Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fallacies in the World: An Ideal Example

In November I wrote a post about how someone could use numbers, especially averages, in a fallacious way: Some Words about Numbers.

I'd liked to revisit this particular fallacy. When it comes to even the most basic laws of logic and good reasoning, the world is a hostile place. People use fallacies in order to manipulate you, to trick you into believing something that, as it is presented, you shouldn't believe.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but I love PBS. Since PBS uploads a lot of their shows online, I can view them at my own leisure. One of my favorite shows on PBS is a news/investigative journalism program called FRONTLINE.

Unlike many other news/investigative journalism programs that push an agenda or sacrifice thoroughness for advertisement sales, FRONTLINE provides a detailed, disinterested analysis of a topic that is usually politically and emotionally charged.

A few years ago, after the crash of Continental flight 3407 in Buffalo, FRONTLINE produced a documentary that explored America's increased reliance on regional airlines. It's an excellent documentary although it is horrifying.

The part that is important to my post this week is an exchange that happens around the 21:00 mark between FRONTLINE correspondent Miles O'Brien and Roger Cohen who, at the time of the interview, was President of the Regional Airline Association.

Here's the transcript of the entire documentary:

By using this address, you can see a button at the top of the page that allows you to watch the full episode online.

The part that I am interested in begins with Miles O'Brien pointing out the following to Mr. Cohen:

Mr. O'Brien: "Commuting has always been a part of aviation, but if you're making $16,000 to $18,000 a year and you're commuting, you're sleeping on the Barcalounger in the pilots' lounge. And that's not good is it?"

Mr. Cohen: "Let's get the facts out on-on the table on this, Miles. The average salary for a regional airline captain is $73,000. The average salary for a first officer at a regional airline is about $32,000, $33,000 a year."

Let's take a second and look at Mr. Cohen's response. Notice the prelude before he answers?

He's not just going to answer the question; he's going to correct Mr. O'Brien's ignorance. "Let's get the facts out..."

But what are the "facts?"

For all we know, Mr. Cohen is telling the truth. It may be true that the mean average salary of a first officer at a regional airline is a figure somewhere near $32,000, $33,000.

How does Miles O'Brien respond to Mr. Cohen's generous distribution of "facts?" Let's take a look.

Mr. O'Brien: "I'm not talking about average. There are some people, as you well know, who make $18,000 to $20,000 a year. We're not talking about average. We're talking about human beings who are flying my grandmother to Buffalo, right? OK, so there are people there living this life, and it seems as if they're in an untenable position economically."

It's an impressive piece of argumentation, isn't it?

Perhaps, for the sake of logical consistency, Mr. O'Brien could have stuck with the same salary range he used initially, but I think his error, if it is an error at all, is superficial.

There is something satisfying to me about witnessing a harmful and fallacious piece of reasoning get exposed.

Calmly. Civilly. Rationally. Exposed.

I would humbly suggest that an important reason Mr. Cohen used his fallacious reasoning during the interview was because he did not expect to be exposed.

In fact, he probably had that mean average calculated the night before by fourteen accountants. He couldn't wait to give that statistic, but Miles O'Brien was ready for it. He knew that Mr. Cohen was obscuring the issue with an equivocation.

He didn't tolerate it. And we shouldn't either.

The tragic events that culminated in the crash of Continental Flight 3407 were the result of a lot of factors. One factor that the documentary cogently presents is that the first officer was forced by the salary she earned to endure a financial situation that made her co-piloting flight 3407 very risky. In this instance, the risk cost 50 people their lives. In this instance, no one cares about the mean average.

At least, I didn't. And I'm glad that Miles O'Brien didn't either.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Juggling Multiple Deadlines: Spreading the Love vs. Dividing and Conquering

Three papers. Five finals. So much to do, so little time.

It’s how we all feel during the last few weeks of the semester, yet we still have to manage to get it all done in the allotted amount of time.
We juggle multiple deadlines, trying to finish all of our projects and papers, hoping we don’t drop any balls.

So, how are we supposed to do that, you ask?
There are two approaches we can take. In reality, there are probably more than two, but for time’s sake I will only go through these two.
Approach #1 – Spread the Love
This approach involves working on them all a little at a time. We start by allotting ourselves a specific amount of time, say three hours (in the event there are three papers to write), and work for an hour on each paper. We can set it up like this:
                  Day 1 – Research
                  Day 2 – Reading through research and taking notes
                  Day 3 – Writing a rough draft of the papers
                  Day 4 – Revising and Turning in the papers

Do this over the span of a few days, and before we know it they will all be done!
The major problem with this approach is that not all of us are strict one to two drafters, but sometimes that is all that our schedules will allow. Also, this is not a strict schedule; there is no one way to approach this approach. In other words, make a schedule that works for you, individually, but that allows you to work on multiple projects in a day.
Approach #2: Divide and Conquer
Attack them one at a time. Work one until it is done, and then begin the next.
The problem with this strategy is that deadlines are often too close together to realistically accomplish them one at a time. But if our schedules allow for it, it can make us feel accomplished, productive, and like we’re really going somewhere instead of being stuck at the beginning of three papers with only research to show for.
These are both intense and time-consuming, but so is trying to finish all the work and studying involved in the end of the semester. It can be done. We will finish our papers. We will take our final exams. We will live through it all, and then we will celebrate the end of the semester and a job well done and enjoy the break.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Prewriting for an Essay Exam Almost Feels Like Cheating

Finals week is almost here, and that means many students will experience hand cramps as they work diligently on in-class writing exams.

