My friend Roy is a world-class computer wizard. Throughout the more than twenty years that we’ve known him, he has managed to solve numerous computer glitches that have had us totally baffled. In our business dealings with him he has been unfailingly dependable and honest.
But his politics are abominable! As often as not, when we visit his shop, Rush, or Hannity, or Savage are blaring on the AM radio. In 2000, and again in 2004, a “Bush/Cheney” sign was posted atop his shop.
Just once, I discussed politics with Roy. He let loose with the familiar complaints about how the immigrants were taking all the jobs, the welfare cheats were soaking up the tax money of honest citizens, the “wacko-environmentalists” were stifling growth with their dumb regulations, we had to fight the terrorists over there so that we don’t have to fight them here – the usual, familiar, drill.
I immediately saw that the only sensible thing to do was to back out gracefully. Arguing with a Rushophile is as futile as attempting to talk a Catholic Bishop out of his belief in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, or to convince Rev. Hagee of the scientific foundation of evolution.
Roy’s closing comment, however, was worthy of note. “Look,” he said, “I’m a conservative, and I like to listen to what you call right-wing radio. You’re a liberal, and you read liberal magazines and internet blogs, and listen to Air America Radio. I’m convinced of my views, just as you are convinced of yours. So who’s to say who is right or wrong?”
An excellent question, which I have heard all too often from my college students. It is a question that must be answered by any serious liberal, with explicit and objective reasons. “That’s just my opinion” will not do.
Quoth Jack Cafferty, “so here’s the question:” What is the justification of the liberals’ claim that their sources — the Nation, the American Prospect, the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, Bill Moyers’ Journal, etc. — are more reliable than the Weekly Standard, FOX (“fair and balanced”) News, the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, etc., or even, for that matter, the mainstream corporate media?
And so, Roy, if you happen to read this piece, here is your answer.
Political arguments are not created equal, and do not all have equal merit. Even less so, political rants and diatribes. There are many objective criteria with which an unbiased spectator might judge whether or not an argument is strong or weak, and whether a position is well or poorly defended. Here, briefly, are just a few such criteria. Having taught numerous courses in Critical Thinking, I can testify that this list merely scratches the surface of a vast topic.
1. The Persistence of Memory — and of You-Tube and Google. Remember Saddam’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD’s), and the “smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud”? Cheney’s assertion that “there is no doubt that Saddam has reconstituted nuclear weapons”? Colin Powell’s “proofs” before the Security Council of Saddam’s WMD’s and his evil intentions, along with the corporate media’s unanimous and uncritical praise of Powell’s performance? The welcoming in Baghdad with candies and flowers? The six-week, self-financed Iraq “liberation?”
The Busheviks and right-wing sycophants would prefer that you don’t remember all this, and more. But the issue is out of their control. All the above claims and predictions are indelibly on the record, justly undermining the credibility of further assurances by the Bush Administration, the Republicans, and their loyal stenographers in the corporate media.
There was a time in recent memory, when a politician could simply deny that he had made an embarrassing remark, and demand that his accusers “put up or shut up.” No longer. You-Tube and Google now provide instant “put-up” of such accusations for anyone with a modicum of computer skills.
The Google-ization of American politics is proving to be especially troublesome to the “maverick” and “straight-talking” John McCain. Virtually all of McCain’s “maverick” votes and positions have been reversed and thus nullified, as the “straight-talker” has endeavored to set himself straight with his right-wing/regressive base. Count ‘em: McCain on campaign finance reform, tax breaks for the rich, reproductive freedom, offshore oil drilling, windfall profit taxes to support alternative energy. Do any of McCain’s original “maverick” positions remain “unflipped”? None that I can think of. The substance of McCain’s “straight-talk” reputation has evaporated, leaving only an unsupported label.
In contrast, memory and recorded history have caused Barack Obama little lasting damage. The unauthorized recording of his “bitter” remark in San Francisco, and Michelle Obama’s reflection that “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” immediately come to mind. And the latter is more than offset by the recently excavated video clips of John McCain saying “”I really didn’t love America before I was deprived of her company.”
Not surprisingly, the corporate media has amplified Obama’s gaffes and downplayed McCain’s. But media bias aside, an objective assessment of recent history is not supportive of right-wing dogma and rhetoric.
