Category Archives: Argument Analysis

A catch all category for posts which analyze arguments without diagnosing specific failures of logic.

Krugman Challenge Day 2 (I heart Krugman edition)

Today we’ll take another stab at the logic of Paul Krugman’s column (Times Select). Once again, the Krugman Challenge is an attempt to examine whether Paul Krugman commits fewer egregious logical sins than some of his colleagues. We are looking strictly speaking for commission of traditional logical fallacies, though considering along the way how his arguments work and whether they are made adequately explicit.

Krugman offers an argument for universal health care on two grounds:

>If we had a universal system — Medicare for everyone — there would be no more horror stories like those reported by The Los Angeles Times. And we’d almost certainly spend less on health care than we do now.

The first of these grounds is his concern for the majority of the column. The story from the L.A. Times provides some details of cases where people have purchased individual insurance, become sick, and then found their insurance company revoking coverage for various technical reasons. Krugman cites only 1 case and then asserts:

>This trend helps explain something that has been puzzling me: why is the health insurance industry growing rapidly, even as it covers fewer Americans?

Of course, Krugman has only cited one anecdote with a reference to the LA Times article on Sunday.

The original article claims that these cancellations–or at least the complaints and lawsuits that issue from them–have been suffered by people with individual insurance plans (of which there are 2 million in California) rather than group plans.

So is there evidence of a “trend” that can explain (or help explain) the rapid growth of the health industry? Well that’s hard for me to judge based on the data before me, and I will have to leave that to someone with access to relevant data. But it seems reasonable to take, in this case, the evidence of a series of lawsuits including depositions that show (“But an employee said in a deposition last year that a special department considers as many as 1,500 cases for cancellation each week in California alone. A consumer lawyer who saw Blue Cross’ cancellation tally sheets described the department as a rescission factory,” and coupled with regulators interest in these practices to suggest the existence of a “trend” (even though none of this evidence is directly cited in the article, the reference to its source seems more than adequate).

Can this trend provide explanation of the growth of the industry? Krugman doesn’t give us any particulars. However, immediately after this he talks about the growth of the industry as measured by employment, dazzling the reader with a series of statistics whose relevance to the question seems tenuous.
>Health care is poised to become America’s largest industry. Employment in manufacturing, which once dominated the
economy, has fallen 18 percent since 2000, to 14.2 million.

To which he adds:

>Yet even as health care becomes the core of the American economy, our system of paying for health care remains sick, and is getting sicker.

The sickness of health care is reflected in the decline of employment based coverage forcing either people to remain uninsured or seeking individual insurance. This coupled with the trend of jettisoning costly coverage where possible results in a trend towards only the healthiest and wealthiest having good insurance.

We will leave his comparison of the inefficiency of private health providers and the efficiency of government systems for another time when he offers a fuller argument for it.

So, how should we assess his argument? Once again Krugman avoids any glaringly fallacious argumentation. His argument is under-developed, but not in an obviously flawed way. There is a little bit of fuzziness connecting the “trend” of revoking coverage and the claim that it “helps explain” the growth of the industry. We have no real sense of the magnitude of the effects of this trend, or whether there are better explanations for the growth (such as providing increased services (as evidenced by increased employment?) to increased markets?). But, if the companies are interested in jettisoning costs (in some cases illegitimately) we must assume with Krugman that they are doing this as a result of “market pressures.” And so it must have some effect on their profitabiliy.

Nevertheless, since Krugman’s conclusion is that a public health care system would avoid cases like the one’s reported in the LA Times and cost less money, the part of his argument supporting the first claim seems adequately defended. (These cases are caused by the profit motive. In a public system profit motive is absent. Therefore these cases wouldn’t occur.)

Seems we will be returning for Krugman Challenge, Day 3!

Krugman Challenge, Day 1

We have often claimed that Krugman does not make the same sort of logical mistakes as our friends George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer do. Might be time to see whether that is in fact true. Today Krugman gives us this explanation (sorry not free access) of the Bush administration’s fascination with violating the Geneva Convention:

>So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people? To show that it can. The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

This nicely illustrates some of the problems of interpreting and logical analysis. If we were to represent the text as an argument, we might say:

1. The central drive of the administration is eliminating all limits on president’s power.

2. The Geneva Convention is a limit on the president’s power.

3. Therefore, the administration wants to show that it can ignore the Geneva Convention.

It is a valid inference (if 1 and 2 are true, then 3 must be true) represented like that. Yet when we re-read the original passage something seems amiss.

