Category Archives: Weak Analogy

Honest Abe made me do it

The art of historical analogy is tricky and as such subject to dishonest manipulation. On that score, historian Victor Davis Hanson writes:

>The Bush administration can also use history to show that, despite what detractors say, its techniques aren’t so unreasonable. It’s worth reminding the American public that Abe Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and shut down newspapers; that Woodrow Wilson imprisoned prominent dissenters like Eugene Debs; and that Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-American citizens and secret military tribunals for German saboteurs (six of whom were executed) and allowed the coverup of military catastrophes (such as the hundreds killed during training exercises for the Normandy landings).

>In other words, there’s an advantage to providing historical perspective by engaging one’s critics and answering their charges.

There’s a causal and analogical argument here. While Hanson does not say that the above mentioned things relate causally to the various military victories, he certainly suggests as much. While sorting out the causuality of these various claims might merit more serious attention, I think it’s plain to most mildly historically minded people that these claims are false. Interning Japanese and other Axis-related americans didn’t advance us militarily nor did executing German saboteurs (they were already captured). Covering up military disasters such as the one mentioned were done for purposes of concealing our plans (not our foolishness). Such things are obvious from even the most superficial History Channel surfing.

More pernicious is the suggestion that these situations are analogous to the present day. They’re not. Since they didn’t advance the cause then, analogous actions don’t advance it now.

One final point. Coming from a professor, such straw man arguments are shameful:

>The public, for example, should be informed that the accusation that the U.S. went into Iraq for oil (“no blood for oil,” as the slogan goes) is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. For starters, gas prices skyrocketed once we induced risky change in the Middle East. How does that benefit the American people? Meanwhile, because of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s energy sector has been purged of corruption (such as the UN’s scandal-plagued oil-for-food program).

Such sloganeering inflames the passions but doesn’t constitute argument. Everyone knows that. The real arguments against attacking Iraq (not the protest march slogans) at the time were legion. It turns out, in fact, that many of those arguments were correct.

But while we’re on the subject of oil, at least one administration official (but certainly more) suggested–I think it was Paul Wolfowitz–that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the reconstruction. How are we to have interpreted that? The consequences to the Iraqi oil industry which Hanson mentions were clearly not the ones offered to the American public when the administration rolled out its new September 2003 product line. It is false to suggest otherwise.

Lapsus Matrimonii

The favorite rhetorical trick of the anti-gay marriage crowd is the slippery slope: if we allow gays to marry, then there is no reason three people can’t marry, and so forth and so on. Every sane reasoner knows that such arguments are ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean people don’t make them. The latest iteration of the slippery trope goes something like this:

>Activists are deployed across the country challenging traditional marriage, and it is more than likely that some additional judges will compound the Massachusetts mistake. This increased judicial approval of same-sex marriage will metastasize into the larger culture. Indeed, an insidious, but less recognized, consequence will be a push to demonize–and then punish–faith communities that refuse to bless homosexual unions.

So argues Douglas Kmiec, professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University. To lubricate the slope, Professor Kmiec draws an extended analogy with the Boy Scouts:

>While it may be inconceivable for many to imagine America treating churches that oppose gay marriage the same as racists who opposed interracial marriage in the 1960s, just consider the fate of the Boy Scouts. The Scouts have paid dearly for asserting their 1st Amendment right not to be forced to accept gay scoutmasters. In retaliation, the Scouts have been denied access to public parks and boat slips, charitable donation campaigns and other government benefits. The endgame of gay activists is to strip the Boy Scouts (and by extension, any other organization that morally opposes gay marriage) of its tax-exempt status under both federal and state law.

In the first place, it should be noted that there is a fundamental difference between the Boy Scouts use of public funds and property to discriminate against individuals and any church’s right to bless what it wants. No one doubts Bob Jones University’s right to prohibit interracial dating among those who subscribe to its version of Christianity, but hardly anyone could argue that the university should receive public funds to further that policy.

Since the analogy fails, it’s hardly likely that churches will be punished in any other than the usual way–losing members and earning the moral disapproval of those who disagree with their view.

Besides this, what’s really confused about Kmiec’s argument is that he thinks churches will have to make the affirmative step of “blessing homosexual unions.” Conservative churches maintain all sorts of discriminatory belief systems (women can’t be priests, nor can married people, nor can, get this, open homosexuals) and they continue to exist. They even receive rich federal grants for charitable work not associated with proselytizing.

There is one positive thing about slippery slope arguments: they slide both ways. The person who claims outrageous conclusions will follow opens himself to criticism about what justifies his affirmation. So, one wonders, what justifies this:

>Many share the view, as I do, that marriage is a moral reality incapable of redefinition by court edict.

Just because many share the view that it’s a moral reality, doesn’t mean it is. If such things were determined by popular vote, all sorts of craziness would follow, wouldn’t it?

