everyday logic

Two bloggish items today on the role of logic in ordinary discourse. First, Michael Kinsley writes in the *Washington Post*:

Opinion journalism brings new ethical obligations as well. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counter arguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or an argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Even more basically, Kinsley might suggest the following: have you arrived at your conclusion by a cogent or coherent argument? Is your characterization of the opposing points of view charitable and accurate? Have you drawn on commonly agreed on facts in the construction of your argument? And we could go on.

Kinsley's comment, nonetheless, is certainly welcome. Especially in light of articles that consider the pernicious, the outrageous, the preposterous Bill O'Reilly to be merely an entertainer. If only it were true.

Second, I was reminded of a trip I took three years ago to a little town in Indiana when I read in the liberal media that

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.

And so Lisa's rock does not keep away tigers after all. The trip as you might imagine was an academic job interview. In the department was a recent Ivy League graduate in religion (it was one of those combined philosophy and religion departments) who asserted the mounting evidence for the causally efficacious role of prayer on health. Such was, as he pointed out, the subject matter of his research. I can't help but think that my shock at such a silly and possibly heretical thesis was written on my face. I wonder how the research was received down in Hoosier country.

Don’t say “vouch”

In January of this year, the Florida Supreme Court–yes, that’s the one–held in a 5-2 ruling that tax payer funded vouchers for private school violate the state’s constitution. I wonder what their reasons were. But why bother, when you’re George Will you can attack their motivations and the people who approve:

>But Florida’s Supreme Court fulfilled the desires of the teachers unions, and disrupted the lives of the 733 children and their parents, by declaring, in a 5 to 2 ruling, that the voucher program is incompatible with the state constitution. Specifically, and incredibly, the court held that the OSP violates the stipulation, which voters put into the constitution in 1998, that the state shall provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”

Gee, George. You say “incredibly” but you don’t bother to point to any of the court’s actual reasons for its positions. Unlike twice or thrice weekly columnists, and once a week TV pundits, courts publish detailed *arguments* for their positions. These arguments offer *reasons*. Sometimes they please people, sometimes they don’t. But that fact does not make them credible or incredible. They are incredible if they distort facts, or if they reason badly, or have no basis in the law.

But why bother with such details when you have the power of the simple assertion:

>The court’s ruling was a crashing non sequitur: that the public duty to provide something (quality education) entails a prohibition against providing it in a particular way (utilizing successful private educational institutions). The court’s ruling was neither constitutional law nor out of character, and it illustrates why the composition of courts has become such a contentious political issue.

As readers of this site know, a non sequitur is a logical fallacy. Like the straw man in the previous sentence; Will has hopelessly distorted the argument of the Florida Supreme Court. The following snippet from USA Today makes a point George didn’t:

>But Thursday’s ruling ultimately could affect these and other voucher programs. The court found that taxpayer support for private schools in general is unconstitutional because Florida’s constitution requires “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools.” Private schools aren’t “uniform when compared with each other or the public system,” the justices wrote. They’re also exempt from public standards on teacher credentials and requirements to teach about a wide range of subjects, such as civics, U.S. and world history and minorities’ and women’s contributions to history.

So missing from Will’s argument is a discussion of what the court meant by “uniformity,” one of the central legal issues in their ruling. And its absence surely makes the Florida court’s ruling look silly and arbitrary. And so Will can make the following Cornynesque assertion: “The court’s ruling was neither constitutional law nor out of character, and it illustrates why the composition of courts has become such a contentious political issue.” Having avoided the content of their argument by straw man, will can turn to attacking the motivations of the judges (all five democrat appointees) and the people who were pleased by the ruling (the NEA). A crashing non sequitur indeed. Don’t misspell misspelling.

None of this means the court’s decision was right–which it probably was however–but it’s certainly not wrong on Will’s childish and confused libertarian whining. After all–what happens if the state gains financial access to private education? Then they will have the means and the power to enforce “uniformity”; that means the science class will have to teach something other than creationism.

Maxima culpa (eorum)

On the subject of straw men, the Associated Press could also have noted that the President is not alone in ridiculing his opponents–he is just less adept at it. In today’s *Washington Post*, Fareed Zakaria tears a page from the President’s play book; but befitting a professional opiniator, he does it with more subtlety.

