Mar 19, 2004 5:43 pm


Between the war in Iraq and the political season, the average quality of rhetoric in this country is at what seems to be an all-time low. Probably not, but there's a whole bunch of common logical fallacies which are worth highlighting and opposing vigorously. I've tried to make sure that these are pretty neutrally described, but I'm open to suggestions regarding variations, additions and corrections.

"It worked so it must have been necessary" is a particularly popular justification for the use of force, prominently featured in discussion of the removal of Saddam Hussein and the use of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII. Whether this is a fallacy or not depends mostly on how you feel about"the ends justify the means" argument and on the extent to which alternatives were explored or can be reasonably extrapolated.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc [After this, therefore because of this] is rampant (e.g., the atomic bombings, or the Libyan WMD reversal, or the Spanish elections). The media's analytical abilities rarely extend beyond the simply chronological. This is closely related to...

Bloch's "Single Cause Fetish":

"In history, the fetish of single cause is all too often only the insidious form of search for the responsible person -- hence a value judgment. The judge expresses it as: 'Who is right, and who is wrong?' The scholar is content to ask: 'Why?' and he accepts the fact that the answer may not be simple. Whether as a prejudice of common sense, a postulate of logicians, or a habit of prosecuting attorneys, the monism of cause can be, for history, only an impediment. History seeks for causal wave-trains and is not afraid, since life shows them to be so, to find them multiple." -- Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft
Though this is an old and distinguished error, special credit must be given to our cultural fixation on crime and punishment drama, including conspiracy melodrama, which may give lip service to complexity but which ultimately distill down to a single villain or group of villains.

"Opposition to methods equals opposition to ends" is common on both sides of the spectrum. It is particularly prominent in discussions of military and security affairs, including the Iraq war, Korean nuclear crisis, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but can also be seen in debates over affirmative action, public education and voucher programs, and budget-balancing. This is one that I just don't get, myself: people get so attached to particular methods and policies that they lose the ability to discuss alternative routes to the same goal in a rational fashion. Creativity, adaptability and flexibility are lost when this happens, and mistakes get made over and over again.

"If it's from them, it must be political, not worth consideration." Given a fair and respectful listening, and carefully constructed dialogue, sometimes"opponents" can discover immense areas of common ground and common goals and sometimes even agree on methods and policies. It's not easy, I admit, to grant that the"other side" might be motivated by equally high ideals and populated by reasonable people, but it's the only way that we'll rebuild some kind of political middle ground, and get past the manichean two-party/two-side fallacy (see below).

"They did it too, so it's OK." Hypocrisy is, perhaps, the most common human vice (OK, after sloth and gluttony), and it's fine to point that out when it arises, but responsible ideals and values have to preclude certain tactics or else they are meaningless. Or to put it another way: It's not easy, I admit, to grant that"our side" might be using equally objectionable tactics and include some truly despicable people.....

It's enough to want/say the right things, even if you don't do the right things, or even have a plan to do the right things, as long as you're on my side. Conversely, a goal without a fully functional compromise plan is always dismissable as"vague" or"unworkable" if it comes from the other side. We need to give each other a little more credit, and hold ourselves to equal, or higher, standards.

All attacks and counter-attacks, charges and rebuttals, arguments and opinions are of equal weight, and"both" sides must be afforded roughly equal attention. Journalistic"neutrality" has created a truly odd situtation, where mainstream journalists are trained against drawing even tentative conclusions (at least openly), against evaluating evidence independently of comment by opposing views, against including more than two views in an analysis. This tends to polarize the discussion, to ignore the (quiet) middle ground in favor of (loudly) opposed extremes. Right and Left, Liberal and Conservative, Religion and Science, Republican and Democrat, Pro and Anti, With or Against; none of these categories is absolute (in fact, they aren't even really polar opposites), but the reporting is unshaded and focuses on points of conflict rather than areas of consensus.

Changing your mind is a bad thing. Voltaire said that"Doubt is not a pleasant mental state, but certainty is a ridiculous one." John Kenneth Gailbraith said that"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." What can I add to that? People should get extra credit, not demerits, for changing their minds on important issues based on good information and arguments. Creative flexibility, responsive and relevant thinking, these are qualities we should be promoting in our political, economic, intellectual and social leadership, not to mention our voting electorate.

