Cut and run

Before he was swept up in a spam patrol sweep, a loyal reader of ours suggested we take a look at the Power Line Blog. He wrote:

>I would like to request that this blog focus a bit on another blog for the purpose of identifying and analyzing the methods of argumentation used there. The blog is Powerline and it is a conservative blog of some influence, although I cannot for the life of me determine why it should be so. In particular, please look over the posts of one of the site’s main contributors: Paul Mirengoff. He has been the subject of a previous post on this blog when he co-authored a Wash Post editorial. I think his posts are rife with certain techniques that debaters often use and which are used to hide some very interesting logical flaws, albeit always that easy to spot. The manner in which he consistently dismisses those with a viewpoint of which he disapproves strikes me both as unresponsive and as an ad hominem approach to argument. I’d be most appreciative of anyone’s observations here — I’ve no particular subject matter or viewpoint at stake here, but I am more than a little puzzled as to why Powerline is given so much credence in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

We’re generally not interested in blogs–it’s all we can do to read the op-eds of the major daily newspapers. As a way however of apologizing to this loyal reader, here’s a quick analysis of a brief Powerline passage:

>The fact that half of all deaths caused by terrorists last year were in Iraq is consistent with what the terrorists themselves often tell us: Iraq is the central front in the global war against Islamic terrorism. The old Andrew Sullivan would have understood that this means we should fight to win in Iraq, not cut and run.

Nevermind that Iraq hadn’t been a central front in the war on terrorism until we made it so by showing up there. The more interesting claim is the second–we should fight to win, not cut and run. “Cutting and running” has all the air of the straw man/false dichotomy. “Cutting and running” is not a strategic manuever; it is hasty, cowardly, and as a result ill-conceived. It is not a policy that any serious person advocates, or should be considered to advocate. So for that reason the powerline blogger blogs against no one. The false dichotomy consists in the implicit claim that the only alternative to “victory” (whose definition is always shifting, by the way, but that is another matter) is cowardly retreat. The alternative to victory, however, is defeat. A road that many claim we have already chosen. But that, again, is another matter.

Argument versus opinion

A student asked me the other day during a discussion of modal logic whether I found it hard to listen to the chatter of normal people. Another person–often the victim of my constant and misplaced vigilance–has raised the same question. While many might not know the proper logical mode of the claim “God exists” (necessarily? contingently?) they should know the basic facts of rationally justified beliefs. Deborah Howell, like many of her colleagues at the *Washington Post*, is not like most people. She writes:

>Editorials and news stories have different purposes. News stories are to inform; editorials are to influence.

This is right so far as it goes. The problem, as it has been pointed out by many (start here should you wish to purse the issue to its bloggly ends) is the falsley dichotomous facts versus opinion claim. Opinions, especially those of a newspaper of worldwide circulation and influence, such as the *Post*, ought to be grounded in well-established fact. Within the limits of reasonable dispute, what the facts show, which inferences can be legitimately drawn, is another matter. But we must stress that at the basis of that argument are the facts. Should those arguments, such as those of the Post editorial referred to above, fail to take the obvious facts into account, then they are little more than lies.

To the student who asked whether it was difficult to deal with the unrigorous chatter of normal people I said: it’s hard to read the newspaper.

None shall pass

Whatever the source of the current urgency surrounding the immigration debate (we have our theories, but those are for another forum), it’s certainly hard, intellectually but not rhetorically, for many of those opposed in some form to immigration to distinguish between their immigrant ancestors (and sometimes themselves) and the immigrants here in our country today.

One way–one very wrong way–to resolve the tension is to latch onto the analogical notion of trespass. Take the following one from Charles Krauthammer:

>If you found a stranger living in your basement, you would be far more inclined to let him stay if he assured you that his ultimate intent is just to improve his own life and not to prepare the way for his various cousins waiting on the other side of your fence.

Let’s read this very carefully. The stranger is an illegal latino; latinos (and maybe people from the middle east) seem to be the only immigrants that right wing types think about. And if you doubt that analysis, read the first part of the piece where the focus on the discussion was on the impolitic presence of mexican flags at rallies (we should note that in Chicago saw and continually see many Irish ones).

