While doing some reading on yesterday's topic, and more specifically the Greatest Story Never Told economy since 2001, I came across a slightly old but positively stunning example of a common logical fallacy – begging the question, a.k.a. circular logic. This is simply any argument in which the conclusion is also a premise or precondition of the same.

It has long been an open secret (to anyone who cares to pay attention) that the overwhelming majority of the costs of Bush's economic policies have simply been shifted into the future. In some cases they have been so cynical as to pay for tax cuts and portions of the prescription drug benefit program with line items in the 2009 budget. It's fairly clear, as Leon Panetta states in this article from 2005, that whoever follows Bush into the White House is A) going to have zero ability to implement any sort of domestic agenda, B) going to spend 99% of his/her term dealing with the mess they inherited and C) probably going to be a one-termer. Why? See A and B.

What I find so amazing about that article is a quote from Lindsey Graham which I assume barely registered with most readers. If not for James Inhofe, Graham would be the undisputed reigning Biggest Idiot in the Senate (a feat akin to being the dumbest journalism major at Arizona State). We all expect him to say ridiculous things by the dozen. But this takes it to a whole 'nother level (you may need to read the whole article to get the context):

With a fix to the AMT, deficits in a decade would likely reach $650 billion to $700 billion, said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "The days of being everything to everybody are quickly coming to a close," he said, adding that a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts would make it politically impossible to borrow the full cost of a Social Security fix. "We have to look at the deficit in a holistic way."

Wait, what? Social Security must be privatized because we can't keep funding it on the fly….and we can't do that because….George W. Bush has bankrupted the country with half-assed right wing economic policy….such as privatizing Social Security. If you're confused, let me break it down for you.

  • 1. Eight years of neocon fiscal policies and mass privatization have bankrupted the government.
  • 2. Neocon fiscal policies and mass privatization are necessary because the days of government being able to afford things like Social Security are over.

    So let's do an analogy using Graham's "logic." You're in good health. You go to a doctor who insists that you are sick, or about to become sick, and need to start taking massive doses of prescription drugs. You protest, "But I'm fine!" Finally he wears you down and you agree to take the 20 pills per day that he prescribes for you. You become deathly ill. As you stagger back into his office he says "See? I told you that you'd get sick. The only cure is to double the dose. Of everything."

    You've really got to hand it to the supply-siders and Cato Institute types. They kept complaining about how we couldn't afford to have government solve our problems. After 12 years of right-wingers in Congress and the White House, they're right. That's really clever. Telling people that we can't afford the New Deal didn't make much sense until they bankrupted the nation and proved themselves "right."


    Mt. Everest, when first accurately measured by modern scientific equipment, was exactly 29,000 feet tall (the mean of recorded heights from 6 different measuring techniques). Assuming no one would believe that they actually measured it if they reported such a round figure, scientists called it 29,002 feet. The first figure was completely accurate but suffered from the fact that it sounded like an estimation. Being able to say that it is "exactly" 29,002 feet makes it sound so much more precise.

    People are impressed by numbers. Numbers create the impression that an author has done "research" and possibly even math. Numbers that smack of tremendous precision are a common and often flawed form of argument. Consider two examples: one crude and easy to spot, another much more subtle and relevant.

    One great example lies in the way countries report their oil reserves. A dirty secret among the Oil Will Last Forever crowd is that most of the world's major producers self-report their reserves and, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, refuse to allow outside verification of their fantastic claims. A cheap, lame way to cover for their hyperbole is to release incredibly precise figures to create the impression that they have very detailed measures. Note Venezuela's figures on this Department of Energy list. Rather than the correct answer of "about 80 bbl" they report figures of 79.721 and 80.012 bbl in separate reports. Not a single engineer on the planet would claim to be able to measure the exact number of barrels of oil in the ground so accurately – especially since Venezuela includes wildly unpredictable tar sands among its reserves. "About 80 bbl" really sounds like they're making it up; 80.012, which is every bit as fabricated, is intended to preempt skepticism.

    Public opinion polls are another terrific example of false precision. The media give statistics that imply (but never explicitly state) that they have measured some public sentiment very precisely. Of course, no news organization is irresponsible enough to omit the margin of error (among other fine print) at the bottom of the poll. But they certainly don't do much to emphasize it. Instea they state exact figures when any measurement with a margin of error is really a range. Consider the caveat from the following recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll (via pollingreport.com)

    FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Oct. 23-24, 2007. N=303 Republican voters nationwide. MoE +/- 6.

