Category Archives: category mistake

The Wouldsman

It's time again to play the Sesame Street game: "which one of these things is not like the other? with Nicholas Kristof.  In Yesterday's column he writes:

At a New York or Los Angeles cocktail party, few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama’s race or Hillary Clinton’s sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee’s religious faith.

Oh the intolerant liberals!  This is what you would hear (not what he did hear).  It gets worse:

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

Stunning tu quoque: how hypocritical are the liberals for making fun of a guy–oops, for being the type of people who would make fun of a guy (1) who wants to amend the Constitution to be in line with God's standards; (2) claimed that had Jesus been against the death penalty he would have said something about it on the cross; (3) doesn't believe the theory of evolution explains the organization of diversity of life; (4) compares non-heterosexual partnerships to bestiality, and much more.  I can't believe someone would make light of those beliefs.  Oddly, the rest of the article goes on to point out that many evangelicals do not have the laughably ridiculous beliefs of, say, Mike Huckabee:

Look, I don’t agree with evangelicals on theology or on their typically conservative views on taxes, health care or Iraq. Self-righteous zealots like Pat Robertson have been a plague upon our country, and their initial smugness about AIDS (which Jerry Falwell described as “God’s judgment against promiscuity”) constituted far grosser immorality than anything that ever happened in a bathhouse. Moralizing blowhards showed more compassion for embryonic stem cells than for the poor or the sick, and as recently as the 1990s, evangelicals were mostly a constituency against foreign aid.

So let's get this straight.  Liberals are intolerant for opposing the views of intolerant people because some other less intolerant people aren't as  intolerant as those intolerant people liberals make fun of. 

One final point.  Barack Obama's race and Hilary Clinton's sex don't entail that non-females and non-blacks have done something wrong or ought to be punished for their difference.  Race, sex and faith are not members of the same category.

Fact value

I don’t know who comes up with titles for op-ed pieces. I hear sometimes it isn’t the author. I won’t therefore begrudge the author of “the case for facing facts” for having picked such a silly title. Imagine someone writing the case for ignoring facts. I can imagine that, actually. And that’s a sad thing.

Anyway, he makes what one might call the “there are bad arguments on both sides” or the “David Broder” argument:

>The problem is one that I have seen cripple our political life again and again and that seems to grow steadily worse. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty. Neither side wants to face facts that don’t fit its case.

>Consider abortion. Too many pro-lifers and pro-choicers seem determined to ignore the other fellows’ points as they cling to their own rigid positions. And abortion is just one example.

The silly thing about this silly piece (which, by the way, cites no facts that need to be “faced”, but that’s another matter), is that the abortion case isn’t about facts at all–it’s about the value of facts. No one disagrees, for instance, that women can get pregnant, and for one reason or another, don’t want to carry the baby to term. The question is what to do about it. It’s an “ought” question, not an “is” one.

Faith in science

A grad school professor of mine once said: beware of scientists in a metaphysical mood. And lo. Yesterday’s New York Times op-ed section contains this, from Paul Davies, physicist:

>Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

>This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

>And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

By religion, Davies means his version of the Christian religion, and others that will fit those particular metaphysical presuppositions (this won’t include Mormonism, by the way). And while Physicists don’t have all of the answers about the nature of the objects of their study (which discipline does?), that’s hardly grounds to claim that it’s a lot like religion. The evidence for the basic elements of religious faith (not to mention the truth of various intricate Christian doctrines, among others) is completely like evidence for the physical laws that characterize matter. Just because physics doesn’t tell the whole story (why should it and who claims it does?) does not mean the whole thing is accepted without evidence. Others, I’m certain, can say more.

But the Times ought to be beyond these tales of faith found among microscopes: it’s so washingtonposty.


George Will loves to use the word “traduce.” It’s one of those words that sounds real smart, but in the end just conceals the absence of actual reasoning:

>In 1943, the Supreme Court, affirming the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses children to refuse to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag in schools, declared: “No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Today that principle is routinely traduced, coast to coast, by officials who are petty in several senses.

