Yes, Virginia, you CAN prove a negative

Groucho Marx (from Wikipedia)
Thanks for loaning the elephant, Groucho. I’ll try to have the pajamas pressed. (Image from Wikipedia)

Logic class, today! After a week of house hunting, a quick post like this feels like just the thing to cleanse the palate, so please forgive my indulgence.

Though it is often claimed–and tempting to believe, because it can sound sensible–it is completely false that you cannot prove a negative. (That is, for instance, that you cannot prove something doesn’t exist.)

I have heard the claim many times, often by wonderful and sincere people but, to be sure, wonderful and sincere people who don’t know what they are talking about — club of which all of us are members from time to time. For instance, I have heard atheists say “You can’t prove a negative!” in an effort to absolve themselves of the need to justify their belief that God does not exist. On the other side, I have heard Christians say “You can’t prove a negative!” in an effort to show that the atheist position is impossible.

Both are in error. Both seem to miss the fact that we prove negatives all the time and the fact that the same sort of “reasoning” they offer would defend belief in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and flying purple leprechauns named Marty.

This was brought up to me more than once by someone who objected to what I wrote for Tomorrow’s World publications concerning the non-existent 2012 Mayan Apocalypse. I would point out that, based on all the evidence we have, the Mayans said no such thing about the year 2012. All of the hoopla and hype was due to New Age goofiness (drug use included) and sloppy, agenda-driven non-scholarship performed by hobbyists and individuals with something to sell. And this is definitely the record we have of the Maya culture–no modern, credible scholar of Mesoamerican culture disagrees with the assessment that the Maya simply did not believe in a 2012 apocalypse.

However, someone apparently bothered when I pointed that out would sometimes write, saying, “You can’t prove a negative!” His point seemed to be that you can’t say that the Mayans never said that the universe would end in 2012. Of course, if it is true that you can’t prove the Mayans did not say something, then it would also be “logically” unreasonable to believe that the Mayans never said President Obama would be elected in 2008, that the Mayans never said “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” or that the Mayans never said they were the descendants of the undiscovered planet Great Googly Gumdrops and never prophesied the coming of their most dangerous foe, Mork from Ork.

Often (though not always, it should be said), the claim “you can’t prove a negative” is made in reaction to something one does not want to hear, as if it will somehow back their opponent into a logical corner. But that is far from the truth.

In fact, you absolutely can prove a negative.

Now, I should qualify that when I say “prove” I mean the same thing we faulty human beings commonly mean when we talk about “proving” anything — for instance, establishing something as the most reasonable position to take among known alternatives. If “prove” means “prove with mathematical exactness and precision but in real life” then virtually all “proofs” would escape us, meaning we could prove neither negatives nor positives! (Actually, we can thank Gödel for helping us to see that, in a very real way, such “proofs” can’t even be assumed for mathematics, itself.)

But if you mean “prove” as in “I can prove you took the cookie from the cookie jar” — a belief established by the preponderance of the evidence — then, oh yeah, we’re golden. We can prove negative statements to just as high a level of certainty as we are able to prove positive statements. In fact, we draw reasonable, sound conclusions about the truth of negatives all the time.

It seems to me that the question is often related to the old saying, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” which is usually abused in this context. Because, very simply, sometimes absence of evidence is, indeed, evidence of absence. For instance, if I told you that, right now, there was an elephant in your kitchen wearing your pajamas (hat tip to Groucho), and you went into your tiny kitchen and saw no pajama-wearing elephant, you would be perfectly justified by the lack of evidence in saying, “I have proven there is no elephant in my kitchen wearing my pajamas.” Why? Because were a pajama-wearing elephant actually in your kitchen, you would be justified in expecting evidence to be left. If you don’t even see a table pushed out of the way as the elephant fled in embarrassment upon hearing your approach (elephants have big ears), you have very good cause to say that your position is proved. For someone to say, “Well, you can’t say you’ve proven there is no elephant in your kitchen because you can’t prove a negative!” would say more about their misunderstanding of logic than it would about your argument. Your argument would be absolutely valid and sound.

If evidence is to be expected and no evidence is present, then absence can be logically inferred. So, perhaps the saying should be amended to say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence unless evidence should be expected.”

This is why we can, indeed, reasonably conclude that the ancient Mayan culture did not expect the universe to end in some sort of cataclysm on December of 2012. For all the New Agers’ and misguided hobbyists’ hoopla about what was supposed to be a universe-changing event, the evidence that the Maya thought about it as such a vastly significant date is just simply absent. Despite the vast volumes of cultural artifacts we have including volumes and volumes of information they, themselves, inscribed and wrote down, they say nothing about such a day being the end of the world. I won’t go into all of the details again [you can search the blog on “2012” and probably find more than you ever wanted to know], but the tiny crumbs that are generally offered by ill-informed hobbyists and tainted “researchers” always fail to pass the test. Monument 6 in Tortuguero? Understood in cultural context (as opposed to ignorantly imposing upon it non-Mayan ideas), it says nothing about the end of the world. The Comalcalco tile? Ditto. The much-later, Christianity-corrupted Chilam Balam? Actually evidence against 2012 date-setting theories when you understand it. The Dresden Codex? Not even.

(FYI on that last point: As all the unchristian 2012-addiction died down back then, the last stab I saw at trying to magically turn the Dresden Codex into “evidence” that the Mayans thought 2012 might be the end of the world was claiming that the last page of the codex is depicting the transit of Venus. No one offered proof the last page said anything like this, or even real evidence. Just an assertion that it is so, in the apparent hope that a confident sounding statement will add some credibility to what they are saying. Except that people — people with actual training in astronomy and Mayan works — have said that, no, the Dresden Codex absolutely does not mention the Venus Transit. Anyone who says the transit of Venus is in the Codex has no credibility. In fact, there’s a negative that can be proved: “The Dresden Codex does not mention the Transit of Venus.” — Sorry! So much of that pointless 2012 goofiness is still running around in my noggin that it spills out sometimes… Back to the post!)

For what should have been the one of the most significant events in their culture’s eschatology, the supposed “end of the world” date of December 2012 was remarkably and unreasonably absent from the vast collection of writings we have. Indeed, absence of evidence is, in this case, evidence of absence.

And, frankly, all of that ignores the positive evidence that the Mayans did not believe 2012 was the end of the world: many inscriptions concerning dates further out that 2012, the calendar discovery at Xultún, et al., ad nauseam. But that is an aside unrelated to the point of this lazy post, today. 🙂

In similar manner, you can prove the negative that Santa did not come down your chimney last Christmas. (Of course, he’d better not come to my house!) The absence of evidence that a fat man crawled down your chimney while you were asleep is pretty good evidence for the absence of such a fat man.

We can, indeed, prove negatives, and lack of evidence is sometimes evidence, itself. When an atheist claims that he doesn’t need to justify his belief that God doesn’t exist because you can’t prove a negative, he is not being rational. When a believer claims that the atheist’s position is not logical because you can’t prove a negative, he is also not being rational. No one gets off the hook. (Don’t get me started on the illogical fad among many atheists today to claim that “belief” doesn’t mean “belief” anymore. That would be a whole ‘nuther post…)

If someone ever tries to shut you down by claiming “You can’t prove a negative,” feel free to ask them to prove that such a proof does not exist, since that would require proving a negative, themselves. (Did you see that? I turned it around, didn’t I? Yes, I do think I’m clever, thank you.) Or, you can just ask them if it’s reasonable to strongly believe that Santa Claus does not exist. If they won’t say “Yes” to that, then I suspect they have more problems than their grasp of logic. In that case, you might recommend that they keep an eye out for any pajama-coveting elephants…

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the topic, but I’ve seen the “you can’t prove a negative” fallacy used enough that I thought it would be something fun to write about. Yes, I have an odd idea of “fun,” but it has succeeded in relaxing me a bit after all of this house hunting! If anyone wants to read more about the mistaken notion that one cannot prove a negative, here is a decent essay by Dr. Steven Hales of Bloomsburg University, appropriately titled “You Can Prove a Negative” — knock yourself out. 🙂

Australia’s “You’re having a lesbian” ad versus Logic

By now many have heard of or seen directly the advertisement running in Australia in an effort to increase support for the concept of homosexual “marriage.” If not, here’s the add, from YouTube:

If you didn’t want to watch it, here’s a summary of the essentials. A young couple–a man and a woman with child (notice, pro-abortionists: we still say “with child”; but that’s another blog post)–is visiting their doctor for an ultrasound and listening to the baby’s heartbeat. The doctor asks if they want to know what they are having. They agree that they do, and the doctor tells them, “You’re having a lesbian.” The couple is delighted, and words appear on the screen saying, “Any child can be born gay. So marriage equality is every family’s issue.”

A number of points could be made about this, and surely many are out there making those points. The most common point made is that it has not been scientifically established that people are born with their sexual preferences locked in. Not at all.

However, I’d like to step around that for the moment and address a point that sometimes seems to go unsaid: that the argument underlying the “Homosexuals are born that way so homosexuality must be a morally acceptable choice” propaganda is false from the get go. And looking at why gives us a chance to play with logical structures. And, I admit: that’s the real reason I am bringing this up anyway. 🙂

The argument can be structured in Modus Ponens form:

(1) If homosexual tendencies are genetically determined, then homosexuality must be considered a morally acceptable lifestyle choice.

(2) Homosexual tendencies are genetically determined.

(3) Therefore, homosexuality must be considered a morally acceptable lifestyle choice.

[And, I should note that “genetically determined” is a specific filler for what could be a number of “nature versus nurture” possibilities, such as “determined by inherent brain structures,” etc.]

We have to note that the logical structure is valid, meaning that if premise (1) is true and premise (2) is true, then the conclusion in (3) must be accepted as unavoidably true, also. Therefore, understanding whether the conclusion is true requires us to visit the premises, themselves, to see if they are true. If they are not, then the conclusion cannot be said to be true.

Normally, I see defenders of marriage attacking premise (2), the idea that homosexual tendencies are genetically determined. And I can understand why, since it is taken as a given by an increasing number of people (as illustrated in the Australian ad) even though it has not been established as true at all.

However, I’d like to fill in the gap by pointing out that premise (1) is not true. That is, it is not true to say, “If homosexual tendencies are genetically determined, then homosexuality must be considered a morally acceptable lifestyle choice.”

Of course, according to the Bible it is immediately seen as not true. Outside of liberal thelogians looking to recraft God and Jesus Christ in their own image, this is generally well understood. (Rather than go on at length about this, I happily point folks to the Tomorrow’s World website, where they can search the topic “homosexuality” and read what comes up. Plain truth, folks.) But for someone who hesitates to take the Bible at its word, can it still be shown to be false? Indeed.

Consider substituting “homosexuality” with other conditions that have even stronger ties according to some studies to genetic predisposition. I have read of studies that demonstrate individuals with tendencies toward violence can have genetic predispositions and that some alcoholics can have can have genetic predispositions toward alcohol abuse. Again, these studies–if I recall correctly–show even stronger evidence of a cause and effect relationship. (Which would bring an element of a fortiori.) So consider these statements:

  • If alcoholic tendencies are genetically determined, then alcoholism must be considered a morally acceptable lifestyle choice.
  • If violent tendencies are genetically determined, then violence must be considered a morally acceptable lifestyle choice.

I don’t know anyone who would rationally agree with either of those statements, and, certainly, more could be made. (E.g., Here’s a paper discussing genetic predisposition to drug abuse.) The point is that, no, premise (1) is not acceptable: Even if it were found to be true that homosexual tendencies were genetically determined (again, something not yet achieved, by the way), then it would not follow that homosexuality must be considered a morally acceptable lifestyle choice–not in any way, shape, or form. Genetic predispositions (or other such nature over nurture considerations) make for horrible determiners concerning moral acceptability. Consequently, whether premise (2) is true or not, the conclusion still does not follow as true.

And, frankly, the only reason we are living in a world in which the content of our genes is considered to be viable ground for deciding issues of morality is because we are losing our connection with the only solid source in existence of any absolute morality: An eternal God and Creator.

Gotta love logic. Don’t leave home–or watch TV in Australia–without it.

Married Bachelors and Instant Character

You really do have to pick one...
You really do have to pick one…

During my walking routine these days as I work on Wally v.3.0, I enjoy an occasional podcast from which often discusses apologetics issues of the day. I may not always agree with everything Dr. Craig says, but it is still an interesting resource and has provoked some interesting discussion with my wife on long trips.

One I listened to a while back reminded me of a post I made discussing the question “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” which is often used to trip up those who believe in God. In fact, when some atheists first stumble on it, they often think they’ve found the “silver bullet” that will kill the idea of an omnipotent God. As I addressed there in that post, the thought is a foolhardy one. The question has an answer: “No.” If elaboration is needed, it is, “No, because no such rock can exist.” As James Taranto summarized in the comment I quoted in that post, a rock so big an omnipotent being can’t lift it “is a logically incoherent construct, not a limitation on God’s power.”

It really is simple, though it used to stump me when I was much younger. The fact is that there are many things that simply cannot exist, and the fact that we can create such nonsensical descriptions does not limit God’s power in anyway at all. For instance, God cannot create a married bachelor or a square circle. He cannot create an odd integer that is evenly divisible by two. The very definitions of these things make the statements that mention them meaningless, and “There’s a rock that cannot be lifted by a being who can lift anything” is a similarly meaningless statement.

God is not somehow “reduced” by not being able to satisfy a nonsensical statement any more than He is reduced by not being able to quickly flibbydahip a traditional Barsoomian Mac-A-Noony-Flahooby-Do. My ability to speak gibberish has no impact at all on God’s omnipotence. (“Good thing, or else all of your blog posts would trouble Him!” you quip. “That’s hilarious!” I sarcastically but warmly reply…)

(In a second unnecessary parenthetical insert which I will italicize to set it apart in someway, I will mention that being omniscient doesn’t mean that God knows the flavor of grilled unicorn or the average height of a leprechaun, either, but that is another “O” for another time!)

I mention this because in a discussion I had recently, I think during my recent visit to our headquarters in Charlotte, I was reminded on one of the questions I had when I was studying the purpose of man, back when I was first learning the truth.

It concerned God’s purpose in reproducing himself in man. As we state in our Statement of Fundamental Beliefs within the section titled MANKIND’S ORIGIN, INCREDIBLE POTENTIAL AND ULTIMATE DESTINY, “The true saints will become full sons of God—’sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:36). God’s purpose is that He is reproducing Himself and that those converted, ultimately, become full members of the Family of God, under the authority of the Father and the Son (1 John 3:1-3).They will share divine glory in the resurrection.”

(Yes, the comment that God “is reproducing Himself” offends some. But it is the truth, and the truth sometimes offends. That’s just sort of the way it is…)

Related to that, we teach that God cannot create godly character by fiat–it is something that is created over time through our free will choices, in concert with God’s assistance in our lives through the Holy Spirit, enabling Christ to live in us. That free will choices are necessary helps to explain why God gave Adam and Eve two trees instead of one and, thus, why we aren’t all still running around naked in a paradise.

But back then, the idea that God could not do something bothered me. Why can’t He just create godly character? If He’s God, can’t He do anything?

Well, no, He can’t, such as those things mentioned above. In a very real sense, again, it isn’t a limit on God so much as it is a limit on reality.

Which brings me to my point: It may be that “instant character” is verbal nonsense–a logically incoherent construct just like “married bachelor” or “square circle” or “odd and even integer” or, for that matter, “a rock so heavy it cannot be lifted by one who can lift anything.” While bachelors, circles, rocks, and even integers (numbers with no fractional components, like 5 and -3) are part of the real, everyday world for us, character is something deep and, ultimately, spiritual. To think that godly character, in terms of all it is supposed to entail in the workings and purpose of God, could ever be instantly “planted” in a created being from the moment of their creation, or in any simple “instant” thereafter, might be a truly nonsensical concept, not instantly rejected by our minds only because we are ignorant of the true depth and eternal nature of what is, indeed, entailed. In fact, as we think upon it further, it may become more obvious that the greater miracle is that such godly character may be built within us at all, let alone that it may require time to do so.

If free will and character go hand-in-hand (as surely they do, right?) then it makes sense that godly character is not something that can be created by fiat–that there is no such thing as “instant character.”

I know for most of you reading this, the matter was never a question! But the math-and-logic guy in me wondered, and the resolution was very helpful. Every time I hear the suggestion that, if God is God, He should have been able to create instant godly character in us, I just think, “Like married bachelors, there ain’t no such beasts…”

Leibniz’s argument for God’s existence

250th day of death of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibni...
Image of Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz on a stamp (Image via Wikipedia)

My sermon last Sabbath was about what the Bible teaches about the purpose of man (we have a great booklet on that: Your Ultimate Destiny), and in it I spoke a bit against the abuse of logic and philosophy. But that does not mean I’m anti-logic or anti-philosophy in general. Actually, I’m very pro-logic, and even pro-philosophy as it’s most simply defined (courtesy of “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct”). I’m currently working on a Tomorrow’s World telecast tentatively titled “Why Believe in God?” (offering The Real God: Proofs and Promises) and the logic behind concluding that there is a God is very much on my mind these days.