    Plus or minus six percent. That's a range of 12%. Yet the figures are reported without that crucial bit of information included. Therefore you get something like this:

    Rudy Giuliani 31
    Fred Thompson 17
    John McCain 12
    Mitt Romney 7
    Mike Huckabee 5
    Duncan Hunter 3
    Tom Tancredo 2
    Ron Paul 1
    Other 2
    Unsure 16
    Wouldn't vote 4


    Wow, Rudy looks like he has a massive lead, and Fred Thompson is a clear second. Right? Well, here's the correct interpretation, which is the range represented by the green bars here (plus and minus 6% around the reported figure):


    The correct interpretation shows that, while Giuliani is in 1st place no matter how the data are sliced, any one of five different responses (Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Thompson, or Don't Know) could be second. The accuracy of polling data is intimately tied to the number of "don't know/undecided" responses, and once the MOE is taken into account that could be as high as 22% here – nearly one in four respondents. So this is a really accurate picture of the GOP primary as long as you don't care about who's in 2nd through 6th place. Or about the quarter of the electorate who have yet to make up their minds. Maybe they'll make Opinion Dynamics' job easier by distributing themselves exactly according to the "precise" poll numbers reported here.

    Lying with numbers is so easy that it's almost remarkable when they're used to tell the truth.

    (PS: I'm officially 29 today, showing no signs of mellowing with age)


    I'm fascinated by denialism (if you've never been, please visit Denialism Blog), and all denialism is based on two things: manufactured controversies and arguments that affirm the consequent.

    Arguments that affirm the consequent infer conditions based on conclusions. This fallacy is easiest to explain by way of example. Quite simply:

    If I am having a stroke, my head would hurt.
    My head hurts.
    Therefore I am having a stroke.

    This type of fallacy, as you can see, is patently obvious to most observers who can apply logic to arguments. However, it is rarely as obvious as in the exaggerated example above. Take, for example, something that has the classic dimensions of denialism: the Teach the Controversy "movement." Step one – fabricate controversy where none exists. Step two – let the fallacies roll in a bald effort to lend legitimacy to the argument.
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    What denialists such as Discovery Institute (the well-funded folks who bring us Teach the Controversy) or the Institute for Historical Review (Holocaust deniers) do is very basic but sufficient to fool the ignorant:

    Legitimate scientific theories are supported by scientists.
    (Insert theory) is supported by scientists.
    Therefore it is a legitimate scientific theory.

    Like all truly pernicious logical fallacies, this contains a kernel of truth. That is why it is so deceptive. Obviously, legitimate scientific theories are supported by scientists. But they are also supported by other things (data, research, and testing). Similarly, a denialist theory is supported by "scientists." But they are supported by only a small number of largely-discredited fringe conspiracists. Finding one or two scientists of questionable qualifications who will support a theory does not mean it is a valid one, especially when nothing else in the form of data/evidence support it. Leaping to conclusions based on half-truths and incomplete arguments is fun!
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    The goal of denialism isn't to be proven correct; it's simply to muddy the waters and create doubt among those who aren't paying too much attention. Like a cheap infomercial seeks credibility by having men in white lab coats stand around, denialists know that plenty of (not-so-bright) people will see an "expert" and infer validity to the argument.


    I am phenomenally excited that Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. It's not that I think he's all that great; I just love watching the right-wing media have a collective aneurysm over it. Honestly, has anyone really benefited more from this decision that Limbaugh and Hannity? Just think of the hours of pissing/moaning fodder this has created.

    Gore has finally ascended into the Clinton-Ted Kennedy-Streisand category of people whose very names make conservatives froth at the mouth. So kudos for that, Al. Just look at what Gore's shiny prize did to the brilliant mind of Iain Kennedy. Blinded by rage, the best this mental infant could do was a banal Guilt by Association fallacy:

    Who Else Should Al Gore Share the Prize With? How about that well known peace campaigner Osama Bin Laden, who implicitly endorsed Gore's stance – and that of the Nobel committee – in his September rant from the cave.

    I've tried to take in as little of it as possible, but the "This is such a travesty" shit-fits seem to focus largely on three amazingly easy-to-disassemble points.

