Category Archives: Suppressed Evidence

Not even counting the dichotomy. . ..

We’ve left David Brooks alone for a while now, ever since the NYT decided that their op-ed columnists could generate revenue. But I’ll return to Brooks, with apologies for the impossibility of linking to the whole editorial.

As our readers know, Brooks has probably never thought up an over-simplifying sociological dichotomy that he wasn’t impressed with and convinced contained profound insights into politics and society.

In the world of public policy, there are ecologists and engineers. The ecologists believe human beings are formed amid a web of relationships. Behavior is shaped by the weave of expectations and motivations that we pick up from the people around us every day.

In contrast there are “engineers” who believe that rational behavior can be effected through offering incentives. This dichotomy like most of Brooks’ simplifications conceals more than it reveals. One suspects that most people are more like ecological engineers. But, we won’t even count the irrelevant dichotomy in his column.

Nevertheless, the object of Brook’s column is a Democratic Leadership Council plan to increase the financial resources available for College. This he claims ignores the ecology of college graduation.

A case in point: Over the past three decades there has been a gigantic effort to increase the share of Americans who graduate from college. The federal government has spent roughly $750 billion on financial aid. Yet the percentage of Americans who graduate has barely budged. The number of Americans who drop out of college leaps from year to year.

So, according to Brooks the percentage of students who graduate has barely budged and the number of College drop outs has increased, despite spending three quarters of a trillion dollars! What’s going on here?

For one thing, the number of college graduates has increased dramatically over the “past three decades.” (US Department of Education claims 5.8 million full time students in 1970 and around 10 million in 2005). So the really significant number is not the graduation rate but the number of college graduates. Thirty years ago only 47% of high school graduates attended college. In the mid-90’s it was around 66%. In addition the percentage of Americans in the workforce with a Bachelor’s degree has increased in the past ten years from 26% to 33%.

Brooks seems to be doing some fairly standard manipulation of statistics to suggest that 750 billion of tax payer money has not had any significant benefit. He may be correct. But the picture is far more complicated than he admits and his argument for this conclusion is extremely weak. We would probably call this “suppressed evidence.”

Second, it isn’t entirely clear that financial aid is thought to have such a simple relationship to graduation rates. Financial resources are obviously a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition of college graduation. The question that we would need to ask is not whether financial aid has increased the graduation rate, but whether it is affected the graduation rate. Perhaps, and indeed, quite plausibliy, without that 750 billion in financial aid many more students would not have considered attending college, or the drop-out rate might have increased.

The only evidence that Brooks offers against this is the claim that only 8% of students are “driven away by purely financial reasons.” I’m not familiar with this research, but it strikes me that “financial reasons” are rarely “purely” the cause, since struggling with finances have many other effects for students.

But as an “ecologist,” Brooks thinks that providing financial assistance for college is a insufficient condition for affecting college graduation rates.

You have to promote two-parent stable homes so children can develop the self-control they need for school success. You have to fundamentally reform schools. You have to expand church- and university-sponsored mentoring programs and support groups. As Caroline Hoxby of Harvard notes, you have to surround students with people who will help them make informed decisions so they can attend a college they find useful.

Perhaps that is so. But the impression that the only thing the DLC’s proposal amounts to is throwing money at the middle class to buy votes is a gross oversimplification of the problems of rising costs of higher education.

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.”

When an opinion is just an opinion.

