We might call a new argument for torture the “24 argument”. Whatever works on the fictional TV show 24 (a) really works in reality and (b) tacitly approved by the shows fans, who think it’s a documentary. Among these fans is Jonah Goldberg, he writes:

>Yet, according to the torture prohibitionists, there must be a complete ban on anything that even looks like torture, regardless of context, even though we’d never dream of a blanket ban on killing.

>One reason for this disconnect is that we’ve thought a lot about killing and barely at all about torture. Almost no one opposes killing in all circumstances; wars sometimes need to be fought, the hopelessly suffering may require relief, we reserve the right to self-defense. The law recognizes a host of nuances when it comes to homicide, and the place where everybody draws an unambiguous line on killing is at something we call “murder.”

>But there is no equivalent word for murder when it comes to torture. It’s always evil. Yet that’s not our universal reaction. In movies and on TV, good men force evil men to give up information via methods no nicer than what the CIA is allegedly employing. If torture is a categorical evil, shouldn’t we boo Jack Bauer on Fox’s “24”? There’s a reason we keep hearing about the ticking time bomb scenario in the torture debate: Is abuse justified in getting a prisoner to reveal the location of a bomb that would kill many when detonated? We understand that in such a situation, Americans would expect to be protected. That’s why human-rights activists have tried to declare this scenario a red herring.

Need we point out the obvious? (1) The scenarios on the TV show “24” are fictional. Fictional means “made up,” or “invented.” If they are used to test our moral intuitions, then we must keep in mind that they have been written for dramatic effect (and that the show’s premise is that Jack Bauer has yet another fast-paced 24-hour period to save us from someone). So someone who gives up the location of a ticking bomb under torture on the TV show does not mean either that the scenario might obtain in reality or that the person would not lie to great effect. (2) Most people watch a fictional TV show in order to be entertained and just because they watch it doesn’t mean they believe it. (3) We have provisions in our Constitution and criminal procedure that ban torture (even in the case of the ticking bomb and so forth). Perhaps the proponents of torture ought to look to those actual legal and ethical principles for guidance on this question.


The idea that Bush fights battles with imaginary foes–straw men or red herring–does not strike us as so novel. We’ve documented this tendency among the argumentative press for a while now. Only now is it getting any traction. It’s certainly reassuring that some in the media give a rats about such things. But it’s not so reassuring when they completely bungle in it the name of balance.

An example of the first (reassuring) thing is Dan Froomkin (go read the entire White House Briefing–it’s worth it):

>Rather than acknowledge and attempt to rebut the many concerns about his policies, Bush makes up inane arguments and then ridicules them.

And Froomkin gives abundant examples.

Over at the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg approaches the same topic, but finds something bad to say about Democrats:

>The White House is hardly alone in its pointed use of language against political opponents.

The Bush variety (again–look at the examples) of straw man or red herring amounts to much more than the pointed use of language. It’s the wholesale invention of an opponent. Do they Democrats do that? If they do, Rutenberg doesn’t say so.

Non causa

It’s good to be skeptical of the press. There may be reasons to approach press reports of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) with caution, but flying into speculative refutation is deeply confused. In that spirit, Robert Kagan attempts a futile recasting of the role of the Iraq war in the war on terrorism:

>For instance, what specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the “terrorism threat”? Presumably, the NIE’s authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn’t mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.

Notice that Kagan–a Washington Post columnist–suggests that the absence of successful attacks against the United States in the wake of the Iraq war is a matter of causal significance. It would have to be, if the burden has shifted onto those who suggest it has.

But that’s crazy talk. For, (1) according to the adminstration, Iraq is full of terrorists attacking (successfully) the United States (much like they did the USS Cole); (2) There were no terrorists in Iraq before the war (and Saddam had no ties–ask Bush–to al Qaeda); (3) Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11; (4) there have been terrorist attacks of the al Qaeda variety all over the world–including Iraq and Afghanistan.

In light of these very obvious and well known facts, the only way Kagan could approach a causal claim is by construing “terrorist attack” in a way that excludes anything that has happened since the Iraq war (and in the Iraq war or in the war in Afghanistan). And so he would have to equivocate on “terrorist attack” so as to render it meaningless.

But even he were right about the meaning of “terrorist attack”, there is nothing to suggest that the Iraq war has a causal relation to the absence of such attacks (as he very strongly implies). At best, as he says, it has no relation. If it has no relation, then the burden has not shifted on to the opposing side (each side may have the same burden of proof). The burden, Kagan ought to note, lies with the one, like him, who asserts the causal claim.

