Tag Archives: Logic

F**k logic, get votes

In a recent interview, George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, highlights (again) his well-known disregard for “logic.”

To liberals, a lot of conservative thinking seems like a failure of logic: why would a conservative be against equal rights for women and yet despise the poor, when to liberate women into the world of work would create more wealth, meaning less poverty? And yet we instinctively understand those as features of the conservative worldview, and rightly so.

The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation. “The world that the nurturant parent seeks to create has exactly the opposite properties,” Lakoff writes in Moral Politics. As progressives identify failures of logic in the conservative position, so it works the other way round (one of Lakoff’s examples: “How can liberals support federal funding for Aids research and treatment, while promoting the spread of Aids by sanctioning sexual behaviour that leads to Aids?”).

Lakoff seems to be arguing that logic is not essential to political disagreement because each side thinks the other to have failed at logic in some way.  What you need to do is highlight the strengths of your position:

 It’s about time progressives got out there and said what’s true about themselves, as well as what’s true of the other side. If you have a strong position, let’s hear it.

Point taken (maybe) about the adopting an exclusively critical position, but, I wonder, what sorts of things make your position “strong”?  Could it be that your position accords with reality, overcomes relevant objections, etc.?  It’s “logical” in other words?

If I’m not mistaken, Why We Argue has a chapter on this very issue (featuring Lakoff!).

Logic counts, but so do facts

Michael Kinsley is on to something when he argues,  in a recent post at the Washington Monthly's Ten Miles Square Blog, that people ought to check the logic of arguments in politics.  He's completely wrong, however, to suggest they shouldn't also check facts (but maybe this was a title he didn't assign–"Check Logic, Not Facts").  He writes:

This political campaign has been a frustrating blizzard of numbers and studies.

One side says $344 billion over 21 years, then the other side calls that a desperate lie and says the real number is up to $1 trillion over the next decade. The first side then attempts to validate its number by saying it comes from a recent report by the authoritative Center for Boring Statistics, and the second side says that, by contrast, its numbers are based on the nonpartisan volume “Vicious Figures for Dummies, 3rd Edition” (1958).

How is a citizen supposed to know whom to believe?

Journalism might help sort out which ones are credible. Anyway, on to the importance of logic: 

There is an alternative. Many campaign thrusts and parries can be verified or discredited by reason and logic alone. They just don’t make sense (or, on occasion, they do make sense) without reference to any numbers or studies. Reason doesn’t require the approval of the Congressional Budget Office. It is available to anybody willing to take a minute and use it. And it is self-validating. You don’t need to trust anybody to decide whether reasoning is true or false.

For example, you don’t need any actual numbers to figure out that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, are talking through their hats about Medicare and Social Security.

Minor quibble: reasoning isn't really true or false, it's sound or unsound, valid or invalid, etc.  That distinction, between inferences and facts, is actually a critically important one to Kinsley's point.  And his flubbing up the correct terminology shows that he really doesn't have a grip on what makes his recommendation, admirable though it is, very difficult to implement.

For people hide behind inferences all of time as matters of opinion.  It's their opinion, they may argue, that A follows from B.  Kinsley needs to find a way to show that it is not a matter of opinion that A follows B.  But that's difficult to do.  It's way more difficult than checking facts.

Too many facts, just cut a few

From the Washington Post via the  Washington Monthly (via Balloon Juice):

Republicans are hierarchical, and we like order. We almost always nominate the second-place finisher from the previous election or an early-consensus frontrunner. This suggests that Romney should be our frontrunner. But a lot of the criticism of him is true: He has issues with authenticity, his support is thin, and he has some nagging preexisting policy positions that will have to be managed, not solved. If you had to make a bet, though, you would bet on Romney.


Even though Cain won’t be the nominee, his candidacy tells us a lot about the psychology of GOP activists. Our team wants someone authentic, creative, fresh, bold and likeable. And we don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information. In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay. Cain’s 9-9-9 is a bumper sticker; Romney’s economic plan is an essay. Perry’s rationale for giving the children of undocumented workers in-state college tuition rates is an essay. No hand-outs for illegal aliens is an effective bumper sticker.

Yes, too much information.  Not what our (their) team wants.