This presence of this person, who lives apparently rent-free *in your basement* comes as a surprise to you: you *stumble* upon him, you happen to find him; you didn’t know he was there; you didn’t invite him. So he must have broken in to your basement–he is a trespasser. He is, after all, illegal. The analogy doesn’t mention that he does any work (for anyone, least of all you). He lives–he doesn’t *work* in your basement.

Worse than all of this, he must reassure you that he’s only here for himself, and not for his extended family (cousins) who are waiting on the other side of *your* fence. Do they want to live in your basement as well? One can only suppose.

Contra populum

One final post on George Will’s spectacularly dumb piece on global warming (later we will discuss the recurring Will canard that contractual benefits constitute “welfare”).

We should remind the reader that the whole point of Will’s essay is to challenge *the truth* of the claim of those white-coated types–also known as scientists–that the earth’s atmosphere is warming. We stress “truth” because as evidence *against* this claim, Will points out that many people *believe* it to be true:

>Eighty-five percent of Americans say warming is probably happening, and 62 percent say it threatens them personally. The National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth’s surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century. Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it.

Clearly the best explanation for why many Americans believe a claim to be true is that it’s false! Aside from that stunning non-sequitur, this is the flipside of another fallacy: the argumentum ad populum. Under normally fallacious circumstances, the devious and dishonest arguer will suggest that the sheer number of people who hold a belief is evidence of that’ belief’s truth (or moral goodness, or whatever), when that truth does not depend on a vote. Global warming is obviously a question for experts (so the number of non-experts who believe it or not doesn’t constitute evidence for or against it).

Will’s claim has a kind of tinfoil hat quality to it: if a lot of people believe something, then not only is it false, but it’s the product of a mass conspiracy:

>About the mystery that vexes ABC — Why have Americans been slow to get in lock step concerning global warming? — perhaps the “problem” is not big oil or big coal, both of which have discovered there is big money to be made from tax breaks and other subsidies justified in the name of combating carbon.

>Perhaps the problem is big crusading journalism.

The weird thing about this conspiracy, however, is that it’s stunningly effective and ineffective. Just compare the two passages (from the beginning and end of the piece): Americans have been slow to recognize the threat of global warming because of the success of journalism calculated to produce recognition of such threats, so therefore the problem is journalism. For once in my life I’m confused.


As we have said, this op-ed by George Will may take a while to sort out (luckily today he did some reportage on the sorry state of Illinois politics). Having already confused science fiction with science fact and having grossly exaggerated the amount of conflict among present day scientists concerning global warming, Will argues that no one is in a position to know whether it would be a bad thing:

>In fact, the Earth is always experiencing either warming or cooling. But suppose the scientists and their journalistic conduits, who today say they were so spectacularly wrong so recently, are now correct. Suppose the Earth is warming and suppose the warming is caused by human activity. Are we sure there will be proportionate benefits from whatever climate change can be purchased at the cost of slowing economic growth and spending trillions? Are we sure the consequences of climate change — remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest — must be bad? Or has the science-journalism complex decided that debate about these questions, too, is “over”?

As a commenter pointed out a few days ago, Will distorted the scientific claims about “global cooling” in the articles he cites. But if we leave that aside, we find in the above passage a more straightforward instance of the fallacy of ignorance. Say one grants that we can’t be certain that global warming (with the consequent rise in the waters and so forth) is a bad thing. It certainly does not follow from that fact alone that we should, as Will argues here and elsewhere, *do nothing.* To do nothing is to conclude that global warming it’s *not* a bad thing–thus the fallacy.

To me it seems that a cautious–or even conservative–individual would conclude that it’s best to be on the safe side and cut back on all of those nasty pollutants, which, by the way, are bad for innumerable other reasons.

Heads up!

