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E. Magill

E. Magill
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E. Magill is an award-winning, though bitterly unpublished, science-fiction novelist, futurist, and entertainment junkie. Learn more about him at www.emagill.com

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Salon.com
APRIL 9, 2010 9:19AM

Top 10 Logical Fallacies in Politics

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The human brain is wired all wrong. Those not versed in logic are blissfully unaware of how much our brain messes up the most basic of arguments, leading to the mess of random thoughts, non-sequiturs, cognitive dissonance, white lies, misinformation, and syntax errors that we call consciousness. Luckily, there is one place where all of these logical misteps can be exemplified: politics. What follows is a crash course in some of the most prevelant fallacies we all make, as they appear in modern American politics. And though I consider these the "top 10" logical fallacies in politics, they are not in order, for reasons that should become clear rather quickly.


#1.

IGNORATIO ELENCHI

Bush v. Kerry

President Bush and Senator Kerry, congratulations on making it through an entire televised debate without answering a single question!

The man who invented Western philosophy, Aristotle, considered ignoratio elenchi, which roughly translates to "irrelevant thesis," an umbrella term that covered all other logical fallacies. Indeed, most of the other fallacies on this list could be categorized as subsets of the irrelevant thesis. Formally, ignoratio elenchi refers to any rebuttal that fails to address the central argument.

This happens with almost every single question during a formal political debate. For example, at a televised debate between presidential candidates, the mediator might ask, "If you become president, what would you do about the rising unemployment numbers?" to which the candidate might reply, "I'm glad you asked, because unemployment is the greatest problem facing this nation yadda yadda yadda, and my opponent's plan to deal with the problem is completely insufficient." Notice, in this example, how the candidate dodged the question entirely. He made an argument, but it didn't answer the mediator's concerns and was thus an irrelevant thesis.

Another example of ignoratio elenchi is the "two wrongs make a right" fallacy, which was recently used to great effect by the Democrats during the final stages of the healthcare debate. When asked if he thought using the reconciliation strategy to pass the healthcare bill with a simple majority vote was the right thing to do, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid--after claiming that nobody was talking about it (a logical fallacy known as the incorrect statement)--Reid released a statement detailing how many times the Republicans have used the reconciliation strategy over the last decade. Like the example above, Reid made an argument, but it was an irrelevant one that said nothing about how right or wrong the strategy is.

This kind of thing happens in cycles, because the majority party is always changing hands. When the minority party is called childish for filibustering a judicial nominee or something, for instance, they always come back with something along the lines of "You guys did the same thing a few years back, nanny nanny boo boo!" This is, of course, a meaningless argument, even though it is usually true. Even if your opponent shot somebody and got away with it, it doesn't mean you can do the same thing.


#2.

ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINUM

DNC attack ad against McCain

Argumentum ad hypocriticum

An ad hominum argument is a fallacious argument that attacks a party rather than addressing that party's concerns. It's a very dismissive form of argument, but a surprisingly effective one.

In politics, it can be found on the first page--nay, the first few words--of every politician's playbook. Why debate the pros and cons of Keynesian economics when you can just call your opponent a socialist and get a cheer from the conservatives in the audience? There are lots of words that get thrown around in political ad hominum arguments, leading to the common charge of "name-calling" and "mud-slinging": racist, nazi, hippy, teabagger, anti-christ, etc. Granted, your opponent may very well be a bigotted, warmongering, idiotic sleezebag, but unfortunately, it doesn't mean he's wrong.

A pretty common ad hominum argument in politics uses the tu quoque fallacy. If a person, usually a Republican, assumes a moral position about the benefits of family, faith, sobriety, and traditional marriage but is then caught smoking crack in a truck-stop gas station with three transsexual prostitutes and a spider monkey, people are quick to make judgments about that person's political positions. Here's the thing: if Einstein were caught practicing witchcraft, it wouldn't invalidate his theory of relativity. As another example, just because Hillary Clinton makes a racist joke about Ghandi running a New York gas station, it doesn't mean that Ghandi didn't, in fact, run a gas station.


#3.

THE STRAW MAN ARGUMENT

The Scarecrow (Wizard of Oz)

The straw man never has a brain

The straw man is a very simple, albeit potent, form of illogic. This is when someone misrepresents their opponent's position, as though they were arguing a man made of straw that they just happened to create right then and there. Yeah, it's a sloppy analogy.

This is everywhere in politics. For example, right after President Bush took office in 2001, he pushed for a new testing system for schools, and then argued that everybody opposed to that system was disinterested in holding schools accountable for their failures. This simply wasn't true, as there were plenty of alternatives offered by his political opponents. President Bush, though, routinely used straw man arguments in his speeches, usually by painting his opposition with weasel words like "some say" and "there are those that think."