Logic=fact. Replacing the search for evidence with"logical" assumptions, then drawing conclusions based on those assumptions and making policy based on those conclusions.... If I've learned anything from history (aside from Hegels dictum"that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.") it is that what makes logical sense often has no relationship to what happened. Oftentimes these"logical" arguments are really partial analyses which make sense only if you exclude a great many practical considerations.

This is a preliminary list, of course. But you have to start somewhere.

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Grant W Jones - 3/23/2004

Actually it is much simpler than that; I don't like double standards, and I'm curious to see how people defend them. For example, D. Horowitz is not fit to speak at a college, while other people, far kookier, are just fine for an invite (I'm referring to the college's double standards not Prof. Luker, but Ralph is the one who keeps bringing up D.H., and yes I keep jumping in).

I'm also curious about "terror is a law enforcement issue" position. And that terrorists, usually state supported, should be "brought to trial." That's been tried for the last thirty-years and obviously hasn't work.

Your amateur psychoanalysis leaves much to be desired. This atheist has no doubts on the morality of the use of force in self-defense. When religious fanatics state, countless times, that myself and my family are targeted for murder based solely on who we are, I take it seriously and personally. I'm funny that way. This is not an academic debate with me.

Jack Straw just stated today that terror attacks in London and other European cities are "inevitable." His cowardly advice on how to deal with this "inevitablity" is to hire more morticians. And I'm "tricky" enough to say that when the "inevitable" happens and more bodies are scrapped off the streets of Europe it well be the result of such appeasement.

I'm just trying to figure where those who do not believe that the West is facing a serious challange are coming from.

As to wasting my time, I'm on break, it is pouring rain and I enjoy a spirited debate. Is that OK with you?

Sorry Ralph, I didn't mean to "interrogate" you. A "long list" refers to the ongoing war against Christians in Africa and elsewhere, including the murder of missionaries. In the U.S., it is no secret that many Christians feel their beliefs are disrespected and discriminated against by those occuping the cultural heights. Sorry again, if I got overly Celtic with you.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/23/2004

Not "wrong" in the way you think: I think he's looking for evidence of hypocrisy (and I think he really, really enjoys banging his head against walls in his spare time).

This is a tactic I've seen a few times before on HNN: a relentless stream of questions probing the limits of consistency, usually with regard to a reverse case to the one being discussed, turning the situation so the principles of the questioned are the issue. I've mostly noticed it when the target, like yourself, is anti-war or otherwise "liberal" (and yes, I know how poorly that term fits this, or almost any other situation in which it's used). It's kind of a cousin to a trick Stephen Thomas used to pull: "I'm comfortable with my faith, and unless you can convince me that yours is genuine, full and satisfying, then I don't have to listen to anything you say."

I think what he's really trying to say is that he's uncomfortable with his position because of your moral superiority, and he's trying to find some way to feel superior again. Just a theory.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2004

Fundamentalist Christians are my brothers and sisters in the faith. I'd be loathe to go to war against them. If there is evidence against them, they should be brought to trial. You'll find I'm not much of a war-monger in re anyone. Yes, I supported the invasion of Afghanistan; no, I didn't support the invasion of Iraq. What's with the long list? What's with the interrogation? Looking for wrong answers?

Grant W Jones - 3/22/2004

Not a very artful evasion. Would you be willing to go to war against the Fundamentalists? Would you be willing to dispose of hostile Christian fundamentalist states that were fomenting big trouble in the rest of the world?

As to war [perhaps just a legal and cultural one] against fundamentalist Christians in you really want to go there? I have a very long list.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2004

I am not indifferent to terrorism by whomever it is committed. If some Christians committed terrorism, I would remain opposed to declaring a war on Christianity. Thanks for setting that one up for me.

Grant W Jones - 3/22/2004

Prof. Luker, if Christian fundamentalists (but not all, just some) were flying planes into office buildings, setting up oppressive theocracies by the score, exporting their hate to the rest of the world, murdering Jewish children in their beds and on their busses, and in general behaving like medieval barbarians, would you be as indifferent as you appear to be regarding Islamic terror?

