Suppressed Premise Examples Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking: Hidden Premises and Conclusions

Introduction
Here come the tricky part.  Who needs the Quickie-Mart?  Often identifying hidden premises and conclusions can require a little more cognitive effort than we have so far had to use in identifying explicit premises and conclusions.  Before we look at some helpful interpretive dances tools to pick them out, lets quickly review what implied premises and conclusions are.

An implied premise is an unstated reason or claim that supports and is generally required to support the main claim of the argument (i.e., the conclusion).  For example consider the following simple argument:  We should ban GMO crops because they aren't natural.  The stated premise is "GMO crops aren't natural" and the stated conclusion is "therefore we should ban GMO crops."  But notice that there is an unstated general premise lurking in the dark that supports the stated premise.  It is, "we should reject foods that aren't found in nature."  If we decomposed the argument it'd look like this:

Key:
HP1 We should reject foods that aren't found in nature.
P2   GMO crops aren't natural.
MC  Therefore, we should ban GMO crops.

HP1 means "hidden premise"

The Vong diagram would look like this:
HP1 + P1-->MC  (I.e., linked premises)

As you may have guessed by now, a hidden/implied conclusion is a conclusion that is not explicitly stated but supported by the premises.  Hidden or implied conclusions are almost always (but not exclusively) contained in advertising or editorial cartoons.

Lets look at an example:
Your chances at winning the lottery are slim to none.  And slim just left town.

The implied conclusion is that you have (virtually) no chance of winning the lottery.

P1      Your chances at winning the lottery are slim to none.
P2      And slim just left town.
HMC Therefore, you have virtually no chance of winning the lottery.

Vong Diagram
P1+P2-->MC   ("+" means linked premises)

General Heuristics:  Principles of Communication
For most of you, picking out the hidden premises and conclusions in these examples probably wasn't too difficult.  Of course, in real life (and on exams) things usually aren't so easy.  What we need are some heuristics to help increase our odds of identifying the unstated parts of arguments.  So, lets take a step back and to get a big picture view of what's happening.  It will help us devise strategies.

Before moving on, I should quickly note that these principles of communication apply not only to written and spoken arguments.  They apply to any type of communication, whether it be a facial expression, movie, piece of art, cartoon, advertisement, hand gesture, etc...  If you want to impress you friends, these types of communication are called speech acts.

Given that speech acts are any act or medium that conveys information, we are going to creatively name the three principles of interpretation "principles of communication."

Principle I:  Intelligibility
This one's pretty simple.  You should assume that a speech act is intelligible.  This means that we should assume that it is an attempt to convey something meaningful.  It is not just random noise (despite our opinion of the view being expressed).

Principle II:  Context
This principle tells us to interpret a speech act relative to its context.  For example, is it in response to an opposing speech act?  What is the social or political context?  Suppose you're walking to class and a young woman offers you a red bull and tells you that it will give you wings.  Should we interpret the speech act as the woman's earnest desire for you to have wings or is this an argument for you to buy the product?  (Hint:  It's not the first choice).

If we examine the context of the speech act, it should be fairly obvious that we should interpret it as an argument.  There may be one or more possible contexts within which to frame a speech act:  to choose, refer back to principle I:  which context makes the speech act more inteligible?

Principle III:  Components
So far we've established that a speech act is intelligible and we've interpreted it in a way that fits the context in which we find it.  Now, we're going to get a bit more fine grained at look at its components and their relationship to each other.  Recall that a speech act can be composed of images, words, gestures, and even interpretive dance (my favorite!).  Lets look at an example using images and words:


Applying principle 1 we assume that there is some sort of intelligible message being conveyed.  Applying principle II, from the context (someone's facebook page) we might reasonable assume this is an argument for being more cautious about what we consume.  Finally, applying principle III we look at the components.  There are the words "rethink your drink" and images of sugar and popular drinks.  Putting these components together we can formulate the elements of the intended argument:  Lots of sugar is bad for you (premise).  These drinks have a lot of sugar (premise).  Therefore, we should be more careful about what we consume (and how much).

Even though the above image doesn't contain an explicit argument, if we apply the 3 principles of communication we can pick one out and identify the premises and conclusion.

