It’s not a fallacy if you do it

Reasoning fallaciously is like lying–it’s not wrong if *you* do it. On that topic, I stumbled across this from the blogosphere:

>Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. [Sigmund Freud – unsubstantiated attribution]

>Then I get this email telling me that when I apply the epithet “idiots” to those with whom I disagree, I am guilty of using the logical phallacy, oops, Freudian slip, I mean using the logical fallacy of “Ad Hominem”. Instead of attacking the arguments and premises of my opponent, I attack on the basis of some irrelevant fact, like his intelligence.

>So I ask my dear readers, what do you make of this? [with a tip of the turban Hat Tip to GOP and College]

[missing here is a picture of a protester with a sign that reads: “If Hezbollah hides among civilians, the IDF has no choice– It must hold fire”]

>liberal idiot moron imbecile

>For the life of me, I tried to think of the correct appellative to apply to this leftwing nutjob and after hours of excruciating and rigorous exercise of my little grey cells I could not come up with anything more accurate, more descriptive, more truthful than Liberal Idiot. And although, in the main, it is a shabby argument to use, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a liberal is just an idiot.

>Anyone else out there want to give it a try?

I’ll give it a try. And yes, Jimmy, you are guilty of the fallacy of ad hominem. If you don’t know what that is, then click that link for other examples. Or just go here for an explanation.

The reason–yes there is a reason–you’re guilty of this fallacy is this. If the fellow with the poster makes *an assertion* you consider idiotic, then it’s (a) up to *you* to show the assertion is idiotic and (b) conclude as a result that the person making the assertion is an idiot. (a) is easy. You only need an argument. (b) is harder, because idiots say smart things all of the time, and smart people say idiotic things even more often. So the idiocy of the sign-holder, you see, is irrelevant to the idiocy of the sign, unless you show, as you probably could, that they’re linked.

So, just because you can’t think of of an argument against a sign-holding protester (a pointless endeavor in our estimation–argue against people with arguments for Chrissake–doesn’t excuse you from the basic rules of rational discourse.


Speaking of Bush, here is a very recent interview with Brian Williams of NBC. Williams asks:

>WILLIAMS: When you take a tour of the world, a lot of Americans e-mail me with their fears that, some days they just wake up and it just feels like the end of the world is near. And you go from North Korea to Iran, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and you look at how things have changed, how Americans are viewed overseas, if that is important to you. Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought a wrong war? Or that there’s something wrong with the perception of America overseas?

>BUSH: Well those are two different questions, did we fight the wrong war, and absolutely — I have no doubt — the war came to our shores, remember that. We had a foreign policy that basically said, let’s hope calm works. And we were attacked.

He’s right about one thing–those are two separate questions. Score one for Bush.

>WILLIAMS: But those weren’t Iraqis.

>BUSH : They weren’t, no, I agree, they weren’t Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they’re a part of, Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists. Now in terms of image, of course I worry about American image. We are great at TV, and yet we are getting crushed on the PR front. I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, “al-Qaida, attack America.”

It has been repeated that Bush has denied the Saddam-9/11 link. He hasn’t. Every time he talks about it, he denies he said Saddam “ordered *that* attack.” That’s different, if you think about it, from denying he was involved at all, which is what some people think he is saying.

Then Williams allows Bush to insist that despite this, it’s all one war. Perhaps he could have asked him about Fascism. Maybe he should put some Mussolini on his summer reading list.

Il fascismo

Anyone who has ever been a lefty college freshman has probably uttered the word “fascist” more times than she can count. Everyone who insisted on any type of rule–like the Resident Assistant, the Floor Fascist–merited that appellation. But it turns out–as it has so often these days–that the college freshman has a better sense of “fascism” than does our current Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. In a recent speech, he says:

> I recount this history because once again we face the same kind of challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism.

>Today, another enemy — a different kind of enemy — has also made clear its intentions — in places like New York, Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, and Moscow. But it is apparent that many have still not learned history’s lessons.

As il Duce instructed us, fascism is defined by its insistence on totalitarian State power. In order to be a fascist state, in other words, you have to be a *state.* So the terrorists–who don’t have a state, as Rumsfeld said elsewhere in the speech (read the whole thing, it’s a gem)–aren’t fascists. While the totalitarian Resident Assistant may not be a fascist, he is at least in the right category. It’s one thing in political speeches to use words for pure rhetorical effect, but it’s another to pick words that only highlight the impropriety all of your historical analogies.

