Friday, November 5, 2010

McConnell’s Aristotelian Causes Defense

Senator McConnell has explained his “one-term president” remark (1) by, in effect, claiming that his critics have mistaken an efficient cause for a final cause--or, roughly, with a means for an end.  As mentioned previously (2), McConnell’s statement can be read with clear policy objectives in mind, not merely with the defeat of a president at the polls.  And, curiously enough, McConnell has seized upon just this point in attempting to color his remarks in a more acceptable light.  Said McConnell:

“Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term. But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all of those things it is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.” (3)

Thus does McConnell frame his original remarks as directed towards a political end (the defeat of a president) that will service genuine policy ends.  By McConnell’s telling, the efficient cause of denying President Obama a second term will best effectuate the final cause--or telos--of a more prosperous and free America.

Of course, he could just be trying to walk back his statement with some good ‘ol fashioned Aristotelian spin.

(1) National Journal. "Top GOP Priority is to Make Obama a One Term President." Interview with Senator Mitch McConnell. October 23, 2010.
(2) "McConnell’s “One-term President” Remark has Clear Policy Implications" Analytic Politics, November 4, 2010.
(3) McConnell, Mitch. “Listening to the People Who Sent Us Here.” Remarks to the Heritage Foundation. Washington, DC. November 4, 2010.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

McConnell’s “One-term President” Remark has Clear Policy Implications

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken heat (1) (2) for claiming that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” (3)  Some claimed that McConnell’s statement betrayed a partisan agenda concerned only with the achievement of political--not policy--ends.  Yet this criticism does not account for the policy effects of working towards and potentially succeeding in unseating a president with whom one has very real policy differences.

In fact, the root of much of the criticism of McConnell seems to be the suggestion that he is merely concerned with defeating the president--in a vacuum, as it were.  However, the policy outcome of such a political achievement would surely be the obstruction of an agenda that McConnell claims is counterproductive toward the goal of promoting economic growth and protecting the country, to name just two policy objectives.

(1) Sargent, Greg. “Dems rip Mitch McConnell's "one term" remark, but will voters care?” The Plum Line. October 27, 2010.
(2) Miller, Sean J. “Reid: McConnell comment about one-term Obama 'a road to nowhere'.” The Hill. November 3, 2010.
(3) National Journal, "Top GOP Priority is to Make Obama a One Term President." Interview with Senator Mitch McConnell. October 23, 2010.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Underdetermination and 'Connecting the Dots' in a Terror Investigation

The failure of counterterrorism officials to 'connect the dots' before the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 (1) (2), highlights the very real epistemic difficulty posed by underdetermination.

Underdetermination is an epistemological problem stemming from how facts are related to theories and the conclusions that are entailed. For any fact pattern there may be many—perhaps infinitely many—valid explanatory theories that are incompatible with each other yet may be equally consistent with the facts (3).

[click figure for higher resolution]

In the case of the alleged airplane bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, despite much evidence to support the conclusion that he posed a terrorist threat, officials did not stop him from boarding his plane and flying to the United States. Independent of any oversights, ineptitude, or bad luck that may have played a part in the investigation, the facts of the case underdetermined what conclusions were to be drawn regarding the threat; the thesis that he posed a terror threat was as equally compatible with the facts as was the thesis that he posed no threat.

To be sure, the facts that would tend to confirm the threat posed by Abdulmutallab were numerous: his father's warning to the US embassy about his son's radical views (4); his presence on the TIDE list, a database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center on people with known or suspected links to terrorist organizations (5); US Custom's knowledge that he was on the plane (6); the purchasing of a one-way plane ticket in cash and the airline's knowledge that he did not check any bags (7).

However, there was also disconfirming evidence for the theory that he posed a threat, such as one official's belief that the father's warnings were “thin, with minimal information.” (8)

Depending on how this fact pattern is hung, it could plausibly support either theory regarding the threat posed by Abdulmutallab without logical inconsistency. The inference—or theory—that he was a terrorist may successfully correlate the disparate facts about the case but so would the contrary theory.

This is not to say that the theory that he posed a threat was not highly corroborated—indeed, it turned out to be true—nor that it ought not to have been believed or acted upon. Rather, it is to say that hindsight has a tendency to clarify what were previously shrouded relations between facts.

As the case of Abdulmuttalab illustrates, the underdetermination of a theory by the available evidence is simply part of the framework in any investigation.


(1) Superville, Darlene. “Obama Says 'Dots' Not Connected in Airline Attack.” US News & World Report, January 5, 2010.

(2) “FLIGHT 253: Danger Averted, But Why Were Dots Not Connected?” In Depth News, January 10, 2010.

(3) See, Quine, W.V.O. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in Quine, From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. 42-43.

“But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience.”

(4) Cohen, Stefanie. “
Father of terror suspect reported Mutallab to US Embassy 6 months ago." New York Post, December 27, 2009.

(5) “Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab: US Knew Suspect May Have Terrorist Ties, AP Reports." Huffington Post, December 26, 2009.

(6) “US officials awaited Nigerian plotter to land.” Agence France Presse, January 7, 2010.

(7) “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: one boy’s journey to jihad.” The Sunday Times, January 3, 2010.

(8) DeYoung, Karen and Michael Leahy. “Uninvestigated terrorism warning about Detroit suspect called not unusual.” The Washington Post, December 28, 2009.

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