Maximum danger

When I sit down to make up examples of fallacies for quizzes and tests, I try to make them fairly obvious.  Since the course I teach fallacies in is an introductory one, the idea is for the students to recognize a systematic argument problem, even if they may not run into one so obvious.  But then again, I'm often wrong about that.  Peggy Noonan, of Bush = Superman fame ("For a moment I though of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big "S" on his chest."), forgets who was president on 11 September 2001.  She writes:

Back to the Christmas gathering. There was no grousing about John McCain, and considerable grousing about the Bush administration, but it was almost always followed by one sentence, and this is more or less what it was: "But he kept us safe." In the seven years since 9/11, there were no further attacks on American soil. This is an argument that's been around for a while but is newly re-emerging as the final argument for Mr. Bush: the one big thing he had to do after 9/11, the single thing he absolutely had to do, was keep it from happening again. And so far he has. It is unknown, and perhaps can't be known, whether this was fully due to the government's efforts, or the luck of the draw, or a combination of luck and effort. And it not only can't be fully known by the public, it can hardly be fully known by the players at all levels of government. They can't know, for instance, of a potential terrorist cell that didn't come together because of their efforts.

But the meme will likely linger. There's a rough justice with the American people. If a president presides over prosperity, whether he had anything to do with it or not, he gets the credit. If he has a recession, he gets the blame. The same with war, and terrorist attacks. We have not been attacked since 9/11. Someone—someones—did something right.

Someone may point out that the second paragraph is in the voice of the American people.  But that's just a pundit's trick; put the claim in the minds of the American people, and it's no longer really you talking, it's the American people.  That tactic, I think, ought to be illegal.  Besides, in Noonan's formulation, it's just contradictory.  George W. Bush was President on 9/11.  Shouldn't the American people blame him for that?  Rough justice.  Doesn't the Wall Street Journal employ editors?

Back to the point.  Noonan makes the not-too-controversial assertion that no one can really know whether or not our efforts in the war on terror have been successful.  To that I would add two things, by the way.  First, she should mention that it might be the case that nothing was planned in the United States, and that our reaction–the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–was the objective.  Second, we have been attacked everywhere but here.  So it's false that we haven't been attacked.  We have, just not here.  Alright, now back to the point. 

With the standard set up of the argument from ignorance–no one knows one way or the other–she then, in the voice of the American people, a fallacy loving people apparently, draws the conclusion that the Bush administration has done something right, something to protect us.  If a really rich woman at a Christmas party full of Republicans is going to speak for the American people as a whole, can she please not make them sound so dumb?

3 thoughts on “Maximum danger”

  1. Of course, by Noonan’s reasoning, Bush *didn’t* keep us safe, because 9/11happened under his presidency. The lesson: if you set the bar low for getting credit for good things (we don’t know that he doesn’t deserve credit, so he does), blame sould operate on the same principle.

    Oh, and it sounds like Noonan’s really doing some serious research for her articles,now — she attends parties and reports conversational highlights of the cocktail hour. Heck, I’ve got some interesting arguments from ignorance voiced over beers I’d like to air, too!

  2. I may be mistaken, but your examples of logical fallacies for your students appear biased. I am sure as a teacher, this is not your intent. I also teach an introductory class, and there is no shortage of logical fallacies on the left as well as the right.

    Here’s one:

    Appeal to Ignorance.
    Explanation:
    The appeal to ignorance fallacy occurs when someone states a claim/premise, and when asked to defend the claim does not accept the burden of proof but instead insists that the opposition prove that the claim is not valid. This can make it appear to some people that the claim can be accepted as a truth because the opposition is not able or willing to prove it wrong.
    Example:
    On 10 October 2010, in an interview with Bob Schieffer on the CBS television show Face the Nation, David Axelrod, the White House Senior Advisor, asserted that the United States Chamber of Commerce is soliciting and accepting money from foreign sources to use in its political campaigns and that they are creating “a threat to our democracy.”
    When Schieffer questioned his claim by stating, “This part about foreign money, that appears to be peanuts,” and then asked, “Mr. Axelrod, do you have any evidence that it’s anything other than peanuts,” Axelrod replied, “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob? . . . The fact is that the Chamber has asserted that, but they won’t release any information about where their campaign money is coming from.”
    Explanation:
    This is clearly an instance of the logical fallacy appeal to ignorance. We cannot assume that Axelrod made a false claim, but after his claim is questioned, his obligation is to demonstrate its accuracy by offering proof in the way of examples and explanations. He clearly did not do that, but instead tried to shift the burden of proof onto Schieffer. When further questioned on the subject, Axelrod continued to accuse the Chamber of misdeeds and expanded his accusations to other groups, “Because of a loophole that the Supreme Court allowed earlier this year, we now see tens of millions of dollars being spent by the Chamber and a number of [other] organizations.” Axelrod merely expanded his list of “bad guys,” but never offered any proof that his original claim had any validity.
    This approach can be effective for those who fully trust Axelrod, but it has little weight with those who understand the nature of effective and logical argumentation.

    Work Cited
    Axelrod, David. Interview by Bob Schieffer. Face the Nation. KCBS, Los Angeles, 10 Oct. 2010. cbsnews.com. Web. 27 Oct. 2010.

  3. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the comment. As for bias, well, read the section on bias at the top of the page.

    Having said that, I appreciate your excellent example.

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