Category Archives: False Cause

Doing it to themselves

There is perhaps no better evidence of the internal conflict in George Will’s mind than his review of *United 93* in today’s Washington Post. On the one hand, we have the person who wrote “The Case for Bush” back in 2000:

>Going to see “United 93” is a civic duty because Samuel Johnson was right: People more often need to be reminded than informed. After an astonishing 56 months without a second terrorist attack, this nation perhaps has become dangerously immune to astonishment. The movie may quicken our appreciation of the measures and successes — many of which must remain secret — that have kept would-be killers at bay.

Though it is not stated, Will clearly implies that there is some kind of causal link between “56 months without second attack” and the actions and policies of our government. Unless he’s willing to put on his tin hat and claim that “black ops” have Tom Clancily thwarted attack after attack, he’s going to have to admit that all evidence points to the contrary. And as evidence of that, he might just look at the inept leadership on display just this week at the hyper-politicized CIA. If you think such government behavior has produced anything other than more terrorists (Iraq anyone?), then we have special rocks that protect you from Islamist terrorists.

And on the other hand, the second item contradicts the first–and not in a good way. It fits nicely with Will’s evangelical but ridiculously selective freemarketism:

>The hinge on which the movie turns are 13 words that a passenger speaks, without histrionics, as he and others prepare to rush the cockpit, shortly before the plane plunges into a Pennsylvania field. The words are: “No one is going to help us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.” Those words not only summarize this nation’s situation in today’s war but also express a citizen’s general responsibilities in a free society.

And we were just told to believe that someone’s double secret government operation–which we shouldn’t even dare to talk about let alone subject to investigations in Congress–has protected us. If that’s the case, why should we bother doing it for ourselves?

everyday logic

Two bloggish items today on the role of logic in ordinary discourse. First, Michael Kinsley writes in the *Washington Post*:

Opinion journalism brings new ethical obligations as well. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counter arguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or an argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Even more basically, Kinsley might suggest the following: have you arrived at your conclusion by a cogent or coherent argument? Is your characterization of the opposing points of view charitable and accurate? Have you drawn on commonly agreed on facts in the construction of your argument? And we could go on.

Kinsley's comment, nonetheless, is certainly welcome. Especially in light of articles that consider the pernicious, the outrageous, the preposterous Bill O'Reilly to be merely an entertainer. If only it were true.

Second, I was reminded of a trip I took three years ago to a little town in Indiana when I read in the liberal media that

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.

And so Lisa's rock does not keep away tigers after all. The trip as you might imagine was an academic job interview. In the department was a recent Ivy League graduate in religion (it was one of those combined philosophy and religion departments) who asserted the mounting evidence for the causally efficacious role of prayer on health. Such was, as he pointed out, the subject matter of his research. I can't help but think that my shock at such a silly and possibly heretical thesis was written on my face. I wonder how the research was received down in Hoosier country.

Post hack ergo propter hack

The main reason so much of partisan punditry of any stripe doesn’t qualify as rational discourse–that is to say, the kind of discourse a rational person should have and expect of others in an enlightened democracy such as our own–is that so often the partisan pundit refuses to entertain the idea that his opponents are rational. Since her opponent isn’t rational, she makes only the most ludicrous arguments, and has only a tenuous and self-interested grasp on the facts. In the end, of course, it doesn’t take much to defeat such nincompoops in argument. Easy victories, however, are not worth winning, as Charles Krauthammer’s triumph over the inane illustrates for us today:

>In less enlightened times there was no catastrophe independent of human agency. When the plague or some other natural disaster struck, witches were burned, Jews were massacred and all felt better (except the witches and Jews).

Pat Robertson knows something of this claim (cf. feminism and 9/11), but naturally Krauthammer has someone else in mind:

>A few centuries later, our progressive thinkers have progressed not an inch. No fall of a sparrow on this planet is not attributed to sin and human perfidy. The three current favorites are: (1) global warming, (2) the war in Iraq and (3) tax cuts. Katrina hits and the unholy trinity is immediately invoked to damn sinner-in-chief George W. Bush.

