Post torture, ergo propter torture

Bill O'Reilly is happy Osama Bin Laden is dead.  Apparently, because there are political points to score.  OBL's assassination vindicates the use of torture, and that's cause to do a Bill O'Reilly in-your-face move. Like this:

[T]he big story to emerge from the action is that coerced interrogation gave the CIA vital information used to track bin Laden to his lair. . . .  Of course, that exposition is embarrassing to the left, including President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton, who are all on record as saying coerced interrogation does not work. Apparently, they were wrong in a big way.

Ah, so coerced information.  Yes, the result of enhanced interrogation.  Erm, torture.  OK, just so we're clear.  Yes, so, in your face, liberals and lefty-pansies!  And how do we know this?  Well, the story is clear:

The record shows that just three men were waterboarded: Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Rahim al-Nashiri, all al-Qaida big shots. Under duress, KSM gave up vital information that crippled his terror group and ultimately led U.S. authorities to watch bin Laden's top Pakistani courier. Eventually, that man led the CIA to the compound outside Islamabad.

Well, not so clear.  We captured KSM back in 2003, and he got about 183 sessions with waterboarding.  And then seven years later, we got OBL.  Case closed, right?   Well, no. If waterboarding works the miracles it supposedly does, then why did it take seven more years until we had the actionable intelligence to move on OBL?  If waterboarding works, then shouldn't we have caught him, like, earlier?  And, as I understand it (see the article here in Slate), KSM actually denied knowing the person known as OBL's courier.  That's, like, not what I'd expect as the slam-dunk case for enhancing interrogation.  'Cause aren't the tortured people supposed to say things that are true, instead of false?  That is, if torture works the way torture's supposed to work.  By 2005, remember, folks were saying the OBL trail had "grown cold".

Yeah, so here's another hypothesis.  We eventually stopped the simulated drownings of these folks and returned to the standard forms for interrogation — building trust, going over stories, treating prisoners with dignity.  And once that started working, then we started getting better intelligence.  There was an improvement in surveillance, and with info from Hassan Ghul (who was never waterboarded), OBL got tracked down.  Who knows… maybe the torture delayed the information coming out instead of hastened it.

But still, the far left won't budge. No matter what the facts are about the effectiveness of coerced interrogation, they will deny them. Infuriating.

Yep, it's infuriating, all right.  Infuriating.

I strongly assert

I was recently at a conference.  I attended one paper where the presenter kept using the expression, "I strongly assert…" as a means of premise-introduction.  Once, it was used in the context of disagreement.  And so:  "Some say not-p, but I strongly assert p."  I found this locution and its use jarring.  It seems exceedingly dogmatic, and moreover, what exactly does 'strongly' mean, anyhow?  Confidently, loudly, as though in ALLCAPS? 

A question for the NS readership: What is the most charitable reading of this locution?

Here's my shot.  In the event of a conference paper, you can't give an argument for every premise or every case where there's a disagreement.  Conference papers require tight focus, and so the point is to argue where it is most important, and everything else is left to either bald assertion or apologetic bracketing.  That's the art of academic essays.  And so 'I strongly assert' stands as a proof-surrogate in these contexts.  Now, I think it's a pretty awkward proof surrogate (as one can just as well, and less contentiously, say 'let's assume p, here'), but it at least isn't a major breach of argumentative practice.

That reading is my most charitable, but it still doesn't sit well with me.  Any help from those more familiar with this phrase?

Their agenda is plain

American Spectator has a regular blog series called Among the Intellectualioids.  Check out the picture of who the intellectualoids are — grubby-looking, beret-wearing, bad-hair eggheads.  Wait… is that Satan on the far left?

In the series' recent installment, Christopher Orlet argues in "The End of Evil" that a new intellectualiod menace is looming: the view that there is no evil.  Simon Baron-Cohen holds that the actions we deem evil are most often the consequence of a particular mental disorder characterized by an empathy deficiency.  Orlet glosses the view:

The Cambridge don finds the whole idea of evil unhelpful. What's more, it is simplistic and unscientific. It smacks of the Bible and ancient superstitions. And it tells us nothing. Why is one evil? Again, it comes down to the inability to empathize or to identify with others.

To this end, Baron-Cohen has devised six degrees of empathy. His empathy spectrum would award a six to someone like Bill Clinton, who claimed to be able to feel the pain of an entire nation, and a zero to the husband who honestly answers his wife's query about whether her jeans makes her butt look big. At the peak of the bell curve stands your Average Empathy Joe who tears up at Schindler's List, but remains dry-eyed if not slightly nauseous during the Titanic.

Note, by the way, the first couple sentences should be read with a mocking tone: This Cambridge don believes these things. (Modus Tonens alert)  All the examples of the variety of scores are Orlet's of course.  Especially the one about the jeans.  Actually, it seems the whole selection should be read with a mocking tone. 

Here's Orlet finally stating the view (and this time without detectable tone):

Baron-Cohen fingers our hormones, genes, and neglectful mothers as causes for empathy deficiency. One example: his research indicates the more testosterone you are exposed to in the womb, the less empathy you will have.

