Thursday, May 01, 2008

George F. Will, Reverent Wright, Representativeness, and The Fallacy of Equivocation

It's the commonest thing to find errors of reasoning in the rantings and ravings of the denizens of the fever swamps. But George F. Will usually avoids outright textbook fallacies. In fact, every now and then he'll even say something sensible and interesting. But not usually. Usually it's the predictable, highly partisan dreck. Most of this column is more-or-less par for the course. It's about the loony Reverend Wright. Here's one of my favorite paragraphs:
Obama should be questioned about whether he agrees about "different" learning styles. It is, however, predictable that journalistic and political choruses will attempt to suppress such questioning by suggesting that it is somehow illegitimate. The "daisy ad" and "Willie Horton" will be darkly mentioned.
Let's review: Obama should be asked whether he shares a fairly loopy theory with the former pastor who he's gone out of his way to repudiate about a hundred times now, at lest twice in nationally publicized addresses. And this, of course, despite the fact that he's explicitly said that he not only disagrees with the ideas Wright was advocating, but finds them offensive. Yep. Will thinks that the media needs to keep askin him whether he agrees.

Oh, and don't forget this part: the media won't do it because they're in the thrall of liberals. If they asked about Wright, the daisy ad and the Willie Horton ad would be "darkly mentioned." So I guess that's why the media hasn't been mentioning Wright at all. Because they're so beaten down by the liberal noise machine. Yeah, that's it.

It's like Will has been transported from parallel Earth or something.

But, oh, don't miss out on this paragraph, either:
As evidence that "our government is capable of doing anything," he strongly hinted that he has intellectually respectable corroboration -- he mentioned several publications -- for his original charge that the U.S. government is guilty of "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." But yesterday he insisted that he is not anti-American: It is, he said, Americans' government, not the American public, that is a genocidal perpetrator of terrorism. So, he now denies that America has a representative government -- that it represents the public. He believes that elections constantly and mysteriously -- and against the public's will -- produce a genocidal, terroristic government.
This is beautiful. From the perspective of someone who teaches critical thinking and needs good examples of dumb mistakes that is. Here we get an extraordinarily dopey and contorted example of equivocation, specifically on the term 'representative' in 'representative government.' O.k. so: first Will says that Wright denies that we have a representative government because he (Wright) asserts that the American government, but not the American public, is a "perpetrator of genocidal terrorism." From this he concludes that Wright holds that we do not have a representative government. Whew. O.k.. Now, see, to have a representative government is to have a government in which one has representatives--that is, other people who are charged with being one's proxies in the government. In a representative democracy, we elect 'em. Will is confusing this sense of 'representative' with something like the statistical sense of 'representative.' In this sense, representativeness is a property, and samples either are or aren't. A representative sample is...well, that's a matter of some controversy...but, roughly, a sample is representative if and only if it is typical of a population with regard to certain characteristics.

Whew. So GFW seems to be thinking of some informal analog of statistical representativeness, and thinking that, since Wright seems to be saying that our representatives do not share certain characteristics with us (the non-representatives), they are not representative in something like the statistical sense...and consequently our government is not...our something like the political we don't have a representative government.

Man oh man. That's an 'F' in my freshman critical thinking class.

The thing about Will is that he's not crazy like Coulter or stupid like Hannity or irredeemably intellectually corrupt like Limbaugh. He knows what he'd doing, at some level he knows it's wrong, and he could do better. Which, of course, makes his case even more tragic.


Blogger The Mystic said...

You know, as lame as that statement is - I'm not sure that it's equivocation. He doesn't really seem to be using "representative" in two different ways. I mean, saying that Wright denies that America has a representative government sure does sound like he means that Wright is claiming that America's government is not what would be politically categorized as a "representative government", but he qualifies his usage of the term "representative" only once, saying that he means a government that represents the will of the public.

So maybe, instead of equivocation, it's just a dumbass thing to say. His claim seems to be something like:

"Because we have a republic, CLEARLY everything that happens must happen because it is the will of the majority of the people!"

That's obviously false. Governments can be, and often are, corrupt. It's not unfathomable that they fail to represent the majority of the people under them in certain ways, even if that's what they allegedly accomplish.

So, while it's a moronic claim to make that's obviously false - I'm unconvinced that he's equivocating the term. Of course, I didn't read the article, so maybe he later equivocates "representative" with a definition of the term that's not "that it represents the public". However, I wouldn't say that, from what I've read here, it's an obvious equivocation fallacy for good use in Critical Thinking class.

Of course, I could be wrong.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

You might be right. I was descending rapidly into sleep when I posted this last night...and now that I re-read GFW's claims, I can't tell WHAT he's saying... Will go back over 'em.

3:01 PM  

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