So your dog is your father?

Among the cacophony of accusations of flip-floppery there seems to be particular glee with the recollection of Kerry’s criticisms directed against Howard Dean in December of 2003.

Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.

Charles Krauthammer last week claimed that this contradicts Kerry’s more recent pronouncement on the war:

Source (WaPo 09/16/04): Kerry is now back to the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a line lifted from Dean himself. So we are not better off with Hussein deposed after all.

Relational predicates have a funny logical structure. Failure to pay attention to this logical structure generates simple fallacies. Plato was probably the first to explore the absurdity of these fallacies in his dialogue the Euthydemus, which anyone interested in logical fallacies, or who just wants a quick philosophical laugh, should read. In that dialogue, Plato has a sophist advance the following argument.

Tell me, have you got a dog?–Yes, and a brute of one too, said Ctesippus.
And has he got puppies?–Yes indeed and they are just like him.
And so the dog is their father?–Yes I saw him mounting the bitch myself, he said.
Well then, isn’t the dog yours?–Certainly, he said.
Then since he is a father and he is yours, the dog turns out to be your father, and you are the brother of puppies, aren’t you.

This argument is more humorous than misleading and it is easy to detect the fallacy contained within it (though there are probably several ways of describing it). In a nutshell, the problem is that “father” is a relational property, or a “two place predicate.” One is always a father of some set of children (fatherhood in this sense is always a “causal relation”). Symbolically we might represent this as xF(a,b,c) reading “person (or animal) x is a Father of persons (or animals) a,b and c.” Thus from “your dog is a father of puppies,” we cannot conclude that “your dog is the father of you.” The fallacy works by substituting an “incomplete predicate” (your father) for a complete two term predicate (father of you), and in a sense concealing an equivocation.

This looks like what we find in the above example of supposed “flip-floppery,” only now the predicate is the comparative adjective “safer,” (or “better than”) which is also a two term predicate xSy (x is safer than y).

Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.

This claim contains three comparative claims:

  1. Iraq is “better off” without Saddam Hussein than with him ruling.
  2. The world is “better off” without Saddam Hussein than with him ruling.
  3. We (the U.S.) are safer with Saddam Hussein captured than with him free in Iraq.

The question is whether Kerry’s recent claims contradict any of these comparative claims. There are several quotations that are claimed to do so.

Kerry is now back to the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a line lifted from Dean himself. So we are not better off with Hussein deposed after all.(Krauthammer, see quote above)

A good “translation” is one which preserves the sense of the original. More precisely, for our purposes, a good translation is one which is either logically identical with the original (“less safe” as a translation of “less secure”), or in which the translation is a reasonable and necessary implication of the original. Krauthammer claims that “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” can be translated as:

A. We were better off with Hussein in power than with him deposed.

We can simplify Kerry’s claim to:

A1. The invasion of Iraq was the wrong war.

To say that it was the wrong war is to say that it was not appropriate given the circumstances–that is, the ends of the war (disarming Saddam of WMD, disrupting the association of Saddam with al Qaida, deposing Saddam, or any of the other twenty or so justifications that have been advanced), did not justify the means–in some cases because the ends could not be achieved by these means (how can you disarm someone who is already disarmed?), and in some cases because the ultimate costs of the war are overcoming the benefit that the world has acquired through the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.

Kerry’s criticism of Dean, however, was that Dean (supposedly) suggested that the end was not desirable (whether he in fact did or not is now moot).

But, Kerry’s recent claim concerns the question of the right means to a desirable end, and not a claim that the end, deposing Saddam Hussein, was not desirable. Thus, the two claims are perfectly consistent, and the accusation of “flip-floppery” only seems plausible because Krauthammer creates a contradiction by misrepresenting the meaning of Kerry’s words.

A more plausible case for flip-floppery can be made on the basis of Kerry’s claim most recently at his NYU speech on Monday:

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure. Source (Kerry Campaign 09/20/04).

David Brooks was first out of the gate with his response to Kerry’s speech in yesterday’s New York Times (Source (NYT, 09/21/04). Again we find the charge of flip-floppery.

The president’s case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam [in power.]

In the speech above, Kerry actually makes a claim about the relative security of our current situation and the pre-war situation (unlike in the manufactered example above). Thus, the translation of

“we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure”

into

“Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam in power.”

seems at least plausible.

