Tag Archives: Argumentum ad ignorantiam

Maximum danger

When I sit down to make up examples of fallacies for quizzes and tests, I try to make them fairly obvious.  Since the course I teach fallacies in is an introductory one, the idea is for the students to recognize a systematic argument problem, even if they may not run into one so obvious.  But then again, I'm often wrong about that.  Peggy Noonan, of Bush = Superman fame ("For a moment I though of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big "S" on his chest."), forgets who was president on 11 September 2001.  She writes:

Back to the Christmas gathering. There was no grousing about John McCain, and considerable grousing about the Bush administration, but it was almost always followed by one sentence, and this is more or less what it was: "But he kept us safe." In the seven years since 9/11, there were no further attacks on American soil. This is an argument that's been around for a while but is newly re-emerging as the final argument for Mr. Bush: the one big thing he had to do after 9/11, the single thing he absolutely had to do, was keep it from happening again. And so far he has. It is unknown, and perhaps can't be known, whether this was fully due to the government's efforts, or the luck of the draw, or a combination of luck and effort. And it not only can't be fully known by the public, it can hardly be fully known by the players at all levels of government. They can't know, for instance, of a potential terrorist cell that didn't come together because of their efforts.

But the meme will likely linger. There's a rough justice with the American people. If a president presides over prosperity, whether he had anything to do with it or not, he gets the credit. If he has a recession, he gets the blame. The same with war, and terrorist attacks. We have not been attacked since 9/11. Someone—someones—did something right.

Someone may point out that the second paragraph is in the voice of the American people.  But that's just a pundit's trick; put the claim in the minds of the American people, and it's no longer really you talking, it's the American people.  That tactic, I think, ought to be illegal.  Besides, in Noonan's formulation, it's just contradictory.  George W. Bush was President on 9/11.  Shouldn't the American people blame him for that?  Rough justice.  Doesn't the Wall Street Journal employ editors?

Back to the point.  Noonan makes the not-too-controversial assertion that no one can really know whether or not our efforts in the war on terror have been successful.  To that I would add two things, by the way.  First, she should mention that it might be the case that nothing was planned in the United States, and that our reaction–the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–was the objective.  Second, we have been attacked everywhere but here.  So it's false that we haven't been attacked.  We have, just not here.  Alright, now back to the point. 

With the standard set up of the argument from ignorance–no one knows one way or the other–she then, in the voice of the American people, a fallacy loving people apparently, draws the conclusion that the Bush administration has done something right, something to protect us.  If a really rich woman at a Christmas party full of Republicans is going to speak for the American people as a whole, can she please not make them sound so dumb?