Michael Koplow contributes the following example:
This is from NPR's Morning Edition of September 10. Mara Liasson was reporting on a Democratic candidates' debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and held at a historically black college.Liasson: Vermont's Howard Dean was asked last night how a governor from a state with so few minorities could connect with the concerns of African-Americans. Dean had clearly anticipated the question.
Confusing necessary and sufficient conditions is a common logical mistakecommon enough to slip by most of Dean's listeners. Of course, Dean was giving the typical "politician's answer" to the question by dodging it. Moreover, he did so in the most effective way, which is by making a joke and getting a laugh. By the time the audience finished laughing, they probably forgot what the question was, and didn't realize that Dean had never given any reason to think that he could connect with black voters.
Reader Rivkah Maccaby asks the following:
"What is the term for the fallacy of dismissing an argument on the basis of a small error that isn't really relevant to the major point? I see this tried often in the following context: because creationists are not well informed on the subject of evolution, they can't attack it at its root (which in my reckoning can't be done anyway, because the theory is sound), so they will produce some exposition of (usually strict Darwinian) evolution written before 1954 in which there is a reference to the Piltdown skull. They will then argue that a scientist who couldn't tell the Piltdown was a forgery is too ignorant to discuss evolution, and thus the exposition must be dismissed as completely inaccurate. Then they go on to say that if a scientist can't write a sound exposition on evolution, the whole theory must be wrong.
Rivkah, what you describe is a familiar phenomenon, which Robert Gula discusses under the names "petty objection" or "nit-picking", and classifies as a type of red herringthat is, a diversionary tactic. I would agree that this is a type of irrelevancy, but would classify this more specifically as a version of the ad hominem argument. There are two cases involved:
The second type of maneuver is what you are describing in both the evolution and nuclear examples, and it is clearly an ad hominem. The first type is also a kind of ad hominem, since the error is one committed by the arguer rather than one which affects the argument. In other words, one rejects a good argument because the arguer can't spell, or mispronounces a word, or some other irrelevant defect in the presentation of the argument.
Whatever the name, and however we classify it, this kind of error is a tempting one when we are unsympathetic to the position an arguer is advancing. We start searching for flaws which we can use to reject the unwelcome conclusion, and we need to be on our guard against seizing upon some irrelevant error as an excuse to do so.
Thanks for the excellent question!
Sources: Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies, Axios Press, 2002, p. 58.
Check it Out
The latest issue (September/October) of the Skeptical Inquirer has a couple of articles of interest to the student of fallacies:
Clark's Lead Disappears
From yesterday's Newsweek:
"Retired Gen. Wesley Clark may have only entered the presidential race on Thursday, but he is already the Democratic frontrunner, according to a new Newsweek poll.
However, later in the same article we learn:
"The Newsweek poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, which interviewed 1,001 adults by telephone on September 18 and 19. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points."
In other words, all of the frontrunners listed are actually within the margin of error of each other. So, Clark's two point "lead" of Dean and Lieberman is really no lead at all. Later in the same article, we are also told:
"Meanwhile, as Americans focus on the fiscal realities of creating a stable Iraq, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings continue to slide, the poll shows. The president’s approval rating now stands at 51 percent, down 1 point from last week’s poll ."
Once again, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, a one percentage point drop is meaningless. What the poll actually tells us is that there is no measurable change in Bush's approval rating since last week. But, then, that wouldn't make an interesting story, now would it?
In a Washington Post story on Monday, Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus dissected Vice President Cheney's appearance the previous day on Meet the Press, and quoted him out of context in the process. To its credit, the Post has corrected the contextomy, and placed the correction in a box next to the online version of the story. Remarkably, this is not the first time that Milbank has committed a contextomy of a Cheney appearance on Meet the Press, as Milbank seems to have been the original source for the "reconstituted nuclear weapons" contextomy. That's two strikes!
Cheney Clarifies "Reconstituted" Quote
Vice President Dick Cheney was on Meet the Press this morning, and clarified the "reconstituted nuclear weapons" quote made on that same program earlier this year. Here is the relevant portion of the transcript, starting with a video clip from the earlier program:
"(Videotape, March 16, 2003):
The quote, misleadingly taken out of context, was widely reported as evidence of the Bush administration "lying" about Iraq's nuclear capability. In fact, it's still listed near the top of Bush Watch's "Bush Lies" page.
The Clark Contextomies
Contextomies are used to sell movie tickets and books, but they are also used to sell political positions. As an example, Ben Fritz of Spinsanity has a lengthy article on the spinning of a claim made by retired General Wesley Clark, aided and abetted by much quoting out of context from the interview in which Clark first advanced the claim. The contextomies come from both those who want to use what Clark supposedly said to discredit the Bush administration, and those who wish to use it to discredit Clark himself.
Source: Ben Fritz, "Pundits Won't Stop Spinning Clark's Phone Call", Spinsanity, 9/3/2003
The Blurbwatch Conspiracy
In "Blurbwatch", I usually criticize the blurbs in ads for new movies which quote reviews out of context, but this doesn't mean that ads for movies are worse about committing contextomies than those for books or television shows. As evidence, Eugene Volokh critiques a couple of blurbs from a webpage advertizing a book. Check it out.
Sources: Eugene Volokh, "What They're Saying", The Volokh Conspiracy, 9/1/2003
Check it Out
Letters to the Editor frequently commit logical fallacies, and Tim van Gelder has the scoop on one from a letter to the editor of The Australian.
Source: "What Philosophy Can Do For You", Critical Reflections, 9/1/2003
Answer: 1 is Nostradamus, and 2 is scrambled.