Category Archives: oversimplified cause

A different explanation

George Whittman, at the American Spectator, has a suggestion to Bill Clinton: Stay Home.  Apparently, Clinton makes for accommodationist foreign policy with Muslims. Clinton opined that Islamic terrorism in Northern Nigeria was caused by economic troubles, and he suggested economic development of the North as a means of reducing the trouble. Whittman rebuts Clinton:

Clinton must have known that his statement was a direct attack on Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan who had earlier responded sharply to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour when she suggested poverty and corruption were behind the rise in Nigerian terrorism. President Jonathan had vigorously replied that Boko Haram was “definitely not a result of poverty.…Boko Haram is a local terrorist group.”

Note, by the way, that the form of that explanation is as follows:  q does not explain p, because p.  Apparently, being an Islamic terrorist is causa sui.  Silly Clinton.

Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,
 

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.

Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

The simple reason there is no simple reason

David Brooks illustrates today that there's a simple, singular reason people employ the oversimplified cause argument scheme:

Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

That simple reason is that we believe some kind of Brooksian dichotomy: people are either x or y, etc.  My question: so we've been making dichotomies (I don't think we have–Brooks has), and this is too simple, and this is the simple reason why there is no simple reason.  This refutes itself.

Diagnosis: Evil

To most people, elections are complicated.  Not so to some pundits.  Enter Gerson:

By the summer of 2007, the Republican presidential candidate most closely identified with the war, John McCain, was in serious trouble. Moderates and independents no longer seemed impressed by the fierce, lonely advocate of what many called "escalation." Political observers argued that McCain's money troubles and staff resignations and firings — he went from 120 campaign workers to 50 — were "another nail in Mr. McCain's campaign coffin," showing that "the wheels came off," and leading to "a death spiral that is almost never survived."

If cliches could kill, McCain would have been embalmed and buried.

Yet the Republican candidate most closely identified with the war and the surge performs well in head-to-head polls against the Democrats. The revival of McCain's campaign was possible for one reason: the revival of American fortunes in Iraq. Most categories of violence in Iraq are now down by more than 60 percent, and sectarian attacks in Baghdad have fallen by 90 percent. Sunni tribal leaders are conducting the first large-scale revolt of Arabs against al-Qaeda thuggery — which includes, we learned last week, strapping explosives to a mentally disabled woman and setting off a blast in a market.

McCain seems well suited to deal with this kind of evil — precisely because he would diagnose it as evil.

Every Republican save Ron Paul embraced the most energetic and belligerent of Bush's policies.  How McCain alone is helped by this seems a bit of a mystery.  Besides, someone might even say that the surge hasn't worked (because it has exhausted its own ability to continue without achieving any of its stated goals), but I guess that person would, as Gerson earlier says, would "embrace retreat at any cost."  But Gerson's claim about McCain's surging success is just run of the mill causal fallacy stuff–a little post hoc ergo propter hoc or perhaps some oversimplified cause.  The real travesty is the remark after the dash.  

There is another theologian in this race.  If diagnosing something as evil constitutes a qualification, then why isn't Gerson supporting Mike Huckabee?

Oversimplified Fairness

Because the bulk of our analysis is aimed at conservative punditry, we have occasionally been accused of a left-leaning bias. We have spoken about this apparent lack of balance in our note on bias: most "liberal/progressive" newspaper pundits–unlike their conservative colleagues–simply don’t make arguments. The exception to this claim is Paul Krugman, back from behind the Times Select Curtain. Today, however, Krugman gets a little sloppy: >The main force driving this shift to the left [among the American voting public] is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that ‘the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.’ To be sure, there are more varied and urgent causes—say, for instance, an increasingly unpopular war and blatant disrespect for the Constitution—for the Democratic sweep of 2006. This is not to say that economic disparity hasn’t played a role, but to chalk them up as “the main force,” is, well, a little overstated. Furthermore, agreement with a cliche doth not a platform plank make. Paul, buddy, let’s not get out over our populist skis whilst riding in the wake of our glorious victory. -pm

Subjunctive arguments

The political media we try to analyze need not be limited to the op-ed pages of the major dailies. Last weekend I watched the Gitmo: The New Rules of War, a 2005 documentary by Swedish filmmakers Erik Gandini and Tariq Saleh. Now, I wouldn’t want to say that a documentary can be exhaustively or perhaps even adequately analyzed by logic alone. Nevertheless, there are clearly inferences made or suggested that can and should be judged by logic.

