Saturday, March 6, 2010

Steeling ourselves against outright political deception - III

This week I am posting in the Forum the third in the series on logical fallacies—the last—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 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 10. 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.

The first in the series two weeks ago 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. The second in the series took up last week the fallacies of relevance, namely 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.

This time we are taking up the last of the three, the so-called verbal fallacies.

Watching out against the verbal fallacies

We began our discussion of the logical fallacies by grouping them into three broad categories: material fallacies, fallacies of relevance, and verbal fallacies. We have already taken up the material fallacies, or conclusions that are not adequately proven because they contain wrong presuppositions, as well as the fallacies of relevance, those arguments that seek to persuade people to accept evidently nonlogical propositions. This time we will focus on the verbal fallacies, or the false statements or conclusions that result when words are used improperly or ambiguously, whether by ourselves or by other people. They are the fallacies of ambiguity, equivocation, amphiboly, composition, division, and abstraction.

We must keep in mind that the problem with verbal fallacies is not so much faulty logical thinking as the inadvertent or deliberate lack of clarity in language. This generally results from the wrong or slippery use of words, whether spoken or written, and it sometimes happens by accident, as in a slip of the tongue, an error in penmanship, or hitting the wrong key of the word processor. Normally, no great harm is done in such cases. When used deliberately with malice or ill intent, however, these misuses of language can trick or mislead people into making wrong decisions or choices. This is particularly true during major political campaigns, when candidates frenetically engage in all sorts of verbal legerdemain to prop themselves up or demolish their opponents.

Let’s now take up the verbal fallacies one and by one and give illustrative examples of each:

Ambiguity. The use of undefined words or words whose meaning is vague constitutes an ambiguity. For example, let’s take a look at this campaign slogan of a presidential candidate that’s currently airing on Philippine radio: “Candidate X: Pinili ng Taong Bayan” [Chosen by the People]. These obvious questions arise: What was he chosen for and in what context and in what manner? And who were those people who chose him and how many were they? And even if they chose him, so what? The answers to these questions are perplexing and unclear, thus putting such slogans in the class of verbal fallacies by ambiguity.

Another case of an arresting verbal ambiguity is this slogan of another presidential candidate, currently airing on radio: “Panata Ko—Tapusin Ang Kahirapan!” [My Pledge—Put an End to Poverty!]. It’s a magnificent but vague commitment—and really now, how plausible is it? Precisely how will the candidate end such an intractable sociological problem as poverty? What if the listener happened to be enormously rich—would that promise still apply to him or her? Pledges like this, no matter how well-intentioned, constitute a verbal fallacy by looseness of language.

And here’s a slogan in the TVcommercial of a senatorial candidate: “Gusto Ko, Happy Ka!” [I Want You to Be Happy!]. Sounds arresting and disarmingly candid, but what does it really mean? And how does the candidate’s desire to make you happy relate to his fitness for the position he’s gunning for? The problem with this slogan lies in its vague, seemingly child-like message, putting it the class of fallacies by ambiguity.

On a less political note, the fallacy of ambiguity also results when the writer’s definitions of the words he uses don’t match those of the reader’s. Take this newspaper headline: “Helicopter powered by human flies” (“Human-powered helicopter flies” better?). Or this newspaper passage: “The sociologists visited the Tasadays [a supposedly Stone Age tribe in the Philippines, later shown to be of doubtful authenticity] and took photographs of their half-naked women, but they were not properly developed.” (How was that again? Which or what were not properly developed? The women’s bodily features or the exposed photographic negative? Try fixing that sentence in your mind.)

Equivocation. People commit this fallacy when they loosely use a word in more than one sense, yet give the impression that they mean only one. Since they sometimes can’t even differentiate the meanings, they may not even know they are equivocating.

Here are some examples of the fallacy of equivocation:

“All fair things are virtuous. My fiancée is fair; therefore, my fiancée is virtuous.” Here, the word “fair” is being used in two senses: in the first, “impartial and honest,” and in the second, “lovely and pleasing.” Likewise, the word “virtuous” is also being used in two senses: in the first, “righteous and morally upright,” in the second, “chaste.” Both premise and conclusion therefore aren’t valid here, so the statement is actually a verbal fallacy of equivocation.

‘Be Intelligent. Use Iodized Salt Every Day.” This was the slogan of a multisectoral nutrition campaign a few years ago that promoted the regular intake of iodized salt. It’s a catchy slogan, of course, but note that while it uses the word “intelligent” in more than one sense, it gives the impression that only one is meant. In the process, it commits two verbal fallacies in a row—that you can make yourself intelligent simply by an act of will, and that using iodized salt every day will make you intelligent. These are obviously oversimplifications—verbal fallacies, in fact—that are unworthy of serious belief.

