All posts by John Casey


Logically impossible?

Strong words from Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post today:

We’ve arrived at this juncture because it’s logically impossible both to honor the First Amendment and to regulate campaign finance effectively. We can do one or the other — but not both. Unfortunately, Congress and the Supreme Court won’t admit the choice. The result is the worst of both worlds. We gut the First Amendment and don’t effectively regulate campaign finance.

A round square, a married bachelor, and an explicit contradiction are logically impossible. It must be something about the definition of bachelor (an unmarried man) that makes it logically impossible for one to be married. The same, unfortunately for Mr. Samuelson, is not the case with campaign finance and speech. One might notice first of all that these are of entirely different categories–speech and money. Second, one might also notice that certain types of speech are regulated under the First Amendment–yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is the most famous example. Libel and slander, with their consequent penalties, also fall under the heading of “regulated” speech. Complete ownership of the airwaves, or their domination by the government in power, are also regulated. Now none of this means that it is not difficult to balance free speech and campaign finance, it means merely that it is not logically impossible.

Bear Patrol

Here’s an oft-repeated howler printed in the New York Times from op-ed contributor and Marine Major on duty in Iraq Glen G. Butler

The pre-emptive doctrine of the current administration will continue to be debated long after I’m gone, but one fact stands for itself: America has not been hit with another catastrophic attack since 9/11. I firmly believe that our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are major reasons that we’ve had it so good at home. Building a “fortress America” is not only impractical, it’s impossible. Prudent homeland security measures are vital, to be sure, but attacking the source of the threat remains essential.

How often have you heard this one in its various versions? The implication here is that the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq) is the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States. Now the factual claims are no doubt true. First, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and there has not been another major terrorist attack-or any terrorist attack-in the United States. No attempt, however, on the part of the author, is made to demonstrate that the two major military operations are the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States (we should not forget the bombings in Bali and Madrid and elsewhere). Just because, in other words, the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq which even according to George Bush had nothing to do with 9/11) has preceded the absence of catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 does not mean it is the cause. What we have here, in more technical terms, is a perfect example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy-after this, therefore because of this, or the correlation-causation fallacy.

Should someone not be convinced by this analysis, consider the following scene from the Simpsons, where Homer remarks on the success of Springfield’s attempt to control bear activity:

Homer: “There’s not a single bear in sight–the ‘Bear Patrol’ is working like a charm”

Lisa: “That’s specious reasoning,”

H: “Thanks, honey,”

L: “According to your logic, this rock keeps tigers away”.

H: “Hmmm. How does it work?”

L: “It doesn’t.”

H: “How so?”

L: “It’s just a rock,”

H: “But I don’t see a tiger, anywhere.”

H: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock.”

And consider how many times this passage comes up in the context of the war on terrorism and similar matters. Should the author want to avoid the rock-tigers problem, and therefore avoid utter nonsense, he should offer evidence to the effect that specific terrorist attacks have actually been thwarted by the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. Simply believing it firmly-and in the present author’s case, actually putting your life on the line for that belief-does not make it so. Undergoing much personal danger and sacrifice in the service of one’s belief does not make them true.

The Thrill is Gone

A champion debater–always a red flag in the logic world–at the University of Chicago, David Brooks illustrates for us today the distinction between rhetoric and real argument:

Kerry’s speeches in the 1990’s read nothing like that 1971 testimony. The passion is gone. The pompous prevaricator is in. You read them and you see a man so cautiously calculating not to put a foot wrong that he envelops himself in a fog of caveats and equivocations. You see a man losing the ability to think like a normal human being and starting instead to think like an embassy.

Here we have two if not more basic logical howlers. First, and most obviously, Brooks attacks Kerry the person rather than his arguments. He heaps abuse on the Senator from Massachussets (“the pompous prevaricator”) for not taking clear and unnuanced positions (as do “normal human beings”) on complicated matters of policy. Second, in executing this attack, Brooks suggests that the only responsible way for to go is passionately to embrace one or another position (apparently it matters not what that position is as long as it is held passionately). We find it perplexing in the extreme that one would suggest embracing false dichotomies as a habit of thought.

Later in the same piece, Brooks continues his rhetorical charge:

Most people take a certain pride in their own opinions. They feel attached to them as part of who they are. But Kerry can be coldly detached from his views, willing to use, flip or hide them depending on the exigencies of the moment.

Here we have the appeal to the people–the argumentum ad populum–the last refuge of the op-ed writer. If I can’t make an argument for my position, then perhaps I can directly appeal to the good sense of “most people.” Unfortunately, just because most people “take pride in their opinions” does not mean that they should. If recent history has shown us anything, most people can be wrong, terrifyingly wrong (please fill in your own examples). The intellectual virtue of detachment–of seeing the limits of one’s own beliefs and revising them–becomes a vice in Brooks’ intellectual landscape. And of course when one changes one’s views, it’s not because of any honest reflection–a possibility Brooks wholly ignores–but because of the “exigencies” (that is to say the circumstances) of the moment.

So that’s at least four for Brooks today–ad hominem (abusive variety), false dichotomy, ad populum, and ad hominem (circumstantial variety). And this is only a cursory reading. Should you like to find more, here is the link.

And this brings us back to our original point. What Brooks says sounds very convincing, and he harnesses all of his considerable rhetorical training to make his case. Unfortunately, what results is nothing but so much hot air, so much nonsense. In the examples here cited, he does nothing to demonstrate, to support, or to argue for his position–whereby “argue” we mean state reasons that lead with significant probability to his conclusion.

et tu quoque Krauthammer?

Charles Krauthammer loves you too, I mean, tu quoque:

Strange. I do not remember any of these critics complaining about the universally hailed Oslo peace accords that imposed upon the Palestinians a PLO government flown in from Tunisia composed nearly entirely of political exiles.

Now I suppose the conclusion of the argument is that since these critics (note how they are unspecified–who is he talking about?) said nothing about the PLO exiles negotiating with Isreal, then lest they be hypocrites they better be quiet now that Iraqi exiles are doing the same thing. Well, even if it is true that every single critic of the Iraqi exiles wholeheartedly embraced the idea of PLO exiles negotiating with Israel, the two cases are hardly similar enough–or jeez, even if they are similar, very similar indeed–he has done nothing to counter the argument “these critics” are making. So they changed their mind. One must still demonstrate that they are wrong.


David Brooks loves those false dichotomies:

It’s been said that every society has two aristocracies. The members of the aristocracy of mind produce ideas, and pass along knowledge. The members of the aristocracy of money produce products and manage organizations. In our society these two groups happen to be engaged in a bitter conflict about everything from S.U.V.’s to presidents. You can’t understand the current bitter political polarization without appreciating how it is inflamed or even driven by the civil war within the educated class.

Only two? That certainly makes writing about them rather convenient, for you either fit the one or the other. And how easy it is to sound above the fray in pointing out this fact. But no one is fooled by this neat little rhetorical device. If they are fooled then they, like Mr. Brooks, don’t belong to the aristocracy of the mind.