Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fallacies in public debate

(This post inaugurates a policy of trying to link aggressively to the wiki IronChariots.org, not so much because it's a great site as is but because of what I hope it can become. If you don't like what you find at the links, work to improve it.)

Alonzo Fyfe and Richard Chappell have been discussing the problem of fallacies in public discourse. This is one that irks me, and I notice it more and more the longer I take philosophy classes. In philosophy, arguments are usually all you can ever bring in support of a position, so you get very good at making and evaluating arguments. This isn't just something philosophers believe because it makes them feel good: philosophy majors have been shown to make some of the best law students, precisely because of the training in argumentation that a philosophy curriculum provides.

So I share Alonzo and Richard's frustration. I think the problem is broader than just fallacies, but let's ignore that for the moment. I want to comment on some of their proposed solutions, which strike me as problematic.

First, there is Alonzo's proposal that members of certain professions be required to be able to identify fallacies by name. This proposal strikes me as so insufficient as to be almost guaranteed to backfire. People who can name fallacies and nothing more are typically horrible reasoners--they have no real sense of the difference between good and bad arguments, but their ability to stick names on arguments they dislike makes them overconfident about their judgments. I'll use Alonzo's example of the tu quoque fallacy: might the point be that the rule that has been violated isn't a reasonable one? Might it be that the offense is relatively minor and not much can be inferred from the fact that a person has committed it? Answering such questions takes some discernment, especially given that it is possible to lay out a legitimate argument in a perfectly understandable way while leaving some steps implicit. Tu quoque can make for a flaming non-sequitur, but it's a mistake to dismiss everything that kinda sounds like it. As Richard says, we need to support a kind of good reasoning not reducible to such mechanical competencies.

Richard seems to be more favorably disposed to Alonzo's idea of bringing social pressure to bear on those who use fallacious arguments. Here, I think, the problem is that most people would endorse this in principle, indeed it feels natural to them, but they just aren't very good at spotting the fallacies. Philosophical education--which Richard, to his credit, mentions--is not one solution but the only solution.

My first instinct is to say make a certain amount of philosophy required for college graduation, but even that might be under-achieving. When Massimo Pigliucci came to town last April, one of the things I learned from him is that in Italy where he grew up, high school students are required to take something like four semesters of philosophy. Though it might be hard to drum up the political will for that, there seems to me little other reason not to try such a program in America. Massimo mentioned some evidence that the intellectual life in Europe is healthier than that in America, perhaps there's a connection. It might not solve all the problems with intellectual discourse in America, but it might at least make it so that philosophers don't have to groan every time they read an opinion piece.


Anonymous said...

What do you have against ShelleyTheRepublican.com? Do you hate them because they are telling the truth or what?


Bronze Dog said...

The second question was completely unnecessary:

Fallacy: Appeal to motive. Type: Red herring.

Hallq said...

Eh--I just try to ignore the ShelleyTheRepublican folks. They've told me in private e-mail that they hate my blog and wouldn't waste time reading it, and the feeling is mutual.

Arkaro said...

Alonzo didn't recommend that all politicians take more Philosophy.. his suggestion was that certain public figures take a fallacy quiz as a bare minimum evaluation - which you can pass or fail no matter how many Philosophy classes you endure through college.

Your solution is quite the non sequitur. It fails to address the problem while promoting further state, bureaucractic involvement of our educational system.