Tag Archives: non-sequiturs

Mysterious ways

As I head off to vacation, let us marvel at Newt Ginrich marvelling at God's mysterious ways (courtesy of Media Matters):

newtgingrich As callista and i watched what dc weather says will be 12 to 22 inches of snow i wondered if God was sending a message about copenhagen

newtgingrich After the expanding revelations of dishonesty in climategate having a massive snow storm as obama promises our money to the world is ironic

newtgingrich There is something jimmy carter like about weather service upgrading frrom winter storm to blizzard as global warming conference wants US $ 

But he was not alone.  There was disagreement about the meaning of the snow storm.  Here is Erick Erickson at the not-worth-evaluating Red State blog:

Over at Talking Points Memo, Brian Beutler chronicles the follies of the Democrats and health care.

Joe Lieberman has gone back to Connecticut in advance of the blizzard. This leaves the Democrats needing Republican votes to get back to health care.

At the end of the article, Brian writes, “[D]on’t be surprised to hear a new Republican talking point: Even Mother Nature hates health care reform.”

I hate to correct him, but actually the talking point is that God hates the Democrats’ health care deform. With funding death panels and abortions, of course the Almighty would send a snow storm or, in Brian’s words, a snowpocalypse to shut down Washington.

Oh, and kudos to Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council for organizing the “pray-in.” Looks to be working.

I am tempted to think the second of these is a joke, but the "death panels" remark seems to be serious. 

Qui tacet consentire videtur

It really did not take long for George Will to engage in unwarranted triumphalism over the very selective violation of some scientists' right to engage in private and informal communication about their work.  He writes:

Disclosure of e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) in Britain — a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — reveals some scientists' willingness to suppress or massage data and rig the peer-review process and the publication of scholarly work. The CRU materials also reveal paranoia on the part of scientists who believe that in trying to engineer "consensus" and alarm about warming, they are a brave and embattled minority. Actually, never in peacetime history has the government-media-academic complex been in such sustained propagandistic lockstep about any subject.

The story basically runs like this.  Some hacker broke into a server, stole, yes, stole a bunch of emails, and published them for the selective misinterpretation of people across the media-opinion complex–which, in this case includes the usual suspects, and, sadly enough, the Daily Show.  The emails show the scientists speaking candidly about their work and their frustration at the phony skepticism they have to answer.  Now comes George WIll, writing that answering phony skepticism (such as his) means one's certainty in one's view is not "unassailable":

The Post learns an odd lesson from the CRU materials: "Climate scientists should not let themselves be goaded by the irresponsibility of the deniers into overstating the certainties of complex science or, worse, censoring discussion of them." These scientists overstated and censored because they were "goaded" by skepticism?

Were their science as unassailable as they insist it is, and were the consensus as broad as they say it is, and were they as brave as they claim to be, they would not be "goaded" into intellectual corruption. Nor would they meretriciously bandy the word "deniers" to disparage skepticism that shocks communicants in the faith-based global warming community.

Skeptics about the shrill certitudes concerning catastrophic man-made warming are skeptical because climate change is constant: From millennia before the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1300), through the Little Ice Age (1500 to 1850), and for millennia hence, climate change is always a 100 percent certainty. Skeptics doubt that the scientists' models, which cannot explain the present, infallibly map the distant future.

The Financial Times' peculiar response to the CRU materials is: The scientific case for alarm about global warming "is growing more rather than less compelling." If so, then could anything make the case less compelling? A CRU e-mail says: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment" — this "moment" is in its second decade — "and it is a travesty that we can't."

The travesty is the intellectual arrogance of the authors of climate-change models partially based on the problematic practice of reconstructing long-term prior climate changes. On such models we are supposed to wager trillions of dollars — and substantially diminished freedom. [such as diminished right to privacy–non seq. eds].   

For a discussion of the Post's sloppy handling of the email theft start here (and for more on this particular piece start here).  Briefly, however, no one has been goaded into intellectual corruption–that's the Post's view (which Will confuses with actual fact).

Speaking more broadly, however, it's obvious the scientists who work on this stuff–I mean the ones with bonified credentials–are frustrated by the very vocal and well-funded parade of numbskulls who think the non-geometric certainty of models and of climate science in general entails that the thesis of anthropogenic climate change is all a role of the dice and that any skepticism, even the a prioristic George Will kind, is just as warranted as accumulated empirical research.

Sadly, however, the more detached from even a third-grader's understanding of the scientific method Will becomes, the more pressing he makes his case that any critique of him amounts to an apparent lack of confidence in the person doing the critiquing.  That strategy, however, is just silly: not answering George Will's silly denialism would no doubt amount to agreeing with it–or as he would put it, qui tacet consentire videtur!

