Category Archives: Ignoratio Elenchi

Ignorance of the proof–general cluelessness as to what the evidence shows.

Personal virtue

Charles Krauthammer wonders:

Here's my question: Why were we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?

Ooo, Ooo [note–how does one write that Horshack noise?] pick me: "because oil, an increasingly scarce, difficult to procure, and fundamentally dangerous commodity must be the basis of our energy policy."  Or perhaps I could put this another way:

 Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not the basis for a sound energy policy

That's Dick Cheney, mocking the idea that our energy policy (in May of 2001) ought to consist entirely in fossil fuel procurement.  Anyway, it's echoed in Krauthammer's attitude toward environmentalism:

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we've had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

That's right.  Blame those same environmentalists who have been saying, for quite a while now, that "conservation" (only one aspect, by the way, of the view mocked by Cheney–no one argued that conservation was the basis of a sound energy policy) is a public virtue–precisely because of spills such as these.  

*made some minor edits.

You have a right to be wrong

True story.  A few years back one of my students had confused some minor matter about a text of Plato.  When I pointed that out, another student commented: "He has a right to be wrong."  That odd justification comes out in a George Will op-ed where he, unlike his usual, argues for new rights not enumerated in the constitution.  Now of course he probably thinks he can get there with a series of individually valid inferences.  Fine, but you have to understand that any other time one maintains a right not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Will will shout "judicial activism" or some other synonym.  Don't get me wrong, I believe in the concept of inferential rights, I just think it's funny that Will doesn't, until he does.

This is not to say, however, that Will does not have a point.  He may, but I think, as is perhaps no surprise, that his argument for it sucks.  He maintains as a kind of premise one that liberals want to coerce others to believe like they do–this is their MO, which is a word the very pretentious Will would likely spell out: Modus operandi.  It's a little ironic, since the specific topic in question concerns the desire of some (not the liberals) to limit the rights of others to engage in private, self-regarding behavior.  Some people, not happy with the structure of our democracy (where fundamental rights get interpreted out of the Constitution sometimes), gather signatures to put such matters on the ballot.  This raises an important question: are signatures on referendums like voting and therefore private? 

I think it's fair to say that such a question admits of no easy answer.  But just because it doesn't admit of an easy answer, does not mean any answer, such as the following one offered by Will, will suffice:

The Supreme Court has held that disclosure requirements serve three government interests: They provide information about the flow of political money, they deter corruption and avoid the appearance thereof by revealing large contributions, and they facilitate enforcement of contribution limits. These pertain only to financial information in candidate elections. These cannot justify compelled disclosures regarding referendums because referendums raise no issues of officials' future performance in office — being corruptly responsive to financial contributors. The only relevant information about referendums is in the text of the propositions.

In 1973, Washington's secretary of state ruled that signing an initiative or referendum petition is "a form of voting" and that violating voters' privacy could have adverse "political ramifications" for those signing. In 2009, some advocates of disclosure plan to put signers' names on the Internet in order to force "uncomfortable" conversations.

In the interest of fairness, something I'm always interested in by the way, the above two paragraphs make some attempt at arguing for the position that referendum signatures ought to be private.  I think their attempt fails: The first is irrelevant to the particular issue and the second cites the irrelevant precedent of the secretary of state.  A referendum petition by any standard is not a vote: you sign your name and put your address on it for the purposes of public inspection of its authenticity.  You do not sign your vote. 

In any case, the following arguments for the above proposition really blow:

Larry Stickney, a social conservative and president of the Washington Values Alliance, says that disclosure of the identities of petitioners will enable "ideological background checks" that will have a chilling effect on political participation. He frequently encounters people who flinch from involvement with the referendum when they learn that disclosure of their involvement is possible. He has received abusive e-mails and late-night telephone calls and has seen a stranger on his front lawn taking pictures of his house.

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund reports that some Californians who gave financial support to last year's successful campaign for Proposition 8 — it declared marriage to be only between a man and a woman — subsequently suffered significant harm. For example, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, who contributed $1,500, was forced to resign. So was the manager of a fashionable Los Angeles restaurant who contributed just $100.

The first paragraph offers evidence that vociferous advocates may suffer the paranoia that comes along with taking an unpopular position on a matter of public interest.  It does not establish that a private citizen whose only action was signing a petition may suffer these things.  The second paragraph shows that people who have given financial support, something about which disclosure has been determined to be legitimate (and admitted to by Will himself only a three paragraphs before) have suffered harm.  I don't think one can be fired for one's political affiliations–there are laws against that I believe.

Charles Bouley, a gay columnist, has honorably protested such bullying. He says that people "have the right to be wrong," and reminds gay activists: "Even Barack Obama said marriage was between a man and a woman at a time when we needed his voice on our side on equality. He let us down, too, remember, and many of you still gave him a job."

