Showing them how it’s done

As we have said from the beginning, we analyze the logic of arguments here. We do not claim to decide, in most cases, the truth of the many complicated matters that come before the pundits. We try, however, to evaluate whether the reasons advanced by the pundits provide justification for their conclusions. We also attempt to catch as many of their cheap tricks as we can along the way.

Not all pundits are as scandalously fallacious as some of our favorite subjects. It might be good occasionally to examine a good opinion piece, to remind ourselves what our standards for reasoned discourse should look like.

One the pundits whom we watch carefully is Paul Krugman. Krugman’s opinion pieces stand out on the pages of the NYT for their clarity and rigor. His arguments are clearly developed and precisely articulated. He rarely claims to have shown more than his argument justifies and he never seems to stoop to the fallacious glibness that characterizes most, or at least many, of his fellow editorialists. One reason for this may be his willingness to develop his arguments over a long series of columns rather than trying to fit for example a critique of all other alternatives to his view in a single 700 word column. There is patience here that is a sign of good academic training.

Just this week he has inaugurated a new topic: the crisis in our health care system (Source: NYT 4/11/05).

>America does face a real crisis – but it’s in health care, not Social Security.

Continue reading Showing them how it’s done

Ideological design

One might have thought that the argument by design would have ceased to
be a topic of serious religious debate and reflection after its limits
were conclusively demonstrated by Hume’s devastating critique in the
18th Century. But you would have been wrong. In a recent editorial
appearing in the New York Times, Michael J. Behe defends the concept of
“Intelligent Design,” the 21st Century incarnation of this tired
staple of 17th century natural theology. It would be pointless to
rehearse the arguments Hume uses to demonstrate the inconclusiveness of
Design as an argument for the existence of God. I would refer the
reader to his *Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion*. Behe, in fact,
claims that intelligent design “says nothing about the religious idea of
a creator,” a caveat that, in spite of its disingenuousness (can anyone
seriously doubt that what is at stake here is theistic belief?), we can
perhaps take as a tacit acknowledgment of Hume’s conclusions. Rather,
Behe presents Intelligent Design as a credible scientific explanation
for the complexity of biological systems. This claim is dubious from
two perspectives.

Continue reading Ideological design

Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Last Saturday we saw in the New York Times two columns addressing the question of caution: One decrying it in favor of some sort of confusion of middle-aged excess with courage and decisiveness, and the other fretting over the absence of caution in recommending caution among environmentalists. First we will deal with the trivial instance. I am still puzzling over what could possibly have motivated David Brooks to write his "Saturday Night Lite"(Source: NYT 03/12/05). In his column he flails around–in search of self-deprecating humor among other things–while trying to blame facetiously his middle-age caution on anyone but himself. >And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code. Continue reading Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

I have spent much of my semester reading and thinking about the logic and epistemology of historiographic explanation for a class I am teaching. The very nature of historigraphy–its purposes, evidence, and methodology–seems to dispose it to fairly particular logical fallacies. For example, whether we are investigating Herodotus’ Histories or contemporary “academic historiography,” the historian seems easily tempted to draw inferences about general tendencies or even necessities on the basis of particular events in the past. We do not, of course, need to mention the problems of inductive inferences in general to notice that inductive predictions or generalizations need to begin from an adequate body of evidence from the past. Even as plausible an inductive generalization such as Herodotus’ “great empires fall and small nations will become great” is radically underdetermined by the body of inductive evidence whether in Herodotus’ time or our own.
This can constitute a fallacy of hasty generalization.

If professional historians for the most part try to avoid committing the sort of fallacies that all undergraduates are taught to recognize and criticize, the same does not seem to be the case when we turn to the professional pundit, as we have had occasion to show in the past: In the service of ideology, there are few fallacies that do not appear to some pundits as legitimate arguments.

