23 April 2012


To paraphrase a passage from Firesign Theater, in these days of troubled times, when you can't tell the ACs from the DCs .... wouldn't it be great if everyone had a linguistic tool to see through phony positions, ephemeral evidence, and self-serving snow jobs?  Well, we do ~ it's called logic, by which I mean more than common sense.  Formally, logic is the philosophical study of valid reasoning .... it examines the general forms which arguments may take, which forms are valid, and which are fallacies.

I once took a logic course in college, and it was a challenge.  In some instances it was useful to construct a flow of symbols resembling a mathematical equation, in order to decide whether one or more fallacies were present.  The material learned is extremely helpful when trying to decipher and counter statements made by opportunistic politicians, religious fundamentalists, or anyone else trying to recruit you to their point of view.  If they can do so by appealing to logic, great.  If they must resort to fallacy, not so much.

Thankfully, most of us don't have to spend an entire semester in a logic class to learn a few fundamentals.  The Wikipedia entry here provides a few basics.  Even more intuitive is a website  called Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies.  On the home page, simply roll your cursor over any of 24 icons, and beneath a definition of that logical fallacy will appear.  For a more thorough explanation with examples, click on the icon.

Here are a few fallacy example teasers ~

  • Appeal to emotion ~ manipulating an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument
  • Ad hominem ~ attacking your opponent's character or personal traits instead of engaging with their argument
  • Personal incredulity ~ saying that because one finds something difficult to understand, it's therefore not true
  • Loaded question ~ asking a question that has an assumption built into it so that it can't be answered without appearing guilty
  •  Ambiguity ~ using double meanings or ambiguity of language to mislead or misrepresent the truth
  • Appeal to authority ~ using the opinion or position of an authority figure in place of an actual argument
  • Black-or-white ~ two alternative states are presented as the only possibilities, when in fact more possibilities exist
  • Begging the question ~ a circular argument in which the conclusion is included in the premise
  • Anecdotal ~ using personal experience or an isolated example instead of a valid argument, especially to dismiss statistics
That's just a sampling.  Learning to recognize logical fallacies is one of the fundamental skills in any complex society, yet few of us do so.  We may sense that something is flawed in a statement, but can't quite put our finger on what the flaw is.  We may even mistakenly believe that certain fallacies are valid, when they are not. Understanding fallacies and being able to point them out are necessary skills in any discussion over a misunderstood or controversial topic.  Naturally, any correction should be done firmly but politely.  Civil discourse has become increasingly rare in the public arena, especially in politics, where parties and positions have become polarized and unyielding.  This divisiveness is a topic for another time, soon.

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