What Evidence Dry One-sided Arguments?

In an OpEd in today’s Post, Richard Cohen says he accepts all the arguments in The Israel Lobby against supporting Israel, but he remains unpersuaded because the book is too dry and one-sided: 

A strange thing happened to me while reading "The Israel Lobby" by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. I went from nodding at the obviousness of it all … to a mounting irritation at the supposed unrelenting mendacity of Israel … By the time I put down the book, occasional critic of Israel though I am, I was ready to burst into "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem. …

It is undoubtedly true, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue, that the Jewish state is no longer a strategic asset to the United States, if it ever was. … the so-called Israel lobby … has done Israel no favor by not criticizing West Bank settlements or the harsh treatment of Palestinians. … All these points are made by Mearsheimer and Walt — and bully for them. Where Israel is wrong, they say so. But where Israel is right, they are somehow silent. … They are forbiddingly rational — all mind, no heart. To their credit, they were right about opposing the invasion of Iraq …

Who and what are we as a nation if we abandon our friends, blowing empty kisses to them as we cut them loose? …  For me, the answer is plain. This would be an emotionally arid place. … In the end, Mearsheimer and Walt disappoint. They had an observation worth making and a position worth debating. But their argument is so dry, so one-sided — an Israel lobby that leads America around by the nose — they suggest that not only do they not know Israel, they don’t know America, either.

I wonder, would Cohen really have been more persuaded to support Israel less if the book had offered more arguments for supporting Israel?  If so, does this create perverse incentives for those who think evidence is actually pretty one-sided to give excessively "balanced arguments"?  Would Cohen really have been more persuaded if the book had been less dry and more emotional, but emotional about how badly we have treated our Arab friends in order to support Israel? 

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  • Eris

    On Walt and Mearsheimer and their “Let’s make friends with the Islamofascists by screwing the Jews” appeasement book:

    Zombie beat me to creating a graphic of the Walt/Mearsheimer Jewish Lobby drek in the toilet, at Little Green Footballs. (Zombie: Walt and Mearsheimer, Right Where They Belong.)

    I don’t think these professors are actually anti-Semitic. However, what they are is worse than run-of-the-mill anti-Semitism because it affects us all.

    Allow me to explain.

    It is true that Walt and Mearsheimer are utilizing the same anti-Semitic tactics as despots who wish to distract from the malignant social ills that despots foster. Unlike despots who fabricate Jewish conspiracy theories out of a combination of opportunism and actual hate, however, these professors have written their essay and book based on the former motivation alone, opportunism.

    Their motivation for this outrage is primarily because “the Jews are there”, are the target du jour of the Islamofascists (for now!), and have proven useful as punching bags to countless others in history.

    The professors’ writings show no respect for the Jewish people and for their past persecutions, but the professors are not anti-Semitic, just amoral and opportunistic. Accusations of anti-Semitism are a distraction from the real issues.

    Walt and Mearscheimer know full well there is no super-powerful “Jewish Lobby”, that the pro-Israel lobbyists have competing counterparts representing many other causes and countries, and that the pro-Israel lobby is not particularly remarkable in this environment. They know full well that the misrepresentations of fact, omissions, things taken out of context, logical errors, etc. in their prior paper and this book are indeed risible, the trash produced by dilettantes, not by serious researchers.

    But they don’t care.

    What would make them produce such garbage?

    Fear of Islamofascism, and the standards of (mis)conduct that come right from the halls of academia with which they’ve lived their lives, notably amorality and betrayal of friends when some self-interest is served. (For professors, it’s usually money and status.) They are clearly enthralled with university culture and attempting to export that pathologic “culture” to the rest of the world.

    What is the “gain” here? In the main, I do think the reason d’atre of their book is one of appeasement and surrender to Islamofascism.

    A few hundred million insane bloodthirsty Arabs and other followers of the death cult of Islam calling for Death to Israel and Death to America: what better way to appease them than writing a book that the authors hope will cause the U.S. to hang Israel out to dry in the face of genocidal maniacs, groups and countries like Hezbollah, Hamas, Ahmadinejad, Syria and Iran?