In-class writing is often viewed as the hardest writing to accomplish well effectively. Add that difficulty to the pressures of finals, and what you have is a mountain of stress.
I am all too familiar with In-class essay exams. In fact, I am doing another one tomorrow. So, I thought I would share my strategy.
In most cases, professors will give the class a good idea of what to expect. The first step is to pay attention at this critical moment and take as detailed notes as possible. The objective here is to take a close look at what the professor is hinting at and try to speculate what kind of response the professor is looking for.
For example: Many professors will use a phrase such as, “I don’t want a summary.” In this case, which is often the case, it is the students’ job to discuss the details of the subject matter, but more importantly develop a discussion that speaks to the main theme of the subject.
The main theme of the subject is usually closely tied to the main theme of the class. This theme undoubtedly has been brought up in class discussion throughout the semester. It is a good idea to consider and identify this theme before going to the final.
If students are lucky, the professor has pinpointed the subject matter of which the essay question will surround.  In this case, get to work!
Being prepared for an in-class writing exam is the best feeling to have. In contrast, having nothing to say during the exam is one of the worst feelings to have.
Therefore, prewriting is essential to preparing for an in-class writing exam.
For example: Today I will refresh my memory on the topic and hints my professor had given me. Then I will write everything I know on the subject almost exactly as if I were to write a paper and turn it in for a grade. Most of the time, by doing this prewriting at home, I almost feel as though I am cheating.  
In fact, I usually don’t mind essay questions as finals because I can write the answer before class. I just cannot bring that answer with me. However, looking at it this way, an in-class writing final is more like a take home exam. All students need to do is reread their own prewritten essay in order to remember significant chunks of what they had written.
Provided that students accomplish this prewriting exercise thoroughly a day or two before the exam, remembering the highlights of the prewriting exercise will come naturally.
Once in class, the most difficult task for me is starting the writing process. I tend to experience writer’s block the moment after I read the essay question.
To combat this writer’s block, I usually try to remember the first word phrase of my prewriting exercise. If the word phrase fits into the question contextually, I use it. If not, then remembering the first word phrase I wrote at home will help me to trigger the memory of the information that comes after.
After that, I tend to experience a sort of flow of information spilling out on the essay exam.  At this point I know I have prepared well. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Logical Lingo III

In my past couple of posts, I've explored two common fallacies, identifying them by the terms philosophers use. In particular, I've identified the non sequitur and the red herring.

For today's post, I will identify another common fallacy--the straw man. I don't know about you, but, like the red herring, when I read the name of this fallacy, I get curious. First, I get curious about the content of the fallacy: What is the straw man fallacy? Then, I get curious about the terminology:

To answer my first question, I will refer to our old friend the late Robert J. Gula. In Nonsense, Gula gives the following definition "When you take something your opponent has said, exag-gerate [sic] or distort it, and then attack what you have exaggerated or distorted, you have created a straw man (79). 

Although Gula doesn't mention it, I think my former logic professor described the straw man fallacy as a person building a scarecrow. A scarecrow is sort of like a man made of straw, and a man made of straw is, unlike a man made of muscle and bone, easily knocked down and destroyed. Of course, the man in "the straw man fallacy" is not actually a man; it's actually an argument. 

But not just any argument. 

It is the argument put forth by an opponent. Sometimes your opponent's argument might derive a conclusion that is very close to something that you already believe. Other times, however, your opponent's argument might derive a conclusion that is the opposite to something that you already believe. 

Although we should always be on guard against all fallacious reasoning, it is the latter situation that we need to be extra mindful of maintaining our logical poise. The urge to build a straw man is more intense when we confront an argument with which we intensely disagree. Why? 

Because there are certain beliefs of ours that we cherish; we don't want to admit that they lack the strength we attribute to them. 

If someone makes an argument that weakens one of our cherished beliefs, we may respond by creating a straw man. Thus, when we engage, whether in speech or writing, in controversial topics, the temptation is usually greater that I will misrepresent my opponent's argument. I will change my opponent's argument into a much weaker argument and then attack that much weaker argument.  

For example, take a look at the following dialogue:
Jack: "Who'd you vote for?
Jill: "Well, after listening to the debates I  voted for candidate X. I really think that her argument about the environment was strong. It's about time a candidate for public office built her platform on key environmental concerns."
Jack: "Candidate X? Are you crazy? My father told me that she wants to ban the sale and purchase of sports cars and that she will enact a law requiring every household to go dark for three days a month. She thinks that we should all go back to living in log cabins and riding horses. I mean, there is no way. Given the lifestyle that most Americans have grown accustomed to living, her arguments are totally impractical. Voting for candidate X is stupid."

