Category Archives: Straw Man

Rules for the breaking

Despite the originary fallaciousness of the whole affair–a schoolyard ad hominem attack on Joseph Wilson–we haven’t bothered to comment on all of the silliness surrounding the Judith Miller jailing. No *serious* person would argue that Judith Miller deserves to be jailed *now* for her shoddy Iraq WMD coverage (as with much of the media, perhaps far below what might be considered minimally competent source and fact research), but that doesn’t stop the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen from bravely taking on some in the blogosphere who would argue as much. What Cohen does in much of today’s piece is not really fallacioius, it’s just silly. Why waste precious space in a newspaper of national circulation refuting the opinions of people who refute themselves? Cohen’s failures lie elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his insistence on the absolute applicability of the confidentiality pledge:

Whatever her politics, whatever her journalistic sins (if any), whatever the whatevers, she is in jail officially for keeping her pledge not to reveal the identity of a confidential source. (If that’s not the case, then we don’t know otherwise.) That pledge is no different than the one Bob Woodward made to Mark (Deep Throat) Felt or, if you will, the one I made to my sources back when I was revealing some unsavory facts about Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Only Agnew’s unexpected, but deeply appreciated, resignation saved me from going to jail. Like Miller, I thought my word was my word. Jail was something a journalist had to endure on occasion. It is, to quote “The Godfather’s” Hyman Roth, “the business we have chosen.”

The problem is that not all confidentiality pledges are the same–nor should the be. No one–not even a journalist–should be bound to a confidentiality pledge made to someone who is planning to murder someone, for instance. The question, obscured by many (including Bill Keller at the *New York Times*) is whether *in this instance* a confidentiality pledge applies. Inalienable rights have exceptions, one would think that professional standards of journalists would have exceptions as well (the alternative is the fallacy of accident). Cohen should discuss–or should at least be aware of the fact–that some have argued convincingly (the leaking was a crime, for instance) that this case is a very obvious exception.

Political Radicals or Maladjusted Kids?

Oliver Roy, guest opiner in today’s Times treats us to a fuller exposition of a fallacy riddled argument that we have been discussing lately in his “Why do they Hate Us? Not Because of Iraq” (Source: NYT 7/22/05). This provides some occasion to look a little more carefully at some of the questions of historical causality that underlie these arguments.

These arguments have the following form:

1. Either terrorism is caused by specific events and policies, or it is caused by Islamist ideology.
2. Terrorism is not caused by specific events and policies.
3. Therefore, terrorism is caused by Islamist ideology.

There is almost certainly a false dichotomy in the first premise–though this seems to be generally implicit in all of these arguments–since the causal relations underlying terrorism are probably more complex than this dichotomy allows. Nevertheless, most of Roy’s argument is devoted to justifying #2 through a series of arguments.

First, we have the argument from chronology. This argument is based on the seemingly incontrovertible causal principle that a cause must precede its effect. This seems to imply something like the following.

A. If Y exists at a time prior to X, then X cannot be the cause of Y.


B. If Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.) exists at a time prior to the invasion of Iraq, or Afghanistan, etc., then those conflicts cannot be the cause of Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.).

>First, let’s consider the chronology. The Americans went to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, not before. Mohamed Atta and the other pilots were not driven by Iraq or Afghanistan. Were they then driven by the plight of the Palestinians? It seems unlikely. After all, the attack was plotted well before the second intifada began in September 2000, at a time of relative optimism in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This argument is, of course, a straw man here. No one, I think, would argue that the cause of 9/11 was our retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan, or the subsequent invasion of Iraq. But, what Roy is going to do in order to make his argument seem more convincing than it should, is switch between general and specific instances of Y in our principle above (9/11, terrorism in general, Islamist mujahdeen in Afghanistan in the 80’s, London bombings). This becomes a fallacy of equivocation and allows him to set up these straw men arguments in order to knock them down.

He shows us that the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia can not be the cause of bin Laden’s radical islamism, since the latter preceded the former.

