Print editors no doubt scan for grammar. For the most part, despite the occasional infelicitous construction that slips by, they succeed wonderfully at their jobs. Just consider the vast quantity of printed and spoken words produced everyday and the difficulty of writing correctly and clearly in English, and their achievement starts to seem prodigious.
Consider also that these editors and their staffs–the conscientious ones at least–must clean their pages of obvious and less obvious errors of fact. Their expertise in source-checking and the verification of facts, among other things, and their commitment to vigilance and due diligence in their editorial mission are involved in this monumental task of stemming the tide of falsehoods, misrepresentations, and out-right lies which threatens to drown political discourse today.
Unfortunately, this seems to be where editors stop. While run-on sentences, comma splices, split infinitives, and other such grammatical minutiae may rarely make appearances in the best of our nation’s dailies and weeklies, and a small but growing class of press watchdogs help to correct errors of fact (pointing out bias, factual omissions, and distortions), a more perilous corruption lurks under the clean surface of the printed page: specious reasoning.
The political media is in the business of persuasion. It generally falls to the columnists, the editorialists, and the pundits to draw inferences from the facts, to argue for opinions, and to persuade the readers by the strength of their reasoning. But, for their arguments to be of any value, for their reasonings to command our assent, they must not only have a clear basis in fact, but more importantly, they must have a cogent logical structure.
It is, thus, one thing to have one’s facts straight and one’s sentences grammatical, but how one alleges that the facts are connected is often simply ignored as outside the realm of the editor’s responsibility: A matter of debatable opinion, they say, let the reader sort it out. Let the reader judge the author’s arguments.
Errors in grammar may produce laughable incoherence, errors in fact produce fiction, errors in logic, however, produce simple nonsense. Unlike grammar and facts, logic is not a matter of debate: Reasonable people cannot, in fact, disagree.
1. Its Origins
The idea for this blog began with an assignment that we both use in our Logic classes in several different forms: Generally, either students collect fallacies from op-ed pages or we bring them in to class for analysis. This assignment in some version is as old as the hills and has been probably been a staple of Logic professors since Aristotle’s courses at his Lyceum.
Anyway, one afternoon after a conference in New York while we were sitting around drinking a beer and J. was regaling us with examples of the specious reasoning of his favorite pundits, C. suggested this would make a good book: It could teach people to identify the logical fallacies most used by politicians and media pundits–a sort of “user’s manual” to the logic and rhetoric of political argument. Like so many ideas dreamed up on a warm autumn afternoon drinking Pilsner, it never got going. The idea of a book has a basic logistical problem: Although there is never a shortage of good examples (we both look forward to our favorite columnists with their customary logical pecadillos every week), it can never be current enough to be interesting. Who wants to read about fallacious reasoning in a four-year old column talking about a long dead political scandal? Pundits, in fact, can probably only survive by the collective memory loss of their public that enables them to escape any accountability for their mistakes and falsehoods.
Recently J. came up with the idea of using a blog to do this, and when he looked around he found there are plenty of sites that identify factual mistakes in media analysis but none that specifically address logical problems. So we started exploring the idea, and here is our attempt.
2. Its Purpose
There are really a lot of purposes in play from the mundane to the idealistic. At one end of the spectrum, this gives us both a place to collect examples of logical fallacies that we can pull out for our courses. But beyond that we are both certainly committed to the idea that democratic debate requires adherence to the rules of logic. Logic itself, it could be argued, originates as a tool for the evaluation of political discourse in Ancient Greece. Its function from the very beginning has been to help spot illicit and unjustified inferences.
Our contemporary political discourse is, to put it bluntly, a mess. As a population we simply are not trained in the basic logical, rhetorical, and analytic tools necessary to navigate the swamp of contemporary politics. Those who are supposed to guard against the ruination of the political discourse–the media–have abdicated their role as evaluator and critical filter. On the basis of a misguided notion of “objectivity” they feign neutrality and have allowed themselves to become pawns–a mere conduit for the propaganda of the politicians and special interests of both parties, manipulated by the public relations and media consultants employed by the powerful.
Logical analysis should be a first line of defense against the hijacking of our political discourse by cynical manipulators. Even without knowing the truth of the premises of an argument, one can determine whether or not the conclusion is justified by these premises. Sadly, as we will have ample opportunity to show in detail, many editorialists cannot even pass such a basic and fundamental test. This transforms their editorials from opinions that are worth taking seriously into mere nonsense and empty assertions.
As we say, we are speaking “validity to power”–not truth as the phrase usually runs, but validity. We are not equipped, nor perhaps inclined, to undertake the massive effort of researching the truth claims that are made in the op-ed pages of our newspapers. What we can do, and what we have been trained to do, is to identify certain mistakes in logic, to point out certain rhetorical tricks, and to analyze the logic by which a conclusion is justified.
3. Its Authors
On the off-chance that we haven’t already given it away, we are both philosophy professors who teach Logic in various forms as part of our jobs. Both of us particularly love to teach informal fallacies. We can be contacted through the following addresses: editors (at) thenonsequitur (dot) com; jcasey (at) thenonsequitur (dot) com; canderson (at) thenonsequitur (dot) com