How does Jack's response to Jill seem?

It seems dubious to me. Probably, candidate X put forth a series of arguments that contained a series of conclusions that were much more nuanced than the ones he represents. He misrepresents candidate X's argument, which makes it much weaker. After he attacks the weakened argument, he draws his own fallacious conclusion. This is a very common fallacy. Politicians do it all the time. Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters do it all the time as well.

Let's take another example:

[It's dinner time. BLT's are on the menu. A plate of bacon is sitting in the middle of the table.]

Mom: "Look at all that grease.We're not getting any younger. We eat a lot of meat. Our blood pressure and cholesterol levels are probably at dangerous levels. If we want to live longer, we need to eat healthier. We should modify our diet. We should eat more vegetarian meals."
Dad: "Don't be ridiculous. After a hard days work, I'm not gonna sit down and waste my time nibbling on rice cakes and lettuce. If that's what you want to eat, be my guest. I don't want to eat foods that have no taste. Besides, I need protein, I need vitamins and minerals. I need iron. You can't get iron from rice cakes."

So mom concludes that her and her husband should eat more vegetarian meals. Dad takes her conclusion and exaggerates it. After he exaggerates it, mom's argument is much weaker than it was when she articulated it.There may be good reasons to reject mom's argument, but dad hasn't provided any.

Because we cherish many of our beliefs, we don't want them to come under fire. When we are engaged in an episode of argumentation--whether through speech or writing--it is easier to misrepresent an opponent's argument, especially when the argument is strong, than it is to accurately present it. We need to fight this urge.

Straw men should be built to keep crows away, not the reasoned and fair challenges our opponents present to us.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Motivation and Biting the Bullet

I’m going to share a little secret with you, one  I am sure some if not most of you will empathize. From the time Halloween rolls around bringing pumpkins, football, crisper weather, hot cider…and midterms on, I find it increasingly difficult to stay motivated to do my work, to concentrate on the tasks at hand, and to do it all with a smile on my face and a skip in my step.

The things I really want to be doing are going to the movies or to the bookstore to get the latest book in a series I have been waiting for (I know some of you might not love this idea, but roll with it). I want to spend time with my family and friends without feeling guilty for putting off this research or that paper for a little bit longer, or for turning down those same people to do this research or that paper.

So, by the time Thanksgiving Break comes and goes, my mind and body are shutting down, preparing for Winter Break  and in a very animalistic way hibernating for winter.  

The question is: how do I (read: we for those who are nodding their heads and giving me an “Amen!” as you read) keep going, stay motivated (enough), and get what I need done, done?

In my eyes, there is only one answer: Bite the bullet.

Dig deep and find those last dregs of motivation and determination to get the job done. Do it and put it aside. Then go celebrate a job well done…or at least a job done to the best of your ability while juggling all your other final projects.

Of course, getting myself to that point also takes a certain amount of avoidance, brooding, and panic to light a fire under my tooshie.

But then I do it. I bite the bullet. I hand it in, and then I take the time to relax over break (read: work and make some extra money for the next semester, see family and friends, and generally run around like a chicken with its head cut off, but in an entirely different way than I do while I’m in school).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing an Essay is Engaging In Conversation

Now is the time of year when many students are wondering how they will turn a semester’s worth of knowledge and information into a term paper.

Collecting relevant information and sorting out irrelevant information is hard enough, but how does one write it all down? How does one go about dumping information from brain to paper?

The first lesson I learned when dealing with outside sources is that I needed them! And I needed a lot of them!

The second lesson I learned was that the bits of information I found, had to be correctly cited.

The third lesson I learned was that when I wanted to make any claim at all,  it is better when I can find a source to back me up.

This last lesson I always had trouble with, and I believe many students do. Having to support one’s claim through another author’s words seems a bit like having to hold a stranger’s hand in order to be taken seriously.  And seriously is how your professors want you to take the assignment.

Lately, within the last couple of years of writing essays, I have learned a new approach to using sources and information effectively. Instead of trying to find an authoritative voice (one that I will probably be unfamiliar with) to back up my claims in an essay, I can simply engage in a conversation with other educated voices. 

Thinking of an essay as engaging in a conversation is key!

Looking at sources as requirements to prove a point verses using them as engaging in a conversation may seem a bit like splitting hairs, but let me explain.

When a student perceives their sources as experts that they must rely on to accomplish a simple task in writing, it immediately diminishes their confidence as a writer. The student is supposed to embrace the role of the expert on the subject of the essay he or she is writing. At the same time he or she must ride on the shoulders of several other "real" experts in order to make a point, to get to the conclusion, and to get the grade. It doesn’t work. The flow and tone of the paper is disrupted, disjointed, and convoluted.

Instead, if a student views their sources as other sides of a conversation, then the essay has a far better chance of succeeding. Not only will the information be there, but the flow of the essay, the tone of the writer, and overall experience of the essay will improve.

Engaging in a conversation solves another problem with writing essays.