Literature, too, has its share of fallacies of equivocation—but largely for the pleasure to be derived from wordplay. In particular, the playwright William Shakespeare was an inveterate punner, one who wasn’t above using words in four different senses all at once. In his play Love’s Labour’s Lost, a character rhapsodizes: “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile.” (Here, “light” is used to mean “intellect,” “wisdom,” “eyesight,” and “daylight.”). The Bard of Avon would also willfully mix up the use of verbs, adjectives, and nouns, as when a character says in this line from The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I will description the matter to you.” (Try that in English grammar glass and your teacher’s sure to flunk you!)

Amphiboly. This fallacy results from ambiguous or faulty grammatical structures. The error is not with a specific word but with how the words connect or fail to connect. English is particularly susceptible to amphiboly because its vocabulary is so rich and its sentence structures so flexible.

Here are two examples:

“Slow Men At Work” (Without ambiguity: “Slow: Men At Work”). Here, of course, proper punctuation makes all the difference.

“Big Bargain: New highchair for toddler with a missing leg” (Without ambiguity: “Big Bargain: New toddler’s highchair with a missing leg”). Here, we have a misplaced modifying phrase that needed to be relocated to its proper place.

A classic case of amphiboly arises when the adverb “only” is variously positioned in these sentences: “She only wrote that.” “Only she wrote that.” “She wrote only that.” “She wrote that only.” Four possible positions in all! A careless writer could very well chose a position for “only” that makes the statement yield a meaning other than what he or she intended, and that statement would be an amphiboly.

Composition. This is the fallacy of assuming that a group as whole will have the same attributes as the individuals that comprise it. Consider the following examples:

“Atoms have no color. Flowers are made up of atoms.Therefore, flowers have no color.” (What is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.)

“The numbers 3 and 5 are both odd. 3 and 5 are parts of 8. Therefore, the number 8 is odd.” (8, of course, is very much an even number!)

“An elephant eats more food than a human; therefore, elephants as a group eat more food than do all the humans in the world.” (We humans grossly outnumber the elephants, so we consume more food than they.)

Division. The converse of the fallacy of composition, this fallacy assumes that the individuals in a group have the same qualities as the group itself. In reality, though, what is true of the whole isn’t necessarily true of its parts.)

“The United States is the world’s richest country; therefore, all Americans must be rich and live very well.” (This simply couldn’t be true, for there are slums in the U.S., too!)

“That rock band is the best our city has; therefore, its members are also the city’s best rock band players.” (For all we know, that band may only have a so-so bass guitarist.)

“The average Filipino family has 3.3 children. The de la Cruzes are a Filipino family. Therefore, the de la Cruzes must have 3.3 children.” (This conclusion obviously doesn’t follow. Apart from the fact that the size of the average family won’t necessarily be equal to the the size of any family among the whole set of families, it’s also an impossibility for a family to have a fractional number of children.)

Abstraction. This fallacy is the classical error of postulating or believing that everything that one comprehends through pure reasoning can actually happen in reality. This is the audacious illogic in the following quote in some inspirational posters: “Everything your mind can conceive, your body can achieve.” Sounds a very desirable possibility indeed, but saying it is actually the height of naiveté or lack of knowledge about the ways of the world.

Another form of the abstraction fallacy is taking a quoted statement out of context. For example, a London newspaper carried a review with this critique of a theatrical performance: “I couldn’t help feeling that, for all the energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry, the audience had been shortchanged.” The promoters of the stage play then pared this statement down to this blurb in their newspaper advertising: “…having ‘energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry.’” That, of course, is a fallacy of abstraction that shamelessly distorts the intent and spirit of the original statement.

Politics is often replete with such fallacies of abstraction. Take a look at this slogan of a presidential candidate: “Di pa tapos ang laban, ipagpapatuloy ko” [The fight’s not over yet, I’ll continue it!]. Precisely what fight was that and whose fight was it? Against whom or what? And what’s the point of wanting to continue that fight? And finally, will the voter automatically benefit from that fight being continued by this particular candidate?

The slogan of another presidential candidate also makes use of a similar fallacious abstraction: “Pag May Erap, May Ginhawa” [If There’s Erap, There’s Great Relief]. This, of course, is wordplay using a popular Filipino folk saying, “Kung may hirap, may ginhawa,” where the Tagalog word “hirap” (suffering) has been deftly and ingeniously replaced by the similar-sounding nickname of the candidate. It’s obviously an inspired and memorable slogan, but it can easily be shown to have no bearing with reality at all.

Indeed, against all the verbal fallacies we have discussed above, vigilance over language—whether those of others or our own—is actually our only sure and effective line of defense. Let’s keep that in mind particularly in this frenzied political campaign season.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 25, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated March 5, 2010. All rights reserved.


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