With gratitude and partial credit to Gene Lyons, and thanks to Wikipedia, now let us bloggers gird our loins for the political season which is upon us. A full demagogic press is in order by both sides as they attempt to amaze, mystify and stampede the electorate in their desired disparate directions. Choose your weapons:
- False Dilemma. A type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options (or shades of gray). For example, “The federal grant money came through, so there must have been extra available in the treasury.”
- Morton’s Fork. A choice between two equally unpleasant options ( a form of false dilemma). For example, “People who live in big houses must be wealthy and should be taxed accordingly; or, people who live frugally must have large savings and should be taxed accordingly.”
- False choice. An attempt to eliminate the middle ground of an issue. For example, “Anyone who votes to raise anyone’s taxes during a recession is an enemy of capitalism.” Or, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”
- Ad hominem argument. Linking the truth of a claim to something negative about the person making it. For example, “Nancy Pelosi demanded a huge government jet to ferry her back and forth to California. She obviously hates America.” Or, “Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, so his books about courage are fatally flawed.”
- Argument to motive. Challenging an idea by questioning the motives of its proposer. For example, “President Obama refuses to meet with GOP leaders because he actually wants to blame them for the likely collapse of the financial system.”
- Bulverism. A logical fallacy in which, rather than proving that an argument is wrong, one assumes it is wrong and then goes on to explain why the other person held that argument. For example, “He wants to eliminate unemployment benefits because he is a Tea Party conservative.”
- Argumentum ad populum. Concluding a proposition is true because many or most people believe it. Also known as “appeal to the people” or “bandwagon fallacy”. For example, “I paid more money into Social Security than I can ever get back and that is why my benefits should never be cut.”
- Black and white thinking. A type of false dilemma. Feeling boundless optimism when things are going well and then switching to complete despair at the first setback, or painting other people as extreme examples. For example, “All conservatives are selfish.” Or, “All liberals are lazy.” Or, “The federal budget must be balanced this year, no matter what services are cancelled.”
Half truth. A deceptive statement that includes an element of truth. It might be partly true, or totally true but only part of the whole truth, or, it may have some double meaning. For example, “The United States won the second Iraq War”, thus dismissing the consequences of the war and its aftermath. Or, a drunken driver tells the cop, “I only had a couple of beers”, but the beers were triple-sized. Half truths are, according to a Wikipedia page, ” . . . an inescapable part of politics in representative democracies.”
- Hobson’s choice. A free choice is presented as a single option, thereby also giving someone the option of not taking it. For example, “The ACA medical plan is necessary to provide healthcare to all Americans.”
- Straw man argument. Misrepresenting an opponent’s position and then attacking it. There are several subtleties to this, including oversimplifying the opponent’s argument before attacking it. For example, “Conservatives only care about money and themselves. Therefore they are unpatriotic.”
The pitfalls of discourse are legion and I have only begun to cover them here. Is it not amazing that our republic is as successful as it is?
For further reading I recommend the Wikipedia entry for “fundamental attribution error”, which is the tendency to over-value personalities relative to situations when making value judgements. This example is given:
If Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).
“It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.” — Ronald Reagan