Ah, but once Orlet states the view, he  then identifies the real program behind it (and the broader commitment trying to understand why people do horrible things):

Naturally, if the problem is largely genetic and hormonal, as Baron-Cohen argues, it can be eradicated through gene/hormone therapy, thus setting the stage for an edenic future where Israelis and Palestinians group hug and your co-workers do not steal your bologna sandwiches from the lunchroom fridge.

Baron-Cohen's agenda is plain. Close the prisons and admit criminals to hospitals where ObamaCare can work its magic. After all, "no one is responsible for his own genes."


The slippery slope to Obamacare playing the role of prison warden.  First, the view is out to explain why people do things that are evil, not just wrong.  The objective is to give an account not of how someone could make a moral error, one that any of us could make (for example, stealing bubble gum).  No. Rather, the objective is to account for moral transgressions that we cannot think our way into, ones that are not normal, run of the mill moral errors.  We aren't just shocked at the acts, we are puzzled by the persons who commit those acts.  Calling those persons 'evil' is fine, but it (as Orlet sarcastically notes) does not explain anything.  Nor does it make it such that the punishments we give these people can have any effect other than inflict suffering on them.  Only if one is a pure retributivist about punishment would one not be interested in understanding why people are or do evil. 

Second, nothing introduces a slippery slope argument better than phrases like "Their agenda is plain…" or "You know where that leads…".  But Obamacare is about medial coverage for people who haven't got it.  Once the state takes a person into custody for committing a crime, the state is responsible for that person's care.  If the medical evidence is that the person suffers from a psychological illness, shouldn't it be treated? 

What to do about straw men

My sense has always been that careful and honest editors can spot most straw men.  But no.  On this score, via Leiter, here is an entertaining case in point.  The case is Gary Wills' negative review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's "All Things Shining."  Drefyfus and Kelly feel they've been straw manned, they write:

Our book, All Things Shining, has clearly touched a nerve. Prominent reviewers have found it transformative. They have called it “fascinating,” “stunning,” “illuminating,” “inspirational,” and even a “harbinger of future philosophies to come.” But others have been outraged and dismissive. Garry Wills, the eminent historian and distinguished defender of the Catholic faith, now bears the standard for those arguing against. His recent review [NYR, April 7] expresses “astonishment” at how “inept” and “shallow” our book is, states that it is full of “silly” and “discredited” claims, and admonishes the “famous Big Thinkers” who, he thinks, have been duped by its wiles.

Many of the historical arguments Wills gives are reasonable, and his review would be fair if we actually held the positions he criticizes. Unfortunately, Wills regularly mistakes our views for discredited ones with which he is already familiar, and then, after reciting the well-known arguments against these discredited views, calls us “inept” for having spewed such “nonsense.” Some of our most sensitive and appreciative interlocutors disagree with the positions we articulate; but Wills seems simply not to understand them. 

This is a pretty serious charge.  Here is how Wills responds:

A lot of words, and no answers. I made specific charges, to which the authors make no specific replies. The only concrete point they make is that “we even give an example of Odysseus deliberating,” and for that they give no citation, either to their own book or to Homer. But I assume (after search) they are referring to page 76, which quotes (and rearranges) Fitzgerald’s translation on Odysseus’ “mind and spirit pondering” (Odyssey, 5.424). The verb here is hormainein (which Lattimore translates as “meditate”). They do not address the formulae of choice I adduced (dikha mermÄ“rizein, or entha kai entha mermÄ“rizein). They must not have wanted me to find their passage, since they gloss the verb as “pondering and despairing.” Odysseus is not undergoing the anguish of choice. He is, in their words, “busy despairing of his options.” Despair precludes choice—which does not matter, since Athena saves Odysseus with a whoosh.

Amid all their verbiage they say nothing about most of the points that I challenge—such as that Augustine was the first to join Christianity with Greek philosophy, or that he invented interiority by watching Ambrose read silently.

They do not even mention the matters that were most noticed as sacred “shining moments” in their book—the worship of Roger Federer’s tennis, the “praises of the Lord” for Demon Deacons, the canonization of Elizabeth Gilbert for submitting to the god of her own genius. They especially do not take the opportunity to explain, at last, their wildest idea—that carefully brewed coffee is a prophylactic against the “whoosh” of Hitler rallies. They vaguely dance away from all that with a dismissive claim that I am talking history and they are talking philosophy—as if philosophy were a warrant for making false statements, over and over.

I haven't read the book.  I didn't read Wills review either.  But it doesn't seem like Wills gets this criticism either.  Seems like a better reply would be: "no, I didn't straw man your view.  This is where you hold it."

Donald Effin’ Trump

Over at National Review Online, Dennis Prager has some important things to say about Donald Trump's choice of words.  Well, what choice of words, first:

The following comments were made in a public speech last week by a man considering running for president of the United States.

On gas prices: We have nobody in Washington that sits back and says, ‘You’re not going to raise that f***ing price.’”

