Category Archives: General discussion

Anything else.


We pulled the following from the comments of Mr.Mayo. It's an analysis of Bush's speech mentioned here. Here’s what i caught: >“The issue on the economy is a big issue in any campaign. And I want the people of this district to know, plain and simple, that if Richard’s opponent wins, your taxes will go up. Make no mistake about it. The Democrat Party is anxious to get their hands on your money.” False cause with perhaps a little ad hominem abusive thrown in at the end. >“The key issue in this campaign is the security of the United States of America. You got to understand a lot of my thinking about the world changed on September the 11th, 2001. I make a lot of decisions on your behalf, and many of those decisions were affected by the fact that we lost nearly 3,000 of our citizens, 3,000 innocent lives on our soil on that fateful day. I vowed then, and I’ve vowed ever since, to use every national asset at my disposal to protect the American people.” Perhaps it’s a reach, but there seems to be bit of suppressed evidence here, namely that the war he is positing as protecting the American people has claimed more American lives than did September 11th. If he’s going to cite the loss of lives on 9/11 as the basis for his war, then he’s ignoring the fact that the war has cost more than 9/11, monetarily and in lives lost. >“You can’t negotiate with these people. You cannot hope that they will go away. I like to remind people, therapy isn’t going to work. The best way to deal with these folks is to bring them to justice before they hurt America again. “ Classic Bushman (can i coin that term in place of the strawman? he uses the thing so often maybe it should bear his name). Has anyone proposed negotiating with Al Queda? Or having a “therapy” session with Bush, Cheney, Osama, and Zawahiri down at Bob Newhart’s office? Do we need to be “reminded” of this? Does he seriously believe this?! He’s created a whole new genre of political discourse. Rather than distort the argument of his opponent, he creates a whole new opponent along with the argument. >“Our fellow citizens ought to listen to the words of Osama bin Laden, and Mr. Zawahiri, who is his number two in al Qaeda. They have clearly stated that Iraq is a central front in their war against us. “ Again, suppressing the evidence. Islamism was strictly nefas in Saddam’s Iraq; then we march in, guns blazing, Texas-style and turn it into a breeding ground for terrorism. Yet once again, he pretends there was no antecedent cause to Iraq’s becoming Osama’s recruiting poster. >“Al Qaeda’s leadership has told us loud and clear in their own words their ambitions are to develop new safe haven from which to launch attacks.” Now he’s Bushmanning Osama! They don’t want to create a “safe haven” in Iraq, for the simple reason that they already have a safe haven in the Afghnai/Pakistani borderlands, which was made possible at least in part because we couldn’t press our attack there because we were gearing up for an invasion of Iraq. They just want to point to Iraq and say to disenfranchised Muslim youth,”Look! We were right all along! They do want to come over here and take your land, your oil, and your religion.” >“The House Democrat Leader summed up her party’s approach to the midterm elections. She said this — and I quote — she said this election “should not be about national security.” I strongly disagree. The security of this country comes first, as far as I’m concerned. And this government, with supporters like Richard Pombo, will do everything we can to protect you. (Applause.) Of course, to give the Leader some credit, given her party’s record on national security, I can see why she feels that way. (Laughter.) I wouldn’t want to be talking about the record, either. “ Ad Hominem Circumstantial. Perhaps what Pelosi really meant is there might be other pertinent issues that should occupy the campaign slate, but then again, she’s just saying that because she’s a Democrat and they can’t talk national security, because their poor record in this area predisposes them to focus on other areas.

How many angels tend petunias on the head of a pin?

Although I intended another installment of the Krugman challenge, I couldn’t resist when I saw Charles Krauthammer taking a page from the Tobacco industry to defend his cherished invasion of Iraq.
>The question posed — does the Iraq war increase or decrease the world supply of jihadists? — is itself an exercise in counting angels on the head of a pin. Any answer would require a complex calculation involving dozens of unmeasurable factors, as well as construction of a complete alternate history of the world had the U.S. invasion of 2003 not happened.

Krauthammer gives us the standard spin control on the NIE (we should remember that that E stands for estimate)–that the question whether the invasion of Iraq increased the numbered of Jihadist can’t be answered. Krauthammer claims

>Any answer would require a complex calculation involving dozens of unmeasurable factors, as well as construction of a complete alternate history of the world had the U.S. invasion of 2003 not happened.

