1. Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
2. A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
∆ A ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.
Do I trust the word of a madman and forget the lessons of September the 11th, or take action to defend America? Given that choice, I will defend America every time.
— President George W. Bush, 9/3/04
The first argument above is a silly example of the informal fallacy known as equivocation. “Nothing” means something different in premise #2 than it does in #1. (It’s no coincidence that equivocation overlaps with joke-writing.) The second argument is a classic example of a false dilemma or false choice. A world of possibilities exists beyond the ridiculously narrow and prejudicial choices President Bush presents.
It would be naive to believe that all pundits and politicians seek an honest discussion of issues and do their best to avoid faulty and unfair arguments. Most of them are intent on “winning the half hour,” as The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin puts it — they try out a few talking points, score a few points off their opponent, deflect a few questions and scuttle off before anyone can really subject their assertions to serious scrutiny. A good sound bite often advances one’s cause better than a substantive argument. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the trick for wonks who aspire to political success defeating hacks is to find the right words. It is also essential to remember that many politicians, and the vast majority of pundits, are bullshitters, who may be accidentally accurate, but simply don’t care whether what they say is true or not.
If I could design a media literacy course for every American student, it would include a unit on common advertising techniques (buzz words, the false comparison, bandwagon versus snob appeal approaches, and so on). It would feature George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Neil Postman’s “Silent Questions.” And it would highlight faulty argument patterns, with a special attention to scouring the news for them and dissecting them.
The Web features several great sites on faulty argument patterns and informal fallacies. Critical Thinking on the Web features a bevy of other links (some are dead) and a good resource page of informal fallacies. The Wikipedia entries on logical fallacies are a good resource as well. Logical Fallacies.Info is also a good site with clear examples. The Fallacy Files is pretty exhaustive. The Stone Forest is a pretty readable overview of logical fallacies. The Non Sequitur: A Logical Analysis of Political Media is a great site run by two philosophy professors who follow the news and analyze it for informal fallacies. Their description of informal fallacies is also useful. Finally, Conversational Terrorism and The Woolly-Thinker's Guide to Rhetoric list argument techniques essentially designed for bullshitters that makes for funny reading.
For my own mea culpa, I certainly do not always uphold some Socratic ideal and cannot pretend to a, ahem, consistent rhetorical purity. A blog post can be a simple link, a short essay, or a cathartic rant, and all have their place. The key, it seems to me, is knowing with whom one is speaking, and the tone and level of the conversation. Casual dinner conversation tends to veer away from formal debate. In comparison, political blog threads tend to be more serious and earnest, depending on the site and the post. What seems immoral to me, if one purports to care about Truth, Justice, and the American Way — or at least, truth, honest discussion, and earnest problem-solving — is to come to a sincere debate with earnest people and not engage them in kind. Most political blog chatter features some combination of smart ass attitude with a serious point (a spectrum roughly from South Park to PBS’ NewsHour). The more “newsy” a political talk show is, the further towards the “serious” the pendulum typically swings. Crossfire increasingly became a parody of itself, while William F. Buckley’s Firing Line series, despite witnessing some truly ludicrous arguments over the years, also featured at least some sincere, intelligent people advancing substantive arguments.
It’s certainly possible to make a substantive point with some humor. I also don’t find any real moral problem with insulting a hack (or troll) for being a hack as long as one makes a substantive point as well — but let’s be honest, a great deal of dealing with a hack is calling bullshit on his or her abuses of rhetoric and misrepresentation of facts. The media is loathe to call someone a liar, and an artful liar can typically get away with it, because he or she only needs to “win the half hour” and be gone before the fact-checkers can catch up with him or her. Realistically, the honest — but witty! — debater needs a mastery of both rhetorical technique and the pertinent facts. I think it’s much harder to be a truly masterful, honest debater versus a bullshitting, spin doctor-hack, but it’s also so beautiful when someone does it right.
When dealing with a hack, one needs to come fully armed and ready to deal with bullshit and faulty argument patterns. When dealing with a true scholar or wonk, faulty argument patterns are likely to be rare, and one should avoid injecting them.
All that said — Socrates would make one helluva guest or host for Meet the Press.