  • 1. "Other people are far more deserving than Gore" – One who uses this argument should probably be prepared to list some examples, no? The outstanding journalists over at Fox & Friends discussed the Great Wrongs of the Nobel committee and then helpfully offered an alternative. It's….wait for it…..hold……hooooooooooold……General/Saint David Petraeus! (Insert comedic sound effect here)
  • 2. "The Nobel Peace Prize is a joke/has no credibility" – What was your first fucking clue, when Kissinger won one? Or was it Arafat?
  • 3. "They're making a political statement with the award" – This is something new, according to right wingers. Apparently the Nobel folks weren't playing politics in the past when they did things like give Lech Walesa (1983), Albert Lutuli (1960) or Desmond Tutu (1984) the award. Nope, no conceivable way those could be construed as an effort to send a political message.

    In short, the Gore/Nobel "controversy" is a lobbed softball that plays directly into what the right wing does best in America: bitch. Bitching, bitching, and more bitching about the innumerable and egregious wrongs inflicted on wealthy, suburban white men by effete Euro-intellectual types. And the media. Oh, that liberal media.


    All fallacies of relevance rely on false or misleading analogies. They are the rhetorical version of the classic "bait & switch" sales technique. Start the reader out with something universally approved of or scorned. Then quickly – very quickly, so as not to give the reader time to ask too many questions – switch to something else which bears a superficial resemblance but is not in fact analogous. The "switch" item need only bear a passing resemblance to the original subject; think about the difference between a truly good disguise and a disguise that is sufficient to fool an observer from 20 yards away.

    Roger Cohen would make a great comissioned salesman.

    In this essay, "The New L-Word," Cohen offers a cornucopia of logical fallacies. But for today let's just focus on the poor analogies and bait/switch games. First:

    (Neocons), in the words of leftist commentator and blogger Matthew Yglesias, "believe that America should coercively dominate the world through military force" and "believe in a dogmatic form of American exceptionalism" and "favor the creation of a U.S.-dominated 'universal empire.' "

    But the term, in these Walt-Mearsheimered days, often denotes more than that. Neocon, for many, has become shorthand for neocon-Zionist conspiracy, whatever that may be, although probably involving some combination of plans to exploit Iraqi oil, bomb Iran and apply U.S. power to Israel's benefit.

    Wow, someone call a lawyer, I think I just got whiplash from the speed with which we went from relatively mainstream criticism of neoconservatism to whacko Zionist conspiracy nuts. Boy, those two things sure are similar. According to whom? Why, according to "many," of course. And let's skip the rich irony of referring to Mr. Yglesias as "leftist commentator" in an editorial about the folly of applying blanket labels as epithets. Wait. There's more:

    Beyond that, neocon has morphed into an all-purpose insult for anyone who still believes that American power is inextricable from global stability and still thinks the muscular anti-totalitarian U.S. interventionism that brought down Slobodan Milosevic has a place, and still argues, like Christopher Hitchens, that ousting Saddam Hussein put the United States "on the right side of history."

    (…)Liberal interventionists, if you recall, were people like myself for whom the sight in the 1990s of hundreds of thousands of European Muslims processed through Serbian concentration camps, or killed in them, left little doubt of the merits, indeed the necessity, of U.S. military action in the name of the human dignity that only open societies afford. Without such action in Bosnia and Kosovo, Europe would not be at peace today.

    (…)Baghdad is closer to Sarajevo than the left has allowed.

    (…)Kouchner, a socialist, is now French foreign minister– hardly a sign the credo's dead. He, in turn, is close to Richard Holbrooke, who brought peace to Bosnia and may be secretary of state in a Hillary Clinton administration.

    DO YOU GET IT YET? DID YOU GET IT? HMM? Cohen is approximately as subtle as an Oliver Stone film in the last half of his essay. He's ostensibly talking about the current perception of neocons, and how Iraq has turned that ideology into an insult. B-B-But….Mr. Cohen, why is hardly any of your discussion about Iraq? Why do you bring up Bosnia half-a-dozen times?

    Why, because Bosnia and Iraq are virtually the same thing!! They're so similar, in fact, that Roger Cohen can just avoid Iraq altogether and talk about that Bosnia thing which most Americans hardly remember and even fewer understand. Nevermind the fact that the situation in the Balkans was so complex that even PhDs who have made careers out of studying it struggle to grasp it; in Cohen's world, it was a simple morality play, and intervening (on, um, someone's behalf….whoever the Good Guys were) was so obviously right that we can toss it in conversations as a straw man as easily as "the Holocaust" or "Communism."

