Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

I have spent much of my semester reading and thinking about the logic and epistemology of historiographic explanation for a class I am teaching. The very nature of historigraphy–its purposes, evidence, and methodology–seems to dispose it to fairly particular logical fallacies. For example, whether we are investigating Herodotus’ Histories or contemporary “academic historiography,” the historian seems easily tempted to draw inferences about general tendencies or even necessities on the basis of particular events in the past. We do not, of course, need to mention the problems of inductive inferences in general to notice that inductive predictions or generalizations need to begin from an adequate body of evidence from the past. Even as plausible an inductive generalization such as Herodotus’ “great empires fall and small nations will become great” is radically underdetermined by the body of inductive evidence whether in Herodotus’ time or our own.
This can constitute a fallacy of hasty generalization.

If professional historians for the most part try to avoid committing the sort of fallacies that all undergraduates are taught to recognize and criticize, the same does not seem to be the case when we turn to the professional pundit, as we have had occasion to show in the past: In the service of ideology, there are few fallacies that do not appear to some pundits as legitimate arguments.

As the administration has scrambled to find justification for an increasingly unpopular and stalled or even backsliding military occupation, it has pinned its hopes on the justification of future history. Now the task occupying the administration and the pundits alike is to demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq has opened the possiblity of radical change in the mid-east. It is troubling, of course, that their argument is being swallowed so easily by the unquestioning and seemingly historically ignorant press, especially since the argument rests on such easily recognized and impugned fallacies. We can take as examples of this argument, two recents columns marked by their exuberance at recent events in the mid-east. First, was David Brooks’ “Why not here?” (NYT 02/26/05 no link). More recently Krauthammer chimed in with “The Road to Damascus” (WaPo 03/04/05).

The argument in all of its forms rests on the claims that

  1. The political changes in Lebanon, Egypt, and the occupied territories are part of a regional democratizing “thaw.”
  2. The vision of the election in Iraq either caused or at least enabled these political changes.
  3. These democratizing changes are good and so good in fact that they justify the costs of the invasion of Iraq even in absence of W.M.D., the reluctance of the Iraqi population to celebrate our arrival etc.

Let’s even grant (3) for the sake of argument at this point–though more careful scrutiny of the costs and benefits would be necessary here. Unfortunately even granting (3), (1) and (2) are both fallacious. Krauthammer states (2) buoyant with enthusiasm:

> “We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East. It was triggered by the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and televised images of 8 million Iraqis voting in a free election. Which led to the obvious question throughout the Middle East: Why the Iraqis and not us?”

No subtle causal analysis here. Political changes were “triggered” that is caused by the invasion of Iraq.

Nevertheless, in order to make (2) plausible, it would have to be the case that the events in Lebanon, Egypt, and the occupied territories would have been *less likely* to occur prior to or in the absence of the invasion of Iraq. The danger here of course is historian’s fallacy of *post hoc ergo propter hoc* (after this, therefore, because of this). Temporal succession cannot demonstrate that the prior event was a cause of the latter, whether cause is understood as either a necessary or a sufficient condition of the subsequent events (the difference between necessary and sufficient condition here would be the difference between “causing” (sufficient) and “enabling” (necessary) in (2).

Of course, the enthusiasts of this argument will claim that Iraq revealed to the Lebanese, the Egyptians, and the Palestinians under Isreali occupation, that, in the words of David Brooks, “Why not here?” Even if this were plausible–and no argument aside from a few anecdotal comments made to the U.S. press are advanced by Brooks–it would seem to rest on the view that prior to the invasion of Iraq, the people of the mid-east had never seriously entertained the possibility of democratic rule. This seems obviously historically false. Of course, in 1978 Lebanon underwent democratic elections. Egypt has had a consistent movement to institute democratic elections, regretably for Brooks and others motivated in part by the goal of democratically electing an Islamist government. And, whether we believe the U.N.’s observers or not, the occupied Palestinians have a history of democratic elections at this point. Of course, we could continue and mention the calls for democracy in Saudi Arabia prior to the invasion of Iraq, etc.. So, it seems that the causal role of the Iraq invasion in these events would need much more argument than Brooks et al. are able to advance. As it stands it seems either to commit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or at least to trade upon it implicitly. We of course should note that their conclusion may in fact be true–it may be the case that the invasion of Iraq did cause these other events. But it is also clear I hope that their reasons for believing it to be true are strikingly inadequate and identifiably fallacious.