As the administration has scrambled to find justification for an increasingly unpopular and stalled or even backsliding military occupation, it has pinned its hopes on the justification of future history. Now the task occupying the administration and the pundits alike is to demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq has opened the possiblity of radical change in the mid-east. It is troubling, of course, that their argument is being swallowed so easily by the unquestioning and seemingly historically ignorant press, especially since the argument rests on such easily recognized and impugned fallacies. We can take as examples of this argument, two recents columns marked by their exuberance at recent events in the mid-east. First, was David Brooks’ “Why not here?” (NYT 02/26/05 no link). More recently Krauthammer chimed in with “The Road to Damascus” (WaPo 03/04/05).

The argument in all of its forms rests on the claims that

  1. The political changes in Lebanon, Egypt, and the occupied territories are part of a regional democratizing “thaw.”
  2. The vision of the election in Iraq either caused or at least enabled these political changes.
  3. These democratizing changes are good and so good in fact that they justify the costs of the invasion of Iraq even in absence of W.M.D., the reluctance of the Iraqi population to celebrate our arrival etc.

Continue reading Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

Argumentum pro homine

Just about everyone who has had Intro to Logic knows about the fallacy of the attack against the person, or ad hominem. It's a question of relevance, they are told, in that the negative features of a person's character have nothing to do with the argument she is making. That's why it's called an "attack" or "against" or in Latin, "ad." Even George Bush, Michael Moore, or why not, even Paul Wolfowitz deserves to have his argument assessed on its own merits. Rarely if ever, however, does one hear of the negative counterpart, the obverse, of the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum pro homine. Despite its rarity and notwithstanding the absence of cruel or mean-spirited irrelevance, it's fallacious for the same reasons. And we have a fine example of this in David Brooks March 8, 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times. Take a look at this:

Let us look again at the man who's been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who's been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It's not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it's time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom. And he has usually played a useful supporting role in making sure that pragmatic, democracy-promoting policies were put in place.

If the trends of the last few months continue, Wolfowitz will be the subject of fascinating biographies decades from now, while many of his smuggest critics will be forgotten. Those biographies will mention not only his intellectual commitment but also his personal commitment, his years spent learning the languages of the places that concerned him, and the thousands of hours spent listening deferentially to the local heroes who led the causes he supported.

To praise Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. The difficulties ahead are obvious. It's simple justice. It's a recognition that amid all the legitimate criticism, this guy has been the subject of a vicious piling-on campaign by people who know less than nothing about what is actually going on in the government, while he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right.

The occasion for the reconsideration of Paul Wolfowitz's character is the irresponsible–and to judge by the headline of the March 8, 2005 New York Times–incorrect belief that the "political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world" are unremittingly positive. More Lebanese have descended into the streets in favor of Syria than those who a week earlier showed up against it.  And besides, even those who came out against Syria wanted to be rid of a foreign occupier (never mind, as everyone hask the reasons for the occupation) as we Americans ourselves happen to be (in Iraq, another Arab country).

My colleague at the Thenonsequitur.com has been closely following these arguments as they appear in various op-ed pages and has promised to discuss them soon. The problem with Brooks' argument lies elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his logically clueless response-in-kind to perceived attacks on Paul Wolfowitz the person. We've discussed this sort of argument, the reverse ad hominem before.

In logical strategy it very much resembles the straw man: falsely accuse your opponent of not making an argument but of attacking the person, and in so doing you attack her rather than her argument (since you've accused her of not having an argument). This time, however, in addition to attacking the attacker (note the rhetorical juxtaposition of the "the infantile left" with the lunatic antisemitism on the order of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Brooks responds to those attacks by pointing out what a patient listener and marvelous student of foreign languages Wolfowitz is, among other achievements and personal virtues.

No question Wolfowitz has all sorts of personal virtues and has accomplished something in his life. That's not the issue, however, in the serious critiques of his political positions and arguments. And besides that, and more to the point actually, Wolfowitz may be motivated by the purest desire to improve the lot of humankind in general, but many serious questions have been raised about the means he has chosen to these ends. Some have argued, so we have heard, that those means have been disastrous for those asked to carry them out in reality, as well as those who never asked Wolfowitz for his help.

