Thursday, August 2, 2012

As Debate Season Arrives, Don't Lose Your Mind

We are about to find ourselves in the throes of the political debate season. This is the time where our local and national politicians grapple for positions like Olympic Greco-Roman wrestlers. The only difference is that there are no logical referees to flag and penalize formal and informal fallacies during debates. Wrestlers, on the other hand, must compete according to the rules of the mat.

I would contend that Christian believers are to be among the clearest thinkers in the political arena. As proponents of absolute truth in a world of relativity, followers of Christ ought to have the sturdiest grip on the logic of rational persuasion among all who grapple on the mat of political discourse. At the same time, we ought to be impervious to the techniques of our opponents who often break the rules of logic in order to toss us on our cognitive shoulders.

With that in mind, let me re-introduce some of the rules of Aristotelian logic, long lost among most political aficionados today.

First, let’s consider the difference between a formal and informal fallacy.

Logical arguments should be inferred from a persuasive set of premises and a clearly deduced conclusion (a) All men are mortal (b) Socrates is a man (c) therefore Socrates is a mortal. This completes a classical syllogism.

Formal logical fallacies draw conclusions that are not warranted or supported by the premises. If the premises are shown to be false or the conclusion is not derived from the premises, we ought to reject the argument as logically persuasive.

Informal fallacies however, are much less apparent. Often they are tied to the manner of presentation or the tact of the speaker. Although often emotionally very compelling, they are nonetheless to be regarded as non-persuasive rationally. Here is where we must be very careful. This is, after all, what logic is about: rational persuasive power, not emotive power.

With that being said, here are some of the top informal fallacies likely to be present in most political debates:

(1) Ad Hominem Fallacy: This is an attack against the man. While it may tell us about his character, personal attacks do not compel us rationally against a man’s position. Example: John is a Cretan. We cannot trust his tax policy. He may be the worst dirt-bag alive; but that has nothing to do with the logical consistency of this tax plan.

(2) Guilt by Association Fallacy: This is an attack against a man’s known associates or relationships. Again, while it may speak about his character, it says nothing about his argument per se. Example: John has been photographed with Hitler at a recent campaign rally; therefore we cannot trust his environmental protection policy. Notice that the emotional power of this correlation (John and Hitler) has nothing to do with his actual position on the environment.

(3) Ad Populum Fallacy: This is an appeal to the opinion of the majority of the audience. Here the candidate attempts to cast himself as a ‘man of the people’ and his opponent as an extremist. Notice how often this is done every day in ads. Again, the opinion of the majority can be and often is wrong and should not be rationally persuasive. Example: Most people accept homosexual marriage today; since John is in favor of traditional marriage, he is an extremist and should be regarded with skepticism. 

(4) False Alternatives Fallacy: This one is very subtle. Here the argument seems to suggest that there are only two possible alternatives that can be taken in any decision. It forces the opponent to choose between options as a false dichotomy. In reality, there may be dozens of other possible options and solutions. Example: We must either raise taxes or reduce our armed forces. So which is it, Joe? Are you for raising our tax burden, or weakening our national defense? 

(5) Straw Man Fallacy: Again, this is present in almost every debate you will watch this season. Here the candidate intentionally reduces the force and strength of his opponent’s position in order to knock it down more easily. He argues against a much lesser position than his opponent actually holds. By making a man’s position sound stupid, he evades actually having to take him to task on specifics. Example: Since my opponent stands for lesser government, he probably won’t even fund a police or fire department to protect our homes! 

(6) Invincible Ignorance Fallacy: In this fallacy, an individual refuses to accept proven facts no matter how persuasive they may be. His predispositions simply refuse him the latitude to change positions no matter how rationally compelling the actual data. Example: I don’t care what psychological affects a post-abortive woman suffers; I believe in a woman’s right to choose. 

(7) Circular Reasoning Fallacy: These are often a bit more complex to discern. Here, the debater assumes as a premise the very conclusion he is trying to prove. His conclusion is based on accepting a priori the very thing at which he hopes to arrive. Example: This tax will be good for local business. We all want businesses to thrive in this economy. Therefore we must write tax laws that will promote economic growth, such as the one I am presenting.

(8) Tu Quoque (You too) Fallacy: This fallacy alienates a man from affirming a position that he once denied by his actions. It exposes a man when he moves from a lesser position to a stronger one. Often we call this “flip flopping.” But, in some cases, changing positions is actually the best thing a man can do! Example: Jones says he is for reducing taxes. But he himself voted to increase taxes four years ago. Of course, times and situations do change. If a man realizes the error of his ways and changes, this cannot be logically held against the cogency of current position now.

As you watch the debates on television or perhaps in person this fall, see how many formal and informal fallacies you hear during argumentation. Once you notice how often our candidates argue emotively rather than rationally, you may wish you lived in a different generation completely.

Perhaps the Greco-Roman era?

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. Follow on Twitter @matt_everhard

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