All posts by Colin Anderson

Of explanations and equivocations

Source: NYT 09/07/04 and Source: NYT 09/07/04: I suspect Paul Krugman and David Brooks were not attending the same Labor Day celebration when they decided to write today on the same theme. Nevertheless both the NYT’s editorials today address a question that is of special interest: How is it that people come to believe such obviously irrational, false, immoral, or simply contradictory things. There are profound questions here that transcend the strict scope of logic and require some dabbling in the philosophy of action and perhaps even raising the question of evil. Nonetheless, have no fear, Brooks does not disappoint: With a little bit of preparation we will discover at the heart of Brooks’ argument an illustrative case of concealed equivocation.

But we should start with Krugman who focuses on a discussion of the psychology of war by war correspondant Chris Hedges. It is Krugman’s claim that the impression of a perpetual state of war that the Bush administration works so assiduously to maintain is about the only thing that keeps Bush’s poll numbers from plummetting. “War psychology” disposes people to faith in their leaders even when the leaders are undeserving of it.

The administration creates a climate of war. This climate leads to a unreasonable over-estimation of our leaders. Bush’s lead in the polls is a result of the war climate.

Strictly speaking this is not an argument, but rather an attempt at explaining what to Krugman and others seems obviously irrational–Bush’s persistence in the election when by every objective measure (economy, jobs, war on terror, war in Iraq, never mind scandal after scandal) he should be plummeting in the polls.

Explanations are interesting creatures: They possess the same structure as an argument (This fact is true because this other fact is true), yet they are evaluated according to different criteria. Arguments proceed from supposedly well established facts (the premises) and justify the conclusion which is generally less well-established than the premises (and hence in need of argument). Explanations, however, begin from a commonly recongized fact (Bush is persisting or even gaining in the polls) and attempt to provide some means of understanding that fact on the basis of other less well known facts (war psychology).

This isn’t, of course, to say that explanations cannot fail in ways analogous to argument. In fact, many explanations are themselves the conclusion of an implicit argument–the argument being that the proposed explanation is the best available explanation of the given fact. For explanations themselves, we can assess the degree to which the explanation integrates with our other beliefs, has a relevant degree of explanatory scope, and is clear, testable, frugal, and precise. (A nice discussion that goes beyond the scope of these brief comments can be found in Thomas McKay’s Reasons, Explanations, and Decision. (Wadsworth publishing) from which I draw here especially Chapter 7). I will leave the evaluation of this explanation for another time and place.

Now where Krugman utilizes psychology to articulate a plausible reason for what he believes to be irrational conviction, Brooks does something entirely different with the same problem. Brooks takes as his subject the morally repugnant and perverse decision to use terrorist tactics. At first glance, the whole point of his editorial seems to be to sustain his moral outrage at terrorism for 750 words or so. To do so he uses a metaphor of a “cult of death,” under which description he includes the radicals and extremists at the “fringe of the Muslim world.” The cult of death “loves death,” Brooks sententiously informs us, and is motivated by nothing but the “joy of sadism and suicide” and “massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness.”

This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergarteners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

Whether there is a single factual claim in this sentence is not something we can or need to consider right now because the trope does not need any factual basis in order to focus our moral outrage. Brooks is trying to argue against the possibility of any explanation of terrorism, by rejecting any attempt to “understand” it.

His metaphorical indulgence obscures the argument, but not enough to conceal its basic fallacy.

1. To understand terrorism is to understand its reasons.
2. If terrorism has reasons, then it is justifiable.
3. But terrorism is unjustifiable.
4. Therefore terrorism has no motivation or reason (it is simply a perverse nihilistic cult of death).

This, of course, is to provide Brooks’ meandering and at times self-contradictory editorial with a basic rational, even if fallacious, structure. But imposing on this op-ed the formal inference of modus tollens, allows us to highlight the basic flaw in his reasoning.

The flaw is a very common instance of equivocation on the notions of reason and motivation: Specifically, the argument collapses the distinction between a causal or psychological sense of “reason” and an evaluative or moral sense. This amounts to claiming that:

To claim that terrorists had a “motivation” to commit a particular act, is to claim that the terrorists had a “good motivation” to do that act.

However, to recognize that human beings act necessarily out of their conception of what is best is not to claim that they are right about what is best: Nor is it to claim that they are not morally responsible for what they think (erroneously) to be best. A psychological explanation does not imply moral justification.

Once we see this, Brooks’ editorial falls into place. He can assert his moral consternation at the Boston Globe and the Dutch Foreign Minisiter (?!?) who suggest that Russian authorities may have mishandled the events. Ever aiming at clarity, or at least simplicity Brooks reminds us, “And it wasn’t Russian authorities who stuffed basketball nets with explosives and shot children in the back as they tried to run away.”

