False trichotomy

I'm puzzled by the point of this David Ignatius piece about the Haitian earthquake.  He rightly condemns Pat Robertson (see here) for having a poor explanation for the earthquake's striking Haiti, but then he does the old columnist trick of finding people with an opposing viewpoint who assert something equally dumb.   They must teach this move in columnist school, because they all at one point or another will do it.  He writes:

An extreme example of this desire to "explain" tragedy was the Rev. Pat Robertson's statement a day after the quake. He said that Haiti had been "cursed" by God because its people "swore a pact to the devil" two centuries ago through voodoo rites.

There are secular versions of this same desire to interpret horrifying events. Looking at the devastation, some observers have seen the effects of Haiti's class system, with poor people suffering disproportionately, as reported by The Post's William Booth ["Haiti's elite spared from much of the devastation," news story, Jan. 18]. Richard Kim blamed harsh international loan policies for Haiti's chronic poverty in a Jan. 15 post on the Nation's Web site.

Other commentators have drawn different lessons. David Brooks faults Haitian culture. "Some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them," he wrote in the New York Times. Anne Applebaum argued in The Post that this was "a man-made disaster" and that the earthquake's impact "was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law."

There's some truth in all of the secular explanations. But they leave out the most painful and perplexing factor we encounter whenever terrible things happen: bad luck. The same problem arises when catastrophic events befall people we love — a life-threatening disease, say. We look for a rational explanation of why this person got cancer, but his neighbor, who has all the same risk factors, didn't. Often, the most honest answer is: It just happened.

I think the Reverend Robertson meant to point out the cause of the earthquake.  The fellows in the second paragraph highlight things which exacerabated the misfortune of the earthquake.  They don't allege, as the last paragraph asserts, that bad luck played no role in the occurence of the earthquake.  I don't see how they could.

Not even Ignatius, however, believes his own silly but-one-the-other-handing.  For he concludes (after a trip back to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755) by affirming the very same lessons he rejects:

The hero of the Lisbon tale was the man who led the relief efforts, the marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister under King Joseph I of Portugal. Pombal had no use for the anguishing debate. He famously said: "What now? We bury the dead and feed the living." And he did just that, rapidly disposing of the corpses, seizing stocks of grain to feed the hungry and ordering the militia to halt looting and piracy. Within a year, the city was being restored.

I will think of Pombal as I watch the reconstruction of Haiti. His response to imponderable devastation was to rebuild, boldly and confidently, making sure the new buildings could withstand a future quake.

"Nature has no meaning; its events are not signs," concludes Neiman. Earthquakes are not evil; evil requires intent; it is what human beings do. The response to inexplicable events is not debate but action.

Good for Pombal–he recognizes that the human element (poverty, inequality, corruption, etc.) makes such misfortunes worse–which is nearly exactly what the secular types were saying.

Anyhoo.  I think this is a fairly common form of argument.  It consists in creating an unrepresentative dichotomy (not a false one in the classical fallacy sense), in order to make the case for a third, more reasonable option.  In that sense it does represent a kind of false trichotomy, where strawmanly false extremes imply a kind of third non-extreme way. 

5 thoughts on “False trichotomy”

  1. John, is the dichotomy that he presents "man-made" vs "God-made", and his solution "not-made" (just happened)?
    That would explain why he(Ignatius) feels the need to bring up "secular explanations". I'm not sure exactly what makes those explanations secular :). There is no doubt that "though the earthquake itself was powerful, its impact was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law in Haiti."(Anne Applebaum).

  2. That's basically the dichotomy, thought no one held the "man made" view in the same sense Roberston held the "God-made" view.

  3. I like the illogical precedent of trying to force extremist positions into existence to prop up an imagined ‘moderate’ as well as the call to action as sometimes needed in urgency. Don’t always agree with you, but I’m right with you here.

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