Category Archives: John Tierney

Science guy

John Tierney was a terrible columnist. Now he’s a terrible science writer:

>After looking at one too many projections of global-warming disasters — computer graphics of coasts swamped by rising seas, mounting death tolls from heat waves — I was ready for a reality check. Instead of imagining a warmer planet, I traveled to a place that has already felt the heat, accompanied by Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist and scourge of environmentalist orthodoxy.

Let’s reinterpret this. “After not doing any serious research on global warming, I went to talk to a famous and obviously unqualified skeptic, who, oddly, doesn’t really even doubt the reality of global warming.”

Another source of income for Wal-Mart: Peace (Prize)

Over at the NYT, John Tierney asks us to consider whether Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Tierney applauds the limited benefits of Yunus’ micro-loans for alleviating poverty, he asks us.

> Has any organization in the world lifted more people out of poverty than Wal-Mart?

Tierney approvingly quotes Michael Strong, who argues that instead of receiving micro-loans to start businesses in their village:

>The best way for third world villagers to tap “the vast pipeline of wealth from the developed world,” he argued in a recent article, is to sell their products to the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart.

If wages are the only metric in evaluating “anti-poverty” program’s contributions to peace, then the argument on the surface seems plausible. Strong and Tierney argue that rural Chinese workers who migrate to the urban areas make more money manufacturing goods for Wal-Mart than those who remain at home (Responsible for 23 billion of China’s exports out of 713 billion in 2005). Wal-Mart they argue is responsible for bringing

>Wal-Mart might well be single-handedly responsible for bringing about 38,000 people out of poverty in China each month, about 460,000 per year. (Strong)

>Most “sweatshop” jobs — even ones paying just $2 per day — provide enough to lift a worker above the poverty level, and often far above it, according to a study of 10 Asian and Latin American countries by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek. In Honduras, the economists note, the average apparel worker makes $13 a day, while nearly half the population makes less than $2 a day. (Tierney)

>Urban workers earn about 2.5 times as much as rural workers.[8] Even after counting the higher cost of living in urban areas, urban workers make about twice as much. (Strong)

Seems to be a compelling argument. So why wouldn’t the CEO who contribute the greatest amount of economic growth to the world economy receive the Nobel Peace prize?

Perhaps Tierney and Strong are making too much of the claim that Yunus received the prize for his successes in combatting entrenched poverty. This is, of course, how the prize has been reported in the press.

Here is the press release from the Nobel Prize Committee:

>for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.

> Micro-credit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions. Economic growth and political democracy can not achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male.

It seems clear that the committee was considering more than the contribution to wages in awarding the prize. Peace is not a matter of wages alone, but the transformation of the social conditions in which poverty is entrenched. This is not to deny that Wal-Mart also transforms social conditions and even on a much larger scale and with a faster tempo. But the judgement of the committee would seem to rest on the claim that economic and social development from below is an important component of achieving lasting peace.

The question Tierney should be asking is does Wal-Mart increase the likelihood of lasting peace? Or, is it along with a volatile globalized economy a threat to stability, human rights, the enviroment, and long term development–and therefore peace?

But even if we grant Tierney and Strong the assumption that it is likely that economic growth is a direct measure of a contribution to lasting peace, motivation is surely relevant in awarding these prizes. For Tierney and Strong effects seem to be all that matter. It is not enough for an organization to lift people out of poverty, it must presumably also be motivated by that goal to deserve the Peace Prize. A quick reading of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals would explain why.

How to avoid Nonsequitur

When I taught Logic for the first time years back I was tempted to spend very little time on the section in Patrick Hurley’s Introduction to Logic that deals with distinguishing argumentative from non-argumentative texts. In this chapter, students learn the ability to distinguish texts that contain inferences from texts that lack them. Examples of the latter include

  • Illustrations: "Great presidents are made not born. So, Roosevelt became the great leader he was only after much development.
  • Statements of belief: "The most difficult problem facing this country, I believe, is economic inequality."
  • Report: Median wages in real dollars have remained stagnant over the last twenty years, while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased. This is an increase in economic inequality.
  • Explanations: Economic inequality has increased because median wages have remained stagnant while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased.

