Category Archives: Logical Fallacy Friday

Logical Fallacy Friday: Argument by Anecdote

So, you’re talking with co-workers or friends over a meal one day and all of a sudden, one of them starts explaining why she’s eating bean sprouts covered in whey protein powder with a side of tofu for lunch.  She spouts off a lot of suspect diet-jargon about combining the right kinds  of macronutrients to maximize your metabolism, and she tells you all that she lost a pants size the first day and despite being unable to sleep due to hunger pangs and glucose withdrawal, it’s really working for her and she thinks you all ought to try it too.  You and your fellow listeners start backing away from the Diet Evangelist slowly.  This person is probably delusional, but she is also committing one of the most common argumentative fallacies under the sun:  Argument by Anecdote.  This is where people generalize from their own experience or the experiences of a friend of their cousin or something they got from an email forward, thinking that their experience with something is representative of all experiences with that something.

Argument by Anecdote is so common because it seems to appeal to something very primal in us.  As a 2008 article in Scientific American–which addresses the use of testimonials in medical debates and the marketing of health products–says:

Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. So it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.

Recently, I’ve been doing primary research on the rise of the Christian Science movement in the late-nineteenth centuries.  Christian Scientists believe that the body is not actually real, that only spirit exists, therefore disease and injury are only projections of anxiety and unbelief.  They “heal” by praying and arguing with the patient against the belief in the disease or injury.  What’s ironic is that this movement arose almost in tandem with modern scientific medicine.  Mary Baker Eddy was attracting educated middle class followers by the thousands at the same time that scientists were becoming aware of germs and contagion and public health advocates were pushing for sanitation measures in urban areas.  So how did such obvious superstition win out over science in some circles?  Well, Christian Scientists, being educated, literate folk, got into the publishing industry.  They founded the Christian Science Monitor as a secular newspaper, meant to counter the anti-religiosity of the nineteenth century’s mainstream media (yes, the Christian Science Monitor was the nineteenth century version of Fox News).  But they also founded a periodical that published dozens of testimonials about the effectiveness of Christian Science healing.  Eddy and her followers were masters at using the power of narrative to win people over.

Of course, our own lifetimes contain myriad examples.  The Scientific American article cites the kerfuffle over vaccines and autism, in which a group of highly visible parents have insisted that there is a link between the two despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary:

On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine preservative thimerosal, which in the body breaks down into ethylmercury, the culprit du jour for autism’s cause. On the other side are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms began to appear. These anecdotal associations are so powerful that they cause people to ignore contrary evidence: ethylmercury is expelled from the body quickly (unlike its chemical cousin methylmercury) and therefore cannot accumulate in the brain long enough to cause damage. And in any case, autism continues to be diagnosed in children born after thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 1999; today trace amounts exist in only a few.

It’s easy to dismiss Christian Scientists and vaccine alarmists as credulous or dumb or even as charlatans themselves, but trust me, you’ve probably done this before.  We all look for ways to put our experience into coherent narratives, narratives that help us make sense of how the world and how our lives work, even if they aren’t generalizable.  And we all experience the urge to evangelize, even when we know we shouldn’t.  That’s a self-protective measure as well, an attempt to justify our own actions and beliefs by encouraging others to go along with them.

But please just let me eat my lunch in peace and shut up about that acai berry crap.

Logical Fallacy Friday: The False Dilemma

George W. Bush

Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, holding a shotgun
Two famous users of the "with us or against us" false dilemma.

The False Dilemma or False Dichotomy Fallacy reduces a complex problem to two radically over-simplified choices, usually one objectively good and one objectively bad.  “You’re either with us or you’re against us” is probably the classic variant.

It’s difficult to talk about the False Dilemma without talking about the Iraq War during the Bush era, since for many U.S.-American liberals (and many who hold anti-war sentiments throughout the world, I’m guessing), the way in which loyalties were so problematically and harmfully framed during that period remains a raw and open wound.  Either you were for the war or you were unpatriotic.  Either you were for the war, or you wanted the terrorists to win.  Either you were for the war, or you didn’t support our troops.  Either you were for the war, or you hated America.  Et frakking cetera.  This, at least, was the thrust of this craptacular Joe Lieberman editorial from 2008.  (Note:  you have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal online to view the article.  You can also view Joe Conason’s smackdown for free on Salon.)