When we envisioned this project and then began to work on it, we expected to spend our time roughly equally on editorial writers from all political orientations. It is, of course, readily apparent that our focus has primarily rested on four writers–David Brooks, George Will, William Safire, and Charles Krauthammer. These four are, of course, the most conservative of the opinion page writers of the country's two major dailies–The New York Times and The Washington Post. For the last two and half months, we have, therefore, spent most of our efforts criticizing conservative arguments. This probably gives the appearance of a certain "partisanship." This is not, however, our intention. Nonetheless, having read probably several hundred opinion pieces in the last two and half months from political opinion magazines as diverse as Pat Buchanan's *The American Conservative,* *The Nation* (the largest and oldest opinion weekly in the country), middle america weeklies likes *Time* and *Newsweek*, and newspapers from the flagships mentioned above to the *The Boston Globe,* *Chicago Sun Times,* and the *Cleveland Plain Dealer,* we are in a position to reflect on this appearance of partisanship. To do that, I think we need to address the question of the purpose of I have come to think of Maureen Dowd as the "purest" opinion writer around because her columns rarely involve explicit inference or argument. Instead, she largely describes her own reactions to the world, spicing it up a little with a few one-liners or cheap shots. This means that there is little in her columns for us to analyze, and also explains the impression that they are generally "fluffy" (leaving aside her hatchet jobs on Clinton and Monica from the 90's). There is, of course, implicit inference and the logic underlying her one-liners, but for the most part her columns remain somewhat impressionistic. At some point I will return to this and try to demonstrate it more rigorously. The first half of Brooks' column today (Source: NYT 11/02/04) is pure opinion. Brooks treats us to his reflections on the course of the campaign and his mild uncertainty whether his support of the Bush administration is wise or justified. >As I look back over the course of this campaign, I should confess I've gone through several periods convinced I should vote against President Bush. I know I'm not the only conservative to think this way. I look at my favorite conservative bloggers and see many coming out for John Kerry. I talk to my friends at conservative think tanks and magazines and notice that they are deeply ambivalent about the administration, even those who would never vote for a Democrat. This is part of Brooks' persona as the reasonable conservative who is more concerned with the merits of the various positions than with maintaining a strict party line–a persona that his columns over the last two and half months have given pleny of reason to doubt. Nonetheless, as his confession continues and he reveals his doubts about the Bush administration, we find nothing to analyze. Reporting the autobiographical facts about his personal beliefs does not involve argument or inference. For example to say as Brooks does: >I'm frustrated that Bush didn't build the governing majority that was there for the taking. is merely to report a psychological and biographical fact, which for the purposes of our analysis we assume to be true. Certainly Brooks wants to *explain* his frustration, but he does not need to *prove* it to us. Insofar as he remains at the level of his opinions and the explanation of his opinions there is generally little for logical analysis. But it is an entirely different matter to say as Brooks does later: > Then other considerations come into play. The first is Kerry. He's been attacked for being a flip-flopper, but his core trait is that he is monumentally selfish. Since joining the Senate, he has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement. >It's not for nothing that people in Massachusetts joked that his initials stand for Just For Kerry. Or that people spoke of him as the guy who refuses to wait in lines at restaurants because he thinks he's above everybody else. Here he does more than report his belief that Kerry is "monumentally selfish." He attempts to provide the evidence that provides *reason* to believe that he is selfish. We have moved from reporting his opinions to attempting to establish the truth of an objective claim. It is at this point that our analysis is required. Does Brooks have good reason to believe that Kerry is "monumentally selfish?" Or more importantly, are the reasons that he advances sufficient to establish either the likelihood or the truth of that claim? He appeals here to two pieces of evidence: 1) "He has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement." 2) People have the impression that he is selfish. We must now evaluate the strength of the inference from these two claims to the conclusion that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." As they stand they both suggest significant logical fallacies. In the first case, the fallacy of suppressed evidence, and in the second, appeal to unqualified authority (perhaps), or a sort of appeal to the people. Without thinking very long or spending any time with Lexis/Nexis, the first claim seems simply implausible, and certainly lacks any actual evidence to support it. It is, however, part of the attempt to portray Kerry (or Gore, or Clinton, or . . ..) as a cynical self-aggrandizing politician. This is common trope in political discourse and Brooks of course is willing to stoop to it. The second claim is an equally bad argument for his conclusion but a little harder to analyze. He seems to be arguing that "people" have the impression that he's the kind of guy who "refuses to wait in lines at restaurants." His only attempt to bolster this impression is to assert that "it is not for nothing that people . . ." have this impression. The fact that people believe something is not evidence that it is true, and not reason that we should believe it to be true. Of course, there may be reason to believe this, but Brooks does not provide that and so does not provide any reason to believe that "Kerry is monumentally selfish." Again we can see quite clearly that Brooks stumbles when he attempts to provide an argument for his beliefs. His arguments are consistently bad. His opinions may be true or may be false, just as they may be interesting or not. But when he remains within the domain of reporting his own opinions, we will find ourselves with much less to criticize–if he doesn't make arguments, then he can't make bad arguments. I will leave Brooks' editorial aside now, and end by briefly returning to the original question. But before I do that, I want to distinguish one other sort of opinion piece that we find more often I think being penned by the liberal or centrist commentators of the two major dailies. An example of this is today found from a right wing commentator, George Will. Rather than an "opinion editorial" in the pure sense delineated above, this might be referred to as a "reporting editorial." An example from the left-center occupants of the editorial pages might be Nicholas Kristof's recent reporting editorials from Afghanistan. Like pure opinion editorials these are concerned first of all with the reporting of facts rather than with argument and inference. George Will begins his piece today with a quick tour through the electoral almanac: >If, for the fourth consecutive election, neither candidate wins a popular vote majority, relax. There were four consecutive such elections from 1880 to 1892. In 1876 a candidate (Samuel Tilden) got 51 percent — and lost (to Rutherford Hayes). Six elections since World War II produced plurality presidents — 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000. Woodrow Wilson was consequential although he won his first term with just 41.8 percent and his second with 49.2 percent. Once again, there is nothing to contest as a matter of logic here–we assume that his facts are correct. The first half of the editorial continues in this vein, relating interesting parallels between past elections and possible outcomes today. The latter half of the editorial departs from this concern and highlights a number of things that Will wants us to "watch" such as Nevada and Maine's 2nd congressional district. Here he explains the reasons that these might be interesting without attempting to prove anything in particular. Here we move back in the direction of a "pure opinion" piece since in essence Will is saying "I think Nevada will be interesting to watch because. . .." It has been our impression over the last two and a half months that the these quartet of op-ed writers on which we have focused tend to spend more time arguing than opining. In contrast writers such as Dowd or Kristof *tend* to spend less time arguing than opining. Since the arguments offered by our quartet of writers are so often fallacious we are immediately attracted to analyze them. This is not to say that we do not have partisan tendencies or that we are not blinded to some fallacious reasoning by any number of psychological factors or beliefs. Nonetheless, our focus on this quartet is not a simple reflection of these things, but we believe a reflection of the failures of their arguments.