>Another motivating factor, we are told, was the presence of “infidel” troops in Islam’s holy lands. Yes, Osama Bin Laden was reported to be upset when the Saudi royal family allowed Western troops into the kingdom before the Persian Gulf war. But Mr. bin Laden was by that time a veteran fighter committed to global jihad.

Once again, no one would argue this, I think. Instead, the argument would be that a terrorist movement gains adherents and militants to the degree that populations feel violated, oppressed, and otherwise powerless. So although these events did not cause the existence of the movement, they feed, strengthen, and radicalize these movements.

Roy’s second argument is more interesting. Here he argues that the militants and terrorists are not really concerned about what happens to Afghanis or Iraqis.

>Second, if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam. Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.

If it is the case that there are virtually no Iraqis, Afghans, or Palestinians, one wonders what the denotation of “terrorists” includes. The decade and more of suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, the insurgency in Iraq and Afghan, all seem to be excluded now from Roy’s argument. Now it suits his purpose to focus not on the broadest phenomena of Islamic militancy, but rather on a much narrower problem which excludes anyone who would cause trouble for Roy’s argument.

>It is also interesting to note that none of the Islamic terrorists captured so far had been active in any legitimate antiwar movements or even in organized political support for the people they claim to be fighting for. They don’t distribute leaflets or collect money for hospitals and schools. They do not have a rational strategy to push for the interests of the Iraqi or Palestinian people.

So there are two reasons for his second argument: (a) the militants and terrorists are foreigners; (b) the militants and terrorists do not have political programs in mind for the populations that they are supposedly fighting for.

>Even their calls for the withdrawal of the European troops from Iraq ring false. After all, the Spanish police have foiled terrorist attempts in Madrid even since the government withdrew its forces. Western-based radicals strike where they are living, not where they are instructed to or where it will have the greatest political effect on behalf of their nominal causes.

Switching back now to the Western militants, Roy claims, quite incredibly and without argument, that the real motivation is a form of “culture shock” rather than politics.

>The Western-based Islamic terrorists are not the militant vanguard of the Muslim community; they are a lost generation, unmoored from traditional societies and cultures, frustrated by a Western society that does not meet their expectations.

The terrorists seem, on Roy’s view, to be maladjusted kids rather than political radicals. Perhaps there is some truth here, but the inadequate arguments presented above does nothing to support this view. Roy would need to spend more time presenting evidence for this curious view, and less time knocking down straw men, if we were to be obligated to take his conclusion seriously.

The motivations for terrorism are sometimes deeply perplexing, and the causes of both the multi-national Islamist movement and individual participation in terrorism for its sake are far more complicated than Roy and these argument’s recent proponents on the right can allow. Although a strong case can be made for the uncontroversial claim that Iraq and Afghanistan are not the sole cause of all acts of Islamist terrorism, the desire of these pundits seems to be exonerating the Bush administration of any causal contribution to the terrorism it is supposedly trying to combat. That argument has certainly not been made by Roy here and the growing body of argument and evidence seems to support the contrary.

Neo-Con Abstractions and Sleight of Hand

We have heard a fairly consistent chorus, since September 11th, castigating the Islamic world for their supposed failure to denounce Islamic extremists. Unable to blame all muslims directly for terrorism, some find it plausible to blame all muslims for complacency, and an ever-present suggestion of complicity as well, with terrorism. This enables those thinkers who are so disposed to conceive the world in abstractions and to pose its problems in terms of wars among and within “civilizations.”

Krauthammer has a particular love of this neo-con trope. Today he again draws on it to help explain Europe’s problem with terrorism (Source: NYT 7/15/05). For Krauthammer the phenomenon that needs to be explained is that the terrorists in London (and the murderer of van Gogh in Netherlands) are “native-born Muslims.” (Of course, the terrorist acts in Madrid are the unmentioned exception here.)

>The fact that native-born Muslim Europeans are committing terrorist acts in their own countries shows that this Islamist malignancy long predates Iraq, long predates Afghanistan and long predates Sept. 11, 2001. What Europe had incubated is an enemy within, a threat that for decades Europe simply refused to face.

