If A, Then B: A Lesson in Deductive Punditry

by Joshua Foust on 4/1/2011 · 10 comments

A brief introduction to deductive reasoning. At its most basic, deduction attempts to show that a conclusion necessarily follows from a set of premises or hypotheses. A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion must be true if the premises are true (and consequently its premises cannot be true if its conclusion is false). However, the premises don’t have to be true for the argument to be valid. A deductive argument is sound if it is valid and its premises are true.

Good deductive arguments are both valid and sound—that is, the conclusion must follow from the premises, and the premises must be true. Most punditry takes the form of deductive reasoning: all democrats are bad, this policy was written by a democrat, therefore this policy is bad. For the most part, such arguments are valid, which perhaps explains why they gain such traction in the partisan press; very few such arguments, however, are sound.

None of this is terribly consequential: learning basic logic structures is literally the first step in learning to think critically. But it is nevertheless worth keeping in mind as we ponder the war in Afghanistan—especially given the extreme volume of sloppy logic pushing eternal success. This week in the New York Times, for example, Carlotta Gall wrote an interesting piece about the pressures the Taliban are facing in Pakistan:

The Afghan Taliban are showing signs of increasing strain after a number of killings, arrests and internal disputes that have reached them even in their haven in Pakistan, Afghan security officials and Afghans with contacts in the Taliban say.

While the arrests have been conducted by Pakistan security forces, it is not clear who is behind the killings. Members of the Taliban attribute them to American spies, running Pakistani and Afghan agents, in an extension of the American campaigns that have used night raids to track down and kill scores of midlevel Taliban commanders in Afghanistan and drone strikes to kill militants with links to Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Others, including Pakistani and Afghan Parliament members from the region, say that the Pakistani intelligence agencies have long used threats, arrests and killings to control the Taliban and that they could be doing so again to maintain their influence over the insurgents.

What’s so fascinating about this is how vague it is. Taliban figures are definitely being harassed, but no one knows by who or for what purpose. Moreover, some of the commanders Gall quoted don’t seem attached to how this harassment is affecting Taliban operations in Afghanistan. For example, she paraphrases a commander from Kunar province as saying that he’s lost so many men he’s considering switching sides to the government for money and jobs (she then quotes a Pakistani official about what it means, but never directly quotes anyone from the Taliban). Yet just two days beforehand, the New York Times had run a story about how the Taliban were solidifying and expanding their control of Kunar province. (The eastern part of the province has seen a renewed push by U.S. forces, but that’s not what Gall was referring to. Weird.)

Anyway, so this is typical of what has become Carlotta Gall’s output at the Times: thinly sourced, with conclusions in the title and lede unsupported by the evidence she presents in her piece. It would be shaky grounds on which to base a deductive argument, as it might not form a premise that is true (which is necessary for a valid and sound deductive argument). Don’t let that stop Max Boot:

No one seems sure. But what is happening in Afghanistan is clear: U.S. forces are ratcheting up the pressure on the Taliban, as I saw for myself on my latest visit to Afghanistan a few weeks ago… This is the product of the counterinsurgency campaign that General David Petraeus is directing. Its progress is palpable.

To break down Boot’s argument into pieces:

  • Reporter reports that Taliban figures in Pakistan are probably being harassed but doesn’t really know why or by whom;
  • Max Boot acknowledges that no one really knows who, what, or why, but notes that the U.S. has been “ratcheting up the pressure on the Taliban;”
  • Therefore, the harassment of Taliban figured in Pakistan is the result of General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency campaign.

On a very basic level, this doesn’t pass a basic deductive logic reasoning test. The premises are disconnected from each other, and neither implies a conclusion, yet Max Boot used them both to justify the conclusion that General Petraeus is a timeless genius who is winning the war singlehandedly (and who, naturally, just needs a little more time to make it all work, though how much is anyone’s guess if he’s really quitting after only a year in charge). His argument is neither valid nor sound. It is hagiography disguised as argument—which is, again, sadly, typical of him.

But Max Boot isn’t the only one to engage in logically flawed thinking. In the Washington Post is a bizarre op-ed by Craig Charney and the normally smart James Dobbins about how Afghans are all optimistic about their future. In the interests of space, I’ll spare you the quoting from their very flawed survey and summarize the argument’s logic (thank you, Michael Cohen, for laying it out this simply):

  • Things used to really suck in Afghanistan; but they suck a bit less today;
  • Things suck in Afghanistan; but in other places people think their countries suck more;
  • Americans think things are going badly in America; so they think things are going badly in Afghanistan;
  • Therefore, things are going well in Afghanistan.

Even accepting all the premises are true—and there are many reasons to think they’re not—this is an invalid argument, with no reason to accept the conclusion must necessarily follow from the premises. That the premises are not necessarily true make the argument unsound. It is a terrible argument, in other words, as it relies on the structure of deductive reasoning without meeting the basic requirements of a deductive argument. Both men who wrote that piece should know better and should be embarrassed at the shallowness of their argumentation.