The public option

The ongoing (and coming?) health care debate will no doubt be a gold mine of sloppy and dishonest reasoning.  We've already noticed some examples of this already.  Just as the debate over gay marriage seems to inspire certain particular patterns of fallacious reasoning (the equivocation on "marriage" and the slippery slope), I think the health care debate will have its own definitive fallacies.  At the moment, I'm thinking that we'll see a lot of red herring–changing the subject from the less appealing facts of the matter (for instance, the fact that Americans pay more for health care and get less than other developed nations) to tangentially related, yet incendiary, notions such as "socialism."

But I think we'll also see a whole lot of weak analogy–in particular comparisons of health insurance to any other complex consumer product.  Here's one from George Will yesterday:

Some advocates of a public option say health coverage is so complex that consumers will be befuddled by choices. But consumers of many complicated products, from auto insurance to computers, have navigated the competition among providers, who have increased quality while lowering prices.

Those things are different in that they are largely optional purchases.  Sure, you "need" them, but you don't need them.  I might mention, by the way, that auto insurance is legally mandated for all drivers (yet another difference from health insurance–and I doubt, by the way, that Will would advocate such a mandate).  In any case, before one starts comparing health insurance to any other consumer product, one ought to take note of the vast differences.  Few products typical consumers (i.e., anyone of any income level) would absolutely have to buy involve possible outlays of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And few of those products carry with them (often in their fine print) the real possibility of physical and financial ruin.

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that this entire piece, however bad, does not argue against the feasibility or desirability of single-payer health coverage.  In fact, it does a lot to make the case for it (though not on purpose).  Will's purpose is merely to argue against the "public option."  I think his argument is bad (citing as it does Mort Kondrake and a health insurance industry funded study), but I think such an option is a bad one (for other reasons).  

Use mention torture

If one consumes enough news and commentary, one begins to notice the same (crappy) arguments over and over in certain circles.  This of course can happen anywhere–on the right, or on the left.  The left, however, in my unscientific opinion, just doesn't have the discipline or organization or perhaps heart to carry it off very well.  Few, I think, will repeat Richard Cohen's latest ideas.  That's not a virtue, however.  It kind of reminds in fact of the old paradox of moral weakness: vice plus moral weakness equals virtue.  Not having the stamina to be evil, I end up doing the right thing.

Back to the point.  There's an argument that's been rolling around the world of torture justifying commentary lately. It goes something like this:

MILLER: And I’m going to move beyond that and say the pertinent question to me is, is it necessary. Where do you stand on this?

KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.

Never mind the fact that Krauthammer writes stuff he doesn't believe (without saying so).  He reasserts the manifestly absurd argument that anything done in the SERE program (Survive Evade Resist Extract) cannot be torture, as that would mean we have been torturing our own people.  The SERE program however trains people to resist the kinds of illegal torture used by our illustrious enemies.  Part of the training involves a little taste.  (Someone who went through this training tells me in his final paper for one of my spring courses (true story) that even that little taste can give you raging nightmares).

Not content with that line, Krauthammer, who fancies himself some kind of logician, pats himself on the back for having avoided the "semantic argument."  The semantic argument, in this case I suppose, is whether you call something torture or not.  That's important.  Because if it is torture, then it broke the law, and if it broke the law, then there ought to be prosecutions.  That's the problem with legal semantics.  In the end someone goes to jail.

But that's just what's so absurd about this line of reasoning.  Krauthammer makes a semantic claim–we cannot by definition torture our own people ("it's absurd!")–in order to claim that waterboarding isn't "torture."  But that's just to confuse "use" and "mention."  What's "use" and "mention"?  Well, if I pretend torture my own guy to show him what to expect, I am "mentioning" torture.  I don't really do it, I just kind of do it.  This is kind of like acting.  The actors don't really say the things they say ("I'm going to kill you"), they mention them.  Using torture, on the other hand, is illegal. 

White whine

White men can't catch a break these days.  First, the white guy lost the Presidential election, now the winner gets to appoint someone to the Supreme Court.  Though Obama has so far said nothing, this hasn't stopped speculation of the weirdest variety:


That's a stock image of an average white guy in a tie (from istockphoto.com), not, as one might have imagined, some shunned potential Supreme Court nominee.  Now Richard Cohen–liberal columnist in the Washington Post–expresses his deep concern over the fate of white men under the impossible burden of affirmative action.  He writes:

As the time approaches for President Obama to choose a successor to Justice David Souter, the term "litmus test" will be heard throughout the land. The White House will deny applying any such thing, but the nominee will undoubtedly be chosen according to where she stands on abortion, unions and other issues beloved by liberals. This is fine with me, but what I want to know is where she stands on Frank Ricci. He's a firefighter.  

