Tag Archives: Logical fallacies

A little back and forth

Normally these op-ed arguments go one way: pundit makes them, you must sit in stunned silence at the lunacy or the genius.  This week, however, we get a chance to see a little back-and-forth.  Well just once–once back, once forth (not sure if that phrase is supposed to work this way).  Anyway.  Here is Eugene Robinson on Newt Gingrich:

The latest example comes in an interview with the conservative Web site National Review Online. Unsurprisingly, he was criticizing President Obama. Bizarrely, according to the Web site, he said the following: "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?" According to Newt, this is "the most accurate, predictive model" for the president's actions, or policies or something.

What in the world is "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior" supposed to mean? That Obama is waging a secret campaign to free us from the yoke of British oppression?

So Robinson wonders what Newt's claim means.  Here's Newt's Spokesperson's reponse today in the Post:

Speculation on the origins of the worldview of world leaders has been going on since there have been world leaders, and the influence of fathers is often the strongest influence. The reaction to Newt Gingrich's remarks has bordered on irrationality. Mr. Robinson asserted that merely bringing up President Obama's father in this way is equivalent to doubting that the president is a U.S. citizen, and others have gone so far as to suggest that doing so is coded racism. What is so off-limits about Mr. Obama's past, specifically his father?

Nice.  Robinson did not say anything was "off limits."  He wondered what the hell Gingrich's approving citation of the blathering D'Souza was supposed to mean.  He didn't question the legitimacy of the remarks, he questioned their meaning and by extension their cogency. 

This is why we can't have nice discussions, part 3,453.

 

Pile on

The other day I talked about this weak and hollow man rich column by Charles Krauthammer.  But there was way more about that column that an attentive undergraduate could have criticized.  Here's another tidbit.  He wrote:

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than "violent extremists" of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

So fine two thirds of the population are against the Ground Zero community center.  What else have two thirds of the people been against?  I wonder.  Let's go back in time:

The reponse?

The "smug attribution of bigotry" to 82 percent of the people.

Straight face

Maggie Gallagher, president of NOM, writes:

Despite the media hoopla, this is not the first case in which a federal judge has imagined and ruled that our Constitution requires same-sex marriage. A federal judge in Nebraska ruled for gay marriage in 2005 and was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 2006.

The Proposition 8 case on which the Ninth Circuit's Judge Vaughn Walker ruled Wednesday was pushed by two straight guys with a hunger for media attention, lawyers with huge egos who overrode the considered judgment of major figures in the gay legal establishment, thinkers who feared exactly what we anticipate: the Supreme Court will uphold Prop. 8 and the core civil rights of Californians and all Americans to vote for marriage as one man and one woman.

Judge Walker's ruling proves, however, that the American people were and are right to fear that too many powerful judges do not respect their views, or the proper limits of judicial authority. Did our Founding Fathers really create a right to gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution? It is hard for anyone reading the text or history of the 14th Amendment to make that claim with a straight face, no matter how many highly credentialed and brilliant so-called legal experts say otherwise.

Nevermind the ad homs (ego-driven straight guys!) and the beggings of the question (proper limits of judicial authority!), I don't understand the last sentence.  Allow me to reconstruct:

  1. Many highly credentialed experts, with the proper knowledge and experience, assert x.
  2. no one can seriously claim x.

Pardon my confusion, but it seems like just the right kind of people–qualified straight people with straight faces–have made the assertion, I think that means it has some initial plausibility. 

Now of course, the controversy might be how one interprets "x" in my reconstruction.  And this is where Ms. Gallagher hollow mans–I don't think anyone has made the claim she alleges ("created an [enumerated] right….").  So no one, with a straight face or otherwise, is arguing that the COTUS (anyone ever say that?  They should) utters the phrase "gay marriage."  Of course, as far as I know, it doesn't say "marriage" either. 

via Pandagon via Atrios.

Strongly implies

Most of George Will's straw men are hollow men–enemies, usually "liberals" made up out of thin air, and made to hold views that would embarass a member of the communist party.  Today we are provided with a rare treat.  We can watch, almost in slow motion, the process of George Will-style straw manning.  We can see, in other words, how his dishonest mind distorts his opponent's words and then attacks them.  Today's column begins:

"Physician, heal yourself," said the founder of the church in which Roger Mahony is a cardinal. He is the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, and he should heed the founder's admonition before accusing Arizonans of intemperateness. He says that Arizona's new law pertaining to illegal immigration involves "reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation."

