A new 'guide' has been published giving handy hints in the art of separating hard facts from political spin in American politics.
We asked its authors Dan Klein and Tom Cathcart to apply their talents to two of the Today Programme's recent interviews with British politicians.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the Today Programme last week:
"We made two mistakes [when we abolished the 10p starter rate of income tax].
We didn't cover as well as we should that group of low-paid workers who don't get the working tax credits and we weren't able to help the 60 to 64-year-olds who didn't get the pensioner's tax allowance."
Interviewer John Humphrys questioned whether it could properly be called a ‘mistake,’ when the government knew going in that these two groups would be adversely affected.
By calling it a ‘mistake’ the Prime Minister was using the gambit known as ‘weasel words,’ named for the ability of the weasel to extract the contents of an egg without breaking the shell.
Mr. Brown’s weaselling sounds odd to American ears, as US politicians generally use weasel words to avoid using the word ‘mistake.’
A success that hasn't occured....yet
Take the following exchange between a CNN interviewer and US Homeland Security Adviser Frances Fragos Townsend:
Interviewer: You know, going back to September 2001, the president said, dead or alive, we’re going to get [Osama bin Laden]. Still don’t have him. I know you are saying there [have been] successes on the war on terror, and there have been. That’s a failure.
Ms. Townsend: Well, I’m not sure—it’s a success that hasn’t occurred yet. I don’t know that I view that as a failure.
It’s a bit like saying, “I’m not drunk, officer. What you’re seeing is sobriety that hasn’t returned yet.”
Starting out on milk
Meanwhile, Tory leader David Cameron told the Today Programme:
“What we now need to do is look at the underlying causes of poverty, and that is things like family breakdown, worklessness, drugs and alcohol and all of those things.
Because in the end, if you don’t deal with the causes of poverty, . . . dealing with the symptoms—shortage of money—is [not] actually going to do the long term trick.”
Hmm. Determining what caused what is always a tricky business. Do family breakdown and the use of drugs and alcohol cause a shortage of money, or does a shortage of money increase the risk of family breakdown and the use of drugs and alcohol? Or both? Or neither?
Aristotle identified Mr. Cameron’s fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this, therefore because of this.” It’s the fallacy that insists that because A happened before B, A must have been the cause of B.
For example, US politicians are fond of saying, “Marijuana may not be so dangerous in itself, but it’s a gateway drug. 85% of heroin addicts started out on marijuana.” This is apparently true, but 100% started out on milk.
Dan Klein and Tom Cathcart are the authors of “Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak through Philosophy and Jokes,” published by Abrams Image.