Reason and Unreason
Reason and rationality is one important aspect of public policy. Here it is important to acknowledge that not all truths are strictly logical. There is little logic in the ‘sermon on the mount’ or in ‘shall I compare thee to a summers day?’ The appeal to preserve wilderness or to certain expressions of patriotism for example, are valid without needing to rely on technical deductive reasoning.
However, public policy should include a basic commitment to truth based on a process of logical reasoning in which the proposition is supported by evidence leading to a defensible conclusion. Logical fallacies should never be used to argue for or against a policy. However, wittingly or unwittingly, they often are.
Following are some logical reasoning fallacies and examples of how they are used in public life.
A non sequitur argument is one that does not follow logically from start to finish; the argument or initial observation does not support the conclusion.
‘Alcohol is legal and it does so much harm, so why not legalise marijuana.’
‘Lots of heterosexual couples have bad marriages and neglect their children so there is no reason to prevent homosexual couples from adopting.’
‘Climate change is a scam because it would lead to a one world government.’
In the above examples, the initial statement or proposition provides no support at all for the subsequent conclusion/proposition. All the following logical fallacies are different categories of non sequitur reasoning.
Argument from Consequences
An argument that because you don’t like the possible consequences that flow from a proposition, the proposition is false (also works in reverse).
Climate change is either real or not real. The fact that certain interests are threatened by some policy responses to climate change does not make climate change untrue.
Some people are homosexual. A concern that legalising same sex marriage will have negative implication for society does not change the fact of homosexuality.
The statement ‘a foetus is human’ is true or false regardless of its moral implications or implications for ‘women’s rights’.
In all the above examples, the original argument is either true, partially true or false regardless of its consequences.
Exaggerating or misrepresenting a person’s argument in order to discredit it. That said, it can be useful to take a person’s argument to its ultimate conclusion in order to test its validity.
‘Environmentalists would have us living in the dark. We need nuclear power.’ Actually environmentalists agree that we need electricity but prefer other sources than nuclear.
‘Any cuts to military spending are unpatriotic and would see us overrun by the Chinese’. This implies the person wishing to reduce military spending is indifferent to national security, assumes that a reduction in spending automatically means a less effective miliary, and exaggerates the threat.
‘Only a bigot opposes same sex adoption’. Many people oppose same sex adoption for different reasons. Also, a person may be a ‘bigot’ but their reasons may still be valid (see further ‘argument ad hominem’).
However, if the argument for same sex adoption is taken to its logical conclusion then the concept of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as unique different and important contributors to a child’s development is legally undermined since a homosexual union cannot, by definition, provide both.
Correlation as Causation
The argument that because two or more things happen at the same time, or after one another, they are caused by the same thing. Although this argument is not prima facie logical, correlation is often correctly used to suggest an avenue of further inquiry.
‘Donald Trump’s victory was the result of Russian propaganda’. Russia made their preference for Donald Trump clear but there is no evidence this swayed the election in his favour.
‘We don’t want a public health system like Sweden; they pay eighty per cent tax’. Assumes that the public health bill is the cause of Sweden’s tax rate. This would need to be established for the statement to have internal validity.
‘The Family Law Act caused an epidemic of divorce’. The divorce rate in Australia dramatically increased after divorce became easier following the enactment of the Family Law Act in 1975. That does not mean that the Family Law Act caused marriages to fail or that all marriages were happy before 1975.
No True Scotsman
This re-defines membership of a group to exclude any member of that group whose behaviour is objectionable.
‘No true Muslim commits acts of terrorism; terrorism has no religion’. In fact, most of the world’s terrorists believe that Allah is one and Mohammed is His prophet and observe the five pillars of Islam.
‘Real Australians say ‘Welcome’ [to refugees]’. Actually opposing an open border immigration policy does not automatically cause someone’s citizenship to be revoked.
Fallacy of Origin
The notion that truth or untruth of a proposition is based on its origin.
‘The Americans know what they are talking about and they are fully behind the Joint Strike Fighter’. Actually, the Joint Strike Fighter either does or does not perform to the requisite standard based on defined reference threats. The fact that the aircraft was designed in America is irrelevant.
‘The Bible is an ancient text and as 21st century people we should not be bound by outdated precepts’. Why not? The fact that something was written down a long time ago does not make it untrue.
Guilt by Association
Seeking to discredit an argument/proposal by associating it with undesirable people or things.
‘Hitler discriminated against minorities therefore we should have transgender bathroom rights.’ Transgender bathroom rights are either a good or bad idea regardless of anything Hitler did. Hitler was also a vegetarian, a dog lover, and an environmentalist. This does not mean that vegetarians, dog lovers or environmentalists are anti-Semitic Nazis.