Therefore, everyone is a neo-conservative

Last Thursday’s debate seemed to frustrate conservative pundits. There was little to criticize in Kerry’s answers and less to praise in Bush’s. In his editorial yesterday (Source: NYT 10/04/04), William Safire chose a third alternative, praising Kerry. According to Safire, Kerry’s foreign policy has undergone a “sea change.”

> On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neoconservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush. . . Last week in debate, John Kerry – until recently, the antiwar candidate too eager to galvanize dovish Democrats – suddenly reversed field, and came down on the side of the military hard-liners.

So Kerry apparently has joined the ranks of the “neo-conservatives” among whom surely Safire intends the intellectuals and apparatchiks who were the masterminds behind the Iraq war. In order to judge this claim, we would first need a clear idea of what constitutes neo-conservatism. We can’t investigate this thoroughly, but perhaps a few general characteristics will help. In its recent appearance in politics, the neo-conservatives have been identified with the activist and interventionist foreign policy that led to the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives believe that “national interests” are not geographically defined and that fostering them requires the perception of and intervention on the side of our “friends” against our “enemies.” (This latter shibbolethic opposition is derived from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and ultimately Plato’s Republic) (see Irving “grandfather of neoconservatism” Kristol’s description here.

William Safire knows that “neo-conservativism” cannot be reduced to particular strategic decisions. It is a political ideology defined by a certain understanding of the national interest and the broadest requirements for fostering that interest. But, this doesn’t stop him from caricaturing both Kerry’s position and neo-conservative ideology in order to salvage the debates as a supposed victory for Bush’s policies as voiced by Kerry.

His case rests on four claims:

> “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground,” Kerry volunteered. “And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists. … You’ve got to show you’re serious.” Right on, John!

