Category Archives: General discussion

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David Brooks, Triple Threat

Today Brooks concludes a 750 word meditation on political courage with the following comment:

The coming weeks will be so tough because the essential contest – of which the Swift boat stuff was only a start – will be over who really has courage, who really has resolve, and who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.

Here we have Brooks embracing the highly dubious claims of the so called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, forcing them into a radically silly false dilemma (“who really has the resolve and who is just a fraud”), seasoned with another abusive and vicious–but this time rather direct–ad hominem attack (“a fraud with a manly bearing”), in order to conclude with a hasty generalization about the themes of the election (“the essential contest”). Nevermind the ridiculous excursus on the virtue of holding beliefs without the taint of self-doubt (the term “obtuseness” comes to mind), and nevermind the fact that none of the courageous Republicans contrasted with Kerry actually carries the name of the current Republican candidate (McCain is a senator from Arizona, Shwarzenegger is Governor of California, and Giuliani holds no political office), this conclusion–a combination of three howling non sequiturs–merits a special place in the non sequitur hall of shame.

First, the silly false dilemma. There are of course only two real choices for President. But the choice is not between a fraud and someone with resolve, it is a choice between a rather complicated set of political positions and choices. To claim that one of them is a fraud is a rather dastardly attempt to make the choice seem inevitable (I don’t wanna vote for a fraud, do you?).

Sometimes you can weave a false dilemma out of whole cloth: “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” But sometimes you can mask it in another equally atrocious non sequitur–such as this one: “who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.” Unless Brooks thinks we’re too slow to see the implicit connection between “Swift Boats” and “fraud with a manly bearing”, we’re supposed to conclude that Kerry (and not the warrior in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier) is the fraud the Swift Boat vets have claimed he is. And there you have the other pole of the false dilemma.

Finally, on the basis of this reasoning–to call it specious would be a compliment–Brooks asks us to conclude that this is the key theme of the election, that this is the “essential contest”. A bit hasty, we think. Other sources have pointed out other equally “essential” themes: the economy, the environment, the war in Iraq, social policy, education, among many others. Claiming that this one dominates grossly exagerates its importance (at the expense, one might argue, of substantive questions of domestic and foreign policy).

Ad hominem in Reverse!

Today’s Krauthammer presents us with an interesting example of what we might call a reverse ad hominem fallacy. But before that, a little straightforward ad hominem, just to get going:

Actually, this time around, even more apoplectic. The Democrats’ current disdain for George Bush reminds me of another chess master, Efim Bogoljubov, who once said, “When I am White, I win because I am White” — White moves first and therefore has a distinct advantage — “when I am Black, I win because I am Bogoljubov.” John Kerry is a man of similar vanity — intellectual and moral — and that spirit thoroughly permeates the Democratic Party.

So the basic strategy is to heap up abuse on the Democratic candidate. Nothing new or interesting about that. We all know that Kerry has arguments for his positions and that these arguments should be examined on their merits. The same naturally is the case for the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. But herein lies Krauthammer’s trick. Ignoring the arguments of the Republican candidate, Krauthammer instead accuses the “liberals as a body” of engaging in vicious and groundless attacks on Bush himself:

The loathing goes far beyond the politicians. Liberals as a body have gone quite around the twist. I count one all-star rock tour, three movies, four current theatrical productions and five bestsellers (a full one-third of the New York Times list) variously devoted to ridiculing, denigrating, attacking and devaluing this president, this presidency and all who might, God knows why, support it.

So what we have is the claim that the opposition’s arguments are nothing but vicious ad hominem personal attacks and as such not worth pondering even for a moment. Now to some extent–sometimes to a great extent indeed–these sorts of attacks do take place. But in the sources alluded to here–and indeed in any serious discussion of the current election–arguments are put forward, evidence is offered, and conclusions drawn (justifiably or not). The arguments, like all arguments, deserve in civil political society to be examined on their merits. Broadly generalizing–generalizing hastily–that all such attacks are ad hominem is to make their arguments seem weaker than they might (“might” becuase no attempt is made to address their claims) actually be. As far as rhetorical dirty tricks goes, this is not only one of the dirtiest, but also one of the cleverest. You accuse the opposition of a being intellectually irreponsible, and so force him or her on the defensive. This may play well on a cable TV shoutfest, but its printed form only too quickly shows it to be absolute nonsense.