It may take a few days to sort out the sheer idiocy of George Will’s Sunday Post column. The other day–with a little help from our new friends down under–my colleague discussed the argument from ignorance that Will has been flogging for quite a while now. On “This Week” last week (click here for the video) he pulled out a cheat-sheet of quotes from major media (the New York Times is his favorite) in order to give the impression of authentic scientific disagreement. Prior to this, Will favorably reviewed Michael Crichton’s science fiction (you read that right, science fiction) novel about the manufactured global warming crisis. For a discussion of that, you can see here. See also his discussion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

But the mental gymnastics in his piece on Sunday make those other pieces appear mere exercises in sophistry. Perhaps the *Post* editors pointed out that Crichton’s fictional novel (notwithstanding footnotes and appendices) didn’t constitute reasonable scientific evidence. So he turns within–the truth, so says Augustine, teaches from within:

Eighty-five percent of Americans say warming is probably happening, and 62 percent say it threatens them personally. The National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth’s surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century. Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it. Never mind that one degree might be the margin of error when measuring the planet’s temperature. To take a person’s temperature, you put a thermometer in an orifice or under an arm. Taking the temperature of our churning planet, with its tectonic plates sliding around over a molten core, involves limited precision.

Will’s skepticism about global warming–what republicans call “global climate change” and which is doubted by almost no qualified climatologists (as well as many science fiction writers)–beggars belief. Taking one’s temperature with one of those Walgreens thermometers (the ones you have to shake and that I can never read) hardly compares to the activity of thousands of scientists independently recording and checking and publishing (and rechecking and rerecording and editing and revising) the data of their many and diverse fields. They’re not just sticking their Walgreens thermometer where Will has put his head.

Upgrade and new look

After a year and a half we decided to update our style and our software. The look has been tested on Firefox and Konqueror, so hopefully it looks ok to those of you who are using Safari as well.

A cool feature of this style is its inclusion of toggle for the sidebars which may make reading some of our long posts easier.
If there’s any weirdness in rendering please let us know and we’ll try to fix it (a screenshot would be a great help).

A glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best

We find ourselves hard pressed to identify and analyze all of the fallacies in one post that are woven into George Will’s editorial on global warming today. As our readers will know by now, Will operates at the cutting edge of fallacious reasoning, continually pushing the envelope as he seems to discover new fallacies for us to describe and analyze. Today he advances an interesting and ridiculous reason for scepticism concerning the occurence and dangers of global warming:

While worrying about Montana’s receding glaciers, Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling. Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.” Science Digest (February 1973) reported that “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age.” The Christian Science Monitor (“Warning: Earth’s Climate is Changing Faster Than Even Experts Expect,” Aug. 27, 1974) reported that glaciers “have begun to advance,” “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” and “the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool.” Newsweek agreed (“The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975) that meteorologists “are almost unanimous” that catastrophic famines might result from the global cooling that the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1975) said “may mark the return to another ice age.” The Times (May 21, 1975) also said “a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable” now that it is “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

He seems to be arguing that we should distrust current scientific beliefs because in the past scientists held different beliefs. Undoubtedly, somewhere in some version of this claim there is a glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best. Scientififc controversy implies that the arguments and evidence advanced for a hypothesis have not yet persauded the scientific community. In a conditon of controversy we may do best to withold judgment and decision until the controversy is resolved. But, in the form that Will needs the premise in order to support his beliefs about global warming, this argument is flat-out absurd. Will does not argue here that there is controversy today among climate scientists–in fact, the vast majority seem to conclude from the relevant evidence the standard view of global warming–but that today’s scientists disagree with past scientists

One might as well argue that since scientists in the past thought that the past belief in the geocentric solar system suggests that we should not believe the current helio-centric theory: or, that since atoms were thought to be indivisible that we should doubt current belief in sub-atomic particles.

The closest I can come to categorizing this fallacy is as a version of the fallacy from ignorance. That isn’t exactly correct, since Will’s argument is really that because there has been disagreement about an hypothesis, we should not accept the arguments in favor of the hypothesis.

There are difficult questions about the nature of scientific reasoning and theorizing that such changes in scientific belief prompt. But, Will uses this change fallaciously to suggest that it provides reason for scepticism concerning the truth of the current view, and so he avoids the serious work of responding to serious arguments advanced by a seemingly vast majority of the climate scientists around the world.