Category Archives: Unqualified Authority

Argumentum ad verecundiam

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.”

Binge and surge

**Update below**

I was going to make a post about the fallacy of amphiboly, but then I read Robert Kagan’s “The Surge is Succeeding” in today’s Washington Post. Kagan’s article is instructive in its subtle and misleading use of evidence. In the end he doesn’t so much as argue that the surge is working so much as claim the press ought not to be saying that it’s not working, because it’s too early to tell, so it’s working. That’s a pretty straightforward argument from ignorance. And we’ve seen this sort of thing before from Kagan–given the absence of attacks on the US in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the invasion has stopped terrorism. Well, the acute will notice that the latter is a causal fallacy.

But back to the question of evidence. Kagan’s central evidence for the success of the surge:

>Four months later, the once insurmountable political opposition has been surmounted. The nonexistent troops are flowing into Iraq. And though it is still early and horrible acts of violence continue, there is substantial evidence that the new counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the infusion of new forces, is having a significant effect.

>Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that “early signs are encouraging.”

There is a puzzling circularity to Kagan’s reasoning here. His evidence for the success is the sentence that follows that reports evidence of the success–not the other way around. For most normal evidentialists, the Press–for which Kagan has no regard (more in a second)–reports things they claim to be happening, and we either believe them or disbelieve them. Not t’other way round. So Kagan ought to write: some observers have noticed a shift, and after considering their authority against that of, say, the White House, and the rest of the world media, I believe them. After all, they’re bloggers known for “straight talk.”

In addition to his strange selection of authorities and the weird and apparent circularity of his argument, Kagan finds time to dig at the press:

>A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn’t work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.

Zing! Take that fact-reporting newspaper! The Post–for however wrong it has been about this entire Iraq fiasco–does not need a military back-up plan in case the surge works. It’s a newspaper. We hope that it will report when the surge is working. But apparently, it keeps reporting otherwise. Since those are facts friendly to the enemy, the Post must be working for the enemy. Sheesh.

And yet, Kagan writes for the Post.


Glenn Greenwald says what commenter Phil has been saying lately:

>No rational person would believe a word Robert Kagan says about anything. He has been spewing out one falsehood after the next for the last four years in order to blind Americans about the real state of affairs concerning the invasion which he and his comrade and writing partner, Bill Kristol, did as much as anyone else to sell to the American public.


Chicken soup for the argument

Though I have no doubt David Brooks is unaware of us–especially since we almost never comment on him as he is firewalled–I was surprised to see that something of the idea of whom to ask critical questions about people places and things has crossed his mind:

>It happened just over a year ago in Key West, of all places. We’d come down for a conference organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and one afternoon two friends, Reuel Gerecht and Jeffrey Goldberg, squared off for a debate on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

>Gerecht and Goldberg are Americans whose fascination with Islam has taken them to *ridiculous places.* Gerecht, a former member of the C.I.A. clandestine service, spends an astonishing amount of time in spare rooms in Middle East backwaters talking fatwas in klatches with bearded fundamentalists.

>Goldberg has lived in a madrasa in Pakistan. His pieces from inside Hezbollah won a National Magazine Award for The New Yorker. In the fall he has a book, “Prisoners,” coming out about his time as a prison guard in the Israeli Army, and his friendships with the Palestinian detainees.

You read that right–“ridiculous places”–as if to foreshadow where we are going in this piece.

Believe it or not, these two individuals “disagree utterly about the path to Arab democracy.” But which *one* of them will be right? The Middle East is such a *ridiculous* place, so how better to resolve the dispute about its future between two ridiculously adventurous westerners (they actually went to the Middle East and talked to those people? That’s ridiculous!) than with a ridiculous analogy:

>The only way to reform the Middle East, Gerecht concluded, is by changing political institutions and enduring as the spirit of democratic self-government slowly changes society. *There will be a period of fever, but the fever will break the disease.*

What a fitting analogy! But wait:

>When it was Goldberg’s turn (the transcript is available online at, his first observation was that *sometimes fevers break the disease but sometimes they kill the patient*.

Zing! Excellent point Dr.Goldberg! How will the moderator resolve it?

>What this debate is really about is *the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems.* Can we use political reform *to spark* cultural change, or do we have to wait for cultural reformation before *we* can change politics?

