Sing It Again, Y’all

From a Bret Stephens column on the “Gulf of Oman” crisis:

Trump might be a liar, but the U.S. military isn’t. There are lingering questions about the types of munitions that hit the ships, and time should be given for a thorough investigation. But it would require a large dose of self-deception (or conspiracy theorizing) to pretend that Iran isn’t the likely culprit, or that its actions don’t represent a major escalation in the region.

How many fallacies do you see there? I was at first tempted to count two.

The first  is a begged question: the U.S. military’s version of the event is true because the U.S. military doesn’t lie.

The second is either a poisoned well or two of them: if you don’t believe the U.S. military’s version of the story, you are (1) self-deceived or (2) engaged in conspiracy theorizing.

It might seem like unfair double counting to say that there are two instances of well poisoning there rather than one, but I’m inclined to count two because there really ought to be a separate count of the fallacy (and maybe a separate fallacy) for accusing someone of engaging in “conspiracy theorizing.” This is a case of intending to poison the well by means of of a substance that isn’t poisonous: since conspiracies take place in politics, it makes no sense to treat “conspiracy theorizing” as an accusation; and yet it poisons the well to invoke conspiracy theorizing as though it were an accusation. Since there’s no separate name for intended well poisonings that rest on false toxicologies, the least we can do is add another count of well-poisoning to Stephens’s discursive rap sheet. So not two but three.

Since I’m in prosecutorial mode, I’m feeling ingenious, and am therefore inclined to think there’s a fourth, separate but nameless fallacy being committed here, somewhat akin to Moore’s Paradox. You commit Moore’s Paradox when you assert in the first person a claim that you yourself regard in the third person to be false: “It’s raining but I don’t believe that it’s raining,” is the standard example. The paradox arises because the claim seems obviously absurd yet involves no obvious logical absurdity.

The fallacy I have in mind here resembles Moore’s Paradox without exemplifying it. It consists of making a dogmatic assertion, say the claim that p, adducing little or no evidence for p, then making an insincere show of one’s openness to evidence that undercuts p far more obviously than the evidence adduced in its favor–followed immediately by the confident avowal that p is the case. It’s as though one were to say, “The jury is out on the truth of p; indeed, a judicious inquirer would see that there are good reasons to doubt p. But surely p.” The absurdity resembles a case of Moore’s Paradox: p is to be believed in defiance of ass-kicking reasons for not believing it.

Psychologically, it’s as though there were some peculiar sort of epistemic valor involved in believing something extremely dubious–or else as though credibility could be conferred on a claim by defending it in a fashion so quixotic and tortured that listeners were induced to believe it by accepting the discursive equivalent of the labor theory of value: there has to be something to p, given the sheer effort required to make the case for it. This is a little like going out of your way to pay people large salaries to dig random holes in the ground on the grounds (so to speak) that expenditure of effort deserves compensation even if wastes time and resources and accomplishes nothing. In writing that, I’m uneasily reminded of the fact that paying people to make war is a lot like paying them to dig random holes in the ground, but I’m not sure that really contradicts what I’m trying to say. So let’s call it four fallacies so far.

This is how Stephens ends his piece:

Nobody wants a war with Iran. But not wanting a war does not mean remaining supine in the face of its outrages. We sank Iran’s navy before. Tehran should be put on notice that we are prepared and able to do it again.

Can’t wait. Nobody wants war. Hence he does not want war. And yet, what is it that he wants, that he really, really wants? War. Is there a name for the fallacy of wanting to have things all ways at once while pretending to be soberly realistic? I don’t know, but there should be. Do I hear five?

Anyway, so here we are, having fought our wars in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, getting ready for yet another war, this time on Iran. As Stephens points out, we’ve already gone to war in the past with Iran (note the deft omission of our coup against Mossadegh, and our shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, facts that would needlessly clutter the narrative), so now we’re just going back to finish the job. Eighty years of falsehoods, frauds, and fallacies seems a long time to have learned nothing, but so it is in these United States.

“Nobody wants a war with Iran.” If only he could have left it there. But I guess wishful thinking is a fallacy of its own.

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