Nature Wrecked

In the previous post we discussed George Will’s violent reaction to the violent reaction to Larry Summers’–President of Harvard University–foray into *a priori* genetics. On the basis of all of the scientific auctoritas as his armchair will provide, Will continues here and in the following op-ed piece (which we will discuss some time in the near future) to pontificate about the philosophical realities of human nature. Not only did it gall him that academic liberals would dare question the unjustified assertions of the president of Harvard University, but some in the left-wing political media had the temerity to challenge similar claims in the inaugural address of the President of the United States:

>This criticism went beyond doubts about his grandiose aspirations, to rejection of the philosophy that he might think entails such aspirations but actually does not. The philosophy of natural right — the Founders’ philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.

Continue reading Nature Wrecked

Ad Feminam

Only just recently George Will argued that Michael Crichton’s appendixed and footnoted science-fiction thriller about global warming–sorry, climate change–merited unironic juxtaposition with the body of unthrilling and nonfictional scientific research from the majority of the world’s qualified scientists. Now this past week in The Washington Post
he argues that Larry Summers’ off the cuff and argumentless remarks about the genetic basis of gender differences in cognitive ability warrant the same kind of careful attention and consideration. The failure of academia to take them seriously, and its quick, negative reaction to them constitutes to Will’s mind evidence of academia’s not so latent hypocrisy:

>Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was.

>Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate — genetically based — gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.

Continue reading Ad Feminam

State of Ignorance

The editors of *Thenonsequitur.com* would like to apologize for their rather long vacation, which they enjoyed doing their regular jobs. The editors also apologize for not posting a notice to that effect. The fact is, however, they never intended to take a vacation; it took them. But, in addition to that, they have to admit that op-eds have been much less argumentative lately. After the election, David Brooks even apologized for one of his numerous distortions of Kerry's record. And Will has taken a turn to frequent reportage. Today a wikipediaen discussion of the theory of relativity for the enjoyment of the habitues of the *Washington Post*.

Continue reading State of Ignorance

Illicit contrariness

The debate concerning the “value’s vote” in the election will probably continue for some time. Many pundits have weighed in already, arguing that there was no “value’s vote,” or that the “value’s vote” was misguided, etc. John Leo in the last issue of the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 11/29/04), seeks to defend the value’s vote from its critics.

>I am struggling to understand the “don’t impose your values” argument. According to this popular belief, it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, to vote your moral convictions unless everybody else already shares them.

It’s hard to know what argument Leo is unable to understand–the ascription of this view to “popular belief” makes it seem unlikely that he has a particular advocate in mind and so does not feel the need to consider what exactly the argument might involve. Presumably, Leo is trying to capture a sense of the “secular liberal” who adheres to a strict understanding of the separation of church and state and sees religiously motivated “value’s argument” to be as potentially insidious as the installation of the Taliban. But, in the absence of anyone who would actually advance this argument it is hard to take it seriously or Leo’s refutation of it as particularly significant. This is a sort of “straw man fallacy”–the argument that he is actually concerned with is the argument against the place of religious values in political debate, or the rationality of choosing to vote on values rather than economic self-interest.

>Nobody ever explains exactly what constitutes an offense in voting one’s values, but the complaints appear to be aimed almost solely at conservative Christians, who are viewed as divisive when they try to “force their religious opinions on us.”

So Leo seems to be confusing two distinct issues:

1 The argument that a significant number of voters chose to vote on “values” rather than for example economic self-interest etc.
2 The argument that the parochial values of religious sects should not be the grounds for government.

The former is a matter for sociology and political science (and has been discussed in Thomas Franks’ *What’s the Matter with Kansas?*): The latter is a matter of constitutional theory respecting the “establishment clause” of the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). But Leo wants to argue against a caricature of #1 in order to suggest that we have grounds for rejecting #2 (which he does not in fact give) and therefore demostrating the contrary of #2:

2a Parochial values of religious sects should or can be the grounds for government.

What he wants to do is refute claim that “values should never enter into politics” in order to justify the inclusion of religious values in politics. But of course the negation of the first does not imply the contrary of the second since the two are not strict contradictories.

