Category Archives: Things that are false

It’s just a word

Last Sunday the Washington Post published a poorly argued op-ed critique of Zbignew Brzezinski’s claim that the “war on terror” is anything but. Now the Hoover Institute’s V.D.Hanson shows that he can do Chertoff one better. He can claim that those who reject the term or the metaphor for the war on terror want thereby to abandon the efforts against terrorists. He writes:

> Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, goes further, assuring us that we are terrorized mostly by the false idea of a war on terror — not the jihadists themselves.

>Even one-time neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama, who called for the preemptive removal of Saddam Hussein in 1998, believes “war” is the “wrong metaphor” for our struggle against terrorists.

>Others point out that motley Islamic terrorists lack the resources of the Nazi Wehrmacht or the Soviet Union.

>This thinking may seem understandable given the ineffectiveness of Al Qaeda to kill many Americans after Sept. 11. Or it may also reflect hopes that if we only leave Iraq, radical Islam would wither away. But it is dead wrong for a number of reasons.

>First, Islamic terrorists plotting attacks are arrested periodically in Europe and the United States. Last week, a leaked British report detailed Al Qaeda’s plans for future “large-scale” operations. We shouldn’t be blamed for being alarmist when our alarmism has resulted in our safety at home for the past five years.

How stupid is that? If we have learned anything–which we obviously haven’t–terrorists are not dissuaded by firey rhetoric and Churchillian war metaphors. One might even argue that they are inspired by the privilege of waging war with us. Perhaps we should just let them be the criminal thugs they are and let the police deal with them.

Deliver us from evil

What might the author of this (Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering and Oakland University) be saying:

>Still, the Virginia Tech shootings have already led to calls for all sorts of changes: gun control, more mental health coverage, stricter behavior rules on campuses. Yes, in a perfect world, there would be no guns, no mental illness and no Cho Seung-Huis. But the world is very imperfect. Consider that Britain’s national experiment with gun-free living is proving to be a disaster, with violent and gun crime rates soaring.

Hate to get into a factual dispute, but:

>The Home Office says that despite the temptation to assume that things are always getting worse, crime in England and Wales actually peaked in 1995 and has now fallen by 44% in the last 10 years.

Even if the crime rate were going up, it probably wouldn’t be “soaring.” But even if it were soaring, I think it would compare favorably with ours. And furthermore, and more fundamentally, whether less gun control would change things for the better is a distinct–a very distinct–question.

On this shaky basis the author moves toward the conclusion:

>In other words, most of the broad social “lessons” we are being told we must learn from the Virginia Tech shootings have little to do with what allowed the horrors to occur. This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life. Can administrators and deans really continue to leave professors and other college personnel to deal with deeply disturbed students on their own, with only pencils in their defense?

She might as well say “some say. . .”. That at least would be more honest about the straw man to follow. But, like Richard Cohen, she doesn’t need to wait for any fancy diagnosis or police investigation: it’s about evil. That’s even less helpful and insightful than her original suggestion. I don’t know of the psychological category for evil. My father, when he was alive, used to commit people like Cho to mental institutions as a danger to themselves or others. There was, and as far as I know, there still is no category called “evil” which is grounds for commitment. But while we were talking about all of this, several psychologically disturbed people just bought guns (legally) to deliver themselves and perhaps some of us from evil.


“. . . Allobrogum, qui nuper pacificati erant. . . .” (The Allobroges, who had only recently been pacified. . . ” That was Caesar (B.G. I.6). Now Charles Krauthammer, speaking of progress in Iraq:

>The situation in Baghdad is more mixed. Yesterday’s bridge and Green Zone attacks show the insurgents’ ability to bomb sensitive sites. On the other hand, pacification is proceeding. “Nowhere is safe for Westerners to linger,” ABC’s Terry McCarthy reported on April 3. “But over the past week we visited five different neighborhoods where the locals told us life is slowly coming back to normal.” He reported from Jadriyah, Karrada, Zayouna, Zawra Park and the notorious Haifa Street, previously known as “sniper alley.” He found that “children have come out to play again. Shoppers are back in markets,” and he concluded that “nobody knows if this small safe zone will expand or get swallowed up again by violence. For the time being though, people here are happy to enjoy a life that looks almost normal.”

At least Caesar had a flair for Irony, the second casualty of war.

