When an explanation is not an explanation

Source (WaPo 09/16/04): The full court press is on: Virtually every day the editorial pages are hammering home the accusation of “flip-floppery.” It is looking like this, more than anything else, will define the presidential campaign this year. Most conservative columnists seem to be splitting their time equally between the accusation of flip-floppery, castigation of CBS, and discrediting of Kitty Kelly’s unflattering gossip about the Bush family.

An adequate logical analysis of these accusations of “flip-floppery” exceeds the space we have here. There are a number of questions that need to be answered in order to understand and evaluate the meaning of, the evidence for, and the validity of the implicit arguments based on this accusation: What is a flip-flop? When is a change a flip-flop? What is the argument in each instance of putative flip-flopping? Is flip-flopping bad? Are the arguments constructed on the basis of this accusation fallacious or unfallacious ad hominem arguments? Perhaps over the next six weeks we will be able to clarify some of this, but for now the focus must be narrower.

Margins of error rarely stop pundits from drawing conclusions from polling data. The transformation of subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, and probability into simple certain opinions is the modus operandi of the many of the more ideological pundits. The political value of certainty, whether expressed by our leaders or our pundits, is being demonstrated once again in this election season.

In today’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer takes it upon himself to explain Bush’s lead in the polls by John Kerry’s flip-floppery.

If the election were held today, John Kerry would lose by between 88 and 120 electoral votes.”

To be fair to Krauthammer this kind of prediction is quite common and even perhaps useful with significant qualifications (see electoral vote predictor). Nonetheless it is profoundly misleading in this context. Currently 74 electoral votes for Bush and 42 for Kerry are within the margin of error of all polls (<2-3% difference for the most part). This might still leave Bush with 60-70 point spread, but only on the condition that the election involved the disenfranchisement of around a quarter of the country, that is, with leaving 136 electoral votes uncounted.

To put it bluntly, we simply do not know who would win these states if the election were held today and any claim to know on the basis of current polling involves fallacious reasoning: In this case, probably a fallacy of hasty conclusion. It may, in fact, be that the conclusion is true (If the election were held today. . ..), but the polling data on which this conclusion implicitly relies is not an adequate justification that the conclusion is true, or in this case, even that it is more probable than not.

The volatility of the poll numbers does not chasten Krauthammer. If Krauthammer had written this column a week ago, he might have written: “If the election were held today, John Kerry would lose by 2 electoral votes.” (source). Has Kerry significantly changed his strategy or his positions in the last seven days? Is there any plausible explanation for this wild oscillation in the poll numbers, except a fundamental and inherent uncertainty of political polling? Or perhaps right after the Demmocratic convention he would have written: “If the election were held today, John Kerry would win by 57 electoral votes (source).

Predictions based on statistical differences within the margin of error of the sample cannot reliably be used to draw the conclusion that Krauthammer wishes.

Now this is only the first sentence of Krauthammer’s editorial. Krauthammer wants to explain this supposed electoral victory by Kerry’s flip-floppery.

Explanations proceed from a well-established fact and provide an account of its causes. Thus, they also involve arguments which proceed from well-established premises and argue to a conclusion. In the case of explanations they argue to the conclusion that the explanation is, at least plausible, and ideally the best one available. But if the fact that is being explained is not a fact, then there is nothing to explain and the the project of explaining becomes fatuous, even if the facts that provide the explanation are completely true!

By definition an argument with a false conclusion and true premises, however, is invalid.

  1. Bush’s central vulnerability is the war in Iraq.
  2. Kerry cannot credibly speak on Iraq, because of his flip-floppery.
    • Various contradictions in his speeches on the subjects.
  3. John Kerry would lose the election, if it were held today.
    • recent polling data from the various states.
  4. Therefore, Kerry’s flip-floppery is the reason for (best explanation of/cause of) his current losing of the election.

Bring Out Your Dead

(Washington Post 09/16/04): George Will’s diagnosis of a lethal “capitol plague” that afflicts northeastern Senators is a bit premature. The 2004 election has not taken place, so it’s a little early to bring out the dead, unless, of course, you try to club them to death first. Will attempts this self-confirming diagnosis of Kerry’s candidacy in a variety of unrelated ways. Among these the most noteworthy for our purposes–and the only ones we’ll take the time to comment on–are the following: a shallow analysis of two of Kerry’s stump speeches and a hopelessly misdirected discussion of two of Kerry’s votes as a Senator.

First the stump speeches:

“And the Northeastern senator at least went to the border region, to the banks of the Ohio River, for yet another “major” speech clarifying his position(s) on Iraq. John Kerry chose the Cincinnati venue where in October 2002 President Bush made his case for using against Iraq the force that Kerry voted to authorize. In Cincinnati, Kerry complained there was ‘$200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can’t afford after-school programs.’”