But that simply is not true. We estimate the effects of all sorts of things based on complex calculations with estimates of factors that are difficult to “measure” precisely and the consideration of alternate scenarios. Most policy papers are rife with precisely these sorts of answers. This is akin to the Tobacco industry defense of cigarette smoking: Establish an unreasonable level of certainty required to answer the question and then criticize every argument that fails to reach that level of certainty. This might be a sub-type of the fallacy appeal to ignorance. Strictly speaking the appeal to ignorance should conclude that the NIE is false, but Krauthammer is in effect arguing that since we can’t know with certainty and precision, we can’t have any reason to believe one answer or the other.

>Ah, but those seers in the U.S. “intelligence community,” speaking through a leaked National Intelligence Estimate — the most famous previous NIE, mind you, concluded that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, slam-dunk — have peered deep into the hypothetical past and found the answer.

The argument seems to be even stronger if you can question the accuracy of your opponents other studies. Thus, people sometimes argue that scientists have changed their minds about what is healthy over time. And since they disagree with themselves we have no reason to believe that their current claims are justified. Unquestionably the intelligence community make mistakes–and in this case one that facilitated 20,000+ American casualties–but that is not an argument against these conclusions. It is a sort of ad hominem argument that calls into question the credibility of the arguers rather than the argument itself. Sometimes these sorts of arguments are justified, but it isn’t clear that because the intelligence community made a mistake about invading Iraq that we should reject all subsequent intelligence estimates. (And one wonders whether Krauthammer would make the same argument below when he agrees with part of the NIE).
>Everyone seems to have forgotten that Iraq was already an Islamist cause celebre and rallying cry long before 2003. When Osama bin Laden issued his declaration of war against America in 1998, his two principal justifications for the jihad that exploded upon us on Sept. 11, 2001, centered on Iraq: America’s alleged killing of more than 1 million Iraqis through the post-Gulf War sanctions and, even worse, the desecration of Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina by the garrisoning of infidel U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia (as post-Gulf War protection from the continuing threat of invasion by Hussein).

Here Krauthammer argues that the NIE is wrong that Iraq has become a cause celebre for Islamists because it already was one before 2003. This is equivocating. Where the NIE claims that Iraq is a cause celebre in the sense of bringing thousands of foreign fighters to attack American trooops in Iraq, Krauthammer reads cause celebre as reason to attack America. Iraq may have been a rallying point within the Islamist anti-American rhetoric prior to 2003, but it is only since the invasion that it has been a reason for thousands of foreign fighters to leave their homes to attack American troops.

>Moreover, does anyone imagine that had the jihadists in Iraq remained home they would now be tending petunias rather than plotting terror attacks?

But, Krauthammer ultimately likes part of the NIE–the part that says that we must defeat the Jihadists in Iraq after having attracted them there. This he think is the new justification for the continued presence of American troops in Iraq. After having created thousands of Jihadists who would otherwise be “growing petunias” at home, we must stay until we kill them or they might go home to grow petunias.

>It is clear that one of the reasons we have gone an astonishing five years without a second attack on the American homeland is that the most dedicated and virulent jihadists have gone to Iraq to fight us, as was said during World War I, “over there.”

Play along at home (Krugman on vacation edition)

Well Paul Krugman chose to duck our challenge by taking a vacation: We’ll be waiting when he re-surfaces.

In place of the Krugman challenge today, I went trolling for silly op-ed pieces. Fortunately, is a one stop shop for silly op-ed pieces on the right.

In place of my long-winded analysis, I invite you to see whether you can find the fallacies in these two pieces, while I keep scouring the web for the liberal version of such a site.

Why liberals love adultery

Are videotaped beheading covered by Geneva?

Krugman Challenge Day 2 (I heart Krugman edition)

Today we’ll take another stab at the logic of Paul Krugman’s column (Times Select). Once again, the Krugman Challenge is an attempt to examine whether Paul Krugman commits fewer egregious logical sins than some of his colleagues. We are looking strictly speaking for commission of traditional logical fallacies, though considering along the way how his arguments work and whether they are made adequately explicit.

Krugman offers an argument for universal health care on two grounds:

>If we had a universal system — Medicare for everyone — there would be no more horror stories like those reported by The Los Angeles Times. And we’d almost certainly spend less on health care than we do now.

The first of these grounds is his concern for the majority of the column. The story from the L.A. Times provides some details of cases where people have purchased individual insurance, become sick, and then found their insurance company revoking coverage for various technical reasons. Krugman cites only 1 case and then asserts:

>This trend helps explain something that has been puzzling me: why is the health insurance industry growing rapidly, even as it covers fewer Americans?

Of course, Krugman has only cited one anecdote with a reference to the LA Times article on Sunday.

The original article claims that these cancellations–or at least the complaints and lawsuits that issue from them–have been suffered by people with individual insurance plans (of which there are 2 million in California) rather than group plans.

