Fake News: All the Counterfactual Conditionals Fit to Print

I encountered this passage in what was supposed to be a news story about Donald Trump’s intervention in the Carrier factory job decision in Indiana:

And just as only a confirmed anti-Communist like Richard Nixon could go to China, so only a businessman like Mr. Trump could take on corporate America without being called a Bernie Sanders-style socialist. If Barack Obama had tried the same maneuver, he’d probably have drawn criticism for intervening in the free market.

Does that set of claims really qualify as news? I’m not even sure the passage qualifies as editorializing. Neither sentence expresses a verifiable fact. Both sentences just seem like handwaving slop.

Is it really obvious that only as confirmed an anti-Communist as Richard Nixon could have gone to China? Compare Nixon to a Democratic president proximate to him in time, Jimmy Carter. Granted, both Nixon and Carter were anti-Communists, but then, what American president has ever been pro-Communist? Maybe the point is that a conservative Republican is by definition more anti-Communist than a Democrat, even if the Democrat in question is the president who initiated aid to the Afghan resistance (to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), but how does the author know that Nixon did what no Democrat could have done? And how do we deal with the fact that while Nixon went to China, it was Carter who established diplomatic relations with it?

If the first part of the analogy is a wild speculation, the second isn’t going to be much better. Is it really obvious that Donald Trump has not been called or likened to “a Bernie Sanders-style socialist”? I somehow doubt that the author has done an exhaustive search to make sure of it. Ideological defenders of the free market sometimes say surprisingly non-partisan things.

As for the second sentence, it’s not even clear that the sentence qualifies as the sort of proposition that has truth-conditions, much less that it expresses a truth. Supposing it’s truth-apt, how would we know that it was true? Supposing it’s true, what difference does it make to anything? Is the author really sure that Donald Trump will not be criticized for intervening in the free market?*

Right wing critics of the media have repeatedly asserted that the mainstream media is biased. They don’t always have a point, but they sometimes do. This passage is a case in point, and a painfully typical one. How it got past a competent editor is a real mystery. But maybe that’s the sort of question we should be asking more often–questions about the competence of mainstream newsroom editors, and the competence of the decisions they make on a daily basis.

I’m a rabidly anti-Trump Democrat. If a pro-Trump Republican had written this post…

Feel free to fill in the blank. While you’re at it, feel free to prove that what you’re saying is true. Easier said than done.


*December 2, 2016: We just had to wait a few days before Trump and Pence repudiated the free market of their own accord:

“I don’t want them moving out of the country without consequences,” Mr. Trump said, even if that means angering the free-market-oriented Republicans he beat in the primaries but will have to work with on Capitol Hill.

“The free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing,” Mr. Pence added, as Mr. Trump interjected, “Every time, every time.”

So much for worries about being criticized for government intervention in the free market. It’s a little unclear why a presidential campaign based on the repudiation of principled thought and action would worry about being criticized for violating free market dogma, but leave it to our journalists to confabulate a counterfactual world and then insist on reporting from it.

9 thoughts on “Fake News: All the Counterfactual Conditionals Fit to Print

  1. “Does that set of claims really qualify as news? I’m not even sure the passage qualifies as editorializing. Neither sentence expresses a verifiable fact.”

    Well, it does sounds like editorializing, both of the sort that has been going on for years under the guise of “news”, and of the sort we’d find in places where we expect it, e.g. op-ed columns.

    While one would hope that at least most of the claims made in a straight “news” piece would be verifiable – though I’m not sure anyone would want to put in the work to actually check that systematically about the whole category of news – why should that be the case for editorializing? When has that requirement that what one says be verifiable, rather than, say, conjecture, been the norm for editorial pieces?

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    • I would say that even editorials have to be held to certain standards of rigor and evidence-giving, and at a certain point, counterfactual speculations become too wild to meet the relevant standards. Some counterfactuals are so vague that it’s not clear how to figure out what would count as evidence for them. And some are so specific that they involve little more than bluff and bluster: no one could have evidence for a counterfactual that specific.

      The passage I quoted in the original post fits the first description–call it “void for vagueness.” Here is an example of the second sort, the pseudo-precise counterfactual, from this morning’s Times:

      The C.I.A., according to The Washington Post, has now determined that hackers working for the Russian government worked to tilt the 2016 election to Donald Trump. This has actually been obvious for months, but the agency was reluctant to state that conclusion before the election out of fear that it would be seen as taking a political role.

      Meanwhile, the F.B.I. went public 10 days before the election, dominating headlines and TV coverage across the country with a letter strongly implying that it might be about to find damning new evidence against Hillary Clinton — when it turned out, literally, to have found nothing at all.

