How to avoid Nonsequitur

When I taught Logic for the first time years back I was tempted to spend very little time on the section in Patrick Hurley’s Introduction to Logic that deals with distinguishing argumentative from non-argumentative texts. In this chapter, students learn the ability to distinguish texts that contain inferences from texts that lack them. Examples of the latter include

  • Illustrations: "Great presidents are made not born. So, Roosevelt became the great leader he was only after much development.
  • Statements of belief: "The most difficult problem facing this country, I believe, is economic inequality."
  • Report: Median wages in real dollars have remained stagnant over the last twenty years, while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased. This is an increase in economic inequality.
  • Explanations: Economic inequality has increased because median wages have remained stagnant while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased.

Students tend to find this section hard, I think. It requires a great deal of interpretive ability to precisely define many passages and the distinctions between them are sometimes hard to identify in practice. The same "content" can be expressed in both argumentative and non-argumentative forms. The difference is one of intention and connection between statements. I have come to see that time spent on these distinctions is extremely important for learning logical analysis. (A great exercise is to have the students express the same content in as many of the various categories as possible. For those without a copy of Hurley handy, the section distinguishes between: warnings, advice,statement of belief, loosely associated groups of statements, reports, expository passages, illustrations, explanations, and conditionals.) I bring this up to elaborate on J.’s comments here explaining some of the reasons that we tend to "pick on" certain columnists more than others. J. points out that these columnists argue for their claims, but often do so badly. This morning I gave the op-ed pages at WaPo and NYT a quick read and found that there was nothing to comment on. No arguments to analyze and no fallacies to uncover. And I thought it might be useful to explain this. Today, our friend George Will reports the argument of Thomas B. Edsall in a book titled Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. Reporting another’s argument is a non-inferential "speech act." If we found a fallacy in Edsall’s argument we might explain it, but Will is safe from our analysis today. John Tierney follows suit with an exposition of the capitalist philanthropy a la Google and Whole Foods. Tierney doesn’t merely report another’s views and arguments as Will did. Instead he couples this reporting with statements of his own belief: >"It’s smart of Google’s founders to try using capitalist tools to save the planet; the market’s discipline should keep their philanthropy from backing too many lost causes. Still, whatever accomplishes, I’d bet that it will pale next to the social good accomplished by" I don’t know whether I agree with anything that is said there, but the crucial point is that there is no inferential content. Just a series of assertions of Tierney’s beliefs. Finally we cometo Maureen Dowd. In two years of scrutinzing the op-ed pages of the NYT we have never (I think) raked Dowd over the coals. Today’s column can illustrate why this is so. Once again, it is the lack of inference and argument. Dowd’s columns are generally combinations of statements of her beliefs and reporting with a few witticisms thrown in. >He has changed American culture, for sure. Bustling under Bill Clinton, the nation is now insecure about its moral force and military force. The president should take responsibility for the hash he’s made, instead of insisting every decision was correct, and come up with more astute cultural and military analyses. The “awakening” should be W.’s. Once again, I don’t know how much of her three claims here I agree with, but there sure isn’t an inference in sight.

Willful ad hominem

To add to J.’s discussion of Will’s straw liberal argument:

The absurdity of the argument becomes clearest to me in his final example:

>The current issue of the American Prospect, an impeccably progressive magazine, carries a full-page advertisement denouncing something responsible for “lies, deception, immorality, corruption, and widespread labor, human rights and environmental abuses”” and for having brought ”great hardship and despair to people and communities throughout the world.”

>What is this focus of evil in the modern world? North Korea? The Bush administration? Fox News Channel? No, it is Coca-Cola (number of servings to Americans of the company’s products each week: 2.5 billion).

So, a progressive magazine has an advertisement criticizing Coca-Cola for labor abuse, human rights abuse, and environmental abuse and Will’s response is to point out the number of coke’s served each week.

This staggers me. What possible relevance to the ad could the number of Cokes possess? Is anyone questioning whether Coke tastes good? Or that it sells well?

Will might respond that it shows the degree to which ordinary americans like the taste of coke and progressive magazines take advertisements from people who think Coca-Cola engages in various forms of injustice. True. But again, what possible relevance to the ad does that have? And, even if we read Will’s comment this way, does it even show that progressives are “out of touch” with americans? That a magazine takes an advertisement from someone criticizing Coca-Cola, suggests this as much as the NYT taking an advertisement from Firefox (1 billion Microsoft Explorers bought!) suggest that the NYT is out of touch with americans. The argument, even given the kindest possible interpretation is stunningly misleading.

