Friday, August 24, 2018

"Bothsidesism," Donald Trump, and Why Isn't Mueller Convicting Democrats?

Let’s take a moment to look at the fallacy of “Two Wrongs Make a Right,” which I used to teach in my debate classes, and which has now morphed into what Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls “Bothsidesism.” That's the fallacy of thinking that we need to attack both sides equally. We’re hearing a lot of this fallacy ever since President Donald Trump’s close associates Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort were convicted this past Tuesday of serious crimes. The incorrect argument that too many conservatives make goes like this: prosecutor Bob Mueller has investigated and convicted quite a few Republicans. He has not, however, investigated or convicted any of Trump’s real or imagined political opponents. To many conservatives, this seems unfair. The possibility that the Republicans are guilty and maybe the Democrats are not never seems to enter their thinking. At the end of this blog, I’ll explain why some conservatives make this argument and why it is faulty.

First, however, let’s look at some examples. President Trump himself just issued two tweets of blatant bothsidesism.

In the first of these tweets, Trump says, responding to a report by Attorney General Jeff Sessions:

“Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.” Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the 'other side' including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr......”

His following tweet says:

“....FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems - and so much more. Open up the papers & documents without redaction? Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!”

Although there is much wrong with these tweets, let’s focus on bothsidesism. These tweets refer to conspiracy theories that have circulated in conservative media. I talked about Strzok conspiracy theories in an earlier blog post. The supposedly illegal surveillance of Trump’s campaign was discredited long ago; apparently Trump campaign officials sometimes interacted with people who were under surveillance and were accidentally caught up in it. Mueller has no known relationships that legally constitute conflicts of interest. Trump's argument is that his opponents and critics should be investigated, just to make things fair and equal.

In an even more brazen example of bothsidesism, Wall Street Journal writer Kimberly Strassel writes “The country has watched the FBI treat one presidential campaign with kid gloves, the other with informants, warrants and eavesdropping.”  She continues: “Yes, the former FBI director deserves credit for smoking out the Russian trolls who interfered in 2016. And one can argue he is obliged to pursue any evidence of criminal acts, even those unrelated to Russia. But what cannot be justified is the one-sided nature of his probe.” 

In other words, she thinks that Mueller should investigate the Democrats, even without probable cause, just to keep things equal. 

But this is mistaken thinking. Let us make a few analogies: the FBI investigates the Mafia, but is it unfair that they don’t also investigate businesses that the Mafia attacked? Now, would that make any sense? Of course not. Here’s another one: the Pennsylvania Attorney General investigated accusations that the Catholic Church covered up child abuse, but is it unfair that he didn’t also investigate churches against which there are no credible accusations of child abuse? Would that make sense? Of course not.

So, why do seemingly reasonable, decent people think that we need to criticize both sides? Here are three possible explanations:

1. People think that the universe needs to be in moral balance. If Republicans are investigated, many people think that it is only fair to investigate their investigators to see if they are conducting a witch hunt. This makes no sense unless there is cause to think that the investigators have done something wrong. Or, if Republicans turn out to be guilty of things, it is also necessary to find the Democrats guilty of something. Anything. Otherwise, the world will go out of balance.

That makes very little sense, because it omits the possibility that the investigators and the Democrats committed no crimes. Some people, apparently including Mr. Trump and Ms. Strassel, think that fairness means that you treat both sides the same. Other people, like me, think that fairness means that you punish the guilty and acquit the innocent.

2. Another possible explanation is that many Republicans are not ready to think that Mr. Trump is more crooked than other politicians. Now, yes many politicians are crooks. Still, falsely believing that both sides are equally evil helps Republicans soothe their consciences as they witness Mr. Trump’s cronies being convicted of serious crimes, one after the other.

3. The third possible explanation is that this is just dirty politics. Seeing Mr. Trump’s presidency under stress, Mr. Trump and his defenders lash out. Their supporters would find this credible only if they are convinced that all politicians and government officials are equally evil, venial, and guilty. In our cynical age, many people are quite ready to believe just that. Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Drain the Swamp!” aimed directly at people's feeling that the establishment was so corrupt that unethical measures need to be taken to root it out.

