Category Archives: False Dichotomy

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.

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.


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.