Nonetheless we should be careful. Kerry’s sentence from the NYU speech seems to mean that “we are less secure with the present chaos than we were with Saddam Hussein in power.” Certainly this does not contradict statement 3 above (which when accurately read only compares our safefy in regards to Saddam being free and Saddam captured). But perhaps it contradicts statement 2: The world is “better off” without Saddam Hussein ruling than with him ruling.

As Kerry makes clear in the passage quoted, he is not saying that the “world is not better off with Saddam Hussein deposed than with him in power.” Instead he seems to be claiming that the consequence of a policy that may have made the world “better off” has now made us less secure. This is not an outlandish claim having been advanced by numerous policy experts both inside and outside our government. But its truth is beside the point right now: What is important for my purpose is that it does not, in fact, contradict his original claims.

To say that the world is “better off” with Saddam deposed is perfectly consistent with saying that as a result of this improvement in the general condition of the world “we” (Americans?) are “less secure” than we were when Saddam was in power. An example:

  • I am better off being fit than not being fit.
  • I am more tired having exercised than if I had not exercised.

There is no “flip-flop” if I make these claims: Attaining a desirable goal by means that cause other undesirable consequences involves no logical contradiction. This is obscured by the tendency of the op-ed writers to translate Kerry’s words in terms of not fully specified relational predicates.

It is much easier to find a contradiction between between my two claims above if I render the first as, “I am better off being fit” (concealing the relationality of the predicate) and if I translate the other by “I am not better off being fit” (misconstrue the obvious sense of my sentence). These two transformations generate a seeming “flip-flop” where none necessarily exists.

Once again, I am not claiming that John Kerry does not “flip flop.” All I would claim is that these cases of supposed flip-floppery do not bear up under careful scrutiny.

Charity is such a lonely word

Everyone is so unfair. And this fairly well captures the problem with David Brooks’ op-ed in today’s New York Times.

But there are lots of ways of being unfair. One of them is to interpret the statements of your opponent very narrowly, or play on the ambiguities of the English language, in order to claim that she is guilty of some gross absurdity or logical fallacy. One of the more common ways of achieving this result–especially common with David Brooks–consists in forcing your opponent into a specious either/or type of choice. Some types of either/or choice are exclusive: “you can have either soup or salad,” for instance, “but not both.” But many types of either/or choices are not exclusive: “dinner or a movie?” There is no reason in this case one can’t do both–dinner then a movie, a movie then a dinner, dinner while watching a movie, a movie while eating dinner. Recognizing the difference in ordinary English between these two senses of “or” requires a fair bit of skill and confounding them is often part of a rather devious rhetorical strategy. And this is just the strategy that David Brooks employs in today’s op-ed.

Take the following for example:

The crucial passage in the speech was this one: “The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: we must make Iraq the world’s responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden.” From a U.S. responsibility, Iraq will become the world’s responsibility.

Kerry said the United Nations must play a central role in supervising elections. He said other nations should come in to protect U.N. officials. He called for an international summit meeting this week in New York, where other nations could commit troops and money to Iraq. He said NATO should open training centers for new Iraqi soldiers.

He talked about what other nations could do to help address the situation in Iraq. He did not say what the U.S. should do to defeat the insurgents and stabilize and rebuild Iraq, beyond what Bush is already doing. He did not say the U.S. could fight the insurgents more effectively. He did not have any ideas on how to tame Falluja or handle Moktada al-Sadr. He did not offer any strategy for victory.

The weird thing about the last paragraph is that it depends on an absurdly narrow construal of the quotation from Kerry’s speech (as well as, by the way, speech: as a whole). This interpretation rests on taking the phrase “the world’s responsibility” in exclusive opposition to “the U.S.’s responsibility.” Having established this silly dichotomy, he concludes that Kerry has nothing to say about what the United States can do to resolve the various problems that plague Iraq, other than what the Bush administration has already argued.

Now this line of reasoning suffers from two problems. First, for reasons having to do with the simple relationship of sets, the United States is a subset of the world (and therefore not necessarily in opposition to it). Second, Kerry has not drawn a distinction between the United States and the World that would challenge this otherwise obvious fact of set membership. On the contrary, he insists that the U.S.’s job at this point is to enlist the more effective participation of the other nations of the world because the problem of Iraq is now a global problem, involving the vital interests of every nation in the world, including, of course, the United States as a subset. So, unless the United States is not a part of the world, or the United Nations, then Kerry has offered something of a plan for the United States’s continued engagement in Iraq.