As to German nationals who opposed Hitler, too few, too late. They did not end Nazism.

Grant W Jones - 3/22/2004

Sigh. By "good Germans" I clearly meant German nationals, not Americans of German descent. I have some German ancesters myself. But I and my family are 100% American. So the term "good German" obviously doesn't apply.

My "war of civilizations?" There you go again with the question begging epithets. I don't think the Islamists are going to give you a choice. Have no doubt my friend, when the Islamists say YOU and your family are a target solely based on who/what you are, they mean it.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2004

Grant, I am of German descent. So far as I know, the United States did not declare war on my family between 1941 and 1945. In fact, our next door neighbors were of German descent and there was no invasion of their property. You'd better believe there were "good Germans." Some of them died because of their opposition to Hitler and you'd better believe that there are "good Arabs" and "good Muslims." I'll have no part of your war of civilizations.

Grant W Jones - 3/22/2004

Check out the latest rantings of John Pilger at

Prof. Luker, were there any "good Germans" we were not at war with between 1941-45? When the vaunted "moderate Moslems" kick the hate-mongers out of the Mosques and generate the ability to say no to Saudi/Wahabi money, and generally deal with THEIR fanatics so we don't have to, I'll give them some credence. There are a few who are fighting the good fight, but they are a tiny minority. And in certain areas, like the West Bank, they quickly end up dead.

"What degree of absorption by you require for there to be peace?" Such a loaded question. I'm not the one blowing up trains, beheading homosexuals or beating women on the street for not wearing a veil. Ask the fanatics what they require for peace. Their answer has always been: abject surrender and dhimmitude. Do you find their terms acceptable?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2004

Grant, May I ask if there are some Arabs or some Muslims with whom you believe we are _not_ at war? What degree of absorption by them of Western, American, or Christian values do you require for there to be peace?

Grant W Jones - 3/22/2004

I'm sure you are well aware of anti-Semitism in both Europe, the Middle-East and elsewhere.

I think anti-Semitism has a great deal to with the issue of Islamic terrorism. Integrating is a process based on simularities. Making relevent distinctions is an important, necessary part of the process. But differentiation is not disintegration. We live in an age of disintegration, always looking at a tree, but never viewing the whole forest. Academia encourages intellectual myopia.

Islamic terror has its foundation in religious fanaticism, and a profound contempt for "modernism." There is a commonality in the WTC attack, the Madrid bombings, the religious cleansing in sub-Sahara Africa, and the recent threats against France for its veil ban. Anti-Semitism is a large part of the puzzle. It is a fallacy to treat the phenomenon of Islamic terror as a series of disconnected events.

Look at the disgusting reaction to Israel ridding the world of a mass murdering criminal:,,1-1047221,00.html

How does one "negotiate" with the psychopaths of Hamas? But the useful idiots want to pretend that Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, Fatah, Iranian clerics, Saudi Wahabi fanatics etc. ad infinitum, are discrete entities, without similarities requiring, logically, integration as a whole related entity/problem. This mentality of disintegration refuses to connect the dots. Regarding the Europeans, their contemptable attitude towards Israeli self-defense, is no doubt base on their ingrained anti-Semitism. So it is related.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/21/2004

You asked why I keep mentioning the 1945 A-bombs in my logical fallacy discussion. Not because of my particular position on the bombs, but because the rhetoric surrounding the history and implications is so thoroughly infused with simplistic and erroneous logic.

There's actually another error which I should add to the list, though it's a close corrolary of the one-sided fallacies already listed: If they did it, it must be wrong, morally, ethically or practically. I'll be the first to admit that there are areas of agreement between me and the Bush administration. Not many, but I'm not going to dismiss everything out of hand just because it comes from them. Examine it critically, sure.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/21/2004

Well, you're preaching to the choir here, as Islamic anti-Semitism has been well known in Jewish circles for some years now, but I think that the whole field of Middle East oriented social science is so under-developed that I don't find any particular gap surprising.