Tod Lindberg earns a 9.9 from the American judges

Well, Safire’s on vacation, so that makes the New York Times a little slow on Tuesdays. It may be the broken air-conditioning in my office this morning, but I decided not to troll the op-ed pages of the major dailies and instead jumped straight to a “sure-thing”–Tony Blankley’s Washington Times. And what do you know? We find Tod Lindberg in remarkable form today. His chosen routine begins with a well-executed “false dilemma,” gradually building with an increasing tempo through a series of implicit “tu quoque’s” and a “straw man,” he reaches the pinnacle of his routine–a rhetorical move, complicated and daring–a rhetorical ploy that perhaps has not yet been named.

First a sampling of his more pedestrian specious reasoning:

There are two possibilities: Either the Kerry campaign actually believes that the Bush campaign is behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; or the Kerry campaign just think’s its good politics to blame the President personally for the Vietnam veterans who served in proximity to Mr. Kerry and have decided he is “unfit” to be commander in chief.

A fairly simple false dilemma, hinging on whether there are other alternatives–perhaps the Kerry campaign believes that the Bush campaign is “involved” or “has made it convenient” for this organization to receive funding etc.. Never mind the question of what might be meant by “blame the President personally for . . ..” If anything the Kerry campaign blames the president for the utilization of these people in a high-profile, well-funded, misleading hatchet job.

But the really great stuff is still to come: Lindberg wants to suggest that the Kerry campaign and liberals in general are obsessed with “conspiracy theories.” Now to claim that an explanation is a conspiracy theory is to cast doubt on the truth and plausibility of the explanation. Even further, a conspiracy theory is by connotation, at least, the product of a paranoid mind, and hence almost by definition false, and at least by definition, unjustified by the available evidence.

Well, how do you argue that an explanation is part of a conspiracy theory? Lindberg certainly does not actually address the truth or falsity of the claim that there are suspicious connections between the Bush campaign and S.B.V.F.T: He does not want to evaluate the evidence of connection:

“But the Swift Boat Veterans funder is from Texas! Mr. Bush wrote him a letter! If that’s not proof of coordination, what is? Well, proof of coordination would be proof of coordination, and this is no that.”

An exceptionally executed Straw Man fallacy! The judges could not be more impressed! As though the whole argument of the Kerry Campaign is the fact that the funder is from Texas!

Nevertheless, Lindberg needs to cast some doubt on the explanation, so he asks:

“But do Republicans think there is some vast left-wing conspiracy aimed at them?”

Of course, he will argue that they do not. The really clever thing here, is that by merely associating Democrats and Conspiracy theories, Lindberg is able to suggest that their explanation of the connection between S.B.V.F.T. and the Bush campaign is a conspiracy theory, and therefore their explanation of the connection between the Bush campaign and S.B.V.F.T. is false!

A daring argument! The judges are stunned with no words to describe it. Is it a sort of tu quoque? An ad hominem? An ad populum? A combination of all of these fallacies rolled into one stunning stunning display of specious reasoning!?

The argument appears to work as follows:

1. Republicans don’t cry “conspiracy theory.”

2. Democrats hold a conspiracy theory concerning the SBVFT.

3. Conspiracy theories are false, or unjustified by the evidence.

3. Therefore, there is no connection between the SBVFT and the Bush campaign.

The first claim is a sort of “appeal to the people” (ad populum). It claims the moral high-ground, implicitly suggesting by the contrast that Democrats do in fact cry conspiracy theory.

