PARMENIDES’ FALLACY….A few days ago Philip Bobbit wrote in the New York Times about Parmenides’ Fallacy, the problem of comparing the present to the past instead of comparing the present to other possible presents based on different choices that might have been made. For example, he says it’s probably true that we are worse off now than we were before we invaded Afghanistan, but if we hadn’t invaded we’d be even worse off.

This reminds me of another way of looking at this, a method apparently endorsed by Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War. This is from Daniel Ellsberg’s book Secrets (p. 141):

McNamara said, “Dan, you’re the one who can settle this. Komer here is saying that we’ve made a lot of progress in pacification. I say that things are worse than they were a year ago. What do you say?”

I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, I’m most impressed with how much the same things are as they were a year ago. They were pretty bad then, but I wouldn’t say it was worse now, just about the same.”

McNamara said triumphantly, “That proves what I’m saying! We’ve put more than a hundred thousand troops into the country over the last year, and there’s been no improvement. Things aren’t any better at all. The means the underlying situation is really worse! Isn’t that right?”

I said, “Well, you could say that. It’s an interesting way of seeing it.”

The punchline, of course, is McNamara’s own statement to the press ten minutes later:

Gentlemen, I’ve just come back from Vietnam, and I’m glad to be able to tell you that we’re showing great progress in every dimension of our effort. I’m very encouraged by everything I’ve seen and heard on my trip….

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