There is a host of informal fallacies, so-called, that most of us commit unknowingly every day. The most common of them is the ad hominem fallacy in which a person’s claim is dismissed because of the type of person putting forth the claim. Thus, we might reject the claim made by Jones because Jones is a narrow-minded cretin. The fallacy arises because even though Jones may, in fact, be a narrow-minded cretin, his claim int this case might be well founded. Attention is drawn away from the claim to the person making the claim, Hence it is fallacious reasoning.

But there is another fallacy that is also quite common and perhaps even more insidious in its way. It’s called the fallacy of bifurcation. It rests on the fact that an argument relies on a false dichotomy to draw its conclusion. Most disjunctions are loose, non-exclusive disjunctions, as in “I will have either soup or a sandwich for lunch. ” (I might have both.) Lose disjunctions allow for the middle ground. Some disjunctions do not allow of any middle ground, as in “either you live in New York or you don’t.” You can’t have it both ways. These are called “exclusive disjunctions” and they are very rare (even in this case one could both live in New York and not live in New York if he or she had homes in both New York and Minnesota). There is seldom a situation that does not allow of a middle ground: most disjunctions are non-exclusive, as in the case with the soup or the sandwich.

What all this is leading to is the observation that we have all (or most of us) fallen for the notion put forward by the dirty energy companies that we must either have dirty energy or we must have a weak economy. It’s usually in the form “either jobs or the economy.” This is a classic example of the fallacy of bifurcation. Experience has shown — as though common sense would not — that we can have it both ways. We can have clean energy and boost the economy at the same time. This has been proven in the solar industry where thousands of jobs have been created and, as I recently argued, it has been shown in places like Chicago where 139,800 jobs have been created in the clean energy industry. And yet we will continue to hear from Big Oil, for example, that we simply must continue to destroy the earth by constructing monstrosities like the Keystone Pipeline because it creates jobs — the implication, again, is that the only industry that can provide jobs is the dirty energy industry. The argument is clearly self-serving. But it is also persuasive because, like all fallacies, it rests on an emotional appeal. People fear the loss of jobs and it is that fear (coupled with a weak critical faculty) that results in their acceptance of what is at heart a weak argument.

In addition to the appeal to emotion that rests at the heart of what amount to dozens of common fallacies which results in their being so persuasive there is the fact that we don’t teach logic to many people any more. We don’t teach many things that would help them gain control of their minds so that smiling, glad-handed thugs would not take possession of them. We don’t teach Latin much any more, despite the fact that knowing  Latin helps us gain a better grasp of our own language and since language is essential to thought, it is thought that suffers in the end. If one wonders why old-timers like myself keep going on about the demise of contemporary education it might be worth a moment to consider the fact that by focusing on what the children in the classrooms want and tossing out essential subjects like logic and Latin (and history, mathematics, economics, literature, and even English) we deprive the young today of the ability tomorrow to see the fallacies that lie at the heart of so many appeals by unconscionable agents whose only desire is to gain a profit or otherwise make life easy for themselves at our expense.


Case In Point

I have done a couple of blogs on the topic of informal fallacies to watch for in the coming months as political rhetoric reaches a fever pitch. But a recent tirade by Governor Paul LePage of Maine provides an excellent example of a couple I have not mentioned. I quote at some length some remarks he recently made on the radio:

This tax will add to the $500 billion in tax increases that are already in Obamacare. Now that Congress can use the taxation power of the federal government to compel behavior or lack thereof, what’s next? More taxes if we don’t drive Toyota Priuses or if we eat too much junk food or maybe even pea soup?

This decision has made America less free. ‘We The People’ have been told there is no choice. You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo – the I.R.S.

This is the man, supported by the Tea Party, who famously told the NAACP to “kiss his ass” and also told President Obama to “go to hell.” So we have an idea what we can expect from him. But I want to focus attention on a couple of doozies in this brief passage.

To begin with, note the appeal to fear in the use of the term “Gestapo” in connection with the IRS. It conjures up images of booted men coming in the night to drag someone away to be tortured. This appeal is designed, obviously, to provoke fear in the listener and lead them to the conclusion that the idea of hiring more IRS people to collect back taxes is a terrible thing. The idea itself, the collecting of back taxes, is ignored. In fact, it might be a good thing in light of the country’s huge debt to other nations and the number of people who can afford to pay but simply do not do so.

Then there’s the usual “slippery slope” that goes from “more taxes” to “Toyota Priuses” to “pea soup.” The thinking here is that one thing leads invariably to another, which is absurd. Most slippery slopes can be avoided by simply addressing the first step. In this case, we need to think about how the new taxes required to allow all to have health insurance differ from the usual taxation. It’s even debatable as to whether the mandate is a tax at all.