Can and should

We really deserve a better national discourse than the one we have.  Right now, for instance, there is a lot of discussion about the Cordoba House, an Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan, known by many (unfortunately) as the "Ground Zero Mosque."  No one seriously disputes–or rather no one can seriously challenge–the Islamic Community's constitutional right to build wherever they want.  This doesn't mean people won't try this ridiculous line of argument (see this discussion from Scott the other day) or worse.  The real adult discussion must be elsewhere.

On this score, people spend a lot of time drawing a distinction which, it also turns out, no one seriously disputes.  Just because one can build an Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan, they say, does not entail that one should.  However, just because one can make such an obvious distinction does not entail that the distinction has any bearing on this particular issue.  Normally, when one makes a distinction between can and should what ought to follow is a series of reasons why not.  I'm still waiting.  For good ones anyway.  Someone help me.

To be honest, I have a fairly settled opinion on this matter–I don't personally see the problem.  But I'm concerned that I'm missing some argumentative nuance, so I really wonder what the argument against the Cordoba House is.

Let's exclude all of the arguments which assert stuff that's false (Muslims build F-U mosques at the site of their victories, Sharia Sharia Sharia, etc.).  That stuff is ludicrous.  What is left? 

What about the sacred space of Ground Zero?  Well, (1) it's not located at Ground Zero; (2) It was a Burlington Coat Factory; (3) the area also hosts strip joints, bars, and wagering facilities; (4) Ground Zero itself will be a commercial building; (5) non-terrorist Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks (and in the subsequent terrorist conflict).

What about the feelings of the survivors and their families?  Gee, (1) they're mistaken about who is responsible for the 9/11 attacks; (2) they don't have sole title to have hurt feelings–see above, Muslims were killed too; (3) nothing about the proposed center celebrates the terrorist attacks, on the contrary, it pays homage to the memory of those who died.

Nothing, as far as I can tell (if you can, however, you're welcome to say so in the comments).  Now just as an illustration of how debased we have become on this point.  Dana Milbank, newish permanent columnist on the Washington Post's Opinion Page, finds something to gripe about:

He claims he wishes to improve the standing of Muslims in the United States, to build understanding between religions, and to enhance the reputation of America in the Muslim world. But in the weeks since he — unintentionally, he says — set off an international conflagration over his plans to build an Islamic center near the scene of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York, he has set back all three of his goals.

Still, there is another cause that has flourished during the controversy — that of Feisal Abdul Rauf. Here he is on the Larry King show; there he is writing an op-ed in the New York Times; that's him, again, on ABC's This Week. On Monday morning, he addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (I listened in via conference call), offering many thoughts on what appears to be his favorite topic.   

It just gets worse.  Milbank apparently takes issue with Rauf because he has attempted to defend his decision to locate the Cordoba House in lower Manhattan.  He can only defend himself by defending himself.  Seriously.  Marvel at the snide insinuation that Rauf has been self-aggrandizingly provocative.  Let's put Milbank's moronic point in a much less charitable way:

you're only defending yourself and your decisions because you've been attacked.

If someone knows another way to defend oneself then I'm all ears.  But this is the mind of the contrarian.  There are to my mind (again, if there are, tell me) no arguments against Rauf's Cordoba House.  None.  But that's not going to stop Milbank from thinking outside of the box.

See also.

The whole premise is a fallacy

Read this column by Dana Milbank in the paper today:

This matters, because it means the entire premise of the Arizona immigration law is a fallacy. Arizona officials say they've had to step in because federal officials aren't doing enough to stem increasing border violence. The scary claims of violence, in turn, explain why the American public supports the Arizona crackdown.

I know what he means, but I'm a stickler for such things, and it's wrong to call this a "fallacy."  A fallacy is an error in reasoning and Milbank is simply alleging that the factual basis of the law (more on that in a second) is false.  Were it to be true, then there would be no fallacy.  So they're just mistaken about facts.    

As for the allegedly false factual basis, the most Milbank can say is that some of the claims made by various supporters of the Arizona immigration law are false.  I don't think that amounts to the claim that the "entire premise of the law" is false.  I imagine there are other premises–such as illegal immigration is illegal, and so forth–that supporters of the law can point to.

None of this means, of course, that the law in question is a good idea–it's just not a fallacy. 