Students tend to find this section hard, I think. It requires a great deal of interpretive ability to precisely define many passages and the distinctions between them are sometimes hard to identify in practice. The same "content" can be expressed in both argumentative and non-argumentative forms. The difference is one of intention and connection between statements. I have come to see that time spent on these distinctions is extremely important for learning logical analysis. (A great exercise is to have the students express the same content in as many of the various categories as possible. For those without a copy of Hurley handy, the section distinguishes between: warnings, advice,statement of belief, loosely associated groups of statements, reports, expository passages, illustrations, explanations, and conditionals.) I bring this up to elaborate on J.’s comments here explaining some of the reasons that we tend to "pick on" certain columnists more than others. J. points out that these columnists argue for their claims, but often do so badly. This morning I gave the op-ed pages at WaPo and NYT a quick read and found that there was nothing to comment on. No arguments to analyze and no fallacies to uncover. And I thought it might be useful to explain this. Today, our friend George Will reports the argument of Thomas B. Edsall in a book titled Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. Reporting another’s argument is a non-inferential "speech act." If we found a fallacy in Edsall’s argument we might explain it, but Will is safe from our analysis today. John Tierney follows suit with an exposition of the capitalist philanthropy a la Google and Whole Foods. Tierney doesn’t merely report another’s views and arguments as Will did. Instead he couples this reporting with statements of his own belief: >"It’s smart of Google’s founders to try using capitalist tools to save the planet; the market’s discipline should keep their philanthropy from backing too many lost causes. Still, whatever accomplishes, I’d bet that it will pale next to the social good accomplished by" I don’t know whether I agree with anything that is said there, but the crucial point is that there is no inferential content. Just a series of assertions of Tierney’s beliefs. Finally we cometo Maureen Dowd. In two years of scrutinzing the op-ed pages of the NYT we have never (I think) raked Dowd over the coals. Today’s column can illustrate why this is so. Once again, it is the lack of inference and argument. Dowd’s columns are generally combinations of statements of her beliefs and reporting with a few witticisms thrown in. >He has changed American culture, for sure. Bustling under Bill Clinton, the nation is now insecure about its moral force and military force. The president should take responsibility for the hash he’s made, instead of insisting every decision was correct, and come up with more astute cultural and military analyses. The “awakening” should be W.’s. Once again, I don’t know how much of her three claims here I agree with, but there sure isn’t an inference in sight.

Et tu quoque Al Gore

John Tierney, no friend of the global warming camp, discusses “carbon footprints” this morning in his “Times Select” column (sorry, no free access). Al Gore he says:

He advises you to change your light bulbs, insulate your home, and cut back on driving and air travel. If you must make a trip, he notes helpfully, “buses provide the cheapest and most energy-efficient transportation for long distances.”

And yet,

Fine advice, and it would be even better if he journeyed to his lectures exclusively on Greyhound. But he seems to prefer cars and planes. When you tally up his international travel to inspect melting glaciers and the domestic trips between his homes — one in Washington and another in Nashville, not to mention the family farm in rural Tennessee featured in the movie — you’re looking at a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint.

Tierney doesn’t draw the fallacious conclusion–that Al Gore’s position (we should reduce our carbon footprints) is false. Instead he seems to be suggesting the conclusion, which is not necessarily fallacious, that “Al Gore is a hypocrite.”

We should note that although this is not necessarily fallacious, it isn’t obvious that the evidence above provides good reason to believe that Al Gore is in fact a hypocrite. In fact, Al Gore–much to the chagrin of many environmentalists–has always favored various market solutions to carbon emissions:

Gore and David say they offset their energy usage by sponsoring reductions in greenhouse gases through alternative forms of power and energy conservation (like building wind farms and paying farmers to turn methane into electricity).

But, how does Tierney argue that this isn’t sufficient? By invoking the judgment of a more radical environmentalist position:

Quoting Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — Komanoff says his fellow environmentalists should stop offering “get out of purgatory free” cards [carbon offsets] to the rich and instead insist that everyone personally reduce energy use.

So apparently, Gore’s position is not internally hypocritical, though Komanoff disagrees with it. Nonetheless, Tierney thinks that if you want to work to reduce carbon emissions you must accept Komanoff’s positions:

I’m not such a purist myself — I’d let the average person salve his conscience with a carbon indulgence. But I’d hold environmentalist preachers like Gore to higher standards, especially when they’re engaging in unnecessary energy use.

The tu quoque fallacy is an interesting one. If one is too explicit with the fallacy, it isn’t very effective. But subtle forms of it–like Tierney’s here–which assert hypocrisy and therefore suggest that the messenger and the message are somehow compromised are very effective. Most readers of Tierney’s column will probably conclude that because Al Gore is a hypocrite his arguments and prescriptions do not need to be taken seriously.

Abortion writers

Despite their opposing positions on abortion, John Tierney and George Will each subscribe to some version of the never more popular view that abortion is not or should not be a question of constitutional rights. What better way to circumvent those pesky constitutional questions–questions about which, suprisingly, people seriously disagree–than to deny the relevance of the question to constitutional law. At least, so Tierney argues:

The abortion debate, unlike the civil rights debate, can’t be resolved by appealing to any widely held moral or legal principles. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court discovered a right in the Constitution for pregnant women to be left alone by the government. But that just ducked the question – what about the fetus’s right to be left alone? – and angered huge numbers of Americans.

