Archive | November, 2015

Separate out the issues

25 Nov

pick up stix

Do you remember the delicate touch you employed in order to play Pick up Stix? Dumping them all out on a table produced a challenging mess.

Similarly when confronted by the onslaught of jumbled sound bytes that stand in lieu of rational, orderly arguments, we have to first untangle the issues before we can discuss what is being advanced.

Recently my ‘go-to’ source for messy thinking, the Letters to the Editor page of the local newspaper, provided fun fodder.

The tragic death by handgun of a local child prompted a letter. The author’s premise ran like this:

All persons who advocate the rights of the unborn should also advocate regulating the rights of handgun owners.

He reasoned two ways:

  • by asking questions calling into question the heart and sympathies of pro-life supporters
  • by pointing out that since the misuse of cars can cause accidental death, and we accept government regulation, then we should equally embrace state and federal regulation of guns

Were I to dialogue face to face with this gentleman, I would gently point out that the use of a fallacy doesn’t take the place of marshaling reasons to support a claim.

Just what is the fallacy?  Look at his questioning technique I cited.  That is nothing more than a ‘kind’ version of an ad hominem attack.  Focusing on the character of your opponent is a weak substitute for a reasoned argument. Succumbing to a fallacy also communicates that you don’t know what else to say in support of your position!

What about my letter writer’s 2nd tactic, to tie the details of one kind of accidental death to another?  He’s arguing in essence for a broader principle:

All objects that can be misused resulting in the accidental death of someone should be regulated by the government.

Is he going to agree or balk?  If he agrees, then take his argument seriously and push it to the point of the absurd.

I just googled this topic: “Too much of this can kill you”

and what popped up after you tube videos of ‘too much love’ was the following from a CBS News website (see the link at kidney failure):

Doctors have traced a man’s kidney failure to his habit of drinking a gallon of iced tea each day.

Black tea has a chemical called oxalate, known to cause kidney stones or even kidney failure in excessive amounts.

But tea isn’t the only everyday ingestible that could kill you.

Mr Letter-writer is going to have to limit the scope of his claim.  His broad-sweep application of ONE situation (government regulation of drivers and cars) cannot, ipso facto, be applied to every situation.  Keep him focused on how to solve the evil killing of the child.

Actually, what both the wrong use of cars and the wrong use of guns has in common is the evil nature of the handler of either. Now THERE’s a topic worth discussing!

Baseball fallacies

18 Nov

NY Mets Terry Collins

Before the recent World Series debuted, I read about veteran baseball manager Terry Collins.  I’m not a sports follower, so it was both fascinating and educational to learn about the character of this 66-year-old man.  Apparently he was fired 19 years ago as manager from the Houston Astros and then resigned from the Anaheim Angels due to overly grumbly players.  But instead of growing bitter, he sifted through the criticisms and changed his style to implement the valid suggestions.

But I’m not using this post to talk about baseball.  What interests me is the reference to a typical sports fallacy that came up in the newspaper account of Terry Collins.  In talking about his failure with the Anaheim Angels, the general manager of that baseball club observed:

“The crew we had individually was great, but collectively they were a mess.  It was toxic.  He (Collins) took way too much of the blame for something like that.”

This quote provides a classic example of the Fallacy of Composition.  Simply put, this faulty thinking stems from attributing the attributes of individuals to the collective whole.

Fallacy of Composition

Here’s an easy example – if one feather is light and I assemble a ton of feathers, that collective will also be light.  Wrong!

So with individual talented athletes, the mistake is in assuming that when you bring them together, the whole will be just as good as each single player.  In reality, the qualities of a winning team are more than the individual players’ skills.  There’s team work and respect for each other and teachability.  We haven’t even mentioned the problem of clashing egos!

Poor Terry Collins, he had his hands full apparently.  And as painful as that experience must have been, he took his lumps and grew.  That humility and a recognition of what it takes to mold gifted basketball players into a winning team took all of them to a World Series.

Multiple assumptions behind tweet

11 Nov

The tweet read like this: 

CEOs with daughters run more socially responsible firms


Those words invite questions.  What shall we tackle first, the hidden assumptions or the terms?