What the Weekly Standard and Monday Night Football commentators achieve with the rhetorically effective but semantically empty “flip-flop” talking point, Will achieves with a typographical innuendo (“position(s)”) and a subordinate clause (“[which] Kerry voted to authorize”). But amid these grammatical insinuations lies an even more clever and sinister device: the imputed false dilemma (and hence straw man). To underline the ridiculousness of Kerry’s remark (in this context-free formulation of it), Will imagines a response from Bush in which the former Governor from the Southwest logically outmaneuvers the Senator from the Northeast:

“‘Oh, so that is the problem. Why didn’t you say so sooner? In the interest of wartime unity, I will support adding to the current $1 billion spent on after-school programs an additional $1.5 billion — the amount you liberals say is needed. Now, senator, will you flip back to where you were 13 months ago when, talking about funding for the war, you said, we should ‘increase it’ and ‘by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win'”?”

This would be devastating to Kerry’s silly dilemma–it’s either 200 billion for Iraq (n.b., Kerry’s claim is actually false) or 1.5 billion for after-school programs–if only it were something approaching a fair reading of Kerry’s position. The quotation Will cites doesn’t suggest anything along the lines of the false dilemma he and the imaginary Bush are defeating. On a more honest and charitable reading, it suggests rather that Kerry believes the priorities of the Bush administration to be worthy of criticism.

But there’s more rhetorical trickery here. Will observes:

“Kerry might then have, as liberals are wont to do, upped the ante. While the nation was reeling from the horrors of Beslan and Baghdad, he promised a North Carolina audience that as president he would create a “Department of Wellness” to deal with problems such as house mold.”

The odd Mooresque juxtaposition (cf. “Now watch this drive”) of these three things asks us to conclude that Kerry is primarily concerned with matters wholly peripheral to the grave tasks that face the President of the United States. But we can hardly believe that Kerry’s response to the horrors of Beslan and the chaos of Iraq was to combat household mold. Will’s editing of the intellectual footage of the campaign trail would make Michael Moore’s head spin.

Turning his attention from the hustings to the Senate, Will indirectly claims that Kerry’s motivation for two key Senate votes has nothing to do with reasons or arguments:

“Better to talk about that menace [i.e., the mold] than about those two votes he cast that seem to have been equally insincere. One authorized the use of force against Iraq. The second opposed $87 billion to fund coping with the consequences of force having been used. Kerry can say nothing in defense of the first vote that does not offend the intense Democratic activists who are disgusted by it. And he can say nothing in defense of the second vote — his genuflection to those activists, made when Howard Dean was their pinup — without offending an American majority.”

Couched in the language of metapolitical analysis (“better to talk”), we can isolate the fairly obvious ad hominem attack on Kerry’s political motivations for his votes. No doubt there are political motivations for Kerry’s votes, as there are political motivations for anyone’s votes, whether this means the reasons given for the votes are insincere is another matter entirely, and one which, by the way, is very difficult to establish. Charity might suggest believing the reasons offered in the absence of countervailing evidence (of which we have nothing of the sort here). At the very least, Will might consider Kerry’s reasons for voting the way he did. For in the end, they may not be good reasons at all, and Will might have a stronger argument.

There are two kinds of people. . .

Source (NYT 09/14/04): David Brooks certainly likes his dichotomies: Just this Saturday he was busy dividing people into
“spreadsheet-people” and “paragraph-people.” This sort of dichotomous thinking runs a particular risk
of logical fallacy, the fallacy of false dilemma: Roughly, this is the fallacy of “black and white”
thinking. That is, a conclusion is justified by claiming that there are two alternatives and then ruling one of them
out for some reason. Formally this is a valid argument. But, if the disjunctive premise (either a or b) ignores other alternatives (c,d,e etc.), then the argument may commit the fallacy of “false dilemma.”

Once again, in Brooks’ editorial, we find a dichotomy complete with handy tag-names: gradualists and confrontationalists.

The debate on how to proceed in Iraq is not between the hawks and the doves: it’s within the hawk
community, and it’s between the gradualists and the confrontationalists.

Now this looks, at first blush, like a false dilemma. Surely there are other positions in this debate. What about those
doves? Certainly for those who read progressive and liberal media (Nation, Progressive et al.) there are more than
Brooks’ two positions.

But when we pay careful attention to Brooks’ premise we notice that he limits it to positions that are actively
taking part in the “debate on how to proceed in Iraq.” With charity we might claim that Brooks is speaking of the policy
circles in Washington, for whom negotiation, retreat, or abandonment are not politically viable alternatives. Many
might wish that there was a candidate who could put forward a determinate plan for disengagement with the insurgents,
but Brooks can charitably be said to be on plausible grounds if he is describing the debate within the policy establishment.

But now his argument takes a curious turn. Rather than arguing against one alternative and then inferring that the
other is preferable, he offers refutations of both alternatives.

First the confrontationalist.

The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them
out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there’d be a debilitating political backlash.

Then the gradualist:

The confrontationalists can’t believe the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror.
By moving so slowly, the U.S. is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow. With U.S. acquiescence, fascists are
allowed to preen, terrorize and entrench themselves.

