Thursday, June 19, 2014

It depends upon what the meaning of “will” will be

This morning offered an extraordinarily bone-headed article in the Washington Post, whose title on the Web site (I no longer subscribe to the print edition, out of concern for that newspaper’s misuse of innocent trees),  

“How President Obama will be impeached”

Now, that is no more than we had come to expect from the hapless WaPo (if the fellow truly possesses a crystal ball with that resolving power, he should put his abilities to better use, such as divining the next winning ticket for the lottery, or making millions betting big on the ongoing World Cup contest, which has seen a lot of unpredicted upsets this time around).    We would not have bothered to click on the link, but for curiosity, simply to see whether the scribbler in question was an official  marquee op-ed-er like Charles Krauthammer, filling one of the designated billets for Right-wing Nutcase (so that the Post can continue to claim to be Fair and Balanced), or simply a junior-varsity blogger permitted to invoke the Post.  (Turns out it’s more like the latter, though with a seat on the Board.  Indeed, forcing myself to read to the end of the article, I tentatively conclude that he is probably neither right-wing nor a nutcase;  merely, analytically underequipped.)

Once you read the actual article, however, you see that it does not actually speak of what will happen, but what “possibly” will happen -- what might happen.   That sets a much lower bar.  Thus, I couldn’t tell you who will win the upcoming contest between the Warriors and the Scouts, but I can confidently tell you who might win:  the Warriors.  Or, possibly, the Scouts.  (Fair and Balanced is our (are our?) middle name.)

On a charitable reading of the case, then, our blameless columnist, studiously hewing to Popperian and Baconian principles of evidence and argument, has been betrayed once again that cursed tribe of headline-writers  -- the Web ones if anything worse than the print -- who try to turn a non-story into an apparent story, with click-bait in the link.  (We ourselves are occasionally tempted -- by the cloven-hoofed Bad Angel on our left shoulder -- to stoop to such tactics.  I briefly considered titling this piece   


to drive traffic to the site, but then the ivory-winged Good Angel on my right shoulder whispered:  But It Would Be Wrong.**)
(** We remain, however, in back-channel negotiations with the Bad Angel, to see if we might somehow nonetheless turn this tempting opportunity to account.)

Thus, if all you are talking about is how the President “could” be impeached (note: impeached, not convicted), there is no story there, for the answer is obvious.  All you need to do to impeach, in the strict sense of that word, is to round up fifty-one percent of clowns and loonies in the House, something that you can accomplish simply by whistling, or by leaving a plate of Cheez-Whip out on the bench.  Then, Bingo!, you’ve got yet another effect-free pointless Congressional “resolution”, like repealing the law of gravity or whatever.  The “Base” then goes off and has a chortling-fit (while stuffing their jowls with corn-dogs), while the rest of the world goes about its business.  “Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe.”  That is Democracy at work;  I expect you learned all about it in Civics class.

Unfortunately, the actual blogger before us (as against his ideal counterpart in Platonic heaven), writes (rather self-importantly -- “I warned Democrats”, tut-tut, hem-hem):

Writing about Rep. Eric Cantor’s  (R-Va.) stunning primary defeat last week, I warned Democrats that the House majority leader’s loss was as much a wake-up call for them as it was for the GOP. Well, now I want to warn them about a very real possibility: President Obama will be impeached if the Democrats lose control of the U.S. Senate.

That paragraph is quantificationally confused -- actually, probably deliberately so (of that, more anon) --  in a way probably not apparent to most readers unfamiliar with the tradition of Frege and Russell, so allow me to unpack it.  It commingles, as a syntactico-semantic mess, several distinct propositions:

(A) There is a very real possibility that the Dems may lose control of the Senate.
[DBJ:  Uncontroversially true.   “Very real possibility” is more than a mere “possibility” -- a weak condition, that, which would apply to the potential for a Martian takeover of both houses -- but is less than a “preponderant probability”; hence, uncontroversially true.]

(B)  A Republican majority in the Senate could  [or:  likely would;  or:  definitely will] tilt the psycho-political playing-field in a way that makes it more likely that a gaggle of excitable simpletons in the Lower Body may bestir themselves to move a vote to impeach.
[Hypotheses respectively quite plausible; plausible; possible though unlikely.]

(C)  The resulting likelihood that the House vote to impeach, now becomes a certainty, 100%.