This is an extremely interesting rhetorical move. It rests on a certain ambiguity in the author’s intention. If he aims to show that there was a radical Islamic movement advocating violence prior to the last 5 years, then one wonders who doubts such a thing. That claim seems uncontroversially true and does not need additional evidence. This makes the argument look very strong. But Krauthammer’s intention is more devious. He wants to suggest that these acts would have been committed even without, and perhaps more likely without, America’s war on terrorism. The fact that radical Islamic movements pre-exist the last five years, of course, does nothing to show what Krauthammer wants to suggest. It is only the difference between a proximate cause and a more remote cause. Though there would be good reason to suggest this if we limited ourselves to the Dutch case–though that is not probably a case of terrorism even if it was violence committed by a muslim with fundamentalist beliefs.

This is a complicated fallacious argument. This seems to be something like a ignoratio elenchi (the fallacy of missing the point) with the conclusion unstated but suggested by the context. His choice of the three American events (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq) suggests that the relationship between these events and the continued terrorism is Krauthammer’s real though not explicitly stated concern.

a) native-born Europeans are committing terrorism
shows b) that Islamist malignancy pre-dated 9/11 etc.
c) (implicitly) therefore the “war on terrorism” is not the cause of these acts.

Granting that (a) provides evidence for (b) (unnecessarily of course), it is hard to see that (a) or (b) provides any reason to hold (c). It might provide reason to believe (d) the “war on terror” is not the *sole* cause of these acts (even if it might be the precipitating cause). But that last claim is also uncontroversial I would think.

But setting aside this deceptive argument, Krauthammer wants to use this to explain Europe being “weak” on terrorism.

>One of the reasons Westerners were so unprepared for this wave of Islamist terrorism, not just militarily but psychologically, is sheer disbelief. It shockingly contradicts Western notions of progress.

>Our first response was, therefore, to simply sweep this contradiction under the rug. Put the first World Trade Center bombers on trial and think it will solve the problem. Even today there are many Americans and even more Europeans who believe that after Sept. 11 the United States should just have done Afghanistan — depose the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda’s sanctuary — and gone no further, thinking that would solve the problem.

Again Krauthammer suggests something that he does not actually assert–that the war in Iraq was and is a necessary part of the response to terrorism–and which his argument does nothing to show. Like above, this is a sort of sleight of hand, whereby an argument that might support a particular conclusion is actually being used to suggest the truth of a much stronger conclusion. This is combined in an interesting way with a version of the straw man argument. Presumably very few thought that we should *only* go after Afghanistan and do absolutely nothing else to combat or prevent terrorism. The question has always been whether our intervention in Iraq is contributing to terrorism.

>But the problem is far deeper. It is essentially a civil war within a rival civilization in which the most primitive elements are seeking to gain the upper hand. Sept. 11 forced us to intervene massively in this civil war, which is why we are in Iraq. There, as in Afghanistan, we have enlisted millions of Muslims on the anti-Islamist side.

>But what about the vast majority of European Muslims, the 99 percent who are peace-loving and not engaged in terror? They must also join the fight. They must actively denounce not just — what is obvious — the terrorist attacks, but their source: Islamist ideology and its practitioners.

And here we get the Neo-Con’s penchant for abstractions revealed. Rather than a historically determined political phenomenon, we are treated to a child’s tale of conflicts within and among civilizations. And one wonders whether, in Kruathammer’s mind, all Christians and Jews must denounce not just Christian and Jewish extremist terrorist acts, but the Christian and Jewish fundamentalist ideologies and their practitioners as well.

Smoking or non?

We remarked some time ago that David Brooks of the *New York Times* discovered a new fallacy: the *argumentum pro homine*. It’s a fallacy of relevance akin to the ad hominem argument, though instead of attacking a person, you praise him for traits that have nothing to do with the conclusions you mean to draw about him. One might wonder, however, whether Mr. Brooks employs this sort of praise in a backhanded sort of way. In today’s op-ed, “Mr.Bush, Pick a Genius,” we can’t tell whether Brooks means to malign or praise the poor Michael McConnell, a man who strikes him as a “genius” and a terrific Supreme Court nominee.