But I'm afraid I'm missing what, if any, connection this has to the rest of the discussion.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/21/2004


The logical fallacy pages are helpful, thanks. And the "Middle Ground" fallacy definitely goes on my list of very popular errors, particularly when it's applied to legislated policy, where compromise usually means taking the most effective but controversial elements of a proposal out and leaving in the agreeable but doomed parts. Also in journalism, where it's a corrolary to the need for balanced extremes (which sometimes aren't really the extremes, and that distorts the discourse even further).

Grant W Jones - 3/21/2004

Another fact/issue that would be illogical to ignore:

Grant W Jones - 3/21/2004

Josh, Al Qaeda sees the fight in Iraq as a part of Jihad, as is the genocide in Sudan. It is illogical not to see the pattern from Bali to sub-Sahara Africa to Spain to Kosovo to Moscow to Palistine to Nigeria to Iran to New York. The Bloody Borders of Islam is not the invention of George W. Bush.

The Arabs started the African slave trade nearly a thousand years ago. They continue it into the present. What does it have to do with Iraq, nothing. What does it have to do with the war against medieval fundamentalism, everything.

Of course the Jihadis will make alliances with the far left, they share a common enemy: liberal capitalism. If you still deny Saddam's complicity in terror at this point, there is nothing I can say to convince you.

Oh yes, Iraq was such a nicer place under Saddam.

The fact that you are calling the Soviet genocide in Afghanistan as "relatively egalitarian" (there is equality in a concentration camp too) tells me that you are a hopeless case. bye bye

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/20/2004

I know that putting qualifiers in a statement doesn't give its issuer infinite wiggle room. Apparently you are trying to imply that Al Qaeda is protecting its old "ally," Baathist Iraq, by inducing occupiers to leave that country.

I'm not impressed by the story in the Unification Church's newspaper. Americans have been treated to story after story initially "confirming" one or another of the Bush admin's bogus Iraq assertions, only to have those stories become more and more dubious in following days, to finally be debunked on page 23 and disappear. I'll have to see something more substantial than this to contradict what is well-known, that Moslem fanatic Osama bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein and Baathism.

It isn't apparent that Al Qaeda agrees with the Bush admin because it bombed Spain in an apparent effort to get it (and other allies) to quit Iraq. There are other good reasons why Al Qaeda might want occupiers out of Iraq or the USA isolated as the only occupier. Your belief that the bombing shows or "seems to show" that Saddam and Osama worked together before the invasion is logically fallacious, perhaps a false dilemma or another fallacy based on an inability or unwillingness to consider reasonable alternatives.

As to the item about Sudan, what do they and Baathist Iraq have to do with each other? Before we invaded, women there held jobs and could move around safely out of doors. Now they are being kidnapped, ransomed and raped by criminals and assassinated by political and religious groups. Seems like Iraq under our occupation is more like Sudan than it was under Saddam. Funny, but that was the story in Afghanistan, too. We supported a bunch of woman-murdering reactionaries against the relatively egalitarian Soviet-controlled government there. I think your bringing up Sudan to support U.S. middle eastern policy, especially under GW Bush, is a classic false analogy.

Brian Ulrich - 3/19/2004

By the way - I supported the Iraq war at the time because I believed it was inevitable at some point, and since I agreed with the goals, I decided to simply hope it all worked despite some pessimism. I believed the administration when they said it would not interfere with what I saw as the War on Terror, a decision I now regret.

I think, also, the Kay Report deeply undercut the case for war. At the end, he implied Iraq was more dangerous than we believed because Saddam was losing control of his country. If that is true, then there were probably other ways to bring about the end of his regime, despite the failed coups from the 1990's, when he was stronger.

Brian Ulrich - 3/19/2004

What I would have liked to see instead of an Iraq invasion is what we are doing now in Waziristan. The major change undergone by al-Qaeda since January 2002 is its development into a sort of central networking center involving lots of regional terrorist groups such as the Salafiya Jihadiya in Morocco which appears linked to the Spain bombings.

Al-Qaeda sees Iraq as linked to its war against the West because the U.S. is there, not because Saddam was there.

Grant W Jones - 3/19/2004

Those links worked! That is the first time I tried that at cliopatria.

