Friday, October 26, 2007

Of fallacies and mushroom clouds

Here's a nice way to end Informal Fallacies Week: What would we be illustrating if we asked the New York Times something like: "Hey, do you guys still eat those happy mushrooms before writing analyses and editorials about countries along the Persian Gulf that start with I?"

If you answered "the fallacy of many questions," you'd be right! Either of the two leading answers -- "Wouldn't write an editorial without 'em" and "No, we gave that up, oh, four or five months ago" -- assumes the truth of the underlying assertion. Which is kind of what the Times is up to with this sentence, from the third graf of today's analysis of Thursday's actions aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps:

The decision thus raised the temperature in American’s ongoing confrontation with Iran over terrorism and nuclear weapons.

Which is interesting, because -- pass the mushroom clouds,* please -- it'd kind of seem that for there to be a confrontation over nuclear weapons, as the sentence plainly declares there is, there would have to be some nuclear weapons. So has the Times simply neglected to run a pretty significant story (another proven member of the nuclear club in the Fractious Near East), or is it making stuff up?

Probably neither. At a guess, the writer is just ignoring (and for the purposes of this little corner of cyberspace, editors are failing in the task of holding writers to account for the accuracy of what they write) a couple of very significant chunks of meaning. As in, "confrontation with Iran over terrorism and what Washington alleges is Iran's effort to produce nuclear weapons." It's the sort of carelessness that just raises an eyebrow or two in most coverage. When it happens in a sector of the international arena where media gullibility has been, y'know, sort of an issue in recent years, it kind of goes beyond careless and into irresponsible.

The Times's agenda-setting effect isn't insignificant by any means. Networks read it. News agencies and other big papers read it. Smaller papers wait for it to send its frontpage selections over the wire every night (I first saw this analysis on the Web site of a big regional daily, which led 1A with it). It's not that surprising when the provincial papers miss a distinction of this sort. The Times ought to know better.

* For bonus points: "We can't afford to let the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud" represents a different informal fallacy. Which one?


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, come on, now. Washington managed to have a pretty significant confrontation with Iraq over "nuclear weapons" without there actually being any.

It may take two to tango, but only one is needed to start a war... er, fight.

3:05 PM, October 26, 2007  

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