After a string of *culpae eorum* (their, not his, faults) regarding the failures of intervention in Iraq, Zakaria asserts:

>And yet, for all my misgivings about the way the administration has handled this policy, I’ve never been able to join the antiwar crowd. Nor am I convinced that Iraq is a hopeless cause that should be abandoned.

Note that “hopeless” and “abandoned” sound a lot like “cut” and “run”–only less Texan. Nowhere in the piece does Zakaria address the reasonable (but not necessarily correct) alternatives to his strategy of staying the course–outside of, that is, the phrase “antiwar crowd.” So, one might surmise that the only other option to continuing with our increasingly disastrous (body count, political instability, etc.) intervention is the anti-war crowd. Despite his more reasoned tone then, Zakaria has used the straw man “some say” technique as the president, and as such, it is impossible for the reader to determine whether his three arguments for staying are any good.

Luckily, however, one doesn’t need to have present to mind an alternative to see just how bad these reasons are.

The first:

>So why have I not given up hope? Partly it’s because I have been to Iraq, met the people who are engaged in the struggle to build their country and cannot bring myself to abandon them.

And the oaths of TV pundits are written on water.


>there is no doubt that the costs of the invasion have far outweighed the benefits. But in the long view of history, will that always be true? If, after all this chaos, a new and different kind of Iraqi politics emerges, it will make a difference in the region.

It may or may not always be true that Iraq will be a disaster. But it’s very likely that it will be. It’s only getting worse. The possibility of it not being the case is hardly reason to stay. And it has made a difference in the region–it has emboldened Iran and served as a training ground and recruiting depot for all sorts of new terrorists.


>These sectarian power struggles can get extremely messy, and violent parties have taken advantage of every crack and cleavage. But this may be inevitable in a country coming to terms with very real divisions and disagreements. Iraq may be stumbling toward nation-building by consent, not brutality. And that is a model for the Middle East.

A “sectarian power struggle” sounds like code for bloody religious civil war where the victor is determined by brutality and force of arms (and perhaps Iranian intervention, among other such things). How this means they are stumbling toward nation-building by consent is simply a mystery. All of the evidence Zakaria cites points in the other direction.

But again, these three really bad reasons only make marginal sense in the context of an absurd alternative. Perhaps one as knowledgeable of foreign affairs as Zakaria could find the time to research some of them.

Straw Men

Not to be bloggy–posting links rather than content that is–but I was flabbergasted to read that Bush has been using straw man arguments in his speeches. While I congratulate the Associated Press on the discovery, I’m a little perplexed and slightly depressed that only now, in the sixth year of his Presidency, has it occured to the AP to run such a story. Here’s an excerpt:

>’Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day,” President Bush said recently.

>Another time he said, ”Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free.”

>”There are some really decent people,” the president said earlier this year, ”who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care … for all people.”

>Of course, hardly anyone in mainstream political debate has made such assertions.

Indeed. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should follow examine the archives of this site. The essence of George Will’s engagement with “the opposition”–to name one particularly egregious example–is the straw man (bleeding heart, motivated by the argument from pity, clueless) liberal. As he, the most distinguished looking member of the right-leaning punditocracy knows, when the quantifier “some” won’t do, just distort what they say.

Slippery implication

I also remember reading this essay ten years ago in, I think, *Time*:

>As Newsweek notes, these stirrings for the mainstreaming of polygamy (or, more accurately, polyamory) have their roots in the increasing legitimization of gay marriage. In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is *utterly logical* for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement — the number restriction (two and only two) — is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

And so I’ve noticed that Charles Krauthammer confuses the fallacious slippery slope with strict logical implication. Just because society grants rights to gay marriages between *two* persons of adult age (even by the judicial fiat of legitimate constitutional interpretation–see the first ten amendments to your U.S. Constitution for details) does not imply anything about *three* or *fifty-three* persons of adult or other age. As Krauthammer’s otherwise silly piece points out, marriage rites are conventional and so don’t obey the kind of implicational structure he suggests they do:

>On the other hand, polygamy was sanctioned, indeed common, in large parts of the world through large swaths of history, most notably the biblical Middle East and through much of the Islamic world.