The problem with those explanations – or should I call them excuses? – is that people who think that way cannot recognize honesty when they see it. The evidence against Mr. Trump’s cronies seems to be overwhelming. A number of them confessed and pled guilty. That conclusively disproves the "witch hunt" theory. The accusations against Jeff Sessions, Hillary Clinton, Bob Mueller, and so forth have at this point stalled at the level of being unjustified conspiracy theories. People believe these conspiracy theories only because their mistrust convinces them that evidence must exist in some mysterious place, if it is yet known.

What is deeply wrong about all of this? First, bombarding one’s opponents with false accusations does not excuse one’s own wrongful behavior. Second, even if the accusations turn out to be true, it is a fallacy to think that it is okay to support evil people if the other side is also evil. In real life, the only way to restore moral balance is to stop doing bad things. Two wrongs don’t make a right; two wrongs just make two wrongs. Always.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

I Don't Like Political Slogans Because They Tell Me Nothing

Too many political slogans, too little political thought. Most slogans commit a logical fallacy of one kind or another. Slogans are catchy, but they are bad for the mind. No catchy slogan contributes anything to our political talk. Nothing at all. Zip. Let's look at a few examples.

1. Let's start with "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." True enough, but it means nothing. Philosophers call this a tautology. It's true by definition. It's like saying, "Pat has a spouse, which proves that Pat is married." Or, "If I drive very fast, I won't be standing still." Or, "If I'm standing up, I won't be sitting down." The outlawed guns slogan sounds clever, but it tells us no information at all. No possible evidence could prove it to be wrong. Something that is true by definition gives us no reason to act.

2. Citing Chicago's high murder rate, popular pundit Charlie Kirk tweeted, "All Democrat political control means suffering and misery." If he knew how to write in decent English, Kirk would presumably say, "All Democratic political control..." In either case, it's still a slogan, not an argument.

First, Chicago is only one example, and one example never proves more than the one case. You always need at least two examples, and even two example aren't usually enough. "My first friend was a jerk, so all friends are jerks." We know that's not true. The one bad experience doesn't prove that all friends are bad.

Second, Kirk implies cause and effect: that Democrats cause high crime. But maybe the crime would be worse if Chicago did not have Democratic leaders. Maybe it would be the same without Democratic leaders. "Correlation doesn't prove causation" is also a slogan, and it overlooks some tricky questions, but it comes close enough. Correlation between Democrats and crime doesn't prove that the one causes the other. We would need to know a lot more than just basic crime numbers to know whether Democrats do or don't cause crime. Kirk's simple-minded slogan contains two fallacies in one sentence. Not brilliant.

3. "Heal America Democrats Care" is a trademarked bumper sticker.  This is the fallacy of over-generalization. I have met Democrats who didn't care about a thing, and I have met Republicans who care very much. It also commits a cause and effect fallacy: if Republicans won't accept a liberal leader, no matter how good he or she is, that might not heal America: the divisions might just get
worse. I suspect that's what happened with Barack Obama: it's not that he did anything terrible and awful, but many Republicans refused his leadership. This slogan commits two fallacies in four words.

4. "Is That True? Or Did You Hear It on Fox News?" is another popular bumper stickerYou can also find bumper stickers that say CNN instead of Fox. This is prejudgment. Some of Fox's hosts and opinion commentators are very unreliable, but that doesn't necessarily tar the evening newscasters' reputations. Fox evening newscasters generally do good work, presenting accurate stories with a conservative slant. The slogan submerges an important distinction between news and opinion. Distinctions make a difference.

So - life is complicated. Public life is very complicated. Most of us want easy solutions. Slogans give us easy solutions, but there are no easy solutions to public policy questions. None. Not even one. Not ever. Get over it.

Catchy slogans are like bait on a fishhook - they are tempting, but, if the fish bites the hook, the fish ends up steaming on a charcoal grill. Slogans express one element of truth by hiding the element of truth that the other side can tell. Slogans lead us to doom. Look for complicated solutions. When it comes to public policy, be afraid of easy answers.

