Religious life

Arguing that one cannot study religion academically, Stanley Fish writes:

>The difference between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of other academic topics lies in the penalty for getting it wrong. A student or a teacher who comes up with the wrong answer to a crucial question in sociology or chemistry might get a bad grade or, at the worst, fail to be promoted. Those are real risks, but they are nothing to the risk of being mistaken about the identity of the one true God and the appropriate ways to worship him (or her). Get that wrong, and you don’t lose your grade or your job, you lose your salvation and get condemned to an eternity in hell.

But Professor Fish has a comparison problem. The penalty for getting questions wrong about religion on a test is a failing grade; the penalty for getting a chemistry question wrong in real life is death.

Oversimplified Fairness

Because the bulk of our analysis is aimed at conservative punditry, we have occasionally been accused of a left-leaning bias. We have spoken about this apparent lack of balance in our note on bias: most "liberal/progressive" newspaper pundits–unlike their conservative colleagues–simply don’t make arguments. The exception to this claim is Paul Krugman, back from behind the Times Select Curtain. Today, however, Krugman gets a little sloppy: >The main force driving this shift to the left [among the American voting public] is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that ‘the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.’ To be sure, there are more varied and urgent causes—say, for instance, an increasingly unpopular war and blatant disrespect for the Constitution—for the Democratic sweep of 2006. This is not to say that economic disparity hasn’t played a role, but to chalk them up as “the main force,” is, well, a little overstated. Furthermore, agreement with a cliche doth not a platform plank make. Paul, buddy, let’s not get out over our populist skis whilst riding in the wake of our glorious victory. -pm

De ira

This passage is not without a little irony:

>The politics of disdain — e.g., Howard Dean’s judgment that Republicans are “brain dead” and “a lot of them never made an honest living in their lives” — derails politics by defining opponents as beyond the reach of reason. The anger directed at Bush today, like that directed at Clinton during his presidency, luxuriates in its own vehemence.

In the first place, we expected the man with the argument (and perhaps that could be his nickname) would not confuse what someone is saying with how he or she says it. One sees this too often, in my estimation. People (of all political stripes) use the terms “bash” or “slam” to describe any kind of disagreement, no matter what the foundation. And so Joe Klein, for instance, cannot distinguish Eric Alterman’s criticism from “personal attacks.” O’Reilly and many of his colleagues portray any criticism as “vicious” and “personal.”

George Will ought to know better. But he doesn’t, he writes (from earlier in the piece):

>There are the tantrums — sometimes both theatrical and perfunctory — of talking heads on television or commentators writing in vitriol (Paul Krugman’s incessant contempt, Ann Coulter’s equally constant loathing).

Whatever you say about Krugman, he knows the difference between an argument and name calling, and it’s hardly proper to compare him, or any mainstream liberal talking-head, to the purposely theatrical Ann Coulter. As we have argued elsewhere, Krugman is one of the few liberal writers who argues for positions in the same fashion as Will. That is to say, he advances reasons to accept his position, or as is often the case, reasons to reject the conclusions of others. Krugman offers reasons for his contempt. To call it “incessant contempt” is to confuse the passion with which the conclusion drawn with its cogency.

The irony of Will’s lesson in civil discourse, however, consists in his consistent and well-documented failure to exemplify that in his own writing. How often, and this is a rhetorical question, has Will presented any opposition to his view as moronic?

A larger point

Today another example of the argument by anecdote. I’m still uncertain how to classify this–and thanks commenters for the comments–but this one instance of it I think is emblematic.

That was a joke. Today George Will finds two examples–two anecdotes as it were–of silly regulation by government at the behest of business interests.

>PHOENIX — In the West, where the deer and the antelope used to play, the spirit of “leave us alone” government used to prevail. But governments of Western states are becoming more like those elsewhere, alas.

>Consider the minor — but symptomatic — matter of the government-abetted aggression by “interior designers” against mere “decorators,” or against interior designers whom other interior designers wish to demote to the status of decorators. Some designers think decorators should be a lesser breed without the law on its side.

And that’s the thing. Let’s say the anecdotes are true as told. How can we conclude that they are “symptomatic of government-abetted agression.” These are two–only two–instances of apparently silly regulation. Why bother writing a column devoted to pointing out two instances of government silliness? Well, maybe, as some will certainly object, you have a “larger point.”

In the world of reasoning and logic, larger points follow from smaller points, and without smaller points, larger points do not exist. Or at least they are not justified.

So, what larger points could Will think he’s making?