    In fact, they are not anti-Semites. Rather, they are equal opportunity amoralists. If the Islamofascists were chanting “Death to Mexico! Death to America!”, Walt and Mearsheimer would undoubtedly craft conspiracy theories that might justify allowing Osama and his minions to relocate from Waziristan to Acapulco.

    University professors are renowned for turning on their friends, students and colleagues at the drop of a hat, if they see a personal gain in doing so. They could care less about ruining careers and lives. See for example, “Academic Tyranny: The Tale and the Lessons”, Robert Weissberg, Review of Policy Research, Vol. 15 no. 4 P. 99-110, Dec. 1998, and especially “Authorship: The Coin of the Realm, The Source of Complaints” by Wilcox, Journal of the AMA, Vol. 280 No. 3, July 15, 1998 that describes how stealing of others’ work and career-ending professorial retaliation against those who complain is common at Walt’s university, Harvard. Of course see http://www.thefire.org as well.

    So, Walt and Mearsheimer wrote this book in all its faux-academic glory in the cowardly and academic-culture-inspired hope of spearheading a U.S. betrayal of its friend, Israel, in their hope that this will satiate the Islamofascists’ appetite for blood and “honor.”

    They are incredibly reckless in this regard. Their book is quite socially irresponsible (not a new thing for academia). Their whole theme, abandonment of friends for supposed secondary gain, i.e., the appeasement of a brutal terrorist killer culture, is explicitly amoral (and likely immoral as well for those of us not prone to moral relativism) as well as anti-American.

    They are using this book and likely their educational pulpits with students as a weapon, with the desired collateral damage of weakening the U.S. (Does anyone even need to ask anymore why Ivy professors might be against a strong United States?)

    Walt and Mearsheimer, through their arrogance, stupidity, and exportation of academia’s amoral tyranny, are tacitly working for our enemies.

    These professors are out of control, like a runaway locomotive, thanks to the cheerful support of opportunistic anti-Semites and the MSM (I’m not sure those two are entirely separable). They need to be stopped – however, accusations of anti-Semitism are a distraction and they know it.

    Walt and Mearsheimer have more in common with Arthur Neville Chamberlain than David Ernest Duke or Alfred Charles Sharpton.

    That said, as Abraham Foxman, Alan Dershowitz, and many others as well have observed (documented at the CAMERA – Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America story “Updated Roundup of Coverage of the Walt/Mearsheimer Israel Lobby Controversy” at http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=8&x_nameinnews=189&x_article=1105), Walt & Mearsheimer’s faux-scholarship is “riddled with errors” that tend to slant it “in the exact same direction, thus we are dealing not with a little unfortunate carelessness but with a culpable degree of bias.”

    I submit again that their “carelessness and bias” is most likely knowing and deliberate, but not due to anti-Semitism. Its purpose is promoting appeasement and the weakening of America, at a cost to Israelis and Jews the professors are indifferent to and simply don’t care about, typical of Ivy professors who want their way, period.

    There is a term for deliberate and knowing falsification in academia for any secondary purpose:

    Academic Fraud.

    Walt and Mearshiemer have placed themselves in the same league as Finkelstein, Chomsky, and other academic fabricators.

    Charges of anti-Semitism are a distraction from their motivations. Charges of academic incompetence are not highly credible considering the experience, resources and positions of these professors.

    Charges of deliberate academic fraud are, I believe, closer to reality, and perhaps hold the key to successful challenging of this dangerous charade.

    In summary, Walt and Mearsheimer’s distortions are knowing and deliberate, in the interest of appeasement of Islamofascism and the weakening of the “imperialist AmeriKKKa.” The Israelis and Jews make good cannon fodder because “they’re there” and have a historical track record of serving this purpose for despots. W&M malign the Jews not out of anti-Semitism but out of amoral academic convenience.