One of the most common difficulties with writing essays is staying engaged and focused.  Using sources in a one person conversation can feel like having a conversation with one’s own self on a single topic for several hours. The experience can be tiresome and exhausting.  However, the focus of an essay is more organic when the writer imagines the paper as a conversation. In other words, it won’t sound like someone talking to themselves. This approach also helps one consider the sources her or she wants to use, and how they might use them. For example: an author with views and information closely aligned to the main point of the essay becomes a friend used to engage in a collegiate conversation. The author with an opposing view becomes an easy target.

As a student views an essay as a conversation they are more likely to develop a provocative perspective as well. No one engages in a conversation in order to echo a peer. They engage in conversation because they have perspective no one has stated in the conversation.

This provocative perspective is the 'Gap' every essayist and professor wants to see in an essay. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Have a Good Thanksgiving Break

We at the Writing Center hope faculty and students have a restful and enjoyable Thanksgiving break. 

But we thought we'd share an image and some advice we got from the University of Alabama Writing Center's Facebook page

We look forward to working with you over the final two weeks of the semester, but we strongly advise you to make your appointments ahead of time because our consulting schedule will fill up quickly these last couple of weeks. 

Although it's possible you might be able to get walk-in appointments, it's not probable. So schedule ahead of time.

Drop by the Writing Center (3110 Coleman Hall) or give us a call (581-5929) to schedule appointments. We're open 9am-3 pm and 6-9 pm on M, Tu, W, & Th and 9am-1pm on Friday.

See you there.  

Logical Lingo II

One of the seemingly stranger logical terms a student may encounter when listening to a debate or reading a correspondence between two opposing partisans is red herring. 

A quick check of the OED informs me that before it denoted an illogical relationship, red herring was part of a longer idiom derived from hunting. To draw a red herring across the track (or some similar verbal construction) meant that someone was using a smoked herring (which is a fish) to train hounds to follow a trail. 

This earlier meaning does not contain any negative or fallacious connotations. However, as a logical term red herring is common fallacy that when employed will inhibit people from communicating about controversial topics without losing their cool. 

Basically, a red herring is a big, bright, pink fish with a powerful odor. Although used initially to train hounds to follow a specific scent, the idiom associated with this process eventually came to mean something closer to its opposite.

To accuse a person making an argument of employing a red herring is to, in the broadest sense, accuse them of creating a diversion. Thus, instead of staying on course, instead of pursuing the topic at hand, by employing a red herring the speaker or the writer hopes to lead the audience away from the relevant trail.

After defining red herring, Robert J. Gula adds the following detail: "The red herring is invariably irrelevant and is often emotionally charged" (74). 

It's the emotionally-charged aspect that makes this particular fallacy so insidious to group discussion. Once the topic of debate becomes obscure or unclear, the chances the discussion will be productive is nil. To illustrate the effectiveness, especially in group discussion, of the red herring let's look at the following extended dialogue.

Jack: "The problem that I have with him is the truck he bought. I mean, in this day and age, how can anyone justify purchasing a car or truck that doesn't at least get 30 miles per gallon. The environment is falling apart: the amount of arctic ice is shrinking which is causing the polar bears to die off, there are areas in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts that cannot support any life--no fish, no plants, no amoebas, nothing. Dead zones they call them--now we got a new way to capture energy. An innovation called fracking which provides us with natural gas only at the expense of our ground water supply. I suppose no one is perfect, but I think that buying a car or truck is one decision in which a person should strongly consider the environmental impact of their purchase. It's not like there aren't beautiful and reliable cars and trucks that get 30 miles per gallon on the market.

Jill: "I think he would admit that there are beautiful and reliable cars and trucks that get 30 miles per gallon on the market, but he needs a truck for work that he can afford. The cost of a suitable work truck that gets 30 miles per gallon would cost him an extra fifteen thousand dollars."

Jack: "I guess some people are greedier than others. What's strange is that Mike is supposedly a Christian. Doesn't the Bible have a verse in it that prohibits greedy people from entering heaven?"

Jill: "That's not what the Bible says. Besides, the Bible verse I think your referring to may not have been intended literally."

Jack: "How do you know what the Bible writers intended? Maybe they intended every verse to be taken literally. I know when I write something very important, when I write something that I want people to understand clearly, I intend it to be taken literally."

Jill: "You've never written a metaphor or simile before? That's ridiculous. I know that you write song lyrics that have all sorts of figurative language in them."

Jack: "I haven't written song lyrics in like six months. But even if I have written song lyrics before that doesn't mean I use symbolic language all the time. I suppose you never use language literally? You're a lawyer for crying out loud."

Jill: "Exactly. In order to practice law, I needed to pass the bar.  You think I took a stroll in Wrigleyville? Or that the judges brought in a Chubby Checker tape and the law students limboed our way into the profession?"

Jack: "Who's Chubby Checker?"

How does this dialogue look to you?

It seems all over the place, doesn't it?

