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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New and improved: Logic (Now, with Benchmarks!)

I'm studying some logic right now and it occurred to me last night (around 3) that much of the public debate over Iraq can be distilled into a single fallacy called "affirming the consequent."

To explain. If I were to tell you, "If it rains tomorrow, I'm going to get wet" and the next day I walked into a coffee shop sopping, would that mean it rained? The answer is no; it's conceivable that I got splashed by a car, or ran through a sprinkler, etc. In any of these cases, my prediction is not false, because it only applies if the antecedent (if it rains tomorrow) is true. This is called "affirming the consequent" because the fallacy pretends that by verifying the second, "then" part of the statement, the "if" part is proven true. Any of us could come up with a hundred examples which make this point clear. (I.e. if I'm abducted by aliens, I'll be surprised. You find me surprised -- does that mean I was abducted by aliens?)

But the main arguments for the war in Iraq present the clearest examples of this fallacy, arguments which have been used (ridiculously) to prove a variety of "ifs" about Iraq.

For instance, it was argued that if Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, we must invade. And for quite a while, people believed that there must be such weapons, because we had, in fact, invaded.

It was also argued that if Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, we should attack them. And because we attacked, many believed for years that Iraq did have ties to Al Qaeda. Of course, this brew is muddied by the further argument that if we fought Al Qaeda "over there" we wouldn't have to fight them elsewhere. Now that we're fighting Al Qaeda forces in Iraq, it's been argued that the war is protecting us from Al Qaeda's expansion. But of course, recent articles -- based on the analysis of our intelligence services -- have shown that the opposite is the case. Iraq is serving a as a recruitment center and huge revenue drive for Al Qaeda-in-Iraq, which is now exporting expertise and money around the globe.

But this basic fallacy can also illustrate the central misbelief of our Iraq policy: If we are to stabilize Iraq and prevent a military failure, we must not withdraw our troops. Conservative and administration officials, despite all the contrary evidence, continue to affirm the consequent -- arguing that continued presence in Iraq will stabilize the country and prevent failure. The fallacy lies in the failure of the consequent -- maintaining troop levels -- to secure the antecedent -- peace and political success in Iraq.

To put this differently, affirming the consequent illustrates that there is a huge difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. It may be necessary that I pick up a bat in order to hit a home run in the World Series. But it is completely insufficient -- no matter how many times you put a Louisville slugger in my hands and send me in against Andy Pettit, I still suck at baseball. And no matter how long our military stays in Iraq, there's nothing they can do to solve a civil war driven by forces that predate our presence by a hundred years.

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