“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. They both respond to the facts as they understand them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. Bullshitters ignore these demands altogether. They do not reject the authority of the truth, as liars do, and oppose themselves to it. They pay no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
-Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University (Paraphrased to remove gender references)
It is very difficult to communicate in the age of Trump. It behooves us all to learn and teach such basic foundations of communication as recognizing logical fallacies. What follows is a list of common fallacies found every day on Facebook. Feel free to add examples of your own.
1. “We won the election, you lost, get over it!”
This is called the “ad populum” or “appeal to popularity” fallacy. A claim is not necessarily true because it is popular. Few conservatives believed that Obama’s victory proved his principles, few liberals believe that Trump’s victory proved his principles, and they are both right. Political victory is no guarantee of ethical integrity. We must learn to communicate person to person with those with whom we disagree and forget the imaginary crowds in the back of our minds we feel validate our arguments.
2. “Oh, yeah? What about Bill Clinton/George W. Bush”
This is the “tu quoque,” or “you, too” fallacy. This fallacy consists of “refuting” what someone says by producing a bad example from that person’s group. Every group has bad examples. Finding bad apples from someone’s group doesn’t disprove what that individual is saying.
3. “That’s what I would expect a liberal/conservative idiot to say!”
Obviously this is the “ad hominem” attack where, instead of refuting what someone says, you insult the the person speaking. One response to this fallacy would be to say, “even if that were true of me, how would it refute what I said?” If someone is obviously trying to bully you, it might be helpful to point out that they would not need to resort to insults if they really believed they had a strong argument. The point is, shooting your opponent in a chess match is not the same thing as gaining a checkmate, and ridicule is not the same as refutation.
4. “We know the Bible is true because of all the miracles recorded in the Bible that prove it is true.”
This is known as “petitio principil” where speaker appears to be proving a truth claim, but are actually just rephrasing their assumptions in the form of a conclusion. This is known as a circular argument, or “begging the question.”
5. “I think the president knows a little more than you do about this.”
We rely on experts in certain fields to help us navigate through life, but no expert is beyond accountability. The “argumentum ad verecundiam” or appeal to authority attempts to end investigation by appealing to what Popes, generals, or other authority figures say. Always ask how any authority knows what they are claiming.
6. “I think you’ll understand what I’m saying better if I fill your Facebook page with emojis and articles I’ve cut and pasted from dubious sources.”
When someone co-opts a topic or produces irrelevant examples it is known as “ignoratio enlenchi” or a “red herring.” It is sometimes called the “Chewbacca defense” after a South Park episode where a lawyer distracts the jury by continually bringing Chewbacca into the conversation.
7. “Any attempt at gun control is an attack on the brave soldiers who died”/ “Any defense of gun ownership is an attack on the poor students who died”
Painful topics are particularly susceptible to what is called “argumentum ad misericordiam” or appeals to pity. The casualties of an earlier war do not justify the policies behind a war in our own day. While I would love to reduce the number of guns in our country, I know there are many gun owners who are as offended by gun violence as am I. The world is a complicated and painful place and that isn’t the fault of either side of an argument.
8. “You can’t prove that the abominable snowman DOESN’T exist!”
This is the appeal to Ignorance or “argumentum ad ignorantiam.” We are at a real impasse because conservatives and liberals are having trouble finding sources of information both sides can trust. Poking holes in someone else’s theories can be an endless treadmill. At some point we must consider what might be trust worthy sources of information for all sides of the divide. Anyone who is not open to that search for objective criteria is not serious conversation partner.
9. “All our problems began when prayer was taken out of the schools” /”All our problems began when Ted Nuggent wrote “Cat Scratch Fever.”
This fallacy is called “post hoc ergo propter hoc” meaning that just because one event happens after an earlier event does not mean the first event caused the second. It is human nature to look for simple causes, but we must help one another remember that life is never as simple as our human melodramas would pretend.
As I say these are difficult times to communicate, but for that very reason it is invaluable for us to model the kind of reasonable communication for which we aspire.