Santayana’s famous maxim has a corollary: “Those who fail to own up to their own history, are clearly trying to hide something.”
2. Sources: More is Better. If your information comes from several independent sources, it is likely more reliable than reports from few self-replicating sources, like wild horses tethered, not to a solid post, but to each other. Now critically examine the sources of right-wing opinion and compare them with the sources in the best of liberal publications, internet blogs, and broadcasts. (I will concede that there is a super-abundance of weak, “off the top” ranting from the left as well as the right). The right, I suggest, is more inclined to cite, if at all, a limited and self-supporting bunch of “conservative” publications and Bush administration press releases. From the left, I submit that you will find more citations of qualified experts, scholarly journals, and credible foreign sources.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself.
3. If it’s not reported by the corporate media, did it really happen at all? The adequacy of right-wing arguments can be assessed not only by what they say but also by what they choose to ignore. Likewise, the reporting of the corporate media. Did George Bush walk away from his National Guard obligations? Were the past two Presidential elections, along with numerous Congressional elections, stolen through election fraud? Has John McCain reversed himself on almost all of his “maverick” positions? Don’t look to the right-wing media for answers. All such embarrassing allegations have been shoved down the Orwellian “memory hole.” Out of sight, out of mind, never happened.
As for the corporate media, they too distort public opinion and understanding through the omission of essential information and through the saturation of print and air time with trivia (celebrity romances, missing blonds, etc.). For example, James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s Pulitzer Prize report on illegal government spying was suppressed by the New York Times until after the 2004 election. Do you know about the July 2002 Downing Street memo that revealed the Busheviks’ determination to “fix the intelligence and the facts around the policy” of an invasion of Iraq? If you do, you did not learn of it through the corporate media. And the coordinated and successful effort of the Pentagon to flood the airwaves with the commentaries on the Iraq war by allegedly “independent” retired generals? Kudos to the New York Times for exposing it, and damnation to the rest of the media for ignoring it. Election fraud through “paperless” (DRE) voting machines and compilers? Faggetaboutit! Any attempt to investigate and report on this issue in the corporate media is a “career-ender.” And important books on the subject, such as Mark Crispin Miller’s Fooled Again, are rarely recognized and reviewed in the mainstream media.
And yet many of us know of such crucially significant facts, despite the blackout of information in the corporate media.
How so? We learn of these things through independent liberal publications, through the small but growing progressive radio talk shows, and of course through the internet — “the America Samizdat.”
4. The Treatment of Dissenters. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John Kennedy saw to it that before any crucial policy was adopted, dissenting opinions would be heard and seriously considered. That decision quite possibly spared the civilized world from nuclear annihilation, as cooler heads prevailed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Contrast this with the Bushevik mode of “decision making,” replicated in the right-wing media. Bush’s “decisions” issue from his “gut,” not from his brain. Dissent is not tolerated, and is in fact a sure-fire guarantee of an early departure from the administration. Witness the aborted careers of Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, and General Eric Shinseki, and the extraordinary retaliation visited upon Joseph and Valerie Plame Wilson.
Likewise, dissenting (a.k.a. “unpatriotic”) opinions on broadcast and cable television have led to the ouster of Phil Donahue and Ashleigh Banfield. Not even Dan Rather was exempt. How Keith Olbermann remains on the air is something of a mystery. Perhaps his spectacular commercial success may have something to do with it.
In contrast, liberal publications acknowledge, and occasionally even publish, opposing opinions from the right. And while Rush Limbaugh’s screeners keep “leftist loonies” off the air, Rachel Maddow and Thom Hartmann routinely invite “conservative” advocates on to their programs.
5. The Quality of the Arguments. Arguments can be assessed according to their positive and negative qualities. First the positive. (We’ll deal with the negative, the fallacies, in the final two sections below).
Logicians identify three essential criteria of a cogent argument: (1) the availability of relevant information, (2) the truth of the premises, and (3) the validity of the inferences from premises to conclusion. Technical elaboration: “validity” means the “truth preserving” structure of the argument. In “pure” formal logic, this means that if the premises are assumed to be true, then (due to logical form), the conclusion must be true. In informal inference (i.e., most arguments) “validity” is a matter of degree. (Most logicians would prefer to call it “strength of inference”). In a well-formed informal argument, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is highly likely to be true.