"Our highest priority today," he says, "is to bring calm and reasoning to discussions about our immigrant brothers and sisters." His idea of calm reasoning is to call Arizona's law for coping with illegal immigration "the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law." He also says that it is "dreadful," "abhorrent" and a "tragedy" and that its assumption is that "immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources."

The problem of illegal immigration is inflaming Mahony, who strongly implies, as advocates for illegal immigrants often do, that any law intended to reduce such illegality is "anti-immigrant." The implication is: Because most Americans believe such illegality should be reduced, most Americans are against immigrants. This slur is slain by abundant facts — polling data that show Americans simultaneously committed to controlling the nation's southern border and to welcoming legal immigration.

First off, note the classic ad hominem (tu quoque variety) flavor to the piece–"physician heal thyself" (but you haven't ha ha ha).   More basically, note that Mahoney (who shares a name with my cat), is talking about discussions of immigrants, not the particular immigration law in question.  For Mahoney, and for any third grader who can read his blog (he's got a blog), you can tell that he is referring to the general topic.  That may be a minor quibble, anyway.  Because the real distortion comes next. 

The clue to this is the twice-used "implication."  Now Will ought to know that the good Cardinal is not likely to make the claim that any law intended to reduce immigration is anti-immigrant simply because this one does.  That would be something like illicit subordination–concluding the universal proposition from the particular.  Ergo–that's Latin–the inference that most Americans are against immigrants does not follow from what Mahoney said. 

But the straw-manner is dishonest, and his objective is to close out the discussion of the opposition on their chosen position, and instead force them to defend, retract or respond to a weaker one.  Whatever they do–and I really don't know what the best way to reply here is–Will's monological tactic wins.  He controls the forum–the newspaper column–he can distort as much as he wants–until, of course, some adult at the Washington Post grows a pair. 

Cornell, ever heard of it?

Thankfully Cornell University's very excellent philosophy program is off the hook for the following travesty:

What follows is a series of ad hominem tu quoques.  For instance:

One could argue that, but one would be wrong.  Perhaps she should have taken a logic class as well.

Courtesy of the guys at Sadly, No!

Refinements

I think I might refine the definition of the argumentum ad imperfectionem somewhat today.  As I alleged the other day, ad imperfectionem fallacy occurs when one asserts that the minor errors in someone's argument may be justifiably exaggerated by opponents of that argument.  So, for instance, minor errors in a legal filing undermine one's entire case, not just those particular claims relevant to those errors.  For, after all, if there are a couple of typos, who knows what other kinds of serious errors there could be.  This, of course, is the response of a crazy person.  But not all crazy is the same, so it's worth it to take a closer look at the crazy.   

On this description, the imperfectionem is a variation of the ignoratio elenchi (IE).  The ignoratio elenchi, sometimes called "missing the point" or–get this–"non sequitur", is a kind of a catch-all category of fallacy: any other basic failure of informal entailment gets thrown in here.  Here, for instance, is the way Patrick Hurley puts it in A Concise Introduction to Logic:

Missing the point illustrates a special form of irrelevance.  This fallacy occurs when the premises of an argument support one particular conclusion, but then a different conclusion, often vaguely related to the correct conclusion, is drawn.

….

but in some ways it serves as a catchall for arguments that are not clear instances of one or more of the other fallacies.

Textbooks will often use examples of IEs with outrageous conclusions where more moderate ones are available.  So, for instance, given the inevitable shortcomings in weather forecasts, one ought not to listen to them at all.  That's dumb, as weather forecasts are predictions, and predictions can be wrong.  Again, the conclusion of a crazy person.  This conclusion, in that particular example, is driven by the idea that any imperfection, however minor, in the assertions of one party are sufficient to create doubt about that party's entire case. 

I think the argumentum ad imperfectionem is focused on the inference from the relatively minor shortcomings of one side to either (a) the truth of the opposite side (in which case it looks like a false dichotomy) or (b) to the conclusion that no one can really claim to know one's conclusion is true (in which case it looks like an appeal to ignorance) or finally (c) to the conclusion that the opposite side is relatively more justified. 