    This is worse than run-of-the-mill professorial anti-Semitism due to its generalized, nihilistic stupidity.

    My only hope is that these professors are doing this of their own volition, and that there are no “handlers” involved.

    - ERIS

  • Phil

    On the issue of one-sidedness: isn’t it reasonable to withhold judgement until you’ve heard from both sides? That’s what judges do in court, isn’t it?

    It’s like the old joke about the rabbi hearing opposing sides of a case. He hears the first guy, nods, and says, “yes, you are right.” He hears the other guy, nods, and says, “yes, you are right.” Then the first guy says, “wait, we can’t both be right!” And the rabbi nods and says, “yes, you are right.”

    Isn’t it reasonable to expect that arguments on only one side might not be enough information? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that we might be predisposed to being biased in favor of whichever argument we have heard most recently, and that we should withhold final judgment until we have heard both sides?

    That way, if we, like the rabbi, are convinced by both sides equally, we can confront our irrationality.

  • NE1

    I find one-sided books in particular to be near useless. Case in point, Farewell to Alms, MR’s book forum selection. It offers non-stop evidence for the conclusion (at least, as far as I have read it), and fails to point out the limitations of the claims, and what I expect are major counterpoints. This is why reading the book without the deluge of critical remarks in the comments would be pointless for me–though perhaps many of those commenters are knowledgeable enough to go without.

    I also disliked Sachs’ The End of Poverty, for similar reasons. The real complication is, should I admit [in my specialty] to liking Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics [I do] before finishing The Cosmic Landscape .

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    FYI, I unpublished a 1130 word not-very-polite comment by “Eris.”

    There are two meanings of “one-sided arguments,” “from only one side of people in a dispute” and “only weighing toward one side of the conclusions.” I meant the later meaning. If I explain why I think it would be a bad idea to invade Canada, will you really be less persuaded if I do not try to find some good reasons for invading Canada to include in my discussion?

  • Tom Breton

    It strikes me that the situation is a little bit like holding up a piece of paper and asking, “What’s not written on this piece of paper?” Of course there are any number of things not written on it. “Tra la la la” isn’t written on it (unless it is). “The following statements are all false” isn’t (unless it is).

    So reasoning from not seeing points for the other side has a certain ex nihilo quality.

    On the other hand, one can certainly assess the argument that is written for, among other things, fair consideration of the opposite view. Sometimes it’s easy to envision points an opponent could have raised. Sometimes you simply don’t possess the knowledge that should make you skeptical.

    Going back to the piece of paper, perhaps certain other things should have been written: counterarguments, counterevidence, qualifying details, etc. Generally speaking, you can’t learn what they are by reading what’s on the paper. Even if a counterargument is written on it, you don’t learn about other counterarguments that should have been raised.

    Let me be more precise: sometimes you already have knowledge that lets you infer what was wrongly left out. But you didn’t learn it from what was written (Unless it’s self-referential, like “This should contain ‘X’: ___” or rules on how this sort of material should be presented)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Robin, having a one-sided argument is often an indication that you are not being intellectually honest. I tend to believe people more when they include caveats, mitigations and admissions of various sorts. This indicates that they know the best arguments on the opposing side and grant them some merit but that their own arguments outweigh them.

  • michael vassar

    NE1: I think that “The Trouble With Physics”, though often attacked as anti-string-theory, is actually very balanced. I came out of it very much more informed and slightly more favorably disposed towards string theory.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Cohen seems to conflate two entirely unrelated complaints: the book, he says, is (1) too dry and (2) too one-sided. I take it the intention here is to discuss #2.

    If there are plausible arguments on both sides of a question, and you want to convince me to take your side, you’ll do much better if you demonstrate that you’re aware of the arguments on the other side and explain why you don’t find them sufficient. (In other words, I agree with TGGP.)

    Yeah, sure, there are theorems that say that a rational agent will be moved more in a given direction by evidence in that direction. But not all the evidence provided by (say) a book is *contained* in the book. The authors’ selection of what to talk about is itself evidence, and if it gives grounds for suspecting their intellectual honesty then it can weigh very powerfully against whatever arguments they offer.

