Category Archives: Post hoc ergo propter

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.

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.”

Five years

Five years and no attacks. Yesterday Tim Russert asks Dick Cheney whether the 300 billion we’ve spent on Iraq might have been better spent on homeland security. Cheney responds:

>Well, Tim, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of securing the nation against terrorists. You know, we’re here on the fifth anniversary, and there has not been another attack on the United States. And that’s not an accident, because we’ve done a hell of a job here at home, in terms of homeland security, in terms of the terrorist surveillance program we’ve put in place, in terms of the financial tracking program we put in place, and because of our detainee policy, where we, in fact, were able to interrogate captured terrorists to get the kind of intelligence that has allowed us to disrupt…

Russert actually follows up on that question (imagine that). Cheney is quite specifically alleging a causal connection between the most controversial of the adminstration’s policies and the absence of terrorist attacks on our soil. It’s hardly clear, however, that any were planned or attempted. And we’ll likely not be in the near future in a position to know that for certain. But Cheney makes it fairly clear that he has no specific knowledge of authentic disrupted plots. If he did, he’d probably tell us. Because they’ve been telling us about disrupted plots (that didn’t turn out to be plots at all) for five years.

But there’s certainly evidence that al Qaeda has other plans. But more fundamentally, Cheney should be careful what he wishes for. If he wants to take credit for absence, then he better be ready to take responsibility if it happens again on his watch.

Lessons unlearned

Nobody can stop neocons from gloating about the irrefutable successes of their policies. Not even a chorus of generals and other military types. Not even reality itself can stop them from learning all of the wrong lessons.

Some might remember the triumphalist claims made about the “Cedar Revolution” a while ago. We do–see here for more. Back then Charles Krauthammer, belligerent neocon, claimed that the Lebanese kicking Syria out was the product of our grand strategy of democratizing the Middle East.

Not so. But because he and others don’t get it, we’ll go over the basic idea again.

Today he repeats the same claim, and continues to fail to draw the right conclusion:

>What is most at stake, from the American perspective, is Lebanon. Lebanon was the most encouraging achievement of the democratization project launched with great risk with the invasion of Iraq. The Beirut Spring, the liberation from Syrian rule and the election of a pro-Western government marked the high point (together with the first Iraqi election, which inspired the events in Lebanon) of the Bush doctrine.

>Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have been working assiduously to reverse that great advance. Hezbollah insinuated itself into the government. The investigation of Syria for the murder of Rafiq Hariri has stalled. And now, with the psychological success of the war with Israel, Hezbollah may soon become the dominant force in all of Lebanon. In the south, the Lebanese army will be taking orders from Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not just returning to being a “state within a state.” It is becoming the state, with the Siniora government reduced to acting as its front.

The obvious lesson from this is be careful what you wish for, it might get you. Democracy, as we are learning painfullly in Iraq, sometimes produces results you can’t be happy with. The result in this case is a newly energized and democratically elected Hezbollah. All made possible by our glorious invasion of Iraq.

everyday logic

Two bloggish items today on the role of logic in ordinary discourse. First, Michael Kinsley writes in the *Washington Post*:

Opinion journalism brings new ethical obligations as well. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counter arguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or an argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Even more basically, Kinsley might suggest the following: have you arrived at your conclusion by a cogent or coherent argument? Is your characterization of the opposing points of view charitable and accurate? Have you drawn on commonly agreed on facts in the construction of your argument? And we could go on.

Kinsley's comment, nonetheless, is certainly welcome. Especially in light of articles that consider the pernicious, the outrageous, the preposterous Bill O'Reilly to be merely an entertainer. If only it were true.

Second, I was reminded of a trip I took three years ago to a little town in Indiana when I read in the liberal media that

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.

And so Lisa's rock does not keep away tigers after all. The trip as you might imagine was an academic job interview. In the department was a recent Ivy League graduate in religion (it was one of those combined philosophy and religion departments) who asserted the mounting evidence for the causally efficacious role of prayer on health. Such was, as he pointed out, the subject matter of his research. I can't help but think that my shock at such a silly and possibly heretical thesis was written on my face. I wonder how the research was received down in Hoosier country.

