On Cheating

While briefly away this weekend I ran across this article on cheating in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal.  The author expresses his justifiable disdain for people who maintain that one cannot said to have cheated unless one gets caught.  He writes:

Europe was in a tizzy this past week. The ruckus involved the finale to last week's World Cup qualifying soccer match between Ireland and France. In the concluding moments of the game, French team captain Thierry Henry rescued a ball that was going out of bounds by grabbing it with his hand. (For some reason known only to the inventors of soccer, this is a no-no.) Shuttling the ball deftly to his foot, Mr. Henry set up the decisive goal. The referee failed to catch the French footballer's cheating, and after the game Mr. Henry proclaimed that the ref's error absolved him of responsibility: "I will be honest, it was a handball. But I'm not the referee. I played it, the referee allowed it. That's a question you should ask him."

Mr. Henry's attitude is shared by athletes in just about every American sport. They believe anything the ref doesn't call is OK. With the burden of maintaining integrity entirely on officials, cheating is encouraged. Players hide behind a petty legalism that liberates them to cozen and counterfeit—or worse.

"I watch a lot of sports today, and I swear it's a dirtier game," says Randy Roberts, a Purdue University professor who has written several sports histories. There is "more clipping" in football, he notes, and "more hitting out of bounds; more dirty shots." Then there are the low maneuvers that don't involve gratuitous violence: How often have we seen a wide-receiver dive for the ball, scoop it up in full knowledge that it has bounced off the turf, and then insist he caught it fair and square? That isn't wily play; that's dishonest play. Like Mr. Henry, a lot of current athletes take the attitude that it's fine to do whatever you can get away with. If you fool the referee, all the better.

Perhaps these people maintain–as do many of my students when discussing the same examples–that cheating is part of a game defined entirely by its end result: the point of playing any kind of game is winning, not losing.  This attitude I think is the more likely cause of cheating than the one the author later suggests:

One wonders if the same dynamics affect life off the field. Has the proliferation of rules, regulations and enforcement-agency umps in the worlds of business and finance had the perverse effect of encouraging bad actors to get away with whatever they can? Will more layers of enforcement simply reinforce the notion that anything the financial referees miss is OK? Or what about legislators who regularly write laws that they know don't pass constitutional muster, leaving it to the Supreme Court to worry about such niceties. Shouldn't lawmakers strive to honor the rule of law instead of seeing what they can slip past the umpires?

I think it's ludicrous to suggest that the existence of rules and regulations is the cause of violations of those same rules and regulations in anything other than a completely trivial sense (you can't break non-existent laws!).  Perhaps the cause of the cheating–in the financial sector, in sports, and every day on the Wall Street Journal opinion page–is that people are dishonest.  They are especially dishonest, however, when no one holds them to any standard.

The Straw Whizzer

Yet another version of the straw man–this one a discovery–so it appears–of Steven Pinker.  Pinker notices a peculiar rhetorical device of Malcolm Gladwell:

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

I think the "straw we" is a central tactic of the pseudo-contrarian: the person who sets up a silly version of the conventional wisdom, and then knocks it down.  In knocking it down, however–and this is another move entirely–the straw whizzer exaggerates the importance of the outlier cases.  Underlying the tactic of the straw whizzer is a host of other characteristics of the sloppy, dishonest, or inexpert thinker.  The straw we sets up a kind of failure, which the clever or dishonest or just lazy author will replace with something equally silly and unjustified. 

Where there is one such error, another follows closely behind.

Not just pundits like the cheap shot


Tucked in the last paragraph of an otherwise banal review of Jonathen Foer's Eating Animals we find this gem

He uses the word “atrocities” to describe the cruelties visited upon baby turkeys and chickens and writes that KFC “is arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history.” He asserts that “we have let the factory farm replace farming for the same reasons our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men.” And in another section he talks about “the shame” he felt as an American tourist in Europe when “photos of Abu Ghraib proliferated” and then speaks in the very next sentence about the “shame in being human: the shame of knowing that 20 of the roughly 35 classified species of sea horse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed ‘unintentionally’ in seafood production.”

Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”

It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.

As it stands this isn't an argument,  and so isn't fallacious. But, it seems to me that this move is deployed as a sort of defensive argument to shift the burden of moral justification. It questions the author's moral authority, rather than his argument, with a quasi ad hominem circumstantial fallacy wapped in a slice of accusation of hypocrisy. Although it doesn't assert that Foer's conclusion that we should end the massive vicious violence of our current systems of meat "production" is false, it certainly suggests that Foer is, at least, suspect for wanting to make such an assertion. It's about as cheap an argument as you can squeeze into a book review.

