We all make mistakes: if you counted how many people are in a place and you tell me 10 when there are 11, you were simply wrong. But if you argue that there are round squares, that’s something else.
Fallacies, in logic, are erroneous reasoning that has the appearance of soundness.
They are unsubstantiated claims that are often delivered with such conviction as to make them seem like proven facts, and they can take on a life of their own when they catch on and become part of a creed.
Not only are they incorrect but, used knowingly, they are dishonest.
In fact, fallacy comes from the Latin fallacia, for deceit, so technically it means a flaw in an argument that makes it misleading.
The good thing is that once detected they invalidate the argument.
The philosopher Aristotle, who made the first known systematic study of fallacies in his De Sophisticis Elenchis (Sophistic Refutations), thought it necessary to know them to arm ourselves against the most seductive errors, and he described 13 types.
Today, philosophers have lists of hundreds of named fallacies.
We picked three to keep you on your toes. All of them have to do with politicians, who often use fallacies to justify the unjustifiable or to get out of trouble.
The if-by-whiskey fallacy
This fallacy owes its name to a speech considered one of the most astute in the history of American politics.
It went down in history as the “whiskey speech” and was delivered in 1952 by Noah S. Sweat, a young legislator from Mississippi, USA, who later became a judge and university professor.
Lawmakers had been debating whether to finally lift prohibition, and that’s what Sweat spoke about despite the fact that, as he began, he “did not intend to discuss this controversial issue at this particular time.”
He did so, he said, because he did not want to be thought to be shying away from controversy: “On the contrary, I will take a position on any issue at any time, no matter how controversial.”
The funny thing is that he did the opposite and in such a masterful way that he gave the name to this fallacy.
Here is the speech (abridged):
“I have been asked how I feel about whiskey (…):
“If by ‘whisky’ you mean the devil’s brew, the scourge of poison, the bloody monster that contaminates innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yes, it literally takes bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of upright and gracious living to the bottomless abyss of degradation (…), then I am certainly against it.
“But if by ‘whiskey’ you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophical wine (…); the drink that allows a man to magnify his joy and happiness and forget, if only for a moment, the great tragedies , the pains and sorrows of life (…), the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to tenderly care for our little crippled children (…), then I am certainly for it.”
He ended by declaring, “This is my position. I will not deviate from it. I will not compromise.”
To be fair, he clarified a few things, but not exactly his position.
And that is a common tactic in politics: giving an answer to a question that depends on the opinions of the questioner and uses words with strong connotations.
It is a fallacy that appears to support both sides of an issue, and is used to hide the lack of a position or to dodge difficult questions.
Another politician, another fallacy.
In this case, it is Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968.
During World War II, McNamara served in the US Army Department of Statistical Control, where he applied rigorous statistical methodology to the planning and execution of aerial bombardment missions, achieving dramatic improvement in efficiency.
After the war, he was recruited by the Ford Motor Corporation, which was losing money. With his rational statistical analysis skills, McNamara achieved dramatic improvements.
When he arrived at the Pentagon, he applied the same rigorous systems analysis that had worked so well for him.
As the conflict in Vietnam escalated, he believed that as long as Viet Cong casualties exceeded the number of American deaths, the war would ultimately be won, so the Americans basically counted bodies.
“Things you can count, you must count; loss of life is one of them,” he wrote in his book “Looking Back: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.”
But this time he was tragically wrong. He himself would later admit that the overemphasis on a single crude metric oversimplified the complexities of the conflict.
As the maxim says:
Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.
And something he could not count on was the audacity of “highly motivated popular movements.”
His name became inextricably linked with the American failure in Vietnam.
In 1972, sociologist Daniel Yankelovich coined the phrase “McNamara’s Fallacy”:
“The first step is to measure anything that can be easily measured. This is fine up to a point.
“The second step is to discard what cannot be easily measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.
“The third step is to assume that what can’t be easily measured isn’t really important. This is blindness.
“The fourth step is to say that what cannot be easily measured does not really exist. This is suicide.”
The McNamara fallacy is one of the most dangerous traps as it has been used to guide political decisions in fields as vital as health and education.
But the fact that the risk exists does not mean that quantitative measurements and metrics should be abandoned; quantification is a valuable analytical tool.
The thing to keep in mind, as statistician W. Edwards Deming noted, is that “nothing becomes more important just because it can be measured. It becomes more measurable, that’s all.”
The key is to remember that measuring is not understanding, that reality is multidimensional and that the qualitative is as valuable as the quantitative.
The politician’s fallacy
The last of our fallacies is not so well known but you have probably come across it coming from the lips of a politician or your boss.
It has a funny origin: it was identified in the series “Yes, Prime Minister” (Yes, Prime Minister) of the BBC, a comedy that followed the battles between a prime minister and his cabinet secretary.
Although obviously fictional, it portrayed what went on in the corridors of power so well that several British politicians have said it was more like a documentary.
The politician’s fallacy was exposed in a 1988 episode and has since echoed in the British Parliament, in the international media and in all sorts of analyzes and discussions.
His model is: “We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do this.”
Also known as the politician’s syllogism, it is a logical fallacy, akin to concluding, after stating that some Americans are rich and some poor are Americans, that some poor are rich.
Despite the absurdity, it is used to pretend that you have a solution to a problem, no matter how ineffective or even harmful.
In times of economic crisis, for example, it is not uncommon for tax cuts to be announced that do not alleviate the suffering of those most affected, do not address the underlying factors of the emergency, or determine how to prevent future crises.
They do sound good though, and when it comes to politics, that often equates to success.
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BBC-NEWS-SRC: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-65483913, IMPORTING DATE: 2023-05-07 11:20:07