More recently, President Obama has done the same thing. Going back to the healthcare debate, President Obama has said on multiple occasions that those opposed to his healthcare initiative want to keep the status quo, despite the wealth of ideas that have come from his opposition to change healthcare. This is a pretty common tactic used by the majority against the minority, because it tells a narrative whereby the minority party is obstructionistic for no good reason and should be ignored.

This can also be found in the Michael Moore/Glenn Beck school of documentary journalism, where quotes are strategically recontextualized to seem far more sinister than they are and altered to appear to make points that were never intended by the original speaker. This makes debating people easy, because you can rebutt crazy arguments that you just created for your opponents out of thin air.


#4.

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE

an alcoholic beverage

The first step towards inevitably becoming Amy Winehouse

Okay, this one is a bit confusing, because it isn't always a logical fallacy. The slippery slope is an analogy used to describe any argument that presupposes that if one small step is taken in a particular direction, it will inevitably lead to a more extreme outcome. For example, it is common wisdom that, once you start drinking alone, you're destined to die naked in a gutter with a liver made of pure grain alcohol. It might be true, but it's not necessarily true, and is thus a logical fallacy.

However, if you can be absolutely sure of each step in a chain of events that will inevitably come true--like so many dominos--you can make a slippery slope argument that is factual. For example, if you swallow a cyanide pill, it will start a series of events that will culminate in your death. Still, this kind of slippery slope argument is incredibly rare, due to the chaotic uncertainty that defines the future.

When it comes to politics, you see this kind of argument fairly often, but it usually comes from everyday people instead of political leaders. A common one that's been going around for a few years now is about gay marriage. Those opposed to gay marriage usually argue against it with a statement that begins with "Once we legalize gay marriage..." These go from silly prophesies about the loss of morals in our now Godless society to the absolutely ridiculous notion (which I've heard more than once, frighteningly enough) that once gays can marry each other, the human race will come to an end because we won't be able to breed anymore, as if legalizing gay marriage were the same as forcing all people to only have sex with people of their own gender.

Other examples include hyperbolic assumptions that this country is turning socialist or totalitarian, that our freedom of speech is somehow being stifled to the point that we will be shot on sight if we question the government, that once some specific law is signed or person elected it means we might as well shred the Constitution, and that the president wants your guns. The latter is a sore spot for me, because it keeps popping up in the Google ads on my blog. Heck, it might be on this page right now.


#5.

THE UNFALSIFIABLE HYPOTHESIS/SPECIAL PLEADING

Manbearpig

Yes, but you can't prove manbearpig doesn't exist!

We've all tried debating somebody with an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and we all know how futile it is. An unfalsifiable hypothesis is exactly what it sounds like, a theory that cannot be disproved. The simplest example is solipsism, the philosophical notion that the only thing that really exists is you and that everything you perceive and experience is a figment of your own imagination. There's simply no logical way to argue against this notion. Like the slippery slope, it might be true (yeah, you might be the only person in existence, and you're only reading this because you've made the whole thing up in your sick, twisted mind), but it's still a faulty argument. Note, though, that some unfalsifiable hypotheses, though they can't be disproved, can still be proved. If aliens landed on the front lawn of the White House, for instance, that would pretty definitively prove they exist, even though there is no way to disprove the existence of aliens today.

Usually, though, the unfalsifiable hypothesis is more complicated than that, and it usually involves some form of conspiracy theory. The 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers are fairly extreme examples, because no evidence can be shown to these people to change their minds. Anything that goes against their thesis is obviously part of the conspiracy.

However, we also see it in more mainstream politics. People in the religious right like to appeal to religion--which is itself built upon an unfalsifiable hypothesis--to argue against abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, and any other political idea that is inconvenient to their spiritual beliefs. On the left, the biggest unfalsifiable hypothesis we see today comes in the form of anthropogenic global warming, the idea that the weather is going to change and it's all our fault. No matter what kind of weather we face, it somehow becomes evidence of global warming, even if that weather includes record snowfall. Granted, scientists and pundits do occasionally make falsifiable predictions about the effects of global warming, but whenever these predictions fail to come true, it means about as much to them as it would to a psychic like Sylvia Brown. They seem to forget that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Which brings me to an inevitable subset of the unfalsifiable hypothesis: special pleading. Special pleading is a form of argument that comes after the fact, specifically designed to explain away the speaker's own faulty argument. Believers in ghosts and psychics often argue that skeptics can't see ghosts or get accurate psychic predictions because their minds aren't open to it, for example, thereby explaining why skeptics always seem to remain skeptical. Global warming alarmists will dismiss low temperature readings with talk about "more extreme weather events" and global warming deniers will automatically dismiss evidence for the existence of global warming as part of the conspiracy. For a more concrete case in point, try quoting scripture to a religious righty about how you shouldn't lie with a woman on that time of the month and ask why they don't seem as concerned about that as they are the line about lying with a member of the same sex, and I guarantee that the next thing he or she says will be an example of special pleading.