      Did the combination of Russian and F.B.I. intervention swing the election? Yes. Mrs. Clinton lost three states – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – by less than a percentage point, and Florida by only slightly more. If she had won any three of those states, she would be president-elect. Is there any reasonable doubt that Putin/Comey made the difference?

      The rhetorical question at the end is an obvious, irresponsible bluff. All that Krugman has given us is evidence that Clinton lost those four states plus evidence that the Russians intervened in the election and the FBI made an announcement before it. He gives no evidence that the Russian intervention made the crucial difference in those states, and no evidence that the FBI announcement was either intended to intervene or had the effect of making the crucial difference.

      So contrary to Krugman, there’s plenty of room for “reasonable doubt that Putin/Comey made the difference.” The claim he makes here doesn’t belong in a news story or an editorial. It belongs on the cutting room floor, or perhaps in a private journal intended for off-the-cuff speculations or rantings.

      As I see it, there are three fallacies crammed into that one passage: a post hoc fallacy, an appeal to ignorance, and a subtle ad bacculum fallacy. The post hoc fallacy asserts that the prior events must have caused the latter ones. The appeal to ignorance suggests that anyone who doesn’t have a “better” account of Clinton’s defeat is obliged to accept Krugman’s (despite the lack of evidence for it). And the ad bacculum implies that if you feel doubt about his claims, well then–you’re an idiot. (Footnote: The ad bacculum doesn’t require an appeal to literal force. It requires an ultimatium to the effect that the listener accept an argument on pain of suffering some adverse consequence unrelated to the merits of the argument, among them the reputational consequence of being regarded as an idiot.)

      It’s a shame that Krugman spoils his column with this blather, because I agree with the rest of what he’s saying. Unfortunately, when you conjoin good sense with a fallacy, you undercut the good sense you’re making. Some counterfactual claims are necessary and can be made with some degree of precision and sense of intellectual responsibility, but like thought-experiments, they’re often abused by people who think that they “prove” more than they can or do.

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      • While I agree with most of what you’re writing here – about the fallacies, about how sloppy reasoning or party-line wishful thinking undercuts what otherwise might be a plausible case – but I disagree with you about what we can reasonably expect from editorials, op-ed pieces, or “editorializing”.

        Ideally, you’re right that “even editorials have to be held to certain standards of rigor and evidence-giving,” And you can certainly maintain that “The claim he makes here doesn’t belong in a news story or an editorial. It belongs on the cutting room floor, or perhaps in a private journal intended for off-the-cuff speculations or rantings.” So, editorial writing for the public ought to be held to – and meet – higher standards than the piece under consideration does.

        Not a lot of editorial material does meet high standards, though. And it looks to have been that way for a long time here in the US. I certainly don’t myself expect the sort of standards you do here of editorial material, even from news sources that are generally perceived to have and follow high standards (whether they actually do, and why they fail in that respect, well, those are entirely different matters).

        That’s not denying, of course, that editorials ought to meet such standards. It’s just recognizing that in most cases, they don’t. And I don’t think most of the reading public does expect editorials to meet such standards – or, if they do, most probably apply those very selectively (giving their side a pass on providing evidence, granting all the assumptions needed to make arguments work, etc. while being overly critical to the other side).

        So, we’re really talking about “editorial” in multiple senses here. You would like to confine the term to what one might call “high-standard-of-evidence-and-argument” editorials. I’d like to use the term for a much wider array of written content. You’re rightly advocating an ideal that should be reflected in what we choose to call things. I’m recognizing that what we actually do call “editorial” is a pretty mixed bag.

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        • Well, it’s hard to disagree with the first four paragraphs of your comment, so if we disagree, the disagreement turns on what you say at the end–what counts as a reasonable expectation in editorials (or more generally, public discourse) of any kind. I would say that it’s reasonable to treat the commission of a logical fallacy as an infraction in discourse of any kind.

          By “commission of a logical fallacy,” I mean the commission of any of the standard fallacies we find in textbooks of informal logic. I happen to use and like David Kelley’s The Art of Reasoning. I would regard the commission of any of the fallacies listed in his “fallacies” chapter as a sort of discursive infraction.

          By an “infraction,” I mean a discursive wrong that can be held against the person making it, and gives grounds for rejecting his argument tout court. No one has the obligation to respond to a fallacious argument over and above pointing out the fallacy in it.

          I realize that there is some complexity here. Philosophers disagree about what counts as a fallacy, and even when they agree about that, they disagree about what counts as the commission of a given fallacy. Different philosophers prefer different textbooks. But I think we can agree on a set of paradigms across both dimensions–what the major fallacies are, and what are paradigm instances of their violation.

          There’s also room for discretion in how to deal with someone’s committing a fallacy. Five examples from my personal experience:

          (1) Almost all of what my students say in the classroom is fallacious, but I can’t shut down discussion on that basis alone.

