Category Archives: Appeal to Ignorance

You’re kidding, right?

In the years prior to September 11th, how many 9/11-style terror attacks were there? At what frequency? I ask because some continue to suggest that the absence of such attacks in the wake of 9/11 is an achievement:

>For more than three years, partisan opponents of the Bush administration have made two arguments against its conduct of the “global war on terror.”

>First, they’ve argued, the absence of another Sept. 11-like attack has not been the result of anything our government has done, here or overseas. Remember, after conditions in Iraq began to worsen, they began to say we were in even more jeopardy at home than we were five years ago.

Sorry Dr.Hanson, but absence of evidence is not evidence. Though a panicky media and government believed 9/11 was but the first of many attacks, experts suggested otherwise. Besides, terror attacks of the al Qaeda variety have taken place in both London and Madrid. Remember, the terrorists make no distinction among infidels (as we make no distinction among the terrorists and those who harbor them–except when we do).

This argument ought to be put to bed. The editors of the newspaper ought to delete it as they would a dangling participle.

Shorts: Shifting the Burden of Argument and Ad Hominem

Blitzer: Well you don’t have any evidence though, right?

Rep. McHenry: Well look at the fact points…four weeks out from a national election…

Blitzer: Yes or no: do you have any evidence? Do you have any evidence Congressman?

Rep. McHenry: Do you have any evidence that says they weren’t involved?

Blitzer: I’m just asking if you’re just throwing out an accusation or if you have any hard evidence.

Rep. McHenry: No, it’s a question Wolf. The question remains, were they involved? And if they were not involved they need to say clearly, and it’s a question, it’s not an accusation.

Blitzer: Well, they are denying that they had anything to do with this. source

Sort of like an Appeal to Ignorance. Maybe better described as an illegitimate shift of the burden of argument.

I know the speaker didn’t go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day,” said Shays, R-4th District, referring to the 1969 incident in which the Massachusetts Democrat drove a car that plunged into the water and a young campaign worker died.

Dennis Hastert didn’t kill anybody,” he added. source

Nice little ad hominem. Maybe even a form of the tu quoque?

How many angels tend petunias on the head of a pin?

Although I intended another installment of the Krugman challenge, I couldn’t resist when I saw Charles Krauthammer taking a page from the Tobacco industry to defend his cherished invasion of Iraq.
>The question posed — does the Iraq war increase or decrease the world supply of jihadists? — is itself an exercise in counting angels on the head of a pin. Any answer would require a complex calculation involving dozens of unmeasurable factors, as well as construction of a complete alternate history of the world had the U.S. invasion of 2003 not happened.

Krauthammer gives us the standard spin control on the NIE (we should remember that that E stands for estimate)–that the question whether the invasion of Iraq increased the numbered of Jihadist can’t be answered. Krauthammer claims

>Any answer would require a complex calculation involving dozens of unmeasurable factors, as well as construction of a complete alternate history of the world had the U.S. invasion of 2003 not happened.

But that simply is not true. We estimate the effects of all sorts of things based on complex calculations with estimates of factors that are difficult to “measure” precisely and the consideration of alternate scenarios. Most policy papers are rife with precisely these sorts of answers. This is akin to the Tobacco industry defense of cigarette smoking: Establish an unreasonable level of certainty required to answer the question and then criticize every argument that fails to reach that level of certainty. This might be a sub-type of the fallacy appeal to ignorance. Strictly speaking the appeal to ignorance should conclude that the NIE is false, but Krauthammer is in effect arguing that since we can’t know with certainty and precision, we can’t have any reason to believe one answer or the other.

>Ah, but those seers in the U.S. “intelligence community,” speaking through a leaked National Intelligence Estimate — the most famous previous NIE, mind you, concluded that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, slam-dunk — have peered deep into the hypothetical past and found the answer.

The argument seems to be even stronger if you can question the accuracy of your opponents other studies. Thus, people sometimes argue that scientists have changed their minds about what is healthy over time. And since they disagree with themselves we have no reason to believe that their current claims are justified. Unquestionably the intelligence community make mistakes–and in this case one that facilitated 20,000+ American casualties–but that is not an argument against these conclusions. It is a sort of ad hominem argument that calls into question the credibility of the arguers rather than the argument itself. Sometimes these sorts of arguments are justified, but it isn’t clear that because the intelligence community made a mistake about invading Iraq that we should reject all subsequent intelligence estimates. (And one wonders whether Krauthammer would make the same argument below when he agrees with part of the NIE).
>Everyone seems to have forgotten that Iraq was already an Islamist cause celebre and rallying cry long before 2003. When Osama bin Laden issued his declaration of war against America in 1998, his two principal justifications for the jihad that exploded upon us on Sept. 11, 2001, centered on Iraq: America’s alleged killing of more than 1 million Iraqis through the post-Gulf War sanctions and, even worse, the desecration of Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina by the garrisoning of infidel U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia (as post-Gulf War protection from the continuing threat of invasion by Hussein).

