One of the tragedies caused by the decline of education over the last century has been the demise of rhetoric, the art and science of constructing an argument. Learning the logical structure of fallacies and sophisms is an important tool for recognizing them in one’s own thinking and that of others, including politicians, and thus studying rhetoric is an important part of fostering an educated citizenry.
The situation has gotten so bad that when the author proposed to teach a seminar on fallacies at the Yale Law School a few years ago, the deputy dean would not allow him to teach that subject, the only time in his 38 years of teaching at that venerable institution that the administration had outright forbade him from teaching a subject. Imagine, someone wanting to teach aspiring lawyers how to recognize an invalid argument and to explain to a judge or other decision-maker what makes it invalid! Who could think of doing such a thing in a law school. Today about half of my law students do not know how to construct an argument. They merely assert things, as if saying them makes them so. Philosophers call this “argument by invitation,” but it is the weakest form of argumentation.
This should be the golden age of rhetoric as we are increasingly unraveling how our brains work and therefore why we sometimes think that we know things about how the world works that are not true. Thomas Gilovich has written a fascinating little book on this subject called How We Know What Isn’t So. Daniel Kahneman shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for his work in that area. Take that, Yale Law School. Maybe one day a more broad-minded institution will invite me to teach the subject there. Hint, hint.
There are many fallacies yet to be discovered and named. One such unrecognized fallacy that affects much of our public discourse, including the Green New Deal, we may call “the process reversal fallacy.” Simply stated, the concept is that the only — or at least, the best, or most natural way — to undo the results of a process is to reverse it. That’s the idea behind the Green New Deal to spend — or as its supporters prefer to say, “invest” — an estimated $93 trillion to eliminate fossil fuel use in the U.S. Yes, that is $93 trillion, with a “t.”
If burning fossil fuel has released too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is heating up the planet, then it just seems self-evident to supporters of the Green New Deal that the way to reverse global climate change is to decrease fossil fuel usage. Wrong! Or at least, not necessarily so. (And please note that we said “if”; the science of global climate change is a topic for another day.)
A little reflection will show why the process reversal heuristic is appealing but often wrong. The process that supposedly led to climate change took place over centuries through the uncoordinated actions of human beings, most of whom were unaware of the effects that their actions were having on the environment. Moreover, they lacked technological alternatives to fossil fuels for energy during most of human history. However, solving — or even ameliorating — climate change would entail a very different process: the coordinated and consciously planned actions of human beings with access to a variety of advanced technologies on a global scale over a much shorter time period. Simply reversing how we got here isn’t the only, or even the best, alternative. EPA economist Alan Carlin argued persuasively in an article in the Environmental Forum in 2007 that it would be a “risky gamble” to try to manage the temperature of the planet by rearranging the mixture of gases in the atmosphere. There are simply too many interacting variables that we don’t yet understand.
If we as a species decide we should try to manage the temperature of the planet, there are other ways that are simpler, less expensive, and more certain to succeed. These include what is broadly called “geo-engineering,” such as putting mirrors in space to reflect away some of the sun’s heat or seeding the clouds, which is a relatively proven technology. Or removing some of the carbon dioxide from the air, and recycling it back into fuel, which is already being done at pilot plant scale in Canada. Or adapting infrastructure to the changes. (Yes, people really can live in places where it is 110 degrees Fahrenheit; it is called air conditioning in Phoenix, America’s fifth largest city.) Or most likely, a cost-effective combination of all of the above, plus cutting back on fossil fuel usage where feasible. It simply does not follow logically that because the problem was created by burning fossil fuels, the best solution is to eliminate fossil fuels. The Green New Deal would be a $93 trillion mistake caused by a logical fallacy.
Or take another example, this time from the conservative side of the aisle. Many conservatives believe that the so-called “administrative state” of self-perpetuating bureaucrats who are largely immune from democratic political control is a serious structural problem for the federal government. For example, the author recently called the administrative state “the most dangerous branch” in these pages.
The administrative state was created through the legal fiction that Congress was merely delegating to administrative agencies the task of implementing policies that Congress had defined via “intelligible principles.” Over time, the principles got vaguer and less intelligible. But that does not imply that the best way to impose greater political control over the administrative state is for courts to reverse the process that created it by overruling existing delegation doctrine jurisprudence. Congress lacks the institutional capacity and expertise to make all the complex decisions that any modern government requires. Nowhere in the world does the legislature make all of the subsidiary policy decisions that the advocates of bringing back the anti-delegation doctrine imagine that the courts could force our Congress to make. Worse yet, the oft-repeated prescription “bring back the anti-delegation doctrine” is a snare and a delusion: it precludes thinking creatively about more practical measures that might actually help to temper the excesses of the administrative state.
The reason that the process reversal fallacy comes to our minds so naturally is because much of the physical world works that way: to drive in a screw, turn a screw driver clockwise; to remove the screw turn it back the other way with the same tool. Turn a faucet to the right to get water; turn it back to the left to stop the flow.
Newton was the first to model the world as a machine obeying the same physical laws that we experience in daily life. That’s a useful first order approximation, which is why it is persistent, but many human and natural systems are much more complex than removing metal threads from wood or turning off a faucet. If we got fat by eating too much, it seems logical that we should be able to lose weight by eating less. But as we begin to understand how the body compensates, we are learning why dieting does not result in permanent weight loss for many people.
The Green New Deal would be a $93 trillion mistake, and if it happens, it will happen because we no longer teach rhetoric in the schools. Not even at elite law schools.