Even more hurtful then constantly hearing that you were effectively a traitor for not wholeheartedly jumping on the Iraq War bandwagon was the success, for a time, of this particular viewpoint.  There was a period between 2003 and 2006, when public criticisms of the war post-“Mission Accomplished,” post-Abu Gharaib, and post non-discovery of weapons of mass destruction, became more de rigeur, when one literally could not express a negative or even ambivalent opinion about the war without being told to just “support the troops,” without having one’s patriotism questioned. Embarrassingly, until early 2004, I was one of these insufferable Iraq War supporters, and my biscuits are still burnt at least in part because this particular fallacy played me like a two dollar banjo.

But war hawks are certainly not the only ones prone to this logic. In times of upheaval and uncertainty, human beings in general are fond of practicing the politics of ideological purity, drawing unambiguous lines in the sand.

So, while the most common rhetorical effect of the false dilemma is to eliminate the middle ground, another variant posits vast, irreconcilable differences between two relatively similar positions or ideas.  Take the college rivalry in my home state, for example.  There are two major universities in this state who have had open, seething disdain for one another for well over a century.  It’s a rivalry that is rooted in class differences and politics.  University A is located in a conservative rural area; University B is located in a small city known for pot-smoking musicians, hippie culture, and one nude beach.  University A has a long, proud military tradition.  University B has a history of anti-war protests.  You get the idea.  Nearly everyone in my family has attended University A.  I am a graduate student at University B and have cultivated a smug indifference to football in order to survive the Thanksgiving holiday.

Yet while the notion of these two schools as vast opposites (choosing to go to one or the other isn’t simply an educational choice in this state, it’s a statement about identity and loyalties) is rooted in some historical and geographical distinctions, we’re essentially talking about Granny Smith apples and Red Delicious apples.  You are still talking about nominally diverse public universities in a very conservative state.  Both schools began enrolling women at about the same time.  Both schools have roving bands of conservative students that publish the names and course listings of faculty deemed “too ideological.”  Both schools have been cited by minority and LGBTQI students as difficult environments, though the students and faculty at University B are perhaps more self-righteous in the way they tout their tolerance and diversity credentials.  I recently attended a wedding in which the bride and the bride’s family were all University B loyalists, while the groom and his family were dyed-in-the-sackcloth University A adherents.  The way this wedding was hyped, you would have thought that this was the merging of two civilizations, the coming together of blood enemies to celebrate joy and love.  Really, it was just a whole bunch of upper-middle class white Christians.

This particular type of false dilemma allows loyalists of University A or B to focus on minor differences between two relatively similar groups, allowing one or the other to say, “Well, at least we’re better than THEM.”

LFF Posts:  False Cause, Bandwagon Appeals, Argument from Ignorance, Reductio ad Hitlerum, Ad Hominem, Straw Man

Logical Fallacy Friday: False Cause and Slippery Slope

Interior photograph of the Troyes Cathedral The false cause fallacy comes in a couple of different Latin flavors: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (with, therefore because of) and Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (after, therefore because of). Both variants occur when one argues that because two events have occurred in time together or seem to have some kind of relationship, one must have caused the other. An example of the Cum Hoc fallacy would be something like:

Whenever it rains, I see people holding umbrellas. The fact that umbrellas and rain go together must mean that taking an umbrella outside causes rain.

I’ll let Martin Sheen and Alison Janney demonstrate the Post Hoc fallacy for you.

In this clip from the second episode of The West Wing, the Press Secretary (played by Janney) is arguing that the President’s public wisecracks are creating public relations problems. She ties a joke he made about golf to the fact that a group of pro golfers canceled their White House visit and a joke he made about big hats to the fact that Texas went Republican during the general election. The President reminds her that just because the canceled visit and the electoral loss happened after he told the jokes doesn’t mean that the jokes caused those events. The punch line is that they lost Texas when the President learned to speak Latin.