‘We don’t want a public health system like Sweden; they pay eighty per cent tax’. The tax rate paid by countries with public health systems vary wildly as do the quality and accessibility of their health systems. (NB: Swedes do not pay 80 per cent tax).
Appeal to hypocrisy
Countering someone’s argument by pointing out that it conflicts with their own behaviour or past statements.
‘What right has the church got to lecture gays? Look how they abused children’. The church’s arguments for or against any policy stand or fall on their merits. What clergy have done to children is irrelevant.
‘Environmentalists drive cars so what right do they have to protest against coal’. The arguments for or against coal mining are not altered by the transport preferences of environmentalists.
Appeal to the Bandwagon
The argument that because many people, even a majority, believe something so it must be true.
‘There is a big swing to [political party X] and everyone is voting for them.’ – doesn’t necessarily make them a good choice.
‘Everyone believes in evolution’. People also used to believe the sun revolved around the earth. Evolution is true or false based on chemistry and observation.
‘Everyone sends their kids to school’. That is not a reason to send your children to school.
‘Everyone uses childcare these days’. That is not a reason to use childcare.
‘No one saves themselves for marriage anymore’ …..you get the idea.
Appeal to Antiquity or Tradition
Taking a position because things have ‘always been done this way’ or ‘this is the way we do things’ or because a course of action is demanded by culture and tradition. Just because an idea is old does not make it true and just because things have been done a certain way for a long time does not mean that is the best option. Having said that, if something as been found over time to work and deliver positive results that may be a prima facie argument against change if the alternative is assessed as risky, costly or unlikely to succeed. Colloquially: ‘don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch’. This is essentially the conservative argument against change. In contrast the fact that, for example, the Roman Catholic church, or Buddhism, has been around for a long time does not ipso facto validate either since prostitution and venerial disease pre-date both.
Appeal to Progress (argumentum ad novitatem)
The apposite of the argument above. The fallacy of asserting that something is better or true simply because it is new or more recent. Often used to sell products, social trends, and political fads, often (but not always) targetted at youth. Embodied in the term ‘progressive’ as moving in a positive forward direction. In fact many ‘progressive’ policies reflect the moral and cultural mores of Greco-Roman society and from a historical perspective would take society back to a previous era. ‘You can’t stop progress’ is not an argument for or against anything.
Reasoning from Limited Evidence
An argument that makes large generalisations based on a small sample.
‘You can see climate change happening. The last two summers have been the hottest on record.’
‘We had a freezing winter; so much for global warming’
‘I know lots of people who take drugs and they are doing OK’
‘Anyone can get a job if they really want one, I did.’
Argument Ad Hominem
An argument that attacks the person rather than their argument.
‘Environmentalists are all dole bludgers’.
‘Typical thing that latte left come up with’.
‘XYZ person is an intolerant bigot.
‘That’s the sort of thing a gun toting fundamentalist would say.’
Labelling the Argument
Seeking to refute an idea by labelling it rather than engaging with it and showing where it is flawed.
Example: ‘That idea is racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-feminist, sexist, nativist, supremacist, pro-[insert whatever group or idea you don’t like], Nazi, Communist, social Marxist, far right, far left, was used by Hitler/Stalin/Mao etc. Even if correctly labelled, none of those things makes the argument false.
Fallacy of the Golden Mean
The fallacy that the middle ground between two conflicting views must represent the truth or the best way. A subset of relativism, post modernism, and an extreme view of multiculturalism. Reality is not altered by the existence of extreme views and the middle path between them may or may not represent a better or more true perspective. What for example, is the middle ground between the views of a wife beater and a slave trader? A tactic of political movements discussed elsewhere in this course is to shift the ‘Golden Mean’ in their desired direction so that views once considered extreme become moderate and ‘normal’.
Repetition Ad Nauseum
A standard technique of propaganda that repeats a statement until it is widely accepted as true even though the evidence may be strongly opposed, or the issue far more complex, than the statement allows.
Examples: ’the Liberals are good for the economy’ ‘Labor always creates a debt crisis’ ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ ‘Russia invaded Ukraine’ ‘Putin annexed Crimea’ ‘The Joint Strike Fighter can meet all present and future threats’ ‘corporate tax breaks will lift employment and wages’ ‘Russia is bombing the moderate opposition’ ‘removing trade barriers will make Australian business more competitive’ ‘there is no consensus on climate science’ ‘there is total consensus on climate science’ ‘Russia is rigging the American election’ etc
It is interesting to consider ad nauseum statements from the past as a guide to present absurdities. For example, the claim that without conscription in WWI Australia would be overrun by the ‘Huns’, and the notion that women are incapable of voting properly.
Euphemisms and Weasel Words
These are not logical reasoning fallacies per se but they are often used in debate to obscure the use of any of the logical reasoning fallacies noted above. We should always be alert to euphemisms and weasel words because they often point to an underlying logical failure which must then be brought to light. Following is a short list contrasted with their actual factual meaning in some contexts. Note that in listing the actual meaning I am not making moral judgements or advocating a position – just stating the facts.
|Civil war in Ukraine
|In the area of Russia
|In the country of Russia
|A government I don’t happen to like
|Overthrowing a government that isn’t doing what we want
|A tool of regime change
|You are with me or you are against me
|If you are not with me I am against you
|We will do what we want
|You will do what we want
|No fly zone
|Aerial bombardment of developing country
|Innocent bystanders killed, maimed, and traumatised by military action
|Parachute soldiers into a country and start killing people
|Coalition of the willing
|Countries we were able to bully or bribe in order to break international law to bring about regime change
|A reason to control you, lie to you, and subvert your civil and democratic rights
|Work place flexibility
|Third world wages and regulation
|Labour market reform
|We take the surplus your labour creates and we might give you some back when it suits us
|New policy direction
|Political flip flop
|George W Bush had a substance abuse problem
|George W Bush was an alcoholic
|Lack of rigour
|I am firm
|You are obstinate
|I am considering my options
|You are indecisive
|I failed to comply with the law
|You are a criminal
|Everyone is entitled to their opinion
|I can’t defend my position
|I am a broad minded person
|I don’t have a clue
|Enhance shareholder value
|Someone who is saying things I don’t like
|Would I lie to you?
|I am lying to you!
WHEN LOGICAL REASONING FALLACIES ARE LIFE AND DEATH
The following document is a transcript of an ABC interview with the Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force over the hightly controversial F-35 fighter aircraft then subject to a Senate Inquiry. The transcript is sourced from Submission number 36 by Mr Peter Goon which pointed to numerous reasoning errors. For technical reasons these could not be represented on this website but additional commentry is provided by 3P Training. The original submission is available here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Joint_fighter/Submissions
Excerpt from Mr Peter Goon Submission 36 – Supplementary Submission with additional comments by 3P Training.
RAAF chief defends multi-billion-dollar ‘joint strike fighter’ program
Andrew Greene reported this story on Wednesday, March 16, 2016 12:05:00
DAVID MARK: The chief of the Royal Australian Air Force has launched a strident defence of the controversial multi-billion dollar Joint Strike Fighter program. Air Marshal Leo Davies says the program has had its problems, but insists it’s the right choice for Australia. His comments follow criticism of the program in recent weeks by former defence force members, who’ve given evidence to a Senate inquiry which is looking into the massive purchase. Here’s defence reporter Andrew Greene.
ANDREW GREENE: Fourteen years ago the Australian Government fully committed to the US led Joint Strike Fighter program. Billions of dollars later, the ﬁghter jets are still not operational, but Air Force chief air marshal Leo Davies is conﬁdent the F-35 remains the answer for Australia’s future air defence.
LEO DAVIES: I have absolutely no reservations, zero reservations about the decision for Joint Strike Fighter being the Classic Hornet replacement for Australia. I do have some elements of the program that we need to keep an eye on and they need to mature yet. [3P Training comment: if any part of the program has not been tested and met standards ipso facto that is a reservation because the plane may not perform.]
ANDREW GREENE: In December, a Senate inquiry being [sic] examining Australia’s JSF acquisition, which is expected to eventually total 72 aircraft.
LEO DAVIES: What I’m really pleased about is that during this inquiry nothing brand new, this thing that would show the JSF is not the right aeroplane for Australia has not broached.
ANDREW GREENE: Air marshal Davies is welcoming the renewed scrutiny.
LEO DAVIES: There are proper questions about understanding its maturity, I think it’s a very fair question to ask do we think we understand the aeroplane well enough to give guarantees to government and the Australian people that it is the right aeroplane.
And there has been no deviation from that thought because we have not found something that was not perfect that has not been ﬁxed.
ANDREW GREENE: Many of the concerns raised in the inquiry so far have come from former RAAF members of participants in the JSF program.
But the Air Force chief says they aren’t in a position to know the full details.
LEO DAVIES: The progress of test-ﬁx, test-ﬂy, ﬁx-test, ﬂy is going at such a pace I would not hold any sort of animosity, any sort of ‘you dill’ kind of comment for anyone who left the program six months ago, let alone two and a half or 10 years ago. It’s evolving so quickly. [3P Training comment: if it is evolving so quickly that a subject matter expert’s opinion is outdated in six months clearly it is too soon to commit to the aircraft].
ANDREW GREENE: Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says while the JSF program has been plagued with problems, he agrees the Government should persevere.
ANDREW DAVIES: The F-35 program has been far too ambitious for its own good. And I don’t think we’ll ever see a program of its type again because of the difﬁculties its run into and the expenses and the time delays that have ensured. That said, it’s still likely to be a remarkably capable aeroplane. [3P Training comment: this latter sentence irrelevant. The question is not whether it is ‘remarkable’ but whether it can prevail over regional adversaries in combat. This has never been proven or tested, merely asserted.]
ANDREW GREENE: However in an article he has just published Andrew Davies argues the Government should take out some form of “contingency” in case of any further delays.
ANDREW DAVIES: One of the things that we could do in the next few years to come if the F-35 for whatever reason is further delayed, is we could simply buy more Super Hornets. So we could move to a position of having around 50 of them, we could then buy 50 F-35s and then we’d be pretty much covered well into the 2030s and we could have a look at what the landscape looked like then. [3P Comment: a further non sequitur. If the Super Hornets can deliver the requisite capability, why purchase the still being tested F-35?].
ANDREW GREENE: In any case, air marshal Davies says he’s conﬁdent the controversial program is now on track.
LEO DAVIES: We have 450 aeroplanes ﬂying, we’re over 50,000 ﬂight hours, we have our pilots in Arizona and our maintenance crews who ﬂy them, maintain them, and this aeroplane is doing a really good job, and I would contend is further advanced in its maturity for this stage of its life than almost any aeroplane we’ve ever bought into service. [3P Comment: a further non sequitur. All of these observations are irrelevant to the key question: ‘Can the F-35 prevail over regional adversaries in combat’?]
DAVID MARK: That’s Chief of the air force, air marshal Leo Davies, ending that report from Andrew Greene. [End Interview]
For a more in-depth analysis of logical fallacies, failures of methodology, and non-sequitur reasoning behind the Joinst Strike Fighter program see this article by Mr Peter Goon, BEng (Mech), FTE (USNTPS), Head of Test and Evaluation, Air Power Australia:
13 February, 2009, Updated July, 2010
|The following is a citation from the Wikipedia entry on Emeritus Professor Harry G Frankfurt at Princeton University:……..
On Bullshit is an essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Originally published in the journal Raritan in 1986, the essay was republished as a separate volume in 2005 and became a nonfiction bestseller, spending twenty-seven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.In the essay, Frankfurt sketches a theory of bullshit, defining the concept and analyzing its applications. In particular, Frankfurt distinguishes bullshitting from lying; while the liar deliberately makes false claims, the bullshitter is simply uninterested in the truth. Bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences. While liars need to know the truth, the better to conceal it, the bullshitter, interested solely in advancing his own agenda, has no use for the truth. Following from this, Frankfurt claims that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”This work laid the foundation for Frankfurt’s 2006 follow-up book, On Truth.
|Where have we all seen what is described here so incisively?
In essence, ‘the B-word’ is a total (or partial) indifference to the truth and the underpinning data and facts, with ‘partial indifference’ being the source of the too-often-times observed fallacious argument into which a fine thread of truth has been woven.
Basically, at the very core of ‘the B-word’ is an indifference to how things really are; that is, an indifference to reality which, appropriately, should be viewed as ‘understanding the perceptions plus a full knowledge of the facts’; rather than its half baked sibling.
It is what legal practitioners less steeped in the nobler ethics and standards of their profession, such as honesty and integrity, mean when they say, “Tell me what you want and I will construct the argument. I am a lawyer and can argue anything!”
Independent, detailed analyses of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program have raised very serious concerns. The total lack of substantive responses to resulting questions put to the various proponents of the Joint Strike Fighter around the world have led to these queries (examples of which are attached) being distilled down to the following very simple questions.
Is the behaviour defined by Professor Frankfurt, and the attitudes/agendas that drive it, at the root of why the JSF Program has achieved such traction in the marketplace? This while the JSF commodity product is so disconnected from reality that repealing some Laws of Physics and Laws of Commerce, as well as Common Sense, would be the only way the jet could possibly meet many of its proponents’ claims?
Could this be the reason why standard risk assessments show there is quite a high probability this program will go down in history as the biggest aerospace and techno-strategic defence acquisition FUBAR, ever?….[article continues]