Little things

Earlier this week Paul Krugman wrote about the rhetorical effectiveness of spreading little falsehoods. These little lies, as he called them, get repeated over and over again first by the irresponsible media (Drudge, talk radio, Hannity, and so on), then they work their way up to Howard Kurtz and various other mainstream outlets, who take them or their authors seriously. It’s not of course only a right wing thing–just ask Bob Somerby or Glenn Greenwald. These little falsehoods take various forms. The most obvious is the malicious fabrication (e.g., recent inventions about Nancy Pelosi). Less obvious is the subtle or not so subtle distortion of views you don’t agree with. Those are the little lies George Will tells. Today, for instance, he returns to the theme of global warming (which he insists on calling climate change, despite the propangandistic origin of this phrase). The article is a Summa of all of Will’s recent climatic confusions, so it might take a while. So for today we’ll just comment on this:

>In a campaign without peacetime precedent, the media-entertainment-environmental complex is warning about global warming. Never, other than during the two world wars, has there been such a concerted effort by opinion-forming institutions to indoctrinate Americans, 83 percent of whom now call global warming a ” serious problem.” Indoctrination is supposed to be a predicate for action commensurate with professions of seriousness.

What are “opinion-forming institutions”? Are they the kind–like right wing talk radio or the Post editorial page–that endeavor to produce loud and sometimes false opinions about political questions? Or are they the ones (like universities) that produce what sometimes get called, true opinions with a logos–i.e., knowledge–about the world around us? Not all opinion-forming institutions, in other words, are the same; if so, parents can save a lot of money by sending their kids to Rush Limbaugh University. Aside from the sneering stupidity of the remark about the “entertainment-environmental complex” (this from a man, mind you, who takes a science-fiction novel (by a Hollywood producer) about global warming to be scientific evidence on par with the consensus of credentialed climatologists), we’d also wonder what “indoctrinate” (used twice here) means. One usually uses such terms in order to stress the value-laden character of the views being taught. Rarely would one use it to describe the process of informing someone of some other other fact about the world. Some call that “teaching.”


Richard Cohen, liberal pundit, has examined the evidence and concluded that Monica Goodling is not a criminal:

>In the end, though, some thought has to be given to why Monica Goodling feels obligated to take the Fifth rather than merely telling Congress what happened in the AG’s office. She’s no criminal — but what could happen to her surely is.

That’s not good news for Goodling. For according to Cohen, neither was Scooter Libby:

>No lawyer is going to be thrilled about letting a client testify in today’s political environment. Remember, please, that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was not convicted of the crime that the special prosecutor was appointed to find — who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame — but of lying to a grand jury. In fact, the compulsively compulsive Patrick Fitzgerald not only knew early on who the leaker was but also that no law had been violated. No matter. Fitzgerald valiantly persisted, jailing Judith Miller of the New York Times for refusing to reveal her sources and, in the end, nailing Libby. It was a magnificent victory, proving once again that there is nothing more dangerous to the republic than a special prosecutor with money to spend.

Three part invention

I can only be bothered to come up with three. There are many many more problems with this abysmal piece by George Will today. While it does make sense to adjust gas prices for inflation, the rest of his conclusions show a manifest ignorance about the nature of the energy problem and a reprehensible tendency to ridicule anyone who takes it seriously.

Here’s the first part:

>The next wave of stories about “soaring” gas prices will predictably trigger some politicians’ indignation about oil companies’ profits. The day after Exxon Mobil’s announcement that it earned $39.5 billion in 2006, Hillary Clinton said: “I want to take those profits, and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund that will begin to fund alternative smart energy, alternatives and technologies that will begin to actually move us toward the direction of independence.”

Here’s the second:

>Clinton’s “take” reveals her confiscatory itch. Her clunky “toward the direction of” suggests that she actually knows that independence is as chimerical a goal as Soviet grain production goals were.

The third:

>America produces about one-quarter of the 20.6 million barrels of oil it uses a day. Unfortunately, just as liberals love employees but not employers, they want energy independence but do not want to drill in the “pristine” (read: desolate) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( potential yield: 10.4 billion barrels) and are reluctant to countenance drilling offshore.

Read the rest. There’s more.

No comment

It’s Holy Week and Pesach, so we can ponder the following:

>March 30, 2007 – A belief in God and an identification with an organized religion are widespread throughout the country, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll. Nine in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God and almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Christians far outnumber members of any other faith in the country, with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as such. Another 5 percent say they follow a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism or Islam. Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view.

Et tu quoque, Gore?