As readers of *The Nonsequitur* know, some variation of the causal fallacy is being invoked here (to be nitpicky: the analogy with the witches and Jews only holds insofar as some group or individual is held responsible for *causing* the event–only global warming could possibly qualify as a cause in that sense). Krauthammer in fact goes on to challenge the causal efficacy of each of the above:

>this kind of stupidity merits no attention whatsoever, but I’ll give it a paragraph. There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period. The problem with the evacuation of New Orleans is not that National Guardsmen in Iraq could not get to New Orleans but that National Guardsmen in Louisiana did not get to New Orleans. As for the Bush tax cuts, administration budget requests for New Orleans flood control during the five Bush years exceed those of the five preceding Clinton years. The notion that the allegedly missing revenue would have been spent wisely by Congress, targeted precisely to the levees of New Orleans, and that the reconstruction would have been completed in time, is a threefold fallacy. The argument ends when you realize that, as The Post noted, “the levees that failed were already completed projects.”

Excellent points all of them. Whether or not they are true–and we have no reason to doubt them–is someone else’s domain. We might also add that Krauthammer goes to list those he considers responsible (in descending order: Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, FEMA, President Bush, Congress, the American People). Such a complex event as the ongoing disaster along the Gulf coast hardly bears reduction to the three items Krauthammer mentions. So for this reason we couldn’t agree more with the first sentence quoted above–this kind of stupidity does not merit our attention. We know of many other well-reasoned and well-supported arguments that do deserve careful scrutiny. Perhaps Krauthammer can talk about them.

Cultural equality

Multiculturalism seems to be the topic of the week. In USNews Michael Barone writes a column called “Cultures aren’t equal” and in The New York Times David Brooks writes a piece called “All Cultures are not Equal.” As the titles suggest, the point of these pieces is to argue that multiculturalism is bad. For Barone, the view bears some responsibility for the London bombings; For Brooks, multiculturalism obscures intelligent discourse.

First, Barone writes,

Multiculturalism is based on the lie that all cultures are morally equal. In practice, that soon degenerates to: All cultures all morally equal, except ours, which is worse. But all cultures are not equal in respecting representative government, guaranteed liberties, and the rule of law. And those things arose not simultaneously and in all cultures but in certain specific times and places–mostly in Britain and America but also in other parts of Europe.

In addition to the obvious slippery slope (“soon degenerates . . . “), Barone is guilty of the non causa pro causa or the wrong cause fallacy; the cause of the London bombing has something to do with the bombers buying the idea that divinely sanctioned mass murder is a legitimate way of advancing your political position–the recently jailed Eric Rudolph, homophobic abortion clinic bomber, knows something of this view–rather than say the tolerance of cultural difference.

For Brooks, on the other hand,

The gospel of multiculturalism preaches that all groups and cultures are equally wonderful. There are a certain number of close-minded thugs, especially on university campuses, who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist or sexist. The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history – resources and brain chemistry – because that’s what they can measure and count.

These poorly reasoned quips about multiculturalism (it appears to be the case that economists and scientists don’t work at universities, they’re racists and sexists, or they don’t ask intelligent questions) serve as a springboard for his more ambitious sociological project; according to him, multiculturalism inhibits understanding of the sorts of human events–such as terrorism–that should concern the inquisitive mind. That’s a bold claim–one which, as far as we can tell, he does nothing to establish. But the unarged assertion is becoming standard repertory.

Such excursions into grand theory raise more troubling questions. The attentive reader will not swallow the strawman (and just incoherent) description of multiculturalism of these two pieces–few I think would affirm the extreme moral relativism implicit in Brooks’s and Barone’s pieces. If anything, if notions are to blame, then the culprit of recent terrorism on British soil is that all too fancy notion of freedom of speech. But in the end, the attentive reader will wonder why Brooks and Barone have taken to such broad sociological categories to explain the homicidal actions of individuals. There is a word for such hasty cultural and racial generalizations, but it’s not coming to mind.

The Materialist Ideology of the Dukes of Hazard and False Cause Fallacies

Michael Medved in yesterday’s USAToday (Source: UT 7/26/05) opines that the slackening movie market is a result of the misfit of Hollywood’s materialist liberal ideology in a conservative and “values” based society. It is difficult to treat this as an argument since Medved seems to possess the ideologues’ faith that justification is not needed and the loudest most confident assertion will persuade. Nonetheless it seems to involve a claim that the divergence in ideology is the best explanation because it is the cause of Hollywood’s woes.

