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Lange: Recognizing Fallacies

02/22/12 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) All of us, unwittingly or on purpose, resort to fallacies from time to time. During this year's chase for the presidency, commentator Willem Lange believes it's especially important that we learn to separate them from the truth.

(Lange) Almost exactly sixty years ago, in early spring of 1952, during a couple of weeks devoted to logic, illogic, and the scientific method, a favorite teacher of mine introduced our class to fallacies (from the Latin fallere, to deceive). Fallacies, we learned, are those illogical little tricks or figures of speech that people use all the time, wittingly or otherwise, to deceive themselves and others. We spent a fascinating fortnight learning to distinguish between, for example, argumentum ad hominem and poisoning the well; between non sequitur and argument from authority.

We learned that scoundrels routinely use fallacies to hoodwink or bilk the ignorant; that our parents often use them to persuade us to do their will; that even politicians and evangelists occasionally resort to them.

In later years I've discovered that my most trusted companion on this earth may try, during a heated domestic discussion, to slip one past me. "Don't say another word!" she cries. "You Germans are all alike!"

"My dear," I answer reasonably, "that is fallacious on several counts. Inaccurate assumption: I am not German; my ancestors were. Rash generalization: Germans are not all alike. Poisoning the well: You discount what I say before I say it. Argumentum ad hominem: You're attacking me instead of my argument. And I think that talking loud and pointing a potato peeler are fallacies, too." It's hard to believe that doesn't work better than it does.

Recently we were treated to a smörgasbord of fallacies during the battle for votes in the New Hampshire Presidential primary. Besides a raft of argumenti ad hominem, as each candidate painted the others as sleazier than himself, we had this one; "I believe in America!" Glittering generality: sounds great, but what's it mean? Another one: "I've spent years in Massachusetts and have a summer home in New Hampshire, so I understand New Hampshire." That's a conclusion contrary to obvious fact: I lived in New hampshire 40 years, and can say with some authority that nobody understands it. He poisoned his own well, too: In the current economic situation, we common folk are less than enthusiastic about people who can afford what we can only dream of.

Well, now they're all off to the South, which is where I'll bet they're all thrilled to be after northern New England in January. But they'll be back this fall, and we'll be deluged once again with a tsunami of fallacies. I only hope we'll manage to keep our heads above water.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.


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