Monday, February 22, 2010

Steeling ourselves against outright political deception

Now that the campaign season for the 2010 Philippine national elections is underway, I’ll start posting in the Forum the series on logical fallacies— to put it more plainly, on illogical or erroneous thinking—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 slightly 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.

Watching out against the material fallacies

Practically every language textbook cautions us against the logical fallacies, which have bedeviled mankind from the very beginning and even long after Aristotle had painstakingly classified them and issued strong cautionary words against them over 2,400 years ago. Logical fallacies are those errors in our judgment that often result from fuzzy thinking, errors that—on hindsight—we sometimes can correct not long after. For political ends, however, some propaganda practitioners have developed the high art of using language to deceive and to deliberately trap us into making them such errors in judgment. This is the danger that logical fallacies foist on us in our everyday lives and much more so during hotly contested electoral campaigns.

We can group logical fallacies into three broad categories: material fallacies, fallacies of relevance, and verbal fallacies. Let us see now how they operate and attempt to befuddle the minds of even supposedly rational thinkers, including ourselves.

Material fallacies

When we present an argument, we use two basic tools of language: premises and presuppositions. Our premises are what we start our arguments with; to be believable, of course, these arguments must be self-evident or are already part of so-called “common knowledge.” For instance, nobody will dispute the fact that the sun rises from the east, so everybody in his right mind accepts it as true, as a “given.” What we should be wary about, however, is the validity of our presuppositions. We fall victim to these presuppositions because they generally cannot be proved or disproved. We often take them on based on blind faith and nothing more

Take this statement, for instance: “More people die in cities than anywhere else. Therefore, living in the city will hasten your death.” The material fallacy here is, of course, assuming that one outcome is caused by another just because one happens after the other. In reality, the two outcomes could have both been caused by another event, or they could be totally unrelated, as in this case.

As we can see, a conclusion is not adequately proven when an argument’s premises contain wrong presuppositions, which of course are artfully hidden by the better propagandists or, in their more benign form, by well-versed academic debaters. With this in mind, we will now formally look into nine of the most common kinds of material fallacies: false cause, hasty generalization, misapplied generalization, false dilemma, compound question, false analogy, contradictory premises, circular reasoning, and insufficient or suppressed evidence.

False cause. This is the kind of material fallacy that was given as the first example above—the assumption that an event is caused by another event simply because it happens after the latter: “More people die in cities than anywhere else. Therefore, living in the city will hasten your death.” Statistically, because of the denser populations of cities, more people do die in cities than in the countrysides, but this is only because of the sheer number of city dwellers who will eventually die whether from natural or other causes. It doesn’t follow, though, that living in the city will hasten your death. For instance, if you are a sickly person, the modern medical facilities of city hospitals could very well prolong your life rather than hasten your demise.

The most common false-cause fallacies are, of course, superstitions. Despite being educated well, for instance, many people fall prey to this false-cause belief: “Never proceed on your way when a black cat crosses your path. It’s bad luck and many people had died when they did so.” It just so happened that sometime in the past, perhaps one or two people died from one cause or another after proceeding when a black cat crossed their path, but this doesn’t mean that this is a sure outcome of that eventuality.

Even more common is the false-cause fallacy of the chain letter: “Juan de la Cruz didn’t forward his copy of this e-mail to three other people, and three days later he died.” Who among us has not been taken in by this veiled threat?

Hasty generalization. We fall victim to this fallacy when we make a general rule based on only a few examples, or on examples that are really exceptions. This statement is an example: “His parents were great public administrators; therefore, he will be a great administrator, too.” What’s the hasty generalization there? It is the presumption that the traits and skills for good public administration can be passed on genetically to one’s offsprings without fail. If this were true, then all a country needs to do to administered well perpetually is to breed a family—nay, a dynasty—of genetically excellent public administrators. As we all know, of course, this remains a pipe dream for all nations all over the world. All of them must still take a chance in apparently competent, experienced individuals to administer their country over a certain period of time and see what happens—for good or bad. Life’s like that.

Misapplied generalization. When we misapply a certain generalization to a specific case that’s actually an exception to the rule, that generalization becomes materially fallacious. Look at this generalization: “Vegetables are nutritious; therefore, this piece of cabbage must be nutritious.” Cabbage is nutritious, of course, but maybe that particular cabbage you are holding and want to cook may already be rotten and no longer edible—hence not nutritious anymore.

Here’s another such generalization, an even more scalding one: “The graduates of X University have not worked hard and made a genuine effort in college, unable to keep any of their appointments, and presented carelessly written papers.” The fallacy here, of course, is the misapplied generalization. Indeed, the accusation may be true of certain students, but it’s unlikely to be true to the students of X University in general. It would have been fairer and more accurate to specifically address the accusation to—and rebuke—the students who were actually guilty of such academic transgressions.

False dilemma. Who has not been fascinated by the sensuous sell? “I allow only X [bathing soap, body lotion, intimate ointment] to touch my skin.” “I wear Y [briefs, panties, jeans] or nothing at all.” This is the materially fallacious argument that prods us to overlook alternative possibilities, thus creating a false dilemma for us.

This type of fallacious reasoning is also called the “either-or fallacy”—someone poses what looks like a dilemma when there are actually other viable alternatives. For example, someone respectable may have demonstrated an apparent skill in correctly predicting the outcome of horse races. Would it be correct then to make the following statement about that person? “Either that man’s a fraud or he’s psychic. Since it’s obvious he’s not a fraud, he must be truly psychic.” That, however, is committing the fallacy of false dilemma, for it’s also possible that he’s a respectable person demonstrating psychic powers fraudulently, or a fraudulent person who truly possesses psychic powers.