A critical assessor of the best of right-wing and progressive discourse will, I submit, conclude that by and large, the progressives offer superior arguments.
Regarding Criterion One, liberals are less tempted to suppress relevant information. (See Item #3, above).
Furthermore, (Criterion Two) because liberal arguments have a broader range of sources of information (Item #2) and are more accepting of historical information (Item #1), the premises (the foundations of the arguments) are more likely to be true. Add to this, the apparent fact that liberals are, by and large, more convinced by the results of scientific investigation, and less convinced by dogma and “faith-based” appeals. Liberals insist that peer-reviewed scientific publications are the best sources of information, due to the discipline and methodology of science. “The best,” but not perfect. All scientific assertions are, in principle, fallible, which is to say, open to revision or even refutation when confronted with new information. Paradoxically, “fallibility,” far from being a weakness of science, is one of its fundamental strengths. (See my “Is Science Just Another Dogma?”).
Finally, (Criterion Three), liberal and progressive arguments will usually incorporate stronger inferences from premises to conclusions; which is to say that formal implications, statistical analyses, and inductive rules all come into play such that it becomes difficult to reject a conclusion once one accepts the premises and assesses the structure of the inferences.
What does the jargon of the preceding paragraph mean? Many ponderous and book-length treatises have been written, elaborating on the meaning of those terms “formal implications, statistical analyses, and inductive rules.” I cannot in this space, add to that shelf in the library. Suffice to say that an intelligent, educated and astute individual, who has somehow managed to avoid a logic class in college, is nonetheless quite capable of asking what some scholars call “the magic question:” Suppose that I accept all the premises, follow the inferences, and discard the fallacies, can I then imagine the conclusion to be false? If it is difficult to do so, then I have been presented with a well-formed informal argument.
6. Fallacies that (Sometimes) Aren’t. Philosophers, rhetoricians, and other such scholars have identified hundreds of logical fallacies, both formal and informal. Logic textbooks routinely list dozens. Obviously, in the remaining space, I can only deal with a very few of these.
The identification of fallacies within arguments can be a very tricky business, for many so-called fallacy forms are quite acceptable in some of their applications.
For example, consider the so-called fallacy of appeal to authority. But 99+% of all that we know, we get from someone else’s “say-so.” If we reject all second-hand, third-hand, and n-hand knowledge, we might as well close up all colleges, universities, and even primary schools, and then return to the caves. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t assess particular claims of authoritative knowledge. In fact, we must. Actors who “play doctor” on TV ads are not authoritative sources of information about drugs. Senator James Inhofe, former real estate developer, is not an authority on climate change. Nor is Michael Crighton, a physician, or most likely the local TV weatherman. But the two-thousand climate scientists who have contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some of whom have devoted years of their careers to laboratory and field studies, are authorities. Twenty years ago, Al Gore was not an expert on climate change, but after many years of study and the application of his critical skills to an assessment of the data, he may claim some expertise. More to the point, his arguments are grounded in sound scientific research.
Next, is generalization a fallacy? It depends. On the one hand, generalization is the essence of inductive inference, which is to say the foundation of empirical science. All scientific laws are generalizations. Newton’s laws of motion apply to all physical bodies, though obviously not all applications can be observed. Likewise, Grey’s anatomy, drawn from a few specimen cadavers, applies to all human bodies. On the other hand, a “hasty generalization” can be a grievous pitfall in reasoning. Example: Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” who allegedly gathered in thousands of dollars in phony claims by non-existent husbands and children. Generalization: all welfare recipients are cheats. Of course, Reagan’s example had the further flaw of being totally false – a complete concoction.
How about arguments from analogy? Again, it depends. Animal experimentation with prospective drugs draws warranted analogies from animals to humans. Yet the fallacy of faulty analogy is among the favorite devices of unscrupulous propagandists. Among the most prominent of these is “the Munich analogy”: the claim that the example of the 1938 Munich agreement proves that bargaining with one’s (presumably “evil”) opponent will only increase the opponent’s appetite for more concessions. Yet diplomatic negotiations have prevented far more wars than they have caused. Another faulty analogy, I suggest, is B. F. Skinner’s inferences from laboratory rat behavior to human behavior. The disanalogy? Human beings, unlike rodents, use articulated language, a point that Noam Chomsky expounds upon in his devastating critiques of Skinner. Of course, many experimental psychologists would disagree.
