A pro-choice Catholic and a Rabbi walk into a bar

Two columns in the Post.  One from the newly reborn Kathleen Parker, who argues, not that fallaciously, that perhaps lifting the stem cell ban was otiose, as researchers had already found a way around the central moral problem (for some), i.e., the creation of embryonic stem cells from embryos.  Or is it the destruction?  I'm not sure, because she unfortunately characterizes the moral problem in these two distinct ways.  This seems important because some people object to using (therefore destroying) stem cells, others object to creating embryos solely for the purposes of research, which seems, in some sense, much worse.  Nonetheless, other cells, she alleges, work just as well, so lifting the ban on whatever it was that was happening doesn't amount to much.  I have a feeling something in there is false or confused, but this doesn't strike me as a fallacious argument.  So good for Parker, at least we stayed on topic.

Same topic, different writer.  Michael Gerson makes the following very puzzling assertion:

It is probably not a coincidence that Obama has chosen a Roman Catholic — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — to implement many of these policies as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama has every right to a pro-choice Cabinet. But this appointment seems designed to provide religious cover. It also smacks of religious humiliation — like asking a rabbi to serve the pork roast or an atheist to bless the meal.

Sebelius, though strongly pro-choice, was capable of occasional compromise. But she consistently fought against the serious enforcement of Kansas's late-term abortion restrictions. Kansas became a magnet for late-term abortions.

Still, Sebelius insists that "my Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred." This puts her in the same category as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Biden — Catholics who assert the sanctity of life while defending legal abortion. It has also earned Sebelius a firm rebuke from her archbishop.

No, it's not like the Rabbi thing at all: Sebelius is strongly pro-choice, one might presume the rabbi in the joke or the atheist is not "pro pork" or "pro God."  There is much else about this column that would warrant criticism, such as the claim that pro life people's rights are being trampled upon when they lose arguments:

There is a common thread running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

Indeed, laws are coercive.  Elections, someone said, have consequences.  Pointing that out doesn't mean those consequences (i.e., laws which are "coercive"!) are wrong.

Responsible Science, Irresponsible Pundits

Think Progress has a nice post about Glenn Beck's comments on Obama's stem cell order.

BECK: So here you have Barack Obama going in and spending the money on embryonic stem cell research, and then some, fundamentally changing – remember, those great progressive doctors are the ones who brought us Eugenics. It was the progressive movement and it science. Let’s put science truly in her place. If evolution is right, why don’t we just help out evolution? That was the idea. And sane people agreed with it!

And it was from America. Progressive movement in America. Eugenics. In case you don’t know what Eugenics led us to: the Final Solution. A master race! A perfect person. …. The stuff that we are facing is absolutely frightening. So I guess I have to put my name on yes, I hope Barack Obama fails. But I just want his policies to fail; I want America to wake up.

 It's pretty hard to parse this rant and find anything like an argument in it, but he seems be suggesting:

1. Progressives advocated eugenics in the past.

2. Eugenics led us to the Final Solution and to goal of creating a master race and a perfect person.

3. Obama is a progressive.

4 [Implicit, I guess] It is likely that Obama as a progressive will advocate eugenics which will lead to the Master RAce.

5. Therefore, Obama's executive order should be opposed.

That's just the best that I can make out of the addled thoughts of Beck. He seems to fallaciously argue by analogy from Obama being a progressive and supporting stem cell research to the likelihood that Obama is endorsing eugenics, and therefore, slippery slopily, will end up supporting the Master Race.

The factual ignorance underlying this argument is staggering. All that Obama has done is reverse the limitation of the use of federal funds to the 20 or so lines that were already in existence at the time Bush signed his 2001 order:

To the delight of patients’ groups and scientists, the order will allow research on hundreds of stem cell lines already in existence, as well as ones yet to be created, typically from embryos left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded. (NYT, 3/8/09)

There is little reason to believe that this will initiate the slippery slope to the Master Race.