The logical form of this argument:

1 Either no values have a place in government or some do.
2 It is not the case that values *do not* have a place in goverment.
3 Therefore, *all* (including religious) values have a place in government.

So in fact, there are two fallacies here: The straw man in #1 and the equivocation on the notion of values that enables him to conclude that religious values have a place in government even though he has only shown that some values have a place in government.

Strictly speaking, however, this is a formal fallacy based on the difference between contrary and contradictory statements. Contradictory statements possess opposite truth values (one is false, the other true): Contrary statements, however, can both be false.

a No S is P. —- a1) All S is P.
b No S is P. —- b1) Some S is P.

In the first case we have contraries–both can be false (when “Some S is P”). In the second we have contradictories since whatever the truth value of one, the other is opposite. (So we can infer from the falsity of “No S is P” that “Some S is P” is true.) Leo seems to commit the formal fallacy of “illicit contrary” here.

> If the “don’t impose” people wish to mount a serious argument, they will have to attack “imposers” on both sides of the issues they discuss–not just their opponents. They will also have to explain why arguments that come from religious beliefs are less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings.

The first of these two claims is eminently reasonable: Logic here demands consisitency, and so the argument–if there ever has been such a one–that values must be entirely excluded from politics would, of course, have to apply to *all values*–assuming, however, that all “values” are on a par in this case.

But of course there is good reason to exclude certain sorts of religious arguments from political debate in a nation that adheres to the “separation of church and state”–these arguments *are* “less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings” in the context with which we are concerned.

To conclude the column, Leo spends some time looking at several cases where the supposedly “anti-values” people will need to argue against their customary positions as a consequence of the logical virtue of consistency. But the massing of examples does not hide the fact that all he can argue is:

1 If you hold the belief that “imposing values is always wrong,” then you must be opposed to the imposition of values in case x.

Certainly.

But this argument is far too weak for Leo’s purposes. What he in fact wants to conclude is:

>No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.

Leo seems to think that he has established that “religious arguments” are legitimate grounds for political decisions. But, the fact that *some* values are legitimate in public discourse does not of course imply that *all* are.

In fact, as an example, when the Colorado Supreme Court was examining Amendment 2 denying “special consideration” to homosexuals, one of the central issues was whether the moral motivation of the amendment was necessarily founded in a particular religion. Conservative advocates argued that the Ancient Greeks had a non-religious disapprobation of homosexuality.

Thus, at least as far as I understand the underlying issue–not of course being a constitutional lawyer–a *merely* religious argument is in fact “illegitimate” in this case precisely because of its orgin. That is, if a particular law or policy is simply designed to enshrine or impose the moral or religious beliefs of an individual sect on the country as a whole, the arguments in its favor are illegitimate.

And this is not, as Leo wants it, a matter of “prejudice.” For the same reason that the biblical calculation of *pi* can be excluded from mathematics textbooks, so moral beliefs based solely in religious principles are not necessarily legitimate for the purpose of policy and political argument.

After exposing these fallacies and the illegitimate conclusion draws from them, let me make one last comment. I think Leo is in fact right that the debate surrounding stem cell research etc. is a debate about “values”–but the rules of this debate are set among other things by the principles contained within constitution and its tradition of interpretation. Presumably to the chagrin of Leo and others, these rules do in fact exclude certain arguments without the exclusion being a matter of “prejudice.”

One last complication to consider. Surely in a democracy it is legitimate to vote on the basis of one’s values–no one, despite Leo’s suggestion, argues that one should not do so. But these values or the intentions and policies of the candidate who reflects these values are not on that basis legitimate as a matter of public policy. In fact, this was precisely what the founding fathers wanted to avoid: The possibility of the local prejudices of various religions from being imposed on all citizens.

Why ask why?

By and large, academics are a liberal bunch. With studious reference to the numbers of registered democrats versus registered republicans, a few recent newspaper articles have reminded us (academics) of just how liberal we are as a group. A few other articles, and now an op-ed piece by George Will, have ventured explanations. While it is not disputable that academics–especially professors of humanities–are by and large of generally left or liberal political orientation, just *why* they are is another story. And since we are dealing with academics, some of them philosophy professors, we might point out that the question, “*why*?” is a tricky one. This little word could, after all, mean a lot of different things. Among them the following:

1. What reasons do they have (or somehow collectively enunciate) for their beliefs?

2. What significant explanatory features do they uniquely share as a group that might cause them to have certain properties in common (such as beliefs)?