But the truly silly thing about this argument is that Kagan hasn’t seen the NIE either. So his criticism is purely of the speculative variety. The very sort he accuses others of advancing.

Play along at home (Krugman on vacation edition)

Well Paul Krugman chose to duck our challenge by taking a vacation: We’ll be waiting when he re-surfaces.

In place of the Krugman challenge today, I went trolling for silly op-ed pieces. Fortunately, is a one stop shop for silly op-ed pieces on the right.

In place of my long-winded analysis, I invite you to see whether you can find the fallacies in these two pieces, while I keep scouring the web for the liberal version of such a site.

Why liberals love adultery

Are videotaped beheading covered by Geneva?


There is a ballot initiative in my native state of Michigan which would make all affirmative action programs (based on race or ethnicity) illegal under Michigan law (similar initiatives were passed in California and Washington state). Touchy subject, race. George Will tells us this morning that some opponents of the measure do not want “to argue the merits”:

>some opponents of MCRI have adopted four tactics, none of which involves arguing the merits of racial preferences and all of which attempt — in the name of “civil rights,” of course — to prevent Michiganders from being allowed to vote on MCRI. The tactics have included:

And he goes on to list four separate charges, which, if true (and let’s assume they are), demonstrate the hypocrisy (at least) of some opponents of the Michigan ballot measure. But demonstrating the hyprocisy of some of an initiative’s detractors does not demonstrate the forthrightness of some or any of its supporters. Nor does it mean they’re right. Lots of voters–even lots of serious political writers–do not want to argue the merits of their case; they’d rather argue about whether the opponent was wounded in Vietnam, or whether he’s an effete snob who would never shop at Wal Mart. The merits of the case–whatever they are (and if they are)–still wait around to be argued.

And now to that argument:

>Because the plain language of MCRI is appealing, some opponents argue that MCRI would have terrible “unintended consequences.” It might, they say, eliminate single-sex public schools (Michigan has none; eight of 3,748 schools have a few voluntary single-sex classes) and breast-cancer screening or might stop a Department of Natural Resources program aimed at helping Michigan women become hunters (the initiative concerns only hiring, contracting and public schools).

>Given the caliber of opposition arguments. . .

These are the best arguments Will could find? If so, it looks as if Will doesn’t want to argue the merits either. And least not seriously. He wants to (1) malign all of the supporters with the hyporcritical actions of some of them and (2) find the weakest arguments against the initiative he supports and make fun of them in order to lend support to the view that the supporters of the initiative

>are provoking remnants of the civil rights movement, which now is just a defender of a racial spoils system, to demonstrate its decadence, even thuggishness.

And everyone knows that’s a straw man.

Krugman Challenge Day 2 (I heart Krugman edition)

Today we’ll take another stab at the logic of Paul Krugman’s column (Times Select). Once again, the Krugman Challenge is an attempt to examine whether Paul Krugman commits fewer egregious logical sins than some of his colleagues. We are looking strictly speaking for commission of traditional logical fallacies, though considering along the way how his arguments work and whether they are made adequately explicit.

Krugman offers an argument for universal health care on two grounds:

>If we had a universal system — Medicare for everyone — there would be no more horror stories like those reported by The Los Angeles Times. And we’d almost certainly spend less on health care than we do now.

The first of these grounds is his concern for the majority of the column. The story from the L.A. Times provides some details of cases where people have purchased individual insurance, become sick, and then found their insurance company revoking coverage for various technical reasons. Krugman cites only 1 case and then asserts:

>This trend helps explain something that has been puzzling me: why is the health insurance industry growing rapidly, even as it covers fewer Americans?

Of course, Krugman has only cited one anecdote with a reference to the LA Times article on Sunday.

The original article claims that these cancellations–or at least the complaints and lawsuits that issue from them–have been suffered by people with individual insurance plans (of which there are 2 million in California) rather than group plans.

So is there evidence of a “trend” that can explain (or help explain) the rapid growth of the health industry? Well that’s hard for me to judge based on the data before me, and I will have to leave that to someone with access to relevant data. But it seems reasonable to take, in this case, the evidence of a series of lawsuits including depositions that show (“But an employee said in a deposition last year that a special department considers as many as 1,500 cases for cancellation each week in California alone. A consumer lawyer who saw Blue Cross’ cancellation tally sheets described the department as a rescission factory,” and coupled with regulators interest in these practices to suggest the existence of a “trend” (even though none of this evidence is directly cited in the article, the reference to its source seems more than adequate).