It starts off focusing on the environment and whether an environmental concern, a vehicle's miles per gallon, should determine the vehicle a person purchases. This initial topic is abandoned when Jack uses a red herring in the second paragraph to respond to Jill's explanation. The composition of the Bible may be a fascinating topic to explore under the correct circumstances, but, in the above dialogue, Jack simply uses the Bible to divert the legitimate counter-claim that Jill makes.

Jack then introduces a second red herring into the discussion. Like biblical composition, biblical interpretation may be, under the proper circumstances, a fascinating topic to discuss, but in this dialogue, Jack simply uses it to complicate and divert Jill's focus.

Jill also uses a red herring. The issue that Jack brings up about his own employment of literal language is narrowly defined. Jill doesn't address the narrowness; rather, she broadens his meaning, and, in doing so, she complicates and diverts the direction of the dialogue.

This dialogue contains only two speakers, and it ends up sprawling into all kinds of complicated but unrelated topics. Also, I hope you get the sense of the emotional aspects creeping into each speaker's tone. Emotions are an important aspect of human judgment and human life, but appealing to emotion is not acceptable in logical reasoning. Anger, laughter, pity, sadness could each be appropriate mechanisms of persuasion, but they are not logical forms of persuasion.

The red herring can incite each one of these. And once an emotional incitement occurs, it is difficult to regain the civility and seriousness that was lost.

There are many nourishing items on the menu of logic. The red herring isn't one of them.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Freewriting: Writing Your Way Off the Struggle Bus

Is your mind full of the various assignments, final papers, projects, and exams quickly approaching? Are you attempting to start those papers, but find yourself unable to concentrate on the task at hand without thinking of the ten other things you also need to do?

I feel your pain. I have been suffering from the too-many-things-to-do-in-too-little-time syndrome for the past couple weeks. I am pressed for time and pressed for original ideas. 

So how can we clear the clutter and get to the good stuff?


Freewriting is a great strategy for getting all your ideas out on paper, even if some of those ideas are, “I wonder what I’m going to do this weekend?” or “I have no ideas.” 

Here is how I describe it sometimes to students who come into the Writing Center – word vomit. Just get it all out and you will feel better for it just like when you have a stomach ache and feel nauseous. 

Sit down and write whatever comes into your mind, and when you hit a road block in your mind, pick a phrase like “struggle bus” and write it over and over until that thought is interrupted by another one.

Focused freewriting is a more specific type of freewriting. You have your topic, you sit down, and write on it or one side of your argument non-stop until you have nothing else to say about it. Then, do the same for the other side of the argument. (If you need a source to help you, follow the link for "Generating Ideas" for some strategies to get started.)

Once all your thoughts and ideas are out on paper, you can read through what you have and see what you can glean from your freewriting to use in your paper. 

Who knows?  You just might surprise yourself and kill two birds with one stone this way: you work on your paper, and you might work through a nagging issue in your mind or at least get it out of your mind long enough to concentrate on what you have to accomplish.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Consider Audience When Using Sources

This morning as I perused online news, I stumbled on a story from Fox News reporting that the creator and voice of Sesame Street’s character Elmo is under investigation for child sex abuse. In this online report Fox News provides a link to as the source for the story. 

At this point I became skeptical. I began to question the creditability of the news report not only because I was unfamiliar with, but also because the name sounds unreliable. 

I followed the link offered by Fox News to see what I could learn about The website appears to be a gossip site, featuring a “Got a Tip” text box in the top left corner of the home page.  Clearly, is asking its readers for gossip tips. I no longer believed the report.

As it turns out, CNN and MSNBC are also reporting on the story. So the scandal (as journalist say) may have ‘legs’ after all.
But that isn’t the point.

The point is that because Fox News cited as its source, I, the reader, doubted the information presented to me. Only after careful consideration of other sources did I confirm that the story may be credible (although low-brow).

When students write papers,they cannot presuppose that their audience will take the time that I did with the Elmo story (especially since embedded links aren’t possible in print form). Students must use credible sources when writing. Not only do the sources need to be credible, but they must sound creditable to the intended audience.

For example:

If a student were to write a serious paper exploring the rate of anorexia and poor body image mentality on college campuses, using a source like is a poor and insensitive idea even if the information gathered was pertinent.


If a student decided to write on the credibility of today’s political leaders and cited as a source of information, an unintended response from a reader maybe laughter. 

When gathering information, a student’s priority should not be the easiest place to get it. Instead, one should consider these tips from Purdue OWL.
"What type of sources does your audience value? If you are writing for a professional or academic audience, they may value peer-reviewed journals as the most credible sources of information. If you are writing for a group of residents in your hometown, they might be more comfortable with mainstream sources, such as Time or Newsweek. A younger audience may be more accepting of information found on the Internet than an older audience might be.”

Using these tips will undoubtedly improve the context and creditability of a paper. Fox News and other news outlets may benefit from Purdue’s advice as well.  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Logical Lingo I

For the next few weeks, I am going to blog about some different logical terms and phrases, including the non sequitur, the red herring, and the straw man. For this blog, I will specifically explore the non sequitur.

You probably noticed the italicized font. I know the suspense is killing you.