But if we remove the basic fallacy in his reasoning we can see that the hypothesis of a “death cult” in order to explain terrorism is unnecessary and moreover a poor explanation. First, it conflicts with our basic understanding, stretching back to Aristotle, of human agency. Second, it is in fact a vacuous explanation–(Why do terrorists kill? Because they like to kill.) Third, the explanation is obfuscatory. It proceeds by lumping together all sorts of disparate groups and their motivations. Fourth, is imprecise and does not explain differences among particular acts of terrorism.

Once we dispose of the basic equivocation in Brooks view his explanation can be seen to be the empty metaphor that it is.

Counting to Four with Safire

Source (NYT 8/30/04):
Back from vacation, Safire contributes a surprisingly obtuse editorial today. Titled “Four Connected Elections” it meanders from a discussion of recent events in Najaf to Safire’s advice to the Republican party about political strategy. Lacking anything that resembles an argument or even an explanation, one feels crass to nit-pick.

The logical nits need nonetheless to be picked.

George W. Bush comes to the G.O.P convention on the heels of victory in the Najaf primary. . . Not quite an electoral “primary”–the al-Sadr forces prefer bullets to ballots–but the result was political. Nobody now doubts who is the most powerful Shiite leader. And though he cannot publicly express his gratititude to the foreign soldiers who made possible his victory over the abusers of sanctuary, the ayatollah is on the side of a general election soon.

Apparantly, according to Safire, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has joined the Republican party! Even assuming that what Safire

says bears any resemblance to the truth of what occured in Najaf last week, the claim that this represents a “Najaf primary” which endorses George W. Bush conceals, though not particularly well, fallacious reasoning.

The conclusion that Safire wants to suggest to his readers is that George Bush has been endorsed by the majority of Shiites in Iraq, via his functionary Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

He argues this through an analogy between an election and an expression of popular will. Although the restoration of the mosque was not the result of a vote, he detects in the outcome of the negotiations a “political” expression of popular will. It is as though al-Sadr was “voted” out of the mosque and Sistani was voted in.

O.K. so far the analogy seems plausible, even if it is straining a little. Arguments from analogy hold when two things are similar in a number of ways, and it is likely that therefore they also possess some further characteristic in common.

So we must ask, to what degree were the events in Najaf similar to what we consider to be an “election?” Are all political victories analogous to electoral victories? Are all expressions of popular will electoral victories. Does a mob on the street constitute a sign of “popular will?” We need only remember the mobs of Republican staffers that were flown down to Florida in 2000 to present the appearance of public outrage at the “recounts” to recognize the danger of identifying the appearance of public support with the actual existence of public support. The difference between an election and a mob is that unless the Supreme Court overides you, in an election you must actually count the votes. Thus, the essential characteristics of an “election”–what distinguishes from mob rule–are seemingly absent in the Najaf case.

So Najaf can be considerd an election only in the most abstract and weakest sense of the word. Safire’s analogy is false.

But even beyond this basic disanalogy between mob politics under the gun of an occupying army and elections, the inference that Sistani is a Republican apparatchik and that George Bush won a primary in Najaf can only be interpreted as Safire’s subtle comic senee.

Nevertheless, laughter does not constitute analysis. The fallacy here is one of implicit false dilemma. In essence, Safire argues that since Bush wanted al-Sadr out of the mosque and Sistani was able to accomplish this through an expression of popular will among Shiites, the Shiite population has chosen George Bush rather than al-Sadr.

While it is probably true that if politics makes for strange bed-fellows, war makes for desperate bed-fellows, to argue that support for Sistani rather than al-Sadr is support for George Bush and the occupying army rather than al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army” is to take Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” fallacy and invert it with equally fallacious results: not actually at present shooting at American troops must not be confused with supporting American troops. Opposing the use of a mosque for military purposes, with the attendant massive destruction of the city center, can in no way be interperted as support for those who destroyed the city center.

Tod Lindberg earns a 9.9 from the American judges

Well, Safire’s on vacation, so that makes the New York Times a little slow on Tuesdays. It may be the broken air-conditioning in my office this morning, but I decided not to troll the op-ed pages of the major dailies and instead jumped straight to a “sure-thing”–Tony Blankley’s Washington Times. And what do you know? We find Tod Lindberg in remarkable form today. His chosen routine begins with a well-executed “false dilemma,” gradually building with an increasing tempo through a series of implicit “tu quoque’s” and a “straw man,” he reaches the pinnacle of his routine–a rhetorical move, complicated and daring–a rhetorical ploy that perhaps has not yet been named.

First a sampling of his more pedestrian specious reasoning:

There are two possibilities: Either the Kerry campaign actually believes that the Bush campaign is behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; or the Kerry campaign just think’s its good politics to blame the President personally for the Vietnam veterans who served in proximity to Mr. Kerry and have decided he is “unfit” to be commander in chief.

A fairly simple false dilemma, hinging on whether there are other alternatives–perhaps the Kerry campaign believes that the Bush campaign is “involved” or “has made it convenient” for this organization to receive funding etc.. Never mind the question of what might be meant by “blame the President personally for . . ..” If anything the Kerry campaign blames the president for the utilization of these people in a high-profile, well-funded, misleading hatchet job.