After a brief description of these economic woes, Medved dismisses insiders’ claims about the causes of these woes

>Meanwhile, conventional wisdom ignores all ideological considerations in explaining the sudden box office collapse, concentrating instead on purely material excuses (high ticket prices, availability of DVDs) that have, frankly, applied for years. This knee-jerk tendency to offer direct, physical solutions to deep-seated problems constitutes an unmistakable element in the liberal outlook that remains Hollywood’s reigning faith.

>Revealingly, none of the studio honchos talked about reconnecting with the public by adjusting the values conveyed by feature films, and replacing the industry’s shrill liberal posturing with a more balanced ideological perspective.

It’s not clear what this is thought to reveal, but Medved seemingly suggests that the fact that the industry insiders do not consider a “spiritual” cause is evidence of their liberal bias. But this does not seem to be more significant than my doctor’s silence about Ebola virus during my last appointment. Before the honchos’ silence could be taken to reveal what Medved is already persuaded it means, we need some reason to believe that the cause is spiritual.

>Something clearly changed between 2004 and 2005 to cause an abrupt drop-off at the box office, and the most obvious alteration involved Hollywood’s role in the bitterly fought presidential election. The entertainment establishment embraced John Kerry with near unanimity — and bashed George W. Bush with unprecedented ferocity.

And here we find a beautiful example of the fallacy of the false cause or more precisely of post hoc propter hoc (“after this, because of this”). In order to argue a causal connection between two events you must show more than temporal succession and hypothesized relation. If Medved had any evidence whatsoever that Hollywood’s troubles were caused by their “values” (i.e., some independent evidence, market reseach, sociological data, even anecdotal evidence!), then it would be reasonable to go looking for an event that could have caused this. But of course, Medved has nothing other than his own feeling that this is the problem and so his causal argument becomes ridiculous. There is no more reason to believe that the 2004 election is the cause of Holloywood’s economic problems than there is to believe that the Boston Red Sox winning the world series was the cause.

>Despite efforts by entertainer activists, a majority of voters cast their ballots for Bush. If even a minority of those 62 million GOP voters — say, 20% — reacted to Hollywood’s electioneering by shunning the multiplex, it could easily account for the sharp decline in ticket sales after Bush’s re-election.

Once again, showing that something could cause something else is a far cry from showing that it did cause it.

Medved does advance the box-office success of the Passion of Christ as a reason to think that there is a national desire for religious values in movies. But one piece of data cannot prove a causal relation. If it was the cause then we would expect that this hunger for religious movies to have caused a long stagnation in movie attendance since Charlton Heston parted the red sea.

But, of course, proving the claim is not Medved’s real concern. The last three paragraphs of his column are a tirade against liberal “materialism” which offers supposedly failed solutions to “threats to the family from out-of-wedlock births,” crime, poverty, and terrorism. And if that’s not bad enough, Hollywood is turning to Oliver Stone to make its first 9/11 action movie. Medved doesn’t seem to need evidence or argument for his view–it exists in an ideological space impervious to the expectation of reasoning.

>Meanwhile, Tinseltown will continue to weep and mourn as long as its bosses depend on the likes of Stone to portray the worst terrorist attacks in our history. Americans aren’t stupid, and we’re not all apolitical; many (at least a third) are even self-consciously conservative in both politics and values.

I suspect that a more plausible claim is that Tinseltown will continue to weep and mourn for as long as it continues to expect us to attend re-makes of the Dukes of Hazard.

Ignorantia juris

Sometimes we run across arguments so incoherent that they are nearly impossible to categorize. For this reason, some time ago we added the category “plain bad arguments” alongside the list of commonly known logical fallacies. David Brooks most recent column (4/21/05) in the *New York Times* is a perfect example of the need for this new category.

In a very general sense, the argument is a causal one. Brooks argues that the cause of the current vitriolic atmosphere in the Senate is *Roe v. Wade* and therefore the only way to save the Senate is to “overturn *Roe v. Wade*.” But to point out–as we will in a moment–the ridiculousness of this claim would not do this awful piece justice. For in making the basic causal argument, Brooks interweaves so many other dubious, misleading and fallacious arguments that we fear not being able to capture them all. What follows is our attempt to make sense of what has to be one of the worst arguments to appear in the pages of the *New York Times* in recent months.