This, of course, confuses strategy and motivation. With 135,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground and the insurgency flowering, we might conclude that an offense is the best defense for our troops. This, of course, has little to do with ideology and much to do with strategy.

> Next, to grand strategy: Kerry was asked by Jim Lehrer, “What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?” In the past, Kerry has given a safe never-say-never response, but last week he gave a Strangelovian answer: “The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike.” He pledged never to cede “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary” to protect the U.S.

“Just war” theory has always allowed pre-emptive attacks based on “imminent threats.” The difference bettween Kerry and the neo-conservatives is over the question of whether a “gathering” threat or some other vaguely defined description of a supposed threat is grounds for preemption (such as “weapons program related activities”).

> On stopping North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Kerry abandoned his global-testing multilateralism; our newest neocon derided Bush’s six-nation talks and demands America go it gloriously alone.

This claim is a sort of false dichotomy: It is not the case that in order for Kerry to believe that multilateralism is generally preferable that he must eschew either bilateralism or even perhaps unilateralism. Safire assumes that if you reject unilateralism in the case of Iraq you must reject it always. This is an unreasonable assumption.

> And in embracing Wilsonian idealism to intervene in Darfur’s potential genocide, Kerry’s promise of troops outdid Pentagon liberators: “If it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it. …”

Once again, nothing strange in this. Being willing to assist in a multi-lateral humanitarian intervention does not make one a “neo-conservative” unless Safire is expanding the definition to include virtually every leader and politician in the world except Pat Buchanan.

Certainly there are analogies between the neo-conservative foreign policy seemingly ascendant in the Bush administration and some of Kerry’s positions. But that no more makes Kerry a “neo-conservative” than Bush’s reluctance to attack Iran would make him a convert to Gandhi’s pacifism. As Safire formulates the argument, it is laughably fallacious.

At best–and this is an act of interpretive charity that goes beyond his own expressed intentions–he might be understood to argue that Kerry has approached some neo-conservative positions. But, since Kerry was seemingly never opposed to those positions in themselves (only their inappropriateness under specific circumstances or the inept bungling of their implementation), there is nothing really interesting about these similarities.

Finally, we can note that a complete reading of the debate transcript shows that Kerry also accepts several strategic goals that are at direct odds to the policy formulated by the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration. Most importantly, he calls for the U.S. to commit itself to no long term presence in Iraq. Since part of the neo-conservative strategy has been to occupy Iraq at least in the 14 bases currently under construction, it is easy to see that for all of the similarity in Iraq policy, there is also significant dissimiliarity that Safire has conveniently ignored in order to make his case, a fallacy of “suppressed evidence.”

Make the pie higher

Not to be outdone by the argumentative vacuum of David Brooks’ piece, George Will offers several contributions to today’s fallacy hall of shame:

Kerry squandered his convention opportunity, incessantly telling voters only what they already knew about him — that he served in Vietnam. Then, when citizens’ groups questioned his patently questionable claims about his Vietnam service, he asked the government to construe the campaign finance laws to silence this political speech.

Two cases of suppressed evidence here. Kerry said a lot of things during his convention speech. Some of them–indeed many of them, perhaps even the greater part of what he said–had nothing to do with Vietnam. In addition to this, Kerry has made speeches throughout the country, given interviews, and written statements about substantive questions not related to his service in Vietnam. Should Will–a Pulitzer Prize winning commentator–like to engage Kerry’s position in the calm light of reason, then he should not purposely ignore the candidate’s own statements and offer nonsensical and vitriolic partisan talking points in place of rigorously executed analysis. Second, like Brooks of the New York Times, Will embraces the not only questionable but largely refuted (“refuted” here means “shown to be false”, not, as it often seems, “objected to”) claims of the Swift Boat Vets.

But this is only part of Will’s contribution to today’s logical hall of shame. When short of arguments against an opponent (which Will clearly is today), the self-confident but devious rhetorician nearly always finds away to interpret the statements of his opponent uncharitably:

Kerry insists he is not a “redistribution Democrat.” But of course he is. And Bush is a redistribution Republican. There is no “natural” distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws to educational arrangements, all of them political choices. Both parties have redistributionist agendas.

