Friday, February 26, 2010

Part II – Steeling ourselves against outright political deception

This week I am posting in the forum the second in the series on logical fallacies that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times in 2003. That series was specifically meant for the 2004 national elections, so I am presenting it here in an updated and modified form to suit current political realities. From the language standpoint, of course, the situation then and now are largely the same. The electorate and the entire citizenry are once again taking a heavy barrage of election propaganda—a few forthright and fair, some using emotive language designed to cover weak arguments or inadequate facts, and the rest shamelessly foisting outright fallacies and untruths.

This torrent of political propaganda will surely turn into a veritable deluge in the run-up to the polls on May 11. I am therefore hoping that by running this series on logical fallacies, the Forum can help its members steel themselves against any attempts at outright deception from whatever source, enable them to sift through bias and motive in political statements, make them rise above partisanship and self-interest, and guide them to vote wisely and rationally.

Last week we took up the material fallacies, namely false cause, hasty generalization, misapplied generalization, false dilemma, compound question, false analogy, contradictory premises, circular reasoning, and insufficient or suppressed evidence.This time we are taking up the so-called fallacies of relevance.

Watching out against the fallacies of relevance

Arguments that seek to persuade people to accept evidently non-logical propositions are called the fallacies of relevance. In this form of fallacy, the premises and evidence offered are actually irrelevant to the conclusion, but are couched in language that makes them psychologically or emotionally persuasive. People often have very strong opinions about the issues in this type of fallacy, so they seldom notice that their attention is being diverted from the real issue. On the strength of a finite person’s persuasion alone, fallacies of relevance are often so obviously false that they can hook in only the unwary, the predisposed, and the gullible. But with the growing sophistication of their practitioners in using the modern mass media, particularly television and radio, this form of illogic has developed enough power to break the rational defenses even of the intellectually sophisticated and astute.

The fallacies of relevance had already been identified and catalogued as early as 2,600 years ago during Aristotle’s time, fascinating logicians and charlatans ever since. So widely discussed in philosophical and political circles were they that most of their Latin names became part of the English lexicon.

The 13 most common of them are the fallacies of irrelevance (ignoratio elenchi), personal ridicule (ad hominem), appeal to the people (ad populum), appeal to authority (ad verecundiam), appeal to ignorance (ad ignorantiam), appeal to pity (ad misericordiam), appeal to force (ad baculum), appeal to money (ad crumenam), emotive language, tu quoque, genetic error, anthropomorphism, and non sequitur. We will now look at their anatomy, dissect a few specimens, and show why their kind of reasoning should really not be given any credence.

Fallacies of irrelevance. Better known as ignoratio elenchi (irrelevant conclusion), this broad category covers practically all of the fallacies of relevance. They try to establish the truth of a proposition with arguments that support an entirely different conclusion. Example: “I have been accused of fathering my secretary’s child, but she actually signed an affidavit that the child is actually the fruit of artifical insemination. Therefore, I could not have possibly fathered that child.”

That the woman declared under oath that her child was conceived through artificial insemination would seem to clear the man of wrongdoing. However, it really isn’t conclusive proof that he didn’t father that child. What if the woman, out of love or terror or poverty or charity, is simply trying to protect his reputation? The affidavit—that all-purpose device of law to support truth and falsehood alike—doesn’t really settle the biological and parental aspect of the premises. The only thing it proves is that the woman signed it. (Thankfully, modern science has developed the DNA test to spare us from the dilemma put forth by fallacies of this type.)

Personal ridicule (ad hominem). When one ridicules another instead of directly addressing the premises of his or her argument, one commits the fallacy of personal ridicule: “You wouldn’t believe someone of such low social stature, would you?” “She maybe right about the country’s economic situation, but don’t you remember that she was outrageously wrong twice during the past 10 years?”

Easily the most popular variety of this fallacy is the so-called “straw man,” the tactic of misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to refute. The trick is to distort an aspect of someone’s premises to make it less credible, attack the now distorted position, and then claim that the whole argument has been refuted. As an example, take the following conversation:

Niece to uncle: “Uncle, I’d like to take up mass communications instead of nursing. I think I’m not really cut out for nursing.” Uncle to niece: “You unthinking moron! Mass communications graduates are dime a dozen. Nursing is the most in-demand job abroad these days!”)

Appeal to the people ((ad populum). This is the fallacy of using the presumed feelings, actions, and prejudices of the general population to support an invalid argument: “67.8% of our TV texters think that that high official couldn’t be guilty of corruption. He really must be innocent!”

Three insidious varieties of this fallacy are mainstays in product advertising and political campaigns:

· The bandwagon: “Nine out of every 10 doctors use X toothpaste. It’s high time you did!”

· Appeal to belief: “All of the people in this town are true believers. You must be the son of the Devil if you aren’t.”

· Appeal to common practice: “Everybody cheats during elections, so I will not be left behind in my exercise of a legitimate political right.”

Appeal to authority (ad verecundiam). This is the fallacy of supporting dubious or patently false premises with the opinion of a leader, authority, or expert in a field other than the field being discussed: “Our beloved Brother Y got a message from Heaven that M should be our next president. We really have no choice but to vote for M.” It may sound ridiculous, but the danger to modern society is that fanaticism of all stripes almost always makes this kind of fallacy work with people of certain persuasions—especially clueless believers.

Appeal to ignorance (ad ignorantiam). This is the fallacy of assuming that a premise is correct because it cannot be disproved. Here’s its basic form: “There’s no proof that what you say is true; therefore, what you say isn’t true.” The same illogic runs here: “We have no evidence that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, so no intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe.”

The same faulty reasoning props up the “guilty until proven innocent” fallacy, in which police authorities make their suspects wear the orange garb of prisoners and allow the broadcast and print media to feast on them. They score media and political points in doing this, of course, but they are actually engaging in a blatant appeal to ignorance. It runs roughshod over the legal presumption that someone is “innocent until proven guilty,” and there’s absolutely no way of erasing the stigma of guilt on those so treated even if they are eventually found innocent of the crime imputed to them. (When suspects are caught in the act or if the evidence of wrongdoing is strong, their detention away from intrusive and prejudicial media exposure is probably a more rational, just, and humane thing to do.)

Appeal to pity (ad misericordiam). Trying to get support for one’s premises not on logical grounds but on compassion is known as the fallacy of appeal to pity. In Philippine parlance this is the “paawa” (“have mercy on me”) effect; elsewhere it is known as the “victim mentality.” This form of illogic marks many court pleadings, as when a defense lawyer asks for leniency towards his self-confessed client: “Your Honor, he may have killed the winning candidate but he is a highly intelligent law graduate whose conviction will forever ruin what could be a most illustrious legal and political career.”

When their academic performance falters, some scholars are also known to resort to this fallacious tack: “Ma’am, if you give me a grade of 2.0 I’ll lose my university scholarship. I’d be forced to stop schooling because my family is dirt poor.” Appeals to pity often work not because they are logically sound but because they tug at our emotions and sense of magnanimity.

Appeal to force (ad baculum). When the usual means of persuasion fail, some people use threat and intimidation to compel others to accept their argument. This is the appeal to force, and it’s the most insidious fallacy of all because it marks the end of civility and the beginning of belligerence: “Park here at your own risk.” “If I hear that line from you again, you better start looking for another job.” “If they convict me in this court case, they will have another ‘People Power’ in their hands.” “Mr. Senator, you have just called me a crook. Say that again without parliamentary immunity and I’ll slap you with a twenty-million-peso libel suit!”

The protection racketeer’s appeal to force is, of course, the most viciously audacious of them all: “You have such nice glass panels in your jewelry boutique, Mr. de la Cruz. My organization sees to it that such nice things remain that way. That’s good for business, and good for us, too. Tomorrow, at 12:00 noon, my man will come here to tell you how little it will cost you.”

Appeal to money (ad crumenam). This is the fallacy of thinking that money is a reliable standard of correctness, and that the more moneyed one is, is more likely one will be right. Passing motorist commenting on a car collision: “That Ford Expedition is obviously not the aggressor because it’s brand-new and much more expensive than that old Beetle, and it was that respectable-looking executive driving it. Look, that careless driver of the Beetle is not even shaven and is only in a dirty undershirt!”

In the so-called appeal to poverty (argumentum ad lazarum), this fallacy works in reverse: “That Ford Expedition is obviously at fault because it’s much sturdier and bigger than that old Beetle. The Expedition’s driver must have bullied the poor Beetle’s driver and raced him to the intersection.” Of course, these are both illogical ways of looking at the situation, for we know that neither greater wealth nor poverty indicates greater good or truth.

Emotive language (argumentum ad populum). This is the fallacy of using emotionally loaded words to establish a claim without proof; the appeal is not to reason and logic but to the beliefs or feeling of the majority of the people towards a particular issue.

One remarkable example of emotive language in history is the response of Spain’s Queen Isabella when Christopher Columbus broached to her the idea that based on his trans-Atlantic voyage, the Earth must be a sphere. She said: “The Earth must be flat. Millions of people know that it is. Are you trying to tell them that they are all mistaken fools?” (Based on modern scientific knowledge, of course, they were!)

As we all know, emotive language is the bread-and-butter stuff of political advertising: “Manuel Villar: Sipag at Tiyaga” (Hard Work and Perseverance), Noynoy Aquino: Hindi Ako Magnanakaw” (I Am Not A Thief), “Gibo Teodoro: Galing at Talino” (Expertise and Intelligence), “Pag May Erap, May Ginhawa” (Where there’s Erap, There’s Great Relief). By using a powerful emotional appeal, each of these political slogans tries to short-circuit logical evaluation of the candidate’s fitness for the Philippine presidency.

Tu quoque (“You also” or “You, too” fallacy). This is the fallacy of demolishing someone’s position by presenting evidence that his or her past actions or beliefs are inconsistent with the position or view he or she is presenting now. A very common example in Philippine elections is this argument: “Your party cheated heavily to win in the last elections, so why is your party advocating honesty now and condemning my party for preparing to do what you did in the coming elections?” It’s the obnoxious tit-for-tat mentality that bedevils supposedly free and democratic elections.

Genetic error. This is a variation of the ad hominem (personal ridicule) fallacy, one that doesn’t necessarily attack the person directly but attacks instead the origins of the position he or she is proposing. This fallacy is termed “genetic” because it’s based on the notion that the original source of an idea is a reliable basis for evaluating its truth or reasonableness.

One example of the genetic error fallacy is this argument: “You believe that that there are measurable differences in IQ among the different human races? You must be a despicable racist then!”

This highly emotional diatribe is invariably raised against scientists who as much as privately and quietly raise such a possibility based on their objective and dispassionate researches. Understandably, people of any race would find such a view so horrid and patently unacceptable, but this belief has no bearing at all on whether such IQ differences do, in fact, exist. Indeed, where an argument comes from is irrelevant in an honest-to-goodness effort to establish logical proof.

Anthropomorphism (pathetic fallacy). This type of fallacy treats animals or inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thoughts, or sensations. Although using the pathetic fallacy can be a good way to make complex concepts or difficult ideas more easily understood, it can be carried to unreasonable, illogical extremes.

One useful pathetic fallacy is this personification of the behavior of gases: “Air hates to be crowded, and when compressed it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.” Of course, being an inanimate entity, air is incapable of hating and of trying to escape; it just behaves according to natural law. Still, attributing human traits to air makes its behavior more comprehensible to us.

Anthropomorphism, however, can take a less useful and odious form: superstition. For example, growing a fortune plant right outside the door of the house is supposed to bring good luck to the homeowner. However, when the fortune plant doesn’t grow well despite being adequately taken care of, it’s the extreme in anthropomorphism to conclude that the fortune plant detests the homeowner and won’t bring good luck to him or her. Conversely, it’s also the extreme in anthropomorphism to believe that when the fortune plant grows robust, it will bring great fortune to the homeowner. In reality, regardless of whether its owner has good or bad luck, the fortune plant will grow largely on its own accord, depending only on the care that it gets.

Non sequitur (Latin for “it doesn’t follow”). In formal logic, a non sequitur is any argument whose conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises. The conclusion may either be true or false, but the fallacy in the argument arises from a disconnect between the premise and the conclusion. Indeed, all of the formal fallacies we have taken up above are special cases of non sequitur.

There’s no need to look far for examples of non sequiturs, for the campaign trail for the 2010 Philippine national elections is littered with them: “Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap” (If No One’s Corrupt, No One will Be Poor); “Para sa Mabilis na Pag-aahon” (For Quick Recovery); “Pagbabago Sigurado” (Change for Sure); “Ipagpatuloy ang Magandang Simula” (Let’s Continue Our Beautiful Beginning).

Simple scrutiny of each of these slogans will quickly show that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise; in other words, the statement is a fallacy, unrealistic and logically indefensible. Their only legitimate use is as attention-getters—nothing else.

Next: The verbal fallacies

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 13-19, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated February 25, 2010. All rights reserved.


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