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Top 10 Logical Fallacies in Politics

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. [NOTE: the writer's stance on this subject has changed significantly since the original writing of this article.] 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.

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-e. magill 4/7/2010

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