Now we should briefly turn to #1. Even if there is no demonstrable, or perhaps even plausible causal connection between the invasion of Iraq and these three events, perhaps they are nonetheless good things that might suggest a “paradigm shift” (to borrow Brooks’ badly mangled Kuhnian language) is underway of which Iraq might be a component even if not a cause. That is, are we seeing a regional “revolution” along the lines of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the thaw in eastern europe in the 1980’s? Is Lebanon the a new Ukraine?

This leads us to the third of our historian’s fallacies–the weak analogy. This is, perhaps, even the historians most secret sin. In order to talk about something other than particular events–in order to be able at least to suggest “general truths”–the historian must argue by analogy. Analogical arguments, however, are only as strong as the points of similarity between the analogues. In its most general form, an argument from analogy has the following structure:

  1. A has characteristics p, q, and r.
  2. B has characteristics p, q, and r.
  3. A has characteristic s.
  4. Therefore, B is likely to have characteristic s.

The fallacy of a “weak analogy” occurs when the characteristics that are similar in both A and B (p, q, and r), make it no more likely that they possess other similar characteristics (s). One way to commit the fallacy is to find superficial spurious points of comparison between the two objects. As the phenomena being compared become increasingly complex, establishing an analogy such that we can infer the unknown properties of one analogue from the other becomes increasingly difficult.

For example, it isn’t clear that the fall of Rome, or of the British empire, can tell us much about the possible future fall of the U.S. empire. Although there are undoubtedly interesting similiarities between the three empires, the differences are probably vastly greater. At least, any inference on the basis of the analogy between these three needs to be strengthened by significant argument if it is ever to be anything more than a weak analogy (and it is a matter of some dispute whether it can ever be more than an interesting analogy).

Now we have to ask whether the events in the mid-east are significantly like the sorts of events that defined the thaw in eastern europe to make us find the analogy plausible. Are we witnessing the popular expression of democratic will in opposition to the oppresive state apparatuses? I am only going to comment on two of the three, leaving Egypt to the side for the time being.

First, the occupied territories: Whether the U.S. or Israel likes it, it seems that Yasser Arafat was the democratically elected leader in free and openly monitored elections of the Palestinian Authority with exceedingly powerful public support. Thus, the recent election of Mahmoud Abbas does not represent any change in the democratic institutions of the occupied territories. It may be that Abbas is a more palatable negotiating partner to the Israelis than Arafat, but that says nothing about their respective democratic legitimacy.

And second Lebanon. Until recently, this “cedar revolutin” was the most photogenic of these events replete with pro-democracy demonstrators in a make-shift tent-city. But then despite the best efforts of the media to package the images without any context or background, the complexity of the situation reared its head in the form of half a million pro-Syrian demosntrators [Al-Ahram is reporting 1.5 million). This reminds us that the Syrian presence is not undesirable for perhaps many of the muslim majority who were being protected from the Israeli military and the Phalangist militias. It may be the case that Syrian withdrawal is “liberating” in some sense, but the history of Lebanon from 1976 does not provide one with much confidence concerning the future use of this liberty.

Of course, if the media were honest about the analogy, the situation in Lebanon looks more like the retreat of an occupying power than a Ukrainian style popular thaw, and thus bears some similarity to the Israeli pull out from Gaza and perhaps a future retreat of the occupying armies in Iraq. Though, of course, it would be irresponsible of us, by the rules of logic, to infer anything about the future of various occupations in the mid-east on the basis of weak analogies such as this.

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