Category Archives: ignorance of basic matters of logic

Some say

Now that a Democrat is President, some Republicans and other conservatives have rediscovered the fine art of logical analysis.  I think that is something we ought to applaud.  But their memories are short and their skills are rusty.  Take for example the following pot-and-kettle peice from a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, Noam Neusner.  He writes:

Some people get quoted in presidential speeches by writing heartfelt letters to the president about personal loss, or by doing something heroic, like landing a plane in the icy Hudson River.

I just sit in the Oval Office, and mouth off to President Barack Obama, one inanity after the next. And sure enough, my words—word for word, mind you!—show up in his biggest speeches.

Who am I? Sotus—Straw man of the United States. I'm Mr. Obama's most trusted rhetorical friend.

In his speeches, Mr. Obama says there are "those" who suggest we "can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures." He suggests there are "some" who are content to let America's economy become, at best, "number two." He says that on health care, "some people" think we should do nothing.

Listen, there is no "some people." He's just quoting me, Sotus.

Like William Safire before him, Mr.Neusner confuses not naming your opponent specifically with the straw man (well, actually the hollow man).  They're different.  See, Presidents don't typically name their opponents in arguments.  George W.Bush, the man for whom the author of this clueless piece wrote words, did it all of the time–in speeches.  Sometimes, of course, and Mr.Neusner is right about this, the "some" is more fantastical than others.  Sometimes, however, the "some" is almost exactly the platform of the opposition.  Skipping a few paragraphs (as always folks, I expect you read the entire piece I discuss!):

And then there was the nice talk we had right before that historic January afternoon, when he was sworn in. I turned to him and said: "Mr. President-elect, our system of government can really only tolerate small plans, and limited ambitions." Think how good it felt to hear my own words echoing across the Mall: "There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done." Good one, Mr. President!   

As an assignment for the folks at home, try to identify whose views is accurately characterized by that bolded part.  For that matter, do that with the rest of this piece.  Just for fun.  And just to close out with a little bit of absolutely justifiable tu quoque:

Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: "Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided." We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

Guess who said that?  More here.

I admire those who are wrong

The other day the Washington Post published a piece by a professor of politics at the University of Virginia (Gerard Alexander) called "Why are liberals so condescending?" (we discussed it here).  It remains today a few days later one of the most emailed articles on the Post's website, so it's worth looking at it in more detail.  To be fair to this juvenile piece, however, would be a labor of many days, so I'd just like to point out a few quick items. 

First off, the title has the ring of a complex question: that is two questions, one unfairly assumed to get to the other.  What the author ought to establish is whether liberals are more condescending than conservatives (in similar circumstances), or whether liberals are particularly condescending.  Once he established this, then he can ask the follow up question: why are they this way to such a degree (as we have established)?  His failure to understand this elementary logical notion makes me look down on him.

Second, the author is silly.  Not to be an even-hander here, but I think liberals are no less "condescending" than conservatives.  I'd suggest, in fact, that such labels and broad generalizations are really meaningless.  Turns out, in fact, that such equivocal terms were used to great effect by this author.  You see, liberals are one solid group, each one guilty of the sins of the other, while conservatives were always able to avoid group guilt.  Here's an example:

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

Before I comment on what I wanted to comment on, here and throughout the piece the author doesn't bother to counter the claims against "conservatives."  Perhaps he takes it as self-evident that what Mooney said (in his well-documented–I didn't say "true"–book) is false.  I can think of a couple of Republicans, for instance, whose ignorance of science is concerning.  Here's Republican Senator Jim DeMint on the snowstorm this past week in Washington:

It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries "uncle"

I find myself looking down on Jim DeMint, an extremely wealthy, powerful, and capable man for the idiotic thing he said.  It's obvious that he doesn't know jack about the science behind global warming.  This same claim of many other prominent "conservative" and "Republican" leaders and intellectuals. 

