Category Archives: Ignoratio Elenchi

Ignorance of the proof–general cluelessness as to what the evidence shows.


If ever rules should prove to difficult to manage, they should be done away with entirely:

>Thomas recognized that the likelihood of the rule of law, of principled government action, is related inversely to the number of criteria the court concocts for determining what political contribution limits are just right. What qualifies judges for this judgment, or how the First Amendment permits it, is unclear. So Thomas sensibly advocated overturning Buckley, allowing people to give, and candidates to spend, what they like, and allowing voters to sort things out. What a concept.

Justice Thomas ought to consult the previous post on interpreting the Constitution. Sometimes the 10 simple rules are not so simple. But the dumb thing about this is the suggestion that the complexity of the situation warrants (in virtue of its complexity) the simple solution of dumping the whole idea of regulating campaign finance altogether. Perhaps–and maybe I’m a communist radical–it warrants a more sensible set of rules, the kind of rules (or guidelines for rules) one would hope an independent body such as the Supreme Court of the United States might be able to concoct, as if it were their job.

Maxima culpa (eorum)

On the subject of straw men, the Associated Press could also have noted that the President is not alone in ridiculing his opponents–he is just less adept at it. In today’s *Washington Post*, Fareed Zakaria tears a page from the President’s play book; but befitting a professional opiniator, he does it with more subtlety.

After a string of *culpae eorum* (their, not his, faults) regarding the failures of intervention in Iraq, Zakaria asserts:

>And yet, for all my misgivings about the way the administration has handled this policy, I’ve never been able to join the antiwar crowd. Nor am I convinced that Iraq is a hopeless cause that should be abandoned.

Note that “hopeless” and “abandoned” sound a lot like “cut” and “run”–only less Texan. Nowhere in the piece does Zakaria address the reasonable (but not necessarily correct) alternatives to his strategy of staying the course–outside of, that is, the phrase “antiwar crowd.” So, one might surmise that the only other option to continuing with our increasingly disastrous (body count, political instability, etc.) intervention is the anti-war crowd. Despite his more reasoned tone then, Zakaria has used the straw man “some say” technique as the president, and as such, it is impossible for the reader to determine whether his three arguments for staying are any good.

Luckily, however, one doesn’t need to have present to mind an alternative to see just how bad these reasons are.

The first:

>So why have I not given up hope? Partly it’s because I have been to Iraq, met the people who are engaged in the struggle to build their country and cannot bring myself to abandon them.

And the oaths of TV pundits are written on water.


>there is no doubt that the costs of the invasion have far outweighed the benefits. But in the long view of history, will that always be true? If, after all this chaos, a new and different kind of Iraqi politics emerges, it will make a difference in the region.

It may or may not always be true that Iraq will be a disaster. But it’s very likely that it will be. It’s only getting worse. The possibility of it not being the case is hardly reason to stay. And it has made a difference in the region–it has emboldened Iran and served as a training ground and recruiting depot for all sorts of new terrorists.


>These sectarian power struggles can get extremely messy, and violent parties have taken advantage of every crack and cleavage. But this may be inevitable in a country coming to terms with very real divisions and disagreements. Iraq may be stumbling toward nation-building by consent, not brutality. And that is a model for the Middle East.

A “sectarian power struggle” sounds like code for bloody religious civil war where the victor is determined by brutality and force of arms (and perhaps Iranian intervention, among other such things). How this means they are stumbling toward nation-building by consent is simply a mystery. All of the evidence Zakaria cites points in the other direction.

But again, these three really bad reasons only make marginal sense in the context of an absurd alternative. Perhaps one as knowledgeable of foreign affairs as Zakaria could find the time to research some of them.

Missed opportunity

After recounting the several independently sufficient reasons the current administration’s wiretap program violated the law, George Will comes to the following inexplicable conclusion:

>But 53 months [after September 11th], Congress should make all necessary actions lawful by authorizing the president to take those actions, with suitable supervision. It should do so with language that does not stigmatize what he has been doing, but that implicitly refutes the doctrine that the authorization is superfluous.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from Will’s own premises, however, seems to be another one. To this point the President has been engaged in a pattern of illegal activity (of, by the way, dubious use as intelligence). Such illegal activity, for the reasons Will has detailed, ought to be stigmatized by Congress. Second, a legal structure for that type of intelligence gathering already exists (the President can even get a warrant *after* surveillance). Furthermore, the current “monarchical” (that’s Will’s word) administration shouldn’t be rewarded for its clueless and lawless attempts at protecting the American people by undermining civil liberties. Finally, the Republican Congress can be trusted even less than their constitutionally challenged leader.