P.S.: About slogan #4: all news reporters should be as accurate as humanly possible and correct stories that contain errors. By basic journalistic ethics, this also applies to opinion writers and broadcasters. Opinion writers and broadcasters can spin the facts however they wish, but ethics still requires them to get their facts right. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Speeches at the Cybersecurity Summit: Who Is Admitting that the Russians Interfered in U.S. Elections?

Rotunda, Alexander Hamilton US Customs House
It is useful for politicians to contradict themselves. It is crooked, yes, but it is a handy way to persuade people.

Speaking at the Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House, a building of great beauty, Vice President Michael Pence opposed Russian cyberattacks during the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity Summit yesterday. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen made similar comments in her talk. 

Elsewhere, however, President Donald Trump himself continued his angry protest against the claim that Russia meddled on his behalf in United States elections, while both supporters and opponents claim that he has been weak on election security. 

However, Mr. Pence and Ms. Nielsen argued that the administration is protecting election security. Is this (1) Politics as usual? (2) Or a clever, albeit dubious, persuasive method that sidesteps an important issue by taking contradictory positions? I lean toward (2). Here’s why:

Mike Pence
Mr. Pence emphasized the Trump administration’s commitment to cybersecurity, especially with respect to the United States’ elections. There have, of course, been well-documented reports that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 election to favor Donald Trump, using such methods as divisive Facebook posts, fake news articles, and attempted voting machine hacking. Following the tradition that politicians take both sides of every issue, Mr. Pence specifically acknowledged the Russian government’s efforts, promising that the full force of the United States government will be brought to bear to secure the integrity of the United States elections.

Not only did Mr. Pence discuss election security, but he also reviewed ways in which foreign governments, especially Russia, had attacked financial institutions, state government operations, computer access, and intellectual property. Mr. Pence clearly acknowledged what should have been obvious for some time, that the Russian government did meddle in American elections:

“While other nations certainly possess the capability, the fact is Russia meddled in our 2016 elections.  That is the unambiguous judgment of our intelligence community, and, as the President said, we accept the intelligence community’s conclusion.”

He assured his audience that President Trump had ordered massive efforts to improve cyber security and election security. Noting that elections are conducted by state and local governments, not the federal government, Pence expressed concern that states were not ready to protect voting integrity:

“Yet it concerns us that many states still don’t have concrete plans to upgrade their voting systems, and 14 states are struggling to replace outdated voting machines that lack paper trails before the next presidential election.”

Before we get too excited, look at the end of this post to see what Congress is (not) doing about state election security. 

Kirstjen Nielsen
At the same meeting, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen commented forcefully that: “Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”  She agreed with the intelligence community that “It was the Russians. We know that, they know that.” She continued that “It is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Well and good. But, (1) are all members of the administration and the Republican majority in Congress reading form the same page? And, (2) if they are obviously not on the same page, then why not? Are they just confused, as the news media often imply? Or are they, as both claimed, saying what President Trump wanted them to say about cybersecurity? I am inclined to think that this looks like a purposeful persuasive strategy.

Let us recall that President Trump has been very inconsistent about cybersecurity, and that he hedged when he discussed Russian election interference at the recent Helsinki Summit. He has been tweeting that the Department of Justice’s investigation into Russian meddling is a “witch hunt” directed at him personally. 

Just today, the Republican-majority House of Representatives strongly opposed additional funding to improve states’ voting security, implausibly claiming that the money was not needed. One cannot help but to wonder why they would oppose such an obvious step.

To see why administration officials say such different things, consider that Mr. Trump has at least two different audiences who want to hear different things:

Audience A wants to hear that the President is on top of cybersecurity and is protecting the nation. Thus, the speeches by Mr. Pence and Ms. Nielsen specifically attributed aggressive security arrangements to administration policy and President Trump himself.

Audience B, the audience that accepts Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories, went to hear exactly what Mr. Trump himself was saying: that it was all a witch hunt and that his enemies had invented the entire problem.