  1. Either gradualist approach is best or confrontationalist is best.
  2. The confrontationalist approach is not best, because it will foster the resistance it is meant to remove.
  3. The gradualist approach is not best, because it will allows the resistance to grow and strengthen.
  4. Therefore, ?

But where does this leave Brooks? What conclusion can we infer from a disjunctive both of whose disjuncts are false.
Brooks seems at a loss at this point. His conclusion is half-hearted and tepid:

It’s depressing to realize how strong the case against each option is. But the weight of the argument is on
the gradualist side. That’s mostly because people like Ayad Allawi deserve a chance to succeed. These people in the
interim government are scorned as stooges and U.S. puppets, but they’re risking and sometimes giving their lives for
their country. Let’s take the time to give them a shot.

The deciding factor on the military and political strategy in Iraq for Brooks, is not the number of American casualties. It is not
the cost of the war, nor the geopolitical-political instability that it is causing. It is not the calculation that eventually we will be able to withdraw honorably if we can just stick it out. No. It is that the interim government is really trying.

This argument might make perfect sense at a little league game as a reason to offer the coach when he is ready to pull your son after his third or fourth error. But it defies imagination that it could be seriously offered as a reason to decide our foreign policy.

Now while I applaud Brooks’ clear formulation of the arguments against both the gradualist and the confrontationalist approaches, what undermines this achievement is the conclusion that he draws from his analysis.

It seems to me that Brooks’ conclusion should be re-formulated as:

A. Since there is no good choice, and we must choose one of the two, trivial reasons (Allawi is really trying) can decide the matter. This is roughly to say “flip a coin.”

But notice that he has moved from:

  1. There are only two positions within the policy debate.
  2. There are no other positions than the two within the policy debate.

Although at first, it appears that Brooks does not commit the fallacy, in order to conclude what he concludes he must strengthen his initial premise, which was merely factual at first (there are only two positions in the policy debate) to an evaluative claim (there are only two viable positions in the policy debate). When he does this he commits the fallacy of false dilemma.

Interestingly this could probably also be described as committing the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi, of missing the point. This is a fallacy of relevance, in this case the relevance of the conclusion. It occurs when a set of premises justifies one conclusion, but the arguer replaces that conclusion with a tenuously related conclusion instead.

Brooks’ argument should naturally be taken as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the fact that there are only two inadequate alternatives being discussed by the Bush administration, and therefore, an argument for the inclusion of other alternatives.

Brooks sidesteps the natural implication of his arguments by invoking the entirely spurious argument about Allawi’s government. I’m at a loss to describe this move. Perhaps it is a sort of red herring–the fallacy of diverting the readers attention from the natural conclusion of the argument (the policy debates within the Bush administration are dangerously narrow) to another conclusion (the Bush administration is right to pursue a gradualist approach), by the introduction of a spurious consideration.

To be fair, perhaps Brooks could defend the exclusion of all other alternatives other than his dichotomy. Perhaps, an argument could be made that retreat, abandonment, gradual withdrawal, negotiation, power-sharing, U.N.-ification, etc.. are all impossible alternatives. Perhaps it could be argued. But Brooks certainly does not do so and so is not entitled to his conclusion.

Don’t know much about comedy

While Paul Fussell’s Class uncovered something like six distinct classes in its hilarious and self-referentially ironic analysis of the American class system, David Brooks (NYT 09/11/04) can only seem to come up with two:

“There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don’t shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats.”

One almost blushes with shame at the prospect of taking this kind of comment seriously, or for that matter, as political satire. After all, there have got to be more than two sorts of people, more than a few frumpily dressed Republicans, and an abundance of ultra-chic and polished democrats (Metrosexuals anyone?). But the Gray Lady saw fit to offer its author the space for two columns each week and so we can only assume that there must be something to exercise the synapses of the readers of the nation’s “paper of record.” What this something might be, however, is anyone’s guess.

Our best guess is that this is shtick for a very wonkish evening at one of the many exclusive Washington-insider comedy clubs (also called “think tanks”). Unlike funny comedy routines, but quite like op-eds in Saturday editions of the newspaper, this one, with its detailed by-the-numbers analysis of the ever more polarized electorate, completely lacks the self-referential irony that would call into question the very sort of superficial quantitative analysis it engages in. In other words, much like an argument in reverse, the logic of the joke–jokes have their own perverse logic–demands that the purposely specious demographic analysis in the op-ed show itself to be absurd and its excogitator a political hack. For its fairly obvious that the analysis of political donations does not in the least support the obviously silly and besides the point conclusion that liberals wax prosodical whilst conservatives enumerate.

But we have nothing of the sort here, as the author fancies himself an exception that proves the rule (rather than the absurdity of the rule), a class-traitor, a paragraph man who sides with the numerate conservatives:

“It should be added that not everybody fits predictably into the political camp indicated by a profession. I myself am thinking of founding the Class Traitors Association, made up of conservative writers, liberal accountants and other people so filled with self-loathing that they ally politically with social and cultural rivals.”