    In reality, the situations in Bosnia and Iraq bear almost no resemblance beyond fitting into the vague category of Places Upon Which American Ordinance Has Fallen and In Which Our Troops Have Died. He starts with Bosnia and strongly implies (or, in places, asserts explicitly) that intervention in that conflict was quite obviously a good thing. And then the quick switch – intervention was a good thing in Bosnia, therefore it is a good thing in Iraq.

    It's quite amazing, the depths to which even papers like the New York Times will sink. They give column space to dreck like this for the sole purpose of precluding allegations of bias. Nevermind if said columnist is thunderingly ignorant or can't make an argument to save his soul – the important thing is having someone who will talk about how great of an idea the Iraq War is on a bi-weekly basis.


    Lately I've been getting a man-sized kick out of the little pearls of wisdom falling out of the textbook "Biology for Christian Schools," which is published by Bob Jones University and is currently the subject of a lengthy, circus-like lawsuit in California. Check out some of the knee-slappers, head-scratchers, and just-flat-out-incorrect highlights from the textbook here and here. It looks like a healthy combination of far-right bumper sticker slogans and stunning ignorance. Thankfully, the courts haven't looked too favorably on unfalsifiable religious ideology masquerading as science. As usual the lawsuit is more about publicity and martyrdom ("Activist judges declare war on Jesus!") than any reasonable expectation of success.

    One aspect of the case, and previous ones like it, that amuses me to no end is doing a little research on the "expert witnesses" that creationists trot out to absorb punishment at the hands of actual scientists. That brings us to ipse dixitthe appeal to questionable authority.

    Look closely at the California and you'll see the name Michael Behe, a leading "intelligent design" proponent who teaches at Lehigh University. As his written report states, the Christian schools hired him (to the tune of $20,000) as an expert witness in "biology and physics." This is despite the fact that Prof. Behe has absolutely no physics background. I suspect that ID advocates don't understand that physics and biology are two different things.

    Behe's resume (starting on p. 58 of the written report) could be that of any one of the hundreds of tenured pariahs and cranks that litter academia. Their research is a joke, they are a joke, and their only recourse is to seek validation from like-minded cranks. Behe may not be able to get his work about irreducible complexity published in "peer-reviewed" or "legitimate" science journals, but he did make National Review's list of top non-fiction books! Oh, and let's not forget the coveted Book of the Year award from Christianity Today. Notice the gap between 1978 and 1995 (when he started publishing creationist nonsense) in his resume? The reason is simply that he failed at being a real academic, so he quit trying and transitioned to the lucrative world of Paid Shilling.

    Behe's theory has been disproven through numerous peer-reviewed studies. It is widely ridiculed and considered a poorly-repackaged creationist argument. And please note the last line of the entire report:

    Testimony in other cases: In the preceding four years, Kitzmiller vs. Dover

    Why is that funny? His testimony in the widely-publicized Kitzmiller case resulted in one of the best, most lengthy, and most brutal intellectual beatdowns ever to flow from our legal system. And for some reason he's bringing it up like a good resume-builder. Among the comments in the 130+ page decision written by George W. Bush-appointed Republican judge John Jones:

    "…on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough." (23:19 (Behe))." (Page 78)

    "By defining irreducible complexity in the way that he has, Professor Behe attempts to exclude the phenomenon of exaptation by definitional fiat, ignoring as he does so abundant evidence which refutes his argument. Notably, the NAS has rejected Professor Behe's claim for irreducible complexity…" (Page 75)

    If you're so inclined, you can read all 130 pages of that pimp-slapping here. Needless to say, the court was not impressed by the paid testimony of a failed biologist-turned-pitchman. If I were Behe, I'd demand a lot more than $20,000 per appearance to subject myself to such ridicule. He and his kind are a dime a dozen; they cling to bizarre ideas that are repeatedly disproven and consider their widespread rejection by their peers to be a sign of the righteousness of their crusade toward intellectual martyrdom.

