Spurious Reasoning

This post is aimed at those among us who think everything is a “matter of opinion.” During my years of teaching that became one of my pet peeves — and I have many. There is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as sound reasoning. The opposite of truth is falsehood and the opposite of sound reasoning is spurious reasoning. During the recent presidential race we were witness to innumerable examples of spurious reasoning. My favorite was: The economy is in the toilet. Sitting presidents are responsible for the economy. Barack Obama is the sitting president. Therefore Obama is responsible for the poor economy. There are two problems with this reasoning: it smacks of what logicians call “false cause,” about which I have blogged previously. And the second premise is false: the sitting president is not alone responsible for the weak economy. This raises the interesting question: how many politicians does it take to weaken the economy? I leave the answer to you.

But my favorite example of spurious reasoning of all time occurred some years ago when a woman in Maine was shot and killed by a deer hunter while in her back yard hanging up the wash. After the trial in which the shooter was found “not guilty” of manslaughter (!) one of the jurors was asked why he voted as he did. He answered: she should have known better than to have been in her yard during deer season. Now the woman had recently moved to Maine from Ohio so there might have been a tad bit of bias against “Westerners” — those who live West of the Maine boundary. But whatever the man’s reasoning process might have been, and I doubt there was any at all, it is most assuredly a prime example of spurious reasoning. It requires that we accept the fact that an example of a person getting shot is not an instance of “manslaughter,” which it is by definition. It also avoids altogether the ethical principle that one should not shoot at another person — even during deer season. In a word, it avoids the central issue altogether.

And this brings me to my main point: even in ethics where the common notion is that everyone is “entitled” to his or her opinion, there are arguments and claims that are just plain silly, and opinions that are just plain stupid. Ethical arguments where we try to establish the viability of an ethical conclusion by incorporating specific principles and relevant facts can be sound or spurious — just like our reasoning in any other sphere of investigation. We need to separate the facts from the falsehoods and examine the reasoning critically, which is why critical reasoning is such an important part of everyone’s education. We rely on sound reasoning in nearly every endeavor we undertake every day of our lives — and especially when we seek the “moral high ground,” or when we are deciding which candidate is best qualified for political office (which I suppose should be called the “moral low ground”).

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12 thoughts on “Spurious Reasoning

  1. Yes! I agree. It also drives me nuts when I hear the argument, “If it makes you happy, it’s okay.” Another one is, “If it’s not hurting anyone, then it’s okay.” I’m sure as a Philosopher, these must make your head explode. Great post. ~Ilene

  2. The DA in this county must have been the stupidest DA of all-time. You simply cannot convict someone on a manslaughter charge if the victim of the crime is still alive! Assault with a deadly weapon, yes. Attempted murder, yes. Manslaughter, stupid…and priceless.

  3. I want to scream every time someone tells me they have a right to their own opinion. Thats ok as far as it goes, but I go nuts when spurious reasoning is forced upon me by someone spouting off their “right to their opinion.” Fine, keep it to your self. When you spout it to me, then you are impinging upon my right to stay away from the “Stupid Zone.”

      • Exactly. Another that I like, whom I don’t recall actually said it, is “Rather that people think you are stupid, than opening your mouth and proving them right.” Or something to that effect.

  4. Well said. One of my pet peeves is when a person is put side by side in split screen to give a so called balance view. One person might be unqualified to render an opinion, but has one. The other has been studying a topic for thirty years. Should the unqualified person render a more interesting sound byte, he or she gets more credibility as a result, even though he or she may be full of it.

  5. In a Murphy’s Law sort of way, the corollary to “everyone is entitled to his opinion” is “all opinions are equal”—a goofy notion that we hear from the “we’re all equal” people. So, my cobbler, rather than my cardiologist, can diagnose my chest pains? Rush Limbaugh can tell me whether fracking is environmentally safe? Blog material. 😉

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