Amphiboly

All the world is logical today, so another meta-post. I wonder if anyone has any examples of amphiboly. Here's a famous example:

"This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got there I'll never know. . . "

But maybe I should give a definition. Here, by way of historical edification, is Ockham's:

Circa quam primo sciendum est quod sicut fallacia aequivocationis accidit ex hoc quod alia dictio potest diversimode accipi, ita fallacia amphiboliae accidit ex hoc quod aliqua oratio potest diversimode accipi, absque hoc quod alia dictio primo diversimode accipiatur; ita quod sicut dictio est multiplex, ita tota oratio est multiplex. (Summa Logicae III-4, cap. 5, 2-7, p. 764/5)

He says more (but I can't find an electronic version other than the one above). We all know that equivocation regards single words, Ockham tells us that amphiboly regards ambiguous phrases. I must confess that with all of my fallacy searching in recent years, I can't remember having spotted one in the wild. It would be great if some of you could come up with real or real-life examples of this.

Tu quoque Yogi Berra

There must be something in the water at the venerable Hoover Institution. Just last week, we visited a piece, wherein one of their fellows leveled that most traveled of ad hominem attacks, the tu quoque at former VP Al Gore. This week, as Uncle Yogi once said, is “déjà vu all over again.” V.D. Hanson is concerned, folks—concerned that we, the people, only focus on the failings of right wing politicians, pundits, and politico-religious types. He means to remedy the situation. He says, >But moralist Republicans don't have the market cornered on hypocrisy. If giving into excess embarrasses some of them, for a number of Democrats–supposedly the party of the people–hypocrisy arises from enjoying elite privileges while alleging that America bestows favors unduly on the few. I suppose it’s fun to argue against a position no one has held or even implied. I haven’t heard anyone pretend that Mark Foley’s failings whitewash Ted Kennedy’s. Moreover, it has no bearing whatsoever, as Hanson implies it does, on the populist programs of those prominent Democrats he indicts. Hanson gives us a litany of hypocrisies perpetrated by the left and then pretends that it makes their period as the party in power somehow moot because all politicos are cut from the same cloth. Ye gods. There’s a stark distinction between the duplicity that lead to a war that has cost 3,000+ U.S. lives, along with the lives of untold thousands of Iraqis and the global warming activist who uses the quickest form of transport available to disseminate information. Hanson simply glosses this distinction, because, you know, they’re all crooks and liars, right? >For both liberals and conservatives, the days of the simple-living Harry Truman and clean-living Dwight Eisenhower are apparently long gone–and for two reasons. >First, the country has changed. Globalization, high technology and billions in borrowed money have made Americans in general materially wealthy beyond our parents' wildest imagination. >… >Second, in our world of celebrity sound bites and media saturation, talk, not reality, is what counts. Multimillionaires lecture us about fairness, while sinners rail about sin. Ah, yes—the good old days. Regardless of the fact Pound, err…Hanson, has a point here—we are a society of consumers, more importantly of irresponsible, uncouth consumers and that’s not a good thing—the point is out of place here. Unless we can now impeach all politicos as the very root of avarice and greed, all we’re left with is the conclusion that we’re all just a bunch of hypocrites, in spite of our high ideals. Great story. Really. Compelling and rich. Hanson regroups, however, to deliver another kick to this equine carcass: >The political leaders of this country are essentially too often homogeneous. Republicans may represent constituents of traditional values; Democrats may champion the underprivileged. But their similar lifestyles reflect more a political class' shared privilege than the inherent differences of their respective constituents' beliefs. National figures may talk conservative or liberal, but they both are more likely to act like libertines. Indicting all politicos as hypocritical and wrong adds nothing. In fact, it’s rather banal. Still worse is that Hanson hasn’t argued so as to support the conclusion that the analogous evils of both conservatives and liberals have some bearing on their legislative activity. Beyond his dazzling pithiness, the problems here are evident: one, Hanson assumes, incorrectly, that some causal link exists between how one lives and how one performs in the political arena. Secondly, even if that were the case, he so muddies the waters that it is unclear how the hypocritical similarities between politicos have any bearing on anything. Look who’s pithy now. -pm

Binge and surge

**Update below**

I was going to make a post about the fallacy of amphiboly, but then I read Robert Kagan’s “The Surge is Succeeding” in today’s Washington Post. Kagan’s article is instructive in its subtle and misleading use of evidence. In the end he doesn’t so much as argue that the surge is working so much as claim the press ought not to be saying that it’s not working, because it’s too early to tell, so it’s working. That’s a pretty straightforward argument from ignorance. And we’ve seen this sort of thing before from Kagan–given the absence of attacks on the US in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the invasion has stopped terrorism. Well, the acute will notice that the latter is a causal fallacy.

But back to the question of evidence. Kagan’s central evidence for the success of the surge:

>Four months later, the once insurmountable political opposition has been surmounted. The nonexistent troops are flowing into Iraq. And though it is still early and horrible acts of violence continue, there is substantial evidence that the new counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the infusion of new forces, is having a significant effect.

>Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that “early signs are encouraging.”

There is a puzzling circularity to Kagan’s reasoning here. His evidence for the success is the sentence that follows that reports evidence of the success–not the other way around. For most normal evidentialists, the Press–for which Kagan has no regard (more in a second)–reports things they claim to be happening, and we either believe them or disbelieve them. Not t’other way round. So Kagan ought to write: some observers have noticed a shift, and after considering their authority against that of, say, the White House, and the rest of the world media, I believe them. After all, they’re bloggers known for “straight talk.”

In addition to his strange selection of authorities and the weird and apparent circularity of his argument, Kagan finds time to dig at the press:

>A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn’t work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.

Zing! Take that fact-reporting newspaper! The Post–for however wrong it has been about this entire Iraq fiasco–does not need a military back-up plan in case the surge works. It’s a newspaper. We hope that it will report when the surge is working. But apparently, it keeps reporting otherwise. Since those are facts friendly to the enemy, the Post must be working for the enemy. Sheesh.

And yet, Kagan writes for the Post.

**update**

Glenn Greenwald says what commenter Phil has been saying lately:

>No rational person would believe a word Robert Kagan says about anything. He has been spewing out one falsehood after the next for the last four years in order to blind Americans about the real state of affairs concerning the invasion which he and his comrade and writing partner, Bill Kristol, did as much as anyone else to sell to the American public.

Indeed.

complexes about questions

Yesterday in Critical Thinking class we went over the list of fallacies generally described as fallacies of “ambiguity” (I know that that’s not an entirely accurate or useful designation). Among these is the fallacy of the complex question. Generally this fallacy occurs when one sneakily makes a dubious or contentious assertion and then asks a question on the basis of that assumes the truth of that assertion. I told the students–and I think this is true–that it’s fairly rare. Furthermore, when it’s committed, it’s obvious. So far in the two plus years we’ve been at this I’ve only found two instances of it (click here). So I offered extra credit (lots of it) for any student who could find an actual example. So I thought perhaps to throw the idea out here. Anyone?

Don’t bite the maggots

The acute Glenn Greenwald had a post earlier this week at Salon about the culture of “contrived masculinity” among some conservatives. George Bush who exploited family connections to avoid actual military service in Vietnam (a war he supported) is praised for his manliness, while John Kerry, a man who volunteered for combat service in a war he didn’t support, was accused of cowardice (after three well deserved medals). Greenwald joins Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler in noticing the sexualization of liberals. It’s not just Ann Coulter, but even Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, who frequently portrays liberals as less than masculine. All of this, of course, suggests a preference for the appearance over reality. Thus for many the TV show “24” is a reality TV show. For George Will–whom I swear we wanted to stop bothering (not that this bothers him anyway)–movies provide the evidence of Giuliani’s many stance against the atmosphere of wimpy complaining by “grievance groups”:

>Second, that his deviations from the social conservatives’ agenda are more than balanced by his record as mayor of New York. That city was liberalism’s laboratory as it went from the glittering metropolis celebrated in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) to the dystopia of the novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987). Giuliani successfully challenged the culture of complaint that produced the politics of victimhood that resulted in government by grievance groups.

We won’t comment on “victimhood” and “grievance groups” other than to point out their obvious and appalling racial undertones: for Will, Giuliani has demonstrated his racial bona fides with his squinty quit-your-complaining look. And the evidence there was something to complain about are two films (one based on a novella and the other a novel by the way) that have nothing to do with each other save their taking place in the Big Apple. Taking these as documentary evidence for anything other than cinematic reality (Holly-Go-Lightly?) is about as sensible as using “24” is a military manual.

Oh wait. People do.

So yesterday

Jonah Goldberg recently claimed to be interested in arguments–real arguments. But nope. You can’t really be interested in real arguments when the backdrop of your analysis is this:

>Maybe I’m remembering this wrong. But I could have sworn we spent the last seven years talking about how the Republican Party is the party of backward red states–where hate is a family value, fluffy animals are shot, and God is everyone’s co-pilot–and how the Democratic Party is the avant-garde of the peace-loving, Europe-copycatting blue states, where Christianity is a troubling “lifestyle choice,” animals are for hugging, and hate is never, ever a family value.

You’re remembering it wrong indeed. What’s weirder is the paragraph which follows the above:

>Admittedly, over time the red state-blue state thing was eclipsed by other cliches about how the GOP had been hijacked by “theocrats” or by K Street corporate lickspittles, warmongers, immigrant-haters, hurricane-ignoring nincompoops and, for a moment during the Mark Foley scandal, cybersex offenders. I can dredge up all the relevant quotes, but if you’ve been paying attention, I shouldn’t have to.

Cliches? Perhaps someone can remind Goldberg that facts are not cliches.

Et tu quoque, Gore?