But then it becomes clear. As pointed out yesterday. It isn’t responding to actual arguments that Will is interested in. He only wants to portray liberals as condescending and out of touch with regular Americans and the rest of the ideological caricature that substitutes for serious criticism of liberalism in the last 20 years.

Just as in the case of Wal-Mart, Will doesn’t have any interest in responding to the actual criticisms leveled against it, but instead he engages in quasi-populist demagoguery and ad hominem argument based on the caricature of liberals as snobs and elitist. Note the wonderful ad hominem swipe at John Kerry:

>Which vexes liberals such as John Kerry. (He and his helpmeet last shopped at Wal-Mart when?)

Corporations Bad

It seems George Will cannot argue for any of his libertarian-ish positions without counterposing it to the clueless, elitist, and dishonest “liberal” one. But, as we’ve noted before, the existence of the liberal straw man–not hard to find, but meaningless when you find it–does not justify the conclusions Will would like to draw. The disjunction, in other words, between dumb-ass liberal and smarty pants libertarian economist is not an exhaustive one. Between these a million possibilities. Many of them quite sensible and worthy of serious consideration. The straw man, a sign of a failed mind, is also often the sign of another fallacy–the false dichotomy. I invite the reader to the Will archive to examine the evidence for herself. So much by way of general observation. Let’s look at today’s iteration, a completely confused counter to the “liberal” arguments against Wal Mart.

>The median household income of Wal-Mart shoppers is under $40,000. Wal-Mart, the most prodigious job-creator in the history of the private sector in this galaxy, has almost as many employees (1.3 million) as the U.S. military has uniformed personnel. A McKinsey company study concluded that Wal-Mart accounted for 13 percent of the nation’s productivity gains in the second half of the 1990s, which probably made Wal-Mart about as important as the Federal Reserve in holding down inflation. By lowering consumer prices, Wal-Mart costs about 50 retail jobs among competitors for every 100 jobs Wal-Mart creates . Wal-Mart and its effects save shoppers more than $200 billion a year, dwarfing such government programs as food stamps ($28.6 billion) and the earned-income tax credit ($34.6 billion).

>People who buy their groceries from Wal-Mart — it has one-fifth of the nation’s grocery business — save at least 17 percent. But because unions are strong in many grocery stores trying to compete with Wal-Mart, unions are yanking on the Democratic Party’s leash, demanding laws to force Wal-Mart to pay wages and benefits higher than those that already are high enough to attract 77 times as many applicants than there were jobs at this store.

Everyone loves to save money at the big boxes. Even the sponsor of the failed Chicago “Big Box” ordinance. Gee, in addition to the big savings, people also like to work, especially when there are no other jobs available. But just because people are applying for jobs at Wal Mart does not make them good jobs. It does not make them jobs with reasonable benefits. It does not make them pay a living wage (where one can shop anywhere else but Wal Mart). It does not mean that Wal Mart doesn’t leach off the state welfare system (passing its big volume costs on to us!). (Sidebar–if Wal Mart can pass off its costs to the welfare system on account of its job creation and such, isn’t that an argument for state-assisted healthcare among other things? Just a thought).

As Will seems forever not to understand, the liberal argument is not: “Grrrrr. Corporations bad! Make money with blood of worker, get fat off work of little guy! Me know it all franken-democrat! Grrrrr.” There’s more inanity in today’s op-ed. Much more. Maybe tomorrow we’ll return to it.

Put on a bridle

Finally, a story about reasoning poorly and uncivilly is getting some momentum. Newsweek had this to say about Bush’s rhetorical strategy:

>Bush’s rhetorical strategy is twofold: first, issue a statement of fact about your own position; second, caricature your opponents to look foolish. First, the statement of fact: “We’re training Iraqi troops so they can defend their nation. We’re helping Iraq’s unity government grow in strength and serve its people. We will not leave until this work is done,” he explained.

>Second, the caricature: “Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone,” he said. “They will not leave us alone. They will follow us.”

>Are there any senior Democrats who have said that troops should leave Iraq in the hope that “terrorists would leave us alone?” The Democratic argument is that troops should leave Iraq either to encourage Iraqis to take control, or simply to avoid greater casualties in what looks like a low-grade civil war.

Only it’s more than 6 years too late. He has always done this. The people who support him do this. The press has said nothing until now. Shame.


What the liberal media doesn’t get, never got, and will never get, is that the phrase “judicial activism” can only be properly ascribed to “liberal” judges. But yesterday they went ahead anyway and authored an editorial with bias towards facts.

