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Tuesday 25 February 2003

Arguments and Logic

In today’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen writes a column headlined ‘Antiwar And Illogical’, in which he calld Rep. Dennis Kuchnich, a Democrat from Ohio and a man who’s running for president, a fool. In those words.

The Washington Post is a liberal newspaper.

Cohen bases his comments on Kuchnich’s performance on “Meet the Press” this weekend, where he repeated the allegation that the pending war with Iraq is all about oil. Richard Perle, also on this weekend’s “Meet the Press”, took exception to this, to put it mildly.

“It is an out-and-out lie,” he said. “And I’m sorry to see you give credence to it.” But Kucinich, who must have studied logic in France, came roaring back. “Well, if America is not at threat, then what is this about? And many people are wondering: ‘How did our oil get under their sand?’ “

A better question is: How did this fool get on “Meet the Press”? The answer is disheartening. Not only is Kucinich running for president, but he has emerged — along with former Vermont governor Howard Dean — as the darling of antiwar Democrats who will have much influence in the Iowa caucuses.

The column goes on to deal with Dean and his characterization of the United States’ determination as “unilateral”. Unilateral, that is, except for the support and agreement of the UK, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Kuwait and Australia, among others.

And these are professional politicians making these arguments, not random idiots in the street. I don’t mean to say that it’s not the case that a lot of politicians are idiots; but it’s hard to accept that these people are so uninformed and na´ve as to believe that war on Iraq will help the oil industry (it won’t), or that the American position lacks broad democratic support (it doesn’t).

These politicians simply oppose the war. I am sure they have their various reasons for opposing it, and there’s nothing wrong with having concluded that war is not the best option at this point. I, and a lot of others, have concluded that it is, but given different information, different values, and different expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable that someone may have reached the opposite conclusion.

The trouble is, very, very few of the anti-war arguments that I’ve heard — and none of the anti-war arguments I’ve heard from positions of power — are coherent. They all require you to a priori believe things that just are not supported by evidence or deduction — or, in some particularly egregious cases, things that are clearly disproved by the best available evidence. The truth doesn’t matter, if you shout loudly enough.

Most of the arguments I disagree with these days — not just the anti-war arguments — strongly seem to be based on a willful ignorance (both what we normally think of as ‘ignorance’ as well as ignore-ance, i.e. plugging one’s ears) of reality; it’s the result of holding some opinion and then constructing an argument to support it, rather than holding an opinion because logic and your available information leaves you with no choice but that opinion.

Viewpoints in opposition to your own can be quite valuable, whether they point out holes in your position or whether they bring you to a clearer understanding of the fundamental difference between what you and the people you disagree with believe.

Incoherent arguments, on the other hand, merely tend to polarize opinion, and change the matter from a disagreement into a fight. The merits of the various arguments are forgotten entirely, and the disagreement is ultimately settled by a proxy for argument, such as combat or political maneuvering to destroy your opposition.

The problem with that is that the winner is then the side most skilled at political machination, or the person who’s physically stronger — not the person whose conclusion is better.

This shift from debate to dispute — which, despite the fact that I’ve picked on the left as my examples here, is something that afflicts most of the mainstream political spectrum in the U.S. — is deeply troubling. Since the beginning of time, people have decided on conclusions and then manufactured arguments to support them. To me at least, it seems as if this practice is on the rise of late — possibly because there is no politico-intellectual shame attached to making obviously absurd arguments. Nearly every important public policy debate these days is argued from both sides with flawed (at best) premises, and the nuclear bomb of American political debate — the effect of x on the well-being of children — has become a first-strike weapon.

The fools need to be identified as such; Cohen’s column is a step in the right direction. If journalism generally moves more toward the kind of confrontational reportage examplified by weblogs, and particularly Ken Layne’s “we can fact-check your ass” statement, it will become more difficult for anyone involved to pass off incoherent drivel as public debate and remain credible in the future.

Posted by tino at 16:03 25.02.03
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