What follows is a detailed description of Ricci's case (recently argued before the Supreme Court)–how he's been discriminated against on account of his being white, and so forth.  That may be, and by Cohen's very sorry description of the case, it looks absurd.  But as a general rule absurd arguments do not make it all the way to the Supreme Court, so one might wonder.  But that's not the point anyway.  Cohen seems to take this particularly absurd case as representative for how affirmative action needs to end, since, of course, racism is over and so forth (because "For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this.").

It's worse than this, however, because affirmative action (as demonstrated by Cohen's extreme example) is profoundly unfair in principle (like trying to "square a circle."):

Liberalism, a movement in which I hold a conditional membership, would be wise to get wise to what has happened. Blatant affirmative action always entailed a disturbing and ex post facto changing of the rules — oops, you're white. Sorry, not what we wanted. As a consequence, it was not racists who were punished but all whites. There is no need to cling to such a remedy anymore. There is, though, every need to retain and strengthen anti-discrimination laws, especially in areas such as fire departments, where racial discrimination was once endemic. Sufficient progress has been made to revert to treating individuals as individuals. After all, it is not some amorphous entity called "whites" who will suffer: It is un-lieutenant Ricci.

Bill Clinton tried to square the circle of affirmative action in his "Mend It, Don't End It" speech of 1995. It was a moving and eloquent address in which he recounted his region's history, reminding us of the depth and ferocity of racism in the South and elsewhere. Trouble is, the New Haven case proves that affirmative action was not mended at all. It remains noble in its ends and atrocious in its means, and it now provides Obama the chance to use his own family's history — indeed his own history — to show why it ought to conclude.

Affirmative action was never meant to "punish" racists by excluding them from employment.  This underscores Cohen's failure to grasp both the concept of affirmative and the facts of the case he discusses (his only reference is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two conservative think-tankers).  One can found more background on the relevant legal questions here.  Without the necessary and obvious context, Cohen's ranting sounds a bit like this.

Enhanced justification techniques

Charles Krauthammer joins the torture discussion.  Torture is evil, he remarks, but then he poses two extensive exceptions.  The first is the "24" scenario:

Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, "You do what you have to do." And then take the responsibility. 

Let's call this the pornographic scenario, as it is, um, very very unlikely to work out so cinematically.  Besides, how do you know the terrorist–I mean the suicidal super criminal–will not have included the revealing of that information in the whole evil plot?  It writes itself, I mean, really: suicide terrorist plans to get tortured to reveal more false information in order to deflect from the real original plot which wasn't real because the second one was, but it wasn't that because he was a deep cover agent pretending to be tortured in order to uncover the real terrorist mole torturer, etc. 

The second justification relies on the first:

he second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

It's the same thing–only more of a miniseries than a movie.  Both of these justifications, if you can call them that, amount to claiming that torture is only wrong if you don't need to do it "to save lives."  But I think this mischaracterizes the objections to torture rather seriously in that it presumes the objection to torture is analogous to the pacifist objection to war.  He says as much:

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen. 

Whether that is a straw man or a false dichotomy I do not know at the moment.  I'm inclined to say straw dichotomy, as he pretends the only opposition to his "real world" scenario is principled pacifism.  It isn't. Here however is the real silly part of this piece:

Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding. (To call some of the other "enhanced interrogation" techniques — face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space — torture is to empty the word of any meaning.)

"Sleep interruption" is a fancy word for "sleep deprivation."  Not to call these "torture," but rather some other well chosen bureaucratic euphemism, empties words of meaning.  Or maybe I'm wrong–it's just an "enhanced signification technique" and Krauthammer's arguments aren't silly and fallacious, they're "enhanced justification techniques" which you can only use when you need to make a fallacious argument whose principle aim is to justify the unjustifiable, in order, of course, to save lives.

UPDATE: for a more thorough take on this piece of enhanced logical technique, read the Post's own Dan Froomkin's point by point analysis.

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.    

All Cretans are liars

A former Bush speechwriter attempts to put our minds at ease about torture.  He tells us that tortured prisoners do not lie, because the lying deceitful terrorists (whom we should never believe) have told us under torture that they don't:

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely. 

Besides, it's their religious duty not to lie under torture–and we ought to take that at face value.