Logic counts, but so do facts

Michael Kinsley is on to something when he argues,  in a recent post at the Washington Monthly's Ten Miles Square Blog, that people ought to check the logic of arguments in politics.  He's completely wrong, however, to suggest they shouldn't also check facts (but maybe this was a title he didn't assign–"Check Logic, Not Facts").  He writes:

This political campaign has been a frustrating blizzard of numbers and studies.

One side says $344 billion over 21 years, then the other side calls that a desperate lie and says the real number is up to $1 trillion over the next decade. The first side then attempts to validate its number by saying it comes from a recent report by the authoritative Center for Boring Statistics, and the second side says that, by contrast, its numbers are based on the nonpartisan volume “Vicious Figures for Dummies, 3rd Edition” (1958).

How is a citizen supposed to know whom to believe?

Journalism might help sort out which ones are credible. Anyway, on to the importance of logic: 

There is an alternative. Many campaign thrusts and parries can be verified or discredited by reason and logic alone. They just don’t make sense (or, on occasion, they do make sense) without reference to any numbers or studies. Reason doesn’t require the approval of the Congressional Budget Office. It is available to anybody willing to take a minute and use it. And it is self-validating. You don’t need to trust anybody to decide whether reasoning is true or false.

For example, you don’t need any actual numbers to figure out that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, are talking through their hats about Medicare and Social Security.

Minor quibble: reasoning isn't really true or false, it's sound or unsound, valid or invalid, etc.  That distinction, between inferences and facts, is actually a critically important one to Kinsley's point.  And his flubbing up the correct terminology shows that he really doesn't have a grip on what makes his recommendation, admirable though it is, very difficult to implement.

For people hide behind inferences all of time as matters of opinion.  It's their opinion, they may argue, that A follows from B.  Kinsley needs to find a way to show that it is not a matter of opinion that A follows B.  But that's difficult to do.  It's way more difficult than checking facts.

3 thoughts on “Logic counts, but so do facts”

  1. Yes, and your comment over there was spot on, too.  It's true that "common sense" (which isn't that common) can serve as a good BS detector.  It's also true that, even without knowing all the data involved, an astute observer can notice an invalid argument.  Your archive might prove otherwise, but don't most informal fallacies (as observed in the wilds of the media) feature concepts more than data per se?  For instance, George Bush with the classic false choice: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."  Or Bush again, related to your "matters of opinion": " I believe that we're going to win [in Iraq]."  As far as we know, it is a true statement that Bush "believes" this, but the questions remain – why does he believe it?  Does he have any good reasons for believing it?  Where's the data to support his view?  (By the way, Obama sometimes uses the "I believe," approach as well, and Bush was also fond of "I firmly believe…")  Regardless, there's really no situation where not knowing the facts is an advantage for sussing out bad arguments.  (I'm guessing that, at a certain political level, valid but unsound arguments outnumber invalid arguments, but maybe I'm wrong.)  

    Kinsley could have made his point more clearly, but he picked a pretty good example – the Romney/Ryan pitch has inherent contradictions.  If their reform is so great, why wouldn't current and soon-to-be seniors want to get in on it?  And if reform is so horrible, and younger people can choose not to join, why on Earth would they?  And if the long-term budget depends on younger people choosing the reform option, how are Romney-Ryan possibly going to achieve their goals?  Basically, I think Kinsley overstated his case to make his point (and because that's his "provocative" Slate style).  He's arguing A, not B, when it should be A or B… or A and B.  

  2. Good points as always Batocchio.  I think this particular example of Kinsley's works because it is an example of a deductive problem, in this case a math problem.  Numbers add up or they don't.  Anyone with a basic education in math can, with enough effort, figure it out. 

    Most often, however, political sophistries rely on distortions only a knowlege of the facts–or an appropriately skeptical attitude–can help one discover.  False choices are sometimes not false, to use your example.  One needs to know whether alternatives are viable.  When they are, then one has disorted the dialectical picture.  This is why facts matter.

  3. I am just happy that someone is finally bloging about logic in politcs. Thanks Kinsley.

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