None shall pass

Whatever the source of the current urgency surrounding the immigration debate (we have our theories, but those are for another forum), it’s certainly hard, intellectually but not rhetorically, for many of those opposed in some form to immigration to distinguish between their immigrant ancestors (and sometimes themselves) and the immigrants here in our country today.

One way–one very wrong way–to resolve the tension is to latch onto the analogical notion of trespass. Take the following one from Charles Krauthammer:

>If you found a stranger living in your basement, you would be far more inclined to let him stay if he assured you that his ultimate intent is just to improve his own life and not to prepare the way for his various cousins waiting on the other side of your fence.

Let’s read this very carefully. The stranger is an illegal latino; latinos (and maybe people from the middle east) seem to be the only immigrants that right wing types think about. And if you doubt that analysis, read the first part of the piece where the focus on the discussion was on the impolitic presence of mexican flags at rallies (we should note that in Chicago saw and continually see many Irish ones).

This presence of this person, who lives apparently rent-free *in your basement* comes as a surprise to you: you *stumble* upon him, you happen to find him; you didn’t know he was there; you didn’t invite him. So he must have broken in to your basement–he is a trespasser. He is, after all, illegal. The analogy doesn’t mention that he does any work (for anyone, least of all you). He lives–he doesn’t *work* in your basement.

Worse than all of this, he must reassure you that he’s only here for himself, and not for his extended family (cousins) who are waiting on the other side of *your* fence. Do they want to live in your basement as well? One can only suppose.

Heads up!

It may take a few days to sort out the sheer idiocy of George Will’s Sunday Post column. The other day–with a little help from our new friends down under–my colleague discussed the argument from ignorance that Will has been flogging for quite a while now. On “This Week” last week (click here for the video) he pulled out a cheat-sheet of quotes from major media (the New York Times is his favorite) in order to give the impression of authentic scientific disagreement. Prior to this, Will favorably reviewed Michael Crichton’s science fiction (you read that right, science fiction) novel about the manufactured global warming crisis. For a discussion of that, you can see here. See also his discussion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

But the mental gymnastics in his piece on Sunday make those other pieces appear mere exercises in sophistry. Perhaps the *Post* editors pointed out that Crichton’s fictional novel (notwithstanding footnotes and appendices) didn’t constitute reasonable scientific evidence. So he turns within–the truth, so says Augustine, teaches from within:

Eighty-five percent of Americans say warming is probably happening, and 62 percent say it threatens them personally. The National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth’s surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century. Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it. Never mind that one degree might be the margin of error when measuring the planet’s temperature. To take a person’s temperature, you put a thermometer in an orifice or under an arm. Taking the temperature of our churning planet, with its tectonic plates sliding around over a molten core, involves limited precision.

Will’s skepticism about global warming–what republicans call “global climate change” and which is doubted by almost no qualified climatologists (as well as many science fiction writers)–beggars belief. Taking one’s temperature with one of those Walgreens thermometers (the ones you have to shake and that I can never read) hardly compares to the activity of thousands of scientists independently recording and checking and publishing (and rechecking and rerecording and editing and revising) the data of their many and diverse fields. They’re not just sticking their Walgreens thermometer where Will has put his head.

“Public” word games and the Establishment Clause

In yesterday’s Washington Post, William Raspberry ceded the job of thinking about the relationship between church and state to Kevin “Seamus” Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (Source: WaPo 7/11/05).

According to Hasson, the “problem” with the decision in McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. ACLU of Kentucky et al., is that it considers the intention motivating governmental displays of religious objects in deciding whether they violate the first amendment’s establishment clause (Source: Findlaw).

Hasson, like many religious conservatives attempting to find an anti-religious stance in governmental neutrality, when there is little reason to find it, he simply asserts it. For example, he argues against the test for religious purpose as follows:

>”The ‘predominantly religious’ test suggests that anything not predominantly secular must be religious. It in fact has strong anti -religious overtones.”

If it is the case that “secular” here means “non-religious” then, yes, anything not predominantly non-religious must be predominantly religious. How one finds “strong anti-religious overtones” in this tautologically true sentence, however, is a bit mysterious.

But his purpose is to assert that the requirement of neutrality leads precisely to this hostility–not, of course, on the basis of any evidence or argument:

>”There’s nothing in common sense — and certainly nothing in the First Amendment — that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be ‘secular’ takes you,” he says.

Everyone would, I take it, grant that the first amendment does not requires the government to be hostile to publicly expressed religion (since it is, in fact, designed to guarantee that possibility). It obviously does not follow, however, that the “requirement that government be ‘secular’ implies such a hostility (at least not without considerable argument that Hasson neglects to offer). One might as well argue that because umpires are required to maintain neutrality betwen the teams that they are therefore hostile to the teams.