First frame:  "I used to think correlation implied causation."  Second frame:  "Then I took a statistics class.  Now I don't."  Third frame:  "Sounds like the class helped."  "Well, maybe."Cause and effect are usually complex relationships that can be mediated by any number of factors. Scientists talk a great deal about the difference between correlation and causation.  Two variables that appear to be related to one another may be causing one another, or they may both be caused by a third variable.  Last semester, I took a Sociology class for kicks.  The title of the class was “Religion, Health, and Mortality,” and in it we discussed the surprisingly vast body of research that shows a relationship between regular church attendance and physical and mental health, measured in both objective (blood pressure, cancer risk, etc.) and subjective (self-reported sense of well-being) terms.  It’s a rather shocking but difficult to deny statistical relationship that could have some disconcerting policy implications if one isn’t careful about how one understands the causal relationship between the two factors.  Is it really attendance at church that makes people healthier?  Should doctors and policy makers then be recommending that everyone get their ass into a pew on Sunday, whether religion is meaningful to them or not?  Is this somehow a scientific argument for the preferability or even necessity of religious lifestyles?

No, probably not.  The relationship between regular church attendance and health is not at all clear cut.  Most social scientists and epidemiologists (not to mention most respectable theologians) have written off the possibility that God intervenes and grants better health to those who follow his dictates by showing up to church.  Furthermore, it isn’t likely that attending church has some kind of direct and immediate effect on health by, say, lowering your blood pressure during a sermon.  So, rather than a causal relationship, we are probably talking about a mediating or moderating relationship between religion and health.  Some hypotheses suggest that churches provide forms of institutional and social support that people are unlikely to find in more secular contexts, a theory that seems to be supported by the fact that religion has the strongest relationship to health among poor older women of color.  Other research suggests that the religious make-up of a community plays a significant role in health care delivery.  Church members may also play a role in the lives of co-religionists by encouraging the use of preventative care as well as offering free services and referrals.  Furthermore, there is some indication (supported by studies of Buddhists and Christians) that an active spiritual life plays a role in relieving stress and moderating the effects of negative life events (such as sickness or injury).

So, the answer isn’t to get everyone in the world to start going to church. The answer is to do more research to figure out how we might translate the support systems provided by religion and spirituality in secular contexts.

My students often get slippery slope and false cause confused. They are related, but while the Post Hoc fallacy postulates that X caused Y because X and Y are related in time, the slippery slope fallacy is about prediction: X will cause Y and Z, because Y and Z are the natural outcomes of X. Usually, the intent is to cause alarm about the supposedly horrible consequences of something. I could show just about any clip of Glenn Beck or of Jon Steward making fun of Glenn Beck to demonstrate this one, but my favorite slippery slope example comes from the film Good Will Hunting. Transcript below. Enjoy.

Will Hunting (Matt Damon):  Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks ’cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

Photo by Piotr Tysarczyk, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

Logical Fallacy Friday: Bandwagon Appeals

I’m going to keep this one relatively short today, as I have my sister’s wedding rehearsal in an hour and am also trying to climb out of a bureaucratic black hole (job, not wedding related).

So!  Argumentum ad populum has to be one of my favorite fallacies, and by favorite, I mean “one most likely to make me start talking to my television.”  The bandwagon appeal states that because X is popular, X is a good idea.  Sit-com mothers have been striking this fallacy down with a hammer since the beginning of time:  “If EVERYONE jumped off a bridge…”

But the most ubiquitous version of this fallacy here in the U.S. is when talking heads go on the tee vee and begin blathering on and on about “what the American people want.”  (Do other countries have this?  I am curious.)  I will let Jon Stewart demonstrate:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
American Apparently
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

If you can’t see the video, it’s basically just clip after clip of pundits using “The American People” as the sock puppet for whatever initiative they happen to be shilling at that moment. Sometimes, said pundit is waving around a poll that demonstrates his point. Sometimes we get two pundits using poll data to make diametrically opposite points. You get the idea. The problem with argumentum ad populum gets to the heart of one of the most uncomfortable aspects of democracy: just because an idea is popular doesn’t mean that idea is objectively better or objectively right. The People are sometimes flat out wrong, or mistaken, or confused, or being led down the primrose path. The People aren’t always trustworthy. This is why the most significant Civil Rights injustices in the history of the United States were corrected via executive decree (The Emancipation Proclamation) or the courts (Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade).

