really tell that, of course, until you actually look at the argument.  Alexander maintains, of course, that you don't need to look at the argument, because he knows what it says.  That, I think, is just what Mooney was complaining about.

No doubt, as I've said many times before, many liberals condescend to conservatives.  Many conservatives condescend to liberals.  The narrative, however, is that liberals are intellectual snobs, when conservatives are not.  I think that's hardly the case as a matter of fact.  It's also almost a matter of logic (I said "almost") that when you say someone's view is wrong, you're bound to appear snobby to them.  Especially when that person, such as is the case with Alexander here, doesn't seem to know what makes a view right or what makes it wrong.

Complex question triple play

Many are familiar with the fallacy of the complex question, perhaps in the form of its most well known example:

when did you stop beating your wife? 

The trick consists in cramming two questions into one such that a response to one of them (you can after all only answer one question at a time) looks like a response to the other. So if you answer "I haven't" to the above question then you admit to beating your wife, but  you thought you were denying beating your wife.  Chris Wallace of Fox News tried this out on Bill Clinton a few years back.  He asked: why didn't  you do more to stop al Qaeda?  Clinton, smart guy that he is (whatever else you may want to say about him) attacked the question.  Why this is called a "fallacy," by the way, is really beyond me, since no inference is really drawn.  Perhaps there's an inference drawn at the end when the person responds to the trap.  It seems to me to be more of a trick than a fallacy. 

In any case, most examples of it that I have seen involve two questions.  My informal sense is that the structure forces a negative answer to the trick part of the question which looks like an affirmative answer to the assumption.  But I'll have to think about that a little more. 

But it doesn't seem to me by the way that one needs to be restricted to two questions.  Why not three?  I can only get as far as three in a complex question.  But I fear I may have not thought hard enough about it.  Here's my example:

Why must you persist in doing that?  

That's three questions: (1) why do you do that? (2) must you do that? (3) why do you persist in doing that?

Why can't anyone come up with more?

Weighed, analyzed, confronted

On the theme of taking pride in being ignorant, here's Michael Gerson on Barack Obama:

What took place instead under Warren's precise and revealing questioning was the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign — a performance every voter should seek out on the Internet and watch.

First, the forum previewed the stylistic battle lines of the contest ahead, and it should give Democrats pause. Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral – the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. Obama took care to point out that he had once been a professor at the University of Chicago, but that bit of biography was unnecessary. His whole manner smacks of chalkboards and campus ivy. Issues from stem cell research to the nature of evil are weighed, analyzed and explained instead of confronted.

Weighing, analyzing, and explaining them does not entail not confronting these issues.  Indeed, I shudder at the confronting that does not follow the weighing, the analyzing and the explaining.

One more thing.  Later in the piece, Gerson writes:

Obama's response on abortion — the issue that remains his largest obstacle to evangelical support — bordered on a gaffe. Asked by Warren at what point in its development a baby gains "human rights," Obama said that such determinations were "above my pay grade" — a silly answer to a sophisticated question. If Obama is genuinely unsure about this matter, he (and the law) should err in favor of protecting innocent life. If Obama believes that a baby in the womb lacks human rights, he should say so — pro-choice men and women must affirm (as many sincerely do) that developing life has a lesser status. Here the professor failed the test of logic

It doesn't follow by a matter of logic alone that "uncertainty" in the matter should tend one way rather than the other.  Besides, the mother's autonomy seems more well established than the fetus' personhood, so one could say well established rights should take precedence (in the case of conflict).  But Gerson obviously distorted Obama's point.  Aside from this, Warren's framing of the question ("gains rights") is devious: human rights are not "gained" and "lost" (except in certain places) as one accumulates chips.  You have them or you don't.  Suggesting otherwise (in the case of the fetus) seems something of a heap paradox: when is a heap a heap? Two? Three?

There may, of course, be nothing wrong with the "heap" view of rights, Warren (and Gerson) just ought to acknowledge when it has been sneaked into a question to a pro-choice Presidential candidate in front of an admittedly hostile pro-life audience.  In light of those facts, Obama's answer–with its weighing, analyzing, and confronting–was right on point.