    The moral of (my) story here is that creationists are using a very simple, misleading, and transparent logical fallacy by trotting out such "expert witnesses" in the media and in court. They ignore the fact that Michael Behe is completely full of shit and that every word he's ever written has been challenged and contradicted by hard data. Their goal is simple – introduce him as "Professor" Michael Behe and grandly state his awards and accomplishments (don't mention that they're mostly from far-right ID groups, not peer-reviewed academic journals). The presence of such an "expert" with a fancy title is intended to lend weight to and imply intellectual support for the argument. What makes this an appeal to questionable authority, which is distinct from an ordinary appeal to authority, is that this authority is a fraud. Appeals to authority are very often a logical, valid form of argument. Appeals to charlatans and snake-oil merchants, however, are always riddled with logical holes and built on a foundation of quicksand.


    Guilt by Association is the "dirty bomb" of rhetorical techniques. Much as imitation nuclear weapons are built only by nations unable to figure out or afford the real ones, guilt by association is the reflexive refuge of people who aren't smart enough to think of a better, more subtle logical fallacy to use. It's cheap, easy, and plays directly into prejudices and stereotypes that pose as legitimate heuristics in the minds of the inattentive public.

    Senator Joseph McCarthy, 1951:

    "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?"

    Right-wing shill Howard Kurtz, 2007:

    "But you bash the Bush administration so often that you have become a hero to some on the left. I mean, just in this book, in the first few pages, you talk about Bush and company harming America. You call the president deluded and you speak favorably of impeachment. Do you consider yourself a left-winger?"

    The times and names change, but the rhetorical tactic is identical – admit that you are a member of some group or category that will allow us to discredit you and question all of your motives. If the media reports something that contradicts what you believe, cite "liberal bias" as evidence that it must be a lie. Most people, of course, don't even know who are the reporters behind the hundreds of daily newspaper/TV items credited to "Associated Press" or "Gannett News Service." But if he or she is a reporter, then obviously he or she is a liberal. All reporters are not merely liberals, they are lying, deceptive liberals out to distort the truth.

    Given what a transparently lame argument it is, Guilt by Association is rarely used except by people who are unable to defend their position any other way. Or by really lousy writers. Like James Taranto:

    The most telling moment in last night's [State of the Union] speech came after the president noted that "key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year." In response, notes the New York Times, "some critics in Congress applauded enthusiastically." If Osama bin Laden watched the speech, one imagines him applauding too.

    If Osama bin Laden likes something and you also like it, you are his comrade and supporter. Just like how Hitler liked gardening and I like gardening, which confirms that I am a rabid Nazi. The ACLU thinks terrorists should be tried with due process, so the ACLU are terrorists. Your professor does not think Reagan was the greatest president of all time, so he is an ivory-tower liberal trying to brainwash you. What excellent, logical reasoning.

    I just feel bad for people who use this argument. It usually indicates desperation or, more often, a stunningly superficial capacity for understanding any substantive issue. Sure, we could talk about why the Patriot Act is controversial…but John Doe realizes that if he just labels everyone a Patriot or a Traitor he can get to Trick My Truck that much faster.


    Ah, the argument from ignorance. It's my 'favorite' logical fallacy, inasmuch as it seems to be the go-to fallacy of the dumbest people making the dumbest arguments. It's the Nuclear Option of bad logic; when all else fails and every single shred of evidence is against someone's argument, you can rest assured that this bad boy is about to be whipped out.

    An argument from ignorance is, quite simply, "There is no evidence for X, therefore not X" or "There is no evidence against X, therefore X." This fallacy is frequently paired with a sub-fallacy regarding evidence which holds that only direct observation can prove or disprove something. Combined, they make an extremely pernicious fallacy in politics because so much of what gets debated is not directly observable. We don't get to sit in on many White House meetings, do we? And we don't spend a lot of time eyewitnessing events in Iraq, do we?

    I like to call this sub-fallacy the "red handed" fallacy, because it is often argued that unless you can provide first-hand evidence for something (even if it is well-supported by circumstantial evidence) then you must be wrong. If you can't produce a signed affidavit from George Bush stating that he didn't consider the potential for sectarian strife (or if you weren't in the room while they debated it), then the pre-war planning is unimpeachable. If you can't provide documented proof that pre-war intelligence was distorted, fabricated, or cherry-picked – something on the order of a video of Cheney saying "Let's lie about the intelligence!" – then they were telling the truth. If you didn't see a murder being committed, then you can't say that the accused is guilty (forget fingerprints, DNA, eyewitness testimony, or any other evidence). These arguments all rest on the assumption that if we can't directly observe X then we can't prove it…from which the leap to X being necessarily false is easy. For idiots.