Recently I’ve enjoyed some podcasts from William Lane Craig’s website, and I think his book On Guard is pretty good. Being a debater and popularizer of philosophy, Craig has crafted his book with a focus on the practical side of logical argumentation, with some convenient charts explaining his arguments’ flow and illustrating how some objections are handled. For someone new to logical argumentation, the book is a good starter I think, and I might add it to my kiddos’ reading list (at least the older boys). While Dr. Craig and I would passionately disagree on a number of items concerning biblical doctrine, I appreciate the thinking he’s done on matters of proving the truth of God’s existence, the nature of time and knowledge, and defending the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On the matter of arguing that God exists, I appreciate that he includes in his books an argument from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz — not because the argument is special to me or anything like that. Rather, being the former Calculus teacher that I am, Leibniz is one of my old heroes and it’s nice to see his work on something even more important than Calculus (believe it or not) given some credit. (The crucial, uncredited role that Leibniz played in bringing about the end times Beast Power of Revelation is something I enjoy explaining on occasion–with tongue firmly planted in cheek, of course–and I may add that tale here to the blog one day.)

Here’s the essence (as I understand and summarize it) of Lane’s presentation of Leibniz’s argument for the existence of God, for your viewing pleasure…

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. The universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

The premises 1 & 3 lead to the conclusion 4, and 4 combined with premise 2 leads to the conclusion 5.

It’s a valid argument, in the sense that it is structurally solid and its conclusion would follow from its premises, but is it a sound argument–that is, is it also true?  Clearly, that depends on the truth of its premises.  No one would question premise 3–if they would, you could simply call it a day and take them out for some non-existent coffee. Consequently, the truth of the conclusion boils down to whether or not premises 1 and 2 are true.

The obvious objection one could bring up (and Craig mentions this) is that if one says that everything that exists has an explanation and if you are claiming God exists, then God, too, must have an explanation. (If you already thought of that, treat yourself to a cookie!)

However, this glosses over a subtlety in Leibniz’s argument that goes unstated in the formulation above–namely, that there are things that exist due to external causes and things that exist of necessity. God is not “caused” by anything–by nature, He exists necessarily.  This leads Craig to refine his statement of Leibniz’s argument making these claims explicit:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. The universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This narrows possible disagreements to arguing against premise 1–say, by claiming, say, that nothing can exist necessarily (essentially assuming God does not exist from the start), disagreeing that everything has an explanation of its existence (specifically, disagreeing that universe has an explanation for its existence)–or arguing against premise 2–say, by claiming that the universe exists necessarily.

Again, I’m fond of Leibniz (and look forward to meeting him one day), and it was nice to see him featured in this way. I prefer Dr. Craig’s Kalam argument, which I might mention in another post sometime, but here I thought I would give Leibniz some props. After the whole Newton/Calculus affair, it’s nice to give him some credit where he’s earned it. 🙂

The Riddles of God

Planning my oldest son’s logic coursework for this school year, I came across this great quote in his text:

“The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” ~ G. K. Chesterton

Thought it was worth sharing.  Proverbs 25:2 comes to my mind, as does Job 26:14.  Any others?

Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?

[Image of Uluru]
Uluru! Australians know big rocks when they see 'em...
Ever since I was a wee little lad, I have heard the common “Big Rock” challenge to God’s existence: “If God is omnipotent, can He make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?”

When it’s asked for fun as a discussion of logic conundrums, it’s one thing.  But when it is actually believed to be a successful argument against God’s existence, it’s just pathetic.  And, sadly, some do think it is an argument against God’s existence.

Then, in today’s Best of the Web Today feature in the Wall Street Journal, I read a very concise discussion & refutation of it by James Taranto — and he was discussing politics and constitutional logic, not theology, so it was pleasing all the more being a surprise appearance.  I’ve explained the illusion behind the question to others before, but he does it so concisely that I thought it worth mentioning here:

Think about that old Philosophy 101 question: If God is omnipotent, can he make a rock so big that he can’t lift it? It seems like a puzzle, but the answer is clearly no. The premise that God is omnipotent leads to the conclusion that he can both make and lift a rock of any size. “A rock so big that he can’t lift it” is a logically incoherent construct, not a limitation on God’s power.

The person asking the question simultaneously affirms and contradicts the premise of God’s omnipotence, creating a non-question.  It’s like asking, “Can God be simultaneously omnipotent and not omnipotent?”  The answer is no, as is the answer to its more fuzzily-worded “rock” puzzle variation.  So when posed that question we are free to answer “No,” understanding what the questioner probably does not: that the answer has nothing to do with a limitation on God’s abilities and everything to do with limitations on what kinds of rocks can exist.  (Like telling someone: “Using one color only, paint this birdhouse completely red and not-red.”  Your inability to do so relates to what colors can logically exist, not your ability to paint birdhouses.)

Taranto’s explanation is short and sweet, methinks.  So, if you’ve ever been stumped by the question, don’t be.  Just answer “No” and recommend that the individual take a good freshman logic course at his or her local community college.

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Great Moments in Logic #2

Actually, there is no “Great Moments in Logic #1” post, but I am mindful of a similarly themed post back in August 14, 2008, also motivated by a “Best of the Web” comment: “A True Canard? Thomas Friedman delghts via James Taranto.”

As a mathematician, displays of horrible logic always catch my eye, and Mr. Taranto has caught a whopper in a brief 12/1/2009 MarketWatch report by Rex Nutting.  The quote below is taken from James Taranto’s daily “Best of the Web Today” feature in the online WSJ, which quotes the MarketWatch piece in full (one paragraph):

[From “Best of the Web”] – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Stimuli Work, Ergo the Stimulus Is Working
MarketWatch reports on a cheering finding from the Congressional Budget Office:

The $787 billion fiscal stimulus program approved in February is working pretty much as expected, the Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday. U.S. employment is about 600,000 to 1.6 million higher, and real gross domestic product is about 1.2% to 3.2% higher than they would have been without the stimulus, CBO said. That estimate is nearly identical to the CBO’s assessment in March. The CBO based its estimates on long-standing relationships between additional spending and economic growth, rather than relying on incomplete and inaccurate reports from companies awarded federal contracts. Much of the direct government spending in the stimulus bill is yet to come.

Did we read that right? Yes, we did. Here’s the actual CBO report:

Estimating the law’s overall effects on employment requires a more comprehensive analysis than the recipients’ reports provide. Therefore, looking at the actual amounts spent so far (where identifiable) and estimates of the other effects of ARRA on spending and revenues, CBO has estimated the law’s impact on employment and economic output using evidence about how previous similar policies have affected the economy and various mathematical models that represent the workings of the economy. On that basis, CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States.

So the CBO’s estimate is “nearly identical” to the one in March because it is based on exactly the same information: the cost of the stimulus and the putative effect of spending that much money. It’s like a restaurant reviewer who estimates the quality of a meal by looking at the prices on the menu.

[End of Selection] – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Did you catch that?  Taranto summarized things wonderfully, but — as is my wont — let me overexplain…

There are a few things to point out:  (1) The CBO’s statement that the stimulus “is working” is not based at all on any real look at the real results of the stimulus.  It is essentially like saying, “Well, we projected in the past that it would work, and on the basis of those past projections we’ll say that it is working now.”  Not that this means that the stimulus isn’t working, but that’s just the problem — it’s a meaningless statement.  (2)  Also, the MarketWatch paragraph, as so neatly highlighted by Taranto, says essentially that the CBO’s statement on Tuesday is the same as the CBO’s statement last March because it is based on exactly the same information — there is no new information, whatsoever.  So why release a new statement, at all?

The report intial statement — “The $787 billion fiscal stimulus program approved in February is working pretty much as expected, the Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday.” — has, actually, no basis whatsoever.  This would have been a more logically sound statement:

On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office reported its estimates of the cumulative effects of the $787 billion fiscal stimulus program approved in February.  The CBO’s mathematical models predict that U.S. employment is 600,000 to 1.6 million jobs higher and the the real gross domestic product 1.2% to 3.2% higher than each would have been without the stimulus.  The CBO reports that these figures are based on their model assumptions with considerations about where the stimulus money has been spent so far and not on actual measurements of real effects.  Much of the direct government spending in the stimulus bill is yet to come.

It’s a shorter statement, too — normally, a difficult thing for me to achieve (see Exhibit A)!

As it stands, the reporting actually says, “The stimulus is working exactly as we expected, based solely on our assumption that it is working as expected.”  And it’s not that the CBO report does not have potential value; it provides a basis by which the success/failure of the stimulus could be measured.  But without any measurements, it’s useless.  All of which makes the title of the MarketWatch piece — “Stimulus Working Pretty Much as Planned, CBO Says” — either a horribly inaccurate summary of what the CBO is actually saying or an inadvertent exposure to the CBO’s horrific reasoning on this point.

As usual, I don’t mean this as a comment on the politics or economics, just on the logic — or lack, thereof.  And, I suppose, it is a comment on what bothers me about politics.  “Data” like this is bandied about by anyone whose cause is best served, yet without any qualification or explanation of the information’s limitations.  As part of an extended discussion, these projections could be helpful.  As soundbites for campaign purposes or “points” scored on news programs, they are worthless.