Back to what I think I was going to comment on (it's now several hours from when I wrote that line above, so I don't really remember what I was going to say)–Alexander's characterization of Mooney's book disregards its content in order to criticize its form.  This, I think, is a hopelessly dumb and unproductive way of interacting with people with whom you disagree.  Not only does Mooney have an argument, but, judging by the numbskull policies of the last eight years, he might even have a good one.  But you can't really tell that, of course, until you actually look at the argument.  Alexander maintains, of course, that you don't need to look at the argument, because he knows what it says.  That, I think, is just what Mooney was complaining about.

No doubt, as I've said many times before, many liberals condescend to conservatives.  Many conservatives condescend to liberals.  The narrative, however, is that liberals are intellectual snobs, when conservatives are not.  I think that's hardly the case as a matter of fact.  It's also almost a matter of logic (I said "almost") that when you say someone's view is wrong, you're bound to appear snobby to them.  Especially when that person, such as is the case with Alexander here, doesn't seem to know what makes a view right or what makes it wrong.

You have a right to be wrong

True story.  A few years back one of my students had confused some minor matter about a text of Plato.  When I pointed that out, another student commented: "He has a right to be wrong."  That odd justification comes out in a George Will op-ed where he, unlike his usual, argues for new rights not enumerated in the constitution.  Now of course he probably thinks he can get there with a series of individually valid inferences.  Fine, but you have to understand that any other time one maintains a right not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Will will shout "judicial activism" or some other synonym.  Don't get me wrong, I believe in the concept of inferential rights, I just think it's funny that Will doesn't, until he does.

This is not to say, however, that Will does not have a point.  He may, but I think, as is perhaps no surprise, that his argument for it sucks.  He maintains as a kind of premise one that liberals want to coerce others to believe like they do–this is their MO, which is a word the very pretentious Will would likely spell out: Modus operandi.  It's a little ironic, since the specific topic in question concerns the desire of some (not the liberals) to limit the rights of others to engage in private, self-regarding behavior.  Some people, not happy with the structure of our democracy (where fundamental rights get interpreted out of the Constitution sometimes), gather signatures to put such matters on the ballot.  This raises an important question: are signatures on referendums like voting and therefore private? 

I think it's fair to say that such a question admits of no easy answer.  But just because it doesn't admit of an easy answer, does not mean any answer, such as the following one offered by Will, will suffice:

The Supreme Court has held that disclosure requirements serve three government interests: They provide information about the flow of political money, they deter corruption and avoid the appearance thereof by revealing large contributions, and they facilitate enforcement of contribution limits. These pertain only to financial information in candidate elections. These cannot justify compelled disclosures regarding referendums because referendums raise no issues of officials' future performance in office — being corruptly responsive to financial contributors. The only relevant information about referendums is in the text of the propositions.

In 1973, Washington's secretary of state ruled that signing an initiative or referendum petition is "a form of voting" and that violating voters' privacy could have adverse "political ramifications" for those signing. In 2009, some advocates of disclosure plan to put signers' names on the Internet in order to force "uncomfortable" conversations.

In the interest of fairness, something I'm always interested in by the way, the above two paragraphs make some attempt at arguing for the position that referendum signatures ought to be private.  I think their attempt fails: The first is irrelevant to the particular issue and the second cites the irrelevant precedent of the secretary of state.  A referendum petition by any standard is not a vote: you sign your name and put your address on it for the purposes of public inspection of its authenticity.  You do not sign your vote. 

In any case, the following arguments for the above proposition really blow:

Larry Stickney, a social conservative and president of the Washington Values Alliance, says that disclosure of the identities of petitioners will enable "ideological background checks" that will have a chilling effect on political participation. He frequently encounters people who flinch from involvement with the referendum when they learn that disclosure of their involvement is possible. He has received abusive e-mails and late-night telephone calls and has seen a stranger on his front lawn taking pictures of his house.

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund reports that some Californians who gave financial support to last year's successful campaign for Proposition 8 — it declared marriage to be only between a man and a woman — subsequently suffered significant harm. For example, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, who contributed $1,500, was forced to resign. So was the manager of a fashionable Los Angeles restaurant who contributed just $100.

The first paragraph offers evidence that vociferous advocates may suffer the paranoia that comes along with taking an unpopular position on a matter of public interest.  It does not establish that a private citizen whose only action was signing a petition may suffer these things.  The second paragraph shows that people who have given financial support, something about which disclosure has been determined to be legitimate (and admitted to by Will himself only a three paragraphs before) have suffered harm.  I don't think one can be fired for one's political affiliations–there are laws against that I believe.

Charles Bouley, a gay columnist, has honorably protested such bullying. He says that people "have the right to be wrong," and reminds gay activists: "Even Barack Obama said marriage was between a man and a woman at a time when we needed his voice on our side on equality. He let us down, too, remember, and many of you still gave him a job."

Indeed, people do have a right to be wrong, and others have a duty to point that out.

It is by definition opinion

Howard Kurtz is media critic for the Washington Post.  He also hosts "Reliable Sources," a meta-media show, Sunday mornings on CNN.  Many claim there is a conflict of interest in his having two roles, one of which would seem to involve criticizing the other.  Many more claim that for a media critic, he really has a sorry idea of what constitutes media criticism.  Please enjoy the following exchange (via mediactive via Atrios):

Fairfax County, Va.: Hi Howard, This Sunday, I read the editorials in The Post and The New York Times about the surprise Peace Prize. I liked the NYT editorial (which was pro), but like most of us, including Obama, I could certainly have handled an editorial that was anti this choice.

When I read The Washington Post editorial, I felt so sad for what this paper has become. Their whole idea was that the prize should have gone to Neda, the woman who was murdered by the Iranian police. Nobel Peace Prizes can’t be given posthumously. It’s a basic, easy factcheck. There are other fact problems, too (the protests hadn’t happened by the nomination date, Neda may not have been a protester).

So the idea that the committee made a careless or inappropriate choice is refuted by a slapdash editorial “choice” that nobody bothered to check? It just screamed out to me “we laid off almost all the copy editors.” I feel so sad for The Post I grew up with. It’s great to have an opinion. It’s bad to look dumb.

Howard Kurtz: I take your point about no posthumous awards, though by that standard Martin Luther King couldn’t have won after being assassinated (yes, I know he won the prize earlier). My reading of the piece was that Neda was being used more as a symbol (though the rule should have been mentioned). But it’s an editorial. It is by definition opinion. Of course some readers are going to disagree.

The Washington Post editorial board made a straightforward factual error in their opinion piece.  That can happen, because such opinion pieces are really collections of facts which purport to lead to other facts.  Some call those collections "arguments."  Arguments based on facts which are not facts are called uncogent or unsound, or, as some say around here (academia), "sucky."  

That Kurtz does not know the difference between a fact and an opinion means he has no business reading the the op-ed page (let alone discussing it).

I call “shotgun”

Today George Will is all about rights.  Rights are bad, you see:

If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, a.k.a. entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls "rights talk."

Witness the inability of people nowadays to recommend this or that health-care policy as merely wise or just. Each proposal must be invested with the dignity of a right. And since not all proposals are compatible, you have not merely differences of opinion but apocalyptic clashes of rights.

Rights talk is inherently aggressive, even imperial; it tends toward moral inflation and militates against accommodation. Rights talkers, with their inner monologues of preemptive resentments, work themselves into a simmering state of annoyed vigilance against any limits on their willfulness. To rights talkers, life — always and everywhere — is unbearably congested with insufferable people impertinently rights talking, and behaving, the way you and I, of course, have a real right to.

People think and speak about rights in a lot of different ways.  Some rights they see as fundamental human rights, like the right to non-human-sacrificing religious expression; some rights are less fundamental, like calling shotgun or dibs.  These are rights too, but people, normal people anyway, would be quick to tell you that they don't rise to the level of basic human rights.  In addition to these two categories of right, there are also–perhaps unfortunately–the enumerated rights of the constitution.  I say "unfortunately" because some native-born English-speaking Americans struggle with reading and so they tire out after the Second Amendment, they one that says they can keep "bear arms."  The Ninth Amendment, you see, admits that one has other rights that are not enumerated in the Constitution's listing of the previous eight or eighty.