Too much of our critical political discourse depends on one single virtue: consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, a man who writes articles (I am not exaggerating) in praise of Hitler–is a kind of pundit saint.  Since consistency matters, and consistency depends on memory–or rather, detecting someone's inconsistency depends on remembering what she's said in the past, let's have some fun with our favorite son on an economist, Robert Samuelson.  Samuelson, is like the captain bringdown of the Post editorial page.  He's got a droopy mustache, a dour expression, and he poo-poos just about everyone who tries to do something about something–environmentalists are dumb and self-indulgent for buying Priuses!. 

For a while–for those who remember–Samuelson been poo-pooing Obama's "self-indulgence" on health insurance reform.  A more competent rhetorical analyst, by the way, might have fun with the way he always goes ad hominem on Obama–treating his own impoverished and uncharitable image of Obama rather than Obama's stated positions (he even admitted once that this was his own problem).  But it's worthwhile to poke fun at Samuelson's priorities.  Way back before we spent 700 plus billion dollars in Iraq, chasing what turned out to be an easily uncovered deception, here is what Samuelon wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but "can we afford it?" is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

Pocket change.  In reflecting on this piece (called "A War We Can Afford") Samuelson wrote:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security.

When it comes things that are actually real, on the other hand, Samuelson is skeptical:

When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody's Investors Service — the bond rating agency — published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama's health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.

900 billion?  That figure is almost exactly what we've spent in seven years of war.  Weird.  But this time cost is all that matters. 

Grounded in logic

The other week the New York Times ran a fawningly long profile of a "big thinking" ultra-conservative Catholic intellectual.  It stressed his powerful Oxford credentials, his Big University Post (at a non-Catholic institution–take that elite liberal institutions!), his influence over Catholic leadership, his ties to Bush, Glenn Beck's admiriation of him, and, most importantly for our purposes, his frequent use of the word "reason" in place of an actual argument.  So powerful his intellect, you see, that Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, aped his words in a recent speech. 

Even marriage between a man and a woman, Rigali continued, was grounded not just in religion and tradition but in logic. “The true great goods of marriage — the unitive and the procreative goods — are inextricably bound together such that the complementarity of husband and wife is of the very essence of marital communion,” the cardinal continued, ascending into philosophical abstractions surely lost on most in the room. “Sexual relations outside the marital bond are contrary not only to the will of God but to the good of man. Indeed, they are contrary to the will of God precisely because they are against the good of man.

Now I may not be a logician of this fellow's calibre, but I'm trying to think of which principle of logic grounds the union of a man and a woman in life-long monogamous non-divorcing holy Catholic and procreative matrimony.  I'm going to guess that it must be one of those Latin principles, an abstraction, in other words, few could understand.  Maybe it's ex falso quodlibet sequitur

I think, however, it's more likely the principle of petitio principii–begging the question. 

*edited for sense later in the day.

Shut him down

Once again someone needs to explain to Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, the importance of making "inferences."  Yesterday in an online chat session (courtesy of TPM) there was the following exchange between Hiatt and a reader:

Boston: This doesn't relate to Obama but would you care to address the whole George Will global warming column controversy? Is there any concern that lax standards for accuracy hurts the prestige of The Post opinion page more generally?

Fred Hiatt: Happy to, because we don't have lax standards for accuracy. He addressed the factual challenges to his column in detail in a later column. In general we do careful fact checking. What people have mostly objected to is not that his data are wrong but that he draws wrong inferences. I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.

We have talked about this issue here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).  Two quick things.  First, "inferences" in this case are part of the "facts."  As one arrives at all "facts" other than perhaps those immediately obvious to you, by "inferences."  Believe it or not, I make an "inference" regarding all facts about the past.  I ate breakfast this morning, I so conclude, on account of the fact that there is an empty bowl of cereal with spoon in it on my desk.  Ok that is an easy one, but you get the point.  It is a fact that I ate breakfast, but it is a fact I believe on account of the evidence for it.  So it's not so easy to separate "facts" from "inferences." 

Second, I would argue that the Post excludes people with "inferences" all of the time–and rightly so.  The Holocaust denier can claim merely to be making historical "inferences" between "facts".  Such inferences are preposterous, of course.  Drawing this distinction, in other words, is absurd.