So the joke seems to rest on the claim that the absurd paragraph/numerate dichotomy, despite its apparent support on the numbers, does not perfectly represent the divided electorate. But two things in particular militate against Brooks’ own attempt at self-referential irony. First, his paragraph work eschews the kind of nuance one would expect of paragraph people:

“Why have the class alignments shaken out as they have? There are a couple of theories. First there is the intellectual affiliation theory. Numerate people take comfort in the false clarity that numbers imply, and so also admire Bush’s speaking style. Paragraph people, meanwhile, relate to the postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity of Kerry’s Iraq policy.”

And second, the content-free quantitative analysis that leads him to that conclusion demonstrates that he’s not really a paragraph man at all, but rather a numbers man with a phony mustache and glasses. And never mind the simplified straw man evident in the reference to the “post-Cartesian, [and what does that mean? Empiricist? Kantian? Logical Positivist?], deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity” of Kerry’s Iraq policy, which doesn’t warrant comment (but watch us comment anyway) by us paragraph people who like the clarity of evidence and sound arguments, or their subversion in our jokes, rather than the mono-directional opacity of the uninterpreted data of political commitment.

Generalizing from Novak’s Hurt Feelings

Source: (ChST 09/09/04): Robert Novak argued last week that the protesters at the Republican National Convention “represented[ed] a disturbing new development in the nation’s politics: hatred in the streets.”

His justification of this claim is worth considering. It takes three forms:

  1. Anecdotal Evidence
  2. Tim Carney, a reporter for this column, got a taste of that last Thursday night as he left the Garden. He was wearing a three-piece suit and presumably was mistaken for a delegate by a young woman, who yelled at him: ”Get out of New York!” She added to Carney, a native New Yorker: ”You don’t belong here!”

    Individual marchers singled out any person they thought might be a convention delegate, firing off angry, often obscene, denunciations. The streets of Manhattan were not pleasant for anyone foolish enough to wander around wearing a convention badge.

  3. Generalizations:
  4. The organized demonstrations were purely negative, attacking George W. Bush with scant expression of support for John Kerry.

    The irrational loathing expressed daily on the Internet by passionate, though poorly informed, bloggers was transferred into the streets.

    This last quote is an interesting unsupported generalization (about bloggers) used in support of another generalization (about the protesters).

  5. Personal Experience:
  6. Unfortunately, many demonstrators recognized me from my television appearances and condemned me as a ”traitor” because of the CIA leak case, some suggesting I should kill myself.

I cannot, of course, offer substantive comment on the truth or falsity of Novak’s characterizations of the protesters: we might, however, note that the 500,000 protesters who assembled to march on Sunday cannot with any plausibility be identified with the much smaller group of more militant protesters who used strategic harassment of delegates to convey their disagreement with the platform of the Republican party. This somewhat wild generalization seems to lack plausibility. One might imagine any number of other similar generalizations that would be regarded as obviously false–such as from the number of Saudi Arabian Nationals involved in the September 11th hijackings to a characterization of Saudi Arabian National in general. Or from the probably illegal and perhaps treasonous leaking of a C.I.A. operative’s identity by a Republican to a characterization of all Republicans as treasonous–though we might note that Ann Coulter has made a similar generalization about Democrats in her screed Treason.

Nor do I wish to contest the truth of the anecdotal reports which I am sure could be multiplied many times over and which seem to be plausible given the evidence of other reporting on the protesters.

What I would want to contest, however, is Novak’s inference to the presence of a radically new form of politics which he calls “hatred in the streets.” Above all, Novak is trying to discredit the protest movement by distinguishing it from the protests in 1968, which Novak surprisingly finds respectable. In 1968, the protests, Novak argues, had a determinate political goal. In 2004, the protests are nothing more than “hatred in the streets.” This argument relies on the implausible generalization uncovered above which is based on some particular protesters’ tactics to the a characterization of the motivations of 500,000 other protesters.

In fact, I am sure that Novak did encounter “hatred in the streets.” If, as he says, “many demonstrators recognized” him, I suspect that the hatred against someone who has been plausibly accused of knowlingly betraying his government, and at least accused of unknowingly doing so, was quite present and palpable. Whether or not that is to be blamed on the protesters, on Novak’s scandalous column, or on high-ranking members of the Bush administration, remains seemingly for Fitzgerald and a Grand Jury to decide. But nonetheless, as a matter of logic, Novak is not entitled to generalize from these particular instances of hatred directed towards him (and other isolated cases) to the 500,000 protesters who assembled to show their disagreement with the current administration’s policies.

1000 dead, ergo. . ..