Had Will meant to argue *for* the President’s action, then perhaps he should have outlined reasons he of all Presidents should be trusted with even greater authority than the law now allows. None of the reasons he has outlined indicate this.


The fallacy of *Ignoratio elenchi* is so named because the arguer shows a manifest ignorance of the direction of the argument. Usually his evidence suggests a mild conclusion, but he opts instead for something more radical. Here’s a good example:

>The way to reduce rent-seeking is to reduce the government’s role in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. People serious about reducing the role of money in politics should be serious about reducing the role of politics in distributing money. But those most eager to do the former — liberals, generally — are the least eager to do the latter.

It’s obvious by the mention of “liberals” that this is our dear friend George Will. In light of this observation, he offers two suggestions: congressional term limits or “the philosophical renewal of conservativism.” Congressional term limits will, he argues (and he’s probably right) never take place; the philosophical renewal of conservatism, by which he means something like the Grover Norquist drown the federal government in a bathtub variety, appears to be the only other option.

This obviously false dichotomy ignores the less extreme (and therefore more probable) solution: elect and hold accountable representatives who do not prostitute themselves or otherwise cluelessly (even if good-heartedly) waste taxpayer money. Maybe our readers might suggest some names. But I’m certain that such public servants exist in great numbers.

Even though Will correctly asserts that lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity, no one is thereby forced to listen to a lobbyist.

Confusing Criminals

It isn’t always clear, and often is, perhaps, not the case, that pundits are trying to deceive by their fallacious arguments. Sometimes the flaws in the argument suggest more basic incoherences and confusions in their thought. This seems to be the case with David Brooks’ “Two Steps Towards a Sensible Immigration Policy” (NYT 8/4/5), in which he employs a literary device that ultimately undermines the argument that he is trying to make about immigration reform.

Imagining a “working class guy from the south side of San Antonio” as his interlocutor, he sketches the problem of immigration:

>He’s no racist. Many of his favorite neighbors are kind, neat and hard-working Latinos. But his neighborhood now has homes with five cars rotting in the front yard and 12 single men living in one house. Now there are loud parties until 2 a.m. and gang graffiti on the walls. He read in the local paper last week that Anglos are now a minority in Texas and wonders if anybody is in charge of this social experiment.

The problem with immigration for this guy seems to be that some immigrants are “bad” and the minority status of Anglos. The latter is a population problem, i.e., the sheer number of immigrants entering Texas (and suggests a more “racial” concern that Brooks admits), the former a crime problem, i.e., the failure of our immigration policy to prevent “bad” immigrants (gang members or other unruly people) from entering the country. But, it is also significantly more than that, since none of the behaviors that trouble this guy are particularly serious crimes, but are closer to “socially disruptive behavior” (I mean something like behavior that does not conform to certain prevalent social expectations, e.g., size of households, disposal of non-functional cars, appropriate party times and forms). There is thus a sort of conflation of crime and “anti-social” behavior. This latter defined relative to norms that are supposedly prevalent among Anglos.

Unfortunately getting “tough” on immigration doesn’t seem to solve the population problem as Brooks notes:

>But we can’t just act like lunkheads and think we can solve this problem with brute force. Tough enforcement laws make us feel good but they don’t do the job. Since 1986, we’ve tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven’t made a dent in the number of illegals who make it here.

Presumably if we can’t regulate the flow of immigrants we can’t regulate the flow of “bad” immigrants either.

Instead, by controlling economically necessary immigration we will be able to lessen the number of illegal immigrants.

>The only way to re-establish order is to open up legal, controllable channels through which labor can flow in an aboveground, orderly way. We can’t build a wall to stop this flood; we need sluice gates to regulate the flow.

This is the real point of his column: to argue for two bills before the senate, one allowing for a temporary worker program and the other for tougher boarder controls.