The narrator states in the opening minutes of the film “We have come here because we want to know what is really going on in Guantanamo.” They discover (apparently to their surprise) that hidden cameras are not going to be possible and that they are not going to gain access to Camp Delta.

Their second route for information–a Swedish citizen named Mehdi Ghezali, held for two years–frustrated their intentions by refusing to say virtually anything to the press or to the filmmakers (though he has since written a book in Swedish).

At this point, the film makes the entirely reasonable criticism that the prisoners in Guantanamo are neither afforded the protections of the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war nor afforded the civil rights protection of civilian prisoner. This, they point out, results from the American interest in interrogating these detainees for extended periods of time–something that would not be possible if they were accorded either of these status (4th declension? or statuses?”).

But such a position would not make for an interesting documentary. Instead, the filmmakers attempt to link the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo with the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. They suggest that the pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib can be used to infer how prisoners are treated inside Camp Delta. Their case rests on the following claims:

  1. The change of the commandant at Camp Delta to General Miller, replacing Brig. General Rick Baccus–reputedly because he opposed the list of unconventional interrogation techniques. Baccus’ unwillingness to comment on these events, the filmmakers seem to suggest, is a result of some sort of pressure from the military.
  2. The memo that requests permission in October 2002 to use techniques such as forcing prisoners to stand naked, lengthen interrogation sessions (to 20 hours), take advantage of prisoner phobias. (They ignore the subsequent history of this issue–the techniques were at first approved by Secretary Rumsfeld and then approval was retracted for many after criticism of the policy by military lawyers.)
  3. The fact that the Major General Miller was later sent to Iraq in August 2002 to advise concerning interrogation techniques. (Though supposedly he presented the interrogation techniques from Guantano as an example of policy and indicated the difference in situations between Iraq (as an occupied territory) and Guantanamo).
  4. “Some say these methods originated in Guantanamo, but we just haven’t seen the pictures.” (The scene immediately following this quote, contains accusations that rap music, Fleetwood mac, and sex are used to crack prisoners at Guantanamo.)

Even granting the truth of all of these claims, this argument can at best only weakly suggest anything about how detainees were treated in Guantanamo. (I am certainly not denying that human rights abuse were or are committed in Camp Delta (there are documented and prosecuted cases) only that the evidence used by these filmmakers to suggest that it is likely that it is ocurring is not adequate. In each case, the filmmakers fail to appeal to any direct evidence of the treatment in Guantanamo, and they ignore the more detailed investigations of three major comissions (e.g. Schlesinger Commission).

The argument,such as it is, commits several fallacies I think–ignoring evidence, appeal to questionable authorities, and oversimplified cause. The abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib seem to have arisen in part because of peculiarities of the local situation (lack of adequate resources for example). Although there are undoubtedly similarities in interrogation techniques, the inference that the filmmakers want us to make seems inadequately justified by the argument presented.

Sometimes filmmakers claim that they are merely documenting the facts and leave it up to the viewer to make the inferences. This seems to me (in the abstract at least) either disingenuous or naive. Although the filmmakers prefer to couch their assertions in the subjunctive rather than the indicative mood, this doesn’t really allow them to escape–they must still show that the conclusions are rendered more likely than not by their evidence. Many viewers will probably find the film “biased” which may or may not be a failing in a documentary film. The problems, however, run deeper than this. The filmmakers fail to make the argument needed to persuade the viewer of the plausiblity of their subjunctive speculation.