Identifying Hidden Conclusions
Hidden conclusions are most commonly found in short passages or in image-based speech acts (magazine ads, billboards, political cartoons, etc...).   OK, now that we know where to find them,how do we identify hidden conclusions?  Ask yourself, (a) do the remarks or images imply some sort of point of view?  (look at context)  In other words, does the information provided propose a conclusion that is unstated? (b) what is this speech act trying to convince me of? (what's it trying to get me to believe, do, endorse?)  If it's not trying to convince you of anything, chances are it isn't an argument, but if it is trying to persuade you of something, then it's an argument and you can be darn sure there's a conclusion!

Lets look at an example:

Here we have a speech act that, assuming principle I, is an inteligible message.  Applying, principle II we might interpret it as an argument (because it's making a controversial assertion).  And applying principle III we can identify elements:  The image is of a healthy looking community being "eaten away."  It's a metaphor for cancer.  Given the context and the words we can interpret the premises and conclusion:  Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of cancer (stated premise).   Cancer is bad (hidden premise).  Capitalism has the same ideology--growth for the sake of growth (hidden premise implied by the picture).   Therefore, capitalism is bad (hidden conclusion).

Identifying Hidden Premises
How do we identify hidden premises?  One mechanical way to do it is to write down the explicit premises and conclusion and see if the argument is intelligible.  That is, can we reasonably infer the conclusion from the premises?  If not, then there are hidden premises.  In other words, there are unstated reasons or claims that the argument depends on.  As a charitable person (and good critical thinker) it's up to you to fill in the blanks.

For example, in the previous image if we hadn't filled in the unstated premises, the conclusion wouldn't make sense.  It only makes sense if we include (the obvious) hidden premise that cancer is bad.  This may be trivial in this particular argument, but hidden premises are sometimes very important and underpin the strength of the entire argument.   This relates to a second point about hidden premises.

Frequently, when we evaluate an argument, it is the hidden premises that are good fodder for criticizing the argument.   Consider the "anti GMO" argument I gave in the beginning.  The hidden premise is that "non-natural food is bad."  The argument depends on this being true.  If we can find counter-examples then the argument is in trouble.  The argument is also in trouble if there is little or no evidence to support the hidden premise.

Caveat:  As we've discussed earlier every argument makes many assumptions.  You simply cannot possibly state everything you are assuming.   What are stated and what are unstated assumptions will depend in large part on what is considered reasonable by the specific audience to which the argument is targeted (and hopefully for a general audience).

Why does this matter?  Because you should be judicious in identifying hidden premises.  Instead of willy-nilly identifying what are painfully obvious things that are assumed by the arguer, you should expend your effort picking out the hidden premises that are required in order to infer the conclusion from the stated premise.  In other words, it doesn't do you much good to identify and criticize trial unstated premises (ah ha! the arguer assumes that people don't like getting punched in the face!).  




Logic for Introduction to Philosophy                                                                      (Problems printing? Click here.)

Imagine that you meet a friendly stranger who wants you to believe something. Before you met him, you had no particular opinion on the subject, but he wants you to adopt a definite belief. Perhaps he wants you to believe in astrology, or chiropractic, or maybe he wants you to disbelieve in evolution, or socialism. In any case, he wants you to change your mind from whatever you now believe to agree with him. Now also imagine that this stranger states some more of his beliefs, and expects that hearing these other beliefs will induce you to change your mind and agree with him that astrology can predict the future, that chiropractic works, that evolution is unscientific, or that socialism is evil. In other words, he gives you what he thinks is a set of good reasons for you to change your mind, and agree with him. In critical thinking, we would refer to the stranger's whole speech as his argument. This includes both what he explicitly says, as well as anything he might be assuming that you already believe, or will figure out, without him saying it. The thing that he wants you to believe is his conclusion. The reasons he gives you to believe it are his premises. The reasons that he thinks go without saying are his suppressed premises.

The "conclusion" of any argument is whatever single claim it is that the arguer wants you to believe. The "premises" of that argument are the reasons he's giving to try to change your mind to agree that his conclusion is true. The "standard form" for making arguments clear involves making a list of the argument's premises, drawing a straight line under the list, and following the line with the argument's conclusion. When you do this you should, as much as possible, put the argument into your own words without changing its meaning. You should, (but you don't absolutely have to), leave out stuff that's not intended as part of the argument.

If you think the arguer is expecting his audience to assume some claim that he's not explicitly saying, you could add that claim in, in parentheses, as a "suppressed premise" or even a "suppressed conclusion." Suppressed claims are tricky, and you should try very hard not to read any more into an argument than you absolutely have to. Consider two standardizations of the following argument. (Based on an actual newspaper column.)

We should not interfere with people who want to protest the administration's plans to invade Iraq, but we should write down their license plate numbers so they can be identified for future treason trials.

Standardization One                                                                                              Standardization Two
1. (Protesting administration policies is a form of treason.)                         1. (Traitors should be lined up against a wall and shot!)
2. Anti-invasion protestors are protesting an administration policy.            2. Anti-invasion protestors are committing treason.             
C. Anti-invasion protestors should be prosecuted for treason.                    C. (Anti-invasion protestors should be shot!)    

To me, the first standardization seems like a reasonable interpretation of the arguers actual words, while the second standardization goes far beyond what the arguer actually says. Even if I strongly believe the arguer to be harboring such violent thoughts, or if it seems clear to me that treason trials imply executions, standardization two still goes further than I strictly need to in order to make sense of the argument. I can justify the suppressed premise in standardization one by pointing out that the argument makes no sense if the arguer doesn't equate protest with treason. So the rule here is that you add claims only to the extent that you need to to make sense of the argument. Adding more "suppressed" claims puts me in danger of misrepresenting the arguer's position.

The first thing to do in any standardization is find the conclusion. Since the conclusion can come at any point in the argument, this can be difficult. Sometimes, there will be some word or phrase to indicate that whenever follows is conclusion. Some of these words are:

so        finally      so, duh         entails that       proves that         it is clear that       we can see that
thus     hence      therefore       implies that      we may infer      it follows that       we can conclude
then     shows     as a result     accordingly      consequently      it must be that      you'd be an idiot not to think that

Once you have correctly identified the conclusion, all of the other points in the argument will be premises. Unfortunately, it is not always the case that an arguer bothers to indicate his conclusion by using a conclusion-indicating word. So it helps to be familiar with the premise-indicating words, such as:

for        in that      because       insofar as      inasmuch as         this is implied by        due to the fact that           may be concluded from
since     after all    given that     in view of     this follows from   for the reason that     consider the following      for the following reasons

However, many arguments don't have indicator words at all. (The b@$~*rds!)

The bottom line here is that the conclusion is always the "fact" that the arguer is trying to get us to believe, and the premises are the things that she thinks we already believe. For this reason, the most controversial claim in any argument is usually the conclusion.

The following examples each represent one way to standardize the given argument. There may be other acceptable ways to standardize these arguments, and I'm not claiming that the ways I do it here are necessarily the best ways. (By the way, I render arguments in a different typeface, and sometimes I color good ones green and bad ones red.)

Example 1

This chocolate must be the best in the world, because its name is "World's Best Chocolate!"

1. The manufacturer of this chocolate named it "World's Best Chocolate!"

C. This chocolate is the best in the world

Notice that the premise is numbered, and I've idicated the conclusion with a capital "C." (The traditional method of indicating a conclusion is with three little circles arranged in a point-up triangle, but my computer won't easily do that.) Now, is this a good standardization? Well, it seems to cover the main points. If there's anything I've missed, I can restandardize the argument later.

Example 2

You'd better believe that an airplane's "black box" is black. Because, if you don't I'll come over there and slap you silly!

1. The speaker will physically assault the listener if the listener doesn't believe that an airplane's "black box" is black.
C. An aircraft's "black box" is colored black.

The motivation to believe the speaker comes from a threat, so the existance of the threat is the premise.

Example 3

We know that alien abduction stories are valid because the abductees are completely accurate in their recollections of events.

1. People who claim to have been abducted are completely accurate in their reccollections of events.
2. (If people are accurate in their recollections of events, then their stories will be valid.)
C. Alien abduction stories are valid.

Notice that I substituted "people who claim to have been abducted" for "abductees." This allows us to identify the people we're talking about without making any assumptions about whether or not they were abducted. Notice also that I added a suppressed premise. Premise number 2 wasn't explicitly stated in the original argument, but it seems to me that the arguer assumed it, so I put it in. I put it in in parentheses so that if it turns out to be bad in some way, I won't blame the original arguer for the bad suppressed premise.

Example 4

I can't tell much about the logic of this argument, but it's conclusion is true so, yeah, I guess it's a good argument.