    Am I being unfair? Perhaps this is the kind of nonsense one only hears from Rush Limbaugh call-in guests and it's unfair of me to depict it as a larger problem. Well…

  • 1. Robert Kagan, Washington Post – This man is a walking, talking Argument from Ignorance. He's obscure, but all you need to know is that he is Bill Kristol's favorite writer, the occasional co-author of Kristol's screeds, and presumably the "catcher" in that relationship. To wit: there have been no terrorist attacks in America since the invasion of Iraq, therefore the war has prevented terrorism.

    For instance, what specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the "terrorism threat"? Presumably, the NIE's authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn't mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.

    Ladies and gentlemen, that actually got published in one of the nation's widest-circulating and most well-regarded newspapers. Read it again. Honest to f'n Christ, that got printed. Not to be outdone (by himself, apparently) Kagan squatted over the national discourse, pants around his ankles, and pinched off this sludgy brown loaf of wisdom a few weeks ago: "The 'Surge' is Succeeding." His logic, in case you can't bring yourself to read the whole thing, is that we have no evidence that it isn't working, so it is working. Reading an extended 'argument' from Kagan is like swimming the backstroke through a 100m trench of broken glass and saltwater.

  • 2. Global Warming skeptics, Washington Post and elsewhere – The anti-GW debate would be absolutely nowhere without this logical fallacy. To refute the claims of people like Al Gore, an effective argument would either A) present evidence suggesting that Gore's claims will not happen, or B) present evidence that the consequences of the events Gore predicts will not be as severe as he claims. Absent the ability to do that, the Exxon-funded crowd inevitably falls back on non-arguments about how future events are uncertain. We can't be certain that global warming will occur, therefore it will not occur. In other words, since humans do not possess the ability to see the future, no claims about future events have any validity. I'd point out the dozens of times George Will has made this argument, but I like George Will's baseball writing too much to embarass him like that.

  • 3. Federal Appeals Courts, re: domestic spying – This one's fresh off the presses. On Friday the 6th Circuit voted 2-1 against the case brought by the ACLU on behalf of journalists, academics, the public, and non-profit groups against the NSA. In the decision the Court's logic is based on standing. In other words the plaintiffs can't prove they were spied upon, therefore they were not spied upon. How, exactly, would one go about proving that the most secretive agency on the planet is spying on them? FOIA requests? Subpoenas of sealed-lips NSA personnel? The Court's judgment, in essence, suggests that the NSA's program can't be legally challenged by any citizen or group in this country. The NSA is allowed to maintain absolute secrecy and yet the Court appears to demand that claimants provide tangible proof that they're being spied upon. Well I guess the program is pretty much bulletproof. Thanks, 6th District Court of Appeals!

    This is probably the most appropriately-named fallacy, since you can be quite certain that "ignorant" is a fitting adjective for anyone who makes this sort of argument.

  • ED VS. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 2: Ignoratio elenchi

    I didn't intend to do two of these in such rapid succession, but I just happened to find a stunningly perfect example of ignoratio elenchi. Or, as it is better known colloquially, a "red herring" or "the Chewbacca defense."

    The Greek phrase literally translates as "ignorance of refutation." It simply means that the person using the argument is completely ignorant in the art of rhetoric and does not know how to properly refute his opponent. In practice, it need not be a case of ignorance. In fact most red herrings are offered quite deliberately to distract, confuse, or divert the discussion of a given topic.

    Like all fallacies of irrelevance, ignoratio elenchi are particularly dangerous because they are internally consistent. The point offered as a red herring, for example, is often true and logically consistent. The fallacy is that it is, irrespective of its validity, irrelevant to the argument.

    Some red herrings are blatantly obvious attempts to change the subject or re-define a discussion. More often, and usually cloaked in a reassuring pile of Science, Facts, and Numbers, they are much more subtle. The more subtle they are, the more harm they have the potential to do. Less-than-astute readers and viewers are easily fooled by such tactics.

    Mr. R. Timothy Patterson offers a veritable orgy of logical fallacies for our consumption in his recent Financial Post (Canada) piece "Read the Sunspots." He's got everything in this lengthy article: ad hominem, appeals to science, appeals to consensus, appeals to authority, false dilemma, biased sampling, hasty generalization…..a student of formal logic could write a dissertation on this thing. But rather than discuss those individually, I'd rather focus on the fact that the entirety of his discussion is a big, stinking, red herring.

