In past outings, I’ve mentioned the subject of fallacies, which are failures in reasoning that can lead to an invalid or unsound argument. With another election season in full swing, it seems more than appropriate to dive deeper into this subject and see where we have heard fallacies coming from key political voices.
In an interview with Stephen Colbert before she became Biden’s official Vice-Presidential nominee, then-potential VP Kamala Harris awkwardly laughed when Colbert pointed out how she had called Biden a racist, senile, potential predator on a debate stage only a few months earlier. Through tense laughs, she pointed out “it was a debate!”
Though my initial reaction was one of anger at this defense, it was pointed out to me that the debate stage is an arena politicians have to master to garner attention for their campaign from the largest number of people, so debates don’t have to appeal solely to rules of logic. Bullying, non-answers, as well as many fallacies are part of these events because the candidates are not engaging in an argument, or even really a fight, but a performance.
And as far as performance goes, nothing gets you further than composition fallacies. This logical error associates the qualities of individuals with those of groups they are a part of. They make sweeping generalizations that are very satisfying to hear about, especially when they involve groups or people you don’t like.
For instance, saying that Bernie Sanders inspired hate and viciousness in his supporters because a group of “Bernie Bros” took a harsh approach toward supporters of other candidates is a composition fallacy. In addition, it’s also a fallacy of association, which says that since this group was associated with Bernie, that he inspired their behavior or that he specifically attracted people who would take such measures.
Another set of fallacies appeal to human desires, such as common practice, popular belief, or tradition. While appealing to these things is not necessarily a bad thing, since they are important to many people for good reasons, when these appeals include logical errors or are used to manipulate, they become fallacious. Citing an authority on the subject at hand is perfectly fine, but when you say that something is indisputable just because an authority said so (such as “Dr. Howard, Phd. disagrees with you on this subject. Are you saying you’re smarter than him?”), you are committing the fallacy of appealing to authority.
All kinds of generalizations, assumptions. and circular logic can lead to fallacies based on faulty deduction. Next time, we’ll talk about mathematical fallacies, which fall into this category, but for now consider the gamblers fallacy, where someone reasons that past outcomes will impact the current outcome. For example, if someone in group has to risk being struck by lightning and people insist that a person who has already been struck by lightning should take the risk, they are assuming there’s a lower probability that the same person will get struck twice. This fallacy comes from misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) basic statistics.
Other fallacies don’t violate deduction but are the result of using language to manipulate information. These fallacies are tied closely to rhetoric, especially ones that involve intentionally underplaying or overplaying things.
For instance, the ad hoc rescue fallacy involves minimizes information to highlight a point. This is like when a candidate says about another, “besides bringing clean water to few towns in his state and taking some photos with church groups, what’s he even done as governor?” While this might be a valid point, the rhetoric intentionally downplays a rival’s accomplishments and casts them in the most negative light possible by making it seem as though this person hasn’t accomplished much.
Similar fallacies include cherry picking or suppressing evidence. This is like when a voter points out the absolute lowest points of a rival’s career, ignoring everything that happened before or since. Harris’ suggestion that Joe Biden is racist due to his stance on bussing, for example, ignored various other things he’s done to support the black community. These types of fallacies are so common, it’s almost impossible to look at political messaging today without seeing them.
While these tools might appear regularly in performative political debates that involve spinning information your way, and avoiding getting chewed up when others spin things against you, when it comes to journalism and other arenas designed to inform, fallacies are a direct attack on reasoning since they represent ways to take advantage of pitfalls in how people think. The use of distraction, manipulation, and other methods of taking advantage of our sensibilities are all detrimental to helping us understand what is really going on in the world.