Brooks’ second argument also depends on this fundamentally flawed argumentative strategy:

The president’s case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam; his emphasis is on untangling the United States from Iraq and shifting attention to more serious threats.

.

The editors of www.thenonsequitur.com promise a more detailed analysis of this particular argument in tomorrow’s post. But for the time being, we might note that the claim that “the world is safer with (or without) Saddam in power” is an instance of what logicians call a “relational predicate.” Another term for a relational predicate is “incomplete predicate.” This is to say that the meaning of “safer” depends on some such phrase as “than it would have been otherwise” or “than it would be today.” Without specifying the “than what?,” the “safer” claim carries quite a lot of rhetorical force, but no logical force. While it appears to force Kerry into a dichotomy of the soup or salad variety, in actual fact it does not, for Brooks has done nothing to establish the exclusivity of the choice.

But again, more on that tomorrow.

Finally, not content with what he has (failed) to establish so far, Brooks concludes with a rapid-fire series of fallacious arguments:

Substantively, of course, Kerry’s speech is completely irresponsible. In the first place, there is a 99 percent chance that other nations will not contribute enough troops to significantly decrease the U.S. burden in Iraq. In that case, John Kerry has no Iraq policy. The promise to bring some troops home by summer will be exposed as a Disneyesque fantasy.

The conclusion–that Kerry’s speech is “irresponsible”–does not follow from the claim that there is a great likelihood that the world will not contribute enough troops to reduce our presence in Iraq. At worst, if it turns out to be the case that the other nations of the world do not participate, then Kerry will have to revise his policy in light of this fact. It certainly does not follow that he has or would have no Iraq policy. And once again this argument depends on the reader drawing the inference that the either the “world” or the U.S. deal with Iraq (but not both). Since the world will not do it, on Brooks’ calculation, then Kerry has no policy.

But Brooks isn’t finished with the silly dichotomy he set up earlier in his piece:

More to the point, Kerry is trying to use multilateralism as a gloss for retreat. If “the world” is going to be responsible for defeating Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then no one will be responsible for defeating them. The consequences for the people of Iraq and the region will be horrific.

The only way Brooks can draw the conclusion that “no one will be responsible for defeating [Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi]” is if he makes something like the following argument. Either the “world” or the “U.S.” is responsible for defeating them, but the “world” won’t and Kerry will retreat, so no one will defeat them. The problem with this argument, like the other arguments in this piece, concerns the force of the “or.” Brooks takes the “or” to be the exclusive variety–either but not both–when Kerry obviously means it to be the inclusive variety–one, the other, or both (but preferably both). Certainly the consequences of Brooks’ misleading dichotomy (the U.S. or the World) would be disastrous. Considering the extreme nature of the conclusion, a fair-minded reader should expect that Brooks do more to establish that Kerry intends the “or” in this exclusive sense.

Finally–apologies for having nattered on–in the grand tradition of the junior league football pile-on, Brooks winds up his piece with the following argumentative coda:

Finally, if the whole war is a mistake, shouldn’t we stop fighting tomorrow? What do you say to the last man to die for a “profound diversion”?

Much like the rest of today’s piece, this claim relies on an absurdly narrow misreading of Kerry’s argument. It may have been a mistake to have gone to war the way we did, as Kerry claims, and indeed the whole adventure might be a mistake, but it does not follow that the contradictory is necessarily true. While it certainly seems right to conclude that the opposite of a mistake is correct, that inference relies very much on ignoring the myriad facts that (God forgive the nuance) color and qualify the employment of such a term as “mistake.” Perhaps, for instance, it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq, but it would be a bigger mistake simply to up and leave. The proper logical contradictory of “mistake” in this case–un-invading in March 2003–is in any event not available.

Jumping on the flip-floppery bandwagon

As the accusations of flip-floppery reach crescendo in the op-ed pages of our major dailies and weeklies, it is appropriate to consider the underlying logic of this accusation. Virtually all of the prominent conservative pundits have devoted a column or two to demonstrating Kerry’s flip-floppery, but their details are essentially the same. Last week there were two columns that stand out: Krauthammer’s editorial in the Washington Post and the Weekly Standard’s Kagan and Kristol’s (the latter seems to be writing nothing but flip-flop columns) co-authored editorial.