The argumentum ad hominem is cool. Rather than address the salient points of your claim, I just attack you and declare your claim false on those grounds. QED. Such is the case with the “Al Gore’s an energy-hogging hypocrite” thematic. It’s a pitiful attempt to argue against global warming by proxy. Today, Dr. Henry I. Miller (not to be confused with Ana?s Nin’s lover) of the Hoover Institution joins the fray: >Perhaps I can offer a medical explanation for why Al Gore simply doesn't feel that he should be judged by standards of behavior applicable to everyone else. On the basis of his actions and writings over many years my guess is that Mr. Gore suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard? Paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard. Now, Dr. Miller holds both an M.S. and an M.D., but no mention of a PsyD. However, he has read a book: >The criteria for this diagnosis, as described in the psychiatrist's bible, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," include a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity [in fantasy or behavior], need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts," as indicated by the following: >"A grandiose sense of self-importance [e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements]." Ah, I see: Al Gore is a self-aggrandizing narcissist (read: politician). So, that’s his problem. My problem is that I fail to see how his hypocrisy is germane to the issues of global warming. That Mr. Gore has, in his official function, wrapped himself in contradictions to appease constituents may be true. Yet, it has no bearing on the facts of global warming. That’s the funny thing about science: the facts speak for themselves, regardless of the apparent hypocrisies of the orator. Nevertheless, Dr. Miller has more important fish to fry, like this one:. >Mr. Gore regularly demonstrates his grandiosity. Who can forget his notorious claim that he had been instrumental in creating the Internet? Indeed–especially not when your ilk will not let it go away. Moreover, this entire “Gore thinks he invented the internet” meme is pure fiction, just ask Bob Somerby. But Wait! Not only is the former VP a deceitful hypocrite, he’s a big meanie in committee, as well: >While a senator, Mr. Gore was notorious for his rudeness and insolence during hearings. A favorite trick–which I experienced first-hand–was to pose a question and as the witness began to answer, Gore would begin a whispered conversation with another committee member or a staffer. If the witness paused in order that the senator not miss the response, Mr. Gore would instruct him to continue, then resume his private conversation, leaving no ambiguity: Not only is your testimony unimportant, I won't even pay you the courtesy of pretending to listen to it. Dr. Miller treats this as some sort of coup de grâce, but there’s one problem here: suppose everything Dr. Miller has accused the former VP of is true—the facts of global warming remain the case. Even if Mr. Gore is a hypocrite, a liar, a Senate bully, and a narcissist possessed of egregious delusions of grandeur, the temperature of the earth is rising, the hole in the ozone layer is still there, the polar ice cap continues to melt, sea levels continue to rise, and our increasing carbon emissions continue to contribute to the problem. –pm

Weird Science

Yesterday in my seminar on the philosophy of religion we had a discussion about burden of proof. Burden questions seem to be a tricky mix of psychology, politics, and epistemology–to name a few things. And this goes back to the second feature of critical thinking–at least the second one we came up with here (yesterday)–i.e., know where you stand. This doesn’t mean of course that you should know and defend where you stand, and be aware of the status of the questions before you (the first step–maybe). So, where do you stand relative to the burden of proof on any given topic? On some topics determining where the burden falls is hard, on others, it’s easy. Just ask the people who know better. Say, I don’t know, scientists on scientific questions.

So if your knee-jerk reaction to a scientific question is to question it, then you ought to know that you have a high burden of proof to overcome. Someone please tell George Will:

>Climate Cassandras say the facts are clear and the case is closed. (Sen. Barbara Boxer: “We’re not going to take a lot of time debating this anymore.”) The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets: 1. Global warming is happening. 2. It is our (humanity’s, but especially America’s) fault. 3. It will continue unless we mend our ways. 4. If it continues we are in grave danger. 5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming. 6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.

>Only the first tenet is clearly true, and only in the sense that the Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. We do not know the extent to which human activity caused this. The activity is economic growth, the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-being—better nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet’s climate?

Hard to know what George Will, famous climate skeptic (see also here), could mean by “clearly true” in this instance. But I think it’s something like “not even I–who read Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel about global warming hysteria–can doubt that one any more.” I know that’s a little mean. But Will doesn’t bother even trying to support his claim–clearly at odds with current qualified scientific consensus–with any evidence (at all–not even bad evidence). Instead he changes the subject:

>We do not know how much we must change our economic activity to produce a particular reduction of warming. And we do not know whether warming is necessarily dangerous. Over the millennia, the planet has warmed and cooled for reasons that are unclear but clearly were unrelated to SUVs. Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there? Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?

That’s an argument from ignorance! Who knows–maybe global warming will be good for us. We could farm in Greenland. Since we can’t tell either way, let’s do nothing.