>McConnell (whom I have never met) is an honest, judicious scholar. When writing about church and state matters, he begins with the frank admission that religion is a problem in a democracy. Religious people feel a loyalty to God and to the state, and sometimes those loyalties conflict.

To be precise–which is what honest, judicious judicial scholars do–religious people feel a loyalty to what *they* take to be their own religion’s–or better, their own demonination’s–interpretation of Divine requirements. Considering the sheer number and diversity of Christian denominations alone, these loyalties will very likely conflict. The genius, as Brooks describes him, has discovered hot water.

This is all set up for the grand argument.

>So he understands why people from Rousseau and Jefferson on down have believed there should be a wall of separation between church and state.

“Wall of separation” is a suggestive, though wholly and unfortunately imprecise phrase. It’s the kind of phrase that will have the imprecise non-geniuses among us arguing at cross-purposes. In other words, it’s the kind of phrase that cries out for argument, justification, clarification, application, interepretation. But how, one wonders:

>The problem with the Separationist view, he has argued in essays and briefs, is that it’s not *practical.* As government grows and becomes more involved in health, charity, education and culture issues, it begins pushing religion out of those spheres. The Separationist doctrine leads inevitably to discrimination against religion. The state ends up punishing people who are exercising a *constitutional right*. [emphasis added]

It seems like the problem with the separationist view is that it’s *not constitutional*, not that’s it’s not practical. But that’s not the real point. This is:

>McConnell argued that government shouldn’t be *separated* from religion, but, as Madison believed, should be *neutral* about religion. He pointed out that the fire services and the police don’t just protect stores and offices, but churches and synagogues as well. In the same way, he declared in Congressional testimony in 1995, “When speech reflecting a secular viewpoint is permitted, then speech reflecting a religious viewpoint should be permitted on the same basis.” The public square shouldn’t be walled off from religion, but open to a plurality of viewpoints, secular and religious. The state shouldn’t allow school prayer, which privileges religion, but public money should go to religious and secular service agencies alike.

The rest of the article spins out the evidence for this view in the usual fashion–cherry picking cases of misguided or confused local officials discriminating against religious people. We’ve all heard these cases, so we won’t bother going through them in order to point out that much more than these anecdotes would be needed to demonstrate systematic religious discrimination.

But back to the point, notice how “neutral” is an interpretation of “separated.” And notice also how this view is supported by one wickedly specious analogy–the fire department and police have fairly well-defined objectives–property and life. Nonetheless, the problem with McConnell’s view is that he falsely contrasts secular with religious. “Secular” is not religious, or any particular religion; it is not another religion alongside the many religions. Some might even claim that “secular” is a kind of “neutrality” with regard to religion.

Don’t know much about science

One of the worst arguments for the existence of God–consistently and solidly refuted since before the birth of Christ–is the argument from design. The occasion for mentioning this today is yet another intelligent design proponent op-ed contributor to the New York Times, Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, and lead editor of the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Impressive credentials, for a clergyman.

Like others before him in the intelligent design camp, Cardinal Schönborn confuses science with theology:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

If the Cardinal’s objection is that scientists sometime confuse philosophy with science–claiming that there evidence shows things that it doesn’t–then we join him; such scientists would be guilty of the very same thing the Cardinal is. For evolution shows nothing either way about the theological design hypothesis. Just as no serious scientist can affirm that evolution demonstrates the existence of God; no serious scientist can claim that it does not.

The devastating problems with the design argument lie elsewhere:

Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: “Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.” It adds: “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

This raises two questions. First, if it is the case that the real aim of biology is to learn the design of the intelligent creator, then biology is either a version of art criticism or psychology. Second, how could we presume to understand the wisdom of the creator through his works, when discerning the wisdom of our fellow humans through their works remains an almost insurmountably difficult task. Wherein, for instance, lies the wisdom of the framers of the constitution?

. . . about History

Some time ago we let a George Will piece on the magisterium of History (over philosophy) go by without comment. We were lazy and we regret it. For certainly our decisive critical analysis would have changed the future. But there is still time. We reserve the right to write about any op-ed at any time. In that sense perhaps we too are historians.