Grant W Jones - 3/19/2004

"Seems" and "if" are big words in English. What is there about a qualified statement that you don't understand?

You might spend a few minutes searching for facts:

Go over to Yahoo news and find the stories on who is taking credit for the bombings. And their stated reasons for the attack. That is besides returning Spain to the dar al-Islam fold.

What we are fighting:

Apologies, I don't know if hyperlinks work on this format.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/19/2004

Jonathan, good start for a list of fallacies that we're seeing in recent American political discourse.

I want to add a few:

The fallacy of exclusion: a known fact would make arguing my case more difficult or impossible, so I will pretend that fact doesn't exist and/or will try to divert others from discovering, considering or discussing it. (Diverting attention may have its own name as a fallacy.)

Straw man: misrepresenting a political opponent's argument, the better to knock that argument down. Where widely practiced, highly destructive of any useful exchange of views.

Middle Ground: the middle position between two extremes must be correct simply because it is the middle position. (This fallacy doesn't mean that middle positions aren't often correct, just that they aren't always correct.)

And I'll add one that may roll up under one of the classical fallacies:

Coincidence theory: Any explanation of an event that describes a conspiracy that has not been announced by government personnel or respectable news media (usually the New York Times) must be wrong, no matter how strong the evidence supporting it. This fallacy doesn't mean that explanations of events involving conspiracies are always or usually right, just that conspiracies do happen from time to time, and that the government and our news media can't be depended on to always do the right thing or to do our thinking for us.

Here are a couple of logical fallacy pages that I find useful. They contain similar information but are organized differently:

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/19/2004

"As to the war on terror and Iraq, Al Qaeda seems to think there is a connection, if the Spanish bombings are any indication."

Grant, which logical fallacy or fallacies are you trying to illustrate here?

Grant W Jones - 3/19/2004

Maybe a "fact" is epistemogically discrete, a thing held in mental isolation. I'll have to think on that one.

Do those that do not hold your moral suppositions illogical? One difference between the "right" and "left" is their respective views on the legitimacy of force. And when/if force is justified. But that is also a different issue.

Grant W Jones - 3/19/2004

Of course "It worked so it must have been necessary," is a non sequitar. It may also be the beginning of a set of strawmen. The ends do not justify the means. But what were the ends: freeing an enslaved nation and preventing more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The argument is that Saddam was an menace and force was the only way to remove him. As to the war on terror and Iraq, Al Qaeda seems to think there is a connection, if the Spanish bombings are any indication.

Single Cause is an example of confusing necessary and sufficient causes. There generally are a number of reasons for a policy. I'm curious as to why you keep bringing up the A-bomb drop. It is a dis-analogy, that you don't even bother to support. A better one would be the Allied invasion of French North Africa in 1942. Was the United States at war with Vichy? Did Vichy present an imminent threat to the United States? No, to both questions. But there were valid and compelling strategic reasons to invade. Bush has not been very articulate in provided those reasons, but that is another matter.

Logic=facts. The human mind is not a pane of glass that simply absorbs facts without effort. Logic is required to weigh facts and form some hierarchy of importance. You seem to be renaming the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. A "fact" is metaphysically discrete. The word generally refers to a particular existent, event or attribute. It requires logic to make understandable the multitude of facts we encounter daily. And one who must act, can not search endlessly for facts. Logic is not infallible, it is just the best instrument humans have to work with.

History teaches that leaders, even with even the best intentions, have to make decisions based on incomplete or even incorrect information. If they waited for the certainty required by academics, (inductive reasoning with incomplete information doesn't guarantee one will arrive at the truth.) no decisions would be made. Bush is hardly the first war-president to act on erroneous information. Unless you are saying that Bush's motives are other than what he claims.

That is an open question, what would have been the best strategy in fighting this war after the Afghanistan campaign? The problem is that many on the left seemed prepared to declare victory and revert to pre-9/11 inaction. That would have been a large mistake. Maybe Bush should have dealt with Saudi Arabia or Iran instead of Iraq. But, that is a different argument. There are two question involved, first whether to wage WAR (not a police investigation); Second, if so, what is the best strategy to secure victory.