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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!

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:

pharisees

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!)