In March 26 IssueBy John Thompson, Columnist
There are many obstructions to productive debating, and they almost always involve a lack of logic. I'm no logic expert and what I do know is self taught, though I think a class or two in logic ought to be implemented in every high school curriculum. I believe doing so would pay enormous dividends to our society. The more I've thought about it, the more I'm certain that this investment might be one of the best ways to actually effect change in our society.
In a typical conversation that involves an expression of difference of opinion or understanding of fact, believe it or not it is quite often rife with logical fallacies. I'd like to discuss a few of them, because it just might make you better at expressing your understanding and you'll also begin to recognize logical fallacies in others argument.
Before moving on to a few of the most abused logical fallacies, let me reiterate I am no expert. As I outline these fallacies I will be writing them in under their Latin name and an English translation or close equivalent. Logic is one of those disciplines that has not transitioned from the dead language of Latin, as others, such as math, medicine and religion has (for the most part, though you will find Latin still heavily influences some disciplines, especially medicine). So this is research, not off the top of my head.
Why is this important? Well, beyond what I've told you earlier about having an actual productive argument (realize argument in this sense does not mean yelling and screaming at each other, though it can certainly devolve into that, it means a disagreement in which people with opposing concepts attempt to make the better case for their position).
Politically we have devolved into a mess, a quagmire, partisan bickering in which sides are so entrenched that neither really cares about actually expanding their understanding but instead desires to destroy the other. A lot of times, in order to do this, logical fallacies are used quite liberally. After being introduced to a few you may start recognizing them, or even that you often use them yourself. No one's perfect; I often employ faulty logic… as a very logical friend will sometimes point out to me.
I'll start with my favorite. You've heard me mention the "straw man argument" in past columns. Straw man arguments are rather simple, yet very effective use of illogic. It involves mischaracterizing your opponent, often grossly, and then, having created this cartoon of an absurd figure (the straw man) you can quite easily set blaze to it. Nothing easier than destroying the absurd.
Rush Limbaugh is a master of this, as are the more loud mouthed, vitriolic commentators. Beating up on "liberalism" has been a pastime for a century, but few have made such an art of it. Limbaugh will characterize a liberal in the most absurd of ways, and often as evil (Glenn Beck's favorite straw man building block) and then quite ably destroy the straw man. In fact, this method has been so successful that many, many Americans have no idea what "liberal" or "progressive" means outside the definitions provided for them from those who have built straw men.
I did not provide examples to that one, mainly because of space considerations. But you can easily ask, the next time you hear someone making some outlandish generalization of liberals, or maybe Michael Moore's broad brush of conservatives, whether or not it's a straw man. Do liberals or conservatives you know hold those core values/beliefs/understandings? Does the speaker have an ulterior motive, like immediately destroying the argument they just created out of thin air?
Here I said logic heavily uses Latin and the first example I gave was non Latin. So let's correct that with my second favorite logical fallacy; argumentum ad hominem, often just called ad hominem attacks.
An ad hominem attack is an attack on the person. It's a logical fallacy because, in responding to a point of your opposition, rather than address the point, you attack the person, or the person, idea, organization or whatever your opponent is representing.
For example: If Glenn Beck said to me, "John, George Soros has a master plan to take over the world," and I responded with, "Glenn, you're a complete idiot." Well, that's an ad hominem attack. In no way did I attempt to refute his claim, but instead went directly after him. Interestingly, and relevant here, is the validity of the ad hominem is irrelevant. An ad hominem attack can be completely true, but irrelevant to the argument, or it can be untrue. The point is that it isn't relevant to the argument. Many times arguments quickly devolve into ad hominem attacks. Sometimes they're obvious, like my example, but sometimes they're subtle.
A subtler form of ad hominem might be someone is against the acceptance of open homosexuality in the military with their belief that it hurts morale. Someone finds out that person is themselves a homosexual and attacks their position based on that fact. Well, the person's own sexuality is irrelevant to their position on homosexuality in the military in this case. But sometimes it is relevant and therefore not ad hominem. If congressman Bernie Sanders said that he thought we should have a form of socialized medicine as our health care policy in the U.S. and someone called him a socialist, well, he's called himself a socialist, but more important, his socialist political ideology is relevant in determining his stance. In part the motivation of the person making that statement is also relevant. Did they make it in order to further the argument or to derail or shut down argument?
Ad hominem attacks often involve name calling or mudslinging. These days it seems everyone's a Nazi, at least to their opponent. That's an ad hominem attack, unless the person actually holds the political ideology of a Nazi, and is relevant to the argument. Hippie, teabagger, anti-christ, racist, bigot are usual epithets thrown around easily and are just invectives meant to inject emotion rather than clarify or solidify an argument.
Let's try to get a couple of more.
Just a little bit ago I questioned the motivation of the person making a statement, which leads to another logical fallacy often employed in political debate; that of an appeal to motive. Glenn Beck is a master at this logical fallacy. For every action of a politician, organization, country, or whatever, Glenn Beck seems to have special understanding of the reasons behind these moves. Sometimes he says it outright, sometimes he does it without having to claim responsibility for the understanding he's imparting by suggesting he's just 'questioning' or asking doesn't it just make you wonder, or just simply asking why something is so, but then obviously directing you on how to think of the "why."
The example that comes to mind, beyond the George "Dr. Evil" Soros conspiracies of Beck, is the constant question of motivation of President Obama, which often directs us to believe that we've elected a man who literally wants to destroy the United States. Certainly I have questioned and disagree with many of his policy stands and especially his embracement of corporatism, but I don't think he's trying to destroy the country any more than I think Limbaugh or Beck are. I just think they're all doing a good job of it, whatever their motivations. I think for Limbaugh and Beck it's their own wealth, fame and power, and that's my own use of the logical fallacy "appeal to motive."
There are many more, 40 plus types of logical fallacies. I suppose it might be helpful to define logic… this is difficult, as the definition uses terms that themselves would need defining. Let's say that logic is using facts and correct reasoning principles to come to valid conclusions.
While I was considering what particular logical fallacy I would like to use last, I thought maybe it would be better to list quite a couple in brief, rather than one at length. So here are a few fallacies you'll recognize though you may have not been formally introduced to:
Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (and misemploying, and also arbitrarily dismissing them because 'heck, they can be made to say anything') - e.g. The majority of people in the United States die in hospitals, therefore it is best to stay out of them.
Statistics are often misused, but are not to be dismissed arbitrarily. They are one of the certain ways to quantify and qualify the world as we know it. The trick, and it is often not easy, is to not be fooled by selective application of statistical data.
And the last is "non sequitur," which is Latin for "does not follow." This is a conclusion or a continuation of an argument that does not follow from the established premises or evidence. - e.g. there was an increase in births during the full moon, therefore, the full moon caused the increase in birth rates. We can also see this used a lot in political punditry that is not very thorough. The example that comes to mind would be, President Obama won't show his birth certificate, why else would he not show it unless he was not born in the United States?
Logical arguments and logical fallacies are all intertwined and can be very difficult, for example a non sequitur may be an ad hominem attack. If I call someone a name, it does not follow the argument and it is attacking the person rather than the argument.
It's my hope that this was entertaining and informative.
If you like these sorts of exposition then drop me a line by calling 270-343-6397 or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know what kinds of subjects you'd like to read about in an opinion column.