Fallacies, Debates, and Logic Class

2012 is a great year. London successfully hosted the Olympics, the Mayan long calendar finishes its lengthiest cycle in December (the world may or may not end at that time), and America holds its most important elections.

Think about it: the entire House of Representatives, a third of the senate, and the President (with a great deal of the executive branch) find themselves asking their constituents for votes. And vote we will, though probably not in record numbers. We’ll vote our consciences, our pocketbooks, and our talking points. And this is well. But the peaceful transition of the American government is not what I find so exciting about elections. Nor is my excitement related to the rush to register voters, the ridiculous news coverage of the candidates, or the fundraising emails cluttering my inbox.

No, the best part of the reality show now sometimes called “Presidential Idol” is the debates. Why? It’s the part that my logic students get to watch and critique. Generally, my students have to go hunt down their own examples of the fallacies and otherwise bad argumentation. But for two months every four years, examples of bad reasoning are front-and-center on all broadcast networks. And there’s no need to hunt – these are clearly labeled as argumentation.

So, as my students and I pop some popcorn, eat corn chips, and munch on cake, here’s what we will generally be seeing:

Ad Populum: The granddaddy of political speeches, this is an appeal to the people that misses the point of the question under consideration. Should we raise taxes or lower them? Clearly we should lower them. Why? Because we are the GREATEST COUNTRY ON EARTH!

Slanting: When a candidate presents the same message throughout his career he calls himself “consistent” “a man of his convictions” and so on. When his opponent presents the same message throughout his career the candidate calls him “stubborn” “backward” “appealing to the failed policies of the past” – you see how this turns out.

Ad Misericordiam: The appeal to pity tends to play well in domestic policy debates. A person crushed by the healthcare industry is a good premise for reforming the industry, but not a good premise for a particular reform. Feeling compassion should motivate someone to look for a way to ease another’s suffering. It does not, however, support any particular plan. Sometimes this is done in reverse – and we get discussions of why the other side not only doesn’t care about grandma, but actually wants to kill grandma. Oh my.

Dicto Simpliciter: When evaluating rules or trends, there are ordinary cases and special cases. Being able to determine whether one is dealing with the rule or the exception is a powerful skill, and one that most political debaters fail to employ. One cannot properly argue that special cases disprove the rule, or that rules have no exceptions. Such is the way of folly.

Reductionism: Often called “nothing buttery” – anytime you hear the phrase “nothing but” be prepared for a dose of falsity. “My opponent is nothing but a socialist/fascist/racist/blah blah blah.” “This policy is nothing but a return to the failed policies of the past.” “This program is nothing but waste and a millstone around the necks of the people.” You get the idea. It’s a fallacy.

Complex Question: This is generally the expertise of the interviewers and moderators, but campaign literature is littered with them. I was recently asked to answer questions on a survey, one of which was, “Are you concerned that the Obama administration has a record of attacking gun ownership?” Now THAT is a fascinating question. Whether I say I am concerned or not concerned, by answering I agree that the Obama administration has such a record. It might have a record of attacking gun ownership, but that would be something that could be demonstrated with evidence. Asking whether or not I am concerned about it doesn’t count as worthy evidence. At least, it shouldn’t.

There are more, of course. My students and I will have fun trying to find them. Perhaps you will try your hand at it as well.

3 responses

  1. Would it be a worthy question if their intent was to determine if you are apathetic, or hostile, about your and others’ right to bear arms?

    • Yes, what if they really are a socialist? They may not call themselves a socialist; they may falsely call themselves a progressive or liberal instead. If they act like a socialist, can you fault someone for trying to apply the proper classification to them?

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