In the next paragraph, our scribe actually attempts such distinctions among probabilistic niceties -- not very expertly, certainly nothing to attract a nod from Bayes or Kolmogoroff, but still, commendable:

Yeah, yeah, I read Aaron Blake’s astute piece in The Post on the impeachment process. He says “probably not” to the question of whether the House could impeach Obama. But “probably” is not “definitely.” And with the way the impeachment talk has gone, “probably not” could become “absolutely” if the Senate flips to the Republicans.

Then, however, comes another bait-and-switch (and this is one of the two reasons that I speculated the quantificational conflation of A+B+C above, may have been deliberate).  The writer observes, quite correctly, that “To officially remove a president from office, two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict him on those articles of impeachment” (nods of recognition from all of you who paid attention in Civics Class, provided such a thing still exists and hasn’t been replaced by YouTubing class or whatever  these days), but then skates back out upon thin empirical ice:

A Republican-controlled Senate could lead to Obama becoming the third president impeached and the first ever to be removed from office.
I don’t make this prediction lightly.

But “Republican-controlled” simply means “51 Republicans”, not “sixty-six and two-thirds Republicans”.    (Actually, to round up enough votes to convict, the Republican Party per se would not need to have even 51 votes in the Senate, provided they could reach the magic figure of 2/3 by forming a coalition with such potential newcomer Senatorial caucuses as the Teapatriot Party, the Segregationist Party, the Montipythonic Very Silly Party, and so forth, thus reducing the rump of Adults to impotence.)   And nobody is predicting that latter outcome in the next elections.  Yet that is precisely the eventuality that must be assumed for his column to make any sense, since, as he himself reports at length:

Last August at a town hall meeting, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) cited the Senate as a reason for not pursuing impeachment. “If we were to impeach the president tomorrow, you could probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it,” he said in response to a constituent upset about “the fraudulent birth certificate of Barack Obama” and who wanted him punished. “But it would go to the Senate and he wouldn’t be convicted.”

and so forth for several similar depressing examples.  In other words, the principle here illustrated is

(P) It would be pointless to impeach unless there is some reasonable possibility of securing a conviction in the Senate.

[Strictly speaking, Principle P is not an alethically assessable proposition -- assessable in the dimension of (even relative) truth or falsity -- but springs rather from a different World of Discourse, that of political calculations and expediency.   Sometimes a doomed effort is, politically, exactly the right thing to do, in the playbook of Machiavelli rather than Aristotle;  rather like a pawn sacrifice.  But few parties to the argument here dispute (P) in that sense, so we may ignore that logical nicety.]

The problem comes with the column’s implied proposition Q:

(Q)  If the next elections produce a (bare) Republican majority in the Senate, then there is a reasonable possibility of securing a conviction in the Senate;  ergo, argument (P) against impeachment disappears.

And that is highly unlikely, since it would require a minimum of sixteen Adults (whether Republican or Democrat) to vote with the loonies.  (Mere abstention would not suffice.)


The second reason alluded to above (“more anon”) for suspecting that some of the journalistic smoke-and-mirrors here might be deliberate, calculated simply to maximize the number of click-throughs rather than reader understanding, is the queasily vague way in which the word impeach is used, both in the article itself, and in general loose public discourse;  in particular, several officials are quoted using the problematic phrase successfully impeach,  which so far as I know lacks legal definition as a phrase (along the lines of corporate personhood, statutory rape, etc.), and thus is ambiguous between the senses ‘succeed in impeaching (sensu stricto)’ (which is alethically equivalent to "impeach" simpliciter) and ‘impeach, followed by successful prosecution in the Senate’.   In the course of discourse, the semantics of “successfully impeach” doubtless segues vaguely back and forth between these two quite distinct meanings.


Having toyed with the quantificational apparatus so painstakingly illumined by Quine et alia, our columnist then breaks boldly into the territory of what we assume to be an attempt at Brouwer-style Intuitionist alethics (and I quote):

 ~ Obama is not on the ballot in November,
but Obama is on the ballot in November. ~

Also sprach the Zen master.

Our attorneys have reached a compromise agreement with the journalistic Bad Angel.   We hereby post the following illustration (for educational purposes only),

Tch tch.  Very bad.

while firmly condemning it.

(But, now that we have your complete attention:
  Buy my books !!!)

1 comment:

  1. Diogenes ColemanJune 19, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    You vivisected that beast adroitly.