Of course, if we allow this move in this discourse, then it seems to me that it can be used about caring about anything–I certainly wonder how this author "can expend so much energy and caring on reading books, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year."

Insofar as it is an argument, it seems to rest on some sort of premise such as that "animal suffering can matter only if human suffering is abolished." This seems likely false to me and seems to miss Foer's point which seems relatively benign–that we should not assume that social justice discourse does not have anything to say about how we treat animals, or that there are similarities between how we degrade human beings and how we treat animals.

Which hunt

Michael Gerson has an odd sense of time.  Read the the following paragraph closely:

Holder launched his tenure by showing disdain for the work of career federal prosecutors when it fit his ideological predispositions. In 2004, a task force from the Eastern District of Virginia investigated allegations of misconduct against the CIA and found insufficient evidence of criminal conduct or intent. Holder ignored the views of these respected prosecutors and appointed his own special prosecutor, appeasing a political constituency that wanted the CIA to be hounded and punished. As a result, morale at a front-line agency in the war on terrorism has plunged. What possible reason could a bright, ambitious intelligence professional have to pursue a career in counterterrorism when the attorney general of the United States is stubbornly intent on exposing and undermining his colleagues?

In 2004 George W.Bush had not yet begun his second term of office.  That was five years ago.  Something seemed odd to me about this argument, so I googled it.  If you Google the phrase "2004 task force Eastern District" you get an article from the Weekly Standard on Holder's "witch hunt".

Without many added premises about how the 2004 inquiry resolves any future allegations of torture, Gerson cannot possibly expect us to draw the conclusion that Holder is "intent on exposing and undermining his colleagues."  If crimes were committed subsequent to 2004, then that is another matter.  It's not an insult to suggest that his colleagues failed to stop future crimes.

My distortions are your fault

There was a time when a young Robert Samuelson insisted that cost should not count if something like an invasion of Iraq was necessary. He wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but “can we afford it?” is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

He regretted writing that. Having spent something like a lot of money now on Iraq, one might reasonably ask whether Samuelson should be listened to on matters of cost. I would say not. In any case, so Samuelson makes his argument against health care reform by the well-known device of attacking someone’s motives:

The campaign to pass Obama’s health-care plan has assumed a false, though understandable, cloak of moral superiority. It’s understandable because almost everyone thinks that people in need of essential medical care should get it; ideally, everyone would have health insurance. The pursuit of these worthy goals can easily be projected as a high-minded exercise for the public good.

It’s false for two reasons. First, the country has other goals — including preventing financial crises and minimizing the crushing effects of high deficits or taxes on the economy and younger Americans — that “health-care reform” would jeopardize. And second, the benefits of “reform” are exaggerated. Sure, many Americans would feel less fearful about losing insurance; but there are cheaper ways to limit insecurity. Meanwhile, improvements in health for today’s uninsured would be modest. They already receive substantial medical care. Insurance would help some individuals enormously, but studies find that, on average, gains are moderate. Despite using more health services, people don’t automatically become healthier.

Let me state first that Samuelson isn’t talking here about the specific plan (he does later, but he relies on the Lewin group, an insurance company funded “research” group–so, really, please), he’s talking about the general concept of reform. For anyone with a minimal knowledge of other industrialized nations, who spend at most about half of what he do and get a lot more, this is just an insult. For more on that, see here.

But more basically, Samuelson is doing a bit of straw man–weak man actually–and a bit of ad hominem circumstantial. It’s a weak man because he picks on the weakest of the pro-health reform moral arguments. There are other good moral reasons to support health care reform, and they involve arguments against the very real threat of medical bankruptcy, recision, denial of coverage of pre-existing conditions, and so forth.

The ad hominem accompanies the weak man–so weak are these arguments (which Samuelson has imputed to pro-reform people), that they must rather be dishonest attempts to score political points. Now that’s just a double-wammy. It’s a bit like saying this: “the weak argument I have dishonestly imputed to you is so bad that I question your honesty in making it.”

On the arguments against the specific plan, I’d say Samuelson needs to look beyond anti-reform sources of analysis and information. It’s a fair question whether the current plans being discussed will help, so we ought to have an honest discussion of that. But that perhaps is just hoping for too much.