But he has just finished telling the guy from San Antonio that the latter aren’t effective in addressing his concerns. There is only one way that we can make Brooks’ argument coherent. We must supply something like one of the two following concealed premises:

A) Illegal immigrants are likely to commit other crimes.

B) It is harder to prevent crimes committed by illegal immigrants than legal immigrants.

It is tautological that illegal immigrants are “criminals” by breaking immigration laws. But Brooks and the guy from San Antonio seem to be more concerned with the “subculture of criminality across America” supposedly caused by illegal immigration. But unless A or B are true, there is no reason to think that the bills before the Senate will effectively address this problem, or for that matter that illegal immigration is the cause of increased criminality (beyond the tautological sense).

I don’t know which of the two premises Brooks or the guy from San Antonio would prefer to accept, and I don’t know whether there is any reason to think that either of these is true. I suspect that the real problem here is that the policies for which Brooks is arguing will not address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio, who seems to confuse criminal behavior with disruptive behavior. Add to that a confusion between the criminality of illegal immigration and other forms of criminal behavior and we see how Brooks can suggest that these policies will address the guy from San Antonio’s concerns.

1. These policies will address criminality (of illegal immigration).
2. Addressing criminality (of illegal immigration) will address criminal behavior. (By A or B perhaps)
3. Addressing criminal behavior will address disruptive behavior. (The guy from San Antonio might assume).

Therefore, these policies will address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio.

Nonetheless Brooks would seem to admit that these bills will not solve all the problems.

>So here’s the bottom line for the guy in San Antonio: Everybody’s expecting a big blowup on this issue, but we’ve got a great chance of enacting serious immigration reform. It won’t solve all problems. There will still be wage pressures and late-night parties.

But it seems that he should add one more: criminals. Having confused the criminality of illegal immigration with other forms of criminality he cannot do this.

> But right now immigration chaos is spreading a subculture of criminality across America. What we can do is re-establish law and order, so immigrants can bring their energy to this country without destroying the social fabric while they’re here.

As usual we are not evaluating the truth of Brooks’ conclusion. It may be the case that these two bills are good and beneficial. But it is important to note that Brooks’ has not given us or his friend in San Antonio reason to believe this.
And along the way he seems to have missed the point of his own argument.

Polar Bears for Global Warming

Most op-ed writers seem to have a fingerprint argument or rhetorical device. Whether it is David Brook’s penchant for dichotomous sociological classifications or George Will’s beloved Bartlett’s Quotations after a while the style gives away the author. A couple of weeks ago I analyzed one of John Tierney’s columns (Source) and uncovered his fingerprint argument. We can see precisely the same argument form in his most recent column, “The Good News Bears” (Source: NYT 8/6/5).

The characteristic pattern of Tierney’s opinion pieces is anecdotal evidence for substantive conclusions. In this column he suggests that global warming–if it is occurring–may in fact be a good thing:

>But I can see why Mr. Kalluk doesn’t mind the idea of a little climate change. “The ice is always going to freeze in the winter,” he said, “but it would be better for us if we had a longer summer. We’d have more time to use our boats. There would be more jobs and a longer tourist season.” The bears would be still around, and their charisma would be making more money for the locals, not just for the WWF fund-raisers down south.

Mr. Kalluk, an inuit who lives in Resolute Bay Nunavut, has visions of eco-tourism dollars in his eyes and so seems content with the prospect of climate change. More importantly, for Tierney’s argument, the climate change *may* not have any harmful effects for polar bears. Commenting on the 20% increase in polar bear populations, Tierney says.

> The chief reason for the rise is probably restrictions on hunting (for which conservationists deserve credit). In this village of fewer than 200 residents, Mr. Kalluk and the other hunters are limited each year to three dozen bears, which they allocate by drawing names out of a hat.

>But the increase might also be related to the recent warming, which could be helping bears in some places.

No evidence is offered for this last hypothesis other than that polar bears have survived in warmer climates before.

But even if we were inclined to accept this speculation from a non-expert, Tierney’s argument misses the point entirely. Even if environmental groups use “charismatic mega-fauna” like the polar bear to drum up support to fight global warming, this does not mean that that is the only or even the primary reason for trying to avoid climate change in the arctic. So even if it is true that the polar bears benefit from warmer climate, this would not suggest that warmer climate in the arctic is a good thing. Tierney has entirely missed the point.