But Raspberry opines:

>Hasson is not just playing word games. He thinks the notion that religion should be expressed only in private — and never in the context of government — is a serious misreading of human nature.

But Raspberry’s protestation aside, we can easily see that Hasson is in fact just “playing word games”–specifically, he is confusing, whether deliberately or not, two senses of “public” (and so also two senses of “private”).

>We don’t believe in private because we don’t live in private,” . . .”This has always been the case. We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the ‘Messiah’ and write ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture. . . . It’s how we’re made.”

In one sense, the word means something like displayed/occuring socially (as in, “public drunkenness”)and in the other it means displayed/occuring socially by the government (as in, “public works”). Certainly public (as in drunkenness) religious displays should be protected by the courts. But the First Amendment seems to, fairly clearly, require that the government not engage in public (as in works) displays of religious establishment. And, as the courts have reasonably argued, the display of the ten commandments for non-predominantly secular purposes amounts to such a public establishment.

But Hasson isn’t finished trying to muddy the waters:

>”Religion has a natural role in culture — almost like ethnicity. And both, being categories over which people have killed each other, require scrutiny. But isn’t it interesting that our courts are never clogged with Anglophiles trying to enjoin St. Patrick’s Day parades, or with whites and Asians trying to stop Black History Month? Mayors can — and do — wear green on March 17, while taking no position on the relative merits of being Irish. It should be the same with Christmas and Hanukah.”

This is clearly a bad analogy. Certainly mayors wear green and crosses or whatever else they as individuals would like publicly (as in drunkeness) to display. Setting aside that the holiday is a secular one for most participants–they cannot, establish it as a public (as in works) holiday.

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

Which one of these things is not like the other?

The reporting media’s feverish desire for fairness and balance and its consequent abdication of its role as checker of facts seems to have spread to the op-ed pages. The ones who suffer most from this malady are those most often numbered among the “liberal” commentators. Unlike their more ideologically driven colleagues (who feel no such scruple), liberal commentators–and we use the term “liberal” only because that’s what people tend to call them–often argue against both advertised sides of an issue. In many, perhaps even most, contexts this would be a positive thing; it challenges the silly notion that for any argument there are only two parties. Sometimes, however, this urge for balance becomes an end in itself. This is what we have in yesterday’s column by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof:

If they're intellectually consistent, Democrats will speak out not only against the Swift Boat Veterans but also against Mr. Kerry's demagoguery on trade, like his suggestion that outsourcing is the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies. Trade demagoguery may not be as felonious as an assault on a war hero's character, but it harms America by undermining support for free trade.

Naturally what interests us about this passage is the mention of intellectual consistency. Ironically, this passage contains none. For the following two things are too different to warrant comparison in terms of consistency:

  • the Kerry campaign’s suggestion that Bush’s economic policies lead to outsourcing;
  • and

  • “a felonious assault on a war hero’s character.”

We might examine this puzzling comparison from two points of view, for it is almost (but not quite) equally inapplicable to both Kerry and Bush. Let’s look at how it is unfair to Kerry first. First, Kristof says that the Kerry campaign has leveled the charges. Second, the charges concern the effects of the policies of the current administration. Third, these charges are alleged to “harm America” by “undermining support for free trade.” Whether “outsourcing” and “support for free trade” can somehow be seen to entail each other is another matter, for what Kristof charges is not that the charges of the Kerry campaign are false, but that America may be harmed by failing to support free trade. So the Kerry campaign has challenged the Bush administration’s economic policies with the potential result of harming a feature of America’s economic system. On the other hand, this comparison is somewhat unfair to Bush since supporters of Bush have falsely claimed that John Kerry the person is a liar. The Bush campaign has not made the charges (though the President has refused to repudiate them specifically, but that’s besides the point here). But the balance of Kristof’s analysis tilts against Kerry, for Kristof alleges that legitimate questions about the effectiveness of economic policies of his opponent stand on equal footing with spurious assaults on Kerry’s honesty and service to his country. On the strength of this ridiculous analysis, Kristof concludes:

I'm afraid that the dishonesty of politics has infected all of us if we're so partisan that we're willing to point out only the sins of the other side. Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one's own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Mr. Kerry's war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate's protectionist tone on trade.

Speaking of intellectual consistency, this is even more muddled than the previous paragraph. Kristof claims that the “dishonesty” of politics infects each side. But how are the smears against Kerry’s character of the same class as the Kerry campaign’s “protectionist” tone on trade? The first certainly is a matter of honesty (again, for those who leveled the charges, and perhaps for the campaign that refuses to issue a specific condemnation of them), the second is just a matter of honest political disagreement. In the end, a more readily available comparison suggests itself. Kristof might charge Kerry supporters with attacking the honesty and character of President Bush. In that case, even though the cases may still be too different to compare (for one of these charges seems to be true), at least Kristof would have gotten the basic comparison right.