Philosophy Weekend: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

Here’s a timely one, to cap off a week of truly bizarre politics in my country, the United States of America. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi looks like a children’s book, with appealing and funny drawings by Alejandro Giraldo, but is written for grown-ups. Each page represents a different common form of logical fallacy.

Generously, the authors have placed the entire book online, where it can hopefully help to unwind all the bad philosophical arguments that are hovering thickly in the air. Logical fallacies are timeless and universal, of course, but this book feels especially relevant now, as my country moves cautiously towards implementation of the sorely needed health insurance reform law known as Obamacare, and free market conservatives, corporate lobbyists, Tea Party congressmen and Ayn Rand followers explode in fury.

I remember many of the fallacies listed in this book (like the Slippery Slope, and our old friend the Straw Man) from my years as a philosophy student. Most are self-explanatory (Hasty Generalization, Appeal to Fear). Each is explained in this book with text and a picture, and all can be viewed online.

Reading through these fallacies today, it’s easy to map many of them to the virulent arguments currently used against Obamacare (which is, I still insist, an essential program). Here are a few I recognize:

The Straw Man: Barack Obama is a Marxist Muslim with a secret program to destroy everything that is great about this country.

Not a Cause for a Cause: Greece is having severe economic problems, and Greece has universal healthcare. Therefore, Obamacare will turn our country into Greece and destroy our economy.

No True Scotsman: No true conservative can compromise with liberals. Therefore, any Republican politician who votes to fund the current government is not a true conservative.

Slippery Slope: The new website has crashed repeatedly in its first two weeks of operation. This shows that the government is fundamentally incapable of ever operating a healthcare exchange, and that every aspect of Obamacare is likely to be mismanaged.

Circular Reasoning (or, Begging the Question): The enemies of Obamacare are going to make sure the program is not a success, because we oppose it. Therefore, Obamacare has no chance of being a success, and you should oppose it.

Appeal to the Bandwagon: Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and two loud guys I work with are against Obamacare. Don’t you know that EVERYBODY is against Obamacare? Alternate name: the Echo Chamber.

Okay, I’ll be honest: both sides of our current political debate and probably all sides of every political debate resort to bad arguments. I’m sure my fellow liberals have used a couple of bad arguments at some points in history too, though I can’t remember ever using a bad argument myself. Or is that an Appeal to Ignorance? Anyway, this is a book that anyone can enjoy.

Here’s a bigger question: why do we resort so often to bad arguments, and how do we choose which sides of which arguments to adopt as our own? Surely it’s not logic that primarily informs our stances on controversial questions. Rather, our stances are our starting points, and we sculpt logical arguments to support us wherever we stand.

So, when we argue, how do we choose where we stand? How do we decide which bad arguments to condemn, and which to applaud? That’s a tougher question that I’d like to tackle here soon.

13 Responses

  1. Bad arguments do not add
    Bad arguments do not add anything to the argument. Bad arguments are a refusal of the confrontation, and are just an unfair way to destabilize the opponent. If you are sincerely trying to put up a debate, to sustain an argument, you will not use them as you will try to explain your reason; if you are “out of ammunition”, and your only aim is to “win” the confrontation, whatever the cost, with no respect for the opponent and no real interest in explaining your reasons, then bad arguments works like pushing on the grass/wall your opponent in motor racing. No big surprise, “the Summoner” Dale Earnhart was so famous.

  2. It sounds like you’re talking
    It sounds like you’re talking about values here. I gravitate towards the arguments that speak to/reflect my values. Also, to ones that feel/seem/look/sound as close to that hyper-arbitrary thing called truth. Sorry if that is too basic.

    As far as politicians/”news” people resorting to bad arguments. My answer is this: because it works. They resort to bad arguments because the majority of the people listening to/watching them don’t know or care if the argument is bad. They are told what they want to hear and everybody is happy.

    If the truth was told on TV, nobody would watch because they’d be too afraid of it.

