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.