Tag Archives: Obama

The debriefing paradigm

Image result for trump cartoons twitter

Readers will be familiar with this weekend’s POTUS tweet accusing former President Obama of authorizing wiretaps of Trump Tower. The controversy surrounding these tweets regarded the apparent baselessness of the claim (or its apparent base in Brietbart news). As of this AM (as far as I know) the POTUS has refused to offer clarification on the question of the basis of his claim.  Background here in case you’re behind.

This hasn’t stopped his court followers from coming out to iron man his claim. This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Trump says something manifestly false or outrageous, then come people to interpret what he says to sound more reasonable than it actually was. That’s the iron man. What differentiates Trump from, say, Palin is that she had the sense (or lack thereof) to shut up about it after (usually). Trump tends to reject the iron man version of his view. It’s what makes him strong and decisive.

Here’s another variation on Trump’s strategy:

I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump’s inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn’t regret this weekend’s fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is “absolutely convinced” he’ll be vindicated.

“The president just has a great nose for these things,” the official said. “It’s the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.”

This, by the way, is a variation on “spitballing,” identified by Talisse and Aikin at 3quarksdaily and discussed again here.

But there’s a parallel to another interesting case of epistemic failure.

Contrary to the what the source above says, Trump will not, of course, have a good point to make in any epistemically meaningful sense: he didn’t offer any relevant evidence (and apparently doesn’t have any, note the “if”). What’s amazing, however, is that the destruction of the basing belief here (the wiretap) doesn’t seem to undermine the case at all in the mind of the source. Such a failure at belief revision has long baffled psychologists. You can read about that here.

It runs basically like this. You give people a false belief on purpose, then you tell them that you gave them a false belief. Then you ask whether they continue to believe the false belief. Oddly, and sadly, they usually do. This explains, I think, the basic strategy of spitballing Trump-style: say a bunch of false things because once they’re out there and people believe them, they will continue to do so in the face of fact checking, even of the most direct variety.

The argument from ceded authority

Arguments from authority are typically third-person arguments: X says that p, so p is probably true.  Saying, I say that p, I have qualifications q, so listen up, is less common.  When you make an argument as an authority, you still cite reasons, they’re just reasons lay people don’t get.

Now comes Charles Krauthammer, quondam psychiatrist, who offers another twist on the argument from authority: the argument from ceded authority.  It works like this: I have qualifications q, but I’m not going to invoke them because they would prohibit me from saying p, so I cede this authority, and assert that p.  Here it is via TPM:

“So I decided when I left psychiatry never to use my authority. But let me just say as a layman, without invoking any expertise, Obama is clearly a narcissist in the non-scientific use of the word,” Krauthammer said during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” “He is so self-involved, you see it from his rise.”

I’m pretty sure that expertise is not the kind of thing you can just put aside, as you would if you were a pro tennis player playing an amateur.  That expertise, once earned, pretty much stays.  So Krauthammer has offered an interesting variation on the age-old “I’m not a doctor. . . ” it’s “I’m a doctor, but I don’t play one on TV.”


One would hope in vain that the reelection of Barack Obama would put to rest the foolishness of many of his opponents.  Here is a megachurch pastor from Texas:

"I want you to hear me tonight, I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all. One reason I know he's not the Antichrist is the Antichrist is going to have much higher poll numbers when he comes," said Jeffress.

"President Obama is not the Antichrist. But what I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist."

One question: Can we do anything to stop the Antichrist at this point?  Should we try to stop him coming?

Scare quoque

Mallard Fillmore's recent take on the President's rhetorical strategies:

This is an argument about arguments — namely, that scare tactics are bad, but it's worse to be a hypocrite about using them.  So the score tally goes:  Republicans -1 for using scare tactics, Obama +1 for chastising them for using the tactic.  Obama -1 for using scare tactics, and -1 for being a hypocrite about using them.  (And +1 for Fillmore for pointing out the scare tactic, and +1 for pointing out the hypocrisy.)

Now, a question.  Surely arguing that policy X will have bad consequences (or not following policy X will have the bad consequences) appeals to people's fears, but (a) so long as those things are bad and worth fearing, and (b) X is a crucial element in either avoiding or bringing about those consequences, aren't arguments from fear also good arguments from prudence?  The scare tactic is not composed of simply pointing out that something bad will happen if we don't do something — it's comprised in shutting down discussion about what is the best way to avoid the bad consequences.  Take for example the insurance salesman who says something like: people your age often can get sick and die with no warning — that's why you need St. Bartholomew Insurance to take care of your family if that happens.  The fact of the sudden death may mean that you should get insurance, but it certainly doesn't mean that you should get St. Bartholomew Ins.  We don't get why the Republicans or Obama are using scare tactics here, but it is a real question for us when we're being scared to accept a conclusion that doesn't follow.

Fill in the blanks

Dear Readers–been off for a bit, usual excuses.

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Baker alleges that "Obama fills in the GOP's blanks."  Ok, that's the title of the article, but I didn't find anything in the article that made that same decisiive point.  It's an interesting one, because it alleges Obama is a serial hollow manner:

WASHINGTON — In speech after speech lately, President Obama has vowed to oppose a Republican proposal “to cut education by 20 percent,” a reduction that would “eliminate 200,000 children from Head Start programs” and “reduce financial aid for eight million college students.”

Except that strictly speaking, the Republicans have made no such proposal. The expansive but vague Pledge to America produced by House Republicans does promise deep cuts in domestic spending, but it gives no further detail about which programs would be slashed. So Mr. Obama has filled in his own details as if they were in the Republican plan.