    Perverse incentives? No, I don’t think so. At least, only the usual perverse incentives that there always are when appearing to do X is easier than actually doing it. The incentive produced by preferences like the one Cohen expresses is to consider opposing arguments and give some sign of taking them seriously. How seriously they need to be taken depends not only on their intrinsic merits but also on how seriously others take them, and there’s nothing irrational about that.

    If there are really no arguments on the other side that merit consideration, I think that indicates that the only people who disagree with you (if any) are hopelessly mired in irrationality, in which case there’s probably no point writing the book in the first place.

  • Phil

    >If I explain why I think it would be a bad idea to invade Canada, will you really be less persuaded if I do not try to find some good reasons for invading Canada to include in my discussion?

    Yes, I think I *would* be less persuaded, especially if I really have no clue if invading Canada is a good idea or not. For instance, while reading your explanation, I might think, “well, sure, you may be right that the citizens would rebel against the invasion, but mightn’t it be worth it just to get our hands on all the Sleeman Genuine Draught Beer?” And so I might have some doubt. But if I read you saying “Sure, it would be nice to have all the beer, but they’d probably stop blow up the brewery as soon as we invaded,” you’ve anticipated my objection and dealt with it. And so I’d be more likely to be comfortable with your conclusions.

    Almost any conclusion is the result of a balancing of facts and arguments that tend to support the conclusion, and facts and arguments that tend to weaken the conclusion. My instinct is to suspend judgment until I’ve heard the important factors on both sides.

  • J Thomas

    People are arguing about whether arguments should adequately state and refute the arguments for the other side.

    But I don’t think this is what Cohen is talking about at all.

    Cohen is surely familiar with all the arguments for the other side, and he still agrees with all of the arguments presented by the book.

    But he is not convinced. Why not? “Where Israel is wrong, they say so. But where Israel is right, they are somehow silent. By the time you finish the book, you almost have to wonder why anyone in his right mind could find any reason to admire or like Israel.” Cohen does not mention any details about where israel is right. Clearly there are many. Israel provides a wonderful nation for zionists. Israel provides fullscale democracy and free speech for zionists. Israel is a great place to live if you are a zionist. Israel, by consistently kicking butt, shows that jews are not wimps. Etc. Sure, it’s a short op-ed and yet there may be reasons why Cohen didn’t go into great detail about where israel is right.

    Cohen agrees with each of the book’s claims. But he is not convinced. This is not because the book didn’t present the opposing arguments so it could demolish them. It isn’t because the book didn’t present the opposing arguments so it could agree that there is reason on both sides, an argument between right and right. Cohen wants to remember all the good things he’s ever thought about israel. Fluffy kittens. Schoolgirls in their little uniforms. Kibbutzes and home-cooked bread. Farmers with a plow in one hand and an uzi in the other, doing their work and ready for war. The Exodus theme. “This land, is mine, God gave this land to me.” The six-day war.

    Cohen agrees with all the arguments but he is not convinced because he doesn’t want to be convinced.

    He didn’t want the book to present opposing arguments so it would be more convincing. He wanted it to present opposing arguments so it would be less convincing. He agrees with all its arguments but he wants some good emotional reasons to ignore his agreement.

    “There are factors, though, that move the scale not at all but have an incalculable weight nonetheless. Who and what are we as a nation if we measure everything by self-interest? Who and what are we as a nation if we abandon our friends, blowing empty kisses to them as we cut them loose?”

    He agrees that israel is a strategic liability for the USA. He agrees that the israeli lobby has gotten US support for things that are bad for israel as well as bad for the USA. Etc. But he wants us to remember that as americans we are people who ignore logical arguments and act on sentiment.

