Last week, I wrote about some ways statistics can be misinterpreted, usually with the help of partisan thinkers who would like us to do just that. Those aren’t the only sort of flawed arguments. What other ones are we getting in this 18-month presidential election season?
One is something both parties seem constantly guilty of, which is attacking the most extreme views of the other side. That is not a logical gaffe as such, but becomes one if you are fooled into thinking that the opposing statements Rush Limbaugh or Paul Krugman, to name two of the worst offenders, cite is the other party’s common view. Al Sharpton’s opinions are not shared by most liberals, and most conservatives want nothing to do with the excesses of Donald Trump. So when someone on the other side quotes something insane or even just unusually poorly judged, it does not qualify as a strike against the left or the right; accordingly, protect yourself by considering how representative something being vilified (and, I add, being publicized; many screwballs get their best press, from their opponents, this way) actually is.
A second error is an old one – the ad hominem fallacy, or judging the person making a point instead of the point itself. Congressional Republicans have been stinking up the joint with this one for years, acting as if, since they don’t like President Obama, everything he proposes or even says must be wrong. He has had results endorsable by the most conservative quarter of the country – the recent free trade bill, his refusal to close or even reform the Guantanamo Bay prison, Osama bin Laden’s elimination, the ever-stronger dollar, the stock market’s almost threefold increase during his term, and the lack of new financial regulation – but his political opponents are so determined to oppose him that they often scarcely seem to be seeing what he’s actually doing or not doing. Almost everything that columnist and Fox News spokesman Charles Krauthammer says seems to start with the idea that Obama was wrong, which is logically impossible if not highly selective. Many Democrats did the same things when George W. Bush was in office. “Criticize the idea, not the person” was formal direction I received at AT&T management discussion sessions a quarter century ago, and it’s still the way to go.
Third, related, might be called “inflexibility about platforms.” The Republicans are almost all conservative these days, which the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines as “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society.” Democrats, nearly all liberal, therefore subscribe to “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically: such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class).” Those are reasonably cohesive attitudes, but, since some areas clearly are in need of change and government involvement and some areas obviously need to stay the same, it does not make sense to stick to one view completely. So whether you swing to the left or the right, be aware that there absolutely must be exceptions to the general philosophy your party is advocating.
The fourth problem area is about unchecked emotions. We use words and phrases as symbols, and often fail to look at their limitations. To conservatives, police, soldiers, veterans, the flag, and mainstream Christianity arouse positive feelings, but most liberals like them too, and few Republicans would agree that they should have unlimited prominence in our society. Do we want a police state with no questioning of their practices allowed, six-figure pensions for all former soldiers, or decade-long prison sentences for abusing Old Glory? No – those would be too extreme. Therefore, there are limitations on what it really means to say “support our troops” or “we need God back in our lives.” Such statements, often expressed by political candidates, are only emotion triggers and not meaningful. To avoid being swayed here, ask yourself what if anything someone actually means when they invoke one of those, or if they just want you to like them more.
The fifth logical gaffe is pack journalism, which Merriam-Webster defines as being “practiced by reporters in a group and… marked by uniformity of news coverage and lack of original thought or initiative.” Liberals are most at fault here, as, though perceptions of media bias are often overrated, most news sources do tend to the left. Sociologically, organizations in which membership is valued develop orthodoxies, which you can see in everything from the way NFL players go from sidelines to huddles to the way TV talk show guests speak. These ways of approved behavior also extend to opinions. When the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit was in force, virtually every major commentator said it was a good thing. In the 1990s, stories did not question the war against drugs. Until the past few months, there were no major-outlet articles suggesting the euro was a bad idea. Many sharp observers saw problems before, but only when these things started generating bad track records did the communication prohibitions weaken. Some of our current unquestionable ideas are: that climate change is both bad and human-caused; that discrimination against men in general and straight, white, Anglo men in particular is trivial or nonexistent; that mainstream black culture deserves no blame for poor economic and social results; and that women’s lower overall average wage is primarily due to discrimination. I believe that all of these notions will be discredited over time, and when they are, these bans will disappear. In the meantime, watch out for ideas which seem controversial but are never questioned in ordinary newspapers, radio stations, or TV networks, since they probably need to be.
Overall, there are many different reasonable views out there, and, if you prefer, many unreasonable ones as well. It is important to be an independent thinker and choose to what to subscribe, regardless of what either political party says. Just don’t be fooled by deceptive appeals. They are as old as politics, and won’t go away any sooner.