The terrorists aren’t fascists and it’s not 1938.

The Hobgoblin

One way easiest ways to appear analytical to scream about inconsistency. Consistency with what, you ask? Doesn’t matter. The fact is, few of us are entirely consistent, so pointing out this fact is as easy as it as banal.

Take today’s op-ed in the Post by Sebastian Mallaby. He charges that the democratic strategy of “bashing” Wal*Mart will backfire, because Wal-Mart saves a lot of people money, and gives a lot of people jobs who could vote for democrats. But at a more basic level, such arguments are “inconsistent.”

He writes:

>Once upon a time, smart Democrats defended globalization, open trade and the companies that thrive within this system. They were wary of tethering themselves to an anti-trade labor movement that represents a dwindling fraction of the electorate. They understood the danger in bashing corporations: Voters don’t hate corporations, because many of them work for one.

This is colossally dumb for a number of reasons. But we’ll point out one of them. Wal-Mart has done much recently to undermine the Democratic Party’s principles and it has taken a decisive stand against a core principle–the right of workers to organize into unions. So perhaps the Democrats whose consistency Mallaby so superficially criticizes have moved back in the direction of their party’s base. Besides, the corporations Dems used to work for (and not alienate) were nothing like the Wal-Mart kind. They were the GM kind–where one could earn enough not to live on welfare.

Of course in some sense this is inconsistent. Democrats have taken money in the past, and some (Bill Clinton) have praised it’s founder as a great American). What their argument is now, however, is another question. One that Mallaby completely ignores in favor of a kind of perverse tu quoque: having supported Wal-Mart in the past somehow invalidates any present criticism as politically motivated. Besides consistency in the face of evidence to the contrary is the characteristic of another political party.


Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? observes in today’s New York Times:

>Now upon the national stage steps one Karl Zinsmeister, formerly the editor of the American Enterprise Institute’s flagship magazine and now the president’s chief domestic policy adviser. In right-wing circles he is regarded as an intellectual heavyweight. What his career really shows us, though, is the looming exhaustion of the conservative intellectual system; its hopeless addiction to dusty, crumbling clichés; and a blindness to the reality of conservative power so persistent and so bizarre that it amounts to self-deception or, in Zinsmeister’s case, delusion.

I like the cliche’ part. Take this from the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg.

>A year ago, Slate magazine’s legal correspondent, Dahlia Lithwick, recounted this observation–from one of her bounteously sophisticated liberal readers–as a neat summary of the “doctrine” of a “living Constitution.” And a neat summary it is. How droll and obtuse that conservatives think the Constitution should remain anchored against the tides of change while those currents bring with them torrents of newfangled iPods and ever-changing gusts of news; one day about Britney Spears, the next day Paris Hilton. How very horse-and-buggy to suggest that the commerce clause wouldn’t change with the latest in slattern chic and personal electronics.

To be fair, Goldberg sets up to challenge the cliche’–of conservatives. But it never crosses his mind that the argument on which he has premised the superiority of his view is itself a cliched straw man, even though he can barely mention without sneering. This kind of shallow discourse is seriously unserious. Moreover, it violates very simple rules of civilized behavior: treat others with consideration and charity. If you think you have arguments for your view, then it’s likely that your oppoent does as well. You don’t win until you consider them.

The incoherence of the incoherence

The liberal media are at it again. Yesterday the New York Times published a hastily written and poorly reasoned op-ed from Ann Althouse, a blogger and law professor at the University of Wisconsin. For a substantial legal analysis of this piece, go see Glenn Greenwald. We’ll limit ourselves to a brief analysis of an otherwise embarrassingly incoherent piece.

Althouse writes:

>. . . [W]e ought to wonder why a court gets to decide what the law is and not the president. After all, the president has a sworn duty to uphold the Constitution; he has his advisers, and they’ve concluded that the program is legal. Why should the judicial view prevail over the president’s?

>This, of course, is the most basic question in constitutional law, the one addressed in Marbury v. Madison. The public may have become so used to the notion that a judge’s word is what counts that it forgets why this is true. The judges have this constitutional power only because they operate by a judicial method that restricts them to resolving concrete controversies and requires them to interpret the relevant constitutional and statutory texts and to reason within the tradition of the case law.

