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'Logical fallacies' in the Syrian bombing arguments

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The recent political arguments over the merits (or otherwise) of bombing Syria have provided a number of textbook examples of what are known as 'logical fallacies.'

Many times when you're arguing a case in a presentation, you’re going to be confronted with seemingly logical objections from members of your audience who are against your proposal. However, a moment's thought often reveals these not to be based on logic at all, but a curious interpretation of it.

I've written about this twice before, in Using and abusing logic: 7 logical fallacies and Logical fallacies: 5 more abuses of logic. Often fallacies are used unintentionally, when the user actually believes he's following a logic argument, but other times they're used deliberately as a smokescreen to deceive and confuse.

If you want to use them yourself, feel free; they can be very effective. If, on the other hand, you don’t, you need to be able to identify them, build up an immunity against them, and know how to counter them.

One is called 'Ad Hominem Abusive', which is basically a fancy grown-up version of name-calling (ad hominem is Latin for against the person) and rejects an argument or proposal because of something negative about the person who's making it.

This is routinely used by many otherwise sensible political commentators whenever they comment on anything to do with Russia. President Putin is routinely referred to as a 'KGB thug' or a 'dictator' whose domestic policies are compared to those of Saddam, Stalin and Hitler (Nancy Pelosi wrote, "What I found interesting was the closing (in his NY Times article) -- when he says when we pray to God he judges us all - I don't know exactly what his words are but he says `we are all God's children.' I think that's great. I hope it applies to gays and lesbians in Russia as well").

Others have alleged he stole a 2005 NFL Championship ring from Robert Kraft (Putin says he received it as a gift) and otherwise (usually) sensible commentator Andrew Sullivan referred to him in one article as 'a botoxed former KGB hack.'

John Kerry's views are often ridiculed because of the fact that he once flip-flopped over the invasion of Iraq, famously voting for it before he was against it. Somehow, this is supposed to make his current views invalid.

Any (or all) of the above might be correct. But think about it for a second. What do they matter? Does the fact that Putin uses Botox or engages in macho posturing riding horses bare-chested have any relevance whatever to whether the Russian 'peace' proposal has any merits? Obviously not. But such attacks can stop some people from thinking about the real issues.

So during a business presentation you might find somebody saying the following :

"Nick is criticizing this investment as being being unaffordable. Need I remind you, this is the man who overspent on project X by almost $100,000 last year!"

If this is used against you, don't rise to the bait. Simply point out that what happened (for example) last year is irrelevant to the matter under debate.

Another is Bifurcation, which is presenting everything in black & white, as if there were only two alternatives (presenting three alternatives is called a false trilemma). An example is President Bush’s “You are either with us or against us.” It ignores the fact that there are usually many shades of grey (at least 50, according to popular literature!) and a range of options.

So the Syria argument is made that President Assad has broken international norms and gassed his own people, and something needs to be done. That 'something' needs to be military action. So it's either bombing or nothing, which ignores the whole range of non-military options available.

Now you can argue that these options would be useless and ineffective and wouldn't prevent it happening again, but that's not the point; supporters of military action usually don't even mention them in case somebody suggests doing one of them instead (which is exactly what happened when John kerry slipped up and suggested chemical disarmament; it was seized on by Putin as an alternative). So it's presented as a choice between military action, or nothing at all.

Equally (and this also has strains of ad hominem abuse), opponents of military action are accused of the crime of isolationism, as if there are only two choices: support of military action or a complete withdrawal from the international stage into isolation. This ignores the views of President Obama himself, who once famoulsy said that he wasn't against all wars, just dumb ones. Many opponents of bombing aren't against all military action, just this one.

During a presentation you might hear,

"There are two types of company in this world; those that constantly reinvent themselves and survive, and those that die. Which do we want to be?” (ignoring the millions of companies that change occasionally or gradually and do very well, thank you.)

"We either cut the price of Product X by 50% or give up this entire market sector to the competition."

If someone uses it against you during a presentation, don’t get drawn into an either/or argument. Simply accuse them of bifurcating and point out that there are, in fact, a whole variety of options they haven’t considered, such as X or Y.

A third is the Slippery Slope, (alternatively called the thin end of the wedge or the camel's nose [as in the Arabian proverb, "If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow"]) which argues that something will automatically follow from something else without presenting any argument in support of it. So "if A happens, Z will automatically follow, Therefore we shouldn't do A."

Thus supporters of action argue that allowing Assad to get away unscathed will lead to Iran developing a nuclear weapon and an attack on Israel, or to American troops facing chemical weapons on the battlefield in the future.

Likewise, opponents of action argue that it would lead to Iran developing a nuclear weapons faster for defensive reasons, an attack on Israel and 'boots on the ground', i.e. American troops being drawn into a shooting war.

In business terms, you might hear:

"Reducing the price by 10%? Why don't we just give the stuff away and be done with it?"

"I need the approval to spend $250,000 because we have to kill off competitor X's new product right away. If we don't, mark my words ...... we'll turn around in 12 months time and discover they've got 25% market share."

"If we extend the product returns policy to 12 months, next thing you know we'll have thousands of customers bringing stuff back that's a year old that we can't sell to anyone else."

If you're faced with this, just ask them what their evidence is for making that statement, then be silent and allow them to dig a hole for themselves when they're forced to admit they have none.

A fourth is the Straw Man, which is a deliberate (but subtle) misrepresentation of the opponent's argument to make it easier to attack. For example, after Senator X proposes more spending on education, Senator Y says "I'm surprised Senator X hates this country so much that he wants to leave it defenceless by reducing spending on defence!"

Opponents of action in Syria argue that the US has no place intervening militarily in a civil war, ignoring the administration's portestations that action isn't about helping the rebels but degrading President Assad's capability to use chemical weapons.

Opponents of inaction argue that withdrawing from the world stage will hurt US credibility and be a return to the 'dark days' of per-WW2 isolationism, ignoring the fact that most opponents aren't isolationists at all and aren't opposed to all military intervention, just this one.

Another is known as Circumstantial Ad Hominem, where someone attacks a point of view by asserting that the person making holding it is making it simply out of self interest, e.g.:

"I really believe that course of action is wrong." / "Of course you'd say that, you're a Republican/Democrat." /
"That's irrelevant; what about the argument I've put forward?" / "It doesn't count. You have to say that."

"The Chairman of the JSC has asked for an increase in military spending." / "You know what these military guys are like. When have they ever said they DON'T need more?"

"Nick says we need to reduce the price on brand X by 10%." / "Well he would say that, he's a sales guy. You know what Sales are like. They want to give everything away."

So Putin's disarmament proposal is dismissed out of hand by many American politicians because President Assad is an ally of his, and he's making it merely to give him a way of avoiding being bombed. Therefore it can't possibly be a serious proposal.

However, although there are times when it is prudent to suspicious of a person's claims (e.g. if a tobacco company representative claims that tobacco does not cause cancer), the mere fact that the person has a motivation to make a claim does not make it false.

So next time you hit opposition to whatever your proposing, instead of reacting to it ..... pause. Ask yourself if it's a logical fallacy, and if it is ..... call them out on it


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