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Sunday, September 29, 2002 ( 11:36 PM ) (Permalink)

Spinning Out of Context

Brendan Nyhan reports in Spinsanity that the recent partisan bickering over politicization of the war on terrorism was partly the result of quoting President Bush out of context:

"[W]hen discussing the dispute over the legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security, Bush said 'the House responded' to his plea for weaker civil service protections than Democrats support, 'but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.'"

Like a lot of the President's off-the-cuff remarks, this sentence has fractured grammar. He starts out to make a comparison: the Senate is more interested in special interests than in security. This does not imply that they're not interested in security, though that's what he went on to say. The problem is as much the fault of Bush's unclear grammar as it is with taking the last part of his sentence out of context.

Update (10/1): John R. Lott, Jr., blames the media for quoting the President out of context and suggests bias as a cause. While this may be true, he overlooks the fact that part of the blame rests on Bush's misleading syntax. If he could speak grammatically, there would be fewer occasions for confusion or bias.

( 1:47 AM )

Democracy and Fallacy

Chris Lawson writes in with a comment about Brian McKenzie's response to the Bentham quote below:

"I agree completely that fallacy is a very useful weapon in totalitarian states as well as democracies. Subsequently it has snagged my attention that he claims that 'fallacious arguments in politics is one of the identifying marks of democracy' when it seems to me he has been arguing against that position. The fallacious thinking of Trofim Lysenko led to the starvation of millions of Soviet citizens, to choose just one example of fallacy in non-democratic politics. Fallacies occur in all political systems and in all political parties, and let's be frank, in all people, for the simple reason that fallacies occur routinely in human thinking."

Another reason why fallacies occur under authoritarian regimes, which Bentham seems to have overlooked, is that even the most totalitarian form of government can't do everything by means of force. Persuasion is needed by all governments, not just democracies, though it is probably more important in a democracy than in a dictatorship. However, fallacies may even be more prevalent in dictatorships, which often act against the interests of their citizens, and use fraud to conceal this fact. As Brian mentioned, they try to hide the evidence by falsifying history, but when they can't hide it, they "spin" it.

Update to the Debate (9/30): Brian McKenzie responds to Chris Lawson:

"Chris Lawson is correct to point out my seeming contradiction. To clarify: we don't get any sense of the health of the democracy (as Bentham suggests) from fallacious arguments. When used for persuasion, they identify democratic politics because, in my view, totalitarians aren't properly politicians since they don't allow rational political debate. Thus a totalitarian dictator engages in the use of fallacies for obfuscation, not persuasion."

A further point of clarification: I, more than Bentham, gave the impression that a prevalence of fallacies is a sign of a healthy democracy. Bentham claimed that a free press and an effective popular assembly are necessary conditions for there to be a demand for fallacies, since otherwise "everything is done by force". But Bentham is just wrong about that, since even the worst totalitarian governments don't do everything by force.

Thanks to both Chris and Brian for the thoughtful comments!

Tuesday, September 24, 2002 ( 7:09 PM ) (Permalink)

Fallacies in the News

The Dallas Morning News has a good recent article dealing with pseudoscience on many television shows airing on supposedly educational networks, such as the Learning, Discovery, and History channels. The article discusses the way in which science is misrepresented through such techniques as quoting out of context, loaded questions, and fallacious appeals to expert opinion. The most common problem with such shows is their one-sidedness:

"On The Learning Channel, Atlantis in the Andes devoted two hours to the proposition that the ruins of Atlantis are in the Bolivian highlands near the Pacific coast of South America. … A few seconds of comment from a scientist served as an alternative view."

The article refers to this as "the limitation, or sometimes even exclusion, of opposing views.

"Dr. Paul Kurtz, who has participated in a number of shows, says, 'Balance is usually nine believers and one skeptic.'"

A few seconds out of two hours, or one interview out of ten, does not make a balanced report.

Friday, September 20, 2002 ( 11:23 PM ) (Permalink)

Quote, Unquote

Here's Jeremy Bentham on why the prevalence of fallacies is, paradoxically, a sign of both a strong democracy and a free press:

"Without a popular assembly taking an effective part in the government and publishing its debates, and without free discussion through the medium of the press, there is no demand for fallacies. Fallacy is fraud; and fraud is useless when everything is done by force."
(Bentham's Handbook of Political Fallacies, Apollo Editions, 1971, p. 246.)