Non sequitur is Latin for "it does not follow," and it has a colloquial meaning and a logical meaning.

Colloquially, it can mean that a person suddenly changes the topic of discussion. For example, take the following dialogue between two old colleagues:

Pete: I'm can't understand why gas prices are so high. Did you watch the news this morning?
Kate: Yeah.
Pete: Do you hear anything about a storm forming in the Gulf of Mexico--maybe the big oil refineries are threatened?
Kate: Mike just texted me. He just won $10 on a scratch off ticket.

In this dialogue, Kate's final two statements could each be colloquially classified as a non sequitur. The question that Pete asked her is ignored. Instead, she provides him with irrelevant information.

The logical definition is a little different than its colloquial one. In its most general connotation, given its etymology, I suppose it could mean several different kinds of fallacies. Any fallacy that prevents the proper movement from premises to conclusion could be considered a non sequitur.

In Nonsense, our friendly guide, the late Robert J. Gula defines it a little more narrowly: He writes: "A non sequitur is a statement that claims to make a cause-and-effect relationship when, in fact, there is no logical connection between the premises and the conclusion" (56).

Although this piece of logical lingo may be new to you. I'm sure you've been subjected to the reasoning process that it condemns. For example, let's imagine the following argument:

Premise 1: If you want to be a great basketball player, you need to have a lot of stamina.
Premise 2: In order for you to have a lot of stamina, you need to do a lot of strenuous cardiovascular activity.
Premise 3: XYZ is a pair of basketball shoes that look cool with any dark basketball uniform.
Conclusion: XYZ will make you a better basketball player.

The conclusion above is, according to Gula's definition, a non sequitur. Premise 1 is true. Premise 2 also seems true. Let's suppose that premise 3 is also true. Does the conclusion follow (or "logically connect") from these three premises?

In other words, when you move from the beginning of the argument to the end of the argument, do the terms or concepts contained in the premises move to the conclusion in a logically acceptable manner?

Perhaps another example will help to show what I mean when I ask whether the conclusion follows from the premises. Let's take a look at the following argument:

Premise 1: If I miss the bus, then I will have to walk to school.
Premise 2: If I have to walk to school, then I will be all sweaty during my class.
Premise 3: If I am all sweaty during my class, then I will not be able to concentrate on my professor's lecture.
Premise 4: I missed the bus.

What conclusion follows from these four premises? Well, it follows from premise 4 and premise 1 that "I will have to walk to school." What follows from this? Look at premise 2.

When we look at premise 2, we know that "I will be sweaty during my class" follows from "my walking to school." What follows from this?

Our conclusion: "I will not be able to concentrate on my professor's lecture."

Now let's go back to the example with the basketball shoes. I guess it's possible that the conclusion  is true, but its relationship to the premises is very loose, so loose, in fact, it is close to being irrelevant. Because it states a causal conclusion that does not logically follow from the premises, it is, if we use Gula's definition, a non sequitur.

When you write a paper that calls for you to make an argument, you should watch out for the non sequitur. It might help to look carefully at your conclusion. If you write a paper about vegetarianism and conclude that "eating meat causes obesity," be sure that your premises are specific enough to support the conclusion. If your premises are all about the cruelty that animals endure in order for people to eat meat, then your conclusion will be a non sequitur.

I'm sure you can imagine many instances where a speaker or a writer might use a non sequitur as a means to persuasion. What we need to remember is that given there fallacious character, an argument that employs a non sequitur should not earn our vote.

Looking at what I've written about non sequiturs it probably doesn't surprise you that they play a big role in comedy--both sketch comedy and the unscripted kind that takes place between you and friends. For example, take the following examples:

"Let's go get some lunch. I've got a taste for a pizza. What about you?"
"Do clowns get paid by the hour or are they salaried?"

"Vegetarians live longer than carnivores. Maybe you should stop eating meat."
"The Bears won last night. 28-13."

"Let's stop at that gas station up there, so I can get a lottery ticket. The jackpot is up to 300 million."
"Martin Scorsese's been married five times. That fifth time must've been awkward during the vow exchange."

All these short dialogues are, or at least attempt to be, comedic instances of non sequiturs. They may not be funny, but I hope they help you see the comedic potential of the non sequitur.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Two Minds are Better than One: Brainstorming through Talk

Last week a student came into the Writing Center. He was struggling to come up with ideas for a paper he had to write. The assignment was for him to pick a time when he felt “out of place or like an outsider,” to describe the situation, and to tell how that experience made him feel. He said, “I don’t really have anything to write about this topic.”

However, once we started talking, it seemed to me that he had plenty of examples from which to choose. The problem was, as it often is, that he was thinking on such a broad scale that every example he came up with didn’t seem big enough to write about.

It was through talking the assignment and the subject out with me that the student was able to see that he was limiting his options too much. All I had to do was act as his sounding board and let him work his way around to that realization.
Basically, what we did was brainstorm. We talked everything out. The more we talked, the more ideas came to him. I wrote them down as we went along and before he knew it, he had given me five examples with supporting ideas. All he had to do was choose the one that was most interesting to him and/or that he had the most to say about and start writing.

