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.

7 thoughts on “Foul mouths”

  1. No inference is being explicitly or implicitly drawn on the basis of the meanie-meanie-bo-beanie remark… Since no inferences are being drawn, Broder isn’t really guilty of anything other than uncritically repeating dubious memes about Gore, Kerry and Bush.

    But there is certainly an inference here, both about Kerry’s character and about Bush’s. He has inferred the motives of political actors based on their actions, and I’d thought, at least, that this was forbidden by your lights.

    Now Broder may simply be “repeating” what he has picked up elsewhere — but then, how is this different from the Krugman of a few days back? I trust that Krugman did not personally invent his claims about the Bush administration’s motives, and that he, too, was simply repeating something he had heard elsewhere. I know I’ve certainly heard it often enough.

  2. Jason,

    These are not *inferences* they are assertions. An assertion is either true or false simply. Inferences obtain *between* separate assertions in the sense that one leads or does not lead to the other. While the statements of course in the paragraph are related in some sense (temporally), Broder isn’t reasoning from one to the other so much as narrating from one to the other. So he’s not making an argument.

    I appreciate your second point because it allows me to clarify what I meant (and lightly edit the post). I mean to say that Broder isn’t guilty of anyting except *perhaps* repeating. I’m not asserting that he is, but this is another level of analysis of this sort of political discourse that we don’t engage in. I suppose also the “repeating” is too strong–I should perhaps say “uttering” because I don’t mean to question Broder’s originality–although the snob meme didn’t originate with him. Thanks for that point of clarification.

  3. So when you like an author (Broder), his unsupported statements about individual motives are assertions,
    which are perhaps regrettable. But when you don’t like an author (Krugman), his unsupported statements about individual motives are faulty inferences. Which are by all means deplorable.

    Crystal clear.

  4. Your last comment, Jason, illustrates nicely the perils of speculations about “unavowed motivations” or personal opinions on the basis of analysis that says nothing about said opinions about the said columnist. What evidence do you ahve that we “like” Broder and dislike “Krugman.” And even if you have such evidence what evidence do you have that THAT is what determines whether we find their arguments valid or sound or even explicit?

    To confess, I think both of us would admit to finding Krugman’s general orientation in politics more congenial than Broders. But that SHOULD have nothing to do with our analysis.

    I think the tendency that you show of falling back on speculative psychological accounts top explain texts and arguments is the reason that you will find our writing frustrating. Scientists justify their views with evidence, mathematicians with reason. Psychology may be interesting and important in understanding how they came to hold their views in one sense (if one is writing a biography), but is irrelevant in testing the validity of their explanations and arguments.

    In addition, I think you have simply misunderstood the underlying intentions of the “Krugman Challenge,” which I hope was not as obscure to other readers as it seems to have been to you. The intention, as announced in the first paragraph, was to address the question of whether we have been too kind to some liberal columnists while picking on the easier targets of certain conservative columnists. That is, it was explicitly motivated by our guilty recognition of the function of “ideological mirroring” that we experience when we read Krugman without our logical bullshit detectors turned up to high. We consistently admit that it is far easier to detect the logical weakness of a view you disagree with than one you agree with. We will return to Krugman tomorrow–I’ll try to make my “unavowed motivations” more explicit!


  5. Dear Jason,

    I’m afraid you’re confused.

    First, Canderson authored the Krugman piece. As I remember, his contention was that Krugman simply assumed a controversial and very difficult to prove assertion, and then set about to explain it (rather than demonstrate that it’s the case). So his point was that Krugman needed an argument in that particular case.

    The point of the Broder post was that some negative assertions about people are not fallacious. They’re not fallacious because they don’t feature as premises in arguments. Maybe someone else may comment on the assertions he makes about Kerry and Gore and Bush.

    Which columnist I or my colleague likes–and by the way your guess at our likes and dislikes is completely wrong–has nothing to do with anything.

    Finally, one point about motives. As Canderson pointed out, we’re interested in motives as much as anything else–that is to say, insofar as they (1) feature as premises or conclusions of arguments or (2) are speciously invoked in order to challenge someone’s argument (the ad hominem). We’d never claim that motives have are “forbidden.” What should be forbidden are invocations of motives in order to defeat arguments that have nothing to do with them (e.g., “the liberal argument against Wal Mart is wrong because liberals are motivated by condescension towards the Nascar types who shop there”).

  6. I can — and do — accept that neither of you carry any brief for Broder, and that you have — whatever your past
    inclinations — no recently discovered dislike for Krugman (on account, I had thought, of his logical errors). But I confess that I cannot see the difference between Krugman and Broder in this matter. Both asserted things about the character of individuals on the basis of some doubtful or unstated evidence. You did well to point this out, even if I think that there is certainly some wiggle room owing to the space constraints of an op-ed column.

    But why the one should be treated differently from the other still escapes me.

    Now back to Will: I think he made a reasonable inference based on the evidence he offered, but then, yes, in some sense these things are always open to doubt. You clearly doubt him far more than I do. But I just don’t see how we can reduce this disagreement to a simple question of logical error.

  7. jason,
    here’s my take on the two pieces. perhaps i’m off base, but i’m a lowly undegrad. krugman inferred, from two separate facts, an assertion of his own, which he offered as a conclusion; broder, on the other hand, simply offered a series of mean-spirited assertions from which he inferred, well, nothing. one is argument based on faulty premises, as canderson concluded. krugman assumed something he shouldn’t have to begin with; he deprived himself of an antecedent. converesly, broder simply offered a series of “statements of belief.” nothing more followed from them. krugman inferred what didn’t necessarily follow from his stated premises; broder didn’t infer–he just spewed a little bilious belief.

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