So is there evidence of a “trend” that can explain (or help explain) the rapid growth of the health industry? Well that’s hard for me to judge based on the data before me, and I will have to leave that to someone with access to relevant data. But it seems reasonable to take, in this case, the evidence of a series of lawsuits including depositions that show (“But an employee said in a deposition last year that a special department considers as many as 1,500 cases for cancellation each week in California alone. A consumer lawyer who saw Blue Cross’ cancellation tally sheets described the department as a rescission factory,” and coupled with regulators interest in these practices to suggest the existence of a “trend” (even though none of this evidence is directly cited in the article, the reference to its source seems more than adequate).

Can this trend provide explanation of the growth of the industry? Krugman doesn’t give us any particulars. However, immediately after this he talks about the growth of the industry as measured by employment, dazzling the reader with a series of statistics whose relevance to the question seems tenuous.
>Health care is poised to become America’s largest industry. Employment in manufacturing, which once dominated the
economy, has fallen 18 percent since 2000, to 14.2 million.

To which he adds:

>Yet even as health care becomes the core of the American economy, our system of paying for health care remains sick, and is getting sicker.

The sickness of health care is reflected in the decline of employment based coverage forcing either people to remain uninsured or seeking individual insurance. This coupled with the trend of jettisoning costly coverage where possible results in a trend towards only the healthiest and wealthiest having good insurance.

We will leave his comparison of the inefficiency of private health providers and the efficiency of government systems for another time when he offers a fuller argument for it.

So, how should we assess his argument? Once again Krugman avoids any glaringly fallacious argumentation. His argument is under-developed, but not in an obviously flawed way. There is a little bit of fuzziness connecting the “trend” of revoking coverage and the claim that it “helps explain” the growth of the industry. We have no real sense of the magnitude of the effects of this trend, or whether there are better explanations for the growth (such as providing increased services (as evidenced by increased employment?) to increased markets?). But, if the companies are interested in jettisoning costs (in some cases illegitimately) we must assume with Krugman that they are doing this as a result of “market pressures.” And so it must have some effect on their profitabiliy.

Nevertheless, since Krugman’s conclusion is that a public health care system would avoid cases like the one’s reported in the LA Times and cost less money, the part of his argument supporting the first claim seems adequately defended. (These cases are caused by the profit motive. In a public system profit motive is absent. Therefore these cases wouldn’t occur.)

Seems we will be returning for Krugman Challenge, Day 3!

Foul mouths

Sometimes calling people names is not fallacious. And so, David Broder:

>When Powell wrote that Bush’s demand would compound the world’s “doubt [about] the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” he was appealing to Jefferson’s standard.

>It is a standard this administration has flagrantly rejected. Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself. The country thought Bush was a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution.

No inference is being explicitly or implicitly drawn on the basis of the meanie-meanie-bo-beanie remark (and it doesn’t seem to play a functional roll in this paragraph or the op-ed as a whole). Since no inferences are being drawn, if Broder is guilty of anything, it’s uttering or uncritically repeating dubious memes about Gore, Kerry and Bush. But that’s a question for those who study and analyse the formation and dissemination of the “conventional wisdom.” He continues:

>Now, however, you can see the independence party forming — on both sides of the aisle. They are mobilizing to resist not only Bush but also the extremist elements in American society — the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left and the doctrinaire religious extremists on the right who would convert their faith into a whipping post for their opponents.

We might point out that being vituperative and foul-mouthed doesn’t mean you don’t have an argument, and that one finds many of the same bloggers on the right (add that to religious extremists and the balance shifts!), but that’s a factual point that we’d have to establish by reference to the relevant evidence. My anecdotal sampling of the blogosphere hardly seems sufficient evidence for such claims, so I won’t make them. Maybe Broder shouldn’t either, but he’s not arguing from this, he’s reporting it as fact. So once again, we’d leave that to the foul-mouthed blogers to discuss.

Krugman Challenge, Day 1

We have often claimed that Krugman does not make the same sort of logical mistakes as our friends George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer do. Might be time to see whether that is in fact true. Today Krugman gives us this explanation (sorry not free access) of the Bush administration’s fascination with violating the Geneva Convention:

>So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people? To show that it can. The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

This nicely illustrates some of the problems of interpreting and logical analysis. If we were to represent the text as an argument, we might say:

1. The central drive of the administration is eliminating all limits on president’s power.

2. The Geneva Convention is a limit on the president’s power.

3. Therefore, the administration wants to show that it can ignore the Geneva Convention.

It is a valid inference (if 1 and 2 are true, then 3 must be true) represented like that. Yet when we re-read the original passage something seems amiss.