Can this trend provide explanation of the growth of the industry? Krugman doesn’t give us any particulars. However, immediately after this he talks about the growth of the industry as measured by employment, dazzling the reader with a series of statistics whose relevance to the question seems tenuous.
>Health care is poised to become America’s largest industry. Employment in manufacturing, which once dominated the
economy, has fallen 18 percent since 2000, to 14.2 million.

To which he adds:

>Yet even as health care becomes the core of the American economy, our system of paying for health care remains sick, and is getting sicker.

The sickness of health care is reflected in the decline of employment based coverage forcing either people to remain uninsured or seeking individual insurance. This coupled with the trend of jettisoning costly coverage where possible results in a trend towards only the healthiest and wealthiest having good insurance.

We will leave his comparison of the inefficiency of private health providers and the efficiency of government systems for another time when he offers a fuller argument for it.

So, how should we assess his argument? Once again Krugman avoids any glaringly fallacious argumentation. His argument is under-developed, but not in an obviously flawed way. There is a little bit of fuzziness connecting the “trend” of revoking coverage and the claim that it “helps explain” the growth of the industry. We have no real sense of the magnitude of the effects of this trend, or whether there are better explanations for the growth (such as providing increased services (as evidenced by increased employment?) to increased markets?). But, if the companies are interested in jettisoning costs (in some cases illegitimately) we must assume with Krugman that they are doing this as a result of “market pressures.” And so it must have some effect on their profitabiliy.

Nevertheless, since Krugman’s conclusion is that a public health care system would avoid cases like the one’s reported in the LA Times and cost less money, the part of his argument supporting the first claim seems adequately defended. (These cases are caused by the profit motive. In a public system profit motive is absent. Therefore these cases wouldn’t occur.)

Seems we will be returning for Krugman Challenge, Day 3!

Foul mouths

Sometimes calling people names is not fallacious. And so, David Broder:

>When Powell wrote that Bush’s demand would compound the world’s “doubt [about] the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” he was appealing to Jefferson’s standard.

>It is a standard this administration has flagrantly rejected. Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself. The country thought Bush was a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution.

No inference is being explicitly or implicitly drawn on the basis of the meanie-meanie-bo-beanie remark (and it doesn’t seem to play a functional roll in this paragraph or the op-ed as a whole). Since no inferences are being drawn, if Broder is guilty of anything, it’s uttering or uncritically repeating dubious memes about Gore, Kerry and Bush. But that’s a question for those who study and analyse the formation and dissemination of the “conventional wisdom.” He continues:

>Now, however, you can see the independence party forming — on both sides of the aisle. They are mobilizing to resist not only Bush but also the extremist elements in American society — the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left and the doctrinaire religious extremists on the right who would convert their faith into a whipping post for their opponents.

We might point out that being vituperative and foul-mouthed doesn’t mean you don’t have an argument, and that one finds many of the same bloggers on the right (add that to religious extremists and the balance shifts!), but that’s a factual point that we’d have to establish by reference to the relevant evidence. My anecdotal sampling of the blogosphere hardly seems sufficient evidence for such claims, so I won’t make them. Maybe Broder shouldn’t either, but he’s not arguing from this, he’s reporting it as fact. So once again, we’d leave that to the foul-mouthed blogers to discuss.

Straw Herring

It’s always right to point this sort of thing out. So Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post saves us valuable time:

>Straw Man Watch

>Here’s an astonishing exchange from the Rose Garden on Friday:

>”Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, former Secretary of State Colin Powell says the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. If a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State feels this way, don’t you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you’re following a flawed strategy?”

>Bush’s response was a straw-man argument.

>”THE PRESIDENT: If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic. I simply can’t accept that. It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.”

>It would have been worthwhile if someone at the news conference had followed up with something like this:

>”In your response to the question about Colin Powell’s statement that ‘the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism’ you made it sound like Powell was saying we were as bad as the terrorists, and you got very angry. But that’s not even remotely what Powell was saying. He’s simply saying that by pretty universal moral standards, your actions are questionable. Could you please respond to that critique, rather than to a made-up one?”

>No one did.

One might argue that this is not a straw man, but rather a red herring. The President has distracted–successfully I might add–the press corps with a completely different argument, one about the moral equivalence of the United States and the terrorists rather than “the moral basis”–our ius in bello–in the war against terrorism. Besides, he never actually claims that he has answered Powell’s objection. Straw man or not, however, Bush’s remarks are deceptive–and it’s a crying shame that no one of those gathered said anything.

