Friday, April 3, 2009

Arguing Past Each Other

When I read comments that are left in response to certain articles, I frequently notice a particular logical fallacy that people fall victim to again and again. The fallacy tends to follow a simple form:

Person 1 makes general statement G about group A.

Person 2 argues that G is false because they are a member of group A (or they know a member of group A) and statement G does not apply to person 2 (or their acquaintance).

For example:

People from UNC are big basketball fans.

I attend UNC and I am not a big basketball fan, therefore people from UNC are not basketball fans.

Granted this is a rather extreme example and most people would quickly point out the fallacy and most people would not use this type of argument (I may be making some hasty generalizations here, but I think this is an accurate one). Still this form of logical fallacy is so prevalent that it forms the basis of a great many arguments. Because the forms of this fallacy are so varied and numerous, logicians have grouped them into an entire class of logical fallacies known as Inductive Fallacies.

As my above example shows these class of fallacies can be rather humorous and even form the basis of many jokes and satire. These fallacies are heavily used by comedians such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and it is precisely these fallacies that make their material so funny. But unfortunately not everyone is in on the joke and some try to use these fallacies as the basis for some rather serious arguments. In other words, what should be funny is no longer funny because the people that use the fallacious argument are very serious, and get offended when no one takes them seriously, or when people ridicule their argument for being fallacious. This action and reaction is the basis for a lot of contention on subjects for which we should not contend about.

For example (I did not come up with this example, it comes from several letters to the editor in the UNC student newspaper):

Student 1: The college dropout rate for blacks in the UNC system is higher than the dropout rate for whites. Therefore blacks are not as prepared for college as whites are.

Student 2: I am black and I graduated top of my class. I work hard and I get straight A's in my classes, therefore you have no basis for saying that blacks are not as prepared for college as whites.

General responses: Ridicule and derision of Student 2's logical fallacy and general lack of understanding and misrepresentation of the issue at hand.

Result: Race relations are not improved, and are even hurt by the actions of Student 2 and all those who respond negatively to their remarks.

An interesting point in all of this is that logical fallacies in and of themselves are not bad. They can be funny and bring laughter into the world, but when we treat them as true, and insist on their veracity, and base our morals, ethics and lives on them, then they sow the seeds of contention and hatred that so often brings heartache and sorrow to our selves, others and our society in general. When we place logical fallacies, or any kind of untruth, as the standard of truth, it is no wonder that we find so much confusion in our arguments and cannot find any rational basis to solve the problems of our society. I should warn that merely recognizing the fallacies and pointing them out is not enough, and can even been detrimental, but rather the bast response to a logical fallacy is to ignore it, or to not participate in it. Then when the fallacy is past, it can be used as a tool from which to learn, so that we can avoid the same fallacies in the future.


James Tanner said...

I do not use logical fallacies therefore your argument is false. Actually, it was a very good article.

Spenceanna said...

slavery is a logical fallacy. should we ignore it?

Quantumleap42 said...

In response to your question, Spencer, the act of ignoring a logical fallacy as I mentioned pertains to the verbal fallacies we use in arguments. When actions are taken they are no longer logical fallacies. The reason for taking those actions may be fallacious but actions cannot be fallacious. Actions cannot be ignored, fallacious arguments can. Thus when someone, or a group of people, enslave others that fact cannot be ignored, but when they present their reasoning for it we do not have to reduce ourselves to the same type of logical fallacies in our counter arguments.

These thoughts are motivated in part by a passage in D&C which reads "the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul." In other words, action should be taken in response to evil or bad actions, but not in response to incorrect thoughts. We can try to teach and correct these but it may not always be best to respond to those incorrect thoughts.

Quantumleap42 said...

In my previous comment I mentioned that this was motivated in part by the passage in D&C, but my main motivation comes from a passage of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein which says, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." In this passage he was referring to those things outside of logic (that is an over simplification, but his whole argument is very complex), and when we approach those things that are not logical we must remain silent.

But when I was writing this article, I was also thinking about the extreme cases of logical fallacies, such as slavery, that demand a response. I will in the future address those cases, but for the most part logical can and should be ignored.

In all of this I try to remember the approach taken by our Savior who, when confronted by extreme logical fallacies (i.e. those who professed to keep the Law of Moses, yet would reject the purpose of the Law), he cried repentance and acted to bring about change. Yet His purpose was not to point out and contend with every wrong thought, but rather to quietly teach those that were willing, a better way to happiness. Thus I think our response should be similar to that of the church. If we observe how the Church leaders respond to problems and criticisms (such as, same-sex marriage, abortion, the death penalty etc.) they are careful not get drawn into the arguments and fights (contentions) inherent in those issues, unless there is a very important moral issue involved. Rather they spend their efforts teaching the principles of the gospel, which in the end can give answers and solutions to all of the problems, but only if people are willing to live without contention.