The argumentum ad hominem is cool. Rather than address the salient points of your claim, I just attack you and declare your claim false on those grounds. QED. Such is the case with the “Al Gore’s an energy-hogging hypocrite” thematic. It’s a pitiful attempt to argue against global warming by proxy. Today, Dr. Henry I. Miller (not to be confused with Ana?s Nin’s lover) of the Hoover Institution joins the fray: >Perhaps I can offer a medical explanation for why Al Gore simply doesn't feel that he should be judged by standards of behavior applicable to everyone else. On the basis of his actions and writings over many years my guess is that Mr. Gore suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard? Paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard. Now, Dr. Miller holds both an M.S. and an M.D., but no mention of a PsyD. However, he has read a book: >The criteria for this diagnosis, as described in the psychiatrist's bible, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," include a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity [in fantasy or behavior], need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts," as indicated by the following: >"A grandiose sense of self-importance [e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements]." Ah, I see: Al Gore is a self-aggrandizing narcissist (read: politician). So, that’s his problem. My problem is that I fail to see how his hypocrisy is germane to the issues of global warming. That Mr. Gore has, in his official function, wrapped himself in contradictions to appease constituents may be true. Yet, it has no bearing on the facts of global warming. That’s the funny thing about science: the facts speak for themselves, regardless of the apparent hypocrisies of the orator. Nevertheless, Dr. Miller has more important fish to fry, like this one:. >Mr. Gore regularly demonstrates his grandiosity. Who can forget his notorious claim that he had been instrumental in creating the Internet? Indeed–especially not when your ilk will not let it go away. Moreover, this entire “Gore thinks he invented the internet” meme is pure fiction, just ask Bob Somerby. But Wait! Not only is the former VP a deceitful hypocrite, he’s a big meanie in committee, as well: >While a senator, Mr. Gore was notorious for his rudeness and insolence during hearings. A favorite trick–which I experienced first-hand–was to pose a question and as the witness began to answer, Gore would begin a whispered conversation with another committee member or a staffer. If the witness paused in order that the senator not miss the response, Mr. Gore would instruct him to continue, then resume his private conversation, leaving no ambiguity: Not only is your testimony unimportant, I won't even pay you the courtesy of pretending to listen to it. Dr. Miller treats this as some sort of coup de grâce, but there’s one problem here: suppose everything Dr. Miller has accused the former VP of is true—the facts of global warming remain the case. Even if Mr. Gore is a hypocrite, a liar, a Senate bully, and a narcissist possessed of egregious delusions of grandeur, the temperature of the earth is rising, the hole in the ozone layer is still there, the polar ice cap continues to melt, sea levels continue to rise, and our increasing carbon emissions continue to contribute to the problem. –pm

Argumentum ad religionem

Puzzling words from the New York Times:

>This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In “The God Delusion,” published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful,” Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote “Breaking the Spell.” The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

I think there are three problems with this passage. In the first place, “assault on religion” casts the matter of the scientific analysis of religion in erroneously partisan terms. Even though some religions or religious people (and indeed only some of them) might consider scientific analysis of the phenomenon of religious belief to be an “assault”, there’s no need for the New York Times to adopt their perspective. There is in fact every reason not to. To do so is to assert that religious claims–taken here in their rich and varied multiplicity–belong to the same category as scientific claims–that is, claims supported by empirical evidence (which the article later denies anyway). Besides, any science that tends to undermine the claims of some religion would then have be understood in this silly perspectival way: the geological assault against the age of the world, and the meteorological assault against Biblical accounts of the flood, and so forth.

Second, there’s the matter of what these authors are assaulting. Are they assaulting religious belief? Or are they assaulting the justification for religious belief? Which religion? Are all people of faith the same vis a vis their relationship to science? Nope.

Finally, what makes their assault “scientific”? This latter point seems to be the more serious one. While one of these books is written by a scientist, another by a kind of scientist-in-training, and the last by a philosopher who is a big fan of science, that’s hardly reason to call their writing “scientific.” As I understand them–and readers of those texts are encouraged to respond here–Dawkins spends some significant amount of time on Atheological arguments of the philosophical type. Having been found to be false–or just assumed to be false in Dennett’s case–they proceed to explain belief in things that do not exist.

As was the case in yesterday’s post, the search for a balanced perspective does not necessarily begin with the assumption that there are two sides to every story, excluding of course that of the experts.

See it now

VD Hanson writes:

>Given all of this country’s past wars involving intelligence failures, tactical and strategic blunders, congressional fights and popular anger at the president, Iraq and the rising furor over it are hardly unusual.

No kidding. No one disputes that claim. Then he offers a series of uncontroversial examples and concludes:

>The high-stakes war to stabilize the fragile democracy in Iraq is a serious, costly and controversial business. But so have been most conflicts in American history. We need a little more humility and knowledge of our past–and a lot less hysteria, name-calling and obsession with our present selves.

I would argue it’s too serious for arguments like this whose conclusions incoherently diminish the seriousness of the “serious, costly and controversial business” we have bungled ourselves into. The problem, contrary to what Hanson concludes, is a serious one. And it’s seriousness consists in its happening now and into the near or far future. Our having failed in the past even more miserably, in other words, doesn’t diminish our current responsibility not to fail in the future.