Let's say it's the case that there exists no Republican plan to cut spending on education by 20 percent.  Obama's attacking that claim would amount to a hollow man–attacking an argument no one actually makes. 

Not every employment of the hollow man scheme is fallacious, however.  I think this is a good example of a non-fallacious use.  Let's say for the sake of argument that there exists a non specific plan to cut domestic spending (which includes education among other things) "deeply."  In the absence of detail, the critic of this plan is forced to "extrapolate" or as I would say, "infer" which programs would receive cuts (and how much).  

So the critic–Obama in this case–infers.  His move is a fair one, as it asks for clarification of something admittedly vague.  In a direct dialogical exchange, this would be a perfect opportunity for the Republicans to clarify their position.  Near the bottom of the article, the author finds that they do:

That means, the White House said, that the $100 billion cut would amount to a 20 percent reduction in domestic programs, so it is fair to extrapolate the effects on education, Head Start, college aid and other programs. Republicans said they could choose to cut more deeply in some programs while sparing others, so education would not necessarily be cut 20 percent. At the same time, they do not rule it out

So his hollow man, which admittedly is an argument made by no one, turns out not to be illegitimate.  The counter move–logically at least–ought to be a claim that they will not cut education by 20 percent, or that the programs in question will remain in place.  But they havent' (in this article) done that.  They can't even deny that Obama is wrong.  This seems like a perfect use of the hollow man. 

I wanted to make history

Here's an entertaining misuse of an argument schema (or topic as they were once called):

KRAUTHAMMER: It’s only nine times the length of the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln was answering an easier question, the higher purpose of the union and soldiers who fell in battle. The president had an easy answer. He could have said I wanted to make history with health care and to do it I have to raise your taxes. … End of answer.

He's talking about Obama's response to a question about health care and taxes–a response that went 17 minutes.  Aside from the fact that Krauthammer's argument just blows, as the Gettsyburg address wasn't a response to a specific question about policy, the form of this argument is ludicrous.  Imagine–every policy matter less important than the preservation of the Union (or the tyranny of Northern aggression, depending on your viewpoint) must be discussed for a time commensurate with its relationship to the Gettsyburg Address.


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. 

Stirring the pot

I don't get this:

In his March 18 remarks in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama eloquently called for a national discussion on race. But in a speech lauded for its honesty, this plea was unconvincing. Having benefited from the nation’s quieter tone, Mr. Obama must avoid stirring the racial pot, unnerving white voters for whom his race requires a leap of faith.

Why wasn't the speech "convincing"?  What is "stirring the racial pot"?  If somehow our public discourse has moved beyond Obama's race, I haven't seen it.


Another reason to fear an Obama presidency.  It's not that he's a secret Muslim (madrassa madrassa), it's that by Islamic law he actually is a Muslim:

As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.

Of course, as most Americans understand it, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He chose to become a Christian, and indeed has written convincingly to explain how he arrived at his choice and how important his Christian faith is to him.

"Convincingly" is an odd choice of term–is there some suggestion it's not true?  But don't get the idea that the author of these words thinks this is a problem for American Christians (although I can almost hear the dog whistle), it's going to be a problem for the world's Muslims:

With few exceptions, the jurists of all Sunni and Shiite schools prescribe execution for all adults who leave the faith not under duress; the recommended punishment is beheading at the hands of a cleric, although in recent years there have been both stonings and hangings. (Some may point to cases in which lesser punishments were ordered — as with some Egyptian intellectuals who have been punished for writings that were construed as apostasy — but those were really instances of supposed heresy, not explicitly declared apostasy as in Senator Obama’s case.)

The case for Obama's being a Muslim seems kind of tenuous (he was born to a Muslim father who had renounced (when?) his religion).  Had Obama ever been considered a Muslim by his father? I suppose under the notion that you can never stop being a Muslim, if that's true, then Obama will always be one.  All of this adds up to serious concerns for Obama's saftey:

Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law — another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

I doubt our efforts to fight the war on terrorism and export democracy and human rights (he must be kidding about that, really) could get any more "complicated" than they are.


Perhaps Michael Gerson has suffered a twinge of guilt at his recent behavior (see previous posts).  Now has has stepped away from making an affirmative claims himself.  Instead, he puts such views in the mouths of the average American.  Such a person nearly always seems to confirm what the pundit himself or herself thinks.  The Average American finds all of punditry in re flag pan to be so revealing about Obama.  It just wasn't so much nonsense an obsessed press could not get past.  

The issue of the lapel flag pin is a good illustration. Obama's explanation for its absence — that it had become a "substitute" for "true patriotism" in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — is perfectly rational. For a professor at the University of Chicago. Members of the knowledge class generally find his stand against sartorial symbolism to be subtle, even courageous. Most Americans, I'm willing to bet, will find it incomprehensible after 20 additional explanations, which are bound to be required. A president is expected to be a patriotic symbol himself, not the arbiter of patriotic symbols. He is supposed to be the face-painted superfan at every home game; to wear red, white and blue boxers on special marital occasions; to get misty-eyed during the most obscure patriotic hymns.

The problem here is not that Obama is unpatriotic — a foolish, unfair, destructive charge — but that Obama has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism. And this sense of superiority, revealed in case after case, has political consequences, because the Obama narrative reinforces the Democratic narrative. It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.

Now that strikes me as absolutely snobby–even if he says it's snobby, it's still snobby.  What's worse is that it doesn't make any attempt to support it's broad empirical generalizations with facts about how real Americans feel about flag pins and the President "embodying" patriotism.  Perhaps–just a suggestion without empirical basis (I'm a philosopher, I don't need facts)–real Americans have had enough of that.