  3. “The Straw Man: Barack Obama
    “The Straw Man: Barack Obama is a Marxist Muslim with a secret program to destroy everything that is great about this country”

    How is that a straw man? Except for the secret part.

  4. To answer your question, I
    To answer your question, I think it is all too emotional. People don’t debate but play games. There is little attempt at any objectivity, which one can have despite having a bias or opinion on one side or the other.

    I think media as it is today with the big money entertainment posing as News and commentary is the main culprit.

    I mean TV.

    I purposely do not have cable and do not watch Fox, CNN, MSNBC etc ad nauseum. When I see them I cannot believe how intellectually empty they are.

    Truly vacuous buffoons, blind leading the blind. Yet that is the currency.

    On the other side of the coin, it is politics. It is not philosophy.

    What does logic, argument or anything else have to do with politics? Nothing really.

    Perhaps it should and it can, does at times and has perhaps been part of politics in the past.

    But it’s lack in contemporary events reflects the society’s overall disinterest and even disdain for it.

  5. TKG, I say that the portrayal
    TKG, I say that the portrayal of Obama as a Marxist Muslim with a secret plan to infiltrate America is a classic straw man because those who oppose him on these terms are projecting their own idea of what Obama is, and opposing him on the basis of that projection rather than the reality.

    It’s a striking effect when it comes to Obamacare. It’s described as a socialist program, but it’s more of a free market program than almost all the other national healthcare programs in the world. The Obama administration really bent over backwards to avoid a single payer option and instead aim for easier acceptance by proposing the same Republican-friendly healthcare approach that many free market conservatives advocated. So when I hear Obamacare described an extreme or revolutionary or socialist program, I feel I am hearing a straw man argument. The extreme program the opponents of Obamacare are arguing against does not reflect the moderate program that Obamacare is.

  6. Naw. Straw men have to not be
    Naw. Straw men have to not be true.

    It’s ad hominem, but not straw man.

    Did you know the only reason anyone is against ACA is because they are racist?

  7. TKG, I don’t know anyone who
    TKG, I don’t know anyone who is against Obamacare because they are racist.

    I know a lot of people are against it because they are terrified. For the last few years they’ve been bombarded with heavy advertising and intense propaganda from corporate-funded politicians about how it will destroy their country and steal their money. They’ve been fed a shameful lie.

  8. “TKG, I don’t know anyone who
    “TKG, I don’t know anyone who is against Obamacare because they are racist.”

    Me neither, but it sure is an argument made regularly. That’s probably a straw man.

    How come you only presented bad arguments ostensibly against ACA? You did state: “both sides of our current political debate and probably all sides of every political debate resort to bad arguments”.

    I really like the book you link to.

  9. TKG, I definitely agree that
    TKG, I definitely agree that bad arguments are used on both sides. I’m glad you read this article thoroughly enough to see that I admitted this straight up.

    Yes, the argument that all opponents of Obamacare are racists is also an example of the Straw Man fallacy. You’ll notice it’s not something I’ve ever said or agreed with. I try hard to avoid relying on bad arguments myself, though I’m sure my record is not perfect.

    So, why do so many people use bad arguments so often, and why are they often so effective? Maybe that will be the topic of my next Philosophy Weekend post!

    Finally, TKG, the reason I took this opportunity to only critique the bad arguments against Obamacare (or ACA as you call it) is that these arguments infuriate me.

  10. Levi: “… I took this
    Levi: “… I took this opportunity to only critique the bad arguments against Obamacare (or ACA as you call it) is that these arguments infuriate me.”

    Exactly what a ‘bad argument’ is… one that infuriates, therefore turning the argument into a slug fest of opinions, each side determined to prove their point.

    I see plenty of that with our political media which has stretched to the point of achieving a bottom line, economically speaking, without any substance other than riling up the listener/reader. I believe that’s due to lack of any wisdom but an annoying amount of opinions which in the final analysis are a waste of breath taking up time better used in better arenas of true debate or honest discussion rather than arguing for arguments sake.

