How do conservatives keep winning the public debate, when their agenda is so cruel, destructive and unworkable? By using 12 sneaky tricks that are logical fallacies, but devastatingly effective ones that work almost every time.
If you’re anything like me, you can’t resist commenting on links from sites like Mediaite or HuffPo, where you are likely to get replies from conservatives and/or Teabaggers. Every time this happens, I find myself rolling my eyes at their comments because 9.9 times out of 10 it will contain a logical fallacy (the other .1 are just name-calling). Face it, most righties just can’t make a sound argument. This is usually because they either don’t have the facts or don’t understand the premise. So they resort to logical fallacies.
Ground rules: what is an argument?
Despite what our ideological opponents believe, an argument is more than just naysaying (as Monty Python showed us). A real argument presents a conclusion and then, using empirical, and sometimes anecdotal, evidence goes on to prove it. There are two kinds of argument: a deductive argument is one in which all evidence completely supports the conclusion. For (a very simplistic) example:
Premise: If I am not a conservative, then I am a liberal
Premise: I am not a conservative
Conclusion: I am a liberal
The second kind of argument is inductive, in which the premises appear to lend some degree of support for the conclusion. Another rather simplistic example:
Premise: Most liberals are Democrats
Premise: I am a liberal
Conclusion: I am a Democrat
An incorrect conclusion can easily be supported via either kind of argument. If a basic premise is wrong — such as President Obama is a socialist — it will lead to a faulty conclusion: Obama wants to ruin America. One cannot support a conclusion with the wrong premises as a starting point.
13 techniques conservatives use to win arguments.
The following are logical fallacies we see a lot:
13. Ad Hominem. Latin for “against the man,” this logical fallacy is a favorite among the Teabagger crowd. The ad hominem attack will first go after the character of the person, then against the claim being made. For example, climate change deniers malign Al Gore then maintain that, since he is obviously unreliable (or greedy, or whatever), then his claims about climate change are invalid. Of course, a person’s character, actions or circumstances have no bearing on the facts of the argument being made. An extension of ad hominem is ad hominem tu quoque, or the “you too” fallacy. Rand Paul used this to discredit Rachel Maddow and her exposing him as a plagiarist.
12. Appeal to the consequences of dis/belief. This posits the conclusion is true/false because if it were not, there would be negative consequences. Or that the conclusion is true/false because I want the conclusion to be true/false. That last one is wishful thinking and we see it a lot. Birthers live by this fallacy: “I want Obama not to be President.” So they believe that he was not born in America because it supports their faulty conclusion. As we can see, the consequences of belief or disbelief have nothing whatever to do with whether a point is true or false.
11. Appeal to authority. This is a fallacy that uses perceived authority to support a claim. The Wall Street Journal‘s publication of an op-ed by Suzanne Somers in its “The Experts” section is a great example. They set her up as an authority on the American health care system and the ACA, when she is nothing of the kind. The talking heads on cable news are often referred to as “an authority” or “expert” on an issue when, in fact, they are a paid shill or someone with an axe to grind or agenda to promote. Any claim made by a self-identified expert must be in their area of expertise, which must be a generally recognized discipline. Being an expert in one area, doesn’t automatically make you an expert in everything.
10. Appeal to Fear. You might say that this one of the right’s go-to strategies. They present a claim that is intended to produce fear — say, that Obama will take away your guns. Then present another claim (that may be related to the first, but need not be): the Administration will be rounding up and imprisoning gun lovers. It’s easy to get fearful people to believe anything that validates their fear. Just ask Fox News.
9. Appeal to Ridicule. Here, mockery is the substitute for reasoning. For example, Rush Limbaugh makes fun of Sandra Fluke, calling her a slut and opening her to ridicule. Therefore, covering birth control is a bad thing. He expects his listeners to say, “That’s ridiculous!” And they do. This is a specious argument because making fun of someone who holds a position does not affect its validity. If it did, Limbaugh would be unemployed.
8. Appeal to popularity. This one always crops in in relation to Fox News. “Well more people watch Fox than watch MSNBC.” You can almost the added, “Nyah!” That’s fine and good for them. But that does not make the information they present factual. This is best summed up with a quote from Anatole France: “If 50 million people believe a stupid thing, it is still a stupid thing.”
7. Begging the Question or Circular Reasoning. The premise is put forward in which the truth of the conclusion is assumed, therefore the claim is true. The best known example of this is using the Bible to prove that the things in the Bible are true. For the right, many things are true because one conservative cites another conservative as proof. For example, Sean Hannity might “prove” his conclusion that President Obama is weak by citing Bill O’Reilly, who may cite Hannity at some later point. This is the basis of the right-wing echo chamber.
6. False choice. This presents only two choices when there are, in fact, many. The right often does this with instances of aggression. For example, when Putin took the Crimea, it was either go to war or be weak and this is how most of them presented the situation. As we know, diplomacy and sanctions were also, and sanely, in play. This fallacy is best demonstrated in the right’s tendency to see any issue in a bad/good paradigm, ignoring reality and eschewing nuance.
5. Straw Man. Oh, the many times this appears in comment threads… These sort of fallacies are similar to the “slippery slope” but are more subtle. With a straw man argument, the original position against which the argument is made is misrepresented (usually to make it sound weaker), or exaggerated. Then the misrepresentation is refuted. By refuting the weaker, made-up position, the original position is seen as having been refuted. For example, you argue that we ought to spend more money on infrastructure to which your opponent responds with questioning why you don’t want America defended properly. She then can argue why the defense budget shouldn’t be cut while you are still on infrastructure.
4. Generalization. You know how this one goes: “Obama wasn’t born here because his birth certificate is fake!” your Teabagger friend spouts. Let’s see… jumping to a huge conclusion? Check. Based on little or no evidence? Check. Or maybe it’s “All Muslims are terrorists!” A stereotype based on a few examples? Check. Sometimes known as painting with a big brush or a blanket statement. No matter what you call it, it’s lazy thinking.
3. Slippery Slope. Here’s Rick Santorum’s favorite. If we allow gays to marry, then the next thing you know people will be marrying their dogs. Or horses. Or their car. Whatever. There is no actual connection between the premise and the feared outcomes. Also known as leapfrog logic.
2. Shifting the burden of proof. Hugely popular on Fox News, this argument often begins, “Some say…” or “It’s commonly known…” Anytime someone begins with those or something similar prepare for the burden of proof to be shifted to you. Some say that climate change is a myth. Over to you to prove that it’s not. Don’t fall for it. Demand they prove their position with facts.
1. False Cause. In this fallacy, it is claimed that because event B happened after event A, it actually caused event B. To which the smart liberal replies, “Correlation does not indicate causation.” For example, Obama went golfing just before the Malaysian jet was shot down over Ukraine. The conservative will say that the jet was shot down because Obama went golfing, a patently ridiculous claim. This is often used in climate change debates so be on your toes.
These are just a handful of logical fallacies you are likely to see when debating with a conservative. Sometimes you’ll see many all at once, sometimes it will be the only method they use. It’s good to know about as many as possible. This website is a great resource for identifying logical fallacies. If you know which fallacy you’re dealing with, this website is useful. Knowing about logical fallacies is an important tool for liberals now, what with so much utter bull being lobbed our way daily. Be good at argument and you may win the day. Or at least the comment thread.