>Conservatives like to divide judges into liberal “activists” and conservative nonactivists who interpret the law rather than making it. Anyone who follows the courts knows that conservative judges are as activist as liberal judges —just for different causes. A new study of Supreme Court voting patterns confirms this and suggests that the conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are actually more activist than their liberal colleagues.

What is a judicial activist? It’s a justice who

>voted to overturn a federal or state law, or one of the court’s own precedents.

On that argument, it follows that

>The conservative justices were far more willing than the liberals to strike down federal laws — clearly an activist stance, since they were substituting their own judgment for that of the people’s elected representatives in Congress. Justice Thomas voted to overturn federal laws in 34 cases and Justice Scalia in 31, compared with just 15 for Justice Stephen Breyer.

In those cases I bet they had good reason, or thought they did. That’s why they write opinions. So thankfully the editorialist points out that

>Activism is not necessarily a bad thing. The Supreme Court is supposed to strike down laws that are unconstitutional or otherwise flawed. Clearly, all nine justices, from across the political spectrum, believe this, since they all regularly vote to strike down laws. What is wrong is for one side to pretend its judges are not activist, and turn judicial activism into a partisan talking point, when the numbers show a very different story.

“A partisan talking point” is right, and it’s a paltry substitute for an argument. Worse than that stands for the sneaky ad hominem circumstantial. So it means something like “a not well grounded opinion–because motivated by unjustified partisanship.” We suggest as a result that the The New York Times ought to enforce the rules of rational discourse and no longer host on its editorical pages the parade of bozos who substitute such nonsense of argument.

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.


We return again briefly to this mistaken application of the term “fascism” to a vast array of groups with different objectives and goals. Here’s the funny thing. Just as some correctly pointed out that you can’t engage in warfare against a technique–the war on terror–you can’t engage in warfare on a misapplied political adjective. V.D.Hanson writes,

>The common denominators are extremist views of the Koran (thus the term Islamic), and the goal of seeing authoritarianism imposed at the state level by force (thus the notion of fascism). The pairing of the two words conveys a precise message: The old fascism is back, but now driven by a radical fundamentalist creed of Islam.

In the first place, as a factual matter, Iran, al-Qaeda, Syria, and sundry terrorists have little common cause outside of their intense dislike for us or some of our friends–Israel for instance and, oddly, Saudi Arabia. Their client terrorist groups are directed at their own local interests. Al qaeda has local interests as well–the overthrow of the corrupt Saudi monarchy (which is supported by our military). Syria is baathist and decidedly secular (like Iraq *was*), with internal islamist enemies (the muslim brotherhood). These are commonly known facts–or they ought to be.

But more fundamentally, you can no more go to war against fascism than you can go to war against terrorism. Fascism is a political ideology (like Hegel on steroids). Military weapons, which islamo-fascist-utterers urge upon various and sundry targets, cannot kill the idea, only the person with the idea. But it’s not the idea that bothers us–otherwise we’d wage war on Jerry Falwell–it’s the violent way of achieving the idea. And that brings us back to the war on terror (a method). War is waged–so people who’ve participated it in have told me–against nation-states. Ignorant of this fact, Hanson argues:

>And appeasement–treating the first World Trade Center bombing as a mere criminal justice matter or virtually ignoring the attack on the USS Cole–only spurred on further aggression.

So the legalistic Clinton administration–what with its parsing of words and all–spurred further aggression! Perhaps someone ought to point out to Hanson that the current enemies (except the new specious ones Hanson is recruiting–Iran and Syria) are *not* nation-states. More basically, however, reacting with our military is just exactly what they want, as endless experts have pointed out. They are waging a war of ideas. The idea is violence. What a wonderful dream Iraq has turned out to be for them. For they know that no amount of blowing someone up with convince him that democracy works. Being blown up can only convince him that blowing people up works; being terrorized that terror works. This is how one loses a war of ideas.

Ring of Gyges

Recently, a bloggishly famous New Republic writer, Lee Siegel, was caught praising himself under a pseudonym. His blogging days are over at The New Republic. But his quick and ironic downfall has led one of’s bloggers to wonder:

>So, if Siegel is a cretin for concealing his role in the authorship of Web comments, then so are millions of other posters. If Siegel is a cretin for arranging pseudonymous posts that benefit him, then so are hundreds of thousands of other posters. One could argue that if Siegel’s critics can blast him from the dark, he should be allowed to do the same to them.

There are some obvious differences between a professional writer, blogging for a blog, who blogs about the terrificness of his own blog and his own blogging, and the anonymous posting of hundreds of thousands of amateurs with their own rings of Gyges. The former deliberately lies about himself by presenting himself as someone other than himself; the latter attempt to avoid accountability for their own arguments, and so embrace the very essence of internetting. The former tries to create the impression that someone other than himself is out there thinking of him; the latter just send anonymous mail about someone else to someone else. There’s a big difference, and the boys at Slate ought to know that.