Continue reading Ignorantia juris

Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Last Saturday we saw in the New York Times two columns addressing the question of caution: One decrying it in favor of some sort of confusion of middle-aged excess with courage and decisiveness, and the other fretting over the absence of caution in recommending caution among environmentalists. First we will deal with the trivial instance. I am still puzzling over what could possibly have motivated David Brooks to write his "Saturday Night Lite"(Source: NYT 03/12/05). In his column he flails around–in search of self-deprecating humor among other things–while trying to blame facetiously his middle-age caution on anyone but himself. >And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code. Continue reading Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

I have spent much of my semester reading and thinking about the logic and epistemology of historiographic explanation for a class I am teaching. The very nature of historigraphy–its purposes, evidence, and methodology–seems to dispose it to fairly particular logical fallacies. For example, whether we are investigating Herodotus’ Histories or contemporary “academic historiography,” the historian seems easily tempted to draw inferences about general tendencies or even necessities on the basis of particular events in the past. We do not, of course, need to mention the problems of inductive inferences in general to notice that inductive predictions or generalizations need to begin from an adequate body of evidence from the past. Even as plausible an inductive generalization such as Herodotus’ “great empires fall and small nations will become great” is radically underdetermined by the body of inductive evidence whether in Herodotus’ time or our own.
This can constitute a fallacy of hasty generalization.

If professional historians for the most part try to avoid committing the sort of fallacies that all undergraduates are taught to recognize and criticize, the same does not seem to be the case when we turn to the professional pundit, as we have had occasion to show in the past: In the service of ideology, there are few fallacies that do not appear to some pundits as legitimate arguments.

As the administration has scrambled to find justification for an increasingly unpopular and stalled or even backsliding military occupation, it has pinned its hopes on the justification of future history. Now the task occupying the administration and the pundits alike is to demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq has opened the possiblity of radical change in the mid-east. It is troubling, of course, that their argument is being swallowed so easily by the unquestioning and seemingly historically ignorant press, especially since the argument rests on such easily recognized and impugned fallacies. We can take as examples of this argument, two recents columns marked by their exuberance at recent events in the mid-east. First, was David Brooks’ “Why not here?” (NYT 02/26/05 no link). More recently Krauthammer chimed in with “The Road to Damascus” (WaPo 03/04/05).

The argument in all of its forms rests on the claims that

  1. The political changes in Lebanon, Egypt, and the occupied territories are part of a regional democratizing “thaw.”
  2. The vision of the election in Iraq either caused or at least enabled these political changes.
  3. These democratizing changes are good and so good in fact that they justify the costs of the invasion of Iraq even in absence of W.M.D., the reluctance of the Iraqi population to celebrate our arrival etc.

Continue reading Of Historians’ Fallacies and Regional Revolutions

Argumentum pro homine

Just about everyone who has had Intro to Logic knows about the fallacy of the attack against the person, or ad hominem. It's a question of relevance, they are told, in that the negative features of a person's character have nothing to do with the argument she is making. That's why it's called an "attack" or "against" or in Latin, "ad." Even George Bush, Michael Moore, or why not, even Paul Wolfowitz deserves to have his argument assessed on its own merits. Rarely if ever, however, does one hear of the negative counterpart, the obverse, of the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum pro homine. Despite its rarity and notwithstanding the absence of cruel or mean-spirited irrelevance, it's fallacious for the same reasons. And we have a fine example of this in David Brooks March 8, 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times. Take a look at this:

Let us look again at the man who's been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who's been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It's not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it's time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom. And he has usually played a useful supporting role in making sure that pragmatic, democracy-promoting policies were put in place.

If the trends of the last few months continue, Wolfowitz will be the subject of fascinating biographies decades from now, while many of his smuggest critics will be forgotten. Those biographies will mention not only his intellectual commitment but also his personal commitment, his years spent learning the languages of the places that concerned him, and the thousands of hours spent listening deferentially to the local heroes who led the causes he supported.

To praise Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. The difficulties ahead are obvious. It's simple justice. It's a recognition that amid all the legitimate criticism, this guy has been the subject of a vicious piling-on campaign by people who know less than nothing about what is actually going on in the government, while he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right.