    His argument is clear: the argument that human activity is responsible for climate change is a politically-loaded sham. He believes – and his single-case research supports – that "the sun appears to drive climate change." In other words, any observed changes are natural; "Climate stability has never been a feature of planet Earth." After setting up his barrage of numbers with some Goldberg-esque mockery of some liberal politicians, he gets to the point:

    The only constant about climate is change; it changes continually and, at times, quite rapidly. Many times in the past, temperatures were far higher than today, and occasionally, temperatures were colder. As recently as 6,000 years ago, it was about 3C warmer than now. Ten thousand years ago, while the world was coming out of the thousand-year-long "Younger Dryas" cold episode, temperatures rose as much as 6C in a decade — 100 times faster than the past century's 0.6C warming that has so upset environmentalists.

    He then goes on to describe in detail existing research that shows how solar variation can be causally linked to climate change on Earth. His argument is internally consistent; he cites research appropriately and is careful not to misinterpret its conclusions. It would be a very convincing exercise in persuasive journalism if not for the inconvenient fact that his whole discussion is entirely irrelevant to the argument.

    He starts by mocking the (liberal) political efforts to limit or alter human activity on the grounds that man has contributed to (or even caused) global climate change. He then moves on to spend 15 paragraphs proving that some change in climate is part of nature. He does not, at any point, realize that those two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, proving the latter is wholly irrelevant to any discussion of the former.

    Scientists have many thousands of years of historical climate data which they can use to show that natural variations are….well, natural. They happen. We know this. The planet's temperature is not stable over time. Comparatively, the human activities which allegedly contribute to climate change (mass atmospheric pollution as a product of hydrocarbon combustion) are largely confined to the last 70 to 100 years. Leaving aside the dramatic imbalance in sample sizes (6000 years of data from ice cores vs. a few decades since we started burning coal and oil at truly alarming rates) his argument still fails to "disprove", as he no doubt feels he has done, the idea that human behavior is affecting climate.

    To use an analogy (and I love nothing more), suppose I suspected my neighbor of dumping his old, used motor oil in my yard and killing my trees. I gather data (photographs, samples of oil-laden dirt and roots, etc) and confront him. In response, he gives me a 20-page discussion of all of the natural factors that can lead to arboreal genocide – insects, frost, air pollutants, drought, and so on. His argument would be correct, of course, but it would be nothing more than a distraction. Proving that locusts can kill trees does not prove that you're not killing them with motor oil.

    Mr. Patterson is obviously proud of his research. Indeed it is an interesting line of argument and I'd like to see him or his colleagues follow up with a larger sample from a variety of locations around the globe. In fact, he's so obviously proud of his work that I find it hard to believe that he'd use it as little more than a distraction in an unrelated debate.


    I often tell my undergraduates (and by often I mean just about daily) that if I could have the power to change one thing about the educational system it would be to require every single college student to take and pass a class in formal logic. There's nothing that drives me up a wall quite like soon-to-be adults making "arguments" that make no sense and citing "evidence" that does not prove what they think it proves. To wit, let me give you an actual quote from a senior's research paper:

    Since 1980 the rate of abortions per 100,000 adult women in the United States has fallen annually, indicating that more women are choosing abstinence and rejecting behaviors that contribute to unplanned pregnancies.

    Right. Or it might indicate that people are using birth control more regularly. Or that the ratio of older women to younger women is increasing thanks to the aging baby-boomers and the Let's Wait on Having Kids attitude of Generation X. Or it could mean absolutely nothing at all – correlation does not imply causation.

    My point is not to pick on this student. In fact, his/her writing was easy on my eyes and the argument was generally well-formed. But this is a glaring example of why it's so goddamn difficult to have a conversation in our society these days: so many people simply don't understand what (if anything) their facts "prove", and as a result they are apt to wildly overestimate it. They take a fact that, in their mind, proves their point and just keep repeating it to you, the big dummy who doesn't seem to understand how thoroughly they're supporting their position.

    So here's what I'm going to do. Ginandtacos will be the forum for a semi-regular (meaning intermittent and/or whenever a particularly good example in the news presents itself) discussion of fallacies of formal logic. I can't watch or read the news for 10 minutes without some idiotic piece of reasoning that an 18 year-old philosophy student could refute, so I'll draw heavily on our friends in the mass media for assistance.