Sadly, this sort of thing is depressingly common when it comes to hyping the war in Afghanistan: sloppy logic, untrue premises, dishonest conclusioneering (neologism!), and thinly veiled hagiography of senior U.S. officials. It doesn’t mean that the war is automatically going poorly, though I see plenty of evidence to suggest it is. All it means is that the case for believing the war is going well is often on the shakiest of grounds, and not at all grounded in reasoning, logic, or sound argument.

Of course, while we philosophize the glories of poor deduction, we must consider Hume’s Problem of Induction. But that is probably a discussion for another time.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 10 comments }

Hassan Al-Zoob ibn Al-Nohoodayn April 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Well, this piece reminded me of that drunk black girl in black stockings doing some sort of African tribal jig at Exum’s wedding.

It’s a red herring. There’s a bit of concern and maybe confusion, but in the end the night still goes on. This is inconsequential to the bigger picture at hand.

Boris Sizemore April 1, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Actually this article and anything by Max Boot(whatever his name really is) made me want to scream in light of what happened today in Mazar.

We are so dreadfully not connected to reality in Afghanistan. Today’s events in Mazar should serve as a complete wake up as to how ISAF and the foreign occupation is really perceived. When the population of an anti Taliban area behaves like this we have a problem. When we bring our friends into the camp of our enemies we are making a huge mistake.

By not drawing down quickly, by not changing the game plan and the players, by not following the tenet’s of the Novak plan, we are just making it worse. P4s counterinsurgency plan has alienated the very people we need to support. It is as if we are putting bullets in the enemy’s hands.

The population is seething.

It is not just the assassination campaign, drones and death without trial or accusation, or the disrespect of the Koran, or the fact we spend more time tearing down the Afghan Government that we need so terribly to stand on its own.

It is not just the wasted effort of the civilian surge whose main result has been the call for the complete elimination of the PRTs and their insidious influence via a wasted misdirected aid program. We have been short on results and long on corruption in every way possible.

It is not just the crazy politically twisted propaganda campaign waged for the express purpose of promoting the “personal” interests of Petraeus and his image. He is so desperate to show some success in a rapidly deteriorating overall situation before he leaves-that he is actually making the whole situation worse.

It is not just the fact that we need to clearly begin to limit ISAFs daily contact with the population and replace with the ANSF in as many areas as is humanly possible now.

What should be a clear war against radical Wahabi insurgents forcing their will upon Afghanistan has become a borderline war against foreign occupation. We need to draw down in a big way and now.

The original concept of the Administration for July 2011 was more correct than anyone could have forseen at the time. Today’s events prove it.

We are turning victory into defeat by alienating huge portions of the Afghan population that want a real future in a non Wahabbi totalitarian state. We are creating our own enemies.

There is no reason for any of this, short of our own inability to discern the real feelings of so many Afghans tired of foreign occupation and tired of war, and tired of a country ruled out of foreign capitals be it Washington or Islamabad or Moscow or London or wherever. We have made mistake after mistake after mistake alienating those who are actually on our side.

We need to give them their country back. We need to have the courage to do so. Every day lost is more incidents like Mazar, and more friends lost in a hopeless anti foreign campaign which blends so easily in an already partially xenophobic atmosphere.

We hurt our own interests, we hurt our friends. We help the enemy. It is time to radically change the complete picture here-lock, stock and barrel. Time is not on our side anymore.

Edward O'Shea Fitzpatrick April 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Josh,

In days I write junk like this, I usually just go to my local clinic and get a monthly digital disimpaction from one of the many Filipina nurses.

Jim Richard April 1, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Occam’s Razor. The simplist explanation is usually correct. If it doesn’t make sense, one is just looking at it incorrectly. The Military and its associated industries need enemies. The U.S. Dept. of Defense budget is on the north side of $700 billion a year. As can be seen by our actions in Libya, Afganistan, Iraq we need to cycle our weapon systems and exercise our jingoistic rhetoric. The Seirenes song must be continuous to exert its influence. If we can succeed in creating deeply intrenched enemies who embrace generational blood feuds we can guaranty the standing military their raison d’etre. Remaining alive is the primordial reason to live. All of our Departments, once they are created, take on a life of their own. Kali will see to her own. Victory will exist in ongoing conflict, bloodshed, civil disruption.

Steve Magribi April 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Boris, I agree with you and am upset about Mazar just like you are. I have seen about 50 of these demos at different times and places. They are always frightening and make you wonder what Afghans really are thinking.

This event in Mazar is indeed different. The Afghan Government is calling it “terrorist incited,” and has claimed to have arrested the “ring leader.” But it may portend much more.

