The (lack of) Logic in Politics: a case study

By Sean Rule, Math

The other night, for a few brief moments before falling off to sleep, I turned on the news for some current events, and hopefully some fodder for my morning MTH 244 class. Lo and behold, what’s on AC 360 but some snippets of a Matt Lauer interview with George W. Bush. And, what line do I first hear?

LAUER: Here’s something else from the book [in the following quotation, Lauer refers to W.’s “memoir”, Decision Points]: “I could never forget what happened to America that day. I would pour my heart and soul into protecting this country, whatever it took.” It took two wars. It took thousands of lives, American lives. Billions of dollars. You could say it taking Guantanamo and Abu Gharib and government eavesdropping and waterboarding. Did it take too much?

BUSH: We didn’t have an attack.

We can express the above question and answer in what is called a “conditional” statement. Based on W’s logic, it would go something like this: “If we haven’t had another attack on America, then it’s because of two wars, thousands of American lives’, billions of dollars (note: the actual price tag is in the trillions), etc., etc, etc.”[1]

You use these types of statements all of the time in your daily lives.  I used 7 of them last night between dinner and Max’s bedtime; for example: “Max, if you don’t get your feet off the table, you’ll get a time out”.  The logic in the statements is this: the conclusion (the “then” part) must necessarily follow from the hypothesis (the “if” part).  So, if Max didn’t remove his feet from the table, he would have gotten a time out (by the way, he didn’t, and then he did).

So what’s the issue with W’s conditional? Simple: confirmation bias. “What’s that?”, you ask. Confirmation bias is finding a conclusion that favors your beliefs. As humans, we tend to remember things which fall in line with our way of thinking, and forget those which don’t. For example, if you get a cold, then you might believe taking 3000 mg of Vitamin C each day will shorten the cold’s length. You confirm this when your cold gets better. You have biased yourself toward believing in the vitamin C treatment.

So what’s the problem? Well, cold symptoms usually decrease independently of vitamin C treatment, so you can’t prove that your vitamin C megadoses actually did anything. Short of conducting a double blind, controlled study, there’s no way of analyzing the effect of a variable on an experimental model.

W’s statement implies that the reason we haven’t had an attack on America is because of the things he listed above, and, ostensibly, for which he is responsible (two wars, Gitmo, etc.). True? Who knows? They’re impossible to prove. Here’s another, equally plausible statement: “If we haven’t had another attack on America, then it was because the CIA has gotten better at decoding intercepted information.” Why is it as equally plausible? Simple: you can’t disprove it, just as I can’t disprove W’s. However, you can’t prove his (nor mine) either, and that makes both of them, though plausible, well…vapid. There are a number of theories out there regarding why we haven’t had any more significant terror attacks, but they’re all just that…theories.

We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias in our everyday lives. Max looks for a reason that he didn’t fall off of the slide, and credits his wonderful balance skill (not the fact that Daddy was stabilizing him). I safely ride home from work every day, thank goodness, sure that my biking skills are the reason (not luck, nor the bright lights I use). W was looking for justification for his wars and defense spending, and found it in the “no more attacks” logic.

What do you think? Finish the conditional: “We haven’t had another significant attack on America, because…” 


[1] I’d like to also point out that W didn’t answer Matt’s question; he merely redirected it.  However, I’m so sick of politicians playing verbal hopscotch that I wanted to focus on something else. 


2 Responses to The (lack of) Logic in Politics: a case study

  1. Josh says:

    This reminds me a lot of specious reasoning. See the following Simpsons clip for an example:

  2. Sean, I was pretty upset the other day with a recent opinion article I read in the Bulletin by a university math prof who was questioning the effectiveness and actual need of math instruction (see article at Talking about confirmation bias! I am amazed how smart people like him may fall in the trap of trying to become popular with such shallow ideas. But again how’s that different from politics?
    The reason why logic and politics do not correlate any more is because our democracy is based on popularity contests, failing to produce educated people who rely on the use of reasoning and correct deduction, skills you develop at school through curricula that actually emphasize math skills and logical, analytical skills. So, as long as this country continues to fall behind in math achievement (see latest study at ) the disconnect between logic and any aspect of life (political, social, etc.) will probably be a predominant trend.

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