False dichotomies and other logical fallacies

We have lost the ability and skill to carry on a logical argument. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the comments section of any blog, media or live chat site are full of logical fallacies.

Take for example the recent flood of posts that depicted the outrage against the killing of Cecil, the lion, as being the opposite of being against abortion. One such post asks, “But how in the world can you get teary-eyed and misty-eyed and sad over Cecil and, at the same time, participate in burying what’s happening at Planned Parenthood?”

This is a false dichotomy. These are not mutually exclusive issues. Are the only options to care either for wild animals or for unborn babies? Is there no possibility that someone could care about all life, animals and babies? How does anyone know if the same people who are disgusted by the killing of Cecil the lion support abortions? Who is the “you” who is teary-eyed over Cecil and simultaneously burying the Planned Parenthood story? Was there only time for one story and the unnamed “you” made an either/or decision to use one story over the other?

If one is to believe what you read on the internet, you either support police officers regardless of their behavior towards minority citizens or you are a “terrorist” who hates all authority. Are those the only two options? All cops aren’t good cops any more than all politicians are bad, all farmers are noble, all mothers saints. Because most men are good does it then follow that we should not hold accountable those who beat their wives? Aren’t there are both good cops and good men and bad cops and abusive men?  Is it logical that we support all policemen, good or bad, simply because they are law enforcement officers? Good men and good cops should be outraged by those men and police officers who are bullies.  All of us should be outraged by abuse of power.

As teenagers my sister was a master at ad hominum logical fallacies. Just as our discussions were really getting to the nitty-gritty, she would pause and say, “Your hair is really greasy and you are getting a huge zit on your forehead!” What could I say at that point? The argument was over. One headline cries, “If you’re outraged over the killing of Cecil the Lion, but NOT over Planned Parenthood murdering babies for organ harvesting, you’re mentally ill.” It calls into question the opponents’ mental health. “If you don’t agree with me, you are crazy.” Disparaging an opponent’s mental health nor zits on the forehead neither have a bearing on the validity of an argument.

Not only are such ad hominum logical fallacies frequently used in debates about emotional issues such as the legality and morality of abortion, they are common in politics. These arguments point out silly things intended to distract us from the real points of contention. Donald Trump is made fun of because he uses an elaborate comb-over to cover his bald head. Hilary Clinton wears pant suits and sometimes doesn’t wear make up or wears sensible shoes. These distractions from the real issues and real debate, just as does the “mentally ill” comment by “Conservativebyte.com.”They have nothing to do with the argument. They are a distraction.

Just because there is a correlation between two things doesn’t mean one causes the other. My rooster crows every day at about 5:30. The sun always comes up after he finishes crowing. Does my rooster’s crowing cause the sun to rise? There is no cause and effect, only coincidence. Maybe the correlation is actually the reverse. The imminent sunrise makes the rooster crow.

As another example, health insurance rates are going up at the same time as the Affordable Care Act has gone into effect. Many pundits claim, therefore, that Obamacare has caused higher insurance premiums. Of course, in the ten years before the ACA was passed, health insurance rates were increasing by double digits, employers were cutting their contribution to employees coverage and deductible amounts were skyrocketing. Simply because the ACA is now the law of the land and some insurance rates have continued to go up does not mean the law is now the direct cause of the increase. The question is a complex, multifaceted issue and experts in insurance and underwriting are still debating the question.

Another logical fallacy compares the less-than-cost-of-living wages of a fast food worker to an active duty soldier with the following question? “You think you deserve higher wages for flipping burgers than a soldier who is risking his life for his country?” How does one of these things connect with the other? If we favor a $15 minimum wage does it then follow that we don’t support higher wages for military personnel? Do fast food workers set the pay scale for army privates? If we pay one more does that then follow that the other will be paid less? Shouldn’t both food service workers and those in the military be paid a living wage for a day’s work? The inference that pay equals value is not consistent with how we pay many professions. Why are football players paid more than teachers? Why are hedge fund managers paid more than family practice doctors? It seems a far more logical conclusion that if minimum wage jobs pay significantly more than the armed services, to attract recruits, the military may have to raise levels of compensation. Like the rooster and the sun, perhaps we have the cause and effect backwards.

Often the logical fallacies that pull on our hearts the most are the ones that speak to the things we are afraid of. We don’t analyze the arguments presented if they reinforce what we already believe. We may get lots of “likes” and “shares” on our Facebook page, but not understanding the logic of debate makes us vulnerable to being manipulated and at risk of supporting things that are not in the interest of the common good, but are even destructive to our own self interests.

To learn more about logical debate, search the internet for “logical fallacies.”
Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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