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May 30th, 2004 (Permalink)

Baggini on the Appeal to Nature

"…[C]onsider the…argument that what is natural is somehow good and what is unnatural bad. …[T]he principle is rarely stated so explicitly, but if we look at what people actually do, this does seem to be an assumption that underlies people's behaviour. Consider, for example, the popularity of 'natural' remedies. A great many people would always prefer to take a 'natural' remedy over an 'artificial' one. Similarly, people prefer foods that have 'all natural' ingredients.

"One obvious point to make here is that this very characterization of certain things as 'natural' is problematic. What always strikes me about health food shops are the rows and rows of bottles and tablets. A greengrocer seems to be a much better source of natural products than such collections of distilled essences and the like. …

"However, let us set aside such doubts about the category of 'the natural' for the moment and just ask, even if we can agree that some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this? The answer is: nothing. There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse)."

Source: Julian Baggini, Making Sense, Oxford, 2002, pp. 181-182.

Resource: Q&A, 5/13/2004

May 24th, 2004 (Permalink)

Wearing the Hitler Shirt

"BEAVERTON, Ore. -- A Southridge High School student is defending his right to free speech after wearing an Adolph Hitler T-shirt to class.

"On the first day of Passover, freshman David Herbison wore a shirt with a quote from Hitler advocating gun control. He says it is actually a commentary against gun control."

It's somewhat hard to tell from the photo accompanying the television station's article, but the supposed Hitler quote appears to be a well-known fake. However, from a logical point of view, it doesn't matter, since the anti-gun control enthymeme made by the shirt is fallacious, anyway.

Fallacy: The Hitler Card


Via: Eugene Volokh, "People Unclear on the Concept", The Volokh Conspiracy, 5/24/2004

May 23rd, 2004 (Permalink)

Book Review: Making Sense

Title: Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines

Author: Julian Baggini

Publisher: Oxford

Date of Publication: 2002

Review: Readers of The Fallacy Files will know philosopher Julian Baggini from his excellent "Bad Moves" column on fallacies and other mistakes in argument. He also edits The Philosopher's Magazine which, like Baggini, is based in the United Kingdom. Those who enjoy Baggini's column should appreciate his recent book, Making Sense.

The book's subtitle, "Philosophy Behind the Headlines", gives a sense of its subject: it applies philosophical techniques to several public policy issues which have made headlines in the last few years. Among those issues are: public interest in the private lives of politicians, the morality of war, the relation of human beings to nature, and the difference between mainstream religion and fanatical cults.

The book is aimed more at a U.K. audience than at a U.S. one, so some of Baggini's examples may be less familiar to American readers. For instance, his chapter on science uses the example of mad cow disease, which has been a much greater problem in England than in America. However, the book supplies enough background that the reader should be able to understand Baggini's philosophical points and how they apply to the issue.

Also, the book was written and published before the recent war in Iraq, so some readers might be disappointed that the chapter on war focuses instead on Afghanistan. However, that may be for the best, as the Iraq war is still unfolding.

Baggini makes use of the logical tools of philosophers—including fallacies—that he uses so effectively in his columns. However, he avoids the technicalities of logic which play a large part in much British philosophy, thus keeping the book accessible to the reader who lacks logical or philosophical training.

I have one objection to Baggini's general approach, which also applies to other philosophers who offer public commentary on political issues. Philosophy is a unique discipline, lacking in accepted results and theories, and divided into schools which differ from one another not only in doctrine but in technique. Philosophers, as such, have no special expertise to bring to public policy debates. If you ask two philosophers for their opinion of, say, the morality of the war in Iraq, you would likely hear two contrary opinions; and if they happened to give the same opinion, it would probably come from two contrary theories. For this reason, to appeal to the expert opinion of philosophers on the morality of war, or any other such issue, is to commit a fallacious appeal to authority, because philosophers as philosophers have no expertise on which to base an opinion.

However, philosophers such as Baggini are trained in logical and conceptual techniques which can be fruitfully applied to controversial issues. These tools are not powerful enough to answer final questions about such issues, such as telling whether the war is justified, but they can help us to avoid some of the usual mistakes. Thus, philosophers as logicians do have expertise that can be applied to such issues as war, politics, and the environment. Just don't expect Baggini or any other philosopher to tell you what to think; they can only help you in how to think.

Baggini generally does a good job of avoiding the temptation to deliver his personal opinions as if they were the findings of philosophy. Instead, he uses the tools of the philosopher to clarify the issues he treats—issues on which reasonable people can and do disagree. With a little help from Baggini, perhaps more people will learn to be reasonable.

As a sample of what the book has to offer, here is Baggini explaining why semantic slippery slopes are fallacious, and applying this understanding to the distinction between a religion and a cult:

"The distinction between a religion and cult might be thought to be a very important one. In general, people are opposed to cults and consider them sinister or threatening, whereas religions are seen as benign and are often given more respect than other belief systems. However, the distinction is extremely problematic and in recent years non-mainstream religions have gone to great lengths to avoid being stigmatized as cults. …

"In this climate, it is clear that nothing uncontroversial can be said about what precisely constitutes a cult. … Nevertheless, there is a general lesson we can learn about philosophy concerning distinctions such as those between a religion and a cult. This point can be illustrated by the famous Sorites paradox…

"In one version of this paradox we have to imagine someone who is without any doubt tall, say 2.5 metres. Consider now whether that person would still be tall if they were 0.1 mm shorter. The answer surely has to be that they would still be tall. … The problem is that if 'tall person - 0.1 mm = tall person', then someone 0.1 mm shorter again than this tall person would also be tall. But if we carried on like this…eventually we'd end up with someone who was, say, one metre tall and we'd have to say that they too were tall. And that would just be absurd.