#6.

THE FALLACY OF THE SINGLE CAUSE

It's Bush's Fault T-shirt

Now whenever anybody complains about anything, you can just point to your shirt

Let's face it: life is complex. When bad things happen, it would be really easy to point to a single cause for it, be it the devil, violent video games, consumerism, or Rush Limbaugh. The fallacy of the single cause is an intellectual shortcut that everyday people use all the time and that politicians use to make talking points.

President Obama blames modern media for what he considers to be misinformation about healthcare. If it weren't for Fox News, talk radio, and bloggers, he implies, everyone would be embracing his healthcare initiative with open arms. On the other side of the aisle, I'm sure there are several people who believe that, if it weren't for those very same things, Obama wouldn't have gotten elected. These kinds of arguments fail to take into consideration a whole spectrum of things that contribute to current events. While modern media might share some blame for how things have turned out, they are likely only responsible for a tiny percentage of it. Besides, any such argument is an ignoratio elenchi, in that whomever is to blame is beside the point.

Other common culprits cited as the single cause for our political woes are things like "special interests," the two-party system, poor education, public school indoctrination, rich people, reality television, and the prevelance of logical fallacies in political argument.


#7.

THE APPEAL TO MOTIVE/ASSOCIATION FALLACY

Obama and Blagojevich

Not even their mothers can tell them apart!

The appeal to motive happens whenever you are asked to consider why a person holds a position. For example, a guy tells a girl at a bar that he believes the world would be a better place if people were more charitable. The only reason he makes this statement is because he wants a blowjob, but that doesn't mean his statement is incorrect. Perhaps the world really would be a better place if people were more charitable, meaning of course that it would be a better place if more people gave blowjobs.

People are surprisingly up-front with this logical fallacy, especially in politics. They come right out and ask, "Yeah, but why does he hold that position?" There are plenty of people willing to imply that many politicians are involved in plans to thwart the American system or gain absolute power or enact Big Brother or whatever, because if we can question a politician's motives, we don't have to pay attention to what they are actually saying.

A corollary to this is the association fallacy, better known as guilt by association. The Republicans are big on this, as when they recently tried to make Barack Obama out to be an extremist because he is associated with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers. If a person knows somebody with extreme views, the implication goes, then that person must be an extremist as well. This is obviously fallacious, and yet people fall for it all the time. Both sides often do it when it comes to protests, when they start talking about who funds them or "is behind" them, because it is far easier to talk about that than it is to actually confront the issue being protested.


#8.

ARGUMENTUM AD POPULUM

lemmings cartoon

Poor, confused lemmings

The argumentum ad populum is a fairly specific logical fallacy that assumes that if a majority of people hold a certain belief, that belief must be true. This may seem laughable at first glance, but it's an argument that is constantly being implied by news media of all types. Whenever a reporter, anchorman, or writer starts discussing poll numbers, the common implication is that whatever most people believe must be the truth. Granted, this isn't always the case; sometimes poll numbers will be discussed in terms of who is likely to be elected.

However, we have had political leaders who treat polling statistics as gospel, leaders who change their positions on the basis of poll numbers alone. You could argue that they do this because they want to get re-elected, but then people get mad whenever a politician goes against the majority opinion of his or her constituents, as we recently saw with the healthcare initiative. Just because a majority of people believe something to be wrong, it doesn't mean that it is.

This is a representative democracy, not a true democracy, which means that we elect our leaders to make the difficult choices. The most popular course isn't always the right course, and thus going against the majority view may sometimes be the right thing to do.


#9.

ARGUMENTUM AD METUM

downloading mp3s = communism

You aren't a communist, are you?

Whenever a politician appeals to your fears, insecurities, or paranoia, he or she is demonstrating the logical fallacy of the argumentum ad metum. This one is a combination of a bunch of the above fallacies, as it can be an irrelevant thesis, an unfalsifiable hypothesis, an appeal to motive, and a slippery slope straw man argument, as in the example, "If we don't do X, the terrorists win."

