Arguments, Politics, and Logical Fallacies
Fight Spin With Facts
Elections in the United States have always been surrounded by hype. In the days before live television coverage and commercials, candidates passed out buttons and had catchy songs made up about them. But in today's mass media world, we swim in a sea of electoral ballyhoo. Mud-slinging t.v. commercials, nationally broadcast debates and worse, the 'spin' that newscasters and journalists put onto everything, drown out the real issues. But the most potent weapons against hype and sensationalism are facts. If you're an American citizen who can vote, arm yourself here with information before you hit the polls on election day. Forget 'civic duty' - you owe it to yourself. Fight the spin with facts!
Am I eligible to vote? If you're aged 18 or over and a legal citizen with no felony record, you can vote - but if you haven't already, you need to register. Fortunately that's easy, because now in many states you can go to your local Office of Motor vehicles and register when you renew your driver's license. But keep in mind, you have to register with your local Registrar of Voters well before the election - generally at least one month beforehand.
Where Can I Learn More About Candidates?
Most candidates have their own websites that they advertise freely. But if you want to find out how many candidates are running for a given office, links to their sites, and other information about them, the best place to start is Politics1.com. It has information on national and state-level elections with regular updates.
MTV also has several resources to encourage and inform younger voters. You can even weigh in with your own opinions on Choose or Lose, or find a whole host of links and resources on Project Vote Smart. For example, remember the Rock the Vote campaign that was so influential in the 1992 Presidential election? Their link is on Project Vote Smart, as well as a WWE-sponsored campaign to encourage voter participation.
(By the way, if you're a web visitor from outside the U.S., please contact me if you'd like to find or share voting information for your country.)
How Do I Sort Out Logical Fallacies?
Political ads are a fact of life around election time, but don't let them mislead you. You can fight propaganda with logic by learning about common logical fallacies that people use to persuade others.
What Are Logical Fallacies? A logical fallacy is any argument that does not use sound reasoning in its effort to persuade. Logical fallacies are all around us: in advertising, in politics, and in written arguments of every type and medium. By learning to spot these flaws in reasoning, you can become a more informed consumer and more judicious about other people's arguments. Here are some common logical fallacies:
False analogy - Generally an analogy (comparing one thing to another) is one of the most difficult types of argument to support logically. When someone compares two entities that their audience will not find similar, or else compares things that are not adequately like one another, this is a false analogy.
False use of authority - This happens when someone cites as an authority a person or group of people who either have no true expertise in the topic being argued, or else are not recognized by the potential audience as a respectable authority. Often you will see misuse of authority in the form of political ads quoting "experts" to lend an air of authority to a candidate; or, a written argument citing another author's work that isn't an adequately related subject.
Either/or reasoning - Assuming that there are only two possible alternatives on a given issue. A very simple but classic example would be, "America - love it or leave it." This assumes that all citizens should either be openly patriotic, or else not be citizens at all. That fallacy overlooks the possibility of someone who is happy being an American citizen but dislikes certain aspects of American government, social life, and so on. Many issues of national concern are subject to either/or arguments, but even personal discussions can fall prey to this reasoning flaw.
Burden of proof - When someone fails to support their argument and simply makes assertions, they fail to accept the burden of proof. Failing to back up any given statement in an argument shifts the burden of proof to the audience and assumes they will accept it automatically. Unfortunately this fallacy can work, even when factual evidence points against the argument in question.
Non sequitur - This is Latin for "it does not follow". When one statement does not follow another logically, it is a non sequitur statement and does not provide reasonable proof.
Ad hominem - Another Latin term, meaning "against the man" or "to the man". Essentially, it consists of any personal attack against someone making an argument, and not the argument itself. This is also known as a character attack. It happens most often in political mudslinging ads and Internet flame wars.
Straw Man - Building a straw man involves attacking a particularly weak or easily countered part of someone else's argument while ignoring larger, more difficult points that are harder to counter-argue. This makes the opposing argument seem weaker by only drawing attention to points easiest to knock down, hence the term "straw man".
Red Herring - Another form of redirecting attention away from difficult issues by inserting an unrelated issue. This avoids confronting an argument directly.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - Also Latin and meaning, "after this, therefore because of this". This is the assumption that because one thing happened before another, it naturally had to be the cause. For example, blaming troubled economic times on a previous government's administration without providing direct proof of poor economic policies would be assuming post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
Appealing to emotion - While appeals to emotion can be useful in other areas, they have no place as a form of proof in a logical argument. Appealing to emotion can also be used to manipulate an audience into feeling frightened or guilty about something. Critics of Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, for example, charge that descriptions of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and their readiness for use was meant to inspire fear in order to support invasion. Another thing to pay attention to is choice of wording; sometimes a particular word or connotation can be deliberately used to get a certain reaction.
Source: Reading Critically, Writing Well: A Reader and Guide. Second edition. Axelrod, Rise B. and Cooper, Charles R. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1990.
Special thanks to Dr. Clayton Delery, professor of English at Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts, who teaches these arguments to new students every fall.
Put Logic to the Test!
Now that you've read some of the more common logical fallacies, can you spot some in the statements you hear on t.v.? Can you find them on the Internet? Do you notice people around you using them? How about in election coverage?
Here are some possible examples of logical fallacies at work. What do you think?
- Both in the 2008 election and again in 2012, opponents have claimed that Barack Obama is either not Christian or secretly Muslim, despite stipulations in the U.S. Constitution that religion has no bearing on qualifications for public office. Do you think this constitutes a character attack, which would be an ad hominem fallacy?
- In 2008, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin made the now-infamous statement that she had experience with foreign policy because her home state was immediately adjacent to Russia. What logical fallacies might describe that statement? False use of authority, non sequitur?
- In the 2012 Presidential debates, candidate Mitt Romney proposed a budget plan that he said would both cut taxes and reduce government spending. Critics, including his opponent President Obama, have countered that the Romney-Ryan plan is mathematically impossible. Do you think this is a logical argument? And if the Romney-Ryan platform offers no definite fiscal proof of its viability, what fallacy would they be committing? Burden of proof?
Fact Versus Opinion
Another major obstacle voters face is bias in the media. Most of the time we hear the accusation that the media is 'liberal' or 'left-wing' (except for Fox News, which is considered the exact opposite). But is this really true? It's important to be aware of what actually constitutes as bias, especially in news coverage of debates or campaign stops. Ask yourself: are they describing a particular candidate in a consistently negative or positive light, or do they try to include both positive and negative opinions about them? Do they continually use stronger descriptions of one or another, or use stronger wording when describing them? Do they support their arguments properly? As always, beware of flawed logic!
Thank you for taking the time to read through this site and become a more informed voter.
This site and its contents copyright 2004, 2010, 2012 Sharon "Tut" LaBorde.