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Ad Hominem Violence


We seem to be suffering from the loss of teaching logic – not complex “formal” logic, but basic logic as it has existed since the time of Aristotle, especially how to avoid basic logical fallacies.

I claim no expertise in logic myself. Indeed, I often regret the lack of logical instruction in my education. But exposure to even the most basic logical fallacies makes it difficult to tolerate a lot of what passes for argument in current public discourse.

One basic logical error is commonly known as “affirming the consequent.” Someone says, “If it’s raining, then the ground outside will be wet.” Someone else points out: “The ground outside is wet” and from this concludes: “therefore, it must be raining.” This is an obvious logical fallacy. The ground might be wet for any number of reasons – someone might be watering the lawn, for example – rain being only one reason among many for the ground becoming wet.

So, too, in politics we hear arguments that go something like this: “If the president’s policies work, then unemployment will go down. Unemployment has gone down. Therefore the president’s policies worked.” But this too is an obvious logical fallacy. Unemployment might have gone down for any number of reasons. The problem here is one of mistaking correlation with causality. If X comes after Y, this doesn’t necessarily mean X was caused byY.

There are more high-power lines in some county; there also happen to be more cases of cancer in the same county. Have the high-power lines caused the cancer? It doesn’t necessarily follow. But plenty of people like to jump to that conclusion. We’d need a lot more evidence than mere correlation to conclude there was causality involved.

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