But the really great stuff is still to come: Lindberg wants to suggest that the Kerry campaign and liberals in general are obsessed with “conspiracy theories.” Now to claim that an explanation is a conspiracy theory is to cast doubt on the truth and plausibility of the explanation. Even further, a conspiracy theory is by connotation, at least, the product of a paranoid mind, and hence almost by definition false, and at least by definition, unjustified by the available evidence.

Well, how do you argue that an explanation is part of a conspiracy theory? Lindberg certainly does not actually address the truth or falsity of the claim that there are suspicious connections between the Bush campaign and S.B.V.F.T: He does not want to evaluate the evidence of connection:

“But the Swift Boat Veterans funder is from Texas! Mr. Bush wrote him a letter! If that’s not proof of coordination, what is? Well, proof of coordination would be proof of coordination, and this is no that.”

An exceptionally executed Straw Man fallacy! The judges could not be more impressed! As though the whole argument of the Kerry Campaign is the fact that the funder is from Texas!

Nevertheless, Lindberg needs to cast some doubt on the explanation, so he asks:

“But do Republicans think there is some vast left-wing conspiracy aimed at them?”

Of course, he will argue that they do not. The really clever thing here, is that by merely associating Democrats and Conspiracy theories, Lindberg is able to suggest that their explanation of the connection between S.B.V.F.T. and the Bush campaign is a conspiracy theory, and therefore their explanation of the connection between the Bush campaign and S.B.V.F.T. is false!

A daring argument! The judges are stunned with no words to describe it. Is it a sort of tu quoque? An ad hominem? An ad populum? A combination of all of these fallacies rolled into one stunning stunning display of specious reasoning!?

The argument appears to work as follows:

1. Republicans don’t cry “conspiracy theory.”

2. Democrats hold a conspiracy theory concerning the SBVFT.

3. Conspiracy theories are false, or unjustified by the evidence.

3. Therefore, there is no connection between the SBVFT and the Bush campaign.

The first claim is a sort of “appeal to the people” (ad populum). It claims the moral high-ground, implicitly suggesting by the contrast that Democrats do in fact cry conspiracy theory.

The second claim passes unsupported by any evidence: Given the definition of a conspiracy that he gives–“carefully coordinated activity in which each apparently separate part is in fact centrally directed and controlled?”–it strikes one as exceedingly unlikely that the Kerry campaign has asserted any such thing.

The third claim is virtually definitional.

Then, finally, the conclusion of a factual falsity–the message he wants to leave you with–there is no coordination between SBVFT and the Bush Campaign. Why? Because Republicans don’t cry conspiracy theory and Democrats do.

In fact, he has not provided a single piece of evidence for this claim!

It’s a fascinating argument–and in fact it really isn’t new. Tucker Carlson lives and breathes by it on CrossFire.

The question of how to classify the central fallacy is difficult. It is probably an ad hominem argument beginning from an ad populum that lays the psychological ground for the fallacious inference.

Bravo Mr. Lindberg!!


Bait ‘n’ Switch with the Swift Boats

Q But why won’t you denounce the charges that your supporters are making against Kerry?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m denouncing all the stuff being on TV of the 527s. That’s what I’ve said. I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but used for other purposes, as well. I, frankly, thought we’d gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill. I thought we were going to, once and for all, get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising. And so I’m disappointed with all those kinds of ads.

As every fan of “Law and Order” knows, questions and their answers can implicitly make arguments. Politicians are especially skilled at responding to questions in such a way that the listener draws an inference from the question and answer that is not always justified. Here President Bush responds to the question of his motivation in not denouncing the “Swift Boat for Truth” ads, by saying that he denounces “all the stuff being on TV of the 527’s” (sic.).

In fact, there is a difference between

I denounce all 527 advertising for being misleading and false. The Swift Boat for truth ad is 527 advertising. Therefore, I denounce the Swift boat for Truth ad for being misleading and false.


I denounce all 527 advertising for being unfairly funded. The Swift Boat for Truth ad is 527 advertising. Therefore, I denounce the Swift boat for Truth ad for being unfairly funded.

Obviously the Kerry campaign (and John McCain) is asking the President to denounce it because it is misleading and false not because of the source of its funding. Bush changes the meaning of “denunciation” in the implicit argument contained in this question and answer.

The reporter at this particular event, who is named only “Adam” by this source, caught the fallacy and next asked: “Thank you, Mr. President. This doesn’t have anything to do with other 527 ads. You’ve been accused of mounting a smear campaign. Do you think Senator Kerry lied about his war record?”

This fallacy should have a name if it doesn’t. As it is described here it is the fallacy of equivocation. But in a sense, it is the converse of the “double question” fallacy (Have you stopped beating your dog?) It is so common among politicians that it should have its own designation.