Krugman takes for granted the conclusion as the initial fact and hence we are dealing with an explanation rather than an argument. (The difference between an argument and an explanation can generally be identified by asking the question whether the premises provide reason to believe the conclusion is true, or whether the “premises” answer the question “why the conclusion is true?”)

But then we must ask whether there is reason to believe that this explanation is the “best explanation.” And here we would expect some argument.

But Krugman doesn’t give it to us, instead he admits that this rests on his belief that

>”torture appeals to the president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition.”

He doesn’t give any reason for this. He should. (But not to give an argument for one’s premises is not a a violation of the rules of logic. All arguments begin from premises that are unjustified within the argument. But one should be willing (and able) to provide justification of the premises when requested).

But the problem is that it is not a terribly persuasive explanation. And Krugman surely realizes that it is a controversial. He is, in effect, claiming that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are motivated primarily by a lust to expand the president’s power and that their policies on torture are motivated primarily by this lust.

There are, it seems to me, plenty of other more plausible explanations. For example, nothing more is needed than the claim that they don’t care about constraints, coupled with a claim about their rejection of the evidence that torture does not produce reliable intelligence is adequate to explain their motivations.

Of course, Krugman could reply that he has rejected this explanation by presenting the evidence that torture cannot provide reliable intelligence (as an argument from authority):

>Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn’t like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.

>What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.

But, for this to be an argument against the proposed explanation (mine above), we would need to believe that the Bush Administration listens to the relevant “authorities.” Recent history suggests that they do not. There seems to be good reason to believe that the Bush administration really really does believe that torturing suspects will make America safer, just as they seem to have believed that invading Iraq would make America safer.
Once again, it is important that this is a failure at the level not of logic (validity) but of truth (soundness). I may not find his argument sound, but I don’t think he commits any fallacies.

How to avoid Nonsequitur

When I taught Logic for the first time years back I was tempted to spend very little time on the section in Patrick Hurley’s Introduction to Logic that deals with distinguishing argumentative from non-argumentative texts. In this chapter, students learn the ability to distinguish texts that contain inferences from texts that lack them. Examples of the latter include

  • Illustrations: "Great presidents are made not born. So, Roosevelt became the great leader he was only after much development.
  • Statements of belief: "The most difficult problem facing this country, I believe, is economic inequality."
  • Report: Median wages in real dollars have remained stagnant over the last twenty years, while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased. This is an increase in economic inequality.
  • Explanations: Economic inequality has increased because median wages have remained stagnant while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased.

Students tend to find this section hard, I think. It requires a great deal of interpretive ability to precisely define many passages and the distinctions between them are sometimes hard to identify in practice. The same "content" can be expressed in both argumentative and non-argumentative forms. The difference is one of intention and connection between statements. I have come to see that time spent on these distinctions is extremely important for learning logical analysis. (A great exercise is to have the students express the same content in as many of the various categories as possible. For those without a copy of Hurley handy, the section distinguishes between: warnings, advice,statement of belief, loosely associated groups of statements, reports, expository passages, illustrations, explanations, and conditionals.) I bring this up to elaborate on J.’s comments here explaining some of the reasons that we tend to "pick on" certain columnists more than others. J. points out that these columnists argue for their claims, but often do so badly. This morning I gave the op-ed pages at WaPo and NYT a quick read and found that there was nothing to comment on. No arguments to analyze and no fallacies to uncover. And I thought it might be useful to explain this. Today, our friend George Will reports the argument of Thomas B. Edsall in a book titled Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. Reporting another’s argument is a non-inferential "speech act." If we found a fallacy in Edsall’s argument we might explain it, but Will is safe from our analysis today. John Tierney follows suit with an exposition of the capitalist philanthropy a la Google and Whole Foods. Tierney doesn’t merely report another’s views and arguments as Will did. Instead he couples this reporting with statements of his own belief: >"It’s smart of Google’s founders to try using capitalist tools to save the planet; the market’s discipline should keep their philanthropy from backing too many lost causes. Still, whatever accomplishes, I’d bet that it will pale next to the social good accomplished by" I don’t know whether I agree with anything that is said there, but the crucial point is that there is no inferential content. Just a series of assertions of Tierney’s beliefs. Finally we cometo Maureen Dowd. In two years of scrutinzing the op-ed pages of the NYT we have never (I think) raked Dowd over the coals. Today’s column can illustrate why this is so. Once again, it is the lack of inference and argument. Dowd’s columns are generally combinations of statements of her beliefs and reporting with a few witticisms thrown in. >He has changed American culture, for sure. Bustling under Bill Clinton, the nation is now insecure about its moral force and military force. The president should take responsibility for the hash he’s made, instead of insisting every decision was correct, and come up with more astute cultural and military analyses. The “awakening” should be W.’s. Once again, I don’t know how much of her three claims here I agree with, but there sure isn’t an inference in sight.