Sometimes the best thing we can do when we feel stuck in the mud of our minds is talk to someone.
By talking to someone else, we will be forced to conceptualize the assignment we are working to complete. We have to explain it in a way that makes sense to them, which in turn solidifies the task in our minds. Talking is tricky that way.

The other thing that talking does is give us a fresh perspective. It allows us to get out of our own head long enough to see the assignment differently than we could or did on our own. 

Have you ever heard the saying, two minds are better than one? Well, this is the basic idea of brainstorming through talk. And it works.
So next time you feel stuck in the mud of your mind and can’t seem to think of a topic or any ideas, talk to someone: a roommate, a friend, a coworker, a parent, anyone you can find who is willing to spend a few minutes talking with you (and keep in mind: there are plenty of those people willing to help at the Writing Center) to get those creative juices flowing!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Grammarly: “Another Set of Eyes to Help Perfect Your Writing”?

Grammarly is an online service created to help anyone with grammar usage, word choices, and possible plagiarism risks. The website advertises that over 3 million users trust the site to find over 150 types of grammatical errors. The site also claims to compare all submissions to more than 2 billion online sources to check for plagiarism. In short, Grammarly is supposed to be “another set of eyes to help perfect your writing” (

It sounds fantastic, right! 

But how effective is the program? 

Here’s how it works: Once a user of Grammarly creates a document, all he or she has to do is copy and paste the text into Grammarly’s text box via the webite. In a few seconds the site will compute a score ranging anywhere from 1-100. The program will also inform the user if plagiarism is a risk factor. 

The details of these critiques are not available to the user until the user creates a free account. Once that occurs, Grammarly will take the user step by step through the document highlighting problem areas while offering a description of the error highlighted. In the event of plagiarism, the website will provide a link to the likely source of the material.  

It actually works well for what it is

It is not, however, another set of eyes to help perfect your writing. 

Take these scenarios for example:
To test the site, I grabbed my Oxford Book of Essays sitting on my shelf. I found E.B. White’s essay “About Myself,” and I copied the first paragraph from the essay exactly as it had been published. I then plugged it into Grammarly’s program. 

I purposely chose an essay example to avoid any creative writing problems that may become problematic in my experiment. I didn't want poetry, or dialect to factor into the results, just nice clean prose. I chose E.B. White for his efforts in discussing grammar usage in the popular The Elements of Style handbook. 

Out of the 1-100 scale, E.B. White received a 67!

The program critiqued the essay in this way:

Review this sentence for adjective and adverb use

Review this sentence for comma use.
Review this sentence for use of the passive voice


Commonly confused words

Grammarly did highlight most of the document as at risk for plagiarism citing a New Yorker article from 1945 as the source.

For my second experiment, I chose Oscar Wilde’s “The Truth of Masks” essay. 

Again, I picked an essay form to use as an example for the same reasons as above, and I picked a seemingly more obscure essay to test the plagiarism program.   

Only 25 points for Wilde.

The most common problem with Wilde was “wordiness." Again, the plagiarism tool caught the text. This time the site provided a link accrediting the work to Wilde.

I did my third experiment for fun, mostly. I chose Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs & Ham. This text includes sentences like “Would you? Could you? In a car? Eat them! Eat them! Here they are.”

Dr. Seuss received the highest score of the three: 75 out of 100. I did not check for plagiarism.
So what does this mean for writers using Grammarly?

It means that Grammarly may be a useful tool to some degree, but it is not another set of eyes, at least not human eyes. If it were another set of human eyes, the grades E.B. White, Oscar Wilde, and Dr. Seuss received would have been outrageous results. These guys are masters! They are pros at what they do. But Grammarly cannot recognize the human nature in language.

Why? Because it is not a human. It cannot considers a piece of writing according to its rhetorical context: purpose, audience, subject, genre, and rhetorical aim. 

Therefore, the site does not provide a replacement for the human reader. As a tool to objectively place value and merit on a piece of writing, Grammarly leaves much to be desired. The fact that the program even offers a grade is dumbfounding.

Here's my advice with using Grammarly. 

First, ignore the grade. The grade Grammarly provides is clearly nonsensical and is in no way useful. 

Second, the grammar tool does well to point out possible problem areas. Use the tips as suggestions only but do not compromise the integrity of the document to please the Grammarly program. Remember, it is not human.

Third, Grammarly should never be used as a tool to predict a grade from a teacher and should never be used by a teacher to grade the work of a student. Doing so will only lead to the degradation of both. 

My final suggestion is to take the plagiarism tool seriously. The program seems to be thorough and can even be useful in finding sources to reference in the document. One can never take the risk of plagiarism too seriously. 

However, in the E.B. White example, the first sentence, “I am a man of medium height” (which received a plagiarism flag) is simple language and a common description of many people. Flagging this sentence as plagiarism is iffy at best.  
Just because I was curious how Grammarly would evaluate my own writing, I ran this blog post through Grammarly to see how it stacked up against the heavyweights mentioned above. 

I received a 73. 