Compound question. You must have already encountered aggressive door-to-door preachers who, when politely told that you are too busy, would tell you in an aggrieved, mildly threatening tone: “You mean to say that you dare refuse God to enter your house?” This is the classic compound question, otherwise called the complex question or loaded question, devilishly phrased to limit the possibilities of one’s answer. Its simpler variation is the so-called persuasive definition, which deceptively fashions the terms of the argument to support the conclusion.

Also called “poisoning the well,” the compound question is designed to prevent or avoid any opposing arguments and incriminates the answerer regardless of the response he or she gives. This is because any answer would admit the preliminary conclusions built into the question.

Another example of the compound question is this: “Do you expect me to believe that lie?” If you answer “no,” you are countering the stated expectation but at the same time admitting that what you said is a lie; if you say “yes,” you are actually saying that you are lying but that you expect the lie to be believed.”

False analogy. When an analogy is drawn between dissimilar or totally unrelated objects or ideas, the result is a false, unreliable analogy—the well-known “mangoes and bananas” comparison: “Bananas are as delicious and tasty as mangoes.” But here’s a more complex, deceiving example: “Minds, like rivers, can be broad. The broader the river, the shallower it is. Therefore, the broader the mind, the shallower it is.” On closer scrutiny, we find that this analogy is false because minds and rivers are actually totally dissimilar and unrelated objects—the first abstract and the second physical—that are not at all amenable to such a simplistic comparison.

We all know how powerful an analogy could be. It can persuade us to transfer the feeling of certainty we have about one subject to another subject that we may not have an opinion yet. But analogies are often undependable and must always be viewed with extreme caution. This is because they rely on the questionable principle that because two things are similar in some respects they are similar in some other respects. Indeed, when relevant differences outweigh relevant similarities, a false analogy results.

Contradictory premises. A basic rule in logic is that a conclusion is valid only when its premises don’t contradict one another; thus, an argument with conflicting or inconsistent premises is automatically invalid. That is the problem with this classical question: “What will happen if an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” The fallacy here is that in a universe where an irresistible force exists, no immovable object could also exist because the force wouldn’t be irresistible.

Just three more of these brain-teasing fallacies: “Into what shape of a slot would a rectangular circle fit?” “If God is all-powerful, can he create a rock so huge and so heavy that he cannot lift it?” “If X is more popular than his rival Y, how can Y perform better than X in the same elective position?” Of course, since the premises of these questions cannot both be valid, there’s really no way of logically answering them.

Circular reasoning. This material fallacy results when the assertion to be proved is later used in the argument as an already proven fact. Also known as “begging the question” and as petitio principii in Latin, circular reasoning is common even among the intelligent; people just have a natural predisposition to it.

We engage in varying degrees of self-deception to keep our self-respect or massage our egos, which may not be an entirely bad thing psychologically: “I must be good-looking because I really think so.”

“I may not be as good as they are but they are actually no better than I am.” “Many of my intelligent friends believe in “manananggals” [bat-winged witches]. I believe not only in “manananggals” but in “tikbalangs” [giant man-horses] as well. Therefore, I must be more intelligent than my friends.” (Intelligence does not increase with higher levels of superstition.)

“Although I take bribes as a government official, I am a man of integrity because I treat people well and give generously to charity; I treat people well and give generously to charity because I am a man of integrity.” (Charity and kindness of this type, of course, doesn’t prove integrity.)

Circular reasoning becomes dangerous when large sectors of the population actively pursue it both as a way of life and as a communal pastime: “He or she will make a good president because he or she promotes [disease-prevention, better ways to do laundry, comradeship in drinking, vigilance against crime] by aggressively pitching a [multivitamin brand, detergent, rum, flashlight batteries].” This kind of perverse logic permeates the airwaves, the print media, many public forums, and our day-to-day interactions, forever trying to mesmerize us into making knee-jerk purchase and voting decisions. Indeed, it would be a wonder if a nation that habitually thinks like that can move forward at all.

Insufficient or suppressed evidence. This is the material fallacy that (1) uses as proof only the facts that support the predetermined conclusion, or (2) disregards or ignores all other pertinent facts. A loyal handmaiden of circular reasoning, this form of illogic gently prods people to close their minds to contrary evidence and decide solely on gut-feel.

Look at these examples from our social and political landscape:

“This buffoon makes me laugh so I’ll vote for him; he has no public service experience, but he’s a fast learner so I’m sure he’ll learn to govern fast enough.” (What happened to managerial competence?)

“We’ve had lawyer-presidents since way back when, and terrible things always happened to this country; so this time, I’m voting for any non-lawyer with low IQ and absolutely no experience.” (What about electing competent professional managers and tried-and-tested community leaders instead?)

“Let’s make Z our governor; he’s already a millionaire with no more motivation to steal.” (Since when was greed demonstrated to vanish when one becomes wealthy?)

This completes our discussion of the nine major kinds of material fallacies: false cause, hasty generalization, misapplied generalization, false dilemma, compound question, false analogy, contradictory premises, circular reasoning, or insufficient or suppressed evidence. We will take up the fallacies of relevance next to help us better analyze more complex premises and propositions. By seeing more of the intricate pathways and pitfalls of fuzzy thinking, we should be able to put a little more precision, a little more science, a little more hindsight, and a little more sense of history to both our personal and national decision-making.

As one teacher of formal logic beautifully puts it, good thinking is doing much better in “learning to navigate through logical space.”

(Next: The fallacies of relevance)

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 on February 21, 2010. All rights reserved.


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