Indeed, people do have a right to be wrong, and others have a duty to point that out.

Dubious is as dubious does

Apparently, John's latest foray into the entangling brambles of Will's global warming denial struck a chord.  In particular, his questioning the expertise of Will and Mark Steyn to one, deny global warming, and two, to properly adjudicate what qualifies as adequate evidence for their denials seemed to have aroused the ire of none less than Steyn himself. To wit:

In a column about "the environment" the other day, George Will quoted yours truly, and has received a lot of grief ever since for relying on a notorious know-nothing.

As he should.  Part of constructing a refutation of a given position is making sure the expertise of the sources one cites in said refutation is commensurate to level of expertise one is seeking to refute.  In short, you don't go ask a carpenter to cut you a porterhouse.  But rather than acknowledge the dubious nature of his source, Steyn lapses into some dubious rhetorical trickery of his own, quoting Thomas Friedman's (neatly deprived of context) admonition to further reduce carbon footprints, then providing a picture of Friedman's ample estate. The conclusion we're meant to draw?

Well, obviously, being a renowned expert, Thomas Friedman, like Al Gore and the Prince of Wales, needs a supersized carbon footprint.

Ah, yes.  They're all hypocrites.  We've touched on this favorite hobby horse of the global warming deniers before (here and here).  What we said then bears repeating now.  Al Gore, Thomas Friedman and a whole host of pocket-mulching hippies could be the biggest hypocrites that ever walked the face of the earth: they drive the biggest trucks, own the biggest houses, fly to conferences in jets fueled with Ozone Penentrator 2.0 while tossing styrofoam plates out of the plane and it would not matter one whit, in so far as the facts of global warming are concerned.  But you see, it's always easier to attack the arguer than the argument. Moreover, Steyn's not done reasoning like a lazy freshman:

But you don't [need a huge carbon footprint]- you can get by beating your laundry on the rocks down by the river with the native women all day long.

"Environmentalism" is a government restraint on economic advance and, therefore, social mobility. In other words, it's a way to ensure you'll never live like Tom Friedman.

Maybe it's just the fact that I've misplaced my tinfoil hat, but a more bizarre and unwarranted conclusion, I cannot imagine.  Especially in light of the fact that governments the world over have long been among the most vehement opponents of environmental movement.  Of particular note, our own.

Iron Justice

Today the Washington Post features a column by the "liberal" Richard Cohen.  He writes:

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. We have a neat summary of it in the recent remarks of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who said he wanted a Supreme Court justice "who will continue to move the court forward in protecting . . . important civil rights." He cited the shooting of a gay youth, the gang rape of a lesbian and the murder of a black man — in other words, violence based on homophobia and racism. Yes. But who nowadays disagrees? 

No really.  His problem, so it seems, is that Sotomayor may be boring (unlike Scalia):

From Sotomayor, though, came not one whimper of regret about the current legality of capital punishment. Innocent men may die, the cause of humanism may stall, but she will follow the jot and tittle of the law, with which she has no quarrel anyway. Little wonder moderate conservative senators are enamored.

Contrast her approach to this and other problems with what Antonin Scalia has done with issues close to his own heart. Where in all of Sotomayor's opinions, speeches and now testimony is there anything approaching Scalia's dissent in Morrison v. Olson, in which, alone, he not only found fault with the law creating special prosecutors but warned about how it would someday be abused? "Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the court clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing," he wrote. "But this wolf comes as a wolf."

My admiration for Scalia is constrained by the fact that I frequently believe him to be wrong. But his thinking is often fresh, his writing is often bracing; and, more to my point, he has no counterpart on the left. His liberal and moderate brethren wallow in bromides; they can sometimes outvote him, but they cannot outthink him.

It's not Iron Chef, it's the Supreme Court of the United States: boring yet principled predictability and meticulous correctness matter.

He’s an Arab

Among the various fallacies of irrelevance is the "ignoratio elenchi."  This often has the very unhelpful and imprecise role of being a catch-all category for any relevance problem not covered by another more precise description (It's other more usual role covers arguments whose extreme conclusions are unwarranted by the evidence).  Along these lines, Ross Douthat considers the following evidence:

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.  

And concludes:

But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

What's the success story now?  Sheleft Wasilia in financial ruin, lost in a national election, and quit the governorship of Alaska after 30 months for reasons no one can decipher.

But here's another round of complete nincompoopery from the author of this piece:

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

This was also not the lesson of the Obama experience?  Only Obama's political record (and by obvious implication his citizenship, patriotism, political record, etc.) was gleefully distorted by Palin.