Source (NYT 09/10/04): It is a lot easier to find logical fallacies in arguments with which you disagree. For the thoughtful reader, disagreement prompts reflection concerning the ground of the disagreement. If, however, I believe deeply that Dick Cheney is right when he claims that electing John Kerry will make us more vulnerable to attack, then my agreement will in all likelihod obscure the fallacies in his implicit argument.

There are many candidates in the op-ed pages of the last few days for analysis and criticism–Novak’s false generalizations about the 500,000 protestors in New York on the basis of a few particular encounters (yesterday in the Chicago Sun Times Source (ChST 09/09/04)), or Krauthammer’s mis-characterizations of the arguments and positions of the Kerry campaign (straw man fallacies) in the Washington Post (Source(WaPo 09/10/04). In a departure from previous form, I want to analyze an argument with which I agree entirely. In a palpably emotional reponse to the NYT’s honouring of the 1000 men and women who have had their lives ended by the conflict in Iraq–and if you have not scrolled through this wracking testimony stop reading and follow this link (Roster of the Dead.) –Herbert asks:

How many thousands more will have to die before we acknowledge that President Bush’s obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for the United States?

The question is so serious and necessary that I am, at first, perplexed by the task I have set myself–to analyze the logic of his argument.

His answer to the question is not a precise number, of course, but takes the form of a confirmation of the premise of the question:

At some point, as in Vietnam, the American public will balk at the continued carnage, and this tragic misadventure will become politically unsustainable.

This is the conclusion that Herbert is arguing for. What reasons does he advance for the conclusion?

  1. There is no persuasive goal for this war.
  2. The Americans are not at all clear what they’re fighting for. Saddam is gone. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The link between Saddam and the atrocities of Sept. 11 was always specious and has been proven so.


    You can wave goodbye to the naive idea that democracy would take root in Iraq and then spread like the flowers of spring throughout the Middle East. That was never going to happen

  3. There is no adequate means for winning the war.
  4. And our Iraqi “allies” will never fight their Iraqi brethren with the kind of intensity the U.S. would like, any more than the South Vietnamese would fight their fellow Vietnamese with the fury and the effectiveness demanded by the hawks in the Johnson administration.


    The Iraqi insurgents–whether one agrees with them or not–believe that they are fighting for their homeland, their religion and their families.


    We won’t–and shoudln’t–wage total war in Iraq either. But to the insurgents, the Americans epitomize eveil. . .For them, this is total war.

  5. The cost will eventually be too high for the American people.
  6. There is undoubtedly an unspoken premise here:

  7. The American people will balk at continued carnage, if they perceive the war to pointless, unwinable, and too costly.
  8. Therefore, the American people will (eventually) make this war politically unsustainable.

That I take it is his argument, and as it stands it seems entirely valid. Of course, the truth of the premises could be questioned if our concern was with the soundness of the argument rather than its validity. The premises have not been entirely justifed. His claim about the unlikelihood of democracy arising in the Iraq would certainly be contested and then would need further justification. But we cannot fault him for having premises that need further justification, since all arguments must begin provisionally from premises.

I want to ask now about the presence or absence of two fallacies in his editorial: an appeal to pity and an ad hominem argument.

Appeal to Pity: There will be some I suspect who will try to tarnish the NYT for printing this Roster of the Dead. As Ted Koppel’s Nightline found out months ago, the motives of this memorial will be viewed cynically as a form of manipulation. These critics will argue that the purpose of showing the roster of the dead is to trade on the public’s emotions in order to lead them to the conclusion that the war is not worth the cost. By ratcheting up the publics perception of the real human cost (or at least, the cost for Americans, since a “Roster of the Civilian Dead” would fill a day or more of the NYT) the public will be led to conclude that the war is not worth the price. Of course, the emotions that this Roster of the Dead provoke include at least sadness, pity, and respect. Thus, it might seem to be an implicit argumentum ad misericordiam, or the fallacy of an appeal to pity.

Herbert interrupts his argument three times with a line of four names and nothing more. The question is thus, what is the function of this rhetorical gesture and is it implicitly fallacious?

An argument by appeal to pity is an argument that claims that something is true by evoking an irrelevent emotional experience of pity that makes the listener willing to grant the truth of the claim without justification or reason. The traditional example given in virtually all logic textbooks is: “I deserve an A because if I don’t get an A I won’t get into Law School.” Although the reason might be a motivation for giving an A, it is not a reason for deserving an A. This is where it gets tricky. An appeal to pity only occurs when the appeal is irrelevant for justifying the conclusion.

Herbert’s rhetorical use of the soldiers’ names, however, is directly relevant to his argument: the cost of the war in Iraq is already too high. To judge the truth of this requires that we have a clear sense of what that cost is. The pages of photographs, although it will never convey the real loss experienced in each and every one of the 1000 dead, strives, however failingly, to evoke a sense of its magnitude.

Ad Hominem:

They were sent by a president who ran and hid when he was a young man and his country was at war.