I can think of examples of all three of these.  But for today, here's an example of (a):

(a) in the minds of many, the various quibbles and revisions involved in the science of global warming justify skepticism of the entire thesis.  Here's an example of that from the Washington Post:

"What's happened here is that there's an industry of climate-change denialists who are trying to make it seem as though you can't trust anything that is between the covers" of the panel's report, said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies glaciers. "It's really heartbreaking to see this happen, and to see that the IPCC left themselves open" to being attacked.

That's not an example of an actual argument, as it is a report of someone else's argument.  But people really do make that allegation, unfortunately.

Maybe if I'm motivated I'll find examples of the others later.

The System Worked

Charles Krauthammer, the most dishonest pundit at the Post next to the rest of them, today goes on a rant about Obama's failure to talk tough in the war on terrorism–which, if we know anything from the Bush administration, didn't do much of anything.  Suicidal terrorists, one can imagine, love that kind of stuff.  Anyway, to start of the New Year, and perhaps to demonstrate why Krauthammer–like George Will–is too dishonest for honest criticism, let's take a quick look at today's column.

He writes:

Janet Napolitano — former Arizona governor, now overmatched secretary of homeland security — will forever be remembered for having said of the attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit: "The system worked." The attacker's concerned father had warned U.S. authorities about his son's jihadist tendencies. The would-be bomber paid cash and checked no luggage on a transoceanic flight. He was nonetheless allowed to fly, and would have killed 288 people in the air alone, save for a faulty detonator and quick actions by a few passengers.

That's a shame she'll be remembered that way, because that's not what she said.  Here is what she actually said:

Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork, not only sharing throughout the air industry, but also sharing with state and local law enforcement. Products were going out on Christmas Day, they went out yesterday, and also to the [airline] industry to make sure that the traveling public remains safe. I would leave you with that message. The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures, in light of this incident, but, again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.

It doesn't take a genius to see that those are completely different things.  Krauthammer has completely distorted her meaning–she wasn't talking about the events antecedent to the attack.  But Krauthammer isn't done.  He continues:

Heck of a job, Brownie.

The reason the country is uneasy about the Obama administration's response to this attack is a distinct sense of not just incompetence but incomprehension. From the very beginning, President Obama has relentlessly tried to play down and deny the nature of the terrorist threat we continue to face. Napolitano renames terrorism "man-caused disasters." Obama goes abroad and pledges to cleanse America of its post-9/11 counterterrorist sins. Hence, Guantanamo will close, CIA interrogators will face a special prosecutor, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed will bask in a civilian trial in New York — a trifecta of political correctness and image management.

This time at least he provided a link.  Which if you click, you'll find the following single mention that phrase:

The overriding and urgent mission of the United States Department of Homeland Security is contained in the name of the agency itself. To secure the homeland means to protect our nation's borders by finding and killing the roots of terrorism and to stop those who intend to hurt us; to wisely enforce the rule of law at our borders; to protect our national cyber infrastructure; and to prepare for and respond to natural and man-caused disasters with speed, skill, compassion, and effectiveness.

Here again Krauthammer's rendering of her words is not even close.  She doesn't come close to renaming terrorism anything–she uses the phrase "man-caused disasters" to highlight the fact that homeland security will be involved in the emergency services response to a terrorist act (in addition to prevention–which is also its job as the quotation makes clear—using even the word "terrorism"). 

I think you get the idea, but here's one more context distortion.  This time it's Obama:

And produces linguistic — and logical — oddities that littered Obama's public pronouncements following the Christmas Day attack. In his first statement, Obama referred to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as "an isolated extremist." This is the same president who, after the Fort Hood, Tex., shooting, warned us "against jumping to conclusions" — code for daring to associate the mass murder there with Nidal Hasan's Islamist ideology. Yet, with Abdulmutallab, Obama jumped immediately to the conclusion, against all existing evidence, that the would-be bomber acted alone.

Of course Obama didn't say that.  This is what he said:

Finally, the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.  

He's clearly referring to his singularity on the plane and to the actions of the people who stopped him.  He wasn't of course making a judgement about whether there was a conspiracy. 

It's a new year, I know, but I am seriously thinking of putting Krauthammer and Will in the column of people whose work is so bad and so dishonest it doesn't merit criticism.  Who does that leave? 

