Thursday, September 01, 2011

Flexible Thinking in a Time of Imprecise Statements

By Gary Berg-Cross

Even in normal times politicians can say the darndest, imprecise but attention getting things. In a big election season the ante is raised leading to many vacuous or misleading statements. One of the recent ones, expressed in great dismay by Rick Perry in announcing his run for the Republican presidential nomination, was the seeming injustice that “nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.”

This infallible, conservative attack line is one of those statistical facts that is an un-fact. It’s imprecision is aimed at an impression from one perspective. It reduces some complexity to a misleading statement. You can find support for the statement in reality. There is a recent estimate, by the nonpartisan Joint Committee for Taxation, that in 2009 about 50 percent of taxpayer units (individuals or couples) had no income tax liability. However, a more precise way and better perspective to understand the data is that 20 some percent had no actual income liability (many are retired people living on Social Security), while 30 percent received refundable credits that wiped out any liability they owed in income taxes. Some may remember that this idea for tax credits was a favorite idea of conservative economists and promoted under Reagan. But never mind, politicians know who to blame and how to pass on a destructive meme.

Another part of the imprecision is that the 50% statistic doesn’t consider all taxes, just state and federal income taxes. It does not include payroll taxes (such as Social Security and Medicare) or taxes on gas. Since the Social Security tax is levied on only the first $106,800 of income, this falls mostly on the poor and middle-class. Indeed as Gale & Rohaly of the Tax Policy Center note, 75 percent of tax filers pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes. So when income taxes and payroll taxes are combined, there is significant tax burden on the working class poor.

The way I view it there is a continuum of realism, precision and perspectives made in statements. Science and Logic places a highly value on realism, precision and adequate answers in light of everything we know, while politics seems at the other extreme.

But one problem with precise statements is that they are often brittle and rely on support from other statements and validation from observation. The above example was made precise by looking at people paying income taxes, but left out quite a bit of reality of other taxes which give a more contextualized perspective.

Other situations that politicians discuss come with their own imprecision, but people try to make neat sounding pronouncements about them anyway. It’s the type of thing well understood in critical thinking and Logic classes. Consider the situation of Libya which is currently in turmoil without a defined government. This reality affects the range of statements we can make. Consider the statement "The current President of Libya is bad." People like Bertrand Russell wondered how to logically answer such a question: Is this statement true, false, or is it meaningless?

It does not seem to be true, for there is no present President/ leader. But if it is false, then one would suppose that the negation of the statement, that is, "It is not the case that the current President of Libya is bad " or some equivalent - "The current President of Libya is not bad," is true. Neither of these seems to have a greater claim to truth than the original statement, although the statement is not meaningless as a sentence. One can understand the question.

The problem is the implied assertion that there is a leader in Libya. It’s part of what Logicians talk about as a definite description which ties language to reality. Definite descriptions denote a fact in the form of a phrase such as “the current President of the US". Logicians say a definite description is proper if the phrase’s noun applies to a unique individual or object which the above does. For example: The “first US president” or the “current Senate Majority Leader” are proper. The definite descriptions "the person in Houston" and "the leader of Libya" are improper because the noun phrase applies to more than one thing, and the definite descriptions "the first man on Venus" and "the Senator from Libya." are improper because the noun applies to nothing. Improper descriptions raise some difficult philosophical questions about the law of excluded middle as well as denotations faithful to realism.

A philosophy of realism asserts that reality and its constituents exist independently of human linguistic or conceptual representations. I can talk about Libyan leaders as a theoretical or cultural idea, but it doesn’t change the facts. But sometimes social and material reality that there are alternate views of reality with equally legitimate perspectives on reality. The perspectival stance maintains that there may be such alternative views. I have a sense that liberals and progressives tend to prescribe to such a philosophical position more than conservatives. One of conservative criticisms of liberals is that they are unrealistic, usually in a politically pragmatic sense but also in allowing alternate views. It seems to me to be a misunderstanding of liberal thinking. You can believe in perspective and still be a realist. A philosophical stance of perspectivalism is constrained by realism. It does not amount to the belief that just any old view of reality is legitimate. There is a method to establish which views are legitimate. In this we weigh a hypothesis against their ability to survive critical tests when confronted with reality. The acid test is scientific experiments, but in everyday life we have less formal means of testing ideas such as illustrated on the previous example on taxes.

It is a fact that sciences change with time just as the situation in Libya does or our understanding of what taxes people pay. And so at some time in the future there may be a current President of Libya (and in a good economy more will pay income taxes). This introduces another idea from Science – that all assertions we make should be conditional and understood against the background of fallibilism. This stance (Of Charles Peirce and Karl Popper, for example) accepts that our theories and classifications of reality are subject to revision. At any one time they may be adequate for our purposes, but not the final answer of what is reality.

We should be skeptical of political statements which violate realism, logical rigor and the test of adequacy. They are not to be trusted.

See Michael Weinman, Two Forms of (Political) Fallibilism for more on this topic.

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