Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama's Logic

Yesterday on Red Eye they played the part of the State of the Union address where Obama said this:

From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious; such an effort would be too contentious. I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.

Later there was an exchange between Greg Guttfeld and Andy Levy (the show's libertarian) that went pretty much like this:

Andy: You know who I really feel sorry for in all this?

Greg: Who?

Andy: The straw men.

Yes, he really is beating the crap out of them, isn't he? Also the dead horses.

Obama has a curious fondness for fallacious arguments, and straw man is definitely one of his favorites. Others include false dichotomy and argumentum ad hominem. (For examples go here, here, and here. For a comment on why false dichotomy is a fallacy, see this.)

He seems to be unique among presidents in this way. When Bush said he had intelligence reports that showed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, it was not a fallacy but a lie. Indeed, the lie, as everyone knows, is the characteristic rhetorical sin of politicians. A lie and a fallacy are quite different things. One is a characteristic of statements (its author know it is false) and the other is a characteristic of arguments (your statement fails to logically support the point you are making).

I can't remember a single fallacious argument from another president. I remember objecting to many things they said, but not on the grounds that they tried to convince me with a lurching non sequitur. Is this just a failure of memory on my part? It's odd. ...

Actually, I just thought of an explanation. I was just reading the joint session speech in which John Kennedy called for Congress to commit itself to "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." (May 25, 1961.) The argument he presents for it is a passage of some 282 words in which he claims that a moon program will contribute to achieving four national goals, such as accelerating the development of satellites for communications and for weather observations. As with any argument, it is open to objections, but they would be based on facts and ethical or political principles, not on whether the premises constitute rational evidence for the conclusion. They do.

Turning from the Kennedy speech to the Obama one is like going from the words of a real president to those of a high school debater:

You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany's not waiting. India's not waiting. These nations aren't standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America!
But it just struck me that there is a big difference between these arguments, aside from their logic: Kennedy is talking about things and Obama is talking about people. More exactly, he is directly attacking his ideological opponents. Straw man, ad hominem, and false dichotomy, at least the way BHO uses then, are all ways of unfairly attacking people. Obama's problem is not with logic, but with debating fairly and rationally with people who fundamentally disagree with him. He's not our first logically illiterate president. He's our first Saul Alinsky president.


Anonymous said...

In all fairness, Reagan used similar arguments with, "They said Communism was here to stay and could not be defeated." True they said that in the 1950's and 60's but by 1980, the communist states were beginning to collapse under the weight of their antiquated economies. Reagan's CIA director Casey knew this but Reagan did not always convey this. Instead they started an arms build-up against a Soviet Union that had no interest in going to war.

Now Obama is claiming some inroads on health care, but the public option, which really was the government full blown participation in Health Care was never really on the table. If the bill passes, the insurance co's will get 30 million new customers and their profits will continue to soar however both sides can claim victory (dems for increased coverage and repubs for no gov't take over).

It's all theater and in the end, most of those sitting in the chamber Wednedsday night will be there to hear the 2011 SOTU Address.

Lester Hunt said...

"They said Communism was here to stay and could not be defeated."

I would be delighted to see a real case of Reagan using the straw man fallacy, but I don't think that this is a good example. Until his administration, the official US policy (officially called "containment") was based on the assumption that Communism was here to stay. The collapse of the Soviet Union caught most of the so-called experts completely flat-footed, until just before it actually collapsed.

Here I blogged about Paul Samuelson saying the Soviet economy is a terrific powerhouse three years before the whole system fell apart:

I'd say the rhetorical sins Reagan was known for were getting facts weirdly wrong ("Trees are major sources of pollution") and (when he was younger) being unnecessarily provocative ("If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all").

bt said...

You really can't think of any prior presidents making any use of these seductive fallacies? I thought for five seconds and thought of George Bush saying: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Seems like a false dichotomy to me. (How about, "I'm against the terrorists, but I disagree that invading Afghanistan (and then Iraq) is wise" as a third option?) I think you are being profoundly uncharitable to Obama, and strangely blind to the failings of prior presidents.

In fact, one rhetorical quirk that I think Obama is known for is "the straw man who makes false dichotomies." I'm thinking of his inauguration speech, where he said things like, "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Of course, no one is saying that we must choose either safety or our ideals. So he's setting up a straw man who used the false dichotomy fallacy. Pretty clever. But certainly not unprecedented.

Anonymous said...

I think Obama's really arguing about the argument or how both sides end up in a stalemate of ideas.

i.e. addressing the repub congressmen last friday about health care; "you would think this was a Bolshevik plot....when you define it this way there is not much room for comprimise"

On Reagan, true many "experts" were caught on the collapse of communism, but people who lived in the USSR in the late 70's will tell you how bad and stale it was getting. Those photos of the elderly Brezhnev with his elderly cronies alongside reviewing the anniversary parades said it all.

