Friday, October 19, 2012

Beware of Fallacies

Recently, you might have noticed that the interruptions occurring during your favorite television shows have changed. Sure, the usual suspects still line up: The Honda Accord with improved fuel efficiency, the novel combination flavor of Doritos (surf and turf, maybe), the fast-food/comic book movie tie-in, the reptile (or is it an amphibian?) pitching car insurance.

Squeezed in between these bookends of capitalism are the works of our beloved democracy. In 2012 the candidates are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

I'll assume you know each man's party affiliation. Political parties spend a lot of money and a lot of time developing TV commercials. Not surprisingly, after viewing a few of these commercials, the candidates seem almost trustworthy.

As sophisticated consumers, we've come to expect a hamburger at McDonald's will look different in an advertisement than it will upon consumption; likewise, as sophisticated citizens of the United States of America, we've come to regard the promises and evidences contained in political advertisements with an air of skepticism.

To some citizens, voting is a sacred obligation requiring sincere deliberation. Mass media advertisements do not convey the kind of information that allows a rational person to sincerely deliberate, thus the citizens of this country require other forums for political expression. One of the other forums of political expression is debate.

So far, during this election cycle, there have been two presidential debates. Maybe you've watched one in its entirety; maybe you only seen a couple of highlights, but however extensive your knowledge of the debates might be, perhaps you've occasionally said to yourself: That seems wrong.

In the words of twentieth century polymath and teacher Robert J. Gula, "It's frustrating to know in your heart that what you've just heard is nonsense but not to be able to pinpoint why it is nonsense" (1).

To help students and non-students with their ability to pinpoint why an argument is nonsense, Gula wrote a book entitled Nonsense: Red Herrings Straw Men Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. One way to decide whether the arguments a politician uses in a debate really are wrong is to check them for fallacies. Checking arguments for fallacies isn't something that we should only do when politicians are running for office. Instead, we should always be on the look out for fallacious reasoning
--not just in other people's arguments but also in our own.

The first thing to be aware of when thinking about fallacies? There are a lot of them.

It is not easy to construct a non-trivial argument that avoids any fallacious reasoning, but it isn't impossible. For this post, I will, drawing on Gula's book, give an introduction of ad hominem arguments.

Because ad hominem arguments focus on criticizing the person and not on criticizing the person's argument, all ad hominem arguments are fallacious, that is, they do not provide a good reason to believe that some claim is true or false.

In chapter six of Nonsense, Gula gives an overview of ad hominem arguments, three of which I'll specifically address in this blog. They are:
1. Abusive ad hominem
2. Circumstantial ad hominem
3. Guilt by association

To illustrate (1) let's look at the following hypothetical exchange:
Jamie: "Candidate X's conclusion about raising taxes is false."
Jaime: "Because candidate X got into a bar fight last week."

Just because a candidate for political office gets into a bar fight, that doesn't mean his conclusion about raising taxes is false. There is a difference between a person's argument and a person's behavior. Attacking a person's behavior or their character does not affect the argument he presents. An evil person guilty of the most despicable abomination can still present a strong argument. Just imagine an evil person saying the following:
Premise: "All dogs are mammals."
Premise: "All mammals are vertebrates."
Conclusion: "Therefore, all dogs are vertebrates."

Does this argument seem sound to you? It does to me. It wouldn't matter how evil the person was, if he presented this argument, it would be sound.

To illustrate (2) let's look at the following hypothetical exchange:
Jamie: "Candidate X's proposal should be rejected."
Leslie: "Why? It seems like the park does need new sidewalks."
Jamie: "Because candidate X's brother owns a concrete company. The proposal will benefit him."

Just because a candidate's brother will profit from a proposal that doesn't necessarily mean that the proposal should be rejected.

Now, there might be good reasons to reject the proposal. If, for example, the candidate's brother submitted a bid that was higher than every other submitted bid, the proposal could be properly rejected on those grounds. If the candidate's brother submitted a bid that was competitive in price but non-competitive in predicated time-of-completion, say, all the other company's promise to complete the work by the end of March while the candidate's brother promises to complete the work by the end of April, then the proposal could be properly rejected.

The proposal should be examined closely, irrespective of who will benefit financially. If the proposal is deemed to be good for the community, then the fact that the candidate's brother will be the one benefiting financially is irrelevant.

To illustrate (3) let's look at the following hypothetical exchange:
Jaime: "I'm not voting for candidate X."
Leslie: "Why?"
Jaime: "Because candidate X is member of the same fraternity that just got busted for cheating on an exam."

Just because a candidate is a member of a fraternity that committed an immoral act does not mean that the candidate's arguments are false. The candidate can have friends, family members, and associates who believe things that he himself rejects.

Just because a candidate's brother believes that the earth is flat, and just because a candidate has dinner with his brother every Sunday does not mean that the candidate himself believes that the earth is flat. The candidate's beliefs should be determined and assessed based only on the candidate himself. 

When we write a paper for a class, especially a paper that requires us to make an argument, we need to make sure that we are focusing on what is relevant. You can not affect the truth or falsity of a premise or a conclusion by attacking the premise's or conclusion's source. The good news is that the arguments that you make are also protected from ad hominem attacks.

If someone criticizes you, your argument is unaffected. And isn't that a relief? 


  1. Do you think the "Romnesia" crack is ad hominem or a succinct argument against Romney's shifting stances?

    1. I would say that it is, because although it may be true that Mitt Romney has, during the campaign, propagated contradictory beliefs about some salient political issues, many of his beliefs have remained consistent. It seems like the tactic employed by President Obama is intended to encompass the entire set of Mitt Romney's political beliefs, which in a sense encompasses Mitt Romney as a politician. In my opinion, Obama is not making a fair distinction between the beliefs that Mitt Romney has "forgotten" he once promulgated, and the political beliefs that Mitt Romney has held without variance.

      For example, if Mitt Romney once believed that the major US automakers should be allowed to go bankrupt,(I think his op-ed piece in the NY Times attests to this proposition being true) but now believes that his old belief was false, the next logical step would be to ask Mr. Romney for a cogent explanation of both his original belief and the belief that replaced it. What is important, I think logically speaking, is whether Mr. Romney had good reasons to modify his old belief.

      After all, a prosecutor may believe that an accused man is guilty of a particular crime, perhaps new evidence is uncovered years later that forces the prosecutor to alter his belief. Such a change is morally acceptable, is it not? Although most voters, given our cynical opinion of politicians, are hesitant to consider the possibility, maybe a politician does occasionally change his mind for judicious epistemic reasons.

      Furthermore, I'm sure if a concerned voter looked back at the 2008 election and compared what President Obama said then with the policies he actually pursued, she would find an instance or two of Obama himself coming down with an ailment similar to the one he now imputes to his opponent. What Obama needs to do, I think from a logical perspective, is explain why his "amnesia" is politically preferable to strain that afflicts his opponent.

  2. You might also enjoy the logic displayed here: