Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Politics versus logic

In an entertaining and insightful opinion piece in the Times today, Jamie Whyte dissects a recent campaign speech by Tony Blair, highlighting five common logical fallacies frequently employed by politicians:

1) The “human interest fallacy”.
As Whyte puts it: “this involves recounting a sentimental story about some needy person or neighbourhood and then leaping to the conclusion that your policies are the answer. An anecdote about a limping woman waiting for a knee operation was presented as sufficient ground for Labour’s health policies…Such rhetoric is sanctimonious bullying. If you oppose Mr Blair’s policy, then you obviously do not care about that poor woman. Everyone cares: Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem. That isn’t the issue. The question is which policies will most effectively help. "

2) The cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with this therefore because of this) fallacy
ie. confusing concurrence with causation.

As Whyte says: "Mr Blair enjoys boasting about Britain’s economic growth, low unemployment and low inflation. “Labour is working,” he claims, “don’t let the Tories wreck it.”…The fact that the economy has thrived during Labour’s term in office does not show that its policies caused it. To establish causation, some explanation is required.”

3) The “undistinguishing characteristic fallacy”.
Whyte: "Labour’s main contribution (to Britains current economic success) has been not reversing the Conservatives’ free-market reforms. Some credit is due to those who resist squandering their inheritance, but more is due to those who created it. But whoever deserves the credit for Britain’s prosperity, it should be a matter of no concern to voters. No party will now significantly change the monetary and other policies that explain our economic success. When all cars come with power steering, it cannot provide grounds for preferring one car to another. And when all parties will abide by the lessons of our recent economic success, it cannot provide grounds for preferring one party to another."

4) Recommending a policy by listing its benefits alone.
The benefits of a policy cannot suffice to recommend it, because it will also have costs, eg. tax costs – but Blair never mentions these.

5) The “straw man” fallacy
...which consists of presenting an absurd caricature of your opponent’s position and attacking that instead of the actual opponent. So Blair paints the Tories as absurdly wicked, and the Lib Dems as absurdly naïve etc.

It’s a good article, but Whyte spoils it a little by committing a logical fallacy of his own in his concluding paragraph:

The Prime Minister claims deep respect for the people of Britain. Then why not show us some respect? To peddle his rhetorical nonsense, he must either think that we are fools or be a fool himself.

This is the fallacy of the ‘false dilemma’, ie. Whyte presents us with two choices when in fact there are three:

Blair (and all politicians) peddle rhetorical nonsense because they think, correctly, that there are just enough fools out there to swing the vote.

They do it because it works.

1 comment:

martpol said...

Funnily enough, schools debating throws up some similar grounds for criticising speeches:
(1) The human interest fallacy is notable in lower-level debating: "My uncle died of lung cancer; it was incredibly upsetting; therefore we must ban smoking (unless you want to upset me)."
(2) Cum hoc ergo propter hoc becomes more of an issue at higher levels, a good example of which was thrown up in a debate I judged at last week's World Schools Debating Championships: one team, opposing rehabilitative justice, stated that such a system had been tried in southern Nigeria, and that high levels of violence continued in that area. Their opponents pointed out the lack of a causal link, suggesting that the region's vicious war between Muslims and Christians might have been a more significant factor.
(3) Recommending a policy by listing its benefits alone is, of course, at the heart of all good debates!

In addition, here are some others from debating competitions:
(1) The Hitler Argument (AKA the Big Brother Argument). Similar to the straw man fallacy, this asserts that whatever vaguely illiberal policy is being proposed (ID cards, tightened censorship etc.) will inevitably lead to a totalitarian dictatorship in which our every move is monitored and we are stripped of all liberties. My favourite example was a debater actually saying to their opponent, "You're just being Hitler."

(2) The Assertion without Evidence. In some debates, you can just about get away with logically proving your arguments without providing any real-life examples or evidence. In others, use of phrases like "It just will happen" or "Everyone thinks that this policy is ridiculous" gives the game away.

(3) Similarly, there are Arguments Based on Unproven Assumptions. Such assumptions include "Governments always want the best for people" and the converse, "Governments always lie and manipulate".

(4) Arguments Based on Total Bull****. In the worst world-level debate I've ever witnessed, the Proposition wished to ban the granting of aid to non-democratic countries, stating that such aid would include money, training and infrastructure. The Opposition challenged this definition of aid, saying that "money should not be included in the definition of aid" because "democratic governments would never give money to non-democratic countries. Of course they wouldn't!"