Evidence of absence

The other week George Will repeated his frequent claim that the simple correlation of crime rates and jail rates tells you something–that harsh jail sentences reduces crime.  One would have to be a fool, he alleges, to wonder whether that were the case.  With that in mind, it's interesting to read Cass Sunstein and Justin Wolfers (actual law professors) on the deterrent effect of the death penalty.  Their conclusion (after what appears to be actual research): dunno.  Here's a selection:

One might like to conclude that these latter studies demonstrate that the death penalty does not deter. But this is asking too much of the data. The number of homicides is so large, and varies so much year to year, that it is impossible to disentangle the effects of execution policy from other changes affecting murder rates. Moreover, execution policy doesn't change often or much. Just as a laboratory scientist with too few experimental subjects cannot draw strong conclusions, the best we can say is that homicide rates are not closely associated with capital punishment. On the basis of existing evidence, it is especially hard to justify claims about causality.

Justice Stevens argues, "In the absence of such evidence, deterrence cannot serve as a sufficient penological justification for this uniquely severe and irrevocable punishment." Perhaps. But the absence of evidence of deterrence should not be confused with evidence of absence.

Justice Scalia relies on the suggestion by Sunstein and Vermeule that some evidence suggests a possible deterrent effect. But that suggestion actually catalyzed Donohue and Wolfers's study of available empirical evidence. Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings, a problem exacerbated by researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions. This led Sunstein and Vermeule to acknowledge: "We do not know whether deterrence has been shown. . . . Nor do we conclude that the evidence of deterrence has reached some threshold of reliability that permits or requires government action."

In short, the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty.

It seems to be obvious that Stevens believes the burden of proof lies with those who assert the causal connection.  In the absence of such evidence for their claim, they can't make the assertion.  Showing that it's not the case might be akin to making the accused prove that he's innocent.  For, after all, there's always the possibility that there is a correlation we haven't discovered yet (and the claims of astrology might also turn ought to be true).  Disproving such a connection would be very difficult and it's silly that Sunstein and Wolfers would suggest this a reasonable request–especially in an op-ed about causal connections for which they claim no positive evidence exists.

The absence of such a correlation, of course, might be seen as a separate question from whether the death penalty is justified (but they don't argue this).  If one's justification for capital punishment relies on deterrence, then the answer is obviously no.  They write:

Why is the Supreme Court debating deterrence? A prominent line of reasoning, endorsed by several justices, holds that if capital punishment fails to deter crime, it serves no useful purpose and hence is cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment. This reasoning tracks public debate as well. While some favor the death penalty on retributive grounds, many others (including President Bush) argue that the only sound reason for capital punishment is to deter murder.

We concur with Scalia that if a strong deterrent effect could be demonstrated, a plausible argument could be made on behalf of executions. But what if the evidence is inconclusive?

We are not sure how to answer that question. But as executions resume, the debates over the death penalty should not be distorted by a misunderstanding of what the evidence actually shows.

This is baffling.  While the authors deny positive evidence for deterrence, they fail to make the point that there might be some independent justification for capital punishment, like punishment.  Instead they retreat into an absurd hypothetical–if it does deter crime, then yes.  But there's no evidence that it does, so the reasonable conclusion would be that it's not justified on that basis, would it not?

Anti-intellectual punditry

David Broder seems surprised–and informed–by the claim of a recent book (Elvin T. Lim's, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency) that there is a notable absence of "logical argument" in presidential politics.  He writes:

In a slim book titled "The Anti-Intellectual Presidency," [Lim] argues that the real problem is not the increased quantity of words coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. but the sharp decline in content — especially of logical argument.

While I'm not surprised that Broder is surprised (Bush is staged for a comeback!), it's a disappointing reminder of rather low quality of critical thought in the political press (compared in one recent and blistering article to the courtiers of Versailles).  In an ideal world, Lim's thesis would be the job description of the pundit class and the everyday content of the op-ed page.  But no.


Challenging someone's credibility when that person's credibility is relevant to whether or not one should believe him or her does not constitute an ad hominem attack.  Someone ought to tell John Bolton, whose credibility in matters of foreign affairs ought to have suffered for the Iraq debacle.  Well, someone did.  An interviewer asked whether Americans would be rightly skeptical of the administration and its minions'  claims about Iran's military intentions.  And here is how Bolton responded:

Absolutely not! And by the way, the credibility point is an ad hominem reference. And certainly ad hominem attacks in American politics are nothing new.  But to address the merits of the argument requires a response on the merits, not an ad hominem attack.

No it's not an ad hominem attack.  An ad hominem argument uses irrelevant information about the person making an argument to discredit them–whether one should believe Bolton's doomsday rhetoric about Iran is certainly relevant.  