What’s more, sometimes the data we use to determine What the American People Want is flawed. Time for a West Wing digression. I couldn’t find a clip for this one, but here’s the set-up: the President and his advisers have been listening all day to a pollster who claims that 80% of the American People support a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, an amendment that they believe is stupid but that the pollster claims could cinch re-election. Later on, at a fund-raiser, rival pollster Joey Lucas (played by the fabulous Marlee Matlin) explains that while that statistic is technically true, further polling reveals that most of those who said they would support such an amendment didn’t actually care about it very much, and only a tiny fraction said it would swing their vote.

The media narrative these days continues to be that most Americans hate or are ambivalent toward the health care reform bill passed this year, and various groups have been able to leverage those statistics to support their agendas, but popular opinion is rarely a homogeneous or uncomplicated thing. It is possible for vast groups of people to oppose or support something for a multitude of reasons.

By the way, “The American People” should totally be a drinking game. It might actually make television news watchable.

Logical Fallacy Friday: Argument from Ignorance or Burden of Proof

The Colbert Report had a fantastic example of argumentam ad ignorantium last night, in which Colbert confronts the head of Consumer Reports claiming that because the interviewee cannot prove that certain things are harmful in a way that the interviewer will accept, the interviewee is therefore wrong:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Who’s Watching the Watchdog? – Liam McCormack
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

This is also known as the “Burden of Proof” fallacy.  The effect is to insist that Person A’s premise is wrong if Person A cannot prove that premise beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Sometimes this demand is entirely appropriate.  Our justice system places the burden of proof on the prosecution in order to prevent innocent people from being punished (I’m not saying it’s always effective).  Similarly, in an argument, the burden of proof is usually placed on someone making a new, radical, or improbable claim in the face of established principles, but the argument from ignorance becomes a pernicious debating tactic when Person A essentially declares victory on the issue because Person B has not proven their premise in terms that Person A will accept.  Let’s look at some examples:

“It’s just a theory.”

When I went to Evangelical High, I often heard this one get thrown about with reference to evolution.  “Evolution is just a theory,” they would say, the implied conclusion being that without further evidence, we should just go ahead and accept that the entire universe was created in six twenty-four hour days by an omnipotent being  as it is described in the Book of Genesis.  Of course, the problem with this logic is that scientific theories are usually based on something, like empirical evidence or inductive logic.  Furthermore, as my biology-teacher partner frequently says, when people talk about the theoretical nature of evolution, they are usually talking about macro-evolution, the process that took us from amoebas to primates, a phenomena that we cannot directly observe because it takes gazillions of years to occur.  Micro-evolution, or mutation, is something we observe all the time.  If you believe in cancer, you believe that some form of evolution occurs.

“We need to conduct more tests.”

This one is a perennial favorite of the tobacco lobby, which has historically insisted that until we do random-assignment, double-blind, longitudinal studies of smoking, we cannot know for sure that it causes cancer and emphysema.  The thing is, randomly assigning some people to engage in a behavior we’re pretty sure will kill them, especially over a long period of time,  presents something of an ethical conundrum.  This is equivalent to Colbert’s insistence in the video clip that we conduct studies on whether or not electrocution makes people immune to electricity before we place warnings on electrical devices.

My father, a physician who works on the cutting edge of a particular surgical field, encounters a similar problem related to the insistence on “evidence-based medicine.”  Often, the sorts of protocols that one would use to prove that a pharmaceutical product is effective are not applicable to experimental surgery due to ethical or pragmatic concerns.  Surgeons frequently have to support their techniques with evidence based on physiology and case studies rather than RCTs (randomized controlled trials), the gold standard of evidence-based medicine.

“You need to present evidence from sources I will accept.

Returning to Evangelical High for a moment, I had a Bible teacher who used to say, repeatedly, that if we wished to argue with him about any premise, we had to use evidence from the Bible.  Now, just about any theologian (or person with an ounce of common sense) will tell you that the Bible is not a Magic Eight Ball.  The Bible is silent and/or extremely vague on any number of issues, including immigration reform, universal health care, String Theory and what I should have for breakfast in the morning.  In fact, I believe the Bible has nothing to say on the subject of whether or not the US government created the AIDS virus, a theory that he espoused on our very first day of class.  (But I’m pretty sure this guy thought God was personally giving him answers on those issues as well.)  Furthermore, what it does say has been the subject of two millenia of exegetical arguments, so what he was really saying is “you must be able to cite the Bible in a way that is consistent with my interpretation of it.”  Essentially, this was code for “you can never, ever argue with me and must accept–as God-breathed truth–every utterance that passes my lips.”