And so as historians, we were appalled to read

What is history? The study of it — and the making of it, meaning politics — changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies — political, intellectual, social, economic — that produced the present. History became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.

Nevermind that the making of history is more than politics (in our view there’s a little geology [e.g., tsunami] and biology [e.g., black death] and probably more). Instead, imagine for a moment the position described by Will as “Historicism.” Such a view turns history into “Historywithacapital’H'”; discounts human agency; it’s deterministic; large historical figures are subject to forces stronger than them: Who would hold such a moronic view of history?

Probably nobody. This is has to be the view of Will’s imaginary academic friend Karl–he has more imaginary friends–liberals (Ted), non-strict constructionists (Ruth), and so forth. They stick around to provide him with silly and shallow arguments. And when they’re not actually imaginary, he makes them so by lampooning their arguments. But like all things imaginary, others can’t see them as clearly as you do.

Take for instance this historicism crap. What would show that historicism is a load of bunk? Why a ripping good yarn of course:

Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough’s two themes in “1776” are that things could have turned out very differently and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that “1776,” with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop the New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.

So a really good narrative–like those so often narrated by McCullough himself on PBS (which, by the way, according to Will is so very unnecessary) shows that great men can change destinies (who believes in destinies?) and things could have turned out otherwise (gee, you mean history is not a deductive science?). But a narrative doesn’t show this–it can’t. And in this case it probably doesn’t even try. Mr.McCullough has done the study of the Past too great a service–both in his writing and his work on Public Television–to receive this kind of praise from George Will.

Do as we do not as we say

Recently George Will has spilled a lot of ink on the Supreme Court. The other day it was a shallow and snarky analysis of the takings clause, today
the same for the establishment clause. This time we have a Scalian excursus on original intent. Rather than consulting a dictionary contemporary to the founding fathers for the meaning of the word “wall” in “wall of separation,” Will consults their behavior. According to the author Will cites–and we have no reason to doubt him–the founding fathers’ notion of “wall of separation” did not include religioius services in a government building, among many other things. On the strength of the founding father’s behavior, and some rather shallow lampooning of the very real problems of constitutional interpretation, Will concludes that 25 years of constitutional “hair-splitting” have been a waste.

In response it should be said that some of what the founding fathers thought and did was deplorable. Some of this (to our everlasting shame) they even enshrined in the Constitution. So it’s certainly not the case that their behavior should serve necessarily as a guide for our own. And though it might remain an open question as to whether some of their behavior should serve as a guide for our own, we would need some way to tell which behavior to emulate and which to eschew. Once we do this, we’re back to what George Will calls hairsplitting and what the student of constitutional law might call “reasoning.”

Argumentum pro homine

Just about everyone who has had Intro to Logic knows about the fallacy of the attack against the person, or ad hominem. It's a question of relevance, they are told, in that the negative features of a person's character have nothing to do with the argument she is making. That's why it's called an "attack" or "against" or in Latin, "ad." Even George Bush, Michael Moore, or why not, even Paul Wolfowitz deserves to have his argument assessed on its own merits. Rarely if ever, however, does one hear of the negative counterpart, the obverse, of the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum pro homine. Despite its rarity and notwithstanding the absence of cruel or mean-spirited irrelevance, it's fallacious for the same reasons. And we have a fine example of this in David Brooks March 8, 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times. Take a look at this:

Let us look again at the man who's been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who's been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It's not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it's time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom. And he has usually played a useful supporting role in making sure that pragmatic, democracy-promoting policies were put in place.

If the trends of the last few months continue, Wolfowitz will be the subject of fascinating biographies decades from now, while many of his smuggest critics will be forgotten. Those biographies will mention not only his intellectual commitment but also his personal commitment, his years spent learning the languages of the places that concerned him, and the thousands of hours spent listening deferentially to the local heroes who led the causes he supported.

To praise Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. The difficulties ahead are obvious. It's simple justice. It's a recognition that amid all the legitimate criticism, this guy has been the subject of a vicious piling-on campaign by people who know less than nothing about what is actually going on in the government, while he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right.

