Political rhetoric is a treasure trove of logical fallacies.
Given the difficulty of conveying actually sound reasoning in a soundbite or tweet, I understand the temptation to resort to misleading rhetoric instead. I have no sympathy at all with media outlets who betray people’s trust by tolerating, or even perpetuating, such deception. But at least the rest of us can be on our guard to not to be fooled ourselves by bad reasoning.
Toward this end, logicians—scholars who specialize in distinguishing good from bad reasoning—have catalogued many of the most common logical fallacies. These are types of reasoning that can sound good but actually aren’t. They fool people into thinking their conclusions have been well-supported, when they actually haven’t. The “evidence” they offer can seem to show that a particular conclusion is, at least probably, true, when, in fact, it does no such thing. It’s a logical trick; it’s a deception.
Below are some of the political arena’s most popular logical deceptions:
“Straw Man” Arguments:
Surely the politician’s favourite friend, these arguments involve misrepresenting, distorting, caricaturing one’s opponents’ views and then showing how the described view is obviously wrong. But of course one hasn’t shown that one’s opponents’ actual views are wrong. One has only refuted the dumb view one has pretended is one’s opponents’. Practitioners of this device don’t refute the actual views of their opponents. They refute their own misrepresentation of them. But then they let on that they’ve refuted their opponents’ actual positions. Audiences are deceived about what the opponents’ views are, in order to make them look bad. But their actual opponents’ views haven’t been “knocked down;” only made-up “straw men” have.
“Ad Hominem” Arguments:
These “arguments” attack the person rather than their views. The most blatant examples involve name-calling. But they typically involve attacking a person’s character, or intelligence, or other characteristics. Some of these things can be relevant to whether you should vote for the person. But they’re logically irrelevant to whether the person might be right about a particular issue under discussion. Even the most corrupt, ill-informed, or whatever, person might happen to be right about any particular issue. Attacking an opponent’s person does not show in the least that they are mistaken on a particular issue.
This is where significant evidence counting against one’s own position is simply ignored. You convey evidence supporting your position. But you leave out significant facts that count against it. The evidence you offer may support your position. But in light of all the facts, including the ones you’ve ignored, the view you’re pushing may not be reasonable at all.
“Appeals to Emotion:”
These are attempts to get people to accept a conclusion by appealing to their emotions rather than rational considerations. It’s not that emotions are always bad or irrelevant. Emotions can help us see how good or bad something is. And we should feel good, or bad, about things that are good, or bad. But it is common for people with a weak rational case for their position to whip up people’s emotions to obscure that fact and win support anyway. People’s emotions are used to mislead them.
These arguments appeal to people’s desire to fit in with the group. They assume that the majority perspective, of their group at least, is correct. But of course, majorities can be very wrong.
Ever notice that when skilled politicians are asked challenging questions they rarely answer them? They start talking about something else instead—usually something loosely related to what they’ve been asked. But they let on like they’re answering the question. They’re really just talking about what they want to talk about instead. They’ve brought up a “red herring” to get people thinking about something else instead. They’ve changed the subject. They’re diverting people’s attention to something else. Or they’ve brought up something which is actually logically irrelevant to the point at issue, but are pretending that it is relevant and somehow supports their view.
“Begging the Question:”
This is reasoning that just assumes, rather than proves, a particular point of view on an issue. The speaker assumes that they’re right on the point at issue, or assumes something that those who disagree on the point at issue would not agree with. They then let on that they’ve proven that their view is correct. But they’ve done no such thing. They haven’t even offered evidence that they’re right. They’ve just assumed it. Beware the questionable things people simply assume when they’re trying to convince you of something.
“Appeals to Force/Fear:”
These “arguments” implicitly threaten their audience with harm if they do not accept the conclusion offered. They attempt to convince people to accept a conclusion by conveying that something bad will happen to them if they don’t.
“False Cause” Fallacies:
This reasoning assumes that one thing is the cause of another when, in fact, that causal connection is doubtful. Even if two things coincide, that does not prove that one is the cause of the other. They may only have a common cause. Or it may be a coincidence.
“Slippery Slope” Fallacy:
This sort of reasoning assumes that if a certain thing is done, that will lead to a chain reaction which will end in disaster—when that end result is actually unlikely. Slippery slope reasoning is sometimes sound. Some actions really do lead to disastrous chains of events. But slippery slope reasoning is fallacious when the alleged disasterous consequences are actually unlikely.
This sort of reasoning says that two things are similar when actually they are not—at least in the relevant respects. “Arguments by analogy” exemplify this general form: `X is like Y. Y has property p. Therefore, probably, X has property p.’ Not all such arguments are fallacious. But they are fallacious when there are significant differences between the two things being compared, such that though the one thing has certain features it is unlikely that the other has those features.
A favourite of politicians and journalists, these are questions which “beg the question.” They simply assume something in such a way that whether one answers the question with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ one is conceding what is being assumed. (Have you stopped stealing from your neighbors, for example? If you answer, ‘yes,’ you’re admitting that you did steal, even if you are no longer. If you answer, ‘no,’ you’re conceding that you’re still stealing from them.) If someone asks you such a question, reject it; point out that it assumes something you don’t concede. Don’t answer it.
These are arguments that assume that there are only two possibilities, when there are actually more. Typically they argue, ‘Either A is the case (or should be done), or B is the case (or should be done). But obviously A is not the case (or ought not be done). So, obviously, B must be the case (or should be done).’ But often there are other possibilities. Sometimes a combination of the two is a possibility; you don’t really have to choose between them. Or other times there is a completely different option. Even if A isn’t the correct option, B might not be the correct option either. Perhaps C is the correct answer.
Look out for these common fallacies when encountering political rhetoric.
Thankfully, it’s always people on the other side that commit, and fall for, these errors.