This one sentence stands out in the editorial: It rings of an ad hominem fallacy. An ad hominem fallacy occurs when one argues for a conclusion based on an irrelevant fact about a person who maintains an opposing view. Not all arguments that rest on premises about a person’s character are, however, fallacious. Often character is relevant to the inference that is being made, and even if the character is represented unflatteringly it does not make the argument fallacious.

Once again it is a question of relevance: Is George Bush’s avoidance of risk during the Vietnam war relevant to an assessment of his qualifications for ordering soldiers to their deaths or relevant to the justification of the war?

This is a profoundly difficult question, and one which I suspect those who have served in the military might answer differently than those of us who have not. Given the way the campaign is shaping up, however, we will have ample opportunity to address this question in the future.

In place of that here, I would point out only the following: This sentence does no logical work here and assuming it is true, it would not provide reason to disagree with Bush’s policies and decisions. I don’t think, however, that Herbert intends it to provide such reason, though, in fact, I am not sure what it contributes to his argument.

Arguments, if they are to succeed in persuading, are directed towards those who either disagree or who have not made up their minds. Sometimes even the hint of a fallacy, however, can detract from the persuasiveness of an argument. Just as a fallacy can induce people to accept a conclusion that is not justified, so the appearance of a fallacy can induce people to reject a conclusion that has been justified.

Valencia or Granny Smith?

Both John Kerry and George Bush, George F. Will argues, share the “liberal expectancy” of the retreat of religious fanaticism and ethnic conflict in the face of “education, science, secularism, [and] prosperity.” But therein lies an important difference. Citing University of Virginia political scientists James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvo, Will points out that “Bush says that ‘liberty is the design of nature’ and that ‘freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind’ and “not since Lincoln has the Republicans’ leader ‘so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right.’” Now one can certainly argue with this characterization of Bush foreign policy. One could point out for instance that the administration has no argument, in the sense that it has taken no action and spoken no words, against the anti-modern political systems on whose mineral wealth we rely, or whose form of anti-modernist dictatorship conveniently breaks in favor of our political strategies. But that’s another matter. And besides, this is not really what Will is writing about anyway. For immediately after the above cited passage, he turns his attention to Kerry:

“Kerry is the candidate of the intellectually vain — of those who, practicing the politics of condescension, consider Bush moronic. But Kerry is unwilling to engage Bush’s idea.”

While we have a fairly charitable reading of the philosophical and political motivations of the Bush administration, we have a ruthlessly uncharitable characterization of the psychological state of the Kerry supporter. The comparison of Kerry-supporter to Bush philosophy wholly out of place, the more logically sound comparison would consider items that belong in the same category–Kerry political philosophy versus Bush political philosophy, for instance, or psychological state of Kerry supporter versus psychological state of Bush supporter. But aside from the perplexing nature of this apples-oranges comparison, Will makes matters worse by his doubly abusive assault on the position of the Kerry supporter: he is intellectually vain, and he practices the “politics of condescension” by considering Bush “moronic.” This neat, but devious, rhetorical trick hypocritically embraces the fallacy it condemns: Kerry’s supporters are intellectually vain (attacking the person not the argument) because they–and here is the kicker–attack the person and not the argument! Disengaging himself from the rhetorical underhandedness of the first sentence in the passage just cited, Will turns for the rest of the essay to making the case for his initial comparison:

Hence he is allowing Bush to have what he wants, a one-issue election. The issue is a conflation of the wars in Iraq and on terrorism in the single subject "security." Kerry is trying, and failing, to pry apart judgments about the two. But even if he succeeds, he continues to deepen the risible incoherence of his still-multiplying positions on Iraq. In his speech last week to the American Legion convention, Kerry said that in Iraq he, as president, would have done "almost everything differently." The indisputable implication is that if he had been president since 2001, America would be in Iraq.

Again, the more logically sound comparison would be between Bush political philosophy and Kerry political philosophy, not, as it is here, between Bush political philosophy and Kerry’s position on the management and execution of the Iraq war. Whatever their positions on the source of human freedom (and one can fairly suspect that they both agree to the view that freedom is a natural right or something of that sort), Kerry’s argument that Iraq should have been handled differently and that Iraq might still be considered to have had something to do with “security” are not “risibly incoherent.” But it certainly appears that way when it is posed against something it should not rightly be compared with (Bush’s writ large political philosophy). Kerry’s position, however poorly it may be articulated by him, his surrogates and supporters, concerns the execution not, as Will has it here, the philosophical foundation. Now in the end, of course, Kerry’s arguments might fail. But they should be challenged for what they are (apples), not for what Will would like them to be (oranges).

Of explanations and equivocations

Source: NYT 09/07/04 and Source: NYT 09/07/04: I suspect Paul Krugman and David Brooks were not attending the same Labor Day celebration when they decided to write today on the same theme. Nevertheless both the NYT’s editorials today address a question that is of special interest: How is it that people come to believe such obviously irrational, false, immoral, or simply contradictory things. There are profound questions here that transcend the strict scope of logic and require some dabbling in the philosophy of action and perhaps even raising the question of evil. Nonetheless, have no fear, Brooks does not disappoint: With a little bit of preparation we will discover at the heart of Brooks’ argument an illustrative case of concealed equivocation.