We’re not legal scholars, so it is doubly ironic that we find Professor Althouse’s argument ludicrous, for she has given the reader every argument *against* her position. It is, as any citizen ought to know, the job of the judiciary to interpret the law. And that is precisely what is at issue in this particular case. Judge Taylor–the one who decided *ACLU vs. NSA*–stands on solid constitutional ground. Althouse offers no argument that the law was not interepreted properly beyond the tired ad hominem cliche’ of “judicial activism”. (And in this case, as others have already noted, this cliche’ is irrelevant):

>But Judge Taylor breezed through two of the three elements of standing doctrine — this constitutional limit on her power — in what looks like a headlong rush through a whole series of difficult legal questions to get to an outcome *in her heart* she knew was right. [emphasis added]

The legal questions, as Althouse has pointed out, are blindingly simple. Now if somehow Taylor’s argument was inadequate vis a’ vis the government’s briefs in this case (see Greenwald again for this), then it is Althouse’s duty to show this. Simply screaming “judicial activism” won’t due.

Ask Questions

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether our President is an idiot. We don’t think that matters because in general with think such questions are a distraction from the real questions. How distracting is it? Look at this:

> My theory dovetails with something one of his most acerbic critics, columnist Molly Ivins, once wrote: “George W. Bush sounds like English is his second language.” That’s because it’s true. “Washington English” is a second language for Bush; “Texas English” is his first.

That’s Kathleen Parker. The problem with the plain-spoken meme is that it just doesn’t square with an Andover/Yale/Harvard education. Nor does it resemble the way his brothers or his family speaks. But like I say, that’s a distraction from things such as this:

>There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily — are a different color than white can self-govern.

Are there now? Who are these people? Is it, perhaps, Pat Buchanan? Maybe it’s no one. And besides, he moved from “skin color” to the pleonastic “people who practice the Muslim faith.” Whatever questions this sort of argumentative nonsense raises about Bush, it ought to be pointed out by smart people in the media. In this case someone could have asked him a simple question: who sez?

Success is success

A while ago we linked to an Associated Press story that said Bush often uses straw man arguments to advance his views. Since Bush doesn’t read “the filter” he never got the memo. But we think it would be nice if Bush reasoned or spoke coherently enough to commit discernable fallacies. Take a look at the following exchange from yesterday’s press conference:

>Q Quick follow-up. A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn’t gone in. How do you square all of that?

>THE PRESIDENT: I square it because, imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would — who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

>Now, look, part of the reason we went into Iraq was — the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question — my answer to your question is, is that, imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

>You know, I’ve heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of “we’re going to stir up the hornet’s nest” theory. It just doesn’t hold water, as far as I’m concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

Idiot or not, this is laughably incoherent–especially the last remark. First he makes the “some say” move–“you’ve heard the theory.” But he doesn’t even bother to knock it down. Rather, he turns to his favorite subject–September 11. 9/11 happened even without the inspiration we have provided them in Iraq. That’s true, but it has nothing to do with the question asked. Neither does the hornet’s nest theory (which was, in a sense, Cheney’s theory during the Gulf War I). But nobody had really argued that anyway.

But the question asker–the one with the seersucker suit–kept at it (direclty following):

>Q What did Iraq have to do with that?

>THE PRESIDENT: What did Iraq have to do with what?

>Q The attack on the World Trade Center?

>THE PRESIDENT: Nothing, except for it’s part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq. I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill to achieve an objective. I have made that case.

>And one way to defeat that — defeat resentment is with hope. And the best way to do hope is through a form of government. Now, I said going into Iraq that we’ve got to take these threats seriously before they fully materialize. I saw a threat. I fully believe it was the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein, and I fully believe the world is better off without him. Now, the question is how do we succeed in Iraq? And you don’t succeed by leaving before the mission is complete, like some in this political process are suggesting.

Sadly, there is much the logic professor could comment on. But again take a look at the last remark. Bush repeats something of the one-percent doctrine (see below). But he seems to have forgotten there was no threat to us from Iraq (and that Iraq has made the world less safe). We’ll leave to one side the “better off without Saddam” remark and its implicit false dichotomy.

The last remark, “you don’t succeed before the mission is complete” is questionbeggingly tautologous. Completing the mission defines success in Iraq for Bush, but the question is whether success can be achieved in this way, not, as Bush seems to think, whether success is success.