Reader Response: (9/22/2002) Brian McKenzie wrote in to take issue with this quote:

"I must disagree with Bentham's quote, for it suggests that totalitarians don't need to lie. In fact, we see just the opposite is true when we turn to history for examples. Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Ceaucescu, Amin… the list goes on of dictators who consistently made fallacies and lies a central tenet of their administration.

"George Orwell's 1984 examines this phenomenon, and even gives it a name: Doublethink. The novel features a character whose job is to falsify records and change history to make them coincide with the lies of the government. Orwell's own experiences working for British Intelligence in World War 2 provided him the intellectual experience he needed to write the novel.

"I think I would rather argue that the presence of fallacious arguments in politics is one of the identifying marks of democracy rather than a vital sign of the health of a democratic system."

Thursday, September 19, 2002 ( 10:27 PM ) (Permalink)

Reader Response

Howard Owens writes in response to an earlier post about an argument concerning the scientific consensus on evolution:

"At what point does appealing to 'consensus' become a slippery slope? In this case, the 'not all scientists' is a rather substantial number of scientists, depending, especially, on how you are defining 'evolution.' Really, before the validity of evolution can be debated, both sides must agree on a definition of 'evolution.' Often the 'creationists' and the 'intelligent designers' and the 'godless evolutionists' all have slightly different ways in which they use the word. The issue is far too complex for such hasty generalizations, I think."

Let me try to clarify the earlier post:

Wednesday, September 18, 2002 ( 11:39 PM ) (Permalink)

More on the NEA

Brendan Nyhan of Spinsanity has written a sequel to his original NEA article.

Sunday, September 15, 2002 ( 11:42 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

There are two new books on the introductory shelf of the Fallacy Files Bookshelf.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002 ( 7:14 PM ) (Permalink)

NEA Follow-Up

Andrew Cline, of the Rhetorica Press-Politics Journal, has an entry criticizing Spinsanity for suggesting that the original Washington Times article on the NEA was a lie. I agree, but would go even farther: the article is entitled "The Big NEA-Sept. 11 Lie", and says explicitly that the Times' reporting was "intentionally deceptive". In fact, there is no evidence in the Spinsanity article as to the reporter's intentions. As Cline argues, it may have been a mistake due to incompetence.

However, not all of the incompetence can be laid on the Times reporter. The original lesson says:

"Explore who and what may be to blame for this event. Use non-speculative terms. Do not suggest any group is responsible. Do not repeat the speculations of others, including newscasters."

In its full context, it appears that the word "group" was meant to refer to religious and ethnic groups, rather than terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. However, as Spinsanity briefly mentions, "this is not at all clear". This lack of clarity could have been avoided simply by making the vague word "group" more specific with the modifier "religious or ethnic". So, the Times reporter fell into a linguistic boobytrap laid by the lesson plan. This is partly the result of poor reading, as Cline says, and partly the result of poor writing, both of which are symptoms of poor thinking.

In politics, the accusation of "liar, liar" usually means no more than that the other side made a mistake. It's disappointing that Spinsanity should fall into the kind of overheated rhetoric that it is their mission to criticize.

( 1:19 AM )

NEA Update

Spinsanity has now changed the link so that you can read the original lesson plan that was the subject of Nyhan's article. Having now read it, I agree that it was quoted out of context.

Monday, September 09, 2002 ( 6:48 PM ) (Permalink)

Another Answer

Here's another answer to Brian McKenzie's Shakespeare question, from Tony Blair—not the British Prime Minister, but the co-author of the textbook Logical Self-Defense. This answer is taken from a post to the "Argumentation Theory" discussion list, and focuses on the bias aspect of the argument which I mentioned briefly at the end of the previous post:

"Howard Kahane used to identify as a fallacy something he called 'suppressed evidence.' [AKA: onesidedness—GNC] As I recall, this was his name for sitting on evidence contrary to your point of view, although you knew it to exist, when you were arguing for your point of view. It's a species of dialectical impropriety of the sort Ralph Johnson argues against in Manifest Rationality—a failure to take up an objection. It blocks the rational resolution of a disagreement, because it is not rational to support or accept a standpoint on the basis of evidence known to be inadequate, and so it should count as a fallacy somewhere in the pragma-dialectical scheme. I could also see classifying the argument from 'vultus tela vibrat' to the conclusion that Edward de Vere authored the Shakespeare corpus as what Johnson and Blair in Logical Self-Defense call the generic fallacy of 'problematic premise,' because if the phrase has equally good translations that don't support de Vere's authorship (that is, assuming McKenzie's report of Hannas is accurate and Hannas's authority is reliable), then the premise is open to challenge, needs support (i.e., the refutation of that challenge), and hasn't received it. I'd classify it not as irrelevance, nor as ambiguity (pace Larry Powers, who argues that every [bona fide] fallacy is an equivocation), but as a lapse of dialectical duty."