But probably everyone’s favorite variant of this fallacy is the Birthers, who, when presented with Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate, declared with a straight face that this particular birth certificate did not convince them.  As in the previous example, the rhetorical effect of this move is to insist that you will only be convinced if presented with evidence that does not or cannot exist.

“I can’t imagine how that could be true.” (Trigger warning)

A favorite of The Defendant’s Mom, this one asserts that incredulity carries more weight than actual evidence.  We hear this one a lot when a Nice Middle Class White Boy physically assaults or rapes some girl, or when a valued family member is exposed as a serial molester.  This is not to say that evidence based on personal experience with a person is invalid.  It is only fallacious when one uses beliefs about a person’s goodness to counter other forms of evidence. For example, in the clip, Colbert asserts that his “consumer testing” is based on faith rather than science.

“It hasn’t been disproven.”

This fallacy insists that because a premise has not been disproved beyond a shadow of a doubt, it may or must still be true.  An extreme example would be someone who insists that because no one can prove that he was not abducted by aliens, his claim that he was abducted by aliens must be accurate.  But the “no one has disproved this” fallacy is quite common in the way people talk about null studies that relate to commonly held beliefs about scientific topics like nutrition.  Sandy Swarzc of the blog Junkfood Science sums up the importance of null studies thus:

Beliefs and ideologies can be stronger than the science, especially when it comes to our diets. Sadly, so can our fears. Millions of Americans take vitamins and worry about what they eat, fearing that if they fail to eat loads of antioxidants, free radicals will lead to heart disease, cancers and other chronic diseases of aging. Yet, the strongest studies continue to show these concerns to be unsupported.

Remember, science can never prove something beyond all doubt, but it can disprove an hypothesis or scary claim. That’s why sound clinical trials, designed to be fair tests of hypotheses, that fail to support a belief, and show us there is nothing to worry about, are the most important of all. But for those null studies to help us, we first have to hear about them.

Swarzc uses the example of a null study that showed no relationship between taking vitamin supplements and a reduced risk of cancer or hypertension, and perhaps more importantly, no relationship between not taking vitamin supplements and an increased risk of cancer or hypertension.  Null studies do not technically prove anything, but by subjecting a premise to the most rigorous tests demanded by science and failing to find that premise true, they show the chances of that premise being true to be incredibly slim, slim enough to consider the premise debunked.

Previous LFF posts:  straw man, ad hominem, reductio ad hitlerum

Logical Fallacy Friday: Reductio ad Hitlerum

After I posted that Daily Show clip demonstrating the ad hominem fallacy last week, I was delighted to discover that reductio ad Hitlerum is an actual thing.  And it’s basically exactly what you would assume: arguing that because Hitler supported a particular idea, that idea is inherently bad.  This is a specific iteration of the ad hominem fallacy of guilt by association.

I think it goes without saying that examples of this fallacy in our current political discourse are legion.  Taking a Sharpie marker to the photographed upper lip of your least favorite political figure has long been a method of communicating how awful you think that person is.  But the true reductio ad Hitlerum occurs when you try to draw a straight line from an idea you hate to the Nazis instead of actually engaging with the substance of that idea.  Lately, people like Jonah Goldberg have proven that you can actually publish entire books based on this premise.  Dave Neiwart has done a far better take-down of Liberal Fascism than I could ever hope to do here, but suffice it to say that people–entire groups of people, in fact–are capable of holding both horrifying and entirely unobjectionable ideas or preferences at the same time.   Nazis liked vegetarianism, liberals also like vegetarianism, therefore liberals are Nazis is a syllogism that you would think would give even the most ardent conspiracy theorist pause but nevertheless seems to have gained some intellectual respectability in certain circles.

One might argue that reductio ad Hitlerum is little more than harmless hyperbole, but it has the power to undermine public discourse by skewing our sense of what actually represents a threat or a violation.  I recognize that I have some international readers, so I’ll just note that I’m speaking from a U.S.-American perspective.  In my mind, political discourse since 9/11 has been marked by a rhetoric of fear, by the pervasive sense that everything is threatening, everything is terrifying, everything is trying to kill us.  We’ve seen how that constant state of elevated anxiety has led to scapegoating and othering entire groups of people who we see as representing that threat.  The fear that the fascist/socialist/theocratic overthrow of the prevailing social order is always just around the corner can have disastrous consequences for a society.