Here Krauthammer argues that the NIE is wrong that Iraq has become a cause celebre for Islamists because it already was one before 2003. This is equivocating. Where the NIE claims that Iraq is a cause celebre in the sense of bringing thousands of foreign fighters to attack American trooops in Iraq, Krauthammer reads cause celebre as reason to attack America. Iraq may have been a rallying point within the Islamist anti-American rhetoric prior to 2003, but it is only since the invasion that it has been a reason for thousands of foreign fighters to leave their homes to attack American troops.

>Moreover, does anyone imagine that had the jihadists in Iraq remained home they would now be tending petunias rather than plotting terror attacks?

But, Krauthammer ultimately likes part of the NIE–the part that says that we must defeat the Jihadists in Iraq after having attracted them there. This he think is the new justification for the continued presence of American troops in Iraq. After having created thousands of Jihadists who would otherwise be “growing petunias” at home, we must stay until we kill them or they might go home to grow petunias.

>It is clear that one of the reasons we have gone an astonishing five years without a second attack on the American homeland is that the most dedicated and virulent jihadists have gone to Iraq to fight us, as was said during World War I, “over there.”

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.


As we have said, this op-ed by George Will may take a while to sort out (luckily today he did some reportage on the sorry state of Illinois politics). Having already confused science fiction with science fact and having grossly exaggerated the amount of conflict among present day scientists concerning global warming, Will argues that no one is in a position to know whether it would be a bad thing:

>In fact, the Earth is always experiencing either warming or cooling. But suppose the scientists and their journalistic conduits, who today say they were so spectacularly wrong so recently, are now correct. Suppose the Earth is warming and suppose the warming is caused by human activity. Are we sure there will be proportionate benefits from whatever climate change can be purchased at the cost of slowing economic growth and spending trillions? Are we sure the consequences of climate change — remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest — must be bad? Or has the science-journalism complex decided that debate about these questions, too, is “over”?

As a commenter pointed out a few days ago, Will distorted the scientific claims about “global cooling” in the articles he cites. But if we leave that aside, we find in the above passage a more straightforward instance of the fallacy of ignorance. Say one grants that we can’t be certain that global warming (with the consequent rise in the waters and so forth) is a bad thing. It certainly does not follow from that fact alone that we should, as Will argues here and elsewhere, *do nothing.* To do nothing is to conclude that global warming it’s *not* a bad thing–thus the fallacy.

To me it seems that a cautious–or even conservative–individual would conclude that it’s best to be on the safe side and cut back on all of those nasty pollutants, which, by the way, are bad for innumerable other reasons.

A glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best

We find ourselves hard pressed to identify and analyze all of the fallacies in one post that are woven into George Will’s editorial on global warming today. As our readers will know by now, Will operates at the cutting edge of fallacious reasoning, continually pushing the envelope as he seems to discover new fallacies for us to describe and analyze. Today he advances an interesting and ridiculous reason for scepticism concerning the occurence and dangers of global warming:

While worrying about Montana’s receding glaciers, Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling. Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.” Science Digest (February 1973) reported that “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age.” The Christian Science Monitor (“Warning: Earth’s Climate is Changing Faster Than Even Experts Expect,” Aug. 27, 1974) reported that glaciers “have begun to advance,” “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” and “the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool.” Newsweek agreed (“The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975) that meteorologists “are almost unanimous” that catastrophic famines might result from the global cooling that the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1975) said “may mark the return to another ice age.” The Times (May 21, 1975) also said “a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable” now that it is “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

He seems to be arguing that we should distrust current scientific beliefs because in the past scientists held different beliefs. Undoubtedly, somewhere in some version of this claim there is a glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best. Scientififc controversy implies that the arguments and evidence advanced for a hypothesis have not yet persauded the scientific community. In a conditon of controversy we may do best to withold judgment and decision until the controversy is resolved. But, in the form that Will needs the premise in order to support his beliefs about global warming, this argument is flat-out absurd. Will does not argue here that there is controversy today among climate scientists–in fact, the vast majority seem to conclude from the relevant evidence the standard view of global warming–but that today’s scientists disagree with past scientists

One might as well argue that since scientists in the past thought that the past belief in the geocentric solar system suggests that we should not believe the current helio-centric theory: or, that since atoms were thought to be indivisible that we should doubt current belief in sub-atomic particles.

The closest I can come to categorizing this fallacy is as a version of the fallacy from ignorance. That isn’t exactly correct, since Will’s argument is really that because there has been disagreement about an hypothesis, we should not accept the arguments in favor of the hypothesis.