This is a common tactic throughout politics. Republicans want you to be afraid of socialism, terrorism, and a world on the verge of World War III. Democrats want you to be afraid of a global warming apocalypse, racism run amok, and Republicans. While all of these fears can in one way or another be justified, there shouldn't be any need to appeal to them when making an argument. President Bush didn't have to invoke the image of a mushroom cloud on American soil to explain the invasion of Iraq, and President Obama didn't have to invoke the image of poor mothers dying of starvation in the streets to sell his healthcare initiative.

It's a particularly sleezy way to make a point, and it is fallacious in multiple ways. Still, it is dramatic and effective, and thus all politicians and pundits use the argumentum ad metum on a regular basis. It works because it is an "us vs. them" form of argument, and it bypasses a certain degree of critical thinking by playing to people's emotions. Whenever you allow an argument like this to work on you, you bring the country one step closer to a bloody civil war.


#10.

ARGUMENTUM AD NAUSEAM

Bill Clinton

Sometimes, it feels like there's no way out

Do you ever get the feeling you've heard the same argument a hundred times before? Does it amaze you that most politicians will make the same points again and again, even if those points have been roundly rebuked and discredited? This doesn't faze a politician or pundit, because they live by the argumentum ad nauseam, the rhetorical school of thought whereby if something is repeated often enough, people will come to believe it.

President Obama is the king of this. No matter how many nearly identical speeches he makes all over the country, he still feels like he's not getting his message across. Even after the "bipartisan" healthcare summit, he continued to misrepresent the Republican side of the argument and make points that had been fully and completely annihilated by the opposition. Of course, the Republicans were behaving in much the same way.

Make no mistakes, though, the current president is hardly the first person to do this. The very existence of talking points and campaign slogans is evidence that the argumentum ad nauseam has been with us for far longer than any of us have been alive. It is perhaps more annoying today than it has ever been, because people who follow politics now have access to the Internet, where they can find nearly every side to every political argument. When these arguments develop at a snail's pace--if at all--you get the feeling that politics never really change.

And that, unfortunately, is mostly true.

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Funny b/c it's all true.
ARGUMENTUM AD NAUSEAM that's the most annoying to me of all of them.
To E. Magill

The funny thing is, your arguments are so one sided in many blog posts that it is as if you are using all the tricks in the book of logical falicies. You don't really talk as if you see both sides of the picture and all your examples in things that are wrong with politics are always jabs at the democratic party, and you are tricking others and possibly yourself with your intelectual persona. If you look past the fancy writting, you see a guy who is using the same tacticts as the people hes preaching against. Hypocryte.
Atsui-

Good, well-rounded, logical, point-by-point analysis with research to back up your claims. By the way, it's spelled hypocrite.
Thank you for a very illuminating article. It's unique in that it's the first analysis of this kind I've ever seen published.
Based on your understanding of ignoratio elenchi would all justifications for legislative precedent be considered logical fallacy?
You use the example of Harry Reid's justification in a press release as a form of logical fallacy (paragraph 4). Would this condemnation of citing precedent also apply to the judicial branch of government?
I hope you can clarify because this would be a major breakthrough in Politics, Law, and Rhetoric if true. I'm excited to read your response.
"Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington, " written by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein in 2007, is a hysterical look at political fallacy and philosophy -- I was reminded of it while reading your article.

As usual, I'm late to arrive and late to post, but I thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks! I especially loved the photo of Clinton. ;-)
Do "we the people" get to play too?

For example, would it be OK to ask President Obama just exactly when he stopped beating his wife?
Blaming Rush Limbaugh for everything works for me.
Good article. The popular left and right commit both of these errors in thinking. This is why I like Marxism. The dialectical principle is always logical.
Indeed, it IS Bush's fault. All of it.

Excellent read and well said.

"If a person knows somebody with extreme views, the implication goes, then that person must be an extremist as well. This is obviously fallacious, and yet people fall for it all the time."
outstanding post. very likely all these arguments relate to fundamental aspects of how the human brain works. you see all the same arguments all over the web in blogs and comments too, wink
Clever but I agree with the poor speller that many of the examples fall short of making a point. In particular the jabs at global warming: a preponderance of scientific evidence is pointing to horrific consequences as a result of greenhouse gas emissions & it is not being Chicken Little-like to call attention to these dangerous phenomena. In fact, the author employs Dismissiveness -- a fallacy in argument -- to make his point. One could call this hypocrisy if one cared to. Too bad that the author didn't employ a better selection of examples: for ad hominem, for example, you had Richard Nixon suggestively accusing his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas of being "pink - pink right down to her underwear." A clever mix of name-calling, anti-communist fearmongering, titillating sex, and sexual innuendo all wrapped into one sentence. No one employed specious, fallacious ploys of argument better than Tricky Dicky, a man whose nickname itself should have alerted the public to his treacherous & disingenuous nature.