But more generally, the in which way the word “Nazi” has become a common expression for anyone who sucks, anyone who annoys us has corrupted our understanding of the difference between rights and privileges.  In fact, it is often an expression of outrage over a loss of privilege or the refusal of some individual to acknowledge our privilege.  Soup Nazis, sandwich Nazis, soft serve ice cream Nazis–note that these expressions all describe food service workers who are in some way insufficiently deferential toward the customer, who insist on certain (sometimes draconian) standards of behavior in their space, or refuse to provide service on the terms demanded by the customer.  I know that the whole Soup Nazi thing on Seinfeld was just a funny, funny joke, but whenever I watch the part where Elaine takes the Soup Nazi down by distributing his proprietary recipes, I think “What?  This guy deserves to lose his entire livelihood because he refused to serve her when she slowed down a very long line in his restaurant?” Because that’s essentially what happens there.  Yes, the Soup Nazi is an asshole, but Elaine’s sense of entitlement is a huge part of the dynamic here.

The point is, that we throw around the word “Nazi” to describe anyone who is currently preventing us from getting something we want or behaving in our preferred mode.  In other words, we’re usually not talking about egregious systematic breaches of civil rights in these cases.  Whenever I hear people like Jonah Goldberg or Glenn Beck talk about the coming socialist/fascist/Hitlerian takeover of the country, I sense that this is really about the fear that some white dudes might have to accede some  privileges in order to allow others to enjoy basic human rights, like affordable health care.

There is a reason why I don’t use the term “Grammar Nazi” to describe the douches who go around correcting grammar mistakes in conversation. Being the target of some douchey behavior =/= being a victim of genocide.  Plus, there are better, less overplayed terms we might use to describe them.  I don’t even say “Grammar Police,” simply because I think that trivializes the work that police do.  I prefer something like Grammar Demagogues or Grammar Cretins.

Logical Fallacy Friday: Ad Hominem

I dare you to wear this to your next debate team competition.

Along with the Straw Man, the Ad Hominem fallacy is probably quite familiar. Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person,” but I like to the think of it as the “So’s your face” fallacy. This is where you suggest that an argument is invalid due to some personal characteristic or behavior of whoever is making that argument.  In other words, ad hominem isn’t just name calling or using insulting language, nor is it simply focusing on personal characteristics in order to avoid substantive debate–though ad hominem can often have that effect.  This fallacy is an attempt to prove an argument invalid on the basis of who made it.

The classic ad hominem (ad hominem abusive) goes more or less like this:

X argument made by Y must be false because Y is a terrible person.

I firmly believe that Tom Delay is a terrible person.  In addition to being a corrupt politician, he totally ruined Dancing with the Stars for me, an offense I can never forgive.  But I am also pretty certain that Tom Delay is, from time to time, capable of making a true statement.  Therefore, my preferred assertion that whatever Tom Delay says must be a lie because Tom Delay is terrible is a classic logical fallacy. I would never, ever vote for him, even if he were running against a wet mop.  But if I were standing opposite him in a political debate, I couldn’t expect to just keep saying “It’s Tom Delay people, Tom Delay, I mean seriously, people, TOM EFFING DELAY,” and expect to get very far.

Ok, so that one is kind of easy.  Let’s move on.

X person, who belongs to Y marginalized group is incorrect when zie speaks on Z issue that affects Y group, because zie is too close to the issue and is therefore biased.

This rests on the logic that all members of Y marginalized group think alike about issues that affect that group. We saw this with Sonia Sotomayor, as opponents of her nomination suggested that she couldn’t possibly be objective about issues that affect Latin Americans. We’re seeing it now when  opponents suggest that if Elena Kagan is a lesbian (which we don’t actually know), she must think [insert reductive summary of a gay-friendly position here] about issues that affect the LGBTQI community.  It also suggests that marginalized groups are incapable of being “objective” about that particular issue because they are too close to it, making the dominant, privileged group the de facto authority by default, concealing the fact that members of that privileged group have something substantial to gain by perpetuating the systems and institutions that grant them that privilege.

