As I watch and often take part in discussions about the ills of modern American society I am often struck by the bizarre feeling that I’ve whizzed down the Wonderland hole and am staggering around with Alice trying to find something that makes sense. Instead, I find Mad Hatters, crazy Queens, and stoned caterpillars none of which seem able to offer a rational argument and all of which seem hell-bent on turning any discussion into an emotional rant. Right now I’m listening on the radio to a young man whose logic is just dripping fallacies and he’s so excitable he doesn’t want to allow a complete discussion. We desperately need to understand logic and how it gets twisted and why. What follows is a quick tutorial on some of the most egregious fallacies so we can all stop these sneaky arguments in their tracks. So…..
Tweedledee to the Rescue
In Through the Looking-Glass Lewis Carol has Tweedeldee say, “Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.” And right he is – perhaps we need to take lessons from this sensible pot-bellied sage. In 21st century America logic is cowering in a closet aware that he is no longer socially acceptable, the party has run amuck, and we need him to come out.
Most of the devastating national policies that undermine our republic are the result of faulty logic, on the part of the people proposing the policies, on the part of those reporting on them, and on the part of those reacting to the news. I can even present the problem in an algorithm --- Logical Fallacies + Propaganda (Media Complicity + An Unthinking Populace) = The Fall of a Nation.
And we are falling – fast.
You and I are not in Congress, and we’re not in the media, but we are part of the populace and we can start thinking. One of the best ways to do that is to brush up on the logical fallacies that so permeate our national airways. We don’t have to be putty in their hands -- we can fight back with reason.
You see, logic doesn’t change any more than God does. Logic is His gift to us; -- “In the beginning was the Logos…” It is as fixed as the stars, as much of a scientific law as gravity. Anyone proposing an illogical policy must shove reason in a hole and hope no one notices. But we’re noticing.
Let’s do a quick brush-up. Usually when sloppy or nefarious thinking is cornered it will resort to distraction methods, to avoiding the uncomfortable questions. It’s fun to watch and fun to call them on it, if you are certain of the ground you stand on. Take notes.
- The fallacies I find most troubling are the ones that attack people and groups.
- Ad Hominem attacks are the worst. When a person has no argument of his own to fall back on, he attacks the person who represents his opposition. Ever since Obama’s election the press has labeled anyone criticizing him a racist as if that, even if it were true, eliminates all his faulty policies. Ad hominem not only attempts to discredit innocent people, but it cuts off real discussion and often intimidates others from speaking out.
- Almost as bad is the Genetic Fallacy. Here folks discount an idea because of where it began. For instance, in spite of the scientific evidence, Intelligent Design is discounted since many of its champions are Christians. It is, therefore, merely a form of Creationism and is automatically discounted. This stance saves the Darwinian evolutionist the uncomfortable task of defending his own crumbling theory.
- The third fallacy in this group is called Tu Quoque. It refers to the dodge of saying, “You can’t tell me not to pick my nose – you pick yours.” That appears on the surface to be perfectly logical, but the advisor here is probably speaking from some painful social experience and is giving good advice. Tu Quoque assumes one can never learn from one’s mistakes. In the current political pickle we often hear the He-voted-for-that-once argument, but it has no logical backing because we are never told the circumstances – the devil is in the details.
- The next pair of fallacies has to do with sleight-of-hand – they are magic tricks designed to hoodwink folks into buying lies.
- I know you’ve heard of a Red Herring. The name comes from dog training. You test the bird dog’s ability to follow a trail by dragging a dead fish across it; a well-trained dog will ignore that smell and stay on the intended scent. A person who doesn’t want you to follow the real trail will set up some “red herring” to draw you off track. Did you notice how quickly the controversy over forcing Catholic institutions to supply its employees with birth control devolved into anger over Rush Limbaugh’s remarks? Rush’s statements were crude and ill-advised, (they were ad hominem attacks and I wish he hadn’t played into their hands) but his terminology is not the point. The point is freedom of religion, and now it’s freedom of speech, and no one is paying attention to that. The press and the Hollywood elite will keep dragging this fish for the foreseeable future. Anything to keep us unaware that our most valued Amendment has been destroyed.
- The second of this pair is the Straw Man. In this trick one party describes his opposition’s opinion in such ridiculous terms that it’s easy to tear it down. I get really tired of hearing that Republicans want the elderly to starve or autistic kids to fend for them selves. We want pollution and bigotry and poverty. If we were all tuned to logic we’d recognize that for what it is – silly and nefarious – but we’re not and lots of people fall for it.
- The last group I’ll discuss today is the peer pressure group.
- The first of these is the Appeal to the People mask. Teenagers major in this one. “But Daaaaaaaad, everybody’s doing it.” Hopefully that doesn’t work on Dad and it shouldn’t work on any of us. These days “everyone” is doing drugs, or engaging in all manner of sexual immorality, cheating on their taxes, whatever, but that is not a logical excuse. What is right and good, is right and good no matter what anyone else is doing. Truth is truth even if no one believes it.
- The second in this series is the Appeal to Authority. Some idea or behavior is good and acceptable because someone “important” says so. We are very susceptible to this – note how much influence Hollywood has on our politics and yet they are not economists, or army generals, or experts on international affairs. They don’t even seem to know much about American history, but many of us follow their dubious lead.
- Lastly to the fallacy of Special Pleading in which exceptions from the acceptable are proposed for whatever reason. I see this one a lot in the immigration debate. Never mind that we have immigration law that is being broken, never mind that our inclusion of illegal aliens is bankrupting state governments. Never mind that drugs and terrorists are over-running our borders. Trumping all that is the true and tragic fact that some of these people just want a better life. Never mind that their coming here illegally is undermining the very life that they want so badly.
Logic is there for us. It is there to defend the truth, to protect society, to keep our minds healthy and useful. When we deny it, we step into a nasty trap. We hear a lot about the love of God, but no one talks about His rationality, no one talks about His justice, His unyielding righteousness, His perfect veracity. If we are to be like Him, we must pay attention to these attributes.
We do need to temper logic with mercy, but we have forgotten to temper mercy with logic. It is a difficult and necessary balance. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus says, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Note the “ love God… with all your mind” part. That requires knowledge – of Him and the world He created – and it requires clear and accurate thinking. Let us honor Him and think wisely about our nation’s problems by following the rules of logic imbedded in the minds He created.