The occasion for the reconsideration of Paul Wolfowitz's character is the irresponsible–and to judge by the headline of the March 8, 2005 New York Times–incorrect belief that the "political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world" are unremittingly positive. More Lebanese have descended into the streets in favor of Syria than those who a week earlier showed up against it.  And besides, even those who came out against Syria wanted to be rid of a foreign occupier (never mind, as everyone hask the reasons for the occupation) as we Americans ourselves happen to be (in Iraq, another Arab country).

My colleague at the has been closely following these arguments as they appear in various op-ed pages and has promised to discuss them soon. The problem with Brooks' argument lies elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his logically clueless response-in-kind to perceived attacks on Paul Wolfowitz the person. We've discussed this sort of argument, the reverse ad hominem before.

In logical strategy it very much resembles the straw man: falsely accuse your opponent of not making an argument but of attacking the person, and in so doing you attack her rather than her argument (since you've accused her of not having an argument). This time, however, in addition to attacking the attacker (note the rhetorical juxtaposition of the "the infantile left" with the lunatic antisemitism on the order of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Brooks responds to those attacks by pointing out what a patient listener and marvelous student of foreign languages Wolfowitz is, among other achievements and personal virtues.

No question Wolfowitz has all sorts of personal virtues and has accomplished something in his life. That's not the issue, however, in the serious critiques of his political positions and arguments. And besides that, and more to the point actually, Wolfowitz may be motivated by the purest desire to improve the lot of humankind in general, but many serious questions have been raised about the means he has chosen to these ends. Some have argued, so we have heard, that those means have been disastrous for those asked to carry them out in reality, as well as those who never asked Wolfowitz for his help.

Ad Feminam

Only just recently George Will argued that Michael Crichton’s appendixed and footnoted science-fiction thriller about global warming–sorry, climate change–merited unironic juxtaposition with the body of unthrilling and nonfictional scientific research from the majority of the world’s qualified scientists. Now this past week in The Washington Post
he argues that Larry Summers’ off the cuff and argumentless remarks about the genetic basis of gender differences in cognitive ability warrant the same kind of careful attention and consideration. The failure of academia to take them seriously, and its quick, negative reaction to them constitutes to Will’s mind evidence of academia’s not so latent hypocrisy:

>Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was.

>Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate — genetically based — gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.

Continue reading Ad Feminam

Illicit contrariness

The debate concerning the “value’s vote” in the election will probably continue for some time. Many pundits have weighed in already, arguing that there was no “value’s vote,” or that the “value’s vote” was misguided, etc. John Leo in the last issue of the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 11/29/04), seeks to defend the value’s vote from its critics.

>I am struggling to understand the “don’t impose your values” argument. According to this popular belief, it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, to vote your moral convictions unless everybody else already shares them.

It’s hard to know what argument Leo is unable to understand–the ascription of this view to “popular belief” makes it seem unlikely that he has a particular advocate in mind and so does not feel the need to consider what exactly the argument might involve. Presumably, Leo is trying to capture a sense of the “secular liberal” who adheres to a strict understanding of the separation of church and state and sees religiously motivated “value’s argument” to be as potentially insidious as the installation of the Taliban. But, in the absence of anyone who would actually advance this argument it is hard to take it seriously or Leo’s refutation of it as particularly significant. This is a sort of “straw man fallacy”–the argument that he is actually concerned with is the argument against the place of religious values in political debate, or the rationality of choosing to vote on values rather than economic self-interest.

>Nobody ever explains exactly what constitutes an offense in voting one’s values, but the complaints appear to be aimed almost solely at conservative Christians, who are viewed as divisive when they try to “force their religious opinions on us.”

So Leo seems to be confusing two distinct issues:

1 The argument that a significant number of voters chose to vote on “values” rather than for example economic self-interest etc.
2 The argument that the parochial values of religious sects should not be the grounds for government.

The former is a matter for sociology and political science (and has been discussed in Thomas Franks’ *What’s the Matter with Kansas?*): The latter is a matter of constitutional theory respecting the “establishment clause” of the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). But Leo wants to argue against a caricature of #1 in order to suggest that we have grounds for rejecting #2 (which he does not in fact give) and therefore demostrating the contrary of #2:

2a Parochial values of religious sects should or can be the grounds for government.