Mysterious ways

As I head off to vacation, let us marvel at Newt Ginrich marvelling at God's mysterious ways (courtesy of Media Matters):

newtgingrich As callista and i watched what dc weather says will be 12 to 22 inches of snow i wondered if God was sending a message about copenhagen

newtgingrich After the expanding revelations of dishonesty in climategate having a massive snow storm as obama promises our money to the world is ironic

newtgingrich There is something jimmy carter like about weather service upgrading frrom winter storm to blizzard as global warming conference wants US $ 

But he was not alone.  There was disagreement about the meaning of the snow storm.  Here is Erick Erickson at the not-worth-evaluating Red State blog:

Over at Talking Points Memo, Brian Beutler chronicles the follies of the Democrats and health care.

Joe Lieberman has gone back to Connecticut in advance of the blizzard. This leaves the Democrats needing Republican votes to get back to health care.

At the end of the article, Brian writes, “[D]on’t be surprised to hear a new Republican talking point: Even Mother Nature hates health care reform.”

I hate to correct him, but actually the talking point is that God hates the Democrats’ health care deform. With funding death panels and abortions, of course the Almighty would send a snow storm or, in Brian’s words, a snowpocalypse to shut down Washington.

Oh, and kudos to Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council for organizing the “pray-in.” Looks to be working.

I am tempted to think the second of these is a joke, but the "death panels" remark seems to be serious. 

Speaking of hacks

We have written something like 155 posts on George Will, most of them criticisms of his arguments. “Why him?” people ask (they really do). If you follow the links to blogs discussing his articles and read the rarely published letters to the editor regarding them, you’ll find three basic types: (1) people who copy the whole op-ed to their web page, as if in some kind of sign of cyber approval; (2) people who talk about how they sometimes just have to disagree with him, despite their finding him a very intelligent and compelling writer; (3) people like me, who find his air of scholarship hollow, his premises too frequently dishonest or just wrong, and his conclusions weakly drawn when not just plain fallacious. That’s why we write about him.

But there is another reason. It’s still the reason we write about newspaper op-eds, and comparatively rarely about blogs. Detection of logical fallacies involves context. What is a straw man in one context, for instance, may not be a straw man in another context. In order to make a pedagogical point, for instance, a coach or a teacher may exaggerate the weakness of a particular course of action or point of view (Thanks to Scott for this example). In a similar fashion, poorly informed individuals may entertain lots of straw men concerning alternative views without knowing it. What’s wrong in their case is their ignorance of better arguments, not their malicious attempt to deceive. Whether that global ignorance is purposeful or not is another matter for another time.

The context of a high-caliber newspaper op-ed page, we maintain, ought to be another. We’d presume, I think fairly, that a newspaper such as the Washington Post aims to inform its readers. It has an interest therefore in the truth of the claims being alleged as true on its pages. Most of the newspaper aims to inform in a straightforward way. It does this so people can avoid the global ignorance about points of view, places, people, positions and postulations. This simple feature of the newspaper implies another one: the informative function of a newspaper ought to carry over on to its op-ed page. The op-ed page is worthless if it merely becomes a forum for the over-eager polemicist. It ought to be founded on the well-established facts of the world of honest reporting (not, for instance, the “scholars” of the American Enterprise Institute).

But we ask too much. In the context of an article gloating about how fewer Americans believe in anthropogenic climate change, he writes:

In their new book, “SuperFreakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist, worry about global warming but revive some inconvenient memories of 30 years ago. Then intelligent people agreed (see above) that global cooling threatened human survival. It had, Newsweek reported, “taken the planet about a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average.” Some scientists proposed radical measures to cause global warming — for example, covering the arctic ice cap with black soot that would absorb heat and cause melting.

Levitt and Dubner also spoil some of the fun of the sort of the “think globally, act locally” gestures that are liturgically important in the church of climate change. For example, they say the “locavore” movement — people eating locally grown foods from small farms — actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. They cite research showing that only 11 percent of such emissions associated with food are in the transportation of it; 80 percent are in the production phase and, regarding emissions, big farms are much more efficient.

Newsweek is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Levitt and Dubner have been roundly criticized for their hacking it up (today’s theme!) on global warming (links later, still dealing with format issues). And that point, by the way, of locavoring it misses it widely–it’s not the transportation only, it’s the method of monoculture and petroleum-intensive production that people are trying to avoid.

Such countervailing facts should be obvious to anyone who has read the Post (I should hope). Alas.