  11. Hiya there. This is my 2nd
    Hiya there. This is my 2nd necro’ing an old post, but I suppose that means that you’ve given me something to think about, which is good. Also, that in reading through your posts, I find you to be at least attempting some self-honesty. Which, of course, is also good.

    1) In answer to your question Why?: Bad arguments are made because they’re easy, and they’re fast. Easy and fast are necessary these days, in the times of sound-bites and one-liners.

    2) Thank you for pointing out that both sides do it.

    3) Yes, you do it as well, even if you don’t realize it. In fact, I have come across Bad Argument #12: Guilt By Association, right here in this very post. And again, in the post from Jan. 10 of this year, 2013. The fallacy in this post is in this phrase, which I quote: “…free market conservatives, corporate lobbyists, Tea Party congressmen and Ayn Rand followers explode in fury.” Clearly, not all of these things are the same, and by lumping “Free Market Conservatives” and “Corporate Lobbyists” together, you are making one guilty of the other. This is especially infuriating as the ACA can be said to have been the brainchild of “Corporate Lobbyists”, and so how then are they “exploding in fury” if they’ve gotten what they wanted? Which is, namely, to force everybody in the country to purchase their product (Health Insurance)?

    Regarding the Jan 10 post, you use the term “Gun Violence” twice, in less than endearing ways (“…regular epidemics of gun violence…). This term is, by itself, an example of Guilt By Association. Obviously, violence is a bad thing. By linking the word Gun to Violence, you are, purposefully or not, making Gun a bad thing too. Think about it: is a murder any worse if the man was murdered using a gun, or a sword, or a golf-club? It is the murder, the violence, that must be the object of our outrage, not the tool used.

    You are against Violence. Therefore, you must be against Gun Violence. Yes, this statement is true so far as it stands, but the operative word in both sentences is “Violence”, and linking it to the other is a disservice, is intellectually dishonest, is an example of Guilt By Association, and is an example of the usage of language for propagandist purposes (whether intentional or not), because a person cannot ever be for gun violence. They cannot take the opposite position.

    I do not agree with Gun Control. I am in no way a proponent of Gun Violence. See the problem?

  12. Hi Matthew — thank you for
    Hi Matthew — thank you for your response, which I find extremely reasonable. Yes, you are right: in both of these cases I am employing techniques that can be used in bad arguments.

    But, you know there is a significant difference in the way debate points are made. If I choose, say, to equate violence with gun violence, I am choosing this as an expression of a thought that I wish to share. This is not a bad argument. This is what writers and essayist and philosophers do: we craft thoughts that we believe to be original and valuable, and we present them for the appreciation of others.

    If I choose to equate violence and gun violence, I have the right to do so. What would make it a bad argument, though, would be if I were to demand that others accept my equation, or to insist that my equation is a proven premise just because I say so. It’s at that point that we cross over from suggesting a thought to presenting a bad argument. And I hope I always stay on the nice side of that line.

  13. First of all, I need to
    First of all, I need to apologize. I in no way intended to de-rail your post/comments and turn this all into a forum about gun control/violence.

    With that said, however, I do understand what you’re saying, yet respectfully disagree. It is still Guilt By Association. You don’t like guns (correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve gotten this impression by some of the posts you’ve made). You link them to violence (even though the vast majority of guns are never used in any sort of person-on-person violence) in order to justify your disliking of guns.

    Violence is bad. Guns are used in violent situations, therefore guns are bad. Except when they’re not. Correlation does not equal causation. Both Switzerland and Israel have mandatory firearms-ownership laws. In the case of Switzerland, it’s because they have a citizen militia in lieu of a standing army. In the case of Israel, it’s because virtually the entire adult population is in the military reserves. Yet in both those cases, the rate of violence committed with firearms per capita is much smaller than in the U.S.

    Perhaps there’s something else in the specifically American culture/psyche that promotes violence, and has nothing at all to do with guns?

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