He makes no effort to entertain the justifications for such regulations, he cannot conclude that they are unjustified. They certainly sound silly as he has described them. But one shouldn’t have a lot of confidence is such obviously uncharitable descriptions of minor consequences of regulation. One can certainly ask how emblematic those particular rules are of the regulation in question. And Will hasn’t done anything to establish that.

Could it be true that this regulation is actually strangling business? No evidence is offered of that. Now I suppose the reader might fill in his or her own outrageous anecdotes. But no effort is made even to gesture in the direction of evidence that would justify such broad conclusions as these:

>Beyond the banal economic motive for such laws, they also involve a more bizarre misuse of government. They assuage the status anxieties of particular groups by giving them the prestige, such as it is, that comes from government recognition as a certified profession.

So in the end we have what might be evidence that some of the rules consequent upon a couple of laws make people laugh. That’s comedy–and it’s certainly funny–but it’s not much of an argument.

But the larger point he’s making? There isn’t one.

The two Gores

The war on Al Gore is really the specialty of the Daily Howler, but with all deference to Bob Somerby, let me take a stab at it today. The old war on Gore involved the claim that he had a kind of pathological obsession with becoming President of the United States. On this theme, the New York Times’ Healy and Leibovich:

>For Mr. Gore, who calls himself a “recovering politician,” returning to Capitol Hill is akin to a recovering alcoholic returning to a neighborhood bar.

That gratuitous aside puts the whole idea of testifying before Congress back in the old light of Al Gore will do or say anything to become President. But that’s par for the course, and has been amply demonstrated by the above sources.

Luckily we still have Al Gore to kick around. And, like Charles Krauthammer, we can question his grip on reality. So in today’s Post Robert Samuelson writes:

>Global warming has gone Hollywood, literally and figuratively. The script is plain. As Gore says, solutions are at hand. We can switch to renewable fuels and embrace energy-saving technologies, once the dark forces of doubt are defeated. It’s smart and caring people against the stupid and selfish. Sooner or later, Americans will discover that this Hollywood version of global warming (largely mirrored in the media) is mostly make-believe.

And the rest of the op-ed is filled with claims about our extensive use of coal and its contribution to greenhouse gases and so forth. Kudos to Samuelson for not doubting the science of global warming like his colleague, George Will. But like George Will, Samuelson is guilty of confusing the Hollywood story on global warming–necessarily fantastical–with actual probable policy recommendations offered by experts. On any charitable interpretation of what Al Gore is saying, one can’t draw the conclusion that a magic wand will make the whole thing go away. But one can conclude, as has Gore, that there is a major obstacle to progress of any kind on the issue–the will to implement policies aimed at clean and renewable sources of energy.

This is where the new script meets the old one. Isn’t Al Gore some kind of political addict who thrives on the complexity of policy making (rather than simple-minded Texas bromides about the good and the evil)? At least Samuelson didn’t stick to that script.

Anecdotal arguments

Glenn Greenwald has some thoughts worth considering about the fallacy of the “argument by anecdote.” He writes:

>The Ward Churchill whirlwind is one of the classic examples of this rotted genre. “Stories” of that type — which are, as I’ve noted before, perfect examples of the logical fallacy of “argument by anecdote” — are naturally attractive to lazy journalists because they enable broad political points to be made simply by focusing on single anecdotes in isolation. Very little analytical or journalistic work needs to be done in order to covert those anecdotes and cliches into a sensationalistic, attention-generating story.

While I think he’s correct in his assessment of the problem with that sort of arguing. I wonder however if the argument by anecdote is either (1) another way of saying “hasty generalization” or (2) it is a rhetorical specification of the same or maybe (3) something else.

Argument for (1) and (2): To focus on single anecdotes (usually outrageous, as Greenwald correctly notes) isn’t by itself reasoning badly. To infer from the single anecdotes to some broader generalization is reasoning badly. In this sense the argument by anecdote is a kind of fallacy of weak induction.

Argument for (3): on the other hand, the difference with the argument by anecdote is that usually that generalization is not made explicitly. It is merely implied that the anecdote is representative. So in a sense, the outrageous anecdote distracts us from the more pertinent question (and the one that has been assumed) as to whether that anecdote represents anything at all (which it doesn’t). In this sense, it’s a kind of fallacy of relevance.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Notional Enemies

Like all Marines, I spent a lot of time at firing ranges. It turned out however that sometimes these ranges lacked even fake targets. As a result we had to wage a kind of fake and frustrating war on an elusive “notional enemy.” One encounter with an actual enemy, however, gave me a new appreciation for the notional one. George F. Will, WaPo wordsmith, baseball fan, and resident raconteur, has made career out of this tactic. Real enemies, like real arguments, are hard to defeat; better to confront the fake ones. Although we are wearying of Will’s consistently fallacious claims, his nauseous elitism and his neo-conservative soap-boxing, today Will leads off with a real gem: >By striking down the District of Columbia's extraordinarily strict gun control law, which essentially bans guns, a federal appeals court may have revived gun control as a political issue. Perhaps I’m uninformed, but I was unaware that gun control had ceased to be a political issue. To argue that gun control has lain “dormant” lo these many years and that this federal court has now awakened some gun-toting, right wing giant is simply ridiculous. Will (inexplicably) wants to warn the Dems to look out for the right-wing gun nut majority that is now building steam. There’s not really an argument to be had there, so Will simply manufactures a premise that supports his tale of woe. We’ve seen this before, with our Beloved Leader. In lieu of an actual enemy, I’ll construct one, defeat it, and claim victory. I. Am. Awesome. Will isn’t ready to relinquish the traditional form of his preferred fallacy just yet, however: >Erwin Chemerinsky, professor of law and political science at Duke University, argued in The Post last week that even if the Second Amendment is construed as creating an individual right to gun ownership, the D.C. law should still be constitutional because the city had a defensible intent (reducing violence) when it annihilated that right. Go through the link in Will’s piece to Dr. Chemerinsky’s article. It’s actually a very nuanced claim about exactly what types of rights are enumerated in the Constitution and what types of rights the federal courts seem to be implying in their recent gun-control cases. Yet, Will ignores the built-in limitations of the 9th Amendment and mischaracterizes this piece as espousing some sort of paternalistic theory of Constitutional hermeneutics to prove the willingness of left to trample the rights of the people in their rush to take away all our guns. Here’s the payoff: >If the Supreme Court reverses the appeals court's ruling and upholds the D.C. gun law, states and localities will be empowered to treat the Second Amendment as the D.C. law does: as a nullity. This will bring the gun control issue — and millions of gun owners — back to a roiling boil. That is not in the interest of the Democratic Party, which is supported by most ardent supporters of gun control. Oh, is that right? -pm

A man with a fraudulent bearing

Today we’ll continue the Brooks theme in celebration of our renewed free access to the opinion pages of the New York Times (I’m still asking myself why I was supposed to pay for this). Yesterday he wrote:

>Say what you will about President Bush, when he thinks a policy is right, like the surge, he supports it, even if it’s going to be unpopular. The Democratic leaders, accustomed to the irresponsibility of opposition, show no such guts.

This remark is confused on many levels. In the first place, Bush has obtusely adhered to failed policies, and, more damningly, neglected to question whether those policies were justified in the first place. Sometimes supporting something unpopular is just plain dumb. It’s moronic to suggest that such obtuseness constitutes courage. Besides, to do so is to commit a variant of the ad populum fallacy in that you take the lack of popular support for your position as a measure in favor of your position.

At a more basic level, however, this is a variation of the “manliness” meme so thoroughly discussed by Glenn Greenwald. Brooks has remarked on this before with Bush–even claiming that John Kerry, a man who actually voluntarily served his country in combat, was a “fraud with a manly bearing.” He wrote:

>The coming weeks will be so tough because the essential contest – of which the Swift boat stuff was only a start – will be over who really has courage, who really has resolve, and who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.

Never mind, of course, the courage to say that you blew it big time.

Welcome Back

For those with “edu” email accounts, the New York Times Select pages are now free. That means once again we can read David Brooks, a man who has been wrong about everything. It’s been a while. But maybe some will remember David Brooks‘ favorite logical trope: the false dichotomy. For Brooks, the false dichotomy results from a straw man. First, he caricatures the opposition viewpoint, then he sets up that caricature as the unacceptable alternative in a false dichotomy. So today he misreads Carl Levin’s speech yesterday in the Senate. Brooks says:

>The intelligence agencies paint a portrait of a society riven at its base with sectarian passion. They describe a society not of rational game theorists but of human beings beset by trauma — of Sunnis failing to acknowledge their minority status, of Shiites bent on winner-take-all domination, of self-perpetuating animosities, disintegrating bonds and a complex weave of conflicts.

The problem is that no one argues (and no one’s view can be taken to imply) that Iraqi society is composed of “rational game theorists.” And the falsity of that claim does not imply the somewhat orientalist notion that Iraqi society is “riven at its base with sectarian passion.” So not only does that claim infantalize the Iraqis, grossly mischaracterize Levin’s argument, but it also fails to take into account the obvious fact that sectiarian passions can take shape in the mind of rational game theorists.