By Peter Atterton
Being a philosophy professor, I found the experience of watching the Republicans during the House impeachment inquiry absolutely excruciating. I can only liken it to that of a parachute rigger watching lemmings jump off a cliff. Here are some of the logical fallacies I heard from luminaries like Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, and others.
I shall keep the Latin names where applicable because it appears that Latin, e.g., “quid pro quo,” is again back in fashion. In my examples, I am, of course, paraphrasing rather than using direct quotations in most instances.
Appeal to Force (“argumentum ad baculum”)
Committed when an arguer coerces the listener into accepting the conclusion of an argument under some threat of doing harm. The threat may be either explicit or—as is more usual—implicit.
Zelensky: “I agree.”
Argument Against the Person (“argumentum ad hominem”)
Committed when the arguer attempts to win the acceptance of their argument by attacking the arguer and not the actual argument at hand. Sometimes this is divided into three separate fallacies:
- Abusive: Abuse against the witness is not allowed by House rules (though Jim Jordan’s tirades come pretty close). President Trump, conspicuously absent from the hearings, and therefore not governed by those rules, has turned the ad hominem abusive into a virtual art form, calling the majority chair, Adam Schiff, “human scum.”
- Circumstantial (discrediting an argument by invoking the circumstances of the arguer): “Democrats never got over the fact that this new guy who’s never been in this town, never been in politics, this new guy is shaking this place up and that drives them crazy” (Jim Jordan).
- “Tu quoque” (Latin, meaning “you too”) (discrediting an argument by pointing out the hypocrisy of the arguer): “You say withholding military aid is wrong. But you Democrats did not provide military aid under Obama. So therefore, it can’t be that wrong.”
Appeal to Pity (“argumentum ad misericordiam”)
Committed when an arguer attempts to support a conclusion by merely evoking pity from the listener.
“The President has been maligned by Never Trumpers since the day he took office. He was even the subject of a Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election for nearly two years. To find him guilty of quid pro quo would only add to his woes.”
Missing the Point (“ignoratio elenchi”)
Occurs when the evidence entails a different conclusion from the one actually drawn.
“Trump is requesting that a foreign power go on CNN and announce that it is launching an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens in return for a much sought-after meeting at the White House. Therefore, we should thank President Trump for his stalwart effort to fight corruption.”
Occurs when a key term in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, having one meaning in one part of the argument and then another meaning in another part of the argument.
Minority Counsel to Holmes: “Did you actually hear the President say on a phone in a restaurant in Kiev, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’”
Minority Counsel: “So it’s just hearsay, then?”
Appeal to the People or Bandwagon (“argumentum ad populum”)
Here the arguer attempts to win the acceptance of his or her argument simply by appeal to public opinion, regardless of evidence or reason.
“The American people see the spectacle for what it is. An impeachment process in search of a crime.”
Accident (“a dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid”)
Committed when a general rule is cited and then misapplied to a particular case whose “accidental” circumstances render the rule inappropriate.
“Everyone agrees that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired at will. Marie Yovanovitch (“that woman”) got in the way of his efforts to persuade the Ukrainian government to open the investigations on his political rival, so of course he had the right to fire her.”
Committed when an arguer distorts and mispresents the opponent’s argument in order to weaken it, and then proceeds to argue against the distorted, weaker version.
“You say President Trump was wrong to demand that Zelensky investigate the Bidens in return for military assistance. So, basically you’re saying that POTUS should just turn a blind eye to corruption and hand over nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of aid with no strings attached? I don’t think so, mister.”
Committed when an attempt is made to draw the other arguer off track by directing her attention to irrelevant considerations that have nothing to do with issue at hand.
“Trump promised military assistance in return for a public admission of an investigation into his political opponent. You say that is an impeachable offence. But the Obama administration sent only blankets and meals to Ukraine. Therefore, Trump’s promise is not an impeachable offence.”
Appeal to Unqualified Authority
Occurs when an arguer cites the authority of another person, though that person lacks the requisite expertise, qualifications, or has vested interests.
“According to The Wall Street Journal, ‘President Trump ordered the removal of the ambassador to Ukraine after months of complaints from allies outside the administration, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, that she was undermining him abroad and obstructing efforts to persuade Kyiv to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.’ Therefore, the President should follow Mr. Giuliani’s advice and remove Ms. Yovanovitch.”
Appeal to Ignorance (“argumentum ad ignorantiam”)
Committed when someone says something is true because it has not been proven false.
“Nobody knows for sure what goes on inside President Trump’s head. Nobody actually heard him say on the phone with President Zelensky, ‘I am going to attempt to bribe you, President Zelensky.’ Therefore, President Trump did not attempt to bribe Mr. Zelensky.”
Fallacy of False Cause (“post hoc ergo propter hoc”)
Committed when someone draws the conclusion that since some event followed X, it must have been caused by X.
“Military aid was released eventually. Therefore, the war with Russia was the reason why Trump released the aid.”
Committed when someone wrongly infers that an innocent first step, according to an unlikely chain of events, inevitably leads to disaster.
“If we don’t investigate the Bidens now, the cancer of corruption will spread. Eventually it will metastasize throughout the whole of Ukraine and Ukraine will be annexed by Russia. Soon, other countries in Eastern Europe will be annexed. If that happens, the USSR and the Cold War will return. Investigate the Bidens now!”
Committed when the analogy is not strong enough to support the conclusion.
“It is right for POTUS to ask the Ukrainian government to investigate its citizens who are suspected of corruption. Some US citizens are suspected of corruption. It is therefore right for POTUS to ask the Ukrainian government to investigate American citizens too.”
Circular Reasoning (“circulus in probando”)
Committed when the validity of one’s argument requires that its own conclusion be true.
“The Democrats have no grounds to impeach the President because the likes of Mulvaney and Pompeo have not testified. However, Mulvaney and Pompeo should not testify because the Democrats have no grounds for impeachment.”
Occurs when only two alternatives are presented when in fact there are other possibilities.
“Either we allow the president do whatever he wants, or we will disenfranchise the people. Clearly, we don’t wish to disenfranchise the people. Therefore, we should allow the president to do whatever he wants.”
Occurs when some important piece of information is omitted from the evidence presented and entails a quite different conclusion.
Bolton, Pompeo, Mulvaney, Giuliani, et al.
Occurs when the arguer falsely transfers the properties of the parts of something onto the whole.
“About 63 million people out of population 327 million (approximately 19%) actually voted for Trump in 2016. Most of these voters are not in favor of impeachment. Therefore, the American people is not in favor of impeaching President Trump.”
Occurs when the arguer wrongly transfers the properties of the whole onto the parts of something.
“The American people have the right to require certain conditions to be met before handing out aid to foreign powers. Therefore, Donald J. Trump has the right to require his own personal conditions be met before handing out overseas’ aid.”
* * *
Several years ago, I used to have the following blurb on my Philosophy 101: Introduction to Logic syllabus:
“There is little or no debate today about the character and procedures of democracy. It is taken for granted that the media manipulate public opinion with hardly any discussion of the real issues. If we are not to fall into voter apathy, if we are to govern ourselves, then we must be able to think for ourselves. We need to find a way of assessing and weighing the arguments and decisions that are made in our name. That is why we need to study logic.”
I’m putting this back on my syllabus again – and quickly.
Peter Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University. He is the co-author, editor or co-editor of seven books and has published numerous scholarly articles.
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