          (2) A friend may commit a fallacy in informal conversation with me, and while I may be conscious of the fact that what he said was fallacious, it may not be advisable to pounce on it right there (cf. Harry Frankfurt on “bull sessions” in “On Bullshit” around p. 9 of this version [PDF]).

          (3) Lover’s quarrels are notorious for the frequency with which both sides resort to fallacious discourse, but it’s not productive to treat your lover as an incompetent logician in the middle of the quarrel.

          (4) Point (3) applies, mutatis mutandis, to psychotherapy as well.

          (5) Whenever I’ve run an event on law enforcement issues where race was an issue, people in the audience have ended up offering highly charged personal anecdotes about their experiences with law enforcement, typically intended to make charged claims about the racist character of “the police.” Or they’ll ask loaded questions intended to make the police look bad (the fallacy here being complex question). That’s all fallacious discourse, hence wrong (on my account), but sensitivity to context requires my acknowledging that people have a need to vent, and sometimes fallacious venting is preferable to having them sit there in sullen silence for fear of being pounced on for committing a fallacy.

          That said, I would insist that every fallacy remains an infraction, and has to be treated as such in some sense of “has to be treated as such.” Put somewhat differently: the fallacious character of someone’s discourse can’t be ignored. It can’t even be ignored in therapy, where you’re supposed to be able to “say anything” with impunity. A client’s tendency to commit the same fallacies over and over tells you something important about his life. As for journalism, I can’t think of a context in which an editor with discretion over what to print or run in a publication should or ought to overlook a fallacy and run the article anyway. He may not have the power to have the fallacy eliminated altogether prior to publication, but I think he has the obligation to try to do so, within the limits of his power.

          One practical implication of my view: almost all meme-based discourse is fallacious, and ought either to be eliminated or ignored (to say nothing of tweets on Twitter, when they masquerade as arguments). I got on Facebook last May or June, mostly to upload photos and re-connect with friends and family. Unfortunately, I ended up getting sucked into Facebook’s approach to political discourse, and have only now decided that I must–absolutely must–get out. Almost all Facebook political discourse is fallacious, as is Twitter “discourse,” if it can even be called that. (I’m referring to discourse intended to make an argument, not narratives, announcements, jokes, etc.) It saddened me to see friends and comrades of mine indulging in it, getting lost in it, and treating what they were doing as bona fide political activity. It wasn’t political activity–it was just a distracting subversion of political discourse altogether. My view is that discourse of this sort shouldn’t be accommodated with a ratcheting down of standards, but should be judged wanting, criticized, and ideally, abandoned.

          Incidentally, we had a discussion of a related topic this past June, when Derrick Abdul-Hakim argued that some of what had been billed as Trump’s “racism” was really just a propensity to commit fallacies on topics relevant to race or ethnicity. I agreed with Derrick (and still do); Derek Bowman and David Riesbeck disagreed. We never finished the conversation (we rarely do, around here), but it seems to me that one major problem with our political discourse is that we’ve broadened the scope of “racism” and “sexism” in ways that serve to crowd out invocation of the language of fallacies. An accusation of “racism” or “sexism” carries more an expressive sting than, say, an accusation of “poisoning the well.” So people have come to prefer the former over the latter, whether it really fits the facts or not.

          But like Derrick, I find many accusations of racism and sexism far-fetched and implausible.* I don’t think Trump’s accusations against Judge Curiel were racist. They were unjust and immoral because they poisoned the well against Curiel, not because they were racist. The problem is, we’ve gotten so lax about the commission of fallacies in political discourse that an accusation of having committed one gets no rhetorical traction. So we resort to discourse that does. The problem then becomes that our (“our”) doing so invites the predictable (and often justifiable) counter-response that we’ve (“we’ve”) gotten too used to making loose accusations of racism. It may sound quixotic, but the only remedy is to restore discussion of the fallacies to pride of place, and criticize or even stigmatize those who commit them.

          *I don’t mean this as playing any kind of “race card,” but I do find it ironic that Derrick and I are the two “persons of color” on this blog, and we both agree that people too quickly resort to making accusations of “racism” nowadays. I suspect this is because both of us have a strong stake in reserving the term “racism” for clear instances of it and for using the term with maximal precision–so that when we (finally) decide to call someone a racist, he really is one, and saying so really fucking hurts.

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      • Another one.

        Donald J. Trump ✔ @realDonaldTrump
        Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!
        8:17 AM – 12 Dec 2016
        8,035 8,035 Retweets 22,441 22,441 likes

        Well, I can imagine Clinton’s winning, but I find it hard to imagine Trump’s playing the Russia/CIA card, given his pro-Russian proclivities. But suppose I try to imagine his playing that card. I then end up imagining that some people call it a conspiracy theory and some people take it seriously, at face value. Pretty inconclusive.

