Name that Fallacy!
Slate magazine has an interesting article on how dogs can develop "racist" attitudes through fallacious "reasoning":
"Some will argue that what dogs display is not racism, but something more akin to cause-and-effect conditioning. Really, though, is there a difference? Humans, too, use a bad experience or two to tar a whole class of people. The difference between dogs and people is that people are supposed to be smart enough to recognize the logical fallacy of such a reaction and a dog is, well, just a dog."
Source: Clara Jeffery, "Can a Dog Be Racist?", Slate, 2/26/2003
I've added an article on baseball fallacies to the "Fun with Fallacies" section of the Sources and Resources page.
The New Republic has an amusing article on Janeane Garofalo's recent appearance on "Fox News Sunday". This is more evidence, if any is needed, why comedians are not necessarily authorities on foreign policy; which raises the question as to why the media continue to treat celebrities such as Garofalo as if they were. In the case of Fox, one might suspect that Garofalo is right when she suggests that the media use celebrities as straw men to discredit opposition to a possible war. However, that doesn't explain why she would keep lending herself to such efforts.
- Jason Zengerle, "Reality Bitten", The New Republic
- Appeal to Celebrity
- The Existential Fallacy (2/24/03)
- I've added a quote to the fallacy of accident.
- Thanks to Tim van Gelder at the Critical Reflections weblog, I have added a new example to the regression fallacy. This one was captured in the wild, and replaces two rather tame ones.
Resource: Tim van Gelder, Critical Reflections
A Poe-t Who is No Fool
I mentioned in the entry for the fallacy of Undistributed Middle Term that many people misuse the name of this fallacy as a synonym for any fallacious argument. Here's an example that I recently came across:
"All fools are poets, this the Prefect feels, and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools."
(Edgar Allan Poe, "The Purloined Letter")
Poe says that the Prefect is guilty of a "non distributio medii", which means an "undistributed middle" in Latin. The argument that Poe cites is indeed fallacious, but it is not an instance of undistributed middle, rather it's an example of illicit conversion. In fact, the argument from "All fools are poets" to "All poets are fools" doesn't even have a middle term, since it is an immediate inference. The middle term is, by definition, the term shared by both premisses in a categorical syllogism, but an immediate inference has only one premiss. Poe is using "non distributio medii" to mean only that the Prefect's argument is fallacious, which is unfortunately imprecise.
Source: Edgar Allan Poe, "The Purloined Letter"
Fallacies in the News
Ben Fritz of Spinsanity points out Maureen Dowd's use of an unscientific CNN online poll in her latest column to support her contention that most Americans believe that war with Iraq will provoke more terrorist attacks on the U.S. An "unscientific" poll is one in which the sample is not chosen randomly, so that there is no reason to think it representative of the population. Such polls are more a form of entertainment than a legitimate way to gauge public opinion.
- Maureen Dowd, "Desert Spring, Sprung", New York Times
- Ben Fritz, "Dowd's Sloppy Use of Polls", Spinsanity
- The Fallacy of Unrepresentative Sample
"Hasty conclusion like toy balloon: easy blow up, easy pop."
(Charlie Chan at the Race Track)
Friday's New York Times ran an ad for the new movie "Biker Boyz" which contained the following blurb (p. B25):
"THE PERFECT TESTOSTERONE-FUELED, MUSIC-DRIVEN JOY RIDE."
THE WASHINGTON POSTANN HORNADAY
OF COURSE, THE ORIGINAL REVIEW IS NOT IN ALL CAPS, but that's forgivable. To its credit, the ad lacks the usually ubiquitous exclamation points that end movie blurbs. In fact, there's not a single exclamation point in the entire ad! However, the context of the blurb is as follows:
"It will all look pretty ridiculous to grown-ups, but to 13-year-old boys (and adults with well-tended inner versions thereof), 'Biker Boyz' will be the perfect testosterone-fueled, flash-edited, music-driven joy ride."
By eliminating the proviso, the blurb turns a lukewarm endorsement into a rave, and that's not so forgivable.
Source: Ann Hornaday, "Revved-Up 'Biker Boyz': A Rousing Ride", The Washington Post
Michael Koplow sent in the following excellent example:
Example: "Tavis Smiley (interviewer): How are you going to respond to folks on the campaign trail when they ask what qualifies you to be the commander-in-chief given that you have not served in the country's military?
Al Sharpton (interviewee): I think that just because one served in the military does not make one a competent commander-in-chief.
Michael contributes the following analysis of the example [with some clarification for the reader added in brackets]:
"I don't know the official name for this fallacy. Let m = '[Sharpton has] military experience', q = '[Sharpton is] qualified to be commander-in-chief'. Smiley asked Sharpton to respond to '~m → ~q'; Sharpton responded with '~(m → q)'.
Counter-Example: "This is hard, because you need a first statement with a debatable underlying assumption to make it completely analogous. 'What makes you think you can run a marathon, given that you have a leg injury?' 'Just because you don't have a leg injury doesn't mean you can run a marathon.' This may not work in arguing with someone, because opinions are involved. It's easier if you take that part out of it. 'Given that this isn't a piece of furniture, how can it be a chair?' (This assumes that all chairs are pieces of furniture.) 'Not all pieces of furniture are chairs.'"
I'll add a few points to Michael's analysis:
- Generally, Sharpton's argument is an "ignoratio elenchi", which is a type of mistake first identified by Aristotle. "Ignoratio elenchi" means "ignorance of what is to be refuted" in Latin, and refers to an arguer attempting to refute something other than what they are called upon to refute. Usually, what is refuted is something logically similar enough to the target to confuse the casual observer, or even the arguer himself, who may honestly feel that he is answering the objection. In this case, Sharpton is attempting to refute something other than the objection that Smiley raises.
- Specifically, Sharpton is committing an "improper transposition". Smiley is raising the objection: "If Sharpton doesn't have military experience then he is not qualified to be Commander-in-Chief", but Sharpton is denying "If Sharpton has military experience then he is qualified to be Commander-in-Chief". These propositions are not logically equivalent, so Sharpton is not answering the objection raised by Smiley. Sharpton is confusing necessary and sufficient conditions, which are logically similar enough that the audience may not notice that he has pulled a logical "bait and switch".
Of course, since Sharpton gives a typically evasive "politician's answer" to Smiley's question, we might conclude that while he's not qualified to be Commander-in-Chief, he's certainly qualified to be a politician! Thanks, Michael!
- The Tavis Smiley Show
- "Politician's Answer", from Nigel Warburton's Thinking from A to Z (Second Edition), pp. 103-104.
Is Mary Rosh the David Manning of 2003?
One trouble with the reader reviews on Amazon and other such sites is the possibility of authors or publishers posting rave reviews of their books under phony names. In an article about recent criticisms of scholar John Lott's book More Guns, Less Crime, Slate's Timothy Noah reveals that Lott's son posted a rave review of his father's book to Amazon under the pseudonym "Mary Rosh". This is reminiscent of the David Manning affair, in which Sony Pictures created a fake film critic to write favorable blurbs for their movies. Such bogus "reviews" are objectionable because the writer is an interested party, masquerading as a disinterested reviewer. No one would take a review of Lott's book by his son seriously enough to purchase it based on that advice, but some people may trust Mary Rosh, and that makes the review a logical boobytrap.
Source: Timothy Noah, "The Bellesiles of the Right?", Slate
I've added an appropriate quotation to the fallacy of one-sidedness.