The occasion for the reconsideration of Paul Wolfowitz's character is the irresponsible–and to judge by the headline of the March 8, 2005 New York Times–incorrect belief that the "political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world" are unremittingly positive. More Lebanese have descended into the streets in favor of Syria than those who a week earlier showed up against it.  And besides, even those who came out against Syria wanted to be rid of a foreign occupier (never mind, as everyone hask the reasons for the occupation) as we Americans ourselves happen to be (in Iraq, another Arab country).

My colleague at the has been closely following these arguments as they appear in various op-ed pages and has promised to discuss them soon. The problem with Brooks' argument lies elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his logically clueless response-in-kind to perceived attacks on Paul Wolfowitz the person. We've discussed this sort of argument, the reverse ad hominem before.

In logical strategy it very much resembles the straw man: falsely accuse your opponent of not making an argument but of attacking the person, and in so doing you attack her rather than her argument (since you've accused her of not having an argument). This time, however, in addition to attacking the attacker (note the rhetorical juxtaposition of the "the infantile left" with the lunatic antisemitism on the order of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), Brooks responds to those attacks by pointing out what a patient listener and marvelous student of foreign languages Wolfowitz is, among other achievements and personal virtues.

No question Wolfowitz has all sorts of personal virtues and has accomplished something in his life. That's not the issue, however, in the serious critiques of his political positions and arguments. And besides that, and more to the point actually, Wolfowitz may be motivated by the purest desire to improve the lot of humankind in general, but many serious questions have been raised about the means he has chosen to these ends. Some have argued, so we have heard, that those means have been disastrous for those asked to carry them out in reality, as well as those who never asked Wolfowitz for his help.


The imaginative arguer can intuit connections between otherwise distinct facts or events; she can identify the proper analogates with a certain amount of precision and shed light on otherwise obscure phenomena. And she knows that analogies, like other arguments in inductive or informal logic, are tricky creatures. Their conclusive force depends on the degree to which the analogates can be reasonably compared. When the analogates cannot be reasonably compared, then the analogy is a false one. But determining whether an analogy is strong or weak requires more of the critical reasoner than most other kinds of inductive arguments. For she must have a command over the facts relevant to the strength of the analogy. Such an analysis of the facts takes time and effort, things which most newspaper readers–even careful ones–have in short supply.

Fortunately for us, David Brooks relieves his readers of the painstaking work of researching the analogy that constitutes the core argument in his op-ed today (NYT 09/28/04). After expending more than three quarters of the space allotted for his twice-weekly column working up an analogy between the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s with Iraq *and* Afghanistan today, Brooks points out that

“[o]f course the situation in El Salvador is not easily comparable to the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

So the reader need not expend any energy pointing out that El Salvador had not been invaded by a foreign power (like Afghanistan and Iraq); that the insurgents in El Salvador had a clearly articulated “positive” agenda; that this positive agenda consisted in part in the advocacy of the very democracy Brooks claims they challenged; that Afghanistan and Iraq have in common primarily the fact that they have been invaded by us; that the insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq is aimed primarily at ousting or humiliating a foreign occupier. Pointing out such things is tedious and Brooks’ admission that such a comparison is not easy saves us a lot of time that we could have otherwise spent on puzzling over his conclusion:

It’s simply astounding that in the United States, the home of the greatest and most effective democratic revolution, so many people have come to regard democracy as a luxury-brand vehicle, suited only for the culturally upscale, when it’s really a sturdy truck, effective in conditions both rough and smooth.

Certainly the snobs who claim that only the “culturally upscale” are suited to democracy have taken quite a licking here. But one might wonder whether any such people exist, or whether they exist in such numbers, strength and influence to be considered worthy of mention. But perhaps, as is more likely the case, the reader is supposed to attribute this shallow, snobby view to those who are concerned that the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the holding of elections difficult, dangerous, or impossible. But more to the point, the claim that democracy may flourish in “*conditions* rough and smooth” (here contrasted with “luxury” and “cultural upscaleness”) ignores legitimate questions of economic and political stability (such as, for example, voting) so often considered to be the minimal requirements for the existence of truly democratic institutions.