As you can see, these are fundamentally different versions of the “why” question (we could go on, but that would be so, how do you say, *academic*). A common habit of the media is to treat answers to the latter question as sufficient answers to the former, when they are in actuality different questions altogether. We find an example of this in George Will’s Sunday op-ed in the *Washington Post* (11/28/04).

In answering this question, Will repeats the usual conservative line (which applies, by the way, to anything nowadays–the media, Hollywood, Boy Scouts):

>A filtering process, from graduate school admissions through tenure decisions, tends to exclude conservatives from what Mark Bauerlein calls academia’s “sheltered habitat.”

So what explains why there are so many liberals in academia is liberal *bias*. How do liberals effectuate this bias? Well,

>in order to enter the profession, your work must be deemed, by the criteria of the prevailing culture, “relevant.”

It’s clear now where this argument is going. The quotation marks signal that Will is taking a right turn onto hyperbole drive. He cites a few examples of what he takes to be extreme liberal bias, then allows the reader to conclude that he has made his point about academia in general:

>”Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women’s studies.”

Even if any of this were true–and it isn’t–these instances of overt political orientation in academia hardly constitute sufficient evidence for the more robust claim that academia skews unjustifiably (that is to say, in a biased way) leftward. Perhaps more appropriate would be a survey of departments and programs that the greater majority of schools share as a part of their basic academic program. Will, and Bauerlein on whom he relies, might take on the substantially more difficult task of unveiling the hidden but nonetheless “regnant” premises of any of the following disciplines: History, English, Classics, Foreign Language, Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, Economics, and Political Science. (It might also be pointed out that African-American studies has a whole lot more to offer than arguments for affirmative action, and women’s studies encompasses more than critiques of the contemporary American nuclear family, but that’s really a factual (not a logical) matter).

Nonetheless, having presumed, on the strength of such an obvious dearth of evidence, that he has said something meaningful about academia as a whole, Will he sets his sights on the more ambitious explanatory point:

>This gives rise to what Bauerlein calls the “false consensus effect,” which occurs when, because of institutional provincialism, “people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population.” There also is what Cass Sunstein, professor of political science and jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, calls “the law of group polarization.” Bauerlein explains: “When like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs.” They become tone-deaf to the way they sound to others outside their closed circle of belief.

Now just because academics tend to draw similar conclusions, and just because they hold beliefs that differ little from each other (but perhaps much from the population at large) does not mean that there are not independent justifications for these beliefs. Most physicists, for instance, probably hold beliefs as a class that differ wildly from the population as a whole but little from each other. This fact alone does not mean they are wrong, or that they are subject to Orwellian groupthink, as Will suggests. Perhaps the nature of their expertise is an indication that there is a greater chance they are right. And, considering the kinds of debates about high school science curricula one unfortunately hears nowadays, only a completely out of touch physicist would think his view agrees with that of the public at large. And the same, I think, would go for just about any academic who pronounces on a matter in which she has demonstrated competence. In other words, the number of those who hold a position is completely irrelevant to whether or not the position is well justified.

And this is precisely the point. It is our task on this website to consider the *reasons* an op-ed writer advances for his or her position, not the accidental features such a person might share with others of the same class. Were we to engage in such an analysis, we might point out that certain pundits seem always to make the same sorts of conservative or liberal arguments, and since these arguments are obviously wrong, there must be some sort of psychological reason for the pundit in question to hold it. Perhaps the pundit is a failed and resentful academic, and the greater majority of such persons hold conservative views on account of their deep resentment of the institution that snubbed them. But such a strategy would not only be logically unsound, but would fail the simplest of all charity tests: when your opponent holds an argument different from yours, assume she has reasons for her belief.

Your argument is invalid

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