    The point is, Cohen is part of the zionist lobby. He cannot be convinced even if the arguments are hydrogen-tight. Even when he agrees with all the logical arguments.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    J Thomas: if you are correct about Cohen’s mental state, and he “cannot be convinced”, then he as such has no relevance to “Overcoming Bias” other than as a conversation-starter. In which case, we’d do better to look at the general issues: can it be rational to be more persuaded when offered counterarguments? whether it’s rational or not, *are* appreciably many people like that? and what are the implications for those who (honestly and rationally, let’s suppose) want to do some persuading.

    Which, as you say, is what the foregoing comments have all been about. Seems reasonable to me.

  • J Thomas

    Leaving Cohen entirely out of it, we’re reduced to abstract hypothericals.

    So:

    If you present opposing arguments and decisively refute them, then you may be more convincing to audiences who have already heard those arguments.

    If you present opposing arguments and decisively refute them then you may be less convincing to audiences who have not heard those arguments — by bringing them up you get peoplet thinking about them.

    If you present opposing arguments and fail to decisively refute them then you weaken your own argument.

    If your argument is based on some particular grounds, you do better not to bring up other grounds. Like, if you argue that it’s wrong to do a pre-emptive nuclear strike on a nation that has not attacked us (iran, say), and your argument is primarily moral, then you don’t want to bring up the idea that it might still be the most practical course of action. So you call up a debate in your readers’ minds. “It’s wrong!” “Yes, but I’d rather be somebody that’s alive who did something wrong than be dead. If anybody’s going to do a pre-emptive nuclear strike I want it to be me.” “But this is something that americans don’t do. It’s wrong.” “America’s the only one that’s ever done it. And it was a good thing too, because the only alternative was a full frontal attack and we’d have lost over a million soldiers and the japanese would have lost millions of women and children and old men because they’d all come at us with bamboo poles and clubs and we’d have to kill them. The way we did it was best for everybody because the only possible alternative was so much worse.” And around and around.

    Similarly if your argument is practical you might do better not to bring up the moral issue. “We mustn’t attack iran because it won’t work.” “Yes, but it’s the morally right thing to do. Their government and religion oppress the large majority of iranians. And they’re about to make nukes, if they had nukes they’d nuke israel and israel would nuke them back and it would be genocide. It’s our duty to stop them. A small surgical strike to take out their nuclear facilities and their top government is the morally best thing to do. Even if it doesn’t work it’s wrong not to try.”

    When your argument is moral you should stress that it’s a moral decision. Don’t argue what’s practical. When your argument is expedience, stress that anything else is impractical and don’t argue morality.

    Then there’s a question about length. Sometimes it’s better to make your points concisely and shut up. Other times you want to traverse all the decision trees and show precisely how you refute all the opposing arguments.

    I guess in general the answer is “It depends.”.

  • matry balance

    I have a question for all you pseudo intellects how can you back a government that has a history of people who think like this
    http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/palestinians.html dare to answer I really what to know
    Oh I know there is no answer.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    matry balance: Anyone who’s using this forum to back, or oppose, any particular government is (like you) missing the point of the forum. (Note that whether something’s off-topic here has nothing to do with whether it’s true or whether it’s important. Even if your, or anyone’s, opinion of the Israeli government is perfectly correct and vastly important, this isn’t the place for it.)

    J Thomas: I think one can say more than “It depends”, and indeed you’ve done so. What you haven’t done is to say anything about what “it depends” on. For instance, if your audience is composed of people who are anxious to do something that’s *both* morally acceptable *and* realistically practical, then the advice you’ve offered probably isn’t optimal.

  • Marty Balance

    Thanks “G”: Your retort is proof you rather play mind games by your judging me to be on one side or the other as a excuse to defend the un defendable as it relates to human issue which is the purpose of the book. Why does the USA citizens turn into a tribe of baboons and preen them self while other( humans )are being destroy. This book is trying on a diplomatic level to wake up people. In an true Republic, The government should not be for sale. Yes the book leans to the side of righteous ness just as much that was shown it is right to pressure South Africa. Your whole country is a target of propaganda not compare Israel to South Africa and not pass laws that will force acceptance of UN Solutions, the Book is Wake call to back no government but your own retrieve your dignity make your own decisions maybe the world will look to the USA once its considered an honest broker.