But we should start with Krugman who focuses on a discussion of the psychology of war by war correspondant Chris Hedges. It is Krugman’s claim that the impression of a perpetual state of war that the Bush administration works so assiduously to maintain is about the only thing that keeps Bush’s poll numbers from plummetting. “War psychology” disposes people to faith in their leaders even when the leaders are undeserving of it.

The administration creates a climate of war. This climate leads to a unreasonable over-estimation of our leaders. Bush’s lead in the polls is a result of the war climate.

Strictly speaking this is not an argument, but rather an attempt at explaining what to Krugman and others seems obviously irrational–Bush’s persistence in the election when by every objective measure (economy, jobs, war on terror, war in Iraq, never mind scandal after scandal) he should be plummeting in the polls.

Explanations are interesting creatures: They possess the same structure as an argument (This fact is true because this other fact is true), yet they are evaluated according to different criteria. Arguments proceed from supposedly well established facts (the premises) and justify the conclusion which is generally less well-established than the premises (and hence in need of argument). Explanations, however, begin from a commonly recongized fact (Bush is persisting or even gaining in the polls) and attempt to provide some means of understanding that fact on the basis of other less well known facts (war psychology).

This isn’t, of course, to say that explanations cannot fail in ways analogous to argument. In fact, many explanations are themselves the conclusion of an implicit argument–the argument being that the proposed explanation is the best available explanation of the given fact. For explanations themselves, we can assess the degree to which the explanation integrates with our other beliefs, has a relevant degree of explanatory scope, and is clear, testable, frugal, and precise. (A nice discussion that goes beyond the scope of these brief comments can be found in Thomas McKay’s Reasons, Explanations, and Decision. (Wadsworth publishing) from which I draw here especially Chapter 7). I will leave the evaluation of this explanation for another time and place.

Now where Krugman utilizes psychology to articulate a plausible reason for what he believes to be irrational conviction, Brooks does something entirely different with the same problem. Brooks takes as his subject the morally repugnant and perverse decision to use terrorist tactics. At first glance, the whole point of his editorial seems to be to sustain his moral outrage at terrorism for 750 words or so. To do so he uses a metaphor of a “cult of death,” under which description he includes the radicals and extremists at the “fringe of the Muslim world.” The cult of death “loves death,” Brooks sententiously informs us, and is motivated by nothing but the “joy of sadism and suicide” and “massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness.”

This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergarteners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

Whether there is a single factual claim in this sentence is not something we can or need to consider right now because the trope does not need any factual basis in order to focus our moral outrage. Brooks is trying to argue against the possibility of any explanation of terrorism, by rejecting any attempt to “understand” it.

His metaphorical indulgence obscures the argument, but not enough to conceal its basic fallacy.

1. To understand terrorism is to understand its reasons.
2. If terrorism has reasons, then it is justifiable.
3. But terrorism is unjustifiable.
4. Therefore terrorism has no motivation or reason (it is simply a perverse nihilistic cult of death).

This, of course, is to provide Brooks’ meandering and at times self-contradictory editorial with a basic rational, even if fallacious, structure. But imposing on this op-ed the formal inference of modus tollens, allows us to highlight the basic flaw in his reasoning.

The flaw is a very common instance of equivocation on the notions of reason and motivation: Specifically, the argument collapses the distinction between a causal or psychological sense of “reason” and an evaluative or moral sense. This amounts to claiming that:

To claim that terrorists had a “motivation” to commit a particular act, is to claim that the terrorists had a “good motivation” to do that act.

However, to recognize that human beings act necessarily out of their conception of what is best is not to claim that they are right about what is best: Nor is it to claim that they are not morally responsible for what they think (erroneously) to be best. A psychological explanation does not imply moral justification.

Once we see this, Brooks’ editorial falls into place. He can assert his moral consternation at the Boston Globe and the Dutch Foreign Minisiter (?!?) who suggest that Russian authorities may have mishandled the events. Ever aiming at clarity, or at least simplicity Brooks reminds us, “And it wasn’t Russian authorities who stuffed basketball nets with explosives and shot children in the back as they tried to run away.”

But if we remove the basic fallacy in his reasoning we can see that the hypothesis of a “death cult” in order to explain terrorism is unnecessary and moreover a poor explanation. First, it conflicts with our basic understanding, stretching back to Aristotle, of human agency. Second, it is in fact a vacuous explanation–(Why do terrorists kill? Because they like to kill.) Third, the explanation is obfuscatory. It proceeds by lumping together all sorts of disparate groups and their motivations. Fourth, is imprecise and does not explain differences among particular acts of terrorism.

Once we dispose of the basic equivocation in Brooks view his explanation can be seen to be the empty metaphor that it is.