So he does realize that gay marriage does not imply polygamy (or polyandry) and vice-versa. The connection is not logical or causal but merely psychological. Krauthammer’s argument–though studded with n0t-that-there’s-anything-wrong with-thats–does little to camouflage its illogical appeal to simple prejudice.

Bad Times

Things are going really badly for Republicans and the Bush administration, so notes E.J.Dionne in the *Post*, but he adds that it’s not “flatly false” to claim that things are going so hot for Democrats either. He makes this surprisingly weak-kneed remark in the context of a discussion of the phony “balance” stories that infect the national argument; bad news for the Bush administration must necessarily be accompanied by bad news (however contrived) for the Democrats, otherwise, charges (however specious) of “liberal media” will fly. And so Dionne complies.

And then he complies some more. After, correctly again, pointing out that this form of rancid (to borrow from The Daily Howler) national discourse rests on a false premise, Dionne concedes:

>The Democrats’ real problem is that they have failed to show how their critique of the Republican status quo is the essential first step toward the alternative program they will owe the voters in the presidential year of 2008.

And this is precisely the kind of second-order horse race commentary typical of Dionne. Rather than drive home the conclusion that the premise of the argument the Republicans most often make (in print, on cable television and talk radio) is hollow and wrong, Dionne steps outside of the argument and concedes (without citing any evidence other than the Republicans he is criticizing) that the Democrats have no positive vision. He continues:

>This failure has made it easier for Republicans to cast anti-Bush feeling (aka, “Bush hatred”) as a psychological disorder. The GOP shrewdly makes the president’s critics look crazed and suggests that opposition to Bush is of no more significance than, say, the loathing that many watchers of “American Idol” love to express toward Simon Cowell, the meanest of the show’s judges.

Dionne believes and so ought to argue that the Republican argument is intellectually irresponsible, wrong, fallacious, pernicious–outrageous. But he concedes to the Republican strategy he criticizes when he says that it’s not “flatly false” to claim things aren’t going well for the Democrats. If Dionne could be considered the typical Democrat, they’re right.

At the movies

With so much going wrong for the results of real world arguments of his Republican fans (Iraq, Katrina, Scooter, DeLay, Cheney’s aim, illegal spying, and so on), Charles Krauthammer has turned to the art of fictional film criticism. His piece takes aim at *Syriana* in particular (though he also mentions *Paradise Now*, a foreign film about suicide bombers, as well as Spielberg’s *Munich*). Reading his piece we were reminded of the subtle work of another newspaper blowhard–Richard Roeper. Roeper’s frequent complaint about films is that he “doesn’t buy it.” Poor Roger Ebert must then remind him that it’s a fictional film, so it’s not true, and there’s nothing “to buy.”

Sure, films like that can level criticism, but one way *not* to read it is this:

>The most pernicious element in the movie is the character at the moral heart of the film: the beautiful, modest, caring, generous Pakistani who becomes a beautiful, modest, caring, generous . . . suicide bomber. In his final act, the Pure One, dressed in the purest white robes, takes his explosives-laden little motorboat headfirst into his target.

For Krauthammer, anything short of spitting condemnation of terrorism constitutes self-loathing anti-americanism. The film’s failure to condemn the bomber constitutes an endorsement to Krauthammer’s woefully shallow dichotomous mind. For our part, the youth’s falling in with radical Islamic terrorism was a tragedy in the real sense of the term. His generosity and spirituality were exploited to nefarious ends. And, as is the case with all tragedies, he was the agent of self-destruction. The view identifies to some extent with him (but not his aims) because that is what fictional tragedies are all about. So, at the very least, Krauthammer is guilty of genre confusion: fictional tragedies must be assessed in different ways than actual documentaries.

At the moment, there are too many real world problems caused by views akin to those of Krauthammer and his Republican friends for him to be trying to unearth evidence of Hollywood anti-americanism. Perhaps he should turn his attention to those and save the aisle seat for Roger Ebert.