Sunday, September 08, 2002 ( 11:32 PM ) (Permalink)


Q: "In the course of teaching a unit on the so-called Shakespeare authorship question, I came across the following encomium addressed to Edward de Vere [the Earl of Oxford], the man many believe to be the true identity of William Shakespeare: 'Vultus tela vibrat.'

"This can mean 'Thy will shakes spears'; if one translates it as such, it is indeed interesting evidence connecting Oxford with the Shakespeare identity. However, an 'independent classical scholar' named Andrew Hannas published a short paper in The Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter examining the phrase 'vultus tela vibrat' in light of the Latin-English dictionaries available in Shakespeare's time, and discovered that it could be translated in a number of different, equally valid, English-language phrases. The 'thy will shakes spears' translation is that of a pro-Oxford scholar seeking to find textual evidence for the belief in Oxford as Shakespeare.

"My question: is the deliberate mistranslation of a foreign text, when used to support an argument, a form of logical fallacy? If so, have you heard of it before, and under what category of fallacy would it fall? Ambiguity? Relevance?"
—Brian McKenzie

A: What a terrific question, Brian!

The issue of mistranslation needs to be divided into two, based on how bad the translation is:

  1. The translation is completely inaccurate, such that no competent translator would translate it that way.
  2. The translation is one possible interpretation that a competent translator might make, though not the only one.

Your example is obviously type 2, but let me say a word about type 1 first: A mistranslation of type 1 is either a mistake by an incompetent translator or a lie. Lying is usually ethically worse than committing a fallacy, though it can have as bad an effect upon our arguments by giving us false premisses. However, a lie is not a fallacy.

In contrast, I believe that a type 2 mistranslation is indeed fallacious, when it results from the wishful thinking of the translator leading to a biased result supporting the translator's prejudices. This appears to be what's happening in your example.

So far as I know, this fallacy has not been noticed before or given a name. As to the question of what type it is, we all know that texts are usually both vague and ambiguous, and that the relation between the text and its translation is one-many—that is, there are many possible translations, some of which are better than others, but none of which is uniquely correct. This is especially true for short texts, such as your example. For this reason, I would say that fallacious mistranslation is a type of fallacy of ambiguity or vagueness.

A further fallacy is involved if the translator fails to mention the fact that other, equally plausible translations are possible. This would be an example of slanting.

Thanks for the great question, Brian!

Friday, September 06, 2002 ( 3:10 AM ) (Permalink)

Fallacies in the News

Brendan Nyhan of Spinsanity has a long article debunking some recent criticisms of the National Education Association teachers' union, which he attributes to quoting out of context. Unfortunately, it's not now possible to check the lesson plan in question as it does not seem to be available, so I cannot verify Nyhan's claim.

On a related note, Slate has a shocking article detailing how Brian Keefer, also of Spinsanity, lost his day job because of an article that he wrote. I hope that he and his colleagues can keep up the good work despite it all.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002 ( 10:22 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

There's a new shelf to the Fallacy Files Bookshelf, and a new book on it.

Sunday, September 01, 2002 ( 3:00 PM ) (Permalink)


John writes in with a question about the following debate he had with a friend:

John: "The theory of evolution is strongly supported by science."

Friend: "But it's not accepted by all scientists, so the theory is in doubt."

Is there a fallacy here? John's argument for evolution is an appeal to expert opinion. As noted in the entry on the fallacy Ad Verecundiam, or Appeal to False Authority, one way in which an argument using expert opinion can go wrong is if the expert cited is not representative of the consensus of experts. This is made possible by the fact that it is almost always possible to find experts with eccentric opinions. For this reason, the fact that not all scientists agree with the theory is no argument against it, since the really important thing is the scientific consensus, which clearly supports evolution.

Thanks for the question, John!

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