1. The speaker does not understand the logic of the argument he's taking about.
2. The speaker believes that the argument he's taking about has a true conclusion.
C. The argument in question is a good argument.

Now, I could have written premise two as just "the argument he's taking about has a true conclusion," which is certainly what the arguer meant. However, in this case I wanted to emphasize that the arguer is just stating his presently unsupported belief that that conclusion is true. This is a judgement call, and I wouldn't complain if you rendered that premise as "the argument he's taking about has a true conclusion." (We'll worry about the logic of the issue later.) Another judgement call here is premise number 1. You may think that it does absolutely nothing to support the conclusion, or even that the arguer didn't intend it as support for the conclusion. And if you're right about that, I should not have included it as a premise. However, I don't see that it hurts anything to be there, so I'll leave it in for now.

Example 5

The CIA funneled drugs to the inner cities? Uncle Sam a drug smuggler with an eye-patch and a wooden leg? God you're gullible! I suppose you also think the US government irradiated retarded kids, or withheld treatment so that some black men died of syphilis. What an idiot you are!

1. The idea that the CIA funneled drugs to the inner cities evokes an allegedly humorous image of "Uncle Sam" as a smuggler.
C. The CIA did not funnel drugs to America's inner cities

The arguer is trying to change our minds by comparing the idea of CIA drug smuggling with the image of a piratical Uncle Sam, so that's the premise.

Example 6

Kiley: The black community should not be upset that we created a marketing campaign and special brand names to appeal to young black people. This wasn't intended to get people to start smoking. It was designed to get people to switch brands, so it's a brand identification issue, not a health issue!

Now, this may turn out to be more complicated than it looks, and you might choose to standardize this argument this argument differently from the way I do it here. And you might be right to do so! But I don't feel like working hard at this point, so I'm just going to give what I think is at least a reasonable standardization.

1. The tobacco company's campaign that appealed to young blacks was intended to get people to switch brands.
2. The tobacco company's campaign that appealed to young blacks was was not intended to get people to start smoking.
3. The issue of this advertising campaign is a brand identification issue, not a health issue.
C. This advertising campaign is not anything anyone has any reason to get upset about.

The bottom line here is that standardization is meant to clarify the argument for you. If you need to break the argument down into two or more little arguments to make it clear to you, then that's what you need to do. If a simple standardization makes the argument as clear as you need it to be to do the rest of scaefod, then you don't need to standardize it any further. Heck, if you see the argument so clearly that you can easily do the rest of scaefod without standardization, then you don't need to standardize at all!

Some useful tricks

There are a number of different strategies that arguers can find themselves using to support their conclusions. We will discuss each of the various strategies in detail in later chapters, so I don't really expect you to remember much about the particular strategies I talk about in this section, since they will all be covered in depth later. What I would like you to remember from the following section is that arguments often do have recognizable strategies, and that thinking about what strategy an argument might be using can often lead to a much clearer and more effective standardization.

1. Does the speaker rely on someone else as the source of his information? If he does, this should be a premise.

Argument
You surely must understand that the God Esculapius is real. Not only does the historian Pausanias report that Esculapius raised several people, including Hippolytus, from the dead, but he was able to point to a stone monument that local people erected to commemorate the event!"

Standardization
1. Pausanias says Esculapius raised Hippolytus from the dead.
2. Pausanias says Esculapius raised several other people.
3. Pausanias says local people raised a monument to commemorate the raisings.
(4. Esculapius couldn't raise people from the dead if he didn't exist.)
C. Esculapius really exists.

Notice that I split Pausanias's three points into three separate premises. Also notice that premise number three clarifies the source of the information about the monument. Finally, I added a suppressed premise to make the logic clear.

2. If the speaker makes a point of comparing one thing to another thing, that comparison is probably a premise.

Argument
The war on drugs is like any war. We will not begin to win until we begin to shoot drug dealers on sight.

Standardization
1. The government campaign against illegal drug use is like a literal war with shooting and bombing and napalm and so on.
(2. You can't win a real war without shooting at the enemy every time you see them.)
C. The government won't win the drug war without a "shoot on sight" order against drug dealers.

Notice the comparison is clarified in the first premise. Sometimes the comparison is hard to see, so I've given you another example.