The Materialist Ideology of the Dukes of Hazard and False Cause Fallacies

Michael Medved in yesterday’s USAToday (Source: UT 7/26/05) opines that the slackening movie market is a result of the misfit of Hollywood’s materialist liberal ideology in a conservative and “values” based society. It is difficult to treat this as an argument since Medved seems to possess the ideologues’ faith that justification is not needed and the loudest most confident assertion will persuade. Nonetheless it seems to involve a claim that the divergence in ideology is the best explanation because it is the cause of Hollywood’s woes.

After a brief description of these economic woes, Medved dismisses insiders’ claims about the causes of these woes

>Meanwhile, conventional wisdom ignores all ideological considerations in explaining the sudden box office collapse, concentrating instead on purely material excuses (high ticket prices, availability of DVDs) that have, frankly, applied for years. This knee-jerk tendency to offer direct, physical solutions to deep-seated problems constitutes an unmistakable element in the liberal outlook that remains Hollywood’s reigning faith.

>Revealingly, none of the studio honchos talked about reconnecting with the public by adjusting the values conveyed by feature films, and replacing the industry’s shrill liberal posturing with a more balanced ideological perspective.

It’s not clear what this is thought to reveal, but Medved seemingly suggests that the fact that the industry insiders do not consider a “spiritual” cause is evidence of their liberal bias. But this does not seem to be more significant than my doctor’s silence about Ebola virus during my last appointment. Before the honchos’ silence could be taken to reveal what Medved is already persuaded it means, we need some reason to believe that the cause is spiritual.

>Something clearly changed between 2004 and 2005 to cause an abrupt drop-off at the box office, and the most obvious alteration involved Hollywood’s role in the bitterly fought presidential election. The entertainment establishment embraced John Kerry with near unanimity — and bashed George W. Bush with unprecedented ferocity.

And here we find a beautiful example of the fallacy of the false cause or more precisely of post hoc propter hoc (“after this, because of this”). In order to argue a causal connection between two events you must show more than temporal succession and hypothesized relation. If Medved had any evidence whatsoever that Hollywood’s troubles were caused by their “values” (i.e., some independent evidence, market reseach, sociological data, even anecdotal evidence!), then it would be reasonable to go looking for an event that could have caused this. But of course, Medved has nothing other than his own feeling that this is the problem and so his causal argument becomes ridiculous. There is no more reason to believe that the 2004 election is the cause of Holloywood’s economic problems than there is to believe that the Boston Red Sox winning the world series was the cause.

>Despite efforts by entertainer activists, a majority of voters cast their ballots for Bush. If even a minority of those 62 million GOP voters — say, 20% — reacted to Hollywood’s electioneering by shunning the multiplex, it could easily account for the sharp decline in ticket sales after Bush’s re-election.

Once again, showing that something could cause something else is a far cry from showing that it did cause it.

Medved does advance the box-office success of the Passion of Christ as a reason to think that there is a national desire for religious values in movies. But one piece of data cannot prove a causal relation. If it was the cause then we would expect that this hunger for religious movies to have caused a long stagnation in movie attendance since Charlton Heston parted the red sea.

But, of course, proving the claim is not Medved’s real concern. The last three paragraphs of his column are a tirade against liberal “materialism” which offers supposedly failed solutions to “threats to the family from out-of-wedlock births,” crime, poverty, and terrorism. And if that’s not bad enough, Hollywood is turning to Oliver Stone to make its first 9/11 action movie. Medved doesn’t seem to need evidence or argument for his view–it exists in an ideological space impervious to the expectation of reasoning.

>Meanwhile, Tinseltown will continue to weep and mourn as long as its bosses depend on the likes of Stone to portray the worst terrorist attacks in our history. Americans aren’t stupid, and we’re not all apolitical; many (at least a third) are even self-consciously conservative in both politics and values.

I suspect that a more plausible claim is that Tinseltown will continue to weep and mourn for as long as it continues to expect us to attend re-makes of the Dukes of Hazard.

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.

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