Will’s lack of context forces Kerry to sound like a clown. But what we have here is a fallacy of equivocation. It’s obvious that Kerry means something else by “redistribution” than does Will. But we’d never know that from Will’s simplistic semantic analysis. Whether Kerry’s policy is sensible or not, of course, is a question that Will would have to think about. No time for that, however, because Will has to turn this semantic analysis into the most pungent of red herrings:

In disavowing “redistribution,” Kerry presumably means he rejects the old liberal belief in recarving the economic pie, rather than making the pie grow, to ameliorate the condition of the poor. But he favors using government power to direct the flow of wealth to public school teachers, or to protect the flow to trial lawyers. Up-to-date liberalism defends the strong, not the poor, who are either reliable Democratic voters or nonvoters. Republicans defend their own muscular interests.

What looks like an honest attempt to evaluate Kerry’s understanding of the term “redistribution” (note the use of the word “presumably”) turns into a distracting reference (the red herring throws the dogs of the scent!) to those pointlessly litigious trial lawyers and those sickeningly wealthy public school teachers. While it is obvious that there is no flow of “wealth” to public school teachers, and trial lawyers generate their own cash by subtracting it from tortiously challenged coporations (not government handouts), this constitutes the core of Will’s conclusion that Democrats protect the “strong.” That may indeed be the case, but this silly excuse for an argument does nothing to establish it.

In all fairness, you will have noted that Will directs his considerably impoverished analysis at an equally hollow diatribe against the Republican position–it’s just not as hollow as his case against Kerry. So for a change Will offends the good sense of Republicans as well as Democrats.

One final point. Lest you think we are needlessly naughty nitpicking nabobs of negativism, then consider the following bit of Will’s own logical analysis:

This year’s political raptures are perfunctory. In Boston, Democratic delegates, who loathed the Vietnam War partly because they thought it unrelated to America’s defense, dutifully applauded John Kerry’s revisionism: “I defended this country as a young man.”

That does sound like a contradiction indeed. But Kerry didn’t contradict himself, and the delegates didn’t either–unless somesuch statement had been made at the convention (something for which no evidence is put forward here). What might make this a contradiction is some statement of Kerry’s that denies Vietnam was a defensive operation (and he’d probably find that with a little research). But what in the end would that show? Not much. Merely that Kerry can be found to have contradicted himself or that he had a sloppy choice of words. Perhaps Will might better spend his time tracking down and discussing the real issues of policy that should constitute the core of the debate in an advanced democracy such as our own instead of the pointless minutiae of partisan politics. The readers of the Washington Post might be richer for it.

Will to power

After a description of the horrors that nuclear briefcase bombs could bring to a city such as New York, George Will turns to consider which candidate is best equipped to confront this truly terrifying threat:

On the other hand, Allison argues that any hope for preventing, by diplomacy, nuclear terrorism depends on “readiness to use covert and overt military force if necessary” against two potential sources of fissile material — Iran and North Korea. But the candidate Allison is advising has opposed virtually every use of U.S. force in his adult lifetime.

The candidate Allison supports is of course John Kerry. Now Will does not draw the explicit conclusion that Kerry would not use military force to protect us from the horrors of nuclear suitcase bombs, he leaves that conclusion to the reader (once again, the unstated conclusion carries more rhetorical force than the stated one). That conclusion would follow, Will implies, from Kerry’s failure to support just about every military action in his lifetime. Notice how Will carefully avoids specifying which uses of force Kerry did endorse (Afghanistan).

But that conlcusion does not follow from the simple fact (for the sake of argument let’s assume that it’s true) that Kerry has opposed “virtually every use of U.S. force”. In order for Will to avoid the screaming non sequitur here, he would have to show how Kerry’s justification for not supporting military action in the past has anything to do with the–to Will’s mind–very real possibility of nuclear suitcase terrorism. Simply because Kerry has opposed the use of force in the past does not mean that he is a pacificist who opposes every possible use of force. The general rule, in other words, that Will attempts to draw out of the past simply does not have any real argumentative force.