The concept of agency at work in this piece is so 19th Century: why bother asking people from the land of the ridiculous to participate? (maybe, and this is admittedly a ridiculous suggestion, they have another view, or views). Surely they couldn’t have come up with the chicken and egg metaphor for their predicament–that’s why they’re ridiculous.

Trust me

The other week or day I don’t remember which we mentioned some of the basic qualifications for meaningful participation in a discussion of the future of the middle east (and by extension and by analogy, anywhere else). We were again reminded of these when we saw this to our mind a set of important questions concerning a recent roundtable at the journal Foreign Affairs. I quote:

>Got a few questions for you:

>1. Are you Muslim? It doesn’t appear that any of you are.

>2. If you’re not, do any of you speak fluent Arabic, ie, well enough to hold a conversation, listen to al Jazeera, and read the newspapers?

>3. If not, how many of you have read the entire Qu’ran and most of the Hadith in translation? If not, how many of you have participated more than once in worship at a mosque? Sh’ia or Sunni – and can you quickly define the difference?

>4. If not, how many of you have travelled to Iraq since the occupation, how long did you stay, and where did you go?

>5. How many of you publicly opposed the invasion prior to the launch of the New Product – as the Bush administration termed the invasion and occupation – long before it was politically safe to do so, say, prior to the passage of the Senate resolution in fall of 2002? Before January, 2003?

>6. If you are not Muslim, don’t speak Arabic well, haven’t read the basic texts of Islam or participated in services, haven’t been to Iraq, and/or believed – for whatever reason – prior to the invasion that it was a smart, or at least reasonable, idea to invade Iraq – that is, if you can’t answer “yes” to a decent number of my first five questions – then why should I bother to take seriously anything you might think to say?

>I’m not saying you’re stupid or uninformed, I know you’re not. I’m asking: upon what is your expertise based, besides attending conferences, reading a lot of thick books by non-Islamic Americans, reading American newspapers and official government reports?

>Just asking.



It’s wise I believe to keep such qualifications in mind before one takes seriously commentary from persons such as these:

>In the last few days there have been a lot of rumors of impending ceasefires and diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, to the cheers of many, is reportedly heading to the region to head off further escalation. I hope she doesn’t go, and if she does, I hope her success is measured in photo-ops and nothing more, because Israel has a moral and strategic obligation to invade southern Lebanon.

I would add one question to Tristero’s list: do you have any experience with the realities of ground combat?

UPDATE (7/20/06): Tristero writes an apology:

>In a previous post, I questioned the credentials of the members of the Foreign Affairs roundtable on “What to do in Iraq.” Some members of that panel clearly are qualified, eminently so, to have an opinion appear under the auspices of the journal that promotes itself, by way of a quote, as “The Bible of Foreign Policy Thinking.”

>In particular, Marc Lynch of Abu Aardvark wrote to Hullabaloo: “…in addition to being a liberal blogger (, I do speak and read Arabic, write about al-Jazeera and the Arab media all the time, and published an op- ed opposing war with Iraq in the Christian Science Monitor in July 2002.” Marc’s clearly one of the Serious People who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Iraq; his opinions on the mess in Iraq are invaluable. Marc, a full and complete apology. I haven’t read your blog in anthing resembling a regular fashion and that has been truly my serious loss.

>And I’d like to apologize to other panel members who have garnered high-level credentials similar to Marc’s. Your comments, too, were helpful, even if I disagreed with them…no especially if I disagreed with them.

That’s good–we’re moving in the right direction for an informed discussion. But I think Tristero should ask whether any of them live in the region.

Question Authority

Especially when the authority is unqualified. From our recent excursions into the blogosphere, a not so recent (2/5/05–for us there is no expiration date) post:

>I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can’t read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq’s neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg’s opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.

That’s Juan Cole, professor of Mid-East History at the University of Michigan. He’s a qualified authority on the Middle East. The mass of pundits so frequently called upon to comment on Iraq and Iran, are not:

>In Iraq, the American liberators [many did–just not me and my brethren commentators] didn’t understand what would happen if brutalized Iraqis were left in a state of nature, and didn’t or couldn’t impose a humane order.

That’s David Brooks, not an expert on much.

More global warming nonsense

In an op-ed on the theme that Al Gore is and always has been a calculating phony (which we leave to The Daily Howler for comment), George Will continues to suggest that there is real controversy where there isn’t any:

>Minutes after Gore said that “the debate in the science community is over,” he said “there is a debate between the American ice science community and ice scientists elsewhere” about whether the less-than-extremely-remote danger is a rise in sea level of a few inches or 20 feet . And he said scientists “don’t know what is happening” in west Antarctica or Greenland. So when Gore says the scientific debate is “over,” he must mean merely that there is consensus that we are in a period of warming.

>This is not where debate ends but where it begins, given that at any moment in its 4.5 billion years, the planet has been cooling or warming. The serious debate is about two other matters: the contribution of human activity to the current episode of warming and the degree to which this or that remedial measure (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol) would make a difference commensurate with its costs.

Gore clearly means that the *serious scientific* debate about the human contribution to global warming is over. This or that Exxon Mobile scientist doubts the human contribution; and the selectively skeptical pundit and pseudo-libertarian think-tanker doomsays about the financial costs of dealing with it. Neither of these is a serious position. For the scientific question, see here ; the the economic question, see here and here (thanks to Think Progress for the links). So Will is guilty–again on this topic–of suggesting serious controversy where there isn’t any. For a discussion of that, see here, here, here, here, here, and finally, here.

Moreover, he’s also probably guilty of exaggerating the economic consequences–of, as it were, doomsaying a la Gore–of fixing global warming. In addition to that, he strawmans and dichotomizes the Kyoto issue. For the Kyoto protocol is harldy the best thing that can be done, and it’s hardly the only thing. And it’s failure doesn’t mean any such thing is bound to fail.

Do as we do not as we say

Recently George Will has spilled a lot of ink on the Supreme Court. The other day it was a shallow and snarky analysis of the takings clause, today
the same for the establishment clause. This time we have a Scalian excursus on original intent. Rather than consulting a dictionary contemporary to the founding fathers for the meaning of the word “wall” in “wall of separation,” Will consults their behavior. According to the author Will cites–and we have no reason to doubt him–the founding fathers’ notion of “wall of separation” did not include religioius services in a government building, among many other things. On the strength of the founding father’s behavior, and some rather shallow lampooning of the very real problems of constitutional interpretation, Will concludes that 25 years of constitutional “hair-splitting” have been a waste.

In response it should be said that some of what the founding fathers thought and did was deplorable. Some of this (to our everlasting shame) they even enshrined in the Constitution. So it’s certainly not the case that their behavior should serve necessarily as a guide for our own. And though it might remain an open question as to whether some of their behavior should serve as a guide for our own, we would need some way to tell which behavior to emulate and which to eschew. Once we do this, we’re back to what George Will calls hairsplitting and what the student of constitutional law might call “reasoning.”

Nature Wrecked

In the previous post we discussed George Will’s violent reaction to the violent reaction to Larry Summers’–President of Harvard University–foray into *a priori* genetics. On the basis of all of the scientific auctoritas as his armchair will provide, Will continues here and in the following op-ed piece (which we will discuss some time in the near future) to pontificate about the philosophical realities of human nature. Not only did it gall him that academic liberals would dare question the unjustified assertions of the president of Harvard University, but some in the left-wing political media had the temerity to challenge similar claims in the inaugural address of the President of the United States:

>This criticism went beyond doubts about his grandiose aspirations, to rejection of the philosophy that he might think entails such aspirations but actually does not. The philosophy of natural right — the Founders’ philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.

Continue reading Nature Wrecked

Ad Feminam

Only just recently George Will argued that Michael Crichton’s appendixed and footnoted science-fiction thriller about global warming–sorry, climate change–merited unironic juxtaposition with the body of unthrilling and nonfictional scientific research from the majority of the world’s qualified scientists. Now this past week in The Washington Post
he argues that Larry Summers’ off the cuff and argumentless remarks about the genetic basis of gender differences in cognitive ability warrant the same kind of careful attention and consideration. The failure of academia to take them seriously, and its quick, negative reaction to them constitutes to Will’s mind evidence of academia’s not so latent hypocrisy:

>Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was.

>Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate — genetically based — gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.

Continue reading Ad Feminam

State of Ignorance

The editors of ** would like to apologize for their rather long vacation, which they enjoyed doing their regular jobs. The editors also apologize for not posting a notice to that effect. The fact is, however, they never intended to take a vacation; it took them. But, in addition to that, they have to admit that op-eds have been much less argumentative lately. After the election, David Brooks even apologized for one of his numerous distortions of Kerry's record. And Will has taken a turn to frequent reportage. Today a wikipediaen discussion of the theory of relativity for the enjoyment of the habitues of the *Washington Post*.

Continue reading State of Ignorance