Category Archives: Op-Eds and other opinions

Equal opportunity

Guest Columnist for the New York Times Dahlia Lithwick makes the following argument about Abu Ghraib and the November election:

You can choose to connect these dots, or cast your vote in November based on whether Colonel Mustard was in a Swift boat with a lead pipe. But Abu Ghraib can’t be blamed solely on bad apples anymore. It was the direct consequence of an administration ready to bargain away the rule of law. That started with the suspension of basic prisoner protections, because this was a “new kind of war.” It led to the creation of a legal sinkhole on Guantánamo Bay. And it reached its zenith when high officials opined that torture isn’t torture unless there’s some attendant organ failure.

There are two textbook non sequiturs here. The first, a classic false dichotomy, erroneously claims that there are two alternatives–assign blame for Abu Ghraib all the way up the chain to the Whitehouse, or believe the now completely discredited Swift Boat story on Kerry. One can, however, not believe the Swift Boat story and not connect the dots all the way to the Whitehouse, or connect the dots all the way to the Whitehouse and believe the Swift Boat story. The two altenatives, in other words, are by no means mutually exclusive.

The second non sequitur, the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy, claims that the horrendous torture of Abu Ghraib is a direct consequence of the policies the current administration and its equivocal statements on the laws regarding detainees in what it describes as the “war on terrorism.” No doubt the one event–the torture–follows the existence of the administration and its various policies. But whether these events are causally linked in the manner of a “direct consequence” is something that needs to be established on the evidence. The temporal precedence of the one is hardly sufficient.

Now this is not to say of course that it is not the case that the administration is directly responsible. It is just isn’t responsible on the argument Lithwick has offered.

Tod Lindberg earns a 9.9 from the American judges

Well, Safire’s on vacation, so that makes the New York Times a little slow on Tuesdays. It may be the broken air-conditioning in my office this morning, but I decided not to troll the op-ed pages of the major dailies and instead jumped straight to a “sure-thing”–Tony Blankley’s Washington Times. And what do you know? We find Tod Lindberg in remarkable form today. His chosen routine begins with a well-executed “false dilemma,” gradually building with an increasing tempo through a series of implicit “tu quoque’s” and a “straw man,” he reaches the pinnacle of his routine–a rhetorical move, complicated and daring–a rhetorical ploy that perhaps has not yet been named.

First a sampling of his more pedestrian specious reasoning:

There are two possibilities: Either the Kerry campaign actually believes that the Bush campaign is behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; or the Kerry campaign just think’s its good politics to blame the President personally for the Vietnam veterans who served in proximity to Mr. Kerry and have decided he is “unfit” to be commander in chief.

A fairly simple false dilemma, hinging on whether there are other alternatives–perhaps the Kerry campaign believes that the Bush campaign is “involved” or “has made it convenient” for this organization to receive funding etc.. Never mind the question of what might be meant by “blame the President personally for . . ..” If anything the Kerry campaign blames the president for the utilization of these people in a high-profile, well-funded, misleading hatchet job.

But the really great stuff is still to come: Lindberg wants to suggest that the Kerry campaign and liberals in general are obsessed with “conspiracy theories.” Now to claim that an explanation is a conspiracy theory is to cast doubt on the truth and plausibility of the explanation. Even further, a conspiracy theory is by connotation, at least, the product of a paranoid mind, and hence almost by definition false, and at least by definition, unjustified by the available evidence.

Well, how do you argue that an explanation is part of a conspiracy theory? Lindberg certainly does not actually address the truth or falsity of the claim that there are suspicious connections between the Bush campaign and S.B.V.F.T: He does not want to evaluate the evidence of connection:

“But the Swift Boat Veterans funder is from Texas! Mr. Bush wrote him a letter! If that’s not proof of coordination, what is? Well, proof of coordination would be proof of coordination, and this is no that.”

An exceptionally executed Straw Man fallacy! The judges could not be more impressed! As though the whole argument of the Kerry Campaign is the fact that the funder is from Texas!

Nevertheless, Lindberg needs to cast some doubt on the explanation, so he asks:

“But do Republicans think there is some vast left-wing conspiracy aimed at them?”

Of course, he will argue that they do not. The really clever thing here, is that by merely associating Democrats and Conspiracy theories, Lindberg is able to suggest that their explanation of the connection between S.B.V.F.T. and the Bush campaign is a conspiracy theory, and therefore their explanation of the connection between the Bush campaign and S.B.V.F.T. is false!

A daring argument! The judges are stunned with no words to describe it. Is it a sort of tu quoque? An ad hominem? An ad populum? A combination of all of these fallacies rolled into one stunning stunning display of specious reasoning!?

The argument appears to work as follows:

1. Republicans don’t cry “conspiracy theory.”

2. Democrats hold a conspiracy theory concerning the SBVFT.

3. Conspiracy theories are false, or unjustified by the evidence.

3. Therefore, there is no connection between the SBVFT and the Bush campaign.

The first claim is a sort of “appeal to the people” (ad populum). It claims the moral high-ground, implicitly suggesting by the contrast that Democrats do in fact cry conspiracy theory.

The second claim passes unsupported by any evidence: Given the definition of a conspiracy that he gives–“carefully coordinated activity in which each apparently separate part is in fact centrally directed and controlled?”–it strikes one as exceedingly unlikely that the Kerry campaign has asserted any such thing.

The third claim is virtually definitional.