Krugman takes for granted the conclusion as the initial fact and hence we are dealing with an explanation rather than an argument. (The difference between an argument and an explanation can generally be identified by asking the question whether the premises provide reason to believe the conclusion is true, or whether the “premises” answer the question “why the conclusion is true?”)

But then we must ask whether there is reason to believe that this explanation is the “best explanation.” And here we would expect some argument.

But Krugman doesn’t give it to us, instead he admits that this rests on his belief that

>”torture appeals to the president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition.”

He doesn’t give any reason for this. He should. (But not to give an argument for one’s premises is not a a violation of the rules of logic. All arguments begin from premises that are unjustified within the argument. But one should be willing (and able) to provide justification of the premises when requested).

But the problem is that it is not a terribly persuasive explanation. And Krugman surely realizes that it is a controversial. He is, in effect, claiming that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are motivated primarily by a lust to expand the president’s power and that their policies on torture are motivated primarily by this lust.

There are, it seems to me, plenty of other more plausible explanations. For example, nothing more is needed than the claim that they don’t care about constraints, coupled with a claim about their rejection of the evidence that torture does not produce reliable intelligence is adequate to explain their motivations.

Of course, Krugman could reply that he has rejected this explanation by presenting the evidence that torture cannot provide reliable intelligence (as an argument from authority):

>Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn’t like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.

>What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.

But, for this to be an argument against the proposed explanation (mine above), we would need to believe that the Bush Administration listens to the relevant “authorities.” Recent history suggests that they do not. There seems to be good reason to believe that the Bush administration really really does believe that torturing suspects will make America safer, just as they seem to have believed that invading Iraq would make America safer.
Once again, it is important that this is a failure at the level not of logic (validity) but of truth (soundness). I may not find his argument sound, but I don’t think he commits any fallacies.


What the liberal media doesn’t get, never got, and will never get, is that the phrase “judicial activism” can only be properly ascribed to “liberal” judges. But yesterday they went ahead anyway and authored an editorial with bias towards facts.

>Conservatives like to divide judges into liberal “activists” and conservative nonactivists who interpret the law rather than making it. Anyone who follows the courts knows that conservative judges are as activist as liberal judges —just for different causes. A new study of Supreme Court voting patterns confirms this and suggests that the conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are actually more activist than their liberal colleagues.

What is a judicial activist? It’s a justice who

>voted to overturn a federal or state law, or one of the court’s own precedents.

On that argument, it follows that

>The conservative justices were far more willing than the liberals to strike down federal laws — clearly an activist stance, since they were substituting their own judgment for that of the people’s elected representatives in Congress. Justice Thomas voted to overturn federal laws in 34 cases and Justice Scalia in 31, compared with just 15 for Justice Stephen Breyer.

In those cases I bet they had good reason, or thought they did. That’s why they write opinions. So thankfully the editorialist points out that

>Activism is not necessarily a bad thing. The Supreme Court is supposed to strike down laws that are unconstitutional or otherwise flawed. Clearly, all nine justices, from across the political spectrum, believe this, since they all regularly vote to strike down laws. What is wrong is for one side to pretend its judges are not activist, and turn judicial activism into a partisan talking point, when the numbers show a very different story.

“A partisan talking point” is right, and it’s a paltry substitute for an argument. Worse than that stands for the sneaky ad hominem circumstantial. So it means something like “a not well grounded opinion–because motivated by unjustified partisanship.” We suggest as a result that the The New York Times ought to enforce the rules of rational discourse and no longer host on its editorical pages the parade of bozos who substitute such nonsense of argument.

Ring of Gyges

Recently, a bloggishly famous New Republic writer, Lee Siegel, was caught praising himself under a pseudonym. His blogging days are over at The New Republic. But his quick and ironic downfall has led one of’s bloggers to wonder:

>So, if Siegel is a cretin for concealing his role in the authorship of Web comments, then so are millions of other posters. If Siegel is a cretin for arranging pseudonymous posts that benefit him, then so are hundreds of thousands of other posters. One could argue that if Siegel’s critics can blast him from the dark, he should be allowed to do the same to them.

There are some obvious differences between a professional writer, blogging for a blog, who blogs about the terrificness of his own blog and his own blogging, and the anonymous posting of hundreds of thousands of amateurs with their own rings of Gyges. The former deliberately lies about himself by presenting himself as someone other than himself; the latter attempt to avoid accountability for their own arguments, and so embrace the very essence of internetting. The former tries to create the impression that someone other than himself is out there thinking of him; the latter just send anonymous mail about someone else to someone else. There’s a big difference, and the boys at Slate ought to know that.