It is interesting to compare this argument with Krauthammer's more measured slippery slope argument against research cloning of embryos. (The fullest version was in the New Republic (there's a link here to it)). There he argues only that there is a need for some line to be drawn that protects embryos from being reduced to mere material and that the line is reasonably drawn at research cloning (creating embryos for research purposes)).

Setting aside the fact that the Obama's executive order does not authorize funding for research cloning (research cloning is not illegal in the US, though the use of federal funds for it is banned by the Dickey-Wicker amendment originally passed in the mid-90's), it seems possible to me to argue that there is some slipperiness to the slope and that at some point we may find ourselves having allowed morally disturbing cases. But, if the argument depends on the likelihood of this being the first step in an ineluctable process to the Master Race, then that just seems intellectually irresponsible at best.

The greatest non sequitur ever foisted

Charles Krauthammer, on Obama's speech of over a week ago:

The logic of Obama's address to Congress went like this:

"Our economy did not fall into decline overnight," he averred. Indeed, it all began before the housing crisis. What did we do wrong? We are paying for past sins in three principal areas: energy, health care and education — importing too much oil and not finding new sources of energy (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf?), not reforming health care, and tolerating too many bad schools.

The "day of reckoning" has arrived. And because "it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament," Obama has come to redeem us with his far-seeing program of universal, heavily nationalized health care; a cap-and-trade tax on energy; and a major federalization of education with universal access to college as the goal.

Amazing. As an explanation of our current economic difficulties, this is total fantasy. As a cure for rapidly growing joblessness, a massive destruction of wealth, a deepening worldwide recession, this is perhaps the greatest non sequitur ever foisted upon the American people.

He said "logic" and "non sequitur," so we knew we were in for something good from the guy who thinks a slippery slope is a valid form of argumentation.  And indeed we were.  It seems that Krauthammer has just distorted what Obama said.  Distorting what somebody says in order to knock down the distorted version of what they say is a non sequitur.  To be specific, it's a straw man.  Here's the quoted passage in context: 

We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before. 

The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation.  The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.  Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure.  What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities – as a government or as a people.  I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we’ll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament. 

The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight.  Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank.  We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy.  Yet we import more oil today than ever before.  The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform.  Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for.  And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election.  A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future.  Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.  People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway.  And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

Obama has clearly distinguished between the declining economy and "all of our problems."  In particular, the failing economy is just one of the problems we face.  So he is not making, in other words, the non sequitur of the century or whatever, since that isn't even close to the "logic" of Obama's argument.  Whatever the virtues or vices of Obama's proposals, they don't fail for this reason.  

To return to the theme of facts and inference, Karauthammer's claim about Obama's argument does not fall within the realm of plausibility–no fair-minded editor could claim that he has accurately represented what Obama said in his summary.  The Post really ought to have higher standards than this.  

Choose your own facts

Everyone has heard the expression, "you can choose your own something or other, but not your own facts."  Well, in a way, no.  Here's the way, according to Washington Post's Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.

That sounds wrong to me.  Two quick reasons.  First, there seems to be a question of scale.  If we have three facts that support a claim, and 97 which don't, an opinion columnist at the post is free to argue talk about the three to the exclusion of the 97.  Let's say, for instance, that one tiny piece of evidence (of dubious origin) holds that a certain person is guilty of a crime, yet a pile of evidence shows the opposite.  The Post's Ombudsman thinks it would be fine to mention the one piece, and not the others, creating the impression that the preponderance evidence leans the other way.

Second, we have a question of context.  Facts have a context in which they are true.  In George Will's recent column (which after all is the occasion for this piece), he alleges–and this is the foundation for his argument–that there was a global cooling hysteria in the 1970s.  This may be true of the popular media, but it wasn't true of scientists (who argued that the climate was warming).  There's a fact, sort of I guess, with no context producing a rather misleading inference.  This is especially true if the audience does not have a very clear grasp of the background information (which information makes Will's columns appear ridiculous). 

Choosing your own facts, in other words, can be a method of distortion, and, in this case it was.