Category Archives: Bad Explanations

It’s not only arguments that have problems.

La femminista

Anne Applebaum gripes about how "feminism" cares not about issues that matter to real women.  She writes:

By contrast, the women of contemporary Saudi Arabia need a much more fundamental revolution than the one that took place among American women in the 1960s, and it's one we have trouble understanding. Unlike American blacks, American women have not had to grapple with issues as basic as the right to study or vote for a long time. Instead, we have (fortunately) fought for less fundamental rights in recent decades, and our women's groups have of late (unfortunately) had the luxury of focusing on the marginal. The National Council of Women's Organizations' most famous recent campaign was against the Augusta National Golf Club. The Web site of the National Organization for Women (I hate to pick on that group, but it's so easy) has space for issues of "non-sexist car insurance" and "network neutrality," but not the Saudi rape victim or the girl murdered last week in Canada for refusing to wear a hijab.

The reigning feminist ideology doesn't help: The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has written, among other things, that some American feminists, self-focused and reluctant to criticize non-Western cultures, have convinced themselves that "sexual terror" in America (a phrase from a real women's studies textbook) is more dangerous than actual terrorism. But the deeper problem is the gradual marginalization of "women's issues" in domestic politics, which has made them subordinate to security issues, or racial issues, in foreign policy as well.

American delegates to international and U.N. women's organizations are mostly identified with arguments about reproductive rights (for or against, depending on the administration), not arguments about the fundamental rights of women in Saudi Arabia or the Muslim world.

Until this changes, it will be hard to mount a campaign, in the manner of the anti-apartheid movement, to enforce sanctions or codes of conduct for people doing business there. What we need as a model, in other words, is not the 1960s feminism we all remember but a globalized version of the 19th-century feminism we've nearly forgotten. Candidates for the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, anyone?

In the first place, no one ought to be surprised that the National Organization for Women take issue with national issues, as they are are national organization.  Pointing out the "small" or "quaint" injustices with which they occupy themselves does not mean their members are not concerned or involved as women of international organizations with the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, or better, Afghanistan.  Those, however, are international issues.  

At the heart of Applebaum's astoundingly silly analysis, is the view that somehow concern for gender issues in America precludes one from being concerned about them in Canada or elsewhere.  Even dumber than that is the idea that one get a total picture of "reigning feminist ideology" from skimming the works of one "feminist" philosopher and clicking to the web pages of two different organizations.  Before she makes those claims, she should try a little harder, perhaps use the search function.

Dawn of time

David Brooks writes a piece entitled: “The Outsourced Brain.” Finally, one might think, a confession.



>Since the dawn of humanity, people have had to worry about how to get from here to there. Precious brainpower has been used storing directions, and memorizing turns. I myself have been trapped at dinner parties at which conversation was devoted exclusively to the topic of commuter routes.


>Now, you may wonder if in the process of outsourcing my thinking I am losing my individuality. Not so. My preferences are more narrow and individualistic than ever. It’s merely my autonomy that I’m losing.

Right. “Losing.”

For the rest of us, the availability of information seems to suggest that we are responsible for knowing more, not less–with great knowledge, after all, comes great responsibility.

Or Tolstoy is right

David Brooks writes:

>Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.

>Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

>According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved.

>If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.

Again, not so much a false dichotomy as false dichotomizing: considering only two very different possibilities as exhaustive without the further claim that one is evidently false or ridiculous.

Fun with logic

Whoever thought logic could be so informative:

>The anatomic and physiologic facts of alimentation and reproduction simply do not change based on any cultural setting. In fact, the logical complementarity of the human sexes has been so recognized in our culture that it has entered our vocabulary in the form of naming various pipe fittings either the male fitting or the female fitting depending upon which one interlocks within the other.

>When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur as noted above. Therefore, based on the simplest known anatomy and physiology, when dealing with the complementarity of the human sexes, one can simply say, Res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself!

Brooks on Gore III

Lots to choose from today: Sam Brownback’s evolution confusion or George Will’s “Case for Conservatism” (which is, as one would suspect, the case against his cartoonish liberal with the subsequently unjustified claim that this makes the case for his view–which it doesn’t). But David Brooks’ column the other day still offers some final ignorant tidbits. So far, the reader may remember, Brooks has accused Gore of favoring some kind of vulcan-like existence because he wants people to argue with facts and logic.

The final paragraphs of Brooks piece descend into nonsense. He writes:

> This, in turn, grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

Now the mind is identical to the brain? Doesn’t that make Brooks a determinist?

>The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.

>Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.

Now we’ve veered far from the discussion of civil discourse, into simplistic (ironically it seems) pseudo-science about the nature of reasoning and consciousness and their relation to brain processes.

>Some great philosopher should write a book about people — and there are many of them — who flee from discussions of substance and try to turn them into discussions of process. Utterly at a loss when asked to talk about virtue and justice, they try to shift attention to technology and methods of communication. They imagine that by altering machines they can alter the fundamentals of behavior, or at least avoid the dark thickets of human nature.

>If a philosopher did write such a book, it would help us understand Al Gore, and it would, as he would say, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.

I don’t think any philosopher would write a book of that sort, as it rests on a confusion between argument and explanation. Brooks can’t bring himself to consider Al Gore’s argument, so he distorts it, and then asks what would explain such a distorted view. Ironically, even Gore’s distorted view is superior, on Brooks’ own grounds, to Brooks’ brain state analysis of human nature.

Perhaps Gore can include Brooks unreasoning response as an appendix in a subsequent edition of his book about the assault on rational discourse.

Blame spiral

A commenter posted a remark by another blogger (or two) about “politicizing” the Virginia Tech massacre. They–Matt Yglesias and Majikthise–were tired of the accusations of politicization and argued that as it was an event in our lives, we ought to argue about it, especially now that the memory is vivid.

Fair enough, but it’s a little early for anyone to know what the lesson is. We ought all of us have the patience to wait for a little evidence before we draw any specific lessons.

But some lessons no amount of evidence will support. Take the following.

Mark Steyn blames the culture of passivity.

Neil Cavuto blames hatred for the rich.

Newt Gingrich blames “liberalism”:

>GINGRICH: Yes, I think the fact is, if you look at the amount of violence we have in games that young people play at 7, 8, 10, 12, 15 years of age, if you look at the dehumanization, if you look at the fact that we refuse to say that we are, in fact, endowed by our creator, that our rights come from God, that if you kill somebody, you’re committing an act of evil.

>STEPHANOPOULOS: But what does that have to do with liberalism?

>GINGRICH: Well, who has created a situation ethics, essentially, zone of not being willing to talk about any of these things. Let me carry another example. I strongly supported Imus being dismissed, but I also think the very thing he was dismissed for, which is the use of language which is stunningly degrading of women — the fact, for example, that one of the Halloween costumes this last year was being able to be either a prostitute or a pimp at 10, 11, 12 years of age, buying a costume, and we don’t have any discussion about what’s happened to our culture because while we’re restricting political free speech under McCain-Feingold, we say it’s impossible to restrict vulgar and vicious and anti-human speech.

Finally, Tom Tomorrow shows us another lesson some will draw.


On the subject of science and evolution, Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney write in the Washington Post:

>Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.

For the record, Nisbet and Mooney do not disagree with evolution (and other matters of science fact), they’re simply arguing that scientists need to do a better job of convincing a skeptical public of the truth or the likely truth of their claims. It’s not a surprise that they need to, as even very well educated people hold all sorts of crazy views. Some deny the Holocaust, some insist on the presence of Martians in our governments, others insist that 9/11 was an inside job. The blame here does not lie with scientists. Scientists have their job to do collecting facts, making hypotheses and theories, curing disease and so forth. If the rest of us cannot interpret that, it’s our problem not theirs.

While the authors of the article correctly point out the woeful state of science education as a partial cause of this embarrassing phenomenon, we’d like to suggest that even the best educations and most well-educated people are not free from bone-headedness when it comes to facts. Someone has to be responsible.

But a brief tour of op-ed pages around the country will reveal an impoverished national discourse (just tour our archives). People who deny on no grounds or on superficially skeptical grounds the claims of well established science are given a national forum to disseminate their views. And journalists succumb to some crazy conception of balance when it comes to stories about charged topics such as evolution and global warming–airing both sides as if the truth were a matter of pure opinion. On the one side you have scientists with facts and arguments and tables and charts, on the other, a reverend with a biblical text. What is the public to think when the views of the unqualified global warming skeptic have the same forum as the consensus of qualified climatologists?

The best scientists can do is repeat their facts. They cannot explain their significance. Most of all, however, they cannot explain the significance of having evidence for your beliefs. That’s a job for philosophers.

Bland assertions

One of our commenters remarked a few days ago that much of punditry suffers from saying nothing at all. At least, it doesn't say the kinds of things one can subject to any kind of serious critical scrutiny. If it can't be subjected to scrutiny, then it's not saying much. Maureen Dowd suffers from this. But if one reads The Daily Howler, as one should, then one might come to the view that Maureen Dowd says quite a lot, it's just that none of it can be subjected to critical scrutiny–so she says nothing at all. In the interest of enlarging the regions of punditry we analyze, take a look at the following from Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post: >Today, the mood feels different — whether it's because that electability strategy didn't work out so well; that Bush will be out no matter what; that Democrats seem favored to win in 2008; that Iraq is more of a disaster; or that the primary is far enough away that voters can vent now and strategize later. >For the moment, Democratic primary voters don't want Kerryesque parsing. "Let the conversation begin," Clinton's banners proclaim, but she's not saying what many of them want to hear — words like "mistake" and "sorry." >Instead, in the Clintonian formulation, the mistake was Bush's and the regret is that he misused the authority he was given. Iraq "is a gnawing, painful sore," she said. "People are beside themselves with frustration, and I understand that completely." >But people in that agitated state don't want to hear about the 60 votes required to proceed to Senate debate on a nonbinding resolution. "I know that is hard medicine for some people, because people say, 'Just do something,' " Clinton acknowledged. And so on. It's difficult to imagine what evidence could be advanced to support such broad assertions about what people want or what "the mood" is like. It gets worse. By way of conclusion, Marcus writes: >But Clinton in person seemed "much more inspirational and much more genuine," Cesna said, complimenting her willingness to stay more than an hour after the meeting, answering questions and posing for pictures. "She's willing to do her job to meet people in the state and maybe dispel some of the coldness and harshness that people feel about her." >In other words, campaigning in person Clinton can win over skeptics. But her nuanced position on the war, at a time when base voters are impatient with nuance, means laying off the doughnuts isn't going to be her biggest challenge here. The evidence for that claim seems to be the opinions of one slightly skeptical voter. In all of this, however, Marcus neglects to tell us what Clinton's position is that has won over that one skeptical voter a year and a half before the next election.