Critical thinkers, those who use the tools of reason and logic, usually focus on the terms in a premise or position in order to move toward understanding the viewpoint under consideration.

Taking a look at ‘socially responsible’, I wondered, “What does that mean?”

A Google search yielded this definition from Wikipedia:

  • Social responsibility is an ethical framework, which suggests that, an entity, be it an organization or individual, has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large. Social responsibility is a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems

That definition alone generated further questions and thoughts.  Had I been able to sit down with either the definer of the concept of social responsibility OR the tweeter, I would have asked:

  • Who came up with this obligation? In other words, what grounds it?
  • Are there no other responsibilities besides economic and environmental?  What about life preserving or educational or skill building among workers?

A current national obstacle churning up much ‘Stürm und Drang’ is that citizens are split between very different world views and each holds SOME major values that are in opposition, one to the other.  As I heard Al Mohler on The Briefing mention the other day, the varying worldviews mean that people will identify DIFFERENT problems!  For example, if we disagree on the top 3 problems facing our country, how can we ever expect to compromise and coalesce behind workable solutions?

So much for terms. Let’s move on to the lurking pre-suppositions!  I did avail myself of the actual article.

Apparently the data collected sufficed for the author only to draw conclusions about male CEOs with children.  That in itself leaves us wondering about child-less CEOs or female CEOs.  Nevertheless, given the limited data, two of the unstated assumptions were:

  • It’s a healthy sign that leaders who are fathers who happen to have daughters prioritize reproductive liberties over other social concerns
  • Reproductive freedom contributes to the flourishing of our society

What about those dads who run companies that actually protect women and unborn female babies? Wouldn’t that contribute more to the welfare and vigor of our communities?

Here’s one more assumption:

  • any programs or strategies that prioritize environmental protection should be front and center in a company’s strategic plan

How about balancing preservation concerns with the economic vitality of the company?  If the company can’t remain competitive and grow a profit, then employees will lose out.  Life is a complex system or web of intertwining issues.

Pausing to pull apart an assertion and draw out the often-unstated assumptions, thereby seeking consensus about the fullness of the argument goes along with agreeing on the definition of terms.  The time spent on this kind of groundwork is worth it. Once that prep work is done, discussing reasons for one’s point of view goes much smoother and quicker.  And even if the defender and the questioner don’t agree, they can at least appreciate each other’s thinking!

Trotting out the Credential

4 Nov

Sometimes when a person has no solid argument to back his viewpoint, he’ll invoke his status as member of a privileged elite.  Such credentials might be based on education or experience or one’s lofty position in an organization.

But those considerations should carry no weight, as they are irrelevant to one’s position or reasoning.

Here’s a comical example taken from the Book of John in the New Testament.  The set up is this:

  • consider the Pharisees, those ruling religious leaders trying to hold on to limited power granted them by the Roman occupiers
  • then there is Jesus, threatening the status quo with his unorthodox teaching and miracles
  • add to the mix the masses, growing more and more intrigued and swayed by this new rabbi

The Pharisees dispatch a posse of soldiers to arrest Jesus and bring him back to them for questioning.

Let’s pick up with the dialogue upon their return, empty-handed:


The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?”  The officers answered,“No one ever spoke like this man!”  The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived?  Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?  John 7: 45 -48

John doesn’t add their response, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall back at army headquarters!

If we formulate a syllogism based on the Pharisees’ last question, we get this:

  • Premise 1 –  All (only) beliefs held by the Pharisees are valid and officially sanctioned beliefs
  • Premise 2 –  The belief that Jesus is special is not held by the Pharisees
  • Conclusion – Therefore, the belief that Jesus is special is NOT a valid, officially sanctioned belief

We need to be able to spot quickly, to sniff out the misuse of a credential to bolster a weak or non-existent argument

One clue that never fails to tip us off is when someone sidesteps the issue completely.  Of course there are many ways to do that, all of them Fallacies of Relevance.  Sometimes they work, however, as many a parent will attest.

(Why, Daddy?  Because I said so!)