Friday, July 06, 2007

General Comments on the Use of Fallacies

Some of my recent postings have been specific instances of a more general moral principle that the use of informal fallacies in public discourse is morally contemptible. It is a sign of intellectual recklessness.

Typically, I have compared the use of fallacies in arguments to be equivalent to drunk driving. Like the drunk driver, those who use fallacies show a disregard for the effects that their actions may have on others. They care more about ‘winning’ than ‘being right’, in an arena where the winner must either be right or countless individuals may suffer for it.

I can be more specific.

Drivers come with a wide variety of skills. Some are better than others. We do not expect – it would not even be reasonable to expect – that all drivers be perfect drivers. If we did, then nobody would be permitted to drive. Instead , we demand a minimum level of competence, and suspend the licenses of those who show such a routine lack of carelessness (or one example of extremely gross negligence).

The same is true in writing. It would be foolish to demand the perfect use of freedom in all written words, and allow only those who meet this standard to write (or express his views in any other medium). To do so would be to outlaw communication. However, we have reason to demand that anybody who gets behind a keyboard or a megaphone or a microphone and starts writing to show sufficient concern for those who might be harmed to be aware of the possible pitfalls and to avoid them.

Now, unlike reckless driving, we have good reason not to make reckless writing into a criminal offense. History has shown us that governments that have the power to regulate what is said and spoken will judge something as illegitimate, not because it shows some obvious fallacy, but because it does not serve the interests of the Administrations or the Administration’s friends – whether that Administration be an elected President or a self-appointed monarch.

Because legal penalties for reckless writing (rhetoric, demagoguery, and sophistry) are necessarily light, there is all the more reason for public, non-violent moral condemnation for those who use these tricks. When it becomes too dangerous to use one barrier to wrongdoing, prudence suggests making the second barrier that much longer.

Morally, we have reason to set the standards at different levels for the different roles that people play. In the realm of driving, anybody who wishes to drive others (in a bus, or a taxi service), or anybody who wishes to transport hazardous chemicals, and the like can be morally required to abide by standards of care that the average driver need not worry about. Similarly, in the realm of writing or speech, we have far more reason to e contemptible of the use of fallacies among those who wish to transport dangerous ideas that put the lives, health, and well-being of others at risk.

It does not matter all that much that the legal secretary of Wal-Mart greeter does not have the logic skills of a professional philosopher. Anybody who gets advice from their hair stylist or convenience store clerk should immediately recognize the need to discount that advice – to ‘consider the source’ in considering the quality of the input. However, anybody who takes it upon himself to stand on a soapbox in a public forum is like the bus driver or the driver who transports hazardous chemicals. He takes on additional moral responsibilities, and may rightfully be held to a higher standard.

One group of people who fit this standard are news anchors and reporters. It should be considered a minimum standard of competence for any reporter that they can demonstrate capacity to recognize informal fallacies by name, and to identify them whenever the reporter encounters them in the wild – whether in his or her own writing, the writings of other reporters, or the remarks of the people they interview for a story.

Each fallacy invites a particular type of retort. A good reporter should have a sufficient understanding of the informal fallacies that, in identifying a piece of sophistry, immediately identify the retort that points out the sophistry. For example, a standard remark to somebody accused of wrongdoing who says, “X committed equivalent atrocities,” is to say, “If you had a murderer before you who claims that he is innocent because there are other people who have committed murder, would you accept that as a sound argument?”

A good legislator, President, or Governor should also be somebody who can recognize the informal fallacies by name and call those who use these fallacies, particularly when testifying before a legislative committees. Indeed, I would like to see a standard test that all candidates take on the subject, with their scores becoming one of the criteria in determining who to vote for. (Though, it cannot be the only criterion. Recall, I have argued that if you feed true beliefs and sound reasoning to an evil person, you merely get somebody who can be much more efficiently evil.)

Right now, people throw fallacies around with reckless abandon. Once upon a time, drunk driving was, for the most part, an accepted activity. This was until enough people got fed up with the harm done by those who engage in this activity that they decided to ‘raise the consciousness’ of society to those harms. I do think that we are long past due for a concentrated effort on the part of individuals to insist that people recognize the harms that result, and the moral problems associated with using, these fallacies.


Nick said...

A good reporter should have a sufficient understanding of the informal fallacies that, in identifying a piece of sophistry, immediately identify the retort that points out the sophistry.

I can't determine if you're saying that the reporter should include the retort in the form of a quote from another source, or just point out the fallacy directly (in his/her own words) without needing to quote somebody else. (When you say "identify the retort", it sounds like you're saying "point it out" rather than "just give it.")

If the former (find it in a quote from somebody interviewed), why do you think going about it in that way is important? I don't think news loses its objectivity by pointing out clear logical fallacies.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I think that a reporter can and should point out the fallacy. Running around looking for a philosopher or somebody to say that it is a philosophy is unnecessary.

If a speaker at a press conference said, "The accused took $1,000 from the first victim and $500 from the second, for a total of $2,000," the reporter should not have to find a math professor at a local university to give him a quote saying that the math doesn't add up.

The rules of logic are no less fixed than the rules of math.

You can find more on this subject in an earlier posting, Objectivity and the Neutral Point of View.

Genius said...

What about - as david brin suggested - a record of what they say and the accuracy of it and the errors that they have made?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I would argue that such a record would be useful. I have been looking for an organization that finds and reports these types of inaccuracies. is the best site I have found. However, their staff is far too small, and they cover few such errors.

However, becoming larger requires more funding. Funding typically introduces a bias - the organization then reports on those things that bring in the most money. And, the whole thing gets ruined.

Before we can even have such an organization, we need to promote a stronger culture of contempt for the use of fallacies (and other forms of intellectual recklessness), which means turning our words and private actions against those who are found guilty on a less formal basis.

To create a market for truth, so that an organization such as this can obtain support without the temptation to sell its opinion to the highest bidder.

Genius said...

OK then I am envisaging a umbrella organization that talks to a large set of already existing oranizations (blogs and so forth) and encourages the growth of new ones that do this sort of reporting and passes on to them a degree of respectability. In exchange they submit to being reviewed and expelled if they fail sufficient reviews (with a robust criteria for expulsion). Ie if they stop being a robust part of the fact checking community.

The unbrella organization would start out as a logo they could put on their site and a group of respected reviewers.

There could be rankings to encourage still better behaviour or 'greater service' to the cause.
Maybe such a lose organization could at least get the community talking to eachother and gaining a level of local respect.