Happy (almost) Election Day, everyone! As the Logic-Troll-In-Residence[i], I couldn’t make it through the election cycle without discussing the logical fallacies that abound from both sides of the aisle. Here are a few which really struck me:
Straw Man Fallacy
What it is: the misrepresentation of an opponent’s opinion. Person X distorts Person Y’s view then proceeds to attack the incorrect representation of the view as if it belongs to Person Y.
Offender: Mitt Romney
Explanation: Obama argues that society as a whole works to assist the success of businesses. Romney presents this as an attack on the efforts of individual business success, and then undermines Obama’s misrepresented view.
Joe’s mom: “No more TV until your homework is finished.”
Joe (age 6): “Daaaaaaaaad! Mom says I can’t ever watch TV again. No fair!”
Ad Hominem Fallacy
What it is: a personal argument against an opponent instead of the arguments/policies of the opponent.
Offender: Priorities USA Action PAC (on behalf of Barack Obama)
Explanation: A man claims that Mitt Romney didn’t care about the death of his wife because he closed the plant in which he worked. The quite obvious subtext is that only a terrible person wouldn’t care that my wife died of cancer. Therefore, Mitt Romney is a terrible person and ought not be elected.
Debbie’s boss: “You have a terrible work ethic, never complete your assignments, and might be the thickest person I’ve ever encountered, so I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not giving you a holiday bonus this year.”
Debbie (age 22): “Yeah, what do you know? You have a hideous haircut and smell like farts. Therefore, I’m a great employee and I deserve a raise!” [Internal dialogue] [We hope]
Red Herring Fallacy
What it is: an argument which (intentionally or unintentionally) distracts from the relevant issue.
Offenders: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama
Source: Third Presidential Debate Full Transcript http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/presidential-debate-full-transcript/story?id=17538888&singlePage=true
Explanation: Both candidates dodged a question from moderator Bob Schieffer regarding Israel, Iran, and deterrence. Romney and Obama made a reference to “standing with Israel”, but neglected to comment on our willingness to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the US. Such a deterrent was used successfully with the Soviet Union and could be a potential tactic in our relationship with Iran.
Tevye: “Do you love me?”
Golde: “…For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals…”
These are all informal fallacies, or arguments in which the premises do not support the conclusion. Classic Top Gun scenario. We all commit them from time to time, and they seem inevitable in today’s political discourse (and yesterday’s too–ever read T. Paine’s Common Sense?). But recognizing these fallacies when we see them can help us make more informed decisions. In this giant cloud of election information, let’s try to differentiate between actual arguments and mere banter. And let’s hold our politicians (and PACs) to higher standards–we deserve well-formulated, intelligent arguments from both sides, and require this to make sound decisions.
[i] Seriously, though, check me out on MTV next season in True Life: I’m a Philosoraptor.