For starters, *Roe v. Wade* doesn’t duck the question at all; it (rightly or wrongly) clearly maintains that the fetus has no legal rights (at least in the first two trimesters). Second, evidence of a conflict of rights (mother-fetus) or sincere disagreement of a vocal number of Americans does not mean that it (1) is not, or should not be, a civil rights issue, or (2) that the justices were wrong. Finally, a conflict of views about the status of the fetus does not demonstrate that the issue “cannot be resolved by appealing to any widely held moral or legal principles” unless by “resolved” Tierney means “subject to wide consensus” in which case he would be saying the abortion issue cannot be resolved (subject to wide consensus) until it’s resolved (subject to wide consensus). But that’s nonsense. Supreme Court cases, whatever their outcome, resolve (answer for some span of time) legal questions concerning constitutional rights; they do not, so it seems, end moral debate about the same questions.

The idea that abortion might constitute a right entailed by the Constitution appears so ridiculous to George Will, that he can muster only a barely intelligible drunken parody of the “Ride of Paul Revere.”

Judging by the river of rhetoric that has flowed in response to the court vacancy, contemporary liberalism’s narrative of American constitutional history goes something like this:

“On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere galloped through the Massachusetts countryside, and to every Middlesex village and farm went his famous cry of alarm, ‘The British are coming! The British are coming to menace the ancient British right to abortion!’ The next morning, by the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world in defense of the right to abortion. The Articles of Confederation, ratified near the end of the Revolutionary War to Defend Abortion Rights, proved unsatisfactory, so in the summer of 1787, 55 framers gathered here to draft a Constitution. Even though this city was sweltering, the framers kept the windows of Independence Hall closed. Some say that was to keep out the horseflies. Actually, it was to preserve secrecy conducive to calm deliberations about how to craft a more perfect abortion right. The Constitution was ratified after the state conventions vigorously debated the right to abortion. But 74 years later, a great Civil War had to be fought to defend the Constitution against states that would secede from the Union rather than acknowledge that a privacy right to abortion is an emanation loitering in the penumbra of other rights. And so on.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, it seems like a version of the obtuse constitutional originalism that claims there are no other rights in Constitution than those explicitly mentioned by the framers or somehow consequent upon the attitudes of the founders.
On the other hand, it suggests that opponents to the Roberts nomination can think of only one thing. That’s true of some opponents–but geez Louise–that’s true of some of his supporters. But in any case it doesn’t absolve Will of the need for an *argument*. If Will wants to use the pages of the *Washington Post* to lampoon *some* liberal groups, rather than argue against them, then we suggest his purpose would be better served on the Rush Limbaugh show, where no one will fault him for not having any good reasons for his conclusions. Granted a slight difference in vocabulary, the level of discourse is about the same.

The exhibits at the National Constitution Center can correct the monomania of some liberals by reminding them that the Constitution expresses the philosophy of natural rights: People have various rights, including and especially the right to property and self-government. These rights are not created by government, which exists to balance and protect the rights in their variety.

But such bland truisms about the constitution don’t resolve anything. Whatever the source of rights–nature, God, or social contract–there always remains the question as to what is entailed by them. Determining their source doesn’t resolve this question; it only pushes it back one step further.

Polar Bears for Global Warming

Most op-ed writers seem to have a fingerprint argument or rhetorical device. Whether it is David Brook’s penchant for dichotomous sociological classifications or George Will’s beloved Bartlett’s Quotations after a while the style gives away the author. A couple of weeks ago I analyzed one of John Tierney’s columns (Source) and uncovered his fingerprint argument. We can see precisely the same argument form in his most recent column, “The Good News Bears” (Source: NYT 8/6/5).

The characteristic pattern of Tierney’s opinion pieces is anecdotal evidence for substantive conclusions. In this column he suggests that global warming–if it is occurring–may in fact be a good thing:

>But I can see why Mr. Kalluk doesn’t mind the idea of a little climate change. “The ice is always going to freeze in the winter,” he said, “but it would be better for us if we had a longer summer. We’d have more time to use our boats. There would be more jobs and a longer tourist season.” The bears would be still around, and their charisma would be making more money for the locals, not just for the WWF fund-raisers down south.

Mr. Kalluk, an inuit who lives in Resolute Bay Nunavut, has visions of eco-tourism dollars in his eyes and so seems content with the prospect of climate change. More importantly, for Tierney’s argument, the climate change *may* not have any harmful effects for polar bears. Commenting on the 20% increase in polar bear populations, Tierney says.