Judgement at Nuremberg

Kathleen Parker cluelessly asks:

When did we start punishing lawyers for producing opinions with which we disagree? And where does that road lead?

The answer: Nuremberg

And that's not the dumbest part of her argument.  This inexplicably moronic assertion (seen by now all over the place, e.g., here) shows up as well:

Moreover, the same technique is used to train our own military personnel, who do not suffer severe physical pain or prolonged mental harm. 

The logic of this claim is completely baffling.  If we use the technique known as waterboarding in order to prepare our military personnel for the kinds of torture that the enemy might use against them, then on that account it's not torture if we use it against the enemy.  But if it's not torture, then we are either tormenting our soldiers for no good reason or we are giving the enemy a pass in virtue of our using it as training.  

More enhanced logical techniques

Ethics is full of thought experiments.  The Trolley problem, for instance.  Such thought experiments allow one to articulate one's moral principles.  They do not serve, however, as definitions of morally permissible conduct.  The ticking time bomb scenario, a favorite among consumers of torture pornography, might be a useful way to think about "what we would do if. . . " But it's sheer unlikelihood makes it unhelpful as an everyday guide.  Just because it can happen, and perhaps has happened, does not mean that we structure our moral thinking around it.  This hasn't stopped Charles Krauthammer from thinking long and hard about the ticking time bomb scenario.  He writes:

This month, I wrote a column outlining two exceptions to the no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb scenario and its less extreme variant in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives. The column elicited protest and opposition that were, shall we say, spirited.

And occasionally stupid. Dan Froomkin, writing for washingtonpost.com and echoing a common meme among my critics, asserted that "the ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians." (He later helpfully suggested that my moral deficiencies derived from "watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer.")

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel's existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered this enhanced interrogation (as we now say) explained without apology: "If we'd been so careful to follow the [1987] Landau Commission [guidelines], we would never have found out where Waxman was being held."

Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin's moral calculus.

That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you "do what you have to do." The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks. (By the way, I've never seen five seconds of "24.")

That is not the point.  No one has denied the empirical possibility or even the actuality of the ticking time bomb scenario.  Not even Froomkin obviously.  Besides, to counter that Krauthammer offers up something that doesn't include a bomb or lives in imminent danger, but rather a straightforward hostage situation (in which the rescue attempt killed the hostage–negotiation anyone?).  Those terrorists in Krauthammer's example do not take hostages to kill them–they take them to trade them for stuff.

In the second place, as someone else has noted, Krauthammer had a month to come up with an example which would overcome Froomkin's objection.  And this non-ticking-time-bomb scenario from 1994 is all he could find. 

More importantly, he ought to measure the one time when torture provides the precise code and location of the ticking bomb versus the mountains of disinformation torture usually yields.  How many examples of that can we find?

Boiling of the blood around the heart

There is a fairly simple argument for exploring the possibility of criminal trials against those who justified, ordered and performed torture: torture is illegal.  David Broder, however, seems very confused about the nature of legality.  He writes:

But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps — or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

Holy crap is that silly.  Vengeance is irrelevant to whether or not someone has broken laws.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, people have broken the law.  The people who trusted them with their vote (and those who didn't vote for them, but implicitly "trusted" them anyway) have a right to be rather narked (I don't know how to spell that Britishism properly) about their violating that trust.  There being angry about it, however, is an independent, mostly irrelevant, fact about their character used ad hominemly to distract the reader from drawing the correct conclusion.

It's about as irrelevant as the following:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness — and injustice.

The question is not whether the torture decision was a policy decision–we all know that it was–the question is whether that policy decision was legal.  Just because the right people sat in a room and debated it doesn't mean it's just politics.  It only makes the crime (should there be determined to be one) worse.    

Saddamy

The op-ed page at the New York Times is pretty bad, what with Dowd, Kristol and Friedman, but the op-ed page at the Washington Post is worse.  To end the year on a negative note, here's Ruth Marcus on why an Obama administration should not pursue criminal charges against Bush administration officials who broke the law.  The whole thing amounts to a classic ignoratio elenchi–none of Marcus's arguments prove or really even support the conclusion that criminal prosecution against Bush administration officials should not be pursued.  My comements in brackets.

First, criminal prosecution isn't the only or necessarily the most effective mechanism for deterrence. To the extent that they weigh the potential penalties for their actions, government officials worry as much about dealing with career-ruining internal investigations or being hauled before congressional committees. Criminal prosecution and conviction requires such a high level of proof of conscious wrongdoing that the likelihood of those other punishments is much greater. [deterrence isn't the only point of criminal prosecution].

Second, the looming threat of criminal sanctions did not do much to deter the actions of Bush administration officials. "The Terror Presidency," former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith's account of the legal battles within the administration over torture and wiretapping, is replete with accounts of how officials proceeded despite their omnipresent concerns about legal jeopardy.