>They are teachers at public universities, in schools of social work. A study prepared by the National Association of Scholars, a group that combats political correctness on campuses, reviews social work education programs at 10 major public universities and comes to this conclusion: Such programs mandate an ideological orthodoxy to which students must subscribe concerning “social justice” and “oppression.”

Teachers at public universities are not “officials” in the same sense as those enforcing the saying of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” At best, they are officials enforcing “orthodoxy” in a very extended and analogous sense.

The real presumption of this piece, however, consists in Will’s sneering (always sneering he is) and ironic dismissal of social work. He doesn’t think, so it appears, that social work rises above the level of shallow opinion-mongering–the kind that gets protected by the First Amendment. He writes:

>In 1997, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) adopted a surreptitious political agenda in the form of a new code of ethics, enjoining social workers to advocate for social justice “from local to global levels.” A widely used textbook — “Direct Social Work Practice: Theory and Skill” — declares that promoting “social and economic justice” is especially imperative as a response to “the conservative trends of the past three decades.” Clearly, in the social work profession’s catechism, whatever social and economic justice are, they are the opposite of conservatism.

If it’s so clear, then he wouldn’t need to say clearly. It isn’t clear. And it’s only a textbook. A textbook, as a professor who employs them can attest, isn’t some kind of set of beliefs to which one must subscribe and whose contents one must slavishly and mindlessly repeat. The study of any discipline, as Will seems to think, doesn’t consist in the inculcation of doctrinal maxims–anecdotal evidence (as Will goes on to offer) doesn’t establish that fact.

Besides, social work, on account of its “social” work, stands in marked contrast in its orientation and objective from every single one of George Will’s conservative ideological principles. But that fact alone does not, as Will seems to think, mean its equally unjustified and ideological.

Strategic incite

Hard to believe people still say certain things with a straight face. But Michael Gerson’s previous job consisted in the nearly impossible task of putting words in President Bush’s mouth: the words that went in were abhorrent; the words that came out were nonsense.

>President Bush’s emphasis on democracy has been driven not by outside pressure but by a strategic insight. He is convinced that the status quo of tyranny, stagnation and extremism in the Middle East is not sustainable — that the rage and ideologies it produces will cause increasing carnage in the world. The eventual solution to this problem, in his view, is the proliferation of hopeful, representative societies in the Middle East.

Just for the record–“insight” is what you call an “achievement verb.” It indicates that the person has been successful at creative ideation. All signs point to no at this point. You can’t be insightful if you don’t see anything.

Of course, Gerson seems to know that, so he continues:

>This argument is debatable. But it is at least as likely as Walt and Mearsheimer’s naive belief that “the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel” — the equivalent of arguing that Britain had a Nazi problem in the 1930s because it was so closely allied with Czechoslovakia.

Holy weak analogies!


The most facile critique of Rawlsian liberalism consists in claiming that liberalism espouses values just like any other system, so it’s really no different from them. This is a favorite tactic of Stanley Fish:

>But right there, in the invocation of “free development” and “mutual forbearance,” Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.

So one cannot claim that one is for religious liberty, and be religious, without contradicting himself. If one is, say, Catholic, and one endorses a political system based on government neutrality toward any non-human sacrificing religion, then one is, on Fish’s ever more childish analysis, espousing yet another system of value, as intolerant of intolerance as intolerance is intolerant of tolerance. It’s just crap.

John Holbo at Crooked Timber makes a related point about Fish:

>I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

And this points out the silly category problem of Fish’s analysis. Every mental attitude (political, eschatological, metaphorical, emotional, ethical, and so on) is exactly the same. So if I endorse religious liberty, I value it; if I belong to a religion, I value it; if I like Vernaccia, I value it; if I like the Detroit Lions, I value them. All values, all the same. But maybe, just maybe, the problem is the use of values. Maybe they’re not all the same.