This particular ad hominem (ad hominem circumstantial) assumes that individuals who have personal investment in a particular issue are not qualified to speak credibly about it often takes the form of an “objectivity” argument.  Consider the following:

X must be untrue because it was said by Y, who has money invested in industries that stand to gain from X.

This one is tricky.  Remember, however, that in order for this to be a true ad hominem fallacy, the speaker has to be attacking not just the credibility of Y but indicating that because Y stands to gain from X, X must be untrue. For example, I was recently having an argument with a Libertarian.  I do not recommend this as a fun activity.  This Libertarian, who had been reading all sorts of neat stuff from Regnery Publishing was convinced that global warming could not possibly be factual because Al Gore has a lot of money invested in green technology.  You can hear similar arguments from the left as well:  “This particular statement about energy can’t possibly be true, because the CEO of an oil company said it.”

This fallacy is problematic because it axiomatically posits that people who have spent considerable time and energy learning about an issue, people who might actually be experts on that issue, are somehow always wrong because they have something to gain if their position is proven to be valid.  I am quite certain that both Al Gore and oil company executives have said many true things about energy, but do I take their stances at face value?  No.  It is not an ad hominem fallacy to say, “Given Y’s closeness to X, I think we need to get more information and hear from additional experts.”

Let’s try another one.

X conservative evangelical must be wrong about Y moral issue because X was caught participating in Z act considered immoral by people like X.

Ok, here’s the bald uncomfortable truth.  Sometimes people act in ways that are entirely inconsistent with their stated values.  Is it hypocritical?  Yes.  Does that by default make anything they have to say about those values inherently untrue?  No, not really.  As much as I would like to say that the sexual foibles of certain conservative politicians make their arguments about sexual mores automatically invalid, it just isn’t right to do so.  If I want to rebut X’s argument about Y, I have to do more than just point out that X hired a male prostitute and took him to Europe (though that would be pretty damaging to X, for sure).

This is known at the ad hominem tu quoque (“you too”) fallacy.  A more benign example (I got this one from Wikipedia) would be a father telling his son that smoking is harmful and the son pointing out that the father used to smoke. The father’s past does not mean that smoking is not harmful.

And now for the final example:

X holds Y position, which is also held by Z disreputable group, therefore X must be sympathetic with everything Y stands for.

My favorite example of this (guilt by association) from the 2008 Presidential election was when the McCain/Palin campaign was all “WEATHER UNDERGROUND” any time Obama supported anything that sort of sounded like something a member of the Weather Underground might have supported.  Glenn Beck does this all the time too with Nazis and Communists.  I could write a lengthy analysis of how this works, or I could just let Jon Stewart demonstrate and wish you all a good weekend:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Conservative Libertarian
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Note: this clip demonstrates a bunch of other fallacies too, including the straw man and the slippery slope.

LFF Posts: Straw Man

Logical Fallacy Friday: The Straw Man

Actually a wickerman.

Welcome to the inaugural Shitty First Drafts Regular Feature!  Logical Fallacies week was always my favorite part of teaching rhetoric.  I got to show funny videos, mock public figures, and make a game out of students matching the quote to the appropriate fallacy.  Occasionally, this would backfire a little bit, as a few intelligent students would learn that you can pretty quickly throw a fallacy label on any argument you don’t particularly like.  Labeling arguments as straw men, ad hominem attacks, or red herrings is a pretty effective derailing method.  So, as both a fun exercise and a public service, I thought I would devote each Friday to explaining one logical fallacy until I eventually run out.

So, the Straw Man!  Most people are familiar with this one, I think.  The straw man fallacy is where you present the weakest possible version of a position so that it’s easy to rebut.  The straw man is so flimsy that it cannot resist your attacks.  It just sits there mute and ridiculous-looking while you tell it how terrible it is and how everything it represents is evil.  Then you and your friends can set fire to it and do a heathenish dance of celebration as you watch the evil, evil straw man disintegrate in the flames. I’m fairly certain that O’Reilly and Olbermann have literally done this on television.  Ok, maybe not.  But a little effigy burning would probably be more interesting than the usual bloviating that happens on those shows.