Gator Aid

Jonah Goldberg, the editor-at-large at the National Review Online might soon qualify for the category “not worth the trouble.” That’s not yet a category, but it should be–it would be filled with all sorts of tripe merchants whose reasoning is so bad that it doesn’t warrant anyone’s attention.

The other day we find him arguing in favor of ethnic profiling. As we are all accustomed to by now from right-wing columnists, arguments in favor of such things are typically arguments against the oppositions’ straw men. Take the following, which barely merits response:

>What is so infuriating about this is that the ACLU favors policies that discriminate against all sorts of people–old people, women, children and others who, under random searches and other idiotic numerical formulas, are pulled aside for no reason at all.

That being randomly searched constitutes “discrimination” offends the conscience.

Even more absurdly, Goldberg argues in favor of Cheney’s whacked-out “One Percent Doctrine.” In brief, Cheney has held that even if there is one percent chance of a terrorist using a nuclear weapon, we should treat it as a one-hundred percent certainty. Here’s Jonah:

>Ron Suskind’s new book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” explores Vice President Dick Cheney’s view that if there’s a 1 percent chance terrorists might detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city, the government must act as if there’s a 100 percent chance. Despite the guffawing this elicited from administration critics, it strikes me as eminently sensible. (If there were a 1 percent chance the snake in your back yard would kill your child, wouldn’t 1 percent equal 100 percent for you too?) The ACLU’s self-indulgent position, meanwhile, seems to be that if there’s a 1 percent chance a cop will be a racist, we must act as if it’s a 100 percent chance. And that means humans can’t ever be trusted.

Hard to know where to begin with this one. In the first place, we’d take issue with the method of calculating the odds of such events. Considering the way Dick Cheney and his fans hyped the possibility of Saddam having weapons versus, say, the government of Pakistan (which actually has nuclear weapons) falling, we’d have to say that the odds were really far below one percent. Second, it strikes us that Cheney and Goldberg have conflated logical *possibility* with *probability.* Two fundamentally different things. Anything that doesn’t imply a contradiction is possible. Saddam having ties to al Qaeda was possible. It just wasn’t actual or even probable. Anyone with a passing knowledge of his regime could have told you that. Now just because something is logically possible doesn’t mean that it should be assigned a probablity score. One percent, in fact, probably means very little or no probability anyway. So if we actually calculated numerically what Cheney meant, the actual chance would be far below 1 percent. Finally, that Goldberg is confused is evident from his specious analogy (click here to see others do the same on various topics). For many parents–especially those who live in the bug, snake, shark, and gator-infested parts of our country–there is a chance that they’re kid will get eaten by these things in their natural habit. Their solution? Keep their kids of out the water with gators in it. Goldberg-Cheney’s solution? Get rid of all of the gators.

Lessons unlearned

Nobody can stop neocons from gloating about the irrefutable successes of their policies. Not even a chorus of generals and other military types. Not even reality itself can stop them from learning all of the wrong lessons.

Some might remember the triumphalist claims made about the “Cedar Revolution” a while ago. We do–see here for more. Back then Charles Krauthammer, belligerent neocon, claimed that the Lebanese kicking Syria out was the product of our grand strategy of democratizing the Middle East.

Not so. But because he and others don’t get it, we’ll go over the basic idea again.

Today he repeats the same claim, and continues to fail to draw the right conclusion:

>What is most at stake, from the American perspective, is Lebanon. Lebanon was the most encouraging achievement of the democratization project launched with great risk with the invasion of Iraq. The Beirut Spring, the liberation from Syrian rule and the election of a pro-Western government marked the high point (together with the first Iraqi election, which inspired the events in Lebanon) of the Bush doctrine.

>Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have been working assiduously to reverse that great advance. Hezbollah insinuated itself into the government. The investigation of Syria for the murder of Rafiq Hariri has stalled. And now, with the psychological success of the war with Israel, Hezbollah may soon become the dominant force in all of Lebanon. In the south, the Lebanese army will be taking orders from Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not just returning to being a “state within a state.” It is becoming the state, with the Siniora government reduced to acting as its front.

The obvious lesson from this is be careful what you wish for, it might get you. Democracy, as we are learning painfullly in Iraq, sometimes produces results you can’t be happy with. The result in this case is a newly energized and democratically elected Hezbollah. All made possible by our glorious invasion of Iraq.