**Revised 10:03 AM

People often confuse a kind of knee-jerk skepticism for “critical thinking.” But it’s one thing to be cautious about facts incongruent with other well known facts, it’s another just to disbelieve all facts of a certain type (those that come out of the mouths, of, I don’t know, the liberal media). It’s yet another thing to reject those “questionable” facts a priori–that is, on purely logical grounds.

So when the New Republic ran a series of blog posts by a certain “Scott Thomas” from Iraq, many–mostly right wing bloggers and such–disbelieved them, a priori. These blog posts told of American soldiers defacing corpses, killing animals, (and treating Iraqis in a generally shameful manner). Scott Thomas (whose real name is, get this, Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp), writes (courtesy of Hullabaloo):

>I saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn’t really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn’t her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred. Or, rather, it had more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head. She was always alone, and I never saw her talk to anyone. Members of my platoon had seen her before but had never really acknowledged her. Then, on one especially crowded day in the chow hall, she sat down next to us.

>We were already halfway through our meals when she arrived. After a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes and left it there.
“Man, I can’t eat like this,” he said.
“Like what?” I said. “Chow hall food getting to you?”
“No–with that fucking freak behind us!” he exclaimed, loud enough for not only her to hear us, but everyone at the surrounding tables. I looked over at the woman, and she was intently staring into each forkful of food before it entered her half-melted mouth.
“Are you kidding? I think she’s fucking hot!” I blurted out.
“What?” said my friend, half-smiling.
“Yeah man,” I continued. “I love chicks that have been intimate–with IEDs. It really turns me on–melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses … .”
“You’re crazy, man!” my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
“In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.’ We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles.”
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.

And so on. It gets far worse. Kathleen Parker, conservative pundit, thinks these stories are dubious:

>The conservative Weekly Standard began questioning the reports last week. Bloggers have joined in challenging the anecdotes, as have military personnel who have served in Iraq and, in some cases, have eaten in the same chow hall mentioned.

>Thomas’ version of events in Iraq is looking less and less credible and smacks of the “occult hand.” The occult hand was an inside joke several years ago among a group of journalists who conspired to see how often they could slip the phrase — “It was as if an occult hand had …” — into their copy. This went on for years to the great merriment of a few in the know.

>Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how a phrase as purple as an occult hand could have enjoyed such long play within the tribe of professional skeptics known as journalists. Similarly, one wonders how Thomas’ reports have appeared in the magazine without his editors saying, “Hey, wait just a minute.”

>The New Republic editors say they’re investigating the reports, but refuse to reveal the author’s identity. There’s always a chance, of course, that these stories have some truth to them.

There’s a chance they’re completely true, she ought to say. Parker’s skepticism is based on the authority of conservative bloggers and the Weekly Standard–two sources about which one would have justifiable skepticism. The more basic problem regards the nature of Scott Thomas’s claims.

They are pretty straightforward factual claims. That is to say, they are claims that events x took place at time y. They’re true if they happened, false if they didn’t. So questions regarding their veracity ought to regard whether the author is (a) a real person; (b) really in Iraq in the Army; and (c) really witnessed those events. The New Republic can vouch for all three. And it did. Why not take their word for it–they supported the invasion of Iraq.

Wondering about the types of claims being made, in isolation from the basic conditions of their truth (without waiting for confirmation from the New Republic), is a pretty silly kind of skepticism. It’s silly not only because it turned out to be wrong, but because it was wrong for the most obvious of reasons–the stories turned out to be true. Of course even Parker ought to know this. She continues:

>Stranger, and far worse, things have happened in war. But people who have served in Iraq have raised enough questions about these particular anecdotes that one is justified in questioning whether they are true.

>As just one example, it is unlikely that a Bradley would be driven through concrete barriers just for fun, according an e-mail from a member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, made up of officers who are lawyers providing legal services to soldiers. He explained that people aren’t alone out there. Other vehicles, non-commissioned officers and officers would be around and Iraqis would have made a claim for repairs, resulting in an investigation.

>In other words, either plenty of people would know about it — or it didn’t happen.