> The chief reason for the rise is probably restrictions on hunting (for which conservationists deserve credit). In this village of fewer than 200 residents, Mr. Kalluk and the other hunters are limited each year to three dozen bears, which they allocate by drawing names out of a hat.

>But the increase might also be related to the recent warming, which could be helping bears in some places.

No evidence is offered for this last hypothesis other than that polar bears have survived in warmer climates before.

But even if we were inclined to accept this speculation from a non-expert, Tierney’s argument misses the point entirely. Even if environmental groups use “charismatic mega-fauna” like the polar bear to drum up support to fight global warming, this does not mean that that is the only or even the primary reason for trying to avoid climate change in the arctic. So even if it is true that the polar bears benefit from warmer climate, this would not suggest that warmer climate in the arctic is a good thing. Tierney has entirely missed the point.

Of course, that brings us back to his underlying argument–some guy in the arctic could make money from climate change, so maybe its not such a bad thing afterall.

Well, Hell. Dell LeFevre thinks this is wrong, so it’s wrong.

William Safire’s resignation from the opinion pages of the NYT in February was a great blow to our enterprise here. While being regular fans of Safire’s language column in the Sunday Times’ Magazine, we were confident that his opinion pieces would almost always provide fertile material for logical analysis. His replacment, John Tierney, has baffled us ever since.

Tierney’s columns seem to share a singular argumentative structure. Often, rather than offering an elaborate argument for a particular position, Tierney reports on a particular person anecdotally as holding that position with the suggestion that this individual possesses a certain epistemic privilege over the reader, and thus the reader should adopt the relevant position. This “argument” is then bolstered by a very terse ideological argument for the relevant position. The anecdotal argument seems to work by a peculiar form of an appeal to authority–and not necessarily a fallacious one. But even though it seems to avoid fallacy, the argument is so weak that it is hard to see how it provides anything more than this anecdote as support for its conclusion. This often leaves Tierney’s ideological argument as the only support for his claim.

His column today “Sagebrush Solution” (Source: NYT 7/26/05) seems to conform to this structure. Here we are introduced to Dell LeFevre who dislikes hikers, the Bureau of Land Management, and some environmentalists.

>Mr. LeFevre, who is 65, has no affection for the hikers who want his cows out of the red-rock canyons and mesas in southern Utah, where his family has been ranching for five generations. He has considered environmentalism a dangerous religion since the day in 1991 when he and his father-in-law found two dozen cows shot to death, perhaps by someone determined to reclaim a scenic stretch of the Escalante River canyon.

Yet, despite his suspicion that environmentalists randomly shoot his cows, Mr LeFevre likes environmentalists when they give him money.

>But he is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an environmentalist named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Mr. Hedden’s group doesn’t use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive out ranchers. These environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy it. To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that entitle Mr. LeFevre’s cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He figures it was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses are reappearing, now that cows aren’t eating and trampling the vegetation.

But, the Bush administration is not standing for this capitalist free-market system:

>The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer simply buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law – not wholly shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration – land currently being used by ranchers has already been determined to be “chiefly valuable for grazing” and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.’s “land use planning process” deems it necessary.

>But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what’s “chiefly valuable” about a piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a “land use planning process” of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If an environmentalist offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that’s the best indication the land is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.

>The new policy may make short-term political sense for the Bush administration by pleasing its Republican allies in Utah and lobbyists for the ranching industry. But it’s not good for individual ranchers, and it ensures more bitter range wars in the future. If environmentalists can’t spend their money on land, they’ll just spend it on lawyers.

Thus, when you strip away the anecdote, you have an argument for the claim that environmentalists should be able to retire grazing permits. The reasons that Tierney thinks this is true seems to be something like

a) Retiring grazing permits is done through the free market.
b) The government should not interfere with the free market.

The anecdote provides evidence, it seems, that the motivation for allowing environmentalists to retire grazing permits is not environmental but rather because it benefits a rancher. But this is just a smoke screen for the ideological argument presented above–at least, it is such a weak argument (Are all ranchers benefitted by this? Will they continue to be benefitted if more grazing land is retired?) that it cannot lend much support to the conclusion: It’s as though the argument that Tierney offers us is “Well, Hell. Dell LeFevre thinks this is wrong, so it’s wrong.”

Now perhaps I am being uncharitable here. Tierney might reply that Dell LeFevre isn’t really part of his argument. It is a little bit of color meant to interest the reader, as presumably every Journalism 101 class suggests students begin their articles with a “hook.” That aside, the anecdote is logically related to Tierney’s claim and provides some rhetorical support for that claim. The vaporous nature of that support is all that I wish to reveal here.