In reality, many in the west feared a communist collapse because of what it could do to the western economy as well as destablize the USSR counterbalance of China and the mideast states; which is why Kissinger was so proficient at detante.

Anonymous said...

If you carry my argument about Reagan and the Soviet Union, one can certainly see a touch of Alinsky. If Reagan wanted to "defeat" a failed Soviet State, the goal was to convince the people in this country that Marxism is a joke as an economic system.

If you read into Obama's ridiculing of Wall Street execs paying themselves bonuses even though the taxpayers bailed them out, you can see his scorn is directed towards their "belief system" and not the resultant behavior (taking the money).

The purpose of creating good arguments is to give your supporters fodder against their foes.i.e "sadaam had wmd's" true they may not have existed but the logic follows with 2 premises 1)9-11 was a terror attack against the US. 2)terrorists with wmd's is worse etc.

I think what angers you about Obama is his left wing premise that free market capitalism hs failed and there is no need to create great arguments when the left wingmedia is so biased for you and they constantly make the right wing FOX folks look like fools.

Lester Hunt said...

"The purpose of creating good arguments is to give your supporters fodder against their foes."

That of course is Obama's Alinsky-streetfighter or Chicago-hard-ball view of argumentation. God help us when the most powerful person on Earth has such a degraded view of human reasoning.

"...the logic follows with 2 premises 1)9-11 was a terror attack against the US. 2)terrorists with wmd's is worse etc."

I strongly urge that you hurry to the nearest community college and enroll in their course on logic. The semester is just beginning and it may not be too late to add a course. I'm not kidding.

Lester Hunt said...


"George Bush saying: 'Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.'"

I still regard GWB as one of the two worst presidents, but I don't think this is a fallacy. It's from the Sept. 20 2001 speech to a joint session, and he is referring to countries that allow terrorist camps within their borders, not to you or me. Here is the whole paragraph:

"And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

Read in context, it seems a plausible statement to me. If a state provides a haven for people who are making war against another state, it is at least plausible to say that they cannot claim neutrality.

Lester Hunt said...


"I think you are being profoundly uncharitable to Obama, and strangely blind to the failings of prior presidents."

That possibility does worry me. Maybe I should say that I can think of one and a half things BHO has done that I do like. The one is ending Federal raids on medical marijuana shops in California. The half is closing Guantanamo.

As to being too charitable to other presidents, if they don't have such a strong tendency to argue fallaciously, that could be because they don't generally argue for things in the first place. Browsing through Kennedy's speeches, I see him making ringing declarations or pungent aphorisms, cracking jokes, staking out common ground -- but generally not trying to make a case. Obama does, probably in every speech. (This may be why they strike some people as "professorial" -- an impression that I, as a prof. who has delivered approximately 5,500 lectures, otherwise find incomprehensible.)

Anonymous said...

Maybe I was not specific in stating the "underlying" argument suggested is based on premises:
1)Terrorist are dangerous
2)Terrorists with WMD's are horrfic.
And of course the GWB admin phrase:
3) "An enemy state with WMD's that can end up in the hands of terrorists."

I remember Reagan's rule: Speak nothing bad of another Republican. Although somewhat joking (like "We have just outlawed the Soviet Union. We can begin bombing now" or McCain's aliteration of the Beach Boy's tune "Barbara Ann": "Bomb bomb bomb Bomb Iran"

The Republican Party with its 40 plus years of Conservative indoctrination has it's hints of capitalist fascism.

If Geitner (former Greenspan NY Fed Chairman) had gotten the AIG execs to accept 80 cents on the dollar for their train wreck decisions or forego bonuses it would have hinted of guilt admission. This is really about a group of people in deep psychological denial and a country heavily indoctrinated.

Although Bush may have criticized Wall Street practices, he does not rise to the level of Obama who at times is befuddled by Wall Street huberous. Therefore he gets branded as the socialist or promoter of a "Bolshevok Plot".

"Either you are with us, or you are with the socialists."

Anonymous said...

I think your recognition of Obama's non-argumentive skill is exactly what this is all about. When he says "THEY say we couldn't change Washington..THEY took bonuses with the money the taxpayers gave them" etc. The "They" really indicates an enemy which is a hubris. Alot of his approach comes from the community organizer experience. When addressing the inner city minorities, it was wrong to say "The White establishment" even if it were not meant contemptuously; so the "they" always carried the politicaly correct connotation.

As far as beating up the strawman, it looks like the strawman may have lashed out at him. Members of his own party claim he failed to convey (or make a convincing argument?) about the healthcare plan to the public.