Argument
Every time I argue against condom distribution in schools, some idiot pipes up with the idea that at least some teenagers are going to go out and have sex anyway, so the best way to protect them is to try to make sure they do it safely. That is the stupidest idea I've ever heard! Would you give teachers bulletproof vests because you think students are going to go out and start shooting? No of course you wouldn't! Nobody would. And yet these idiots are still out there handing out condoms to schoolchildren.

Standardization
1. Condom distribution is based on the idea that some teenagers will have sex no matter what you do.
2. Condom distribution based on that idea is like bulletproof vest distribution based on the idea that students will inevitably start shooting.
(3. Bulletproof vest distribution based on the idea that students will inevitably start shooting is a very stupid idea.)
C. Condom distribution is a very stupid idea.

This is actually a fairly complicated argument, so I've done what I can to make it simple. Notice that I've put the comparison in the second premise.

3. Does the speaker make a claim about a large group of things based on knowledge of only some of those things?

Argument
Okay, you want to know the value of pi to at least one decimal place. We don't have any math books, but I found this perfect circle in a picture book. Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. I very carefully measured the circumference and the diameter of this circle. In fact, I measured each one several times to make sure. And then I calculated the ratio between this circle's circumference and its diameter. And I checked those calculations several times! I can tell you for certain, that the circumference of this circle is 3.142 times its diameter. So pi is about 3.142.

Standardization
1. Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.
2. Measurements of one particular circle make pi equal to 3.142.
3. All measurements and calculations were checked up several times.
C. Pi is about 3.142.

What is the group here? It's every circle in the universe. How many circles does the speaker know about? One. How many circles are involved in his conclusion? Well, how many circles are there in the universe?

4. Does the speaker base his argument on the claim that two different things happened at about the same time, one just after the other? This kind of point can be very important, so make sure you include it as a premise.

Argument
The need to continue the war on drugs has never been so clear. Every year since we made drugs illegal the violent crime rate has climbed and climbed! Obviously, we need to seriously increase the money we spend on drug law enforcement.

Standardization
1. The criminalization of drug use was followed by a rise in the rate of violent crime.
C. The government should increase the money spent on drug law enforcement.

Notice that premise one says that one thing happened and then another thing happened. (I haven't added a suppressed premise because I can't think of one that would make any sense.)

5. Does the speaker say that one thing causes or will cause another thing?

Argument
First they allow intelligent design in schools, next it will be the flat-earth theory, and then biblical geometry (pi=3). Before you know it, they'll be teaching disease is caused by daemons and floods are the result of singing hymns off-key!

Standardization
1. If intelligent design is taught in schools, it will inevitably be followed by the teaching of the flat-earth theory.
2. Teaching the flat earth theory will cause the teaching of biblical geometry.
3. Teaching biblical geometry will cause the teaching of the daemon theory of disease and the off-key hymn theory of flooding.
(4. It would be a bad thing in schools taught that disease was caused by daemons and floods by off-key hymns.)
(C. It would be a bad thing if intelligent design is taught in schools.)

Notice that you can refer to a cause and effect relationship in a number of different ways. Notice also that I have tried to break down the causal into simple statements of one thing causing another.

Also notice that this argument had a suppressed conclusion. Sometimes arguers are so sure you know what they're talking about that they don't bother to mention their main point! In that case, you can fill it in for them. But beware, don't fill in any more than you have to in order for the argument to make sense.

6. A lot of arguments try to prove their conclusions by claiming (explicitly or implicitly) that their conclusion, if true, would explain some other known facts.

Argument
People who are near death all see a white light, which proves that Heaven must have a film crew at the pearly gates to film new arrivals.

Standardization
1. Near death experiences involve a visual impression of white light.
(2. Film crews always use very bright white lights.)
3. If Heaven had a film crew, that would explain the white light.
C. Heaven has a film crew.

7. Sometimes, the claim that there is no evidence for something is the most important premise in an argument.

Argument
Don't tell me that strawberries explode. No one has ever reported seeing a strawberry explode. No one has ever filmed an exploding strawberry. No one has ever used strawberries as the basis for a bomb. No one has ever tried to demolish a building using strawberries. No one has ever found red goop and little tiny seeds scattered over an explosion site. And finally, no one has gone to a demolished building or burned up car and said "aha, it must have been a strawberry."

Standardization
1. There are no reports of strawberry explosions.
2. There are no films of strawberry explosions.
3. Bombs are not made out of strawberries.
4. Buildings are not demolished by strawberry.
5. No explosion site has ever given evidence of strawberry involvement.
6. When people see evidence of an explosion, they do not immediately think of strawberries.
C. Strawberries do not explode.

Notice that every single premise mentions a lack of evidence. Also notice that the conclusion is a negative one.

The are lots of other things you can look out for, but these are the ones I want you to start with. The main point is that every significant factual detail given in the argument should find its way into the standardization. If you are in any doubt about whether you should leave some thing out, go ahead and make it a premise. Remember that the purpose of standardization is to make critical thinking easier. If some point is irrelevant, you can say so later.

Evaluating Arguments

Basically, all arguments can be split into a factual part and a logical part. The arguer assumes that his premises are facts, and that these purported facts are connected to his conclusion by what he thinks is a true logical principle. However, it's up to us to decide whether or not the logical principle he has in mind is a real logical principle, and so I will commonly refer to such purported logical principles as "candidate" principles, because they're rules that are being offered up as logical principles but we get to decide whether they're real logical rules or fake ones.

Based on this, there are two questions you should ask about any argument.

1. Are the "facts" given in the premises all really facts?
Basically, only claims that are already backed up by rock-solid arguments will count as facts. So, we'll take "facts" to mean claims that would be automatically accepted by the argument's audience, or claims that both arguers agree on. You can also take it to mean claims that you already take to be true. If a claim can't really be counted as a fact, then it doesn't count for the argument.

2. Can we reasonably explain the facts given without having to assume that the argument's conclusion is true?
If it is reasonably logically possible for the conclusion to be false even if all the facts in the premises are true, then the argument is no good.

I use the term "clincher" for a short explanation of why some particular argument is bad. A good clincher will clearly expose the logical problems in a bad argument. The way to do this is to explicitly mention the crucial fact that knocks the argument down, and/or demonstrate that the argument's candidate principle is not a real rule of logic.

Of course, figuring out all these crucial facts and candidate principles can get pretty complicated. (Which is why I have a job.) So to make it easier to get started, I'm going to describe some really easy ways that arguments can go wrong.

Some Logical Fallacies

Fallacy" is a logican's name for any really common kind of mistake in reasoning. These are things that sometimes look convincing, but are in fact always bogus.

Red Herring

The red herring fallacy occurs when an arguer tries to distract you with attractive and interesting but totally irrelevant information, or otherwise tries to lead you away from the real issue. You will notice that I color the bad arguments red, to emphasize that they're bad. When I include an argument that isn't bad, or isn't as bad as the fallacy, I will color that argument green. Notice that none of the following red arguments gives any real reason for the conclusion. The red herring fallacy is perhaps the most popular fallacy of all time. It consists simply of bringing up something that is true, but not at all relevant to the subject under discussion. I follow each example with a sample


I'm sorry I can't promote you. I know you have all the skills and qualifications and all the people who work for you think you're a great manager. But there's a perception that you're difficult to work with. I know that it's not true, but sometimes perception is reality.

The speaker is refusing to promote someone because there exists a perception that this person is difficult to work with. The speaker says that sometimes perception is reality. However, this is only true when the perception is correct, and the speaker admits that this particular perception is false. If the person were difficult to work with, that might be a reason to deny him the promotion, but the fact that some people merely think he's difficult to work with doesn't make him actually difficult to work with, so the reason given here is simply not good enough to deny someone an otherwise deserved promotion.

Here I chose to highlight the crucial fact that perception is not the same as reality. I did that because it seemed to me to be the easiest way to show that the argument was bogus. (By the way, if you disagree with me about whether some argument is bad, that's fine. The important thing is that you try to make your reasons logical, and that you explain them clearly.)


Raegan. How can you stand there and protest the war? Don't you know our boys are over there?
Rohan.
Well, if there wasn't a war, wouldn't they be back here instead of over there?

Raegan wants us to take the fact that the war puts soldiers in danger as a reason to support the war. But, as citizens, we should only support justified wars. Since unjustified wars place soldiers in as much danger as justified wars, this is a bad rule to follow. If Raegan's logic was correct, the fact that Hitler's invasion of Poland placed German soldiers in harm's way would have been enough to justify that war. Since Hitler's invasion of Poland was clearly unjustified, even though it