On what he would say as president to China: “Listen, you mother f***ers, we’re going to tax you 25 percent.”

On Iraq: “We build a school, we build a road, they blow up the school, we build another school, we build another road, they blow them up, we build again. In the meantime we can’t get a f***ing school in Brooklyn.”

Ho hum.  The reality is that I love me some F-bomb.  I do object to Trump's sentiments, though.  But it's not the fact that Trump puts some salt on his verbiage, it's the fact that he thinks he can yell at China and say he can tax a trade partner at 25 percent.  Protectionism is great, until you pay for it with their tariffs and so on.  We're in the can with the Chinese, but I'm unsure that this is the solution. Washington doesn't set gas prices, either.  And Iraq?  Anyone who was for the war knew going in it was a 'you break it, you buy it' deal.  And Brooklyners don't need a school for f***ing.  They already know how (joke by amphiboly — like cooking school).  Regardless, Prager has other issues.  Yeah, it's with the dirty words, especially with their use in public.

But there is a world of difference between using an expletive in private and using one in a public speech. For those who do not see the difference, think of the difference between relieving oneself in private and relieving oneself in public. It usually takes a university education and a Leftist worldview not to see the enormous moral distinction between public and private cursing.

One disanalogy: nobody has to clean up a puddle when I tell a dirty joke.  Another: I'll still privately curse in front of my neighbors. One more: some cursing is artistic and is wasted unless it is shared with the world.  I can't help it: It's OK for someone to collect all the dirty language someone else has used.  Fine, fine — I do understand Prager's point, though.  It is unseemly to curse like that.  I get it, and I've even got a university education and everything (read the quote again, if you didn't get that last one).  I'm glad that Prager made sure to get in an unseemly jab at educated elites while chastising a Republican for acting indecently and uncivilly.

If we cannot count on Republicans and conservatives to maintain standards of public decency and civility, to whom shall we look?

Geez. Is this another false dilemma without the other option?

Ad hominems and drawing conclusions about character

Ad hominem abusive fallacies are fallacies of relevance.  The basic scheme for the fallacy type is:

P1: S holds that p

P2: S has some vice, X

C1:  Therefore, p is false (or unacceptable).

With my informal logic classes, I have the regular joke: Just because Brenda is a heavy drinker, that doesn't mean that she doesn't know much about politics — She may be a heavy drinker because she knows politics!  That gets lots of laughs, believe me.  But now, consider an argument of a different form, but composed of similar propositions:

P3: p is demonstrably false (i.e., there is sufficient and easily accessible evidence that p is false)

P4: S holds that p, despite P3

C2: Therefore, S has some vice X (where X = vices from simple stupidity to willful ignorance to suffers from ideological thinking)

Importantly, the argument has very similar claims as the ad hominem abusive, but it is of a different form — we are reasoning to S's vice, not from it.  Now, it is clear that this second kind of argument can be made hastily (as there is a big difference between being wrong and being stupid — that's the Fallacy of No Reasonable Alternatives, a species of false dilemma), but it does seem right that P3 and P4 are relevant to C2.  This second form of argument is one either (a) addressed to some third party about S or (b) addressed directly to S in order to request that S reform how she performs in argument regarding p (and perhaps other issues).

With the theoretical apparatus assembled, let's look at Steve Chapman's column, "Why Birtherism is Here to Stay," over at 

There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better.

What is Chapman's explanation for this phenomenon — people who believe things that they should know better to not?

A poll taken after the release of his birth certificate showed 18 percent of those who have seen it still aren't convinced.  Something about this president impels many people to accept anything that is said about him, as long as it's unfavorable. . . .   Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him. People of this bent don't proceed from facts to a conclusion. They prefer to reach a conclusion and then scrounge for any facts — or "facts" — that support it.  For them, being told Obama is a natural-born American is like being told he's a loving father and a loyal friend. They won't buy it because it doesn't confirm what they want to be true.

The logician and pragmatist C.S. Peirce called these sorts of patterns of thought 'pseudoreasoning,' and it looks very much like a form of rationalizing.  And the key to the effectiveness of these strategies of thought is that the people making errors with them are not exposed to the consequences of being wrong.  If you pseudoreason your way to believing that you can fly, you pay the consequences.  But if you pseudoreason your way to believing that the President of the United States is a Muslim Marxist AntiChrist, you make lots of friends (and if you stop believing them, you lose those friends).

This is surprising only if you think of political views as a matter of logical reasoning. For many people, they really aren't. They're a way of indulging emotional impulses without suffering painful consequences. . . . [I]f thinking Obama is a foreigner brings you closer to people you like, you come out ahead. Birthers would rather be wrong than be divided from their allies. So the fiction that Obama was born in Kenya will endure, and many Americans will hold fast to a ridiculous article of faith that has been conclusively refuted.

The thing is that this does amount to calling Birthers credulous, ideological, and cognitively blind.  Chapman forgot one thing more for his piece: directing readers to the comments for this piece!