So, Mr. Trump can continue to express his conspiracy theories and protest the investigation. At the same time, his subordinates can assure everybody that Mr. Trump is defending the nation against Russian cyberattacks. In this way, the Trump administration can take both sides of the same issue. It’s actually very clever – confusing, and not entirely honest – but very clever.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Jim Thome's Hall of Fame Speech and Why We Need to Be Challenged

Congratulations to home run hitter Jim Thome on his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. All of the inductees gave interesting and heartfelt speeches. In his speech, Thome thanked his teammates, his managers, and the fans of the six cities in which he played major league ball. He noted how remarkable it was that a 13th round draft pick would even get to the big leagues, let alone to the Hall of Fame.

But all epideictic speeches (that is, all ceremonial speeches) are about values, and one value that Thome mentioned really hit home to me. He thanked his opponents for helping him rise to one challenge after another:

"To everyone I played against, a few of whom are seated behind me, God bless you for making it hard to win games. You inspired hours of workouts, endless conversations of strategy, and challenged me to dig deep to pursue the truth that we all seek to discover but never quite master. We competed for the same thing and pushed one another to bring out the best in ourselves."

"To dig deep to pursue the truth that we all seek to discover but never quite master." Isn't that what life, at its best, is really about? We often do our best when the challenges become the greatest. For every strikeout that Thome made (and he struck out plenty!) gave him a chance to learn more about the sport.

So, he had a great career, and left his fans with an inspiring thought. He gave the audience - the live audience, the television audience, and the YouTube audience - a chance to learn something.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Paul Ryan Gave a Speech about Civility, but Are We Listening?
Paul Ryan, official portrait
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave a speech in the United States Capitol yesterday to congressional interns. He told them that civility was important, and explained that ideas need to make a difference. He deplored the mindless anger that fills political talk. I agree. As a former high school and college debater, I prefer for us to hear both sides of every issue, and to believe the points that are best proven. I agree with few of Ryan's policies, but I am happy to hear his ideas, and think that conservatives should be willing to hear ideas that liberals and moderates express.

Ryan especially called out social media which, he said, "just amplifies all of these trends. It is an industry where you can make money feeding fear and resentment." Although Ryan did not mention President Donald Trump, we all know that Twitter is his preferred   communication channel, so we do have something to worry about. Ryan continued, "We are caught in this paradox where we are more connected than ever, but we could not feel more disconnected or more alienated.”

Ryan continued that civility was not just important because it was good to be polite. He also noted that, to discuss ideas, we need to do more than debate in "a stream of hot takes and tweets." Ryan said that, when he is attacked on social media, he tries "not to respond in kind but to respond with kindness." He pointed out that "snark sells, but it doesn't stick. It doesn't last. It doesn't unite people around a bigger idea or a greater cause."

Ryan is, of course, right about that. The Elaboration Likelihood Model, a psychological theory of persuasion, shows that attitude change is more likely to last, and more likely to change our behavior, when it is based on "central processing;" that is, on deliberative thought. Twitter is not designed for deliberative thought.

Trump Tweet about "Fake News"
I'm sure that the news media would have liked Ryan to call out President Trump more explicitly, especially since Mr. Trump uses his Twitter account to declare open war on them, and they surely feel beleaguered. In the long run, however, Ryan's more measured speech made the point well enough. If Ryan gave an angry or insulting speech, he would have contradicted his own point. We can only hope that the future leaders to whom he spoke will heed the lesson.

And we can hope that the public will stop voting for politicians who spew out mindless rage. The loudest voices are not always right. In my experience, the loudest voices are usually wrong. 

P.S. Twitter can be productive if it links readers to websites that contain accurate, in-depth information. Too often, however, my Twitter feed just links me to conspiracy theory websites, wild speculation, or obnoxious memes. So, it's hard to disagree with Ryan's speech.

See my earlier post about Elaboration Likelihood, which shows why we need to speak reasonably.

Image of Paul Ryan: Official congressional photo