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MacLean’s Illogic

A few days ago, Ramesh Ponnuru beautifully picked apart Nancy MacLean’s response to Russ Roberts’s revelation of her recklessly inaccurate portrayal of Tyler Cowen as advocating “a fifth-column assault on democracy.

When I read MacLean’s response I was especially struck by her apparent unfamiliarity with logic.  Ponnuru exposes this particular illogical leap by MacLean far better than I could.  Here’s Ponnuru:

MacLean’s response has several components. First, she says that Roberts distorted her own words in characterizing her stance toward Buchanan — which is irrelevant to the question of whether her book distorts Cowen.

Second, she dismisses certain Cowen statements that appear favorable to democracy and skeptical of anti-democratic reforms. She writes, “To say that nondemocratic forms of government can have unfavorable outcomes and that ‘I explicitly favor more democratic forms,’ is not the same as saying that I support and would not be involved in any attempt to overturn the American democratic system of majority rule.” Since she hasn’t established that Cowen wants to “overturn the American democratic system of majority rule,” however, or provided a shred of evidence for that contention, it is unclear why he should have to make such a statement.

It’s discouraging that a professor at Duke University believes that if X points out likely downsides of some institution – downsides, incidentally, that, as in this case, are well-known and widely acknowledged by people from across the political spectrum – that, absent an explicit statement to the contrary by X, X’s pointing out these likely downsides implies (or strongly suggests) that X objects to that institution wholesale.  And this discouragement is only compounded if – as is the case here – X also explicitly mentions upsides of that institution.

It seems fair to say that Prof. MacLean is a poor reasoner.