The Horror

Howard Kurtz of the *Washington Post* offers a perplexing translation of the dissatisfaction of “the left” with the Mainstream media. Take a peak:

>Trust me when I say that many liberals are really ticked off at the MSM, even though the nature of their criticism is very different from their rivals on the right. The anger that liberals feel over media coverage of President Bush and the war is tinged with deep disappointment over journalistic shortcomings and a hope, however vain, that things can be improved. *Why aren’t you on our side?*

The odd thing about Kurtz’s otherwise shallow two-party analysis (e.g., on the right they scream journalists and supreme court justices should be hanged until dead, but on the left, there is also criticism of journalists) is the partisan translation of the left complaint. But that translation hardly follows from Kurtz’s own description of the left complaint. The problem, according to Kurtz’s imaginary lefty, is journalistic shortcomings.

Here’s an example. Last week, for instance, a reporter for the *New York Times* claimed Hilary Clinton said democrats were “wasting time” with their obsession with gay marriage and so forth. The only problem, as you can read for yourself in detail here, is that Clinton wasn’t talking about democrats at all, she was talking about republicans. The clueless but famous journalist completely misrepresented Clinton’s words. That’s a journalistic failing.

So, back to Kurtz’s wacky claim. The argument of the left is that such journalistic failings constitute a problem. How he derives “why aren’t you on our side” from that is a mystery. The question, rather, should be, why don’t report the truth to the best of your knowledge (i.e., do your job)?

Dulce Bellum Inexpertis

V.D.Hanson, professor of ancient history and conservative pundit (and fellow of the conservative Hoover institute) ought to know what the title of this post means–more on that later. Considering our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan and the amount of terrorism that has inspired (rather than deterred), we were mystified to see such belligerent opining:

What then would be the new Western approach to terrorism? Hard and quick retaliation–but without our past concern for nation-building, or offering a democratic alternative to theocracy and autocracy, or even worrying about whether other Muslims are unfairly lumped in with Islamists who operate freely in their midst.

This reminds me of something I urge upon my students. If the answer feels easy, gratifying, or is strangely in line with how you wanted it to come out, or how you have always thought, then there’s probably something wrong with it. In this case the obvious thing is that terrorism asks us to retaliate massively. Isn’t that just what terrorists–these in particular–want? Since war is politics by other, mostly violent, means, the terrorists means of violence are some of his own, and much of ours in response. That’s why they attack us. Our massive air attacks–however precise–fill their ranks faster than they could ever dream:

Any new policy of retaliation–in light of Sept. 11, 2001, and the messy efforts to birth democracies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank–would be something of an exasperated return to the old cruise-missile payback. Yet in the new world of Iranian nukes and Hezbollah missiles, the West would hit back with something far greater than a cruise missile.

They dream about ever more violent war with the US. And clueless hacks like Hanson would give it to them. The most surprising thing, however, is this:

If they are not careful, a Syria or Iran really will earn a conventional war–not more futile diplomacy or limited responses to terrorism. And history shows that massive attacks from the air are something that the West does well.

Massive assaults on Hezbollah from the air have not resolved the crisis as it stands. How would these assaults on other countries change attitudes towards Israel? How have the so far changed attitudes towards the US? Did massive air assaults bring about an end to terrorism in Afghanistan? In Iraq? To repeat the same belligerent opining that has achieved every aim the terrorists had boggles the mind.

It’s easy–pleasing as the Daily Howlermight say–to think these things about our the only weapons we seem to have in our arsenal. And, of course, (warning graphic images): Dulce bellum inexpertis.

Cut and run

Before he was swept up in a spam patrol sweep, a loyal reader of ours suggested we take a look at the Power Line Blog. He wrote:

>I would like to request that this blog focus a bit on another blog for the purpose of identifying and analyzing the methods of argumentation used there. The blog is Powerline and it is a conservative blog of some influence, although I cannot for the life of me determine why it should be so. In particular, please look over the posts of one of the site’s main contributors: Paul Mirengoff. He has been the subject of a previous post on this blog when he co-authored a Wash Post editorial. I think his posts are rife with certain techniques that debaters often use and which are used to hide some very interesting logical flaws, albeit always that easy to spot. The manner in which he consistently dismisses those with a viewpoint of which he disapproves strikes me both as unresponsive and as an ad hominem approach to argument. I’d be most appreciative of anyone’s observations here — I’ve no particular subject matter or viewpoint at stake here, but I am more than a little puzzled as to why Powerline is given so much credence in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

We’re generally not interested in blogs–it’s all we can do to read the op-eds of the major daily newspapers. As a way however of apologizing to this loyal reader, here’s a quick analysis of a brief Powerline passage:

>The fact that half of all deaths caused by terrorists last year were in Iraq is consistent with what the terrorists themselves often tell us: Iraq is the central front in the global war against Islamic terrorism. The old Andrew Sullivan would have understood that this means we should fight to win in Iraq, not cut and run.