So the concept of right, even as it is used in ordinary speech, has a lot of meanings.  One must be careful before one asserts that someone means the one rather than the other(s).  Now of course George Will doesn't care about this at all.  He never cares about honestly representing the views of people with whom he disagrees.  I can tell this because of the toss-off line about health care and rights.  He suggests that this unwarranted assertion of rights is the foundation of arguments pro or con.  By my reading of the arguments, this comes up not very often.  Even if it did come up very often, George Will ought to reference it. 

Instead, the argument for the absurdity of all of this rights talk regards speed bumps in an affluent DC suburb:

Recently Paul Schwartzman, a war correspondent for the Metro section of The Post, ventured into the combat zone that is the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District of Columbia. It is not a neighborly place nowadays. Residents are at daggers drawn over . . . speed humps.

Chevy Chase is, Schwartzman says, "a community that views itself as the essence of worldly sophistication." Some cars there express their owner's unassuageable anger by displaying faded "Kerry/Edwards" and even "Gore/Lieberman" bumper stickers. Neighborhood zoning probably excludes Republicans, other than the few who are bused in for diversity.

Speed humps — the lumps on the pavement that force traffic to go slow — have, Schwartzman reports, precipitated "a not-so-civil war . . . among the lawyers, journalists, policymakers and wonks" of Chevy Chase — and Cleveland Park, another D.C. habitat for liberals. The problem is that a goal of liberal urbanists has been achieved: Families with young children are moving into such neighborhoods. They worry about fast-flowing traffic. Hence speed humps.

And street rage. Some people who think speed humps infringe their rights protest by honking when they drive over one. The purpose is to make life unpleasant for the people who live on the street and think they have a right to have the humps. One resident, whom Schwartzman identifies as the husband of a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, recently sat on his porch and videotaped an angry driver who honked 30 times. Other honkers "gave residents the finger as they drove by."

Can't liberals play nicely together? Not, evidently, when they are bristling, like furious porcupines, with spiky rights that demand respect because the rights-bearers' dignity is implicated in them.

Fortunately, it is a short drive from Chevy Chase to the mellow oasis of the River Road Whole Foods store, where comity can be rebuilt on the firm foundation of a shared reverence for heirloom tomatoes. And if you, you seething liberal, will put the pedal to the metal you can seize the store's last parking place. So damn the humps, full speed ahead.

Note that nothing in Schwartzman's account mentioned "rights."  A mind-reading Will interjected the notion of "rights" as an explanation for why people–liberal hypocritical people of course–are rude.

But even if they were asserting their rights–they're not wrong.  It is an interesting question, after all, as to who gets to determine what the street in front of your house looks like.  It's a question more interesting than calling "shotgun" but less interesting than flag-burning.


Yesterday I mentioned Obama's response to the argument (made by George Will inter alia) that the "public option" (in part on account of its being not-for-profit) will kill private for-profit insurance.  Here again is Obama's response:

OBAMA: Why would it drive private insurance out of business? If — if private — if private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care; if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can't run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical.

Now, the — I think that there's going to be some healthy debates in Congress about the shape that this takes. I think there can be some legitimate concerns on the part of private insurers that if any public plan is simply being subsidized by taxpayers endlessly that over time they can't compete with the government just printing money, so there are going to be some I think legitimate debates to be had about how this private plan takes shape.

But just conceptually, the notion that all these insurance companies who say they're giving consumers the best possible deal, if they can't compete against a public plan as one option, with consumers making the decision what's the best deal, that defies logic, which is why I think you've seen in the polling data overwhelming support for a public plan.

As anyone can tell, Obama is making a point that that particular argument against the public option suffers from a logical defect.  In particular, he is claiming (I can't believe I have to spell this out, but you'll see in a second why) that the claim we have a perfectly competitive business environment must therefore be false, because the addition of new competetion would destroy existing competitors.  We therefore either have an artificial insurance market which cannot sustain substantial or real market-driven competition (which would be provided by the market driven choice of a not-for-profit model).  Or perhaps the private people just don't want competition from a plan more people would choose–in which case we wouldn't have a free market either.  Notice, dear readers, that Obama concedes there would be "healthy debates" about the nature of the private plan.  That's good–very conciliatory.  But if were up to George Will and friends, that debate can be resolved a priori, as a logical matter.  Obama, correctly points out that the allegation of the logical flaw is erroneous.