  • Doug S.

    Marty: We’re not talking about Israel here. We’re talking about arguments. We haven’t even stated any position on the issue the book discusses. If you want to argue that the book is right or that the book is wrong, go somewhere else. Also, your grammar and punctuation suck, and I’m having trouble reading your messages because of it.

    Everyone else: Maybe we should stop feeding the troll?

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Doug S: Yes.

  • marty Balance

    Dear Me, English is not my first tongue. sorry if, I miss understood but why is the book even mentioned if is not germane to the conversation? when the topic of this site is centered around Bias. I mean one does not need to know both side of argument in order to take a stand on the side of a just cause a book like this should be commended and promoted in order to make negative issues stop regardless where they are. all it takes is common people to make common sense but who I’m to try to understand there is common sense in America that left twenty some years ago. Now the goals are so materialist it has destroyed a great nation so your arguments are baseless as the one than were said when Rome was destroyed from within yes history repeats it self. PS what is a toll?

  • J Thomas

    G, if you want to pitch an argument for people who care 60% about practicality and 40% about morality, then you should use your skills to make arguments that are 60% practical and 40% moral. Or perhaps you might argue that morality and practicality are aligned and there is no conflict between them. If a sneak-attack nuclear surgical strike on iran is both the most practical thing to do and also the highest morality we’re capable of, then you’re all set.

    As I understand it, the discussion has been on which rhetorical technique is more peersuasive. And my answer is that it depends on circumstance and it particularly depends on your audience. Different audiences are persuaded by very different things. It depends on the audience.

  • http://thesaifhouse.wordpress.com Trevor Hughes

    I think this is an example that is not very applicable to analyzing issues other than Israel/Palestine. In America people are very irrationaly attached to Israel and can not, for whatever reason, accept any argument critical of it. They will argue back when they can against these arguments, they will try to avoid them at time, but when they can’t, they will come up with something stupid like what Cohen came up with along the lines of “I know I’m wrong, but I want to be wrong. I can’t defend my position or argue with yours, but I’m sticking to it.”

    People will spend all their lives looking for evidence that confirms their biases, and when confronted by incontrevertible evidence to the contrary, the last line of defense is to do what Cohen did. Kudos to him for actually having the bravery to admit his intellectual cowardice in a national newspaper, whereas almost everyone else avoids the topic, but continues with their biases.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “Isn’t it reasonable to assume that we might be predisposed to being biased in favor of whichever argument we have heard most recently, and that we should withhold final judgment until we have heard both sides?”

    The concept of “both sides” may be the mother of all biases. Primate social groups, in my understanding, often make leadership decisions by an alpha male and a challenger male battling for supremacy. This bias of decision-making by weighing 2 sides (as opposed to considering there may be n-th possible ‘sides’) warps a significant amount of decision making, it seems to me.

  • D. Fumo

    Robin’s intuition is bang-on. It is somewhat absurd to suppose that we would be strengthening an argument by intentionally weakening it. How many great essays can you think of that do that? What would Orwell have done?

    There are always people to present other views in a debate, or else there wouldn’t be a debate. A strong argument is strong independent of advancing or exploring other hypotheses. Yet sometimes people do feel suspicious of good arguments, as though weakening them is somehow more honest. I think this doesn’t have a logical explanation but rather an emotional one. In the postmodern west making value judgments is viewed suspiciously. Truth in general is suspect, especially if crystal clear. By presenting two or more sides to an argument we are suggesting that one argument is not better than another, just different. Descriptive, not prescriptive, if you will…

    It’s a nice sentiment, but it has little to do with making a case for or against something. Cohen’s visceral reaction against a clear (if mundane) argument shows his own bias, not the book’s authors’. Had the book been balanced in a way satisfactory to him, would it really have made a difference to his opinion about Israel?