Nevermind that Iraq hadn’t been a central front in the war on terrorism until we made it so by showing up there. The more interesting claim is the second–we should fight to win, not cut and run. “Cutting and running” has all the air of the straw man/false dichotomy. “Cutting and running” is not a strategic manuever; it is hasty, cowardly, and as a result ill-conceived. It is not a policy that any serious person advocates, or should be considered to advocate. So for that reason the powerline blogger blogs against no one. The false dichotomy consists in the implicit claim that the only alternative to “victory” (whose definition is always shifting, by the way, but that is another matter) is cowardly retreat. The alternative to victory, however, is defeat. A road that many claim we have already chosen. But that, again, is another matter.

Argument versus opinion

A student asked me the other day during a discussion of modal logic whether I found it hard to listen to the chatter of normal people. Another person–often the victim of my constant and misplaced vigilance–has raised the same question. While many might not know the proper logical mode of the claim “God exists” (necessarily? contingently?) they should know the basic facts of rationally justified beliefs. Deborah Howell, like many of her colleagues at the *Washington Post*, is not like most people. She writes:

>Editorials and news stories have different purposes. News stories are to inform; editorials are to influence.

This is right so far as it goes. The problem, as it has been pointed out by many (start here should you wish to purse the issue to its bloggly ends) is the falsley dichotomous facts versus opinion claim. Opinions, especially those of a newspaper of worldwide circulation and influence, such as the *Post*, ought to be grounded in well-established fact. Within the limits of reasonable dispute, what the facts show, which inferences can be legitimately drawn, is another matter. But we must stress that at the basis of that argument are the facts. Should those arguments, such as those of the Post editorial referred to above, fail to take the obvious facts into account, then they are little more than lies.

To the student who asked whether it was difficult to deal with the unrigorous chatter of normal people I said: it’s hard to read the newspaper.

A glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best

We find ourselves hard pressed to identify and analyze all of the fallacies in one post that are woven into George Will’s editorial on global warming today. As our readers will know by now, Will operates at the cutting edge of fallacious reasoning, continually pushing the envelope as he seems to discover new fallacies for us to describe and analyze. Today he advances an interesting and ridiculous reason for scepticism concerning the occurence and dangers of global warming:

While worrying about Montana’s receding glaciers, Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling. Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.” Science Digest (February 1973) reported that “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age.” The Christian Science Monitor (“Warning: Earth’s Climate is Changing Faster Than Even Experts Expect,” Aug. 27, 1974) reported that glaciers “have begun to advance,” “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” and “the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool.” Newsweek agreed (“The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975) that meteorologists “are almost unanimous” that catastrophic famines might result from the global cooling that the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1975) said “may mark the return to another ice age.” The Times (May 21, 1975) also said “a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable” now that it is “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

He seems to be arguing that we should distrust current scientific beliefs because in the past scientists held different beliefs. Undoubtedly, somewhere in some version of this claim there is a glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best. Scientififc controversy implies that the arguments and evidence advanced for a hypothesis have not yet persauded the scientific community. In a conditon of controversy we may do best to withold judgment and decision until the controversy is resolved. But, in the form that Will needs the premise in order to support his beliefs about global warming, this argument is flat-out absurd. Will does not argue here that there is controversy today among climate scientists–in fact, the vast majority seem to conclude from the relevant evidence the standard view of global warming–but that today’s scientists disagree with past scientists

One might as well argue that since scientists in the past thought that the past belief in the geocentric solar system suggests that we should not believe the current helio-centric theory: or, that since atoms were thought to be indivisible that we should doubt current belief in sub-atomic particles.

The closest I can come to categorizing this fallacy is as a version of the fallacy from ignorance. That isn’t exactly correct, since Will’s argument is really that because there has been disagreement about an hypothesis, we should not accept the arguments in favor of the hypothesis.

There are difficult questions about the nature of scientific reasoning and theorizing that such changes in scientific belief prompt. But, Will uses this change fallaciously to suggest that it provides reason for scepticism concerning the truth of the current view, and so he avoids the serious work of responding to serious arguments advanced by a seemingly vast majority of the climate scientists around the world.

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.