There are difficult questions about the nature of scientific reasoning and theorizing that such changes in scientific belief prompt. But, Will uses this change fallaciously to suggest that it provides reason for scepticism concerning the truth of the current view, and so he avoids the serious work of responding to serious arguments advanced by a seemingly vast majority of the climate scientists around the world.

Maxima culpa (eorum)

On the subject of straw men, the Associated Press could also have noted that the President is not alone in ridiculing his opponents–he is just less adept at it. In today’s *Washington Post*, Fareed Zakaria tears a page from the President’s play book; but befitting a professional opiniator, he does it with more subtlety.

After a string of *culpae eorum* (their, not his, faults) regarding the failures of intervention in Iraq, Zakaria asserts:

>And yet, for all my misgivings about the way the administration has handled this policy, I’ve never been able to join the antiwar crowd. Nor am I convinced that Iraq is a hopeless cause that should be abandoned.

Note that “hopeless” and “abandoned” sound a lot like “cut” and “run”–only less Texan. Nowhere in the piece does Zakaria address the reasonable (but not necessarily correct) alternatives to his strategy of staying the course–outside of, that is, the phrase “antiwar crowd.” So, one might surmise that the only other option to continuing with our increasingly disastrous (body count, political instability, etc.) intervention is the anti-war crowd. Despite his more reasoned tone then, Zakaria has used the straw man “some say” technique as the president, and as such, it is impossible for the reader to determine whether his three arguments for staying are any good.

Luckily, however, one doesn’t need to have present to mind an alternative to see just how bad these reasons are.

The first:

>So why have I not given up hope? Partly it’s because I have been to Iraq, met the people who are engaged in the struggle to build their country and cannot bring myself to abandon them.

And the oaths of TV pundits are written on water.


>there is no doubt that the costs of the invasion have far outweighed the benefits. But in the long view of history, will that always be true? If, after all this chaos, a new and different kind of Iraqi politics emerges, it will make a difference in the region.

It may or may not always be true that Iraq will be a disaster. But it’s very likely that it will be. It’s only getting worse. The possibility of it not being the case is hardly reason to stay. And it has made a difference in the region–it has emboldened Iran and served as a training ground and recruiting depot for all sorts of new terrorists.


>These sectarian power struggles can get extremely messy, and violent parties have taken advantage of every crack and cleavage. But this may be inevitable in a country coming to terms with very real divisions and disagreements. Iraq may be stumbling toward nation-building by consent, not brutality. And that is a model for the Middle East.

A “sectarian power struggle” sounds like code for bloody religious civil war where the victor is determined by brutality and force of arms (and perhaps Iranian intervention, among other such things). How this means they are stumbling toward nation-building by consent is simply a mystery. All of the evidence Zakaria cites points in the other direction.

But again, these three really bad reasons only make marginal sense in the context of an absurd alternative. Perhaps one as knowledgeable of foreign affairs as Zakaria could find the time to research some of them.

Once more into the argument’s breach

Over the past several weeks, the Weekly Standard has been running a series of articles on the evidence for the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in some significant way working together to achieve their ends. The series seemed to be kicked off by Hugh Hewitt’s subtlely titled “Breeding Stupidity” (Source: WeekStand 7/14/05). Hewitt is attempting to refute two positions on the left:

>The first is that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were not connected.

>[The second] Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists.

The first is rejected on the basis of evidence and argument that I hope to return to in the future.

The bulk of breeding stupidity involves the second claim, which we have examined in several forms over the past couple of weeks. It involves the question of the causes of terrorism. Here Hewett argues that the “left” does not have adequate evidence for the claim that Iraq is breeding terrorists. Invoking an interesting distinction, he argues:

>The fact that foreign fighters are streaming across Syria into Iraq in the hopes of killing America is not evidence supporting the “breeding ground” theory. “Opportunity” to act is not the same thing as “motive” for acting. There is zero evidence for the proposition that Iraq is motive rather than opportunity, but the “motive” theory is nevertheless put forward again and again.

Distinguishing between the “opportunity” to fight the U.S. in Iraq and being motivated to fight the U.S. by the invasion of Iraq is a subtle distinction. Nonetheless, Hewett doesn’t argue his point, he simply asserts the absence of evidence that Iraq is motivating terrorists.

>As recently as Wednesday the Washington Post account of the aftermath of the London bombings included the incredible–and unsubstantiated in the article–claim that the “the profile of the suspects suggested by investigators fit long-standing warnings by security experts that the greatest potential threat to Britain could come from second-generation Muslims, born here but alienated from British society and perhaps from their own families, and inflamed by Britain’s participation in the Iraq war.”

But, the WaPo cannot be right because Tony Blair rejects this view:

>Blair disputed the idea “that the London terrorist attacks were a direct result of British involvement in the Iraq war. He said Russia had suffered terrorism with the Beslan school massacre, despite its opposition to the war, and that terrorists were planning further attacks on Spain even after the pro-war government was voted out. “September 11 happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before any of these issues and that was the worst terrorist atrocity of all,” he said.

Even putting the argument in the mouth of Tony Blair does not make the argument any stronger. As I have had occasion to show several times recently the equivocation between the specific act and the general phenomena makes this argument fallacious as can be easily seen in this quotation.

But, Hewitt offers three further reasons:

>While it is theoretically possible that some jihadists were forged as a result of the invasion of Iraq, no specific instance of such a terrorist has yet been produced.

>Reports in the aftermath of the London bombings indicated that the British intelligence service estimates more than 3,000 residents of Great Britain had trained in the Afghanistan terrorist camps prior to the invasion of Afghanistan–which suggests that the probability is very high that most of the jihadists in England date their hatred of the West to some point prior to the invasion of Iraq.

>And though two of the London bombers appear to have traveled to Pakistan for religious instruction post-March 2003, there is not the slightest bit of evidence that it was Iraq which “turned” the cricket-loving young men into killers. In fact, it is transparently absurd for anyone to claim such a thing.

The first argument is an argument from an absence of evidence. If this is being used to defend the claim that “Iraq is not a breeding ground of terrorism” then it is fallacious–an instance of a fallacy of ignorance. But, charitably and despite the recalcitrance of his rhetoric to logical control, we can take this as a restatement of the claim that the belief is being held without adequate evidence.

The second argument is interesting. Once again, the argument works by showing that there was some involvement with radical and militant islamists prior to the invasion of Iraq, which would imply that that invasion could not have caused the prior involvement. What the argument seems to ignore is that thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people may have “trained in these camps.” Yet, presumably the vast majority do not commit terrorist acts for one reason or another. So the important causal question, is what prompts particular trained militants ultimately to act? And then, is the Iraq war giving these militants more motivation to act?

The final argument is a textbook example of “begging the question”: The kind of example that we explain to students they will almost never encounter so unsubtely deployed.

Hewitt finishes his article with some speculation as to the motivations for this belief, having convinced himself that there is no evidence in favor of it.

>Of course it’s a convenient stick with which to beat the Bush administration. But it has a far more powerful lure than that.

>As the bloody toll of the Islamist movement grows and its record of horrors lengthens from Bali to Beslan to Madrid to London, the incredible cost that can only be attributed to the Afghanistan metastasis that went unchecked from the time of bin Laden’s return there in 1996 until the American-led invasion of 2001 becomes ever more clear.

The real motivation according to Hewett is to conceal the causal role that four years of a Democratic administration’s “inaction” on bin Laden played in all of the terrorism that has occurred since or presumably will occur in the future.

>Christopher Hitchens sharply rebuked the “motive” school of terrorist psychologists: “I thought I heard you making just before we came on the air, of attributing rationality or a motive to this, and to say that it’s about anything but itself, you make a great mistake, and you end up where you ended up, saying that the cause of terrorism is fighting against it, the root cause, I mean.” [emphasis added]Hitchens’s point, which must be made again and again, is Blair’s point: The killers are killers because they want to kill, not because the coalition invaded Iraq, or Afghanistan, or because there are bases in Saudi Arabia, or because Israel will not retreat to the 1967 borders.

This argument, even concealed under Hitchen’s rambling blather, is unconvincing, as we have attempted to show over and over again. In order to argue that administration policies are not causing terrorism, Hitchens and others retreat to the position that nothing is motivating terrorism. One could argue quite plausibly that Iraq is not the sole cause of terrorism, but the administration’s shills cannot admit this much as it would suggest that Iraq plays some causal role.

Beneath all of the Hewett’s bluster we find that his argument is ultimately and simply the assertion that there is no evidence that Iraq is breeding terrorists. But the absence of evidence does not show the claim is false. If the alternative claims (1996-2000 Afghanistan is the cause or there is no cause for terrorism) were at all plausible, or had any evidence adduced for them, then it might be unreasonable to continue to hold this claim. But, this is as far as our analysis can take us.

Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Last Saturday we saw in the New York Times two columns addressing the question of caution: One decrying it in favor of some sort of confusion of middle-aged excess with courage and decisiveness, and the other fretting over the absence of caution in recommending caution among environmentalists. First we will deal with the trivial instance. I am still puzzling over what could possibly have motivated David Brooks to write his "Saturday Night Lite"(Source: NYT 03/12/05). In his column he flails around–in search of self-deprecating humor among other things–while trying to blame facetiously his middle-age caution on anyone but himself. >And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code. Continue reading Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

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