Enter Jake Tapper, journalist:

And, while I appreciate your Spock-like language about the logic of the health care plan and the public plan, it does seem logical to a lot of people that if the government is offering a cheaper health care plan, then lots of employers will want to have their employees covered by that cheaper plan, which will not have to be for-profit, unlike private plans, and may, possibly, benefit from some government subsidies, who knows.


And then their employees would be signed up for this public plan, which would violate what you're promising the American people, that they will not have to change health care plans if they like the plan they have.

First of all, it is not the case that all private plans are for-profit, but besides, Spock-like?  For Chrissake.  The question deserves a little spock-like criticism of its own.  Take the second part, how many employees have control over the health plan their employer chooses for them now–raise your hands.   

Use mention torture

If one consumes enough news and commentary, one begins to notice the same (crappy) arguments over and over in certain circles.  This of course can happen anywhere–on the right, or on the left.  The left, however, in my unscientific opinion, just doesn't have the discipline or organization or perhaps heart to carry it off very well.  Few, I think, will repeat Richard Cohen's latest ideas.  That's not a virtue, however.  It kind of reminds in fact of the old paradox of moral weakness: vice plus moral weakness equals virtue.  Not having the stamina to be evil, I end up doing the right thing.

Back to the point.  There's an argument that's been rolling around the world of torture justifying commentary lately. It goes something like this:

MILLER: And I’m going to move beyond that and say the pertinent question to me is, is it necessary. Where do you stand on this?

KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.

Never mind the fact that Krauthammer writes stuff he doesn't believe (without saying so).  He reasserts the manifestly absurd argument that anything done in the SERE program (Survive Evade Resist Extract) cannot be torture, as that would mean we have been torturing our own people.  The SERE program however trains people to resist the kinds of illegal torture used by our illustrious enemies.  Part of the training involves a little taste.  (Someone who went through this training tells me in his final paper for one of my spring courses (true story) that even that little taste can give you raging nightmares).

Not content with that line, Krauthammer, who fancies himself some kind of logician, pats himself on the back for having avoided the "semantic argument."  The semantic argument, in this case I suppose, is whether you call something torture or not.  That's important.  Because if it is torture, then it broke the law, and if it broke the law, then there ought to be prosecutions.  That's the problem with legal semantics.  In the end someone goes to jail.

But that's just what's so absurd about this line of reasoning.  Krauthammer makes a semantic claim–we cannot by definition torture our own people ("it's absurd!")–in order to claim that waterboarding isn't "torture."  But that's just to confuse "use" and "mention."  What's "use" and "mention"?  Well, if I pretend torture my own guy to show him what to expect, I am "mentioning" torture.  I don't really do it, I just kind of do it.  This is kind of like acting.  The actors don't really say the things they say ("I'm going to kill you"), they mention them.  Using torture, on the other hand, is illegal. 

The comfy chair*

This is an argument from definition:

Bob is a bachelor, then ipso facto Bob is unmarried–and male.  

This is not:

Q: Is waterboarding torture?

RICE: The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture. So that’s — And by the way, I didn’t authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency, that they had policy authorization, subject to the Justice Department’s clearance. That’s what I did.

Q: Okay. Is waterboarding torture in your opinion?

RICE: I just said, the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.

Bob, by the way, might not in fact be unmarried (and therefore not a bachelor) but it is certainly the case that if he were unmarried than by golly the definition of an umarried male is a bachelor.  Now unless the Convention Against Torture includes the provision that anything authorized by a President is not by definition torture, then the President probably has no power under it–logical or otherwise–to make it not torture (or maybe even, in a bizzaro soft pillows way to declare something torture which isn't).  Here, by the way, is the definition of torture in the 1985 United Nations Convention Against Torture:

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.  

*=click here.