The Logic of Words

For a long time, I have wanted to have logic taught as a year-long eighth grade class, in which four quarters would cover the logic of Philosophy, the logic of Mathematics, the logic of Language and critical thinking, but our school superintendent said teachers couldn’t teach that.  I believe that if we ran political speeches through the known fallacies there would be nothing left of the speeches except “Hello, I am XXX and I am running for YYY.”

There are three major areas of logic, that is philosophy (where logic originated), mathematics and language.  Since mathematics is a language, I consider it a subset of the logic of language.  Computer logic is a subset of mathematics.  I discuss here several logical fallacies,  in a discussion of the logic of Language.  If, as a society, we used these logical failings as a filter on political speeches and ads (is there much difference?)  we could clear out much chaff from real debate. We can discuss real issues.

Back in the day of our founding fathers, Logic was considered a necessary part of education.  During debates, they did not even address the truth of premises until they had addressed the language of the argument.  If the argument failed, the truth or otherwise of the premises was moot.  I am convinced that our education needs to relook at logic as a foundation of the educated person.

I make one clarifying statement here: Just because a statement is derived from faulty logic does not mean it is untrue.  It means it was not proven by the logic used.

  1. Argumentun ad antiquitatem: Argument to antiquity or tradition.  “We’ve always done it this way” is the one I hear most often at work.  Another example is “If it was good enough for my father and good enough for his father it is good enough for me.”  “My dad never got past eighth grade, his father never got past third grade, I don’t need a high school diploma.”  “This nation was founded on Christian principles” (not true to start with and logical fallacy to boot).
  2.  Argumentum ad hominem: Argument against the man.  When the argument is directed to or at the person, attacking the character or motives of a person who has stated and idea rather than the idea itself. It can also be an attack on the source of information.  Name calling is included in this.  “Justice Sotomayor is a racist.”  This also includes innuendo.  “Barack Obama wants to provide the public option in health care.  He is a socialist!”   It also includes put-downs.  “You turned out pretty well given how much your father used to drink.”
  3.  Argumentum ad ignorantiam:  Argument to ignorance.  Arguing that because something has not been proven true means it is false.  “It has not been proven that this drug hurts people, therefore it does not hurt people.”  “It has not been proven that there is a god therefore there is no god.”  (Can cut both ways, eh?)
  4.  Argument ad logicam: Argument to logic. Claiming that an argument is false because the logic in the proof offered is flawed.  Just because the argument that the fact that we are seeing more hurricanes (which could be because we have satellites that can see hurricanes we couldn’t see before) does not prove global warming does not mean there is no global warning.  (On the other hand, please stop saying that because we see more hurricanes means there is global warming?  It just gives the other side distracting ammunition.)
  5.  Argumentum ad misericordian:  Argument to pity.  Claiming sympathy is a good reason to accept the argument.  How many of us were told to eat everything on our plates because of all the starving children in India?
  6.  Argumentum ad nauseam:  Argument to the point of nausea.  Saying the same thing over and over makes it true.  Saying Barack Obama is not a citizen over and over does not make him stop being a citizen.  Get over it!
  7.  Argumentum ad numerum:  Appeal to numbers.  Four out of five doctors recommend our product over every other similar product.  Just because they recommend it doesn’t mean it is better.
  8.  Argumentum ad populum:  Appeal to popularity.  Similar to ad numerum, the bandwagon argument. It involves the claim that everybody thinks it, everybody does it.  Eighty per cent of the population believes in Angels, therefore there are angels (or whatever per cent it is – I didn’t look it up.)  That doesn’t prove there are angels.
  9.  Argumentum ad verecundiam:  Appeal to authority.  Barbra Streisand or Chuck Norris commenting on foreign policy.  Being a popular actor does not make one an authority on foreign policy.  Or reverse mortgages.  If there is no reason to believe that the person has expertise in an area, it is a fallacy to quote them on the subject.  In our society we often associate lab coats with doctors or scientists.  TV ads often feature people in lab coats to give gravitas to what the actor was saying, implying that that person is a doctor. My grandmother was a doctor.  When I was little I used to wear her lab coat.  Did that make me a doctor?
  10.  Circulus in demonstrando:  Circular reasoning.  The Bible is the word of God because the Bible says so.  See the circle?  It says xyz in the Bible.  So how do you know the Bible is correct?  The Bible says so.  Interestingly, every web site I looked at used this example.  Go figure.
