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Thursday, January 28, 2010

3 Bad Arguments

I often make the mistake of assuming that some of the things that I learned long ago are ubiquitous bits of knowledge; as though once something becomes a part of my cognitive lexicon, it similarly does so for everyone else. I imagine this is a function of how anything, now matter complex, seems simple once you understand it; or how people who are really good at something always seem to "make it look easy." And so it goes, for me, with logical arguments. I've spent a lifetime debating, persuading and arguing - and, in large part, now do it for a living - so the rules of logic and argument are almost second nature to me. And as a result, hearing a poorly framed or logically incorrect argument has the same maddening and enraging effect on me as someone simply banging on piano keys might have on a virtuoso pianist.

Nevertheless, I hear faulty arguments put forward each day; within political rhetoric, opinion writing, personal disputes and elsewhere. I'm often compelled to advise these armchair advocates of the faults inherent in their argument's structure or form - but I rarely have the time. So from the mind of one overly-busy but well intended logician, here are the three worst arguments I hear, and what's wrong with them.
  1. They're doing it, too. This is the poor argument that I hear most often, and probably the most maddening. It is exercised usually in the defense of partisan politics, and it is used in equal measure by both sides. Unfortunately, it has the same amount of efficacy as it did when you used it as a child with regard to your siblings, or as it might in defense of a criminal action. Imagine, for a moment, if it were a legitimate defense of rape or murder to simply identify an as-yet-to-be convicted other individual who committed a similar crime but isn't being simultaneously indicted. In reality, this is only a good argument for convicting both parties, and not for allowing the whistle-blower some measure of deference.
  2. That's the way we've always done it. This presupposes the correctness of the status quo, which is often a dangerous, and usually an incorrect, assumption. What's more, the amount of time that anything has been done lends little independent credibility to its intrinsic value. Slavery was practiced for hundreds of years in the United States, and enjoyed the endorsement of some of our most storied founding fathers. That didn't make a good idea, or even a defensible one. Truth is, periodic re-evaluation of how things are done is essential to innovation and social development. To fail to do so makes you the sort of mindless lemming that political leaders, pundits and large corporations are hoping you'll be.
  3. Lack of disclosure/explanation presupposes a conspiracy. It's truthfully frightening how often I hear this. But, it is true that nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of an explanation, people will come up with their own. However, the "absence" in most circumstances is not a real one, but rather one self-imposed by the sloth inherent in not being willing to go and find out, the explanation not being obvious or immediately understandable, or there simply being no public right to the knowledge. To assume a conspiracy under these circumstances is to be exactly the same sort of loony who wears a tin-foil cap to avoid having their brain waves stolen by aliens/governments/etc. A failure to be informed or to have the intellectual capacity to understand does not lend validity to your fantastical explanation. Or in other words, no one is out to get you.
Unfortunately, there are great many other bad arguments out there, and I look forward to seeing some others posted by you, dear reader, in the hopes that we can continue to rid the world of meaningful discourse of these ignorant cancers. In the meantime, if you find yourself engaging in the any of the above-listed rhetorical practices, do us all a favor, and shut the hell up.


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