Of course, that brings us back to his underlying argument–some guy in the arctic could make money from climate change, so maybe its not such a bad thing afterall.

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

Nature Wrecked

In the previous post we discussed George Will’s violent reaction to the violent reaction to Larry Summers’–President of Harvard University–foray into *a priori* genetics. On the basis of all of the scientific auctoritas as his armchair will provide, Will continues here and in the following op-ed piece (which we will discuss some time in the near future) to pontificate about the philosophical realities of human nature. Not only did it gall him that academic liberals would dare question the unjustified assertions of the president of Harvard University, but some in the left-wing political media had the temerity to challenge similar claims in the inaugural address of the President of the United States:

>This criticism went beyond doubts about his grandiose aspirations, to rejection of the philosophy that he might think entails such aspirations but actually does not. The philosophy of natural right — the Founders’ philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.

Continue reading Nature Wrecked

Missing the point

The Duelfer report states conclusively that two of the primary rationales for going to war in Iraq were seriously wrong. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and he had no ties to al Qaeda. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped David Brooks and George Bush from claiming that the report somehow justifies the war in Iraq. What is interesting is that each of them offers the same round-peg-square-hole kind of argument. To be more precise, each of them commits the fallacy of *ignoratio elenchi*, which is Latin for “missing the point,” in such a textbook way that it’s worth looking at their arguments together.

In short, the fallacy of missing the point occurs most often in cases of drawing extreme conclusions when the evidence would more properly suggest a more moderate conclusion.

First, let’s look at David Brooks. After a reciting litany of reasons the sanctions regime was not only faltering but that it had also strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power, Brooks concludes:

But we know where things were headed. Sanctions would have been lifted. Saddam, rich, triumphant and unbalanced, would have reconstituted his W.M.D. Perhaps he would have joined a nuclear arms race with Iran. Perhaps he would have left it all to his pathological heir Qusay.

We can argue about what would have been the best way to depose Saddam, but this report makes it crystal clear that this insatiable tyrant needed to be deposed. He was the menace, and, as the world dithered, he was winning his struggle. He was on the verge of greatness. We would all now be living in his nightmare.

Note that from the uncertainty of the “perhaps” of the first paragraph here cited Brooks derives the certainty of Saddam’s return to greatness, his need to be deposed, and that we would *now* be living in his nightmare. Never mind the practical impossibilities of Saddam reconstituting anything with an inspections regime that had not only been effective, but that was still in place at the start of the war. The real problem with Brooks’ argument is that when the evidence suggests corruption in the U.N. oil for food program, and Saddam’s uncanny ability to play it to his advantage (none of which actually produced weapons of mass destruction or ties with al Qaeda), Brooks concludes that the whole thing was a failure and needed to be scrapped. Considering the aims and successes of the sanctions and inspections, one would more reasonably conclude that the system only needed to be fixed. So the evidence does not suggest anything like the extreme measure of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and occupying Iraq.

So much for Brooks. We have another version of this same fallacy from last Friday’s Presidential debate. When asked whether despite the absence of WMDs the invasion of Iraq was still justified, Bush had this to say:

And I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein – as did my opponent – because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. And the unique threat was that he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like Al Qaeda, and the harm they inflicted on us with airplanes would be multiplied greatly by weapons of mass destruction. And that was a serious, serious threat. So I tried diplomacy, went to the United Nations. But as we learned in the same report I quoted, Saddam Hussein was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions. He was trying to get rid of sanctions for a reason. He wanted to restart his weapons programs.

The attempt to get rid of sanctions, “game” the oil-for-food program, and the intent to get weapons of mass destruction do not constitute an actual imminent threat. At worst, they show the various U.N. programs to have been successful. At most, they might justify a revision, but not a wholesale rejection, of them. Furthermore, granting the increase in the perceived threat of the Hussein regime after 9/11, this rejection was not an actual live option. To suggest that letting Hussein go free and unhindered is to compound the fallacy of missing the point with a false dilemma: there were many other options between ineffective sanctions and war.