Weapons of mass distraction

Sometimes op-ed writers in the major dailies opt out of arguments altogether. Such was the case–as far as we could tell–this weekend. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post even admitted that he was too tired of arguments to make any. Props to Cohen, for we might have squandered precious time pointing out that fact. But we didn’t have to look far–as far as John Leo’s column in US News in fact–for our daily sustenance of nonsense in the guise of intelligible discourse.

In discussing Thomas Frank’s recent book What’s the matter with Kansas? Leo poses the following question:

Frank is stupefied that abortion, evolution, and gay marriage are major political issues and that 80 percent of the state’s voters backed George W. Bush in 2000. Why are they wasting their voting power on cultural and social issues instead of pursuing their own self-interest?

In answering this question for Frank, Leo illustrates for us the beguiling rhetorical technique of attempting to distract the reader with the powerful odor of a urine-scented cross:

Part of the problem is that liberals who focus sharply on economics tend to have no feel for noneconomic issues that so many of us care deeply about. Right at the start of his book, Frank cites the controversy (which he apparently considers stupid) over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ: “because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” But “the hicks” had a point: Alleged art that traduces religion was now supported and often funded by the same sensitive people who quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians, or women. A new value system was descending on the culture. And under that system, not only were prayers disappearing from the schools (a good idea, in my opinion), but student valedictory speeches that included a line of praise for God were being censored, and small schoolchildren, asked to draw a picture of anyone they admired, were being reprimanded if they drew Jesus.

Leo supports his analysis of the liberals’ (a silly unsupported generalization repeated throughout the piece) lack of rural cultural sensitivity with a series of extreme examples that have nothing to do with the orignal issues mentioned–abortion, evolution, and gay marriage–and everything to do with shocking us into agreement. Since Leo clearly disagrees with Frank’s argument–that Kansans ignore their own economic self-interest and vote instead on social issues on account of hickdom–he should stick to the social issues in question, rather than charging the fictitious liberals with hyprocisy (the ones who “quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians, or women”) and distracting us with peripheral and largely undocumented (save the explicit reference to Andres Serrano)episodes from the culture wars of the 90’s. One might even reasonably claim that these hyberbolic examples have nothing to do with abortion and gay marriage (which are not art forms or otherwise required at school graduations) and evolution (which is not a moral issue, but has everything to do with high school graduation).

Assuming that we’ve been wholly distracted by the urine-scented cross and the removal of Jesus portraits from admiring religious youngsters, Leo completes his shift to “morality” (again–evolution?). Putting himself inside the head of the clueless liberal, Leo argues:

The left usually chalks this up to fear of change, hardening arteries, racism, or some other insulting cause.

But that’s ridiculous! Not everyone in Kansas suffers from arteriosclerosis! And indeed they do not. Nor would anyone seriously hold the moldly straw man of an argument Leo attributes to the left.

But not content with the ineffective but sneaky reverse straw man, Leo employs the more straightforward tactic of oversimplifying, exaggerating, and ridiculing peripheral positions of one’s argumentative opponent:

But the real reason is that ordinary Americans no longer feel that they can transmit their culture to their young–the schools and media make that almost impossible now. (One indicator is the home-schooling movement, which includes 1.1 million children, a number sure to keep rising.) The multicultural and universalist side of the new morality undercuts community and mocks patriotism. America and the West, we are told, are nothing to be proud of, merely entrenched systems of domination. The courts increasingly reflect the law-school culture, which is nearly as one-sided as the campus culture.

The fact that there might exist someone who holds this panoply of views does not do anything to make its attribution to the “left” any less ridiculous and irresponsible. This argument, with its irrelevant evidence and its unsupported generalizations about campus and law-school culture, compounded with the previous argument’s National Endowment for the Arts’ funded distraction, make for first class logical balderdash.

So much ink has been spilled in the service of the defeat of outlandishly fictitious opponents by stealth weapons of mass distraction.

Straw Girlie-man

SOURCE (NYT 9/02/04):Considering the attention the following sneering remark has already received (or was it simply played over and over without comment or consideration of the context of Senator Kerry’s remarks?), perhaps it hardly warrants critical analysis. But we cannot restrain ourselves.

Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn’t appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a “more sensitive war on terror,” as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side. He declared at the Democratic Convention that he will forcefully defend America — after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked, and faced with an enemy who seeks the deadliest of weapons to use against us, we cannot wait for the next attack. We must do everything we can to prevent it — and that includes the use of military force.

So aside from the fact that Cheney again quotes Kerry out of context (and indeed aside from the fact that Cheney and Bush have used the adjective “sensitive” in the very same contexts), how absurd it would be to impress our enemies with our softer, perhaps feminine, side! Very silly indeed. And what a decisive rhetorical victory Cheney has won!

Now if he could only find a democratic candidate for President of the United States running in the current election who actually holds this view, then he could avoid the charge that he has simply taken down a straw girlie-man of an argument.

Your argument is invalid

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