Krugman Challenge, Day 1

We have often claimed that Krugman does not make the same sort of logical mistakes as our friends George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer do. Might be time to see whether that is in fact true. Today Krugman gives us this explanation (sorry not free access) of the Bush administration’s fascination with violating the Geneva Convention:

>So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people? To show that it can. The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

This nicely illustrates some of the problems of interpreting and logical analysis. If we were to represent the text as an argument, we might say:

1. The central drive of the administration is eliminating all limits on president’s power.

2. The Geneva Convention is a limit on the president’s power.

3. Therefore, the administration wants to show that it can ignore the Geneva Convention.

It is a valid inference (if 1 and 2 are true, then 3 must be true) represented like that. Yet when we re-read the original passage something seems amiss.

Krugman takes for granted the conclusion as the initial fact and hence we are dealing with an explanation rather than an argument. (The difference between an argument and an explanation can generally be identified by asking the question whether the premises provide reason to believe the conclusion is true, or whether the “premises” answer the question “why the conclusion is true?”)

But then we must ask whether there is reason to believe that this explanation is the “best explanation.” And here we would expect some argument.

But Krugman doesn’t give it to us, instead he admits that this rests on his belief that

>”torture appeals to the president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition.”

He doesn’t give any reason for this. He should. (But not to give an argument for one’s premises is not a a violation of the rules of logic. All arguments begin from premises that are unjustified within the argument. But one should be willing (and able) to provide justification of the premises when requested).

But the problem is that it is not a terribly persuasive explanation. And Krugman surely realizes that it is a controversial. He is, in effect, claiming that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are motivated primarily by a lust to expand the president’s power and that their policies on torture are motivated primarily by this lust.

There are, it seems to me, plenty of other more plausible explanations. For example, nothing more is needed than the claim that they don’t care about constraints, coupled with a claim about their rejection of the evidence that torture does not produce reliable intelligence is adequate to explain their motivations.

Of course, Krugman could reply that he has rejected this explanation by presenting the evidence that torture cannot provide reliable intelligence (as an argument from authority):

>Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn’t like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.

>What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.

But, for this to be an argument against the proposed explanation (mine above), we would need to believe that the Bush Administration listens to the relevant “authorities.” Recent history suggests that they do not. There seems to be good reason to believe that the Bush administration really really does believe that torturing suspects will make America safer, just as they seem to have believed that invading Iraq would make America safer.
Once again, it is important that this is a failure at the level not of logic (validity) but of truth (soundness). I may not find his argument sound, but I don’t think he commits any fallacies.


Among the requirements for writing a paper in any of my philosophy courses, students find the following two very challenging: (1) absolutely no quoting or near verbatim paraphrasing; (2) treat the argument you object to with charity (if it’s weak, make it stronger than it is). The first rule keeps the kids from larding their papers with quotations. But it also prevents them from violating the second rule with the contextless citation: the “gotcha quote,” in other words. The “gotcha quote” is often the centerpiece of the political attack ad–“I voted for it before I voted against it.” People remembered the quote but they didn’t remember the context. The people who truck in such dishonest quote-picking out to be ashamed of themselves. Today George Will does both of those things–he lards his column with quotations maliciously selected in order to dismiss rather than seriously challenge the argument surrounding them–gotcha quotes in other words. He might as well read them aloud with that voice so often employed in the political attack ad. Here’s an example:

>The GOP, he says, courts whites “whose interests are overwhelmingly focused on tempering, if not altogether rolling back, the civil rights movement.” Please. Who favors rolling back guarantees of voting rights and equal access to public accommodations?

I don’t know George. Did Edsall give any evidence for this claim? I find it strange that you don’t offer any evidence to support your claim that no one does, especially when you cite a book about that topic. Perhaps you might have established your conclusion by demonstrating that Edsall has not offered any evidence for his claim. You could say that he tends to make wild accusations unsupported by any attempt at evidence. But you don’t say that and you don’t give any evidence that he doesn’t. Persons used to reading such books will be inclined to think that Edsall has offered evidence for his extraordinary claim. Even if they’re sympathetic to your view, they’ll realize that such things just don’t get said without reasons. Those reasons might be completely specious, but you can’t just dismiss them out of hand.

Conservative friends and fans of George Will please listen carefully. Such lazy and deceptive writing does not (1) establish the truth of the conclusions he argues for; (2) does not mean he’s wrong and (3) does not establish the truth of the opposite position (whatever that is). It only means he has wasted everyone’s time–especially yours, since you tend to agree with him and some of you look to him for supporting arguments. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we should expect better of the people who occupy the highest places in our civil discourse. You should expect better of your intellectual heroes. Juiced atheletes earn their disgrace, so should juiced writers.