This ruse is usually so effective that eventually, you forget that you created the straw man in the first place, that it was thrown together using the most oversimplified, misinterpreted version of the position you hate, that in your dissociative haze of rage and cognitive dissonance, you transformed a complex argument with many subtleties and nuances and exceptions and suspended judgments into a cartoon villain.  You forget how exactly you got from this:

A person with whom you may have a reasonable agreement.

To this:

A cartoon that does not exist in the real world.

The straw man is where fact meets fevered imagination.  It is a diversionary tactic that absolves you from having to engage with actual ideas.  Do either of these statements sound familiar?

Conservatives want to roll back Civil Rights.

Liberals want to turn America into a Communist state.

The reason these straw men work is because they are relatively easy to turn into slogans:  “MY OPPONENT LIKES TO PUNCH PUPPIES AND THINKS WE SHOULD ALL PUNCH PUPPIES TOO.  IF YOU DON’T WISH TO SEE PUPPIES PUNCHED, VOTE FOR ME!”  Ok, it’s not exactly like that.  One of the reasons why these work is because they are familiar enough that they sound sort of like something a conservative or a liberal might think.  But no one on either side is actually arguing for either.  Many conservatives are critical of policies like affirmative action and resent the government trying to enforce equality (like in the military) before social attitudes are adjusted, but no mainstream conservative that I have ever heard has seriously argued that we should go back to separate drinking fountains and Jim Crow.  Similarly, many liberals are critical of capitalism and the socio-economic inequalities it produces and want to see the government directly involved in reducing those inequalities through welfare, universal healthcare, etc., but there are no mainstream liberals that I am aware of that have Stalin posters on their walls and want the government to completely take over the means of production.

Ok, it’s time for a West Wing digression.  There was this episode once where Toby, a White House staffer thought he had found a way to fix Social Security and was reaching out to members of Congress he thought might be willing to help work out a compromise.  There was a heavy-handed bit of irony in the second act, when the deal was falling apart, in which Toby tells his new assistant that there used to be this Republican in the House who could have probably solved the whole partisan clusterfrack.  This guy had wanted to work on Social Security in the past, but the moment that he went on the record as maybe, perhaps, one day considering possibly, under some certain circumstances raising the retirement age, Toby and another staffer had hit him with an attack ad showing 90 year-olds working in a factory.  So, the guy lost re-election to a Democrat who was too concerned about his own re-election to help out.  The most depressing part of that episode was when they intimated that the reason we haven’t fixed Social Security yet is because that would make it impossible for politicians to campaign on the promise of fixing Social Security.  Creating Straw Men is usually about winning the argument rather than solving the problem.

While it is important to recognize straw men for what they are and attempt to avoid them in our own speech and writing, the term “Straw Man” gets abused an awful lot.  Sometimes, when someone disagrees with you in a way you don’t like, it’s fairly easy to go OMG STRAW MAN! as a way of refusing to engage the critique.  Sometimes, claiming that you’ve been misrepresented is a way of avoiding the fact that someone just put a spotlight on your argument and a whole bunch of roaches crawled out.  So, I guess this is where straw men accusations can sort of also become straw men themselves.  I think this happens a lot when Person #1 in a debate indicates that what Person #2 just said is racially insensitive or offensive to women or disabled people, etc, citing Person #2’s words.  So, for example:

Person #2:  If she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt, she wouldn’t have been assaulted.  Women need to take responsibility for their own safety.

Person #1:  The suggestion that female victims are somehow responsible for their own assault is victim-blaming and misogynist.

Person #2:  I’m not a misogynist!  She just called me a misogynist!  I can’t possibly be expected to reason with this crazy person!

This sort of derail works because we know that Racist, Sexist, and Homophobe all fall into the category of Really Bad Things to Be Called.  So now everyone is concentrating on that mean, mean name Person #1 called Person #2 instead of addressing the critique, which is that victim-blaming arguments help perpetuate a culture of misogyny that lets perpetrators off the hook because “she was asking for it.”

I wish I could prescribe an easy way out of this trap.  I tell my students that in order to avoid a Straw Man Fallacy, the best thing to do is make sure you are really paying attention to other people’s arguments and to cite specific examples and exact language whenever possible.    The thing is that at some point we all use logical fallacies.  They are easy to use and often effective, and no one is immune to resorting to them.  Awareness of what they look like and why they are problematic and how you may be prone to them helps, though.  The more you know and all that.