The second claim passes unsupported by any evidence: Given the definition of a conspiracy that he gives–“carefully coordinated activity in which each apparently separate part is in fact centrally directed and controlled?”–it strikes one as exceedingly unlikely that the Kerry campaign has asserted any such thing.

The third claim is virtually definitional.

Then, finally, the conclusion of a factual falsity–the message he wants to leave you with–there is no coordination between SBVFT and the Bush Campaign. Why? Because Republicans don’t cry conspiracy theory and Democrats do.

In fact, he has not provided a single piece of evidence for this claim!

It’s a fascinating argument–and in fact it really isn’t new. Tucker Carlson lives and breathes by it on CrossFire.

The question of how to classify the central fallacy is difficult. It is probably an ad hominem argument beginning from an ad populum that lays the psychological ground for the fallacious inference.

Bravo Mr. Lindberg!!

Source

Bait ‘n’ Switch with the Swift Boats

Q But why won’t you denounce the charges that your supporters are making against Kerry?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m denouncing all the stuff being on TV of the 527s. That’s what I’ve said. I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but used for other purposes, as well. I, frankly, thought we’d gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill. I thought we were going to, once and for all, get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising. And so I’m disappointed with all those kinds of ads.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/08/20040823-4.html

As every fan of “Law and Order” knows, questions and their answers can implicitly make arguments. Politicians are especially skilled at responding to questions in such a way that the listener draws an inference from the question and answer that is not always justified. Here President Bush responds to the question of his motivation in not denouncing the “Swift Boat for Truth” ads, by saying that he denounces “all the stuff being on TV of the 527’s” (sic.).

In fact, there is a difference between

I denounce all 527 advertising for being misleading and false. The Swift Boat for truth ad is 527 advertising. Therefore, I denounce the Swift boat for Truth ad for being misleading and false.

and

I denounce all 527 advertising for being unfairly funded. The Swift Boat for Truth ad is 527 advertising. Therefore, I denounce the Swift boat for Truth ad for being unfairly funded.

Obviously the Kerry campaign (and John McCain) is asking the President to denounce it because it is misleading and false not because of the source of its funding. Bush changes the meaning of “denunciation” in the implicit argument contained in this question and answer.

The reporter at this particular event, who is named only “Adam” by this source, caught the fallacy and next asked: “Thank you, Mr. President. This doesn’t have anything to do with other 527 ads. You’ve been accused of mounting a smear campaign. Do you think Senator Kerry lied about his war record?”

This fallacy should have a name if it doesn’t. As it is described here it is the fallacy of equivocation. But in a sense, it is the converse of the “double question” fallacy (Have you stopped beating your dog?) It is so common among politicians that it should have its own designation.

Bear Patrol

Here’s an oft-repeated howler printed in the New York Times from op-ed contributor and Marine Major on duty in Iraq Glen G. Butler

The pre-emptive doctrine of the current administration will continue to be debated long after I’m gone, but one fact stands for itself: America has not been hit with another catastrophic attack since 9/11. I firmly believe that our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are major reasons that we’ve had it so good at home. Building a “fortress America” is not only impractical, it’s impossible. Prudent homeland security measures are vital, to be sure, but attacking the source of the threat remains essential.

How often have you heard this one in its various versions? The implication here is that the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq) is the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States. Now the factual claims are no doubt true. First, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and there has not been another major terrorist attack-or any terrorist attack-in the United States. No attempt, however, on the part of the author, is made to demonstrate that the two major military operations are the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States (we should not forget the bombings in Bali and Madrid and elsewhere). Just because, in other words, the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq which even according to George Bush had nothing to do with 9/11) has preceded the absence of catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 does not mean it is the cause. What we have here, in more technical terms, is a perfect example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy-after this, therefore because of this, or the correlation-causation fallacy.

Should someone not be convinced by this analysis, consider the following scene from the Simpsons, where Homer remarks on the success of Springfield’s attempt to control bear activity:

Homer: “There’s not a single bear in sight–the ‘Bear Patrol’ is working like a charm”

Lisa: “That’s specious reasoning,”

H: “Thanks, honey,”

L: “According to your logic, this rock keeps tigers away”.

H: “Hmmm. How does it work?”

L: “It doesn’t.”

H: “How so?”

L: “It’s just a rock,”

H: “But I don’t see a tiger, anywhere.”

H: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock.”

And consider how many times this passage comes up in the context of the war on terrorism and similar matters. Should the author want to avoid the rock-tigers problem, and therefore avoid utter nonsense, he should offer evidence to the effect that specific terrorist attacks have actually been thwarted by the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. Simply believing it firmly-and in the present author’s case, actually putting your life on the line for that belief-does not make it so. Undergoing much personal danger and sacrifice in the service of one’s belief does not make them true.

The Thrill is Gone

A champion debater–always a red flag in the logic world–at the University of Chicago, David Brooks illustrates for us today the distinction between rhetoric and real argument:

Kerry’s speeches in the 1990’s read nothing like that 1971 testimony. The passion is gone. The pompous prevaricator is in. You read them and you see a man so cautiously calculating not to put a foot wrong that he envelops himself in a fog of caveats and equivocations. You see a man losing the ability to think like a normal human being and starting instead to think like an embassy.

Here we have two if not more basic logical howlers. First, and most obviously, Brooks attacks Kerry the person rather than his arguments. He heaps abuse on the Senator from Massachussets (“the pompous prevaricator”) for not taking clear and unnuanced positions (as do “normal human beings”) on complicated matters of policy. Second, in executing this attack, Brooks suggests that the only responsible way for to go is passionately to embrace one or another position (apparently it matters not what that position is as long as it is held passionately). We find it perplexing in the extreme that one would suggest embracing false dichotomies as a habit of thought.

Later in the same piece, Brooks continues his rhetorical charge:

Most people take a certain pride in their own opinions. They feel attached to them as part of who they are. But Kerry can be coldly detached from his views, willing to use, flip or hide them depending on the exigencies of the moment.

Here we have the appeal to the people–the argumentum ad populum–the last refuge of the op-ed writer. If I can’t make an argument for my position, then perhaps I can directly appeal to the good sense of “most people.” Unfortunately, just because most people “take pride in their opinions” does not mean that they should. If recent history has shown us anything, most people can be wrong, terrifyingly wrong (please fill in your own examples). The intellectual virtue of detachment–of seeing the limits of one’s own beliefs and revising them–becomes a vice in Brooks’ intellectual landscape. And of course when one changes one’s views, it’s not because of any honest reflection–a possibility Brooks wholly ignores–but because of the “exigencies” (that is to say the circumstances) of the moment.

So that’s at least four for Brooks today–ad hominem (abusive variety), false dichotomy, ad populum, and ad hominem (circumstantial variety). And this is only a cursory reading. Should you like to find more, here is the link.

And this brings us back to our original point. What Brooks says sounds very convincing, and he harnesses all of his considerable rhetorical training to make his case. Unfortunately, what results is nothing but so much hot air, so much nonsense. In the examples here cited, he does nothing to demonstrate, to support, or to argue for his position–whereby “argue” we mean state reasons that lead with significant probability to his conclusion.

et tu quoque Krauthammer?

Charles Krauthammer loves you too, I mean, tu quoque:

Strange. I do not remember any of these critics complaining about the universally hailed Oslo peace accords that imposed upon the Palestinians a PLO government flown in from Tunisia composed nearly entirely of political exiles.

Now I suppose the conclusion of the argument is that since these critics (note how they are unspecified–who is he talking about?) said nothing about the PLO exiles negotiating with Isreal, then lest they be hypocrites they better be quiet now that Iraqi exiles are doing the same thing. Well, even if it is true that every single critic of the Iraqi exiles wholeheartedly embraced the idea of PLO exiles negotiating with Israel, the two cases are hardly similar enough–or jeez, even if they are similar, very similar indeed–he has done nothing to counter the argument “these critics” are making. So they changed their mind. One must still demonstrate that they are wrong.