I just got back from a long night talking about this event. Between the “smoking,” the Afghans I was with were indeed giving it to me about the Koran issue and the overall theme of how alienated so many were becoming by the entire ISAF program. There was a lot of pacing back in forth and murmoring about the sad state of events. Pressure is beginning to build.

Petraeus has become deeply unpopular since the civilian killings last month. Several people directly blamed his “imperial style” for some of the resentment building in the streets.

The consensus was that this event in Mazar may be a turning point. The Afghans are very concerned that this is the first of many such incidents to come.

They were even concerned about my safety insisting that five tribesmen escort me back to my home because “any foreigner” is at risk now and all the time. From what I can tell the escort group is still watching over me outside.

The idiot in Florida is a catalyst, but the resentment and frustration is so very easy to set alight.

2011 needs to be a year of change. Status quo is unacceptable in all respects. A drawdown must start, be significant and create a new reality that the Afghans are running the war and not the foreigners.

ISAF and “Mr. Personality” Eikenberry need to step way back (or please God let him leave finally) and let Karzai lead or get out of the way.

There is no other choice at this time. The ANSF will never be an effective force until they are running the war and not ISAF. Let that begin from this day forward. Now is the time to set a new course.

Whether there will be meaningful negotiations needs to be completely in Karzai’s and his “peace council” hand’s. Anything we can do support this goal must be done. A change of outlook is critical now in every way.

ISAF is a spent force. Petraeus and his minions of propagandists have the outer trappings of the Wizard of Oz . The Surge has failed to push back the insurgency. It is growing. The violence is up. Afghans can see what is happening. They do not read the New York Times.

If we cannot find a new path, this entire 10 year project is going to fail.

Afghans are looking toward the Administration to show some understanding of the real situation here. It is not business as usual and the events in Mazar e Sharif yesterday indicate a grave change in how Afghans view and react to foreigners in the country.

It is an event which cannot be ignored.

Like many “kaffirs” in Afghanistan tonight, I am having trouble getting to sleep.

Adam April 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm

After speaking to some Afghan officials and friends they condemned the violence and call it against humanity.

Anyways, why does it puzzle us when our military from day one shaped our opinion of Afghans are barbaric, criminals, uncivilized,etc to carryout a war and for public opinion…The feedback I got from Afghans was the west valued Afghans less than even animals, and our actions were combining hatred/revenge into this pressure cooker,_civilian deaths and the kill teams makes matters worse. Furthermore, the Afghan gov’t does not trust us because of our campaign to De-legitimize it in front of its own people, so all that pressure to get our way backfired(i.e Karzai and Obama conflicted relationship does not help, Obama landed in Afghanistan without Afghans being present and not meeting Karzai hurt both countries), It further gave ammunition to Taliban to prove to Afghans that Afghanistan has become a servant client state and Gov’t a puppet. The Afghans do not trust the UN, IMF, USAID or the international forces but Afghans have not resorted to violence in opposing international communities agendas. Afghans prefer the lesser evil than the greater evil of ISI Taliban proxies. Also, from the previous attacks on UN to current, these beheading are trademark of ISI and their terrorist loyalists.
his tragic event and this violence

Adam April 1, 2011 at 11:27 pm

*this tragic even and the violence should be investigated by the Afghan gov’t

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall April 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm

My big problem is that no one at the NYT is willing to discuss the real (strategic) reasons why Obama expanded the Afghan war into Pakistan – namely its role as an energy transit route for Iranian oil destined for China. In fact many believe Pakistan – not Afghanistan – is the real target.

The Pentagon/CIA make no secret of their desire to see energy and mineral rich Balochistan secede from Pakistan to become a US client state – just like the energy and mineral rich former Soviet republics Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Apparently the CIA has been training/funding Baloch insurgents in the tribal areas since 2002.

Moreover there’s no way to ascertain whether random acts of terror in the border regions are caused by the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the CIA-funded Balochistan Liberation Army. Especially around the Chinese-built port in Gwadar, Pakistan (employed to offload Iranian oil destined for China). Given that Iran and China are major political/economic rivals, it’s a pity the US media fails to report on any of this.

I blog about this at “Our CIA freedom fighters in Pakistan”
http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/03/07/our-cia-freedom-fighters-in-pakistan/

Eric.Hellerman April 2, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Youre also a fringe nut case.

Ed Brown April 11, 2011 at 8:40 am

Finally someone is trying to hold the press to the basic tenants of logic. Here is some faulty inductive logic for you: Most articles I have read from most news organizations contain logical fallacies. Most articles from news organizations are written by individuals who have studied journalism. Therefore, schools of journalism are not doing an effective job of teaching logic to their students. There are a few anathemas in there. Probably not a valid argument. The word “most” makes it a rather weak argument. But the conclusion is probably true given that it applies in practice.

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