Sunday, August 26, 2012

Does This Familiar? Spotting Lies & Weak Logic On The Campaign Trail, Part 1

Some time ago, I posted what I felt to be an informative piece based on my observations explaining how and why people structure their particular political ideologies ("Our Political Ideologies Explained...").
Strictly speaking, there are two reasons why many Americans have such a difficult time trying to understand policy issues and their implications: (1) Politicians, when asked by reporters about a policies' particulars, tend to provide familiar programmed rhetoric, which amount canned answers spouting the party line; and (2) most Americans don't take the time to objectively (as opposed to subjectively--look for or at "facts" which support one's already presupposed beliefs) research issues. And as the latter reason is concerned, even when confronted with indisputable proof, people will reflexively question the "bias" of the research, or attack the bearer of the bad news.
Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) did a piece on the weak logic often employed in political campaigns, in particular the election campaign of 2012 for the office of the White House between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ("A Guide To Spotting Pretzel Logic On The Campaign Trail"). More to the point, the piece focused on why such hole-ridden statements of non-thinking are absorbed as fact by Democratic- and Republican Party loyalists...without any objective (there's that nasty word again) fact-checking on the parts of would-be voters.
I thought the article was so informative that I decided to reprint it here, as a service to those rare few who would like to actually think beyond the campaign rhetoric of both sides, and let the facts--so to speak--speak for themselves.


It's a good thing presidential campaigns aren't college debates because politicians routinely spout arguments on the stump (and in their ads) that would never pass muster on the university rostrum.

Campaigns are rife with logical fallacies aimed at whipping up voters and herding them to the polls. Some are deceptively difficult to recognize, while others are familiar but no less seductive.

"Fallacies are used all the time in campaigns," says Sam Nelson, director of forensics at Cornell University's school of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"Human beings are busy. We have all kinds of information around us all the time, we don't have time to logically think through every argument, so we're looking for short cuts," Nelson says. "The issue is whether you can recognize these short cuts that are really fallacies and avoid falling for them."

As we head into the final months before November elections — with party convention bluster, brutal ad wars and debate posturing — Americans will almost certainly be exposed to a lot more pretzel logic. So with the help of Cornell's Nelson and Storey Clayton, a debate coach for Rutgers University Debate Union, here's an election-season primer to help people at home spot the top five logical fallacies so far in this year's presidential campaign. The Latin is optional.


What it means: There's nothing like name-dropping a Founding Father, a former U.S. president or a Nobel laureate to boost your argument. But that still doesn't change the substance of the argument.

Why it works: "It's the devil we know as opposed to something new, which we've never tried," Nelson says. "There's always risk in change. Some people are big risk takers, but most people seek safety."

Examples from the campaign trail:

Mitt Romney, July 29
"Ronald Reagan was one of our great foreign policy presidents. He did not come from the Senate. He did not come from the foreign policy world. He was a governor."

The Take-Away: "As Reagan's presidency has grown more distant, his star has sort of grown. He's a very appealing authority figure," Clayton says.

President Obama, Aug. 1
"You do not have to take my word for it. Just today, an independent, nonpartisan organization ran all the numbers on Gov. Romney's plan. This wasn't my staff. This wasn't something we did. An independent group ran the numbers."

The Take-Away: "This is a shortcut for most citizens who aren't willing to do the hard policy analysis. Obama is saying these people did the work so you don't have to," Nelson says.

POST HOC ERGO PROPER HOC — 'After this, therefore because of this'

What it means: The argument attempts to turn simple correlation into false or questionable causation. A textbook example: Because the birds sing every morning before the sun rises, the birds' singing causes the sun to rise.

Why it works: "It's a very appealing, intuitive fallacy," Clayton says. "A lot of the arguments that people make around presidential campaigns, for example, are essentially drawing the inference that whatever happened in one's time in office is their responsibility, whether or not they were actually responsible."

Examples from the campaign trail:

Mitt Romney, Aug. 1
We have fewer jobs under President Obama. Then there's unemployed and underemployed. That's gone up, that's in red, because that's a bad direction. Then we have the unemployment rate, that's bad too, that's why that's in red."

The Take-Away: "What you're trying to do in a presidential campaign is take relatively complex issues that there's a lot of division on and simplify it so that everyone understands what you're trying to say," Nelson says. "Everyone understands the idea of a report card. Holding it up visually even makes it better. Now, is that report card based on reliable information? We don't know."

Ex-Steel Plant Worker Joe Soptic, Speaking In Obama-Affiliated PAC Priorities USA Ad
"When Mitt Romney and
Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care. My family lost their health care. A short time after that, my wife became ill. ... She passed away in 22 days."

The Take-Away: "Someone responsible for a business is not necessarily responsible for every single decision or every single aspect that's made within that business," Clayton says. "But that's exactly what this ad is trying to argue. It's a classic example of giving someone responsibility over foreseeing every possible effect or every possible outcome."

ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINEM — 'Argument to the man'

What it means: Anyone who's ever been verbally taunted or bullied in a schoolyard is familiar with
argumentum ad hominem — basically a fancy debate term for name-calling. Its purpose, like that of all fallacies, is to divert attention away from substantive arguments.

Why it works: "It short-circuits the thinking part of your brain and makes you think, 'This guy's an idiot,' " says Rutgers University's Clayton.

Nelson of Cornell agrees, saying ad
hominems are "funny and memorable" and that the person launching one often benefits from being perceived as a fighter. "It appeals to aspects of American culture that we got on the schoolyard and we still have when we're adults," he says.

The Take-Away: "These examples basically reduce everything to name calling," Clayton says. "They cut through the logic and all the rational arguments."

Examples from the campaign trail:

President Obama, Aug. 6

Gov. Romney "would ask the middle class to pay more in taxes to give another $250,000 tax cut to people making more than $3 million a year. It's like Robin Hood in reverse. It's Romney Hood."

Mitt Romney, Aug. 7

"We've been watching the president say a lot of things about me and my policies, and they're just not right. And if I were to coin a term, it would be '
Obamaloney.' "

Needless to say, that in the realm of election politics, there are so many more logical fallacies, little white lies, structured inaccuracies, and outright lies, that it's easy to understand why Americans would rather spout the party line and anecdotal "proofs" than spend the major effort it would take to search out the facts.

To Be Continued...


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