The bottom line: “fallacies that (sometimes) aren’t” must be evaluated individually. Argument from authority? What are the qualifications of the alleged “authority”? Generalization? How adequate is the sample that is being generalized? Argument by analogy? How similar are the two cases, the original and the analog?
7. Fallacies that (Usually) Are. Some fallacies are reliable indicators of bogus arguments. Among these are the false premise and the straw man (attacking a non-existent invention of the arguer).
“Begging the question” (or circular reasoning) is a fallacy that is summarily excluded in courts of law. A simple, obvious, yet widespread example: “I believe the Bible to be the Word of God.” And why? “Because the Bible says so.”
Here’s another example from contemporary politics: When Ed Gillespie, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, was presented with exit poll evidence that the 2004 Ohio returns were rigged, he replied that you can’t rely on exit polls because they have been proven time and again to be unreliable.
Trouble is, they haven’t. In fact, in virtually all of their applications throughout the world, exit polls have been “the gold standard” of election verification, generally yielding a margin of error within one or two percentage points. When the returns in the 2004 Ukrainian election were wildly inconsistent with the exit polls, it was generally assumed that polls proved that the election was stolen. The only noteworthy “failures” of exit polls turns out to be in US elections that use unverifiable touch-screen (DRE) machines.
So it comes to this: By claiming that the official election returns “proved” the inaccuracy of exit polls, Gillespie was assuming what he intended to prove: namely, that the election returns were accurate and thus that the election was honest. But that was the very point at issue.
Gillespie might have escaped this fallacy by presenting independent evidence that the exit polls were flawed, albeit exclusively in elections using unverifiable DRE voting machines.
In fact, apologists have done just that by introducing the theory of “the reluctant Bush voter.” Bush voters, they claim, were less inclined than Kerry voters to respond to the exit pollsters.
This leads to the final fallacy on our short list: the ad-hoc fallacy. This is an “explanation” that is concocted on the spot to explain (better “explain away”) some troublesome fact or experience. Trouble is, ad hoc hypotheses “explain” nothing else whatever, and are entirely disconnected from any independent evidence.
My favorite example comes from the “young earth creationists.” Question: If the world was created six thousand years ago, how do you explain the existence of dinosaur bones? Answer #1: Satan put them in the ground to lead us astray from the truth. Answer #2: God put them in the ground to test our faith. Of course, there is and can be no independent evidence whatever to support either “explanation.”
Returning to the 2004 Ohio exit polls: The hypothesis of “the reluctant Bush voter” was in fact tested and found to be without independent foundation. In paper ballot and other verifiable precincts, there was no such bias. Only in precincts with DRE machines. In other words, the “reluctant Bush voter” was an unfounded ad hoc “explanation” of a very suspicious and troublesome voting anomaly, which has been widely and scrupulously studied by numerous scholars and statisticians. But don’t expect to find any curiosity about it in the corporate media.
In sum: We all use fallacies: politicians, journalists, scholars, scientists, and even retired philosophy professors. To err — and to employ fallacies — is human. But just as there are recognizable degrees of virtue and justice (all falling short of perfection), there are also degrees of fallacious argument. And while all informal arguments fail to achieve perfection, they can nonetheless be assessed as to their cogency. In fact, the rules of evidence in law courts and the scientific method are both devised to minimize fallacious inferences.
I submit that the right is much more inclined than the left to utilize fallacies. That’s a bold and unsubstantiated claim. Perhaps I should now proceed to write the book that will support this claim. It will take at least that much space to accomplish the task.
But much better than that, why don’t you examine the arguments on the right and the left to see for yourself whether or not I am right?
And while you are at it, ask yourself: (1) Which side is more willing to own up to its past positions, predictions, and assurances? (2) Which side examines the broader field of source material? (3) Which side looks for the most relevant information, even if that information is absent from the corporate media? (4) Which side is more tolerant of dissent, both within and outside of its ranks? (5) Which side uses the more cogent arguments? And (6) which side relies less on fallacious reasoning?
You presumably know my answers by now. But I would not presume to do your thinking for you.
So check out the arguments of the right and the left, and find the answers for yourself.