"In my two years in the government, I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls," Goldsmith writes. [Goldsmith's characterization only underscores the dubious legality of the actions of administration officials]

Third, punishment is not the only way to prevent wrongdoing. If someone is caught breaking into your house, by all means, press charges. But you might also want to consider installing an alarm system or buying stronger locks. Responsible congressional oversight, an essential tool for checking executive branch excesses, was lacking for much of the Bush administration. [This is the same as one.  It's also just irrelevant.]

Fourth, there is a cost to pursuing criminal charges. As appalling as waterboarding is, for example, it was pursued with the analysis and approval of lawyers who concluded, however wrongly, that it did not rise to the level of torture. If government officials cannot safely rely on legal advice, they will err on the side of excessive timidity. [All criminal defendants can find lawyers who can argue however erroneously that they're client did nothing illegal–this does not make it legal]

Fifth, focusing governmental energy on uncovering and punishing the actions of the past will inevitably drain energy and political capital from the new administration. It would be a better use of the administration's time to figure out how to close Guantanamo and deal with the remaining prisoners. [these are not mutually exclusive]

In a State of the Union address in 2003, Bush uttered the following words about Saddam:

The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured. Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning. (Applause.) 

Saddam's leaving thousands of Iraqis dead and obtaining false confessions through torture were lawlessness on a scale worthy of military invasion at the cost of thousands of lives of killed and wounded soldiers and civilians.  One would think that such things might be worthy of criminal investigation, and, perhaps, prosecution.

Strategery

Much like everyone else, terrorists aim to achieve an objective.  They are not extra-rational, off-the-charts insane, quite often the contrary.  They are capable of some rather cold calculation.  The colder the better (for them).  The immediate objective of most terrorist acts is to bring violence upon people.  Who the people are doesn't necessarily matter.  But the second objective of the terrorist is that the response to their terrorism further their cause.  So if terrorists from region x or ethnicity y or religion z kill a bunch of people of a different region, ethnicity, or religion, they want as their second objective indiscriminate violence to be brought upon them and their non-terrorist fellows.  That violence will create more sympathy for their cause, more terrorists, and so forth.  Why?  Because that violence (1) legitimizes their cause; (2) treats them as combatants, in a war, which is what they want.  Someone explain this to that maniac Bill Kristol, who just does not get it.  He writes:

Consider first an op-ed article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times by Martha Nussbaum, a well-known professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. The article was headlined “Terrorism in India has many faces.” But one face that Nussbaum fails to mention specifically is that of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic terror group originating in Pakistan that seems to have been centrally involved in the attack on Mumbai.

This is because Nussbaum’s main concern is not explaining or curbing Islamic terror. Rather, she writes that “if, as now seems likely, last week’s terrible events in Mumbai were the work of Islamic terrorists, that’s more bad news for India’s minority Muslim population.” She deplores past acts of Hindu terror against India’s Muslims. She worries about Muslim youths being rounded up on suspicion of terrorism with little or no evidence. And she notes that this is “an analogue to the current ugly phenomenon of racial profiling in the United States.”

Quite the contrary.  Nussbaum's goal, unlike Kristol's, is not to create more terrorists by treating every muslim as complicit in the actions a few.  Kristol's bloodthirsty cluelessness is in even greater evidence in the following passage:

Jim Leach is also a professor, at Princeton, but he’s better known as a former moderate Republican congressman from Iowa who supported Barack Obama this year. His contribution over the weekend was to point out on Politico.com that “the Mumbai catastrophe underscores the importance of vocabulary.” This wouldn’t have been my first thought. But Leach believes it’s very important that we consider the Mumbai attack not as an act of “war” but as an act of “barbarism.”

Why? “The former implies a cause: a national or tribal or ethnic rationale that infuses a sacrificial action with some group’s view of heroism; the latter is an assault on civilized values, everyone’s. … To the degree barbarism is a part of the human condition, Mumbai must be understood not just as an act related to a particular group but as an outbreak of pent-up irrationality that can occur anywhere, anytime. … It may be true that the perpetrators viewed themselves as somehow justified in attacking Indians and visiting foreigners, particularly perhaps Americans, British and Israeli nationals. But a response that is the least nationalistic is likely to be the most effective.”

If, as Leach says, “it may be true” the perpetrators viewed themselves as justified in their attacks, doesn’t this mean that they did in fact have a “rationale” that “infused” their action?

Leach's point is that these terrorists should not be characterized as legitimate political agents involved in a war with the West of us.  Of course they have a rationale, and a purpose, but it's one that ought not to be entertained by granting them privilege of our bombs.