H/t mahablog

Quintessentially irrational

Someone wonders what would have happened had Al Gore been selected President in 2000 (and thus President on 9/11).  Someone else responds, saying:

So I will assume that you mean 9/11 wouldn't have happened if Gore were elected because a Gore administration would have made the federal government more competent and vigilant. This argument blends irrational partisanship with that quintessentially American belief that all tragedies — whether on the playground or elsewhere — are eminently preventable. Under this belief, stuff just doesn't "happen," and there is no horror that cannot be prevented by a manufacturer's foresight, a guardian's prudence or a government's alertness. Such anti-fatalism is the faith of our fathers (and of our plaintiffs' lawyers), and it animates our political discourse in mostly positive ways. Too much fatalism, after all, can lead to a kind of "que sera, sera" complacency.

Someone asked a specific question, and Andres Martinez (who writes some kind of column for the Post) answers two general ones about the psychology not of the questioner but of two groups of people: irrational partisans and "quintessentially American" anti-fatalists.  He has in effect turned a straight-forward counterfactual question into a complex one by giving an irrelevantly bifurcated response.  It's a reverse complex question straw man ad hominem circumstantial.  As if to say, "oh, I see what you're saying, but why are you so interested in irrational partisanship and fatalism denial?"

When did you stop beating your wife?

Michael Gerson provides some examples of the elusive complex question fallacy.  After a column devoted to examining whether Obama is really a "centrist" (by looking at the exclusive evidence of whether he has voted against his party on any issue–not his stated policies), Gerson writes:

These are welcome gestures, but they are not policies. Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal. Perhaps he has carefully avoided offending Democratic constituencies. Whatever the reason, his lack of a strong, centrist ideological identity raises a concern about his governing approach. Obama has no moderate policy agenda that might tame or modify the extremes of his own party in power. Will every Cabinet department simply be handed over to the most extreme Democratic interest groups? Will Obama provide any centrist check on liberal congressional overreach? 

In other words Gerson hasn't done nearly enough (even on the relaxed standards of Charity one would expect from him) to show that Obama is some kind of "extremist."  He takes it that the absence of one kind of evidence against that view is sufficient to establish it.  So what results is a kind of argumentum ad ignorantiam which sets up two complex questions.  Nice form.

Lower the bar

No surprise that Bill Kristol thinks the surge is working.  He cites the reduction in violence as well as the passing of a de-Baathification law as evidence.  First, the violence:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

Before he gets to the other point (the one about politics–the goal of the surge after all), he snidely asks:

Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

The second question has a kind of complex question flavor to it: it's not a matter of willingness to say the surge worked, rather, it's a question of whether the surge has worked.  One can hardly be surprised that Kristol takes the slimmest of evidence of success as evidence of glorious success (he thinks the invasion of Iraq ought to serve as a template for the invasion of Iran, so for him the whole experience has been awesome).  But even he ought to realize that the political goals–what were called benchmarks–were the goals of the surge, kinda like the war and violence has a political objective.  Those goals, by any honest measure, have not been met.  The one Kristol mentions:

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation.

hardly counts.

complexes about questions

Yesterday in Critical Thinking class we went over the list of fallacies generally described as fallacies of “ambiguity” (I know that that’s not an entirely accurate or useful designation). Among these is the fallacy of the complex question. Generally this fallacy occurs when one sneakily makes a dubious or contentious assertion and then asks a question on the basis of that assumes the truth of that assertion. I told the students–and I think this is true–that it’s fairly rare. Furthermore, when it’s committed, it’s obvious. So far in the two plus years we’ve been at this I’ve only found two instances of it (click here). So I offered extra credit (lots of it) for any student who could find an actual example. So I thought perhaps to throw the idea out here. Anyone?

Question Complex

So blatant an attempt at sneakiness is the complex question that none but the cleverest by half use it. That didn’t stop a very smirky Chris Wallace from throwing one at Clinton. In his infamous interview he asked the former President:

>Why didnít you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaida out of business when you were president?

As it has been pointed out by many on the internets, that’s a question of the “how long have you been beating your wife?”, or complex variety. There really isn’t anyway for Clinton to answer it without submitting to one of the question’s presuppositions. The question assumes an affirmative answer to the following implicit assertion:

1. Clinton didn’t do all he could have to stop Al Qaeda.

in order to ask the following:

2. What explains this failure?

But these are two separate issues. What does Wallace say? In Sunday’s New York Times Mag, he says:

>I think it was a straight news question, and I think it just touched a very raw nerve. The business I am in is asking probing questions and trying to get interesting answers. I think I succeeded admirably in my job.

It’s not a straight news question. It’s not a straight question. He should have asked the following two questions:

1. Do you think you did everything in your power to stop Al Qaeda?

2. If you don’t feel you did, what explains it?

Those are straight questions. Whether they’re straight news questions might be another matter.