What the pundits are trying to demonstrate is that John Kerry has changed his position on Iraq. Now this by itself would not suggest anything. All politicians presumably should change their positions when circumstances demand it, or when they discover their previous position to have been mistaken. For example, George Bush argued that the military should not be in the business of “nation building” during the 2000 election. After 9/11, of course, he saw that his previous view was mistaken and has chosen to engage in acts of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet none of these pundits see fit to accuse Bush of “flip-floppery.” Surely something more than change is at stake here. And given the course of the war over the last three years (including planning and build-up), one would think it could be a virtue to be able to change one’s assessment in response to the changing “facts on the ground.”

The real accusation that the pundits are striving to make is that Kerry changes his position for the wrong reasons. This is an old accusation trundled out against “liberals” every four years. In essence, it claims that liberals change their positions for matters of mere political expediency and therefore cannot be trusted to do what they think is right. The implicit conclusion is that we cannot trust John Kerry to be President. As such it is an ad hominem argument.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious. Often a person’s character or past is relevant to our inferences concerning that person. It only becomes fallacious if the claim about Kerry’s character is irrelevant to the conclusion about trustworthiness.

For example, although the argument would be ad hominem, the following would not be fallacious:

John Kerry uses political power to enrich his friends and family at the expense of the state. Therefore, John Kerry cannot be trusted with the office of president.

Certainly the premise of the argument attacks Kerry’s character, but because this characteristic is relevant to trustworthiness the argument is not seemingly fallacious.

So we can never conclude simply because an argument is an “attack” on a candidate that it is fallacious. If, as people often say, the public does not like “negative attack ads,” this is not necessarily a sign of their virtue. The relevant difference lies between fallacious and unsound attacks ads and valid and sound attacks.

In general, it seems plausible that flip-floppery, of the kind with which Kerry is accused, is potentially relevant to his trustworthiness.

But this is not the end of the story. First of all we must determine how we can recognize flip-flopping when it occurs. Let’s look at two putative examples.

  1. Source (WkSt. 9/7/04):

    Wiliam Kristol, who has seemingly become a full time flip-flop detector, finds the following “flip-flop” (though he does not call it by this name).

  2. JOHN KERRY said yesterday that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Translation: We would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

    Dean also said, “The difficulties and tragedies we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at the extraordinary cost, so far, of $166 billion.”

    But who challenged Dean immediately? John Kerry. On December 16, at Drake University in Iowa, Kerry asserted that “those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.”

    The first quote contains an obvious “straw man”–a deliberate misconstrual in order to generate the contradiction with the last quote.

    “The wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” would be contradicted by claim such as that it is the “right war” or the “wrong war in the right place” or the “wrong war in the wrong place at the right time.” But, Kristol wants a flip-flop at any cost. So he “translates Kerry’s words into the claim that “we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.”

    The claim might be translated into the claim that “it was not worth the cost to the U.S. to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” But unfortunately if Kerry intended this, he would be perfectly consistent with his earlier claim. The Dean quote makes it quite clear that Kerry probably means this.

    But, Kristol does not let problems like journalistic accuracy thwart him in his pursuit of a flip-flop. In the last quote, Kerry only claims that those who think that capturing or removing Saddam from power does not make us safer are unfit for the presidency.

    To put the relationship between these various quotes clearly. The last quote speaks about an end, the former two question the means to that end. There is no inconsistency and thus no “flip-flop.”

  3. Source (WaPo 09/17/04):
  4. alls Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, of course, he voted to authorize the war. And shortly after the fall of Baghdad he emphatically repeated his approval of the war: “It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him.”

    Of course, the center piece of all the accusations of flip-flopping on Iraq is the perceived contradiction between Kerry’s “vote for the war in 2002 and his recent criticisms of the war. Once again the contradiction between the two takes a little editing work to generate, and rests ultimately on the obfuscation of the relevant aspects of our system of government. With a simple conception of decision making in Washington abetted by a media that is unwilling to instuct its viewers on the nature of our government, it seems to many that Kerry has changed his mind on the Iraq war. The very terms in which the media portrays the vote to authorize the President to use force as a “vote for the war” obscures the basic facts of our government.

    Here is John Kerry in 1991 speaking about the vote to authorize the first George Bush’s first Gulf war.

    75 percent or more of those who will vote for the use of force do not want it to be used, and a significant number will vote for it only becuase they want to prevent the president from being reversed.” (quote from Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury

    Before both wars, in fact, the Presidents Bush and Bush asked for the authority to use force in order to be able to avoid using force. Here’s George Bush the younger on the vote:

    Q Mr. President, how important is it that that resolution give you an authorization of the use of force?

    BUSH: That will be part of the resolution, the authorization to use force. If you want to keep the peace, you’ve got to have the authorization to use force. But it’s — this will be — this is a chance for Congress to indicate support. It’s a chance for Congress to say, we support the administration’s ability to keep the peace. That’s what this is all about. Source (Al Franken’s Blog)

    So, according to Bush in 2002 Kerry’s vote for authorization of the president to use force, was not a “vote for the war” as the pundits claim, it was a vote in support of the “administration’s ability to keep the peace.”

    But once again, if John Kerry was not endorsing an invasion of Iraq, never mind an invasion that lacked any clear strategy for the occupation, then there is no necessary contradiction between his later claim that “it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” These statements are seemingly consistent.

    And as apparently Kerry said at the time (once again from Franken’s blog):

    Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.

Identifying “flip-flops” takes logic: At the root of the question is the identification of contradictory and contrary claims. The real challenge faced by the pundits, however, is obscuring the lack of a contradiction and generating a seeming contradiction, by either deliberately misconstruing the meaning (Kristol and Krauthammer above) or by taking comments out of their context. These pundits know that they must obscure context and intention, never mind nuance, if they are to make the charge of “flip-floppery” stick. We can see that in the first example from William Kristol. There he goes so far as to replace without explanation or justification Kerry’s own words with a straw man translation that allows Kristol to claim “flip-floppery.”

This is not to say that Kerry hasn’t “flip-flopped,” or perhaps better that he hasn’t changed his mind on the issues. There are other examples in Krauthammer’s, and Kristol’s and Kagan’s editorials. Whether these are plausible accusations of “flip-floppery,” or accusations contrived in the author’s enthusiasm to jump on the “flip-flop” bandwagon and at the expense of the rules of logic, I will leave for the reader to consider.

When an explanation is actually an argument

Addenda 09/18/04 (see post on 09/17/04): O.K. Thinking more about this. It seems that it is important to distinguish between an explanandum (the thing being explained) that is false and one that is unknown. If it is unknown the explanation can be constructed entirely in the hypothetical. If it is false it is not an explanation. But, if the explanandum is unknown then our explanation seems collapse into an argument. If in any explanation the explanandum is more known than the explanans, then to explain something unknown to be true by facts presumably known to be true (or supported with reasons) makes the explanation into an argument. So Krauthammer is either offering no explanation or an argument.

Here’s a parallel construction.

If game seven of the world series were held today, the Cubs would win by 7-10 runs. Why? Because. . ..

This claim is probably false, but imagine that it is unknown. My explanation for it would in fact be an argument since it would provide reasons to believe that the Cubs would win by 7-10 runs.

So perhaps, I should have evaluated Krauthammer’s piece as an argument that Kerry would lose by 88-120 electoral votes. If that’s the conclusion then I may have been too charitable here, since there seems little reason to believe that Kerry’s flip-floppery can in any way predict the number of states that will go to Bush, or even predict the outcome of the election. If Kerry loses the election it will probably be for a host of reasons from voter turn-out, to events in Iraq, to the economy, to the debates. Historians will debate the electoral outcomes for a long time.

Nonetheless, whether premise 1 below is true or false is a question that does not concern us here. Assuming that these premises are true, and if we narrow Krauthammer’s conclusion to the claim George Bush will win the election (with the specificity of his electoral prediction undestood as hand-waving), then the conclusion would seem to follow.

  1. The election will be decided on the relative credibility of the candidates’ Iraq policy
  2. Flip-floppery on Iraq has made Kerry uncredible on this question
  3. President Bush has credibility on this questions.
  4. Therefore, President Bush will win the election.

Once again, however, the argument will be seen to rest on the accusation of flip-floppery and the claim that this makes Kerry uncredible on Iraq. We will have to return to the arguments presented on this point at later time.

And on the subject of polling and its reliability, see the recent scandal with Gallup polls. In a nutshell, Gallup has been predicting a 40% turnout of registered Republicans and a 33% turnout of registered Democrats in its polls. Without knowing the reasons for this, it is hard to evaluate it, but at the least, it should give pause to anyone who thinks that polling is somehow an objective measure of reality, rather than a construction of that reality.

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.

    and

    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.

    and

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

    and

    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.

Your argument is invalid

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