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Opinion Column
For the week of March 14 through 20, 2001

The fallacy in public discourse

Commentary by Dick Dorworth

Not a day goes by without a world, national or local political, business or religious leader publicly exhibiting his or her prowess in the fine art of the fallacy. Since "fallacy" is defined as "a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument;" and "a failure in reasoning which renders an argument invalid," it might seem inappropriate to term the use of fallacy as a fine art. Fuzzy thinking is hardly fine, nor is it artistic. But the Latin root from which the word "fallacy" is descended means "to deceive." So, while there certainly are those whose reasoning is faulty and in error, whose thinking is blurred, there are also those whose reasoning is quite clear and who consciously use fallacies in their discourse hoping that the listenerís reasoning will be faulty and in error, that is, fallacious.

Sometimes itís hard to tell which it is.

The more controversial the issue being discussed, debated, promoted, slid in the back door or rammed down the throats of the public, the more fallacies there are apt to be found in the dialogue. It is an unfortunate and harsh reality that the general level of public discourse on important issues is very often very low. Nearly everyone recognizes unsound reasoning in his opponents argument, often without being able to identify why itís unsound or to give it a name. It is, of course, more difficult to perceive the fallacious in oneís own argument; but if one sincerely believes in human reason, human honesty and the value of truth, then one is honor bound to root out the fallacy wherever it grows.

Strictly speaking, fallacy refers only to the transition from a set of premises to a conclusion; it is distinguished from a falsity, a value attributed to a single statement. For an argument to be valid it must adhere to the laws of syllogisms as elaborated by Aristotle; breaking one of the laws makes the argument fallacious. Fallacy has come to be used in a wider sense than the purely formal one. Informal fallacies occur when statements are vague or ambiguous as to the logical form they represent, or when multiple meanings are present and the validity of the argument depends on switching meanings of a word in midstream, so to speak.

Here is a short and basic list of some of the most common reasoning errors to be found in public debates and private conversations, a brief guide to informal fallacies.

Fallacy of composition: the assumption that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole. This is a current favorite of the Republican Party and large business interests. An example is the argument that lowering income taxes will benefit everyone and that society will be better off because of it.

Fallacy of division: the opposite of the previous fallacy, assuming that what is true of the whole must be true of the part. An example would be saying "Obesity is a major health problem in the United States; it is ridiculous to say that malnutrition is a problem for any Americans."

The ad hominem attack: this is the error of irrelevance because it does not address the issue at hand or the reasons and evidence for an opponentís position, and instead attacks the character, motives or credentials of the opponent. There are countless examples of this fallacy in the news every day. One recent and local example is calling this writer an "extremist" because I criticized false statements in a promotion of a destructive industry, rather than addressing the issues of false statements promoting an environmentally unsound sector of commerce.

The false disjunction: this is the error of omission, leaving out options and presenting a lesser number of options as if they were a complete range of alternatives. A well known example is "America: Love it or leave it."

Hypostatization: or the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness," the assumption that an abstract idea or aggregated phenomenon is a concrete entity. An example is that the Bible supports creationism, so the theory of evolution must be wrong.

Oversimplification: this is an error of omission because it describes complexity in simplistic terms, neglecting the complex variables of the situation. An example is the thinking that "Drugs in America will cease to be a significant problem if we put all the drug users and dealers in prison."

Sweeping generalization: the assumption that what is true under certain conditions must be true under all conditions. It is an error of omission. An example is "Lifting heavy weights makes strong muscles, so you should lift heavy weights after your back surgery."

Equivocation: this is the error of using a key term twice or more in an argument, but using the term to mean different things each time. An example is "Our President (Mayor, Commissioner, Senator, Congressman, teacher, guide, CEO, friend, father) is a good man. Whatever he decides to do will be good for us all."

Recognizing the fallacy in public debates and private conversations is entertaining and educational, and it is very, very healthy.


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