But toward the end of his tirade, LePage actually utters a half-truth. He notes that Even more disheartening is that reviving the American dream just became nearly impossible to do. We are now a nation in which supports dependency rather than independence. Instead of encouraging self-reliance we are encouraging people to rely on the government.

There is some truth in this. The mandate to require that all have health insurance does reduce our freedom not to have health insurance. It reduces our “self-reliance” our freedom to worry about whether we will have a job tomorrow, whether we will be able to feed our family, whether we will be able to pay for the hospital bills if our child gets appendicitis, whether we can pay the electric bill tomorrow. The kind of freedom and “self-reliance” that people like LePage tout is a freedom enjoyed almost entirely by the very rich. The rest of us enjoy the freedom to worry and be anxious about tomorrow. This is not the kind of freedom that leads to joy and happiness. But it is a freedom that we give up in order to make sure that when our child does get appendicitis she will be able to get the medical attention she requires, that we won’t have to go to the emergency room and then skip out on the bill — making someone else pay for the attention we received.

In a word, we need to think about what we hear and read — especially when the things put out there are so emotionally charged and the person speaking is known to be a demagogue and rabble-rouser. Most of what we hear in the coming months from public figures will be designed to get someone elected to public office — not to enlighten and inform. We need to be selective in our hearing, critical in our thinking, and reluctant to just embrace a half-truth because it is comforting and fits nicely into our belief system. There’s a lot of crap coming our way!

False Cause

An informal fallacy that is committed so often it has become part of our daily discourse is called the “post hoc” fallacy, or the “false cause.” The full name is “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” and I used to tell my students to remember that so they could parade the phrase before their parents to convince them that their money was well spent on their kids’ education! (Echoes of Stendhal!) The reasoning goes as follows: since B follows A the latter must be the cause of the former. The natives in Bobka throw virgins in the volcano to appease the volcano gods and the volcano remains calm. Therefore, since we all want the volcano to remain calm, we need to make sure we have a plentiful supply of virgins on hand. Absurd? You bet. But common, especially in politics these days. Consider the following story:

WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Mitt Romney on Friday encouraged young Americans facing bleak job prospects to “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee noted that the nation’s economy is recovering but blamed President Barack Obama for presiding over the “most anemic and tepid” comeback since the Great Depression. Continuing his recent focus on younger voters, Romney said Obama’s policies are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.

There are so may things wrong with this story one hardly knows where to begin. But let’s take the “false cause” first. Romney has always taken the line that since the economy is weak and Obama is President, therefore Obama is the cause of the weak economy. Now, surely, even he knows this is absurd. The weak economy is the result of multiple factors and the sitting President cannot be singled out, given the fact that he has little to say about the course this country takes with the majority in Congress in the opposing party. Obama hasn’t been able to do much of anything, in fact, much less make the economy worse — or better. The economy is improving, though slowly. But while he is willing to blame Obama for the weak economy in the first place, Mitt is reluctant to credit Obama with the recovery, calling it “anemic.” Sometimes you can’t win for losing. And you’ve got to love the claim that Obama’s policies “are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.” There’s that post hoc fallacy again!

But then Mitt goes on to urge students in college to borrow $20,000.00 from their parents to start a business — like Jimmy John. He forgets that not all American kids have fathers who can cash in a few stocks to send their kid to college, as Mitt’s father did for him. More typical is the American family that has to go into debt to send their children to college in the first place; they cannot afford to cough up $20,000.00 for a 21 year-old kid who may (or may not) be the next millionaire.  Surely, it would be better to address the issues of (a) the growing debt facing college students and (b) the exploding cost of tuition and fees. The two issues are not unrelated. A bill was introduced in the House recently by Rep. Hansen Clarke (HR 4170) that would forgive the student loans. But as Clarke is a Democrat it stands to reason that Mitt would not speak in favor of such a bill even though it might win over some young voters and give the economy a much-needed boost.

Romney mentions “divisiveness” in this speech and he is certainly correct about that. And he is part of  it, as suggested above. The divisiveness in politics these days has positively crippled government, making it impossible to get anything done. There has always been party strife, going back to the founding of this country. But the idea was that the two sides could come together and work out a compromise. As things stand today, the two sides cannot come together because they are loyal to their own party and their corporate sponsors rather than to the nation they are sworn to support. This is a real problem, and it can hardly be laid at the feet of Barack Obama. Or even Mitt Romney. But it is a problem that all politicians should address — though they almost certainly will not.