    Today I'm starting with False Equivalency (with a hat tip to Vagabond Scholar). I start with it because it has quickly risen from obscurity to be among the most pervasive of the fallacies in little more than a decade (coincidentally enough, since Fox News went on the air 24-7). False Equivalency is, in plain language, the idea that two (or more) opposing viewpoints/alternatives are undeservedly treated as equally important or valid. FE has become such an enormous problem in contemporary discourse for two simple reasons:

  • 1. The media, supposedly in pursuit of "objectivity", give equal credence (and airtime) to pairs of "opposing" events when they are in fact decidedly unequal. The best example is the Fox News standby: if we gave 2 minutes of airtime to the Anti-War Rally (attendance: 200,000) then in the interest of Fairness and Balance we have to give 2 minutes of airtime to Charlie Daniels and the 35 hillbillies who staged a Support the Troops rally on the other side of town.

  • 2. Because the media are so addicted to the Left vs. Right Pundit Battle format, they regularly present opposing sides without noting the imbalance of evidence between them. The result is that supremely idiotic positions are given equal time with fact-based ones. See, isn't it "fair" and "objective" how we gave equal airtime to this scientist with mountains of evidence and this wingnut just making shit up off the top of his head? Imagine, for example, if they decided to debate the shape of the Earth. There are some people (1 in a few hundred million) who believe that the Earth is flat – and no tangible evidence supports that claim. It would therefore be a False Equivalency to devote 5 minutes of airtime to a Flat-Earther debating a scientist about Earth's roundness. As the late, great Molly Ivins said:

    The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.

    This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus we see…people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicarauga or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to offer in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias.

    Here's an excellent example of FE in action, courtesy of Bush Family Friend and Fox News host Brit Hume as he debates Mort Kondracke about climate change:

    KONDRACKE: Just a second! The head of the National Academy of Science– today, I talked to him– pointed me in the direction of testimony that he's delivered before Congress, which says that there is an overwhelming consensus among his colleagues, and he is an earth scientist, that global warming is a fact, that man is responsible for it and that the sun is not responsible. There's been a lot of study–

    HUME: But Mort, is– doesn't– isn't what, isn't scientific consensus what you turn to when you don't have scientific fact?


    HUME: In other words, you haven't established it?

    KONDRACKE: No. No, the–

    HUME: Well, is this scientific fact?

    KONDRACKE: Look, how are we supposed to determine what scientific fact is–

    HUME: Mort, that's what the scientific method is for. Let me move on to Nina, just to get her–

    KONDRACKE: You get thousands of scientists and if they all agree– if 90 percent–

    HUME: That's not science, Mort, that's a vote. That's an election.

    Note how Hume implicitly treats the opposing viewpoints on global warming as equals. He disregards the fact that an overwhelming mountain of evidence supports one viewpoint, and nothing but Exxon-funded AEI papers from paycheck-hungry scientists long disregarded as cranks by their colleagues support the other. Would Hume, as an appropriate analogy would suggest, say it is merely an "election" or opinion poll that 99.9% of astronomers argue that the Sun is made of hydrogen? Sure, they have assloads of physical evidence, but doggone it none of them have really been to the sun. So aren't they just guessing? Isn't that little more than an opinion poll? In fact, let's welcome our next guest: Joe Blow, a scientist (and failed tenure case) who argues that the sun was actually made by Jews and consists mostly of marshmallows.

    I sincerely doubt that Brit Hume intended to use the exact same logic as Holocaust Denialists routinely use (just because 99.99999% of historians agree that it happened doesn't mean it happened, regardless of their miles of records and evidence) but, sadly, that's exactly what Brit Hume did. That's the moral of the Fox News story, kids – if right-wingers can find one person who disagrees, then the issue is completely open for debate and all options are on the table. Doesn't matter if the scientists who believe global warming exists outnumber those who don't by about 10,000:1. The right-wing media machine will Nobly defend Free Speech and champion oppressed minority viewpoints by giving that single skeptic as much attention as his 10,000 opponents.

    Keep today's post in mind the next time you watch cable news. I think you'll be shocked at just how little you'll need to watch before you identify clear examples of this fallacy in action. (PS: Any logicians or philosophers want to guest-post about a favorite fallacy, just let me know in comments)