What he wants to do is refute claim that “values should never enter into politics” in order to justify the inclusion of religious values in politics. But of course the negation of the first does not imply the contrary of the second since the two are not strict contradictories.

The logical form of this argument:

1 Either no values have a place in government or some do.
2 It is not the case that values *do not* have a place in goverment.
3 Therefore, *all* (including religious) values have a place in government.

So in fact, there are two fallacies here: The straw man in #1 and the equivocation on the notion of values that enables him to conclude that religious values have a place in government even though he has only shown that some values have a place in government.

Strictly speaking, however, this is a formal fallacy based on the difference between contrary and contradictory statements. Contradictory statements possess opposite truth values (one is false, the other true): Contrary statements, however, can both be false.

a No S is P. —- a1) All S is P.
b No S is P. —- b1) Some S is P.

In the first case we have contraries–both can be false (when “Some S is P”). In the second we have contradictories since whatever the truth value of one, the other is opposite. (So we can infer from the falsity of “No S is P” that “Some S is P” is true.) Leo seems to commit the formal fallacy of “illicit contrary” here.

> If the “don’t impose” people wish to mount a serious argument, they will have to attack “imposers” on both sides of the issues they discuss–not just their opponents. They will also have to explain why arguments that come from religious beliefs are less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings.

The first of these two claims is eminently reasonable: Logic here demands consisitency, and so the argument–if there ever has been such a one–that values must be entirely excluded from politics would, of course, have to apply to *all values*–assuming, however, that all “values” are on a par in this case.

But of course there is good reason to exclude certain sorts of religious arguments from political debate in a nation that adheres to the “separation of church and state”–these arguments *are* “less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings” in the context with which we are concerned.

To conclude the column, Leo spends some time looking at several cases where the supposedly “anti-values” people will need to argue against their customary positions as a consequence of the logical virtue of consistency. But the massing of examples does not hide the fact that all he can argue is:

1 If you hold the belief that “imposing values is always wrong,” then you must be opposed to the imposition of values in case x.


But this argument is far too weak for Leo’s purposes. What he in fact wants to conclude is:

>No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.

Leo seems to think that he has established that “religious arguments” are legitimate grounds for political decisions. But, the fact that *some* values are legitimate in public discourse does not of course imply that *all* are.

In fact, as an example, when the Colorado Supreme Court was examining Amendment 2 denying “special consideration” to homosexuals, one of the central issues was whether the moral motivation of the amendment was necessarily founded in a particular religion. Conservative advocates argued that the Ancient Greeks had a non-religious disapprobation of homosexuality.

Thus, at least as far as I understand the underlying issue–not of course being a constitutional lawyer–a *merely* religious argument is in fact “illegitimate” in this case precisely because of its orgin. That is, if a particular law or policy is simply designed to enshrine or impose the moral or religious beliefs of an individual sect on the country as a whole, the arguments in its favor are illegitimate.

And this is not, as Leo wants it, a matter of “prejudice.” For the same reason that the biblical calculation of *pi* can be excluded from mathematics textbooks, so moral beliefs based solely in religious principles are not necessarily legitimate for the purpose of policy and political argument.

After exposing these fallacies and the illegitimate conclusion draws from them, let me make one last comment. I think Leo is in fact right that the debate surrounding stem cell research etc. is a debate about “values”–but the rules of this debate are set among other things by the principles contained within constitution and its tradition of interpretation. Presumably to the chagrin of Leo and others, these rules do in fact exclude certain arguments without the exclusion being a matter of “prejudice.”

One last complication to consider. Surely in a democracy it is legitimate to vote on the basis of one’s values–no one, despite Leo’s suggestion, argues that one should not do so. But these values or the intentions and policies of the candidate who reflects these values are not on that basis legitimate as a matter of public policy. In fact, this was precisely what the founding fathers wanted to avoid: The possibility of the local prejudices of various religions from being imposed on all citizens.