You can hear the audio here

Blind squirrel

David Brooks lays out the case for Bush's military genius in advocating the "surge," which, by some accounts is having some success, by other measures, not very much.  Brooks's argument, however, turns out to hinge on the squirrel and nut principle: every now and then even a blind squirrel finds a nut.  He writes:

The additional fact is that Bush, who made such bad calls early in the war, made a courageous and astute decision in 2006. More than a year on, the surge has produced large, if tenuous, gains. Violence is down sharply. Daily life has improved. Iraqi security forces have been given time to become a more effective fighting force. The Iraqi government is showing signs of strength and even glimmers of impartiality. Iraq has moved from being a failed state to, as Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, merely a fragile one.

The whole episode is a reminder that history is a complicated thing. The traits that lead to disaster in certain circumstances are the very ones that come in handy in others. The people who seem so smart at some moments seem incredibly foolish in others.

The cocksure war supporters learned this humbling lesson during the dark days of 2006. And now the cocksure surge opponents, drunk on their own vindication, will get to enjoy their season of humility. They have already gone through the stages of intellectual denial. First, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good. Then they accused people who noticed progress in Iraq of duplicity and derangement. Then they acknowledged military, but not political, progress. Lately they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home.

Never mind the parade of straw men here at the end–too many well informed people doubt that the surge has been a success by any of the proposed measures for Brooks to be so confident in their foolishness.  Now of course it turns out that even granting the success of the surge, there was no plan for afterwards.  Forget about that.  Consider that Brooks doesn't tell us how it is that can call Bush "courageous" or "astute."  To be courageous he would have had to risk something, to be astute he would have had to know something.  Even on Brooks's account he's merely lucky.  So is everyone else, of course, because "history is a complicated thing."

Analyze foreign affairs like Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman on Iraq today:

One of the first things I realized when visiting Iraq after the U.S. invasion was that the very fact that Iraqis did not liberate themselves, but had to be liberated by Americans, was a source of humiliation to them. It’s one reason they never threw flowers. When someone else has to liberate you in your own home, that is humiliating — and humiliation, I believe, is the single-most underestimated force in international relations, especially in the Middle East.

Tom Friedman on Iraq, May 30, 2003 (transcript courtesy of Atrios):

I think it [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie.

We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it.

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, "Which part of this sentence don't you understand?"

You don't think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we're just gonna let it grow?

Well Suck. On. This.


That Charlie was what this war was about. We could've hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

Remarkable they don't feel liberated by the likes of Friedman.  Remarkable indeed. 



Argumentum ad titulum

Here's a new fallacy.  It's a specific variation of the straw man.  It involves attacking the titles of someone's work in place of the work itself.  George Will–what would we do without him–has been working on this one for several years now.  Several years ago, before the NonSequitur, I saw him on ABC's This Week critique a series of New York Times' articles by reading their titles.  From what I could gather, he didn't bother to read the actual article.  The very same subject came up again this past Sunday.

Here is what he writes:

Listening to political talk requires a third ear that hears what is not said. Today's near silence about crime probably is evidence of social improvement. For many reasons, including better policing and more incarceration, Americans feel, and are, safer. The New York Times has not recently repeated such amusing headlines as "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling" (1997), "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops" (1998), "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction" (2000) and "More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime" (2003).

Headlines!  Without reading those articles, one can tell that the titles suggest a counter-intuitive irony.  Will challenges this by not reading it and accusing the author (and the newspaper) of denying an obvious causal connection.

We're Humean about such things, so we don't think causal connections can be divined a priori. 


I don't think Paul Krugman has been at his best lately.  Perhaps, as someone here suggested, the problem is that he's strayed too far from economics, his home base.  Well today he writes about economics, home ownership, and he seems to mess it up.  Unlike many of the people we talk about here, Krugman has shown that he's better than this.  So it's sad to see him write:

But here’s a question rarely asked, at least in Washington: Why should ever-increasing homeownership be a policy goal? How many people should own homes, anyway?

Listening to politicians, you’d think that every family should own its home — in fact, that you’re not a real American unless you’re a homeowner. “If you own something,” Mr. Bush once declared, “you have a vital stake in the future of our country.” Presumably, then, citizens who live in rented housing, and therefore lack that “vital stake,” can’t be properly patriotic. Bring back property qualifications for voting!

Even Democrats seem to share the sense that Americans who don’t own houses are second-class citizens. Early last year, just as the mortgage meltdown was beginning, Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who is one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, warned against a crackdown on subprime lending. “For be it ever so humble,” he wrote, “there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.”

The first question, however jarring, seems to be a legitimate one.  But it ought to be directed at our intuitions about home ownership (that it gives you more of a stake in your neighborhood, etc.).  Instead, Krugman aims this one first at what is clearly a caricature of the advocates of home ownership–one that barely even satisfies its own ridiculousness.