        Meanwhile, Trump imagines that no one would take it seriously, presumably on the supposition (“proven” by the counterfactual) that everyone is dead-set against him, and because of that, no one is capable of objectivity or fairness with respect to a matter of national security. How could anyone know that? It’s impossible. But the impossibility of knowing the truth of the claim seems to me part of the rationale for deploying it in the first place. It insinuates without having to prove.

        This is not the kind of thing that belongs in public discourse at all, whether in a news story, an editorial, or the Twitter feed of the President-Elect of the United States (accepting, purely ex hypothesi, that the President-Elect ought to have a Twitter feed at all).

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  2. Krugman seems to be going on a counterfactual rampage. From this morning’s column:

    Let me explain what I mean by saying that bad guys hacked the election. I’m not talking about some kind of wild conspiracy theory. I’m talking about the obvious effect of two factors on voting: the steady drumbeat of Russia-contrived leaks about Democrats, and only Democrats, and the dramatic, totally unjustified last-minute intervention by the F.B.I., which appears to have become a highly partisan institution, with distinct alt-right sympathies.

    Does anyone really doubt that these factors moved swing-state ballots by at least 1 percent? If they did, they made the difference in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — and therefore handed Mr. Trump the election, even though he received almost three million fewer total votes. Yes, the election was hacked.

    Thanks for the explanation, but yes, there’s still room for doubt. It’s kind of a mystery why, after the display of irrationality expressed through the election, liberal pundits seem to want to suborn some more in their own followers. Does one faith-based approach to politics cancel out the other?

    Incidentally, though it’s not a counterfactual claim, is anyone aware of bona fide evidence of alt-right influence within the FBI? “Distinct alt-right sympathies” doesn’t really mean anything (or could mean just about anything).

    Here’s another one from the same column:

    And then there was the Comey letter. The F.B.I. literally found nothing at all. But the letter dominated front pages and TV coverage, and that coverage — by news organizations that surely knew that they were being used as political weapons — was almost certainly decisive on Election Day.

    “Almost certainly.” Not quite certainly, but almost certainly. Because when you’re certain, that’s the time to hedge. Where is Descartes when you need him? Never mind that the online version of Krugman’s column spices up this ridiculous claim with an unflattering photo of James Comey. Because everyone knows that when arguments can’t work, it’s time to resort to allusions to your opponents’ physical appearance. (I tried to reproduce it below, but couldn’t.)

    Am I just in a really bad mood? Or are we living in a seriously fucked up country? Not exclusive possibilities, I suppose.

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  3. More counterfactual madness, this time in a story about Facebook and fake news:

    Still, Facebook has taken the most heat over fake news. The company has been under that spotlight since Nov. 8, when Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president. Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory almost immediately led people to focus on whether Facebook had influenced the electorate, especially with the rise of hyperpartisan sites on the network and many examples of misinformation, such as a false article that claimed Pope Francis had endorsed Mr. Trump for president that was shared nearly a million times across the site.

    Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said he did not believe that the social network had influenced the election result, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.” Yet the intense scrutiny of the company on the issue has caused internal divisions and has pushed Mr. Zuckerberg to say he was trying to find ways to reduce the problem.

    In an interview, Mr. Mosseri said Facebook did not think its news feed had directly caused people to vote for a particular candidate, given that “the magnitude of fake news across Facebook is one fraction of a percent of the content across the network.”

    I wouldn’t blame the reporting here: the reporter isn’t expressing a counterfactual as news in his voice, but reporting on counterfactual claims made (and disputed) by others. What amazes me here are the epistemic assumptions embedded in the criticisms of Facebook. Are Facebook’s users just passive conduits for fake news stories?

    The implicit causal story here seems to me: Facebook users are sitting online as fake news stories stream by them; the fake news induces them uncritically to believe crazy things; the crazy beliefs induce them to do crazy things, including vote for crazy candidates; and this happens in sufficiently numbers to influence a presidential election. I wouldn’t dispute that it’s all possible, but the people making the claims seem to have no grasp at all of how difficult it would be to prove the truth of the story they’re telling. But I guess such considerations cease to matter in a post-factual and post-alethic culture. So the question becomes: where is Pontius Pilate when you need him? JFC

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  4. Not quite counterfactual madness, but still, evidence for the claim that if you start looking for journalistic malfeasances, even in the nation’s paper of record, you’re going to find them. From an article in today’s Times on the conviction of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist in Charleston:

    Mr. Roof wore a jacket bearing patches of the apartheid-era flags of South Africa and Rhodesia and posed in photographs with the Confederate battle flag. In a consequence that he surely did not anticipate, that flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House in response to the church killings.

    “Surely did not anticipate”? How would the reporter know what Roof had or had not anticipated? Some of these reporters seem unable to distinguish between writing a news article and writing a morality tale.

    I’m going to stop now.

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