Then, finally, the conclusion of a factual falsity–the message he wants to leave you with–there is no coordination between SBVFT and the Bush Campaign. Why? Because Republicans don’t cry conspiracy theory and Democrats do.

In fact, he has not provided a single piece of evidence for this claim!

It’s a fascinating argument–and in fact it really isn’t new. Tucker Carlson lives and breathes by it on CrossFire.

The question of how to classify the central fallacy is difficult. It is probably an ad hominem argument beginning from an ad populum that lays the psychological ground for the fallacious inference.

Bravo Mr. Lindberg!!


Logically impossible?

Strong words from Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post today:

We’ve arrived at this juncture because it’s logically impossible both to honor the First Amendment and to regulate campaign finance effectively. We can do one or the other — but not both. Unfortunately, Congress and the Supreme Court won’t admit the choice. The result is the worst of both worlds. We gut the First Amendment and don’t effectively regulate campaign finance.

A round square, a married bachelor, and an explicit contradiction are logically impossible. It must be something about the definition of bachelor (an unmarried man) that makes it logically impossible for one to be married. The same, unfortunately for Mr. Samuelson, is not the case with campaign finance and speech. One might notice first of all that these are of entirely different categories–speech and money. Second, one might also notice that certain types of speech are regulated under the First Amendment–yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is the most famous example. Libel and slander, with their consequent penalties, also fall under the heading of “regulated” speech. Complete ownership of the airwaves, or their domination by the government in power, are also regulated. Now none of this means that it is not difficult to balance free speech and campaign finance, it means merely that it is not logically impossible.

The Thrill is Gone

A champion debater–always a red flag in the logic world–at the University of Chicago, David Brooks illustrates for us today the distinction between rhetoric and real argument:

Kerry’s speeches in the 1990’s read nothing like that 1971 testimony. The passion is gone. The pompous prevaricator is in. You read them and you see a man so cautiously calculating not to put a foot wrong that he envelops himself in a fog of caveats and equivocations. You see a man losing the ability to think like a normal human being and starting instead to think like an embassy.

Here we have two if not more basic logical howlers. First, and most obviously, Brooks attacks Kerry the person rather than his arguments. He heaps abuse on the Senator from Massachussets (“the pompous prevaricator”) for not taking clear and unnuanced positions (as do “normal human beings”) on complicated matters of policy. Second, in executing this attack, Brooks suggests that the only responsible way for to go is passionately to embrace one or another position (apparently it matters not what that position is as long as it is held passionately). We find it perplexing in the extreme that one would suggest embracing false dichotomies as a habit of thought.

Later in the same piece, Brooks continues his rhetorical charge:

Most people take a certain pride in their own opinions. They feel attached to them as part of who they are. But Kerry can be coldly detached from his views, willing to use, flip or hide them depending on the exigencies of the moment.

Here we have the appeal to the people–the argumentum ad populum–the last refuge of the op-ed writer. If I can’t make an argument for my position, then perhaps I can directly appeal to the good sense of “most people.” Unfortunately, just because most people “take pride in their opinions” does not mean that they should. If recent history has shown us anything, most people can be wrong, terrifyingly wrong (please fill in your own examples). The intellectual virtue of detachment–of seeing the limits of one’s own beliefs and revising them–becomes a vice in Brooks’ intellectual landscape. And of course when one changes one’s views, it’s not because of any honest reflection–a possibility Brooks wholly ignores–but because of the “exigencies” (that is to say the circumstances) of the moment.

So that’s at least four for Brooks today–ad hominem (abusive variety), false dichotomy, ad populum, and ad hominem (circumstantial variety). And this is only a cursory reading. Should you like to find more, here is the link.

And this brings us back to our original point. What Brooks says sounds very convincing, and he harnesses all of his considerable rhetorical training to make his case. Unfortunately, what results is nothing but so much hot air, so much nonsense. In the examples here cited, he does nothing to demonstrate, to support, or to argue for his position–whereby “argue” we mean state reasons that lead with significant probability to his conclusion.

et tu quoque Krauthammer?

Charles Krauthammer loves you too, I mean, tu quoque:

Strange. I do not remember any of these critics complaining about the universally hailed Oslo peace accords that imposed upon the Palestinians a PLO government flown in from Tunisia composed nearly entirely of political exiles.

Now I suppose the conclusion of the argument is that since these critics (note how they are unspecified–who is he talking about?) said nothing about the PLO exiles negotiating with Isreal, then lest they be hypocrites they better be quiet now that Iraqi exiles are doing the same thing. Well, even if it is true that every single critic of the Iraqi exiles wholeheartedly embraced the idea of PLO exiles negotiating with Israel, the two cases are hardly similar enough–or jeez, even if they are similar, very similar indeed–he has done nothing to counter the argument “these critics” are making. So they changed their mind. One must still demonstrate that they are wrong.


David Brooks loves those false dichotomies:

It’s been said that every society has two aristocracies. The members of the aristocracy of mind produce ideas, and pass along knowledge. The members of the aristocracy of money produce products and manage organizations. In our society these two groups happen to be engaged in a bitter conflict about everything from S.U.V.’s to presidents. You can’t understand the current bitter political polarization without appreciating how it is inflamed or even driven by the civil war within the educated class.

Only two? That certainly makes writing about them rather convenient, for you either fit the one or the other. And how easy it is to sound above the fray in pointing out this fact. But no one is fooled by this neat little rhetorical device. If they are fooled then they, like Mr. Brooks, don’t belong to the aristocracy of the mind.