  11.  Complex Question:  Implicit assumtion that somethingis true by the construction of the statement.  Also known as loaded question.  This is the traditional “Have you quit beating your wife?” argument.  “Have you paid up those back taxes?”  assumes there were back taxes to be paid up.
  12.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc:  After which therefore because of which.  I got pregnant after moving to my new house.  All our neighbors got pregnant shortly after they moved in (true story).  It must be the water here that made us pregnant.  This fallacy is the foundation for many superstitions.
  13.  Cum hoc ergo propter hoc:  With this therefore because of this.  “We haven’t been attacked on our soil since we started enhanced interrogations, therefore we are keeping you safe.”  Assumes that because of the enhanced interrogations we have not been attacked.  We might not have been attacked for a lot of reasons.
  14.  Dicto simpliciter: Sweeping generalization.  Expanding limited observations to make very general conclusions.  Often leads to stereotyping.  “I got mugged by a preacher’s kid, therefore all preachers’ kids are muggers.”  “My mother had PMS, therefore all women go crazy once a month.”  “It was Muslims who attacked us on 9/11.  Therefore all Muslims are evil.”
  15.  Appeal to nature:  Just because it is natural means it is good and true.  “Carbon Dioxide is found in nature, therefore it can’t be bad for you.”  We all know where this came from.
  16.  Naturalistic Fallacy:  Assuming ethical correctness based on facts alone.  “The world population is growing.  Therefore it is ethical to have more children.”  “Minorities make up the bulk of the prison population.  Therefore we should jail more minorities.”
  17.  Non Sequitur:  Does not follow.  Stating a conclusion that does not necessarily follow from the argument.  “We do not have public option health care, therefore I need more shoes.”  Well, maybe that does follow.
  18.  Petitio Principii:  Begging the question.  Also known as tautology.  Assuming the premise – including what you are trying to prove in the argument as if it is already proven.  “We must have deregulation to improve productivity”  assumes deregulation improves productivity.  As we have seen, it may not improve real productivity.  Using a definition of an event to describe the cause of an event.  “The drop in GNP is the result of the country being less productive.”
  19.  Red herring:  Introduction of irrelevant facts, misdirection, false emphasis.    “We can’t be letting in all these immigrants to the United States.  Think of all the fighting going on in Congo.”
  20.  Slippery slope:  If we go here, we will eventually wind up there.  “If we let in all these Mexicans, pretty soon we will all be speaking Spanish.”  “If we let gays marry, pretty soon we will have men marrying sheep.”  Not to say what women will marry!
  21.  Straw man:  Creating a caricature and arguing against it.  “All these women go out and be promiscuous, then they get pregnant and want a last minute abortion.  We must do what is necessary to make women be chaste.”  “These people have lots of babies to collect a lot of welfare money.  We should not encourage that.”  “These people swindled the finance companies, took on more debt than they could handle and now expect us to bail them out.”  “These people come in to our country illegally to collect our welfare and let us support them.”  I find that an argument that begins with “these people” or some derivative thereof are usually suspect.
  22.  Tu quoque:  You too!  Two wrongs make a right.  “They attacked our trade center, therefore torture is justified.”  “Nancy Pelosi knew we were torturing and she didn’t say anything.”  Enough said?
  23.  Equivocation:  Different uses of the same word.  Some dogs have long ears.  My dog has long ears.  Therefore my dog is some dog.  I love grass.  My joints hurt me.  I should stay out of those joints.
  24. Intentionally misinterpreting sentence construction.  All that glitters is not gold.  Gold glitters.  Therefore gold is not gold.  Have we ever seen politicians intentionally misconstrue what someone says based on sentence construction?
  25.  Affirming the Consequent.  If P then Q.  P therefore Q is correct.  Not Q therefore not P is correct.  Not P therefore not Q is incorrect.  P could be a subset of Q, which would mean that an element could be a member of Q but not of P.  This one is insidious and shows up in political discourse all the time.
  26.  False Dilemma:  Claiming only a black or white selection exists when there are many areas of grey.  “Either you are for us or against us.”
  27.  Suppressed Evidence:  Presenting only the information that supports the argument.  Taking quotations in part or out of context is an example.  The arguments against Justice Sotomayor fit into this one.
  28. These are some logical fallacies.… and…give many more.

So imagine, next election cycle, if the pundits went through the fallacies before discussing the speeches?  Or making their own claims?  Would we have a much more substantive discussion?