What the liberal media doesn’t get, never got, and will never get, is that the phrase “judicial activism” can only be properly ascribed to “liberal” judges. But yesterday they went ahead anyway and authored an editorial with bias towards facts.

>Conservatives like to divide judges into liberal “activists” and conservative nonactivists who interpret the law rather than making it. Anyone who follows the courts knows that conservative judges are as activist as liberal judges —just for different causes. A new study of Supreme Court voting patterns confirms this and suggests that the conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are actually more activist than their liberal colleagues.

What is a judicial activist? It’s a justice who

>voted to overturn a federal or state law, or one of the court’s own precedents.

On that argument, it follows that

>The conservative justices were far more willing than the liberals to strike down federal laws — clearly an activist stance, since they were substituting their own judgment for that of the people’s elected representatives in Congress. Justice Thomas voted to overturn federal laws in 34 cases and Justice Scalia in 31, compared with just 15 for Justice Stephen Breyer.

In those cases I bet they had good reason, or thought they did. That’s why they write opinions. So thankfully the editorialist points out that

>Activism is not necessarily a bad thing. The Supreme Court is supposed to strike down laws that are unconstitutional or otherwise flawed. Clearly, all nine justices, from across the political spectrum, believe this, since they all regularly vote to strike down laws. What is wrong is for one side to pretend its judges are not activist, and turn judicial activism into a partisan talking point, when the numbers show a very different story.

“A partisan talking point” is right, and it’s a paltry substitute for an argument. Worse than that stands for the sneaky ad hominem circumstantial. So it means something like “a not well grounded opinion–because motivated by unjustified partisanship.” We suggest as a result that the The New York Times ought to enforce the rules of rational discourse and no longer host on its editorical pages the parade of bozos who substitute such nonsense of argument.

Ring of Gyges

Recently, a bloggishly famous New Republic writer, Lee Siegel, was caught praising himself under a pseudonym. His blogging days are over at The New Republic. But his quick and ironic downfall has led one of’s bloggers to wonder:

>So, if Siegel is a cretin for concealing his role in the authorship of Web comments, then so are millions of other posters. If Siegel is a cretin for arranging pseudonymous posts that benefit him, then so are hundreds of thousands of other posters. One could argue that if Siegel’s critics can blast him from the dark, he should be allowed to do the same to them.

There are some obvious differences between a professional writer, blogging for a blog, who blogs about the terrificness of his own blog and his own blogging, and the anonymous posting of hundreds of thousands of amateurs with their own rings of Gyges. The former deliberately lies about himself by presenting himself as someone other than himself; the latter attempt to avoid accountability for their own arguments, and so embrace the very essence of internetting. The former tries to create the impression that someone other than himself is out there thinking of him; the latter just send anonymous mail about someone else to someone else. There’s a big difference, and the boys at Slate ought to know that.

The Horror

Howard Kurtz of the *Washington Post* offers a perplexing translation of the dissatisfaction of “the left” with the Mainstream media. Take a peak:

>Trust me when I say that many liberals are really ticked off at the MSM, even though the nature of their criticism is very different from their rivals on the right. The anger that liberals feel over media coverage of President Bush and the war is tinged with deep disappointment over journalistic shortcomings and a hope, however vain, that things can be improved. *Why aren’t you on our side?*

The odd thing about Kurtz’s otherwise shallow two-party analysis (e.g., on the right they scream journalists and supreme court justices should be hanged until dead, but on the left, there is also criticism of journalists) is the partisan translation of the left complaint. But that translation hardly follows from Kurtz’s own description of the left complaint. The problem, according to Kurtz’s imaginary lefty, is journalistic shortcomings.

Here’s an example. Last week, for instance, a reporter for the *New York Times* claimed Hilary Clinton said democrats were “wasting time” with their obsession with gay marriage and so forth. The only problem, as you can read for yourself in detail here, is that Clinton wasn’t talking about democrats at all, she was talking about republicans. The clueless but famous journalist completely misrepresented Clinton’s words. That’s a journalistic failing.

So, back to Kurtz’s wacky claim. The argument of the left is that such journalistic failings constitute a problem. How he derives “why aren’t you on our side” from that is a mystery. The question, rather, should be, why don’t report the truth to the best of your knowledge (i.e., do your job)?