With fewer than 100 days left before Election Day we are about to be bombarded with a veritable tsunami of campaign charges, claims, and appeals. Given the unprecedented money to be spent on the presidential election alone, the existence of a deeply divided nation presided over the most divisive chief executive in the history of political polling, and the sense that our nation is at a fiscal and philosophical tipping point, these next 98 days promise a deluge of deliberate misinformation.
At every turn someone will hand you an argumentative weapon – an anecdote, a quote, a study or poll, a statistic. In this arms race it may be to your advantage to learn to disarm the nearest zealot. Keeping calm and disabling an argument is as easy as identifying the fallacy of their claims.
Here are, in my opinion, the most common tricks used by the partisan and/or the ill-informed. First a caveat: everyone uses and abuses these fallacies. Everyone does it, Obama, Romney, you and me. However commonality is no defense of shoddy reasoning. Before your next encounter with an opinionated blowhard raises tempers and resentment, it is helpful to hold everyone to fair rules of engagement, otherwise known as logic. (Did you notice that tautological argument?)
The straw man argument is a personal favorite of President Obama. This cheap rhetorical device entails little more than ascribing to your opponent views he/she does not hold and then attacking those invented positions. A classic Obama attack was unleashed at a commemoration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday. There the President said, “I reject the view that if government were just dismantled, divvied up into tax breaks, and handed out to the wealthiest among us, it would somehow benefit us all.” Obama argued against a view that no one ever held, thus he attacked a straw man.
The non sequitur attack is on display with the recent Chik-fil-A dust-up. The company’s chief made a rather innocuous remark (one that mirrored the Presidents position of a mere three months ago) in support of traditional marriage. Since then Democrat big city mayors and pro-gay groups have smeared the chicken sandwich purveyor as an agent of hate and a bigot riddled with fear. It is a non sequitur, that is, the conclusion does not follow the premise.
Ad hominem attacks, and the closely related guilt-by-association charges, seem to be the most common and most nihilistic of political arguments. This device does not respond to the position of an opponent but targets the opponent himself. Jon Stewart is a master of subtle ad hominem attacks. His mocking gets viewers to laugh at a person, or recognize fallibility in a foible, trait, or genuine failing, without ever addressing the issue. Rush Limbaugh, with his pompous styling and former Oxycontin addiction, is a prime target for such fallacious attacks.
Specious reasoning, and its close kin in sophistry, relies on making a seemingly plausible claim, then reaching a conclusion – without ever first securing the claim. Among the political class sophists abound. This particular practice probably requires its own blog post.
Government spending has been the subject of much recent ad ignoratiam argumentation. This trick posits that something is true because it cannot be definitively disproved. The current administration has taken this trick curiously close to being a teleological argument, essentially an argument that is made backwards. A prime example is the stimulus spending. Would the economy be worse if that money was not spent? Would the economy be healed if only we the stimulus was twice as big in 2009? No one knows, nor can anyone know.
Appeals to authority are disturbing, but increasing common in our ever more complex world. As both sides in the global warming debate muster affirming scientists to their side, we are left with nothing but various temptations to favor one set of credentials over another.
Finally, disambiguation is a technique taught to politicians by consultants. The tactic is basically to change the subject, sometimes correctly, sometimes by tossing out a red herring. But any statement that amounts to “while you are nitpicking X we are ignoring the real issue Y,” should raise an eyebrow.
None of this will help you win friends, but being able to deflate a entire position by pointing out that it is based on specious reasoning may help you win an argument. Just be ready – as I am – for the charges of hypocrisy. These aforementioned devices are so ingrained in our habits of persuasion, and in our advertising soaked culture that they are almost all we know. We all commit these fallacies at an alarming rate.