Friday, February 17, 2012

Useful ammunition to discredit politicians

With 2012 being an election year, and the Republican primary contest already in full swing, I thought readers might be interested in some reference material about fallacies in argument and debate. Given that somewhere between 99% and 100% of politicians' speeches contain such fallacies, it's useful to know where they're coming from and how to tell when they're wrong.

The Nizkor Project, which concentrates on debunking Holocaust deniers, has a very useful list of fallacies. It's the most exhaustive general resource on the subject I've found to date. As an example, here's their discussion of the fallacy known as 'Begging The Question'.

Also Known as: Circular Reasoning, Reasoning in a Circle, Petitio Principii.

Description of Begging the Question

Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of "reasoning" typically has the following form.

  • Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
  • Claim C (the conclusion) is true.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: "X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true."

Some cases of question begging are fairly blatant, while others can be extremely subtle.

Examples of Begging the Question

1. Bill: "God must exist."
Jill: "How do you know."
Bill: "Because the Bible says so."
Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?"
Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God."

2. "If such actions were not illegal, then they would not be prohibited by the law."

3. "The belief in God is universal. After all, everyone believes in God."

4. Interviewer: "Your resume looks impressive but I need another reference."
Bill: "Jill can give me a good reference."
Interviewer: "Good. But how do I know that Jill is trustworthy?"
Bill: "Certainly. I can vouch for her."

It's an amusing, but very dangerous and frequently encountered fallacy.

Wikipedia also has some useful articles. The entry on Fallacy contains a good overview of the field, and the List Of Fallacies is almost as exhaustive as the Nizkor Project's (and offers a different perspective on many of them). Here's one I hadn't heard about until I encountered it in Wikipedia's list: the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a logical fallacy in which pieces of information that have no relationship to one another are called out for their similarities, and that similarity is used for claiming the existence of a pattern.

. . .

The name comes from a joke about a Texan who fires some shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the biggest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.

There's more at the link.

Both the Nizkor and Wikipedia lists offer hours of interesting reading - and ammunition with which to debunk political debates and candidates for the rest of the year!



Old NFO said...

Oh man... as if I needed ANOTHER rat hole to go down... :-)

Peripatetic Engineer said...

Education on logical fallacies should be required at the elementary school level.

Dirk said...

This kind of education and information is useful for SO many things, I completely agree with PE!