Interesting Reply to a Column on Critical Thinking by a Bush Supporter

June 22, 2009

In an earlier blog entry I discussed feedback I had gotten from a reader who was exercised about one of my columns. She was a creationist who challenged me to prove that evolution was real, and stated that "Dr. Dino" Kent Hovind would pay me a lot of money if I could prove it. I explained to her that Hovind is a convicted felon, and just beginning a ten-year prison sentence for a long list of felonies.

Readers seemed to enjoy the discussion, so I thought I’d include a second, more recent exchange with a reader. For a column at www.LiveScience.com, I wrote about how claims made by politicians are often unproved or unprovable—they are simply unsupported assumptions without any evidence being offered for them. As an illustration, I used Dick Cheney’s claim that America is less safe because of President Obama’s policies:

Cheney repeated an assertion he made during a recent interview on "Face the Nation," in which he said that Obama’s efforts to repeal Bush-era policies on interrogation and detention have "made this country more vulnerable" to another terrorist attack. "We [the Bush administration] put in place some very good policies, and they worked, for eight years." Cheney believes that the fact that another successful terrorist attack has not occurred on American soil since 2001 somehow proves that the Bush policies have been effective in preventing them. (The irony that Cheney criticized President Obama about safeguarding America—something Bush and Cheney failed to do on Sept. 11—was apparently lost on him.)

  Yet this claim rests on bad logic; it is a variation of a fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc, or "after this, therefore because of this," also known as faulty causation. While it may be true that the Bush policies did indeed prevent further attacks, there could be many unrelated reasons why another attack did not occur. It is impossible to prove the claim that the policies "worked for eight years." They may have; or they may have been a complete failure. The lack of another terrorist attack does not prove it either way. Such claims are impossible to prove one way or the other; they are what in logic are called unfalsifiable propositions. There is simply no way to know with much certainty what the long-term (or even short-term) consequences of a given action will be.

  President Obama made a similar argument recently in his decision not to release more photographs of U.S. military personnel abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. After strenuous objections by top Pentagon officials, Obama reversed his earlier decision, saying that "the most direct consequence would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger."

  Cheney’s claim that Obama has made America more vulnerable to terrorist attack is possibly true, yet unprovable. Similarly, Obama’s claim that releasing new photos of prisoner abuse would further endanger American troops is also possibly true, yet equally unprovable. The public should be skeptical when politicians throw around unquantifiable, vague threats of "greater danger" or "greater vulnerability" resulting from a given action. Political theater is one thing, but in the real world decisions and their consequences are rarely clear or obvious.  

As might be expected, I got some e-mails from upset readers who saw this as an attack on Cheney (despite the fact that I gave an example of the same bad logic from Obama). Here’s one exchange:

Your recent article was more a political statement than a scientific analysis. Did you even look for stories that the Bush security plans had prevented terrorist attacks?  Are your aware that airplane cockpit doors (US and around the world) have been redisgned to prevent entry during flight.  All the security you have to pass through before boarding a plane is another example of successful security measures initiated by the Bush administration.    

  I suppose if we aren’t attacked over the next fifty years it would be just luck or chance, and not the security plans put into effect be the Bush administration.  I guess eight years without another terrorist attach is not long enough to support your assumption that it is just luck we haven’t been attacked again.  Your anti-Bush liberal bias is showing.  I bet just reading the name Bush 4 times above has caused you some discomfort.  If that’s true, guess what, you are politically biased.  You should be writing for salon.com or the Huffington post.  

I replied:

You seem to have misunderstood the point of my column: that certain claims by politicians of BOTH PARTIES cannot be proven. (In fact, you even got the title of my column wrong: it was Cheney vs. Obama, not Bush vs. Obama). You wrote: "All the security you have to pass through before boarding a plane is another example of successful security measures initiated by the Bush  administration." Where is your evidence that Bush administration security measures specifically prevented terrorist attacks? There were of course significant airline security measures in place long before Bush came into the White House. Can you give me a single example of a terrorist attack that was specifically prevented by the Bush administration?

  Obama’s claim that we are safer is no more provable than Cheney’s claim that we are not. As I pointed out in the column, Obama’s claim that releasing more photos of American troops abusing prisoners is not provable either. I’ve gotten e-mails similar to yours saying that I’m anti-Obama because I pointed out that he made an unprovable claim. I look forward to seeing your evidence that proves that Bush’s policies have made America safer. As I pointed out, and as any Logic 101 professor can tell you, Cheney’s claim that the fact that terrorists have not attacked America again does not necessarily mean that we are safer.  

I didn’t hear back, so a week later I re-mailed him:

About a week ago you wrote to me criticizing a column I wrote about the unprovable claims of both Barack Obama and Dick Cheney. You claimed that there were many examples of acts of terrorism that had been prevented specifically by Bush Administration measures. I asked if you could provide one single example, and I’m still waiting. Perhaps, like Cheney and Obama, your belief is based more on faith than evidence?

He replied with:

Guess you didn’t read my earlier message.  You probably haven’t heard, but Hugo Chavez and Castro are now to the right of Obama according to Chavez. Obama is doing great harm to our formerly democratic republic.  Hope the next president can reverse the damage he has done by nationalizing our major industries.  I’m not trying to change your left leaning political ideology.  This country is extremely partisan now.

I gamely answered:

 The subject is not Chavez, Castro, nor nationalization or ideological bias. It is your claim that Bush Administration policies specifically prevented acts of terrorism. I asked you to provide some evidence or examples to back up your claim, and your inability to do so speaks volumes. When you don’t have any evidence to back up what you say, it’s always easier to change the subject, eh?  That’s okay.

My critic finally replied:

I wish I had examples of thwarted terror attacks.  Unfortunately, the government (rightly so) does not release that information to the public for obvious reasons.  The fact that we were not attacked again after 9/11 speaks  volumes.  With Obama weakening our defenses, look for another attack or as Joe Biden says, our new president will be tested.  It’s ironic that the Obama administration has kept security measures in place that they were critical of during the campaign.

Fascinating how he began his correspondence to me stating that Obama made  America less safe by dismantling Bush’s security measures, and ended by stating that Obama has retained Bush’s security measures.