"One moral of this story might be that you can have two quite different concepts—in this instance, tall and short—and yet not be able to specify any strict rule which tells you when each should be applied. … The truth revealed by the paradox could thus be that it is possible both that there is a real and important difference between two concepts and yet at the same time it is impossible to draw a sharp dividing line to show where each applies. A clearly tall person is very different physically from a clearly short one, even though there are other people for whom it is not clear whether they should be called tall or short.

"If we apply this insight to cults and religions, we can see that it may be impossible to state with any precision a sharp difference between religions and cults. Nevertheless, that is not to say the difference between them isn't real and important." (PP. 201-204).


May 20th, 2004 (Permalink)

What's New?

The Hitler Card!

Source: Argumentum ad Nazium

May 19th, 2004 (Permalink)

AM or PM?

Granite formations vary in color and hardness according to the mix of primary minerals--quartz, feldspar and mica--and moisture conditions under which each was formed a billion or more years ago, Central Standard Time.

Source: "Headlines", The Tonight Show

Fallacy: Fake Precision

May 17th, 2004 (Permalink)

This May Puzzle

For this month's puzzle, the prize is a copy of Jay Leno's More Headlines. The prize will go to the first person to answer correctly the following question:

What was the President's name in 1980?

Answer to this May Puzzle

May 15th, 2004 (Permalink)

Here We Go Again

This is from the current paper edition of Newsweek magazine—the online edition does not appear to have this article:

"Vice President Dick Cheney once famously declared, shortly before the outbreak of war, that Saddam Hussein had, 'in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.' When no such weapons turned up, administration officials said that what Cheney really meant to say was that Iraq had 'started reconstituting its nuclear program,' which is what the CIA, in a secret (but later declassified) October 2002 intelligence analysis sent to the White House and Congress, said that 'most' U.S. intel agencies believed."

This quote gives the misleading impression that Cheney did not misspeak, but back-pedaled on his claim that Saddam had "reconstituted" nukes only after the nukes were not found. However, it's obvious from the transcript that Cheney misspoke, and this passage misrepresents the chronology. The Administration tried to correct the misstatement almost immediately after it was made, rather than much later when it began to seem that Saddam's nuclear program had not been reconstituted.

Dana Milbank's "Verbatim" feature, which seems to have been the original source for this contextomy, included the following correction:

"[A]ides later said Cheney was referring to Saddam Hussein's nuclear programs, not weapons[.]"

Milbank's column is dated May 20th, 2003, the day that the war began.

Source: Mark Hosenball, "Saddam and the Scam Artists", Newsweek, 5/17/2004, p. 8.

Resource: Can't Keep a Good Fallacy Down, 3/17/2004

May 13th, 2004 (Permalink)


Q: What is the naturalistic fallacy? I looked all through the site, but couldn't find this one listed. I heard it used recently, but don't have any idea what it means. Could it be the fallacy of assuming that "nature" can be used as a trump card in any argument, as in, such and such a thing/position/argument is either natural or not natural, that is, as a convenient knock-down?—Jon Paul Henry

A: No, Jon, the so-called "naturalistic fallacy" is not the kind of argument which appeals to nature, though that is a "natural" mistake to make. See the Resource for further information about what philosophers call "the naturalistic fallacy".

The mistake that you refer to doesn't have a common name, as far as I know, though it might naturally be called "the appeal to nature" or "argumentum ad naturam". It is frequently a fallacious way of arguing, because the concept of what is natural is both vague and ambiguous. Is the human use of fire "natural"? Maybe, maybe not. Is it "natural" for people to wear clothes? Yes and no.

The appeal to nature usually takes one of two forms:

N is natural.
Therefore, N is right or good.
U is unnatural.
Therefore, U is wrong or bad.

For instance, some people seem to think that anything which is "natural", such as an herb, is therefore good for you. But some herbs are poisonous. Similarly, other people argue that certain actions, such as cloning, are wrong because they are "unnatural". But so is riding a bicycle. From the mere fact that something is natural or unnatural, one cannot determine whether it is good or bad. For instance, judging from its frequency, the appeal to nature is a natural way for people to argue, but it's a bad argument all the same! Thanks for the question, Jon.

Resource: Q&A, 12/24/2003

Answer to this May Puzzle (5/21): The winner of the puzzle contest was José Cabo, who answered as follows:

"The name of the president (I understand this refers to the current president, otherwise it would be too easy) in 1980 was the same as now: that is, George W. Bush. Of course, he wasn't the president then, but he is the man we refer to as 'the president' now (as opposed to 'the ex-presidents'). If, on the other hand, by 'the president' you mean the man in that office in 1980 (which I doubt—I suspect it's a trick question) the answer would have to be James Earl Carter."

You are right, José, it is a trick question! The question is grammatically ambiguous, with the following two meanings:

  1. What was the name of the man who was President in 1980?
    Answer: Jimmy Carter

  2. What was the name in 1980 of the man who is President?
    Answer: George W. Bush

Fallacy: Amphiboly

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