According to Grammarly, I’m not quite to the level of essayist that Dr. Seuss is, but I have E.B. White and Oscar Wilde beat by a mile!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Some Words about Numbers

When people present arguments, whether in speech or in writing, they often use numbers as evidence to support a conclusion. However, we need to be wary of arguments that use numbers, especially statistics.

The speaker or writer might support his argument by appealing to "recent studies," or the fact that "seventy-five percent of spinach eaters watched at least one episode of Popeye. . .," or "polls indicate that your candidate has approval ratings among women in the low teens." Statistics, of course, can help make an argument cogent, but we need to be careful of the potential fallacies that can result from an improper use of statistics.

As our good friend the late Robert J. Gula writes in Nonsense, "If we're dealing with a statistic, we should ascertain who gathered the statistic, what process was used, how many people were polled, how these people were selected, [and] what specific questions were asked[. . .]" (65).  

Now most of us do not have the time to perform such a thorough review of a statistical study's raw data. This impracticality is partly resolved by relying on the testimony of reputable sources. It is a fair assumption that a study conducted by the CDC or CBO is trustworthy, whereas a study conducted by one's postman may require a significant amount of corroboration before it can be considered trustworthy. I imagine this is an important reason why professors demand certain kinds of sources: they want the statistics to be generated by organizations that are presumed to be reputable.

Assuming the data is reliable, one of the fallacies that a speaker or writer who makes an appeal to numbers might commit is to use the term "average" in an equivocal manner.

For example, you might hear a person say "I'm just an average guy." In such a construction, the term "average" is probably not being used in a quantitative way. What the speaker is trying to convey is the fact that he is "normal," "unspectacular," "similar to the majority of people who populate a particular geographic area."

"Average" is also used to specifically convey a quantitative relationship. When used to convey a quantitative relationship, the term "average" can connote three different measurements. To illustrate these different kinds of measurements, let's take a look at the following set of numbers:


Now, what is the "average" of these five numbers?

Well it depends on how one interprets the term "average." The mean average for these five figures would be 2,000.

The mode (the figure that appears most frequently) for these five figures would be 300.

The median  (the number that is in the middle of the series when those numbers are listed in order, highest to lowest or lowest to highest) for these figures would be 300.

Let's look at how the following data set be used fallaciously.

Suppose the following figures represent the weekly salaries of five employees at a local company. Suppose further that the owner of the local company claims that his employees make a living wage. "Every employee at my company," the owner tells a local journalist,"is well-compensated. In fact, the average salary at my company is 2,000 dollars per week."

How does this bit of reasoning strike you?

It strikes me as weak.

Because the owner is citing the mean average as if it were the mode, his argument is fallacious. Clarifying the meaning of "average" is an important step in producing cogent arguments that use statistical data.

Another point to consider when evaluating an argument that appeals to numbers is that "percentages" are basically irrelevant without context.

For example, an incumbent local politician who has served a single term might claim the following: "Under my administration, the crime rate has dropped by 50%."  Sounds impressive doesn't it? But what if under the previous administration only two crimes were committed? I mean, I guess one crime is better than two crimes, but in this context the statistic cited by the politician seems a little foolish.

To take another example, suppose a CEO claims during an interview with Maria Bartiromo the following: "Our international sales grew 500 percent last quarter." Sounds great, right? It sounds like the CEO is leading the company into the next century. Well, before we applaud too loudly, we may want to know what the total amount of revenue was the previous quarter. If the company only booked 100 dollars in international revenues the previous quarter, then that 500 percent increase seems a little less awesome.

In a lot of arguments, statistics come from surveys or polls. What we need to keep in mind is that the effectiveness of a survey or poll is contingent on, among other things, the quality of the sample. It may be true that "Eighty percent of the people surveyed claimed that candidate X is doing an excellent job." Sounds great doesn't it?

But one wonders about the the quality of the sample. If the sample of the survey was candidate X's friends and family, then eighty percent no longer seems so great. In fact, it seems somewhat suspicious. In order for a survey to contribute to the strength of an argument that draws a general conclusion about a large population, it must be based on a sample that fairly represents that population in both size and diversity.

Finally, we need to be careful when people use the behavior or beliefs of a large population to support a conclusion. TV commercials use this technique a lot.

For example, a car company might broadcast a commercial that says "In the past ten years, ten million people have bought the XYZ. Ten million people can't be wrong." The inference seems to be that because ten million people have bought the XYZ, I should go and buy the XYZ. But if the most important criterion for me in deciding which vehicle to purchase happens to be a high MPG, and if the XYZ has a low MPG in its class, it wouldn't make sense for me to purchase the XYZ regardless of how many vehicles the company has sold.

Numbers can cogently support an argument, but only if they are used appropriately. How the data is collected, interpreted, and disseminated affects its argumentative value. Although most of us may not have the time to scrutinize reams of raw data or check the wording of a survey question, we should be aware of the fact that statistics can be used for logical purposes and for fallacious purposes. Such an awareness is not foolproof, but it does make our cerebral defenses a little more resilient.