09 10

19 March 2015

Fallacy Study

One of the problems with our public discourse is that a huge portion of it is completely illogical. Logic is as basic to good, rational thinking as addition facts are to math. But nearly nobody learns logic in school anymore. This week, I actually had someone tell me that logical fallacies are "subjective." She didn't like what I was saying, so she tried to make it untrue. However, that thinking is as wishful as the child who tries to deny that 1+1=2. 

We were discussing this article. Whatever your opinions about vaccinations, this article is fantastic for the study of logical fallacies. So much so that I plan to print it out and save it for when we do the study of logic in a few years. Honestly, I don't blame this mom for being irrational. She is clearly grieving the loss of her oldest, worries for her second child's health, and is terrified about what's going to happen to her newborn, following a possible measles exposure. And all this is going on while her brain is steeping in the postpartum hormone stew. Nope, I don't blame her one bit for being irrational. It is highly unlikely that I would do any better at all, in her place. That's a tough spot, and I have a lot of sympathy for her. 

But she's still irrational.

Her words on Facebook have gone somewhat viral, and there's a whole lot of people looking at them and nodding their heads. It is indicative of the serious failings of public schools that so few seem able to see the many deep flaws in the thinking. But they don't; if they did the post wouldn't be viral. Even some very smart people who are supposed to be very well educated are falling prey to it. This showed up in my feed, posted by a woman who was valedictorian of my sister's class. Her comment? "Well said." Though I like the girl that posted it, I have to disagree with her assessment. This piece is irrational. And if we are to keep our freedoms, we absolutely must do better than the emotional gibberish that this article typifies. 

In a couple years, I will ask my kids to look at this and other news items, and identify the logic faults. Name the fallacies, and explain how the piece they are looking at exemplifies that flaw. I am doing the same exercise here. If you haven't already, it may be useful to read the complete original. Most of my fallacies have been taken from this Intellectual Self Defense list, though a few do come from other places. I've tried to link those to an explanation.

Logical fallacy #1: False Cause
She blames *all* non-vaccinators for the (possible) exposure of her child, even though she knows nothing about the sick child.

Logical Fallacy #2: Begging the Question
She takes as a premise the safety and reliability of vaccines, and then tries to use that to prove... the safety and reliability of vaccines. It doesn't work. You can't prove a thing simply by repeating it in slightly different words.

Logical Fallacy #3: Ad Hominem. 
This one is to attack the person, rather than the argument. "...then I am happy to call you an imbecile as well as misinformed." Classic. She's not even *trying* to address the actual concerns of non-vaxxers. She's just calling names. In addition to being a bad, non-persuasive argument, it's just plain old bad manners.

Logical Fallacy#4: Ad Misericordiam. 
This fallacy is an irrelevant or exaggerated appeal to our sympathy. She herself said that her daughter's death is unrelated to the vaccine question. "The fact is, there was no vaccine for her. Not for her illness." But we're not supposed to notice that, because "she died. She died and now she is gone." She's invoking a strong societal norm (it's rude to argue with a grieving mother) to quash any dissent. It's not an argument; it's manipulating the situation to discredit any dissenters by making them appear heartless. It's common enough in our public discourse, but it only works because the vast majority don't reason well.

Logical Fallacy #5: Confirmation Bias. 
This is only accepting evidence that confirms what you already believe, and she's not shy about it. "There is no, none, nada, nothing in science that proves this. If you want to use google instead of science to 'prove me wrong' then I am happy to call you an imbecile as well as misinformed." She's come right out and said, in the most insulting way she can, that there is no evidence that will persuade her to reconsider. She announces her bias, loud and clear.

There are others. Straw Man. Red Herring. Appeal to Authority. Misleading Vividness. And so on. We've all but banished logic from our schools. Rather than examining fallacies and propaganda, in order to avoid them, our schools are teaching them, explicitly, as "persuasion" techniques. Really, it's no wonder that our public discourse consists of so much of bullying the opposition into silence. 

I sympathize with this mom's anger and pain. What she is going through is enough to make almost anyone a little crazy. She wrote this in a moment of intense stress. But it doesn't make her premise or her arguments logically sound. Nor does it bring any justice to her blame. A sizable percent (I believe it's around 1/3) of measles cases are in the vaccinated population, and it's not unheard of for the recently vaccinated to "shed" the germs. There is no way to know which way those odd ran. I don't blame her for her poor logic, or even making for her rant public; she is grieving, terrified, and in the throes of the dramatic postpartum hormone shifts. It's a perfect storm, and she can easily be excused for her irrationality. I certainly can't guarantee that I'd do any better in the same place; I, too, know a thing or two about grief, and know from experience that it does not lend to clear thinking. But our public discourse must be better than irrational, emotional tirades. Alexander Hamilton had the right of it:

"For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution." (Federalist #1)

What this mom has really discovered is that life is risky business. No matter what you do and how careful you are, you cannot eliminate risk or pain from life. Wesley was right: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling something." Vaccinated or not, kids get sick sometimes. And it sucks. People get sick. Sometimes they die; the survivors mourn. The pain is real and legitimate. But we can't let that pain be a reason to let our public discourse be rants and bullying, not if we want freedom. America must do better than this.


Rozy Lass said...

The hardest class I took in college was called "Logic as Critical Thinking". It was also the best. At the time, and still today, I believe it should be a required course for Freshmen. It was difficult because for the first time in my life I was required to actually THINK! But I came out of that class understanding arguments and was better able to dissect and digest political commentary (or what passes for such).I still have my textbook and refer to it occasionally to refresh myself on the specific names of fallacies (it's been a loooong time). Keep up the good work.

Anne Chovies said...

It's true - people don't think like that anymore. I don't watch political debates because they're not debates. They're just opposing people trying to "score" against their opponents. Winning with sound-bytes.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin