Monday, November 18, 2013

More on fallacies

When debating a topic, we often make the mistake of resorting to fallacies. We are especially prone to making this mistake when the topic is controversial. Here’s an example.

The Denver Post reported that Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado, had said that blacks and Latinos lack the drive and ambition of Asians and Jews. Six people spoke to the Post about Mr. Lamm’s assertion, but none of them (insofar as they were quoted by the Post) directly stated whether the assertion was true or false. Instead, they used fallacies:
“Dick Lamm is out of control. [Argumentum ad Hominem] We are not victims [Straw Man], and to take our culture and our way of living and our whole being and try to turn us into something else devalues who we are as Latinos and as blacks. [Straw Man] He goes around wanting to make people think he is Mary Poppins [Straw Man], when the reality is that he is a hard-core racist.” [Argumentum ad Hominem]

“I can’t account for statements that seem to condone sophisticated kinds of racial profiling and racial characterization.” [Red Herring]

“To say that in the face of César Chávez and Martin Luther King [Red Herring] and some of the other pioneers from the minority community is appalling.” [Appeal to Emotion]

The type of generalizations Lamm made “are not constructive to finding solutions.” [Appeal to Consequences]

“To me, cultural criticism is the opposite of racism. Racial characterizations are not chosen, but culture is. If the data suggests that some cultural attitudes are working more than others, why not make the change? [Appeal to Consequences] For there to be this thought police crackdown against a Dick Lamm to punish him for raising this issue, it’s a disservice [Red Herring] to people who find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in America. They need all the encouragement and the tough love to help them climb that ladder.” [Appeal to Pity]

“I reject those sentiments [Appeal to Emotion], I do not share them [Appeal to Emotion], and I think to make that suggestion is flat-out wrong.” [Appeal to Emotion]
The Takeaway: Be careful to avoid fallacies in your writing and speech; instead, use direct, clear and rational language. In situations where you are afraid to use direct, clear and rational language, don’t write or say anything – resorting to fallacies makes you sound shifty and evasive.

Disclaimer: I do not know or care whether Mr. Lamm’s assertion is true or false. My purpose in this post is to point out examples of invalid argument: six people who presumably do care a lot about whether the assertion is true or false avoided that question as if it were poison. Please remember, I do not choose examples for the ideas they express. I choose examples for their value as illustrations of especially bad (sometimes especially good) writing and speaking. Also see my general disclaimer.

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