This is really a shame.  It's nice to have one's intuitions challenged.  Krugman could have done this well, had it not been for his George Will style "presumably" argument.

When did you stop beating your wife?

Michael Gerson provides some examples of the elusive complex question fallacy.  After a column devoted to examining whether Obama is really a "centrist" (by looking at the exclusive evidence of whether he has voted against his party on any issue–not his stated policies), Gerson writes:

These are welcome gestures, but they are not policies. Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal. Perhaps he has carefully avoided offending Democratic constituencies. Whatever the reason, his lack of a strong, centrist ideological identity raises a concern about his governing approach. Obama has no moderate policy agenda that might tame or modify the extremes of his own party in power. Will every Cabinet department simply be handed over to the most extreme Democratic interest groups? Will Obama provide any centrist check on liberal congressional overreach? 

In other words Gerson hasn't done nearly enough (even on the relaxed standards of Charity one would expect from him) to show that Obama is some kind of "extremist."  He takes it that the absence of one kind of evidence against that view is sufficient to establish it.  So what results is a kind of argumentum ad ignorantiam which sets up two complex questions.  Nice form.

Not alone

Sometimes I wonder if I labor in solitude.  Then I read this review of George Will's most recent book–which is really just a collection of columns with an introduction:

Has Will lurched leftward? Not at all. As his 1983 book “Statecraft as Soulcraft” indicates, he has long regretted that we have “become a nation wedded to the liberal assumption that the way to deal with passions is to ‘express’ them, to maximize ‘self-expression.’” These sentiments have now led to a sentimentalization of America. By contrast, Will mocks what he sees as a saccharine therapeutic culture in which bus drivers in Scottsdale, Ariz., are referred to as “tranporters of learners” and school receptionists as “directors of first impressions.” What’s more, Will ridicules Thomas Frank’s fatuous “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” which maintained that Americans vote conservative only because hot-button social issues like abortion and gun-control blind them to their true economic interests. As Will puts it, “It has come to this: The crux of the political left’s complaint about Americans is that they are insufficiently materialistic.”

But these are easy targets, sometimes too easy. When Will issues blanket and tedious denunciations of American universities, he has a penchant for stacking the deck: “Professors, lusting after tenure and prestige, teach that the great works of the Western canon, properly deconstructed, are not explorations of the human spirit but mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies.” But is there anything wrong with a professor aspiring to make a mark in his or her field? Was Will “lusting” for “prestige” when he embarked upon his career as a journalist or was he simply trying to make a success of himself? And to denounce professors as a class is a form of reverse Marxism, no less absurd than depicting all businessmen as intrinsically greedy and corrupt.

Elsewhere, Will, like not a few conservatives, drifts into intellectual quicksand in trying to reconcile his worship of the past with his admiration for the free market. What Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism poses something of a problem for him since, you might say, he admires libertarian economics but not the libertinism that accompanies it. And for all his denunciations of hedonism, Will’s contempt for environmentalists and admiration of capitalism prompts him to pour scorn on measures to protect the planet. Suddenly, the swollen appetites of Americans are O.K. According to Will, in a column from 2002, “Beware the wrath of Americans who like to drive, and autoworkers who like to make, cars that are large, heavy and safer than the gasoline sippers that environmentalists prefer.”

I guess I wasn't the only one to notice.  But at a certain point, does one wonder whether such lazy and deceptive thinking deserves to be bound in a volume and reprinted?


Jonathan Swift, like Al Franken, was a satirist.  When Swift suggested the Irish solve their problems by raising and eating their own children, he wasn't serious.  While perhaps Franken is no Swift, satire is satire.  Satirizing the opinions, actions, and morals of others by hyperbolizing them does not mean you endorse those opinions, actions, and morals.  Nor does it mean you think such extreme things constitute "entertainment" pure and simple.

Someone ought to tell Michael Gerson, when he wakes up from his fainting spell at the "vulgarity."

Satire has been called "punishment for those who deserve it." Writers from Erasmus to Jonathan Swift to George Orwell have used humor, irony and ridicule to expose the follies of the powerful, the failures of blind ideology and the comic weakness of human nature itself. 

So what is Franken's "provocative, touching and funny" contribution to the genre? Consider his article in Playboy magazine titled "Porn-O-Rama!" in which he enthuses that it is an "exciting time for pornographers and for us, the consumers of pornography." The Internet, he explains, is a "terrific learning tool. For example, a couple of years ago, when he was 12, my son used the Internet for a sixth-grade report on bestiality. Joe was able to download some effective visual aids, which the other students in his class just loved." Franken goes on to relate a soft-core fantasy about women providing him with sex who were trained at the "Minnesota Institute of Titology." 

I'd be tempted to say he's taken Franken out of context, but he's has just said that Franken is a satirist.  If Gerson weren't so earnest in his desire to avoid "vulgarity," I'd say his op-ed was satire.