Samuelson, redux

Robert Samuelson argues that although judged by “objective” measures (i.e. tests) the U.S. lags many other countries in science and math education, we succeed through our “informal learning system.” This informal learning system redresses some of the failures of our high schools. Evidence for this claim is a study that shows older americans are less deficient in literacy and math than younger americans. Samuelson begins by pointing out this strange phenomenon in comparative international test scores.

>Today’s young Americans sometimes do well on these international tests, but U.S. rankings drop as students get older. Here’s a 2003 study of 15-year-olds in 39 countries: In math, 23 countries did better; in science, 18. Or consider a 2003 study of adults 16 to 65 in six advanced nations: Americans ranked fifth in both literacy and math.

Samuelson attributes this improvment to the “informal learning system.” A notion that is so broadly defined as to include presumably anything that might contribute to learning. Further, it isn’t clear why “community colleges et al.” are better described as “informal” than “formal.” Certainly “self-help” books fall into the informal category.

>The American learning system is more complex. It’s mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes the following: community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books.

But the centerpiece he talks about in his column seems to be the formal parts of the “informal learning system” (community colleges and Univeristy of Phoenix’s internet courses are singled out) He seems to suggest that they have an large impact on the math and literacy scores of older americans. Whether this is true or not, Samuelson doesn’t provide any evidence. At this point his argument seems to be that there must be some explanation for the test scores cited above. The explanation cannot be formal learning system, therefore it must lie somewhere in the “non-formal” learning system. If this latter notion is defined broadly enough, then this seems to be a reasonable argument. But regretably in order to be a reasonable argument it must lack any real explanatory power. Samuelson is essentially claiming that the explanation for the learning that the test scores above suggest is that learning occurs somehow.

But all of this argument seems completely unconnected from the points that Samuelson draws at the conclusion. First of all he identifies two undoubted “virtues” of the american system:

>First, it provides second chances. It tries to teach people when they’re motivated to learn — which isn’t always when they’re in high school or starting college.

>[Second] The American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

As was pointed out by my colleague, a more natural inference than praising our “informal learning system” might be to demand improvement of these defects.

His conclusion involves a curious shift of topic–one smells herring.

>But the American learning system partially explains how a society of certified dummies consistently outperforms the test scores. Workers and companies develop new skills as the economy evolves. The knowledge that is favored (specialized and geared to specific jobs) often doesn’t show up on international comparisons that involve general reading and math skills.

But very little evidence has been given to show that the “informal learning system” should be credited with this, or that it does in fact “partially explain” our national success in “production.” Further, the phenomenon from which Samuelson starts is precisely the age connected change in scores on “international comparisons that involve reading and math skills.” Now , however, he has shifted the topic to the vocational skills that Americans acquire informally. The argument presupposes a connection between the two, which he here, in the last sentence (above), denies. Finally, there seem to be many other possible explanations for our “productivity advantage.” The connection between vocational learning acquired “informally” and increased productivity needs to be argued.

There may be more than some truth in Samuelson’s account of the “informal learning system.” But whether it is there would require tighter argument than we are given here. I’m not sure that his argument is entirely fallacious–perhaps it is better described as a little “loose.” If I were to identify fallacious tendencies they would lie somewhere between Ignoratio Elenchi and Red Herring. As an argument for the explanation of the disparity between our test scores and our productivity, it seems weak.

Failure has failed

According to many reputable experts, the American education system, of which I am a part, is failing. Students leave high school unprepared for college level work. I’ve seen many examples of that. What to do?

Robert Samuelson, a very infrequent subject here at The Non Sequitur gives some qualified endorsement to adult re-education. Community colleges and for-profit online colleges pick up where high schools and colleges fail.

>Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We’re often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school — and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students’ hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

>In Charlotte, about 70 percent of the recent high school graduates at Central Piedmont Community College need remedial work in English or math. Zeiss thinks his college often succeeds where high schools fail. Why? High school graduates “go out in the world and see they have no skills,” he says. “They’re more motivated.” The mixing of older and younger students also helps; the older students are more serious and focused.

We’re not going to poo-poo education of any sort, but we’re confused by the reasoning in the second paragraph (the part that’s highlighted). The conclusion Samuelson ought to draw–or at least ought to stress–is that our high schools ought to be fixed without interposed delay. That stupid ugly reality forces some kids and adults to fix it themselves with repeat or remedial education is evidence of that fact, not a serious alternative.