Again, Parker’s skepticism is of the very general variety–she considers emails from people who weren’t there as sufficient countervailing evidence. Effective general skepticism might include such claims as the Bradley vehicle cannot do the actions described or there were no soldiers at the place described. In the absence of such evidence (and in light of the fact that soldiers–US soldiers even–have been known to do some pretty awful things in war (and get away with it), there is every reason to suspect that such tales could be true (unless they’re impossible). Remember Abu Ghraib anyone? This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be skeptical. One should. But one ought to be skeptical regarding pseudonymous claims because they’re pseudonymous, not because they don’t “seem plausible” (even though, of course, they are).

The context of all of this, of course, is Parker’s insistence that people who believe things other than she does are insufficiently skeptical:

>It may be that The New Republic editors and others who believed Thomas’ journal entries without skepticism are infected with “Nifong Syndrome” — the mind virus that causes otherwise intelligent people to embrace likely falsehoods because they validate a preconceived belief.

>Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor in the alleged Duke University lacrosse team rape case, was able to convince a credulous community of residents, academics and especially journalists that the three falsely accused white men had raped a black stripper despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

>Why? Because the lies supported their own truths. In the case of Duke, that “truth” was that privileged white athletes are racist pigs who of course would rape a black woman given half a chance and a bottle o’ beer.

>In the case of Scott Thomas, the “truth” that American soldiers are woman-hating, dog-killing, grave-robbing monsters confirms what many among the anti-war left believe about the military, despite their protestations that they “support the troops.”

>We tend to believe what we want to believe, in other words.

I think she means “you” (she obviously doesn’t believe such pleasing tales). But then again, maybe she does.

They’re bound to mess up

In his second commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge, Boethius argues that those who ignore the science of disputation are going to make mistakes (Patrologia Latina 64, 73A). He should have also pointed out that those ignorant of scientific disputations will likewise never learn the "incorrupt truth of reality." I think Stanley Fish falls somewhere in the middle: he's both ignorant of logic and science. He writes:

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who 'can't see' the evidence or 'refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,' but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share 'hope,' 'belief,' 'undoubtedly,' 'there will come a time' and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.'

The evidence for the theory of evolution, my science oriented friends tell me, is vast and testable. On the basis of this vast and testable theory, Dawkins makes judgments (perhaps erroneous ones–remember children, this is science, people are bound to make mistakes, that's the point) about things and events that fall within the purview of the theory, such as the behavior of biological creatures–i.e., living things, like human beings. He claims that as we learn more about the brain–that thing with which we think, and whose wisdom is impaired with chemical substances found in booze–we will probably come to account for more and more human behavior. Confidence or rather faith in such progress is one reason why the study of neurology continues to be funded. One problem with Fish's claim is that he sophistically equivocates on the words "believe," "hope," and so forth. The fact that believers and science types both "believe," "hope" and "have faith" in other words, tells you nothing about what they believe and how they believe, but a lot about the multivalent nature of words. All cognizant beings stand in some kind of relation to the objects of their judgments–but that doesn't mean the objects of these judgments are all the same.

David Brooks rethinks

David Brooks once called John Kerry "a fraud with a manly bearing." He made fun of him for correctly understanding the nature of terrorism–that it wasn’t a question of armies and generals and nation states, but rather a matter of politics, and of course, law and order. Now this:

The war on terror has shredded the reputation of the Bush administration. It’s destroyed the reputation of Tony Blair’s government in Britain, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel and Nuri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq. And here’s a prediction: It will destroy future American administrations, and future Israeli, European and world governments as well.

That’s because setbacks in the war on terror don’t only flow from the mistakes of individual leaders and generals. They’re structural. Thanks to a series of organizational technological innovations, guerrilla insurgencies are increasingly able to take on and defeat nation-states.

So he was wrong. But it turns out that it wasn’t anyone’s fault after all. Not so. The mistakes in Iraq–and in Afghanistan–flow from one single source–the commander guy. Had he not envisioned the whole thing–wrongly–as an epic battle between good and evil, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. And it seems wrong therefore to call all insurgency, as Brooks does, "war on terror." If you take what he says seriously, that’s the problem.