But let me close by going back to something Samuelson said in defense of his poorly thought-out defense of the Iraq invasion:

But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It’s not that the costs are unimportant; it’s simply that they’re overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever’s necessary. If we decide to do less because that’s the most sensible policy, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that any “savings” will rescue us from our long-term budget predicament, which involves the huge costs of federal retirement programs. Just because the war is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s the source of all our problems.

Other considerations that are much more important. Indeed.

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris doesn’t tolerate ad hominem attacks:

Hannity: Why don’t you run? No no no, there’s a solution — why wouldn’t you — Chuck Norris could be governor of Texas one day.

Norris: You know why? Because I’d be sitting here with my opponent, and debating, and then he would start attacking my character, and I’d jump over there and choke him unconscious.


Hannity: You have more control than that!

Norris: I don’t! That’s the problem, you know. I have a thin skin. It was really tough in the film world. And in the political world, you know, I’d be killing half the people.

He chokes them. (Courtesy of C&L).

Does David Broder read the Washington Post?

Two short points today. We’re still working out the kinks here.

First, my view is that we ought to redo our health care system. I think this is a matter of national security, much more say than the imaginary weapons of a fictional dictator. People here actually die from lack of adequate health care. Now, since it’s a matter of national security, and since we continue to pay richly for imaginary threats to our national security, we ought to not complain about things that are real. This is why this kind of stuff from David Broder) raises one’s blood pressure:

Acknowledging that “clearly, we need radical reconstructive surgery to make our health-care system effective, affordable and sustainable,” Walker cautioned that “what we should not do is merely tack new programs onto a system that is fundamentally flawed” — and rapidly driving the national budget into ruin.

He proposes a four-part test of fiscal responsibility for any health reform plan: “First, the reform should pay for itself over 10 years. Second, it should not add to deficits beyond 10 years. Third, it should significantly reduce the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded health promises that we already have. Fourth, it should bend down — not up — the total health-care cost curve as a percentage of” gross domestic product.

If only people had made this argument about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next point, the Lewin group is an insurance company-funded group. One ought not to cite them as independent and impartial observers. Following directly from the above:

An analysis by the Lewin Group shows that the Energy and Commerce Committee bill that was the basic blueprint for the House measure comes close to meeting the first of those tests and fails the other three, according to Walker, “by a wide margin.”

A separate Lewin Group study of the Finance Committee bill from which Majority Leader Harry Reid is working on the Senate legislation shows it is almost as much of a fiscal failure. It fails the fourth test, falls short on the third, and passes the first two only by assuming that future Congresses will force reductions in reimbursements to doctors and hospitals that lawmakers in the past have refused to impose.

Here is the Washington Post on the Lewin group on 7.23/2009:

Generally left unsaid amid all the citations is that the Lewin Group is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest insurers.

Doesn’t Broder read his own paper?

Speaking of hacks

We have written something like 155 posts on George Will, most of them criticisms of his arguments. “Why him?” people ask (they really do). If you follow the links to blogs discussing his articles and read the rarely published letters to the editor regarding them, you’ll find three basic types: (1) people who copy the whole op-ed to their web page, as if in some kind of sign of cyber approval; (2) people who talk about how they sometimes just have to disagree with him, despite their finding him a very intelligent and compelling writer; (3) people like me, who find his air of scholarship hollow, his premises too frequently dishonest or just wrong, and his conclusions weakly drawn when not just plain fallacious. That’s why we write about him.

But there is another reason. It’s still the reason we write about newspaper op-eds, and comparatively rarely about blogs. Detection of logical fallacies involves context. What is a straw man in one context, for instance, may not be a straw man in another context. In order to make a pedagogical point, for instance, a coach or a teacher may exaggerate the weakness of a particular course of action or point of view (Thanks to Scott for this example). In a similar fashion, poorly informed individuals may entertain lots of straw men concerning alternative views without knowing it. What’s wrong in their case is their ignorance of better arguments, not their malicious attempt to deceive. Whether that global ignorance is purposeful or not is another matter for another time.

The context of a high-caliber newspaper op-ed page, we maintain, ought to be another. We’d presume, I think fairly, that a newspaper such as the Washington Post aims to inform its readers. It has an interest therefore in the truth of the claims being alleged as true on its pages. Most of the newspaper aims to inform in a straightforward way. It does this so people can avoid the global ignorance about points of view, places, people, positions and postulations. This simple feature of the newspaper implies another one: the informative function of a newspaper ought to carry over on to its op-ed page. The op-ed page is worthless if it merely becomes a forum for the over-eager polemicist. It ought to be founded on the well-established facts of the world of honest reporting (not, for instance, the “scholars” of the American Enterprise Institute).

But we ask too much. In the context of an article gloating about how fewer Americans believe in anthropogenic climate change, he writes:

In their new book, “SuperFreakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist, worry about global warming but revive some inconvenient memories of 30 years ago. Then intelligent people agreed (see above) that global cooling threatened human survival. It had, Newsweek reported, “taken the planet about a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average.” Some scientists proposed radical measures to cause global warming — for example, covering the arctic ice cap with black soot that would absorb heat and cause melting.

Levitt and Dubner also spoil some of the fun of the sort of the “think globally, act locally” gestures that are liturgically important in the church of climate change. For example, they say the “locavore” movement — people eating locally grown foods from small farms — actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. They cite research showing that only 11 percent of such emissions associated with food are in the transportation of it; 80 percent are in the production phase and, regarding emissions, big farms are much more efficient.

Newsweek is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Levitt and Dubner have been roundly criticized for their hacking it up (today’s theme!) on global warming (links later, still dealing with format issues). And that point, by the way, of locavoring it misses it widely–it’s not the transportation only, it’s the method of monoculture and petroleum-intensive production that people are trying to avoid.

Such countervailing facts should be obvious to anyone who has read the Post (I should hope). Alas.


As you can see, we’ve suffered a dramatic loss of style. Our WordPress install was hacked sometime this weekend, but thanks to our backups we didn’t lose anything and were able to do a quick reinstallation. We’re taking our time getting things back to the way they were, however. Hopefully we’ll have things fully restored in the next couple of days and be back in the trenches.

A time to gloat

Today's Washington Post features two articles about how bad Health Care reform is for us all from guest columnists, an article about awesome natural gas, and two of the regulars (Krauthammer and Gerson) gloating about the recent victories in the historically momentous off-off year governor elections in Virginia and New Jersey.  For Krauthammer, these victories show how Obama has not eliminated the need for elections:

In the aftermath of last year's Obama sweep, we heard endlessly about its fundamental, revolutionary, transformational nature. How it was ushering in an FDR-like realignment for the 21st century in which new demographics — most prominently, rising minorities and the young — would bury the GOP far into the future. One book proclaimed "The Death of Conservatism," while the more modest merely predicted the terminal decline of the Republican Party into a regional party of the Deep South or a rump party of marginalized angry white men.  

A straw man or a hollow man?  I can't think that anyone seriously would have predicted no republican would ever win any race ever again.  Many in fact won on that election night in 2008, it's just that Democrats secured large majorities in both houses of congress and won the presidency.  I'll go with hollow man here: no one held the view Krauthammer is attacking.

He should be allowed to have his fun about the great myth of Obama.  He continues:

The irony of 2009 is that the anti-Democratic tide overshot the norm — deeply blue New Jersey, for example, elected a Republican governor for the first time in 12 years — because Democrats so thoroughly misread 2008 and the mandate they assumed it bestowed. Obama saw himself as anointed by a watershed victory to remake American life. Not letting the cup pass from his lips, he declared to Congress only five weeks after his swearing-in his "New Foundation" for America — from remaking the one-sixth of the American economy that is health care to massive government regulation of the economic lifeblood that is energy.

Moreover, the same conventional wisdom that proclaimed the dawning of a new age last November dismissed the inevitable popular reaction to Obama's hubristic expansion of government, taxation, spending and debt — the tea party demonstrators, the town hall protesters — as a raging rabble of resentful reactionaries, AstroTurf-phony and Fox News-deranged.

Some rump. Just last month Gallup found that conservatives outnumber liberals by 2 to 1 (40 percent to 20 percent) and even outnumber moderates (at 36 percent). So on Tuesday, the "rump" rebelled. It's the natural reaction of a center-right country to a governing party seeking to rush through a left-wing agenda using temporary majorities created by the one-shot election of 2008. The misreading of that election — and of the mandate it allegedly bestowed — is the fundamental cause of the Democratic debacle of 2009.

Before Charles gets too heated about the death of the Obama mandate, he–and everyone else by the way Democrats included–should consider the following result from Tuesday's election:

House Democrats are adding two new members to their team Thursday and Friday, just hours before a crucial floor vote on health care reform.

One of those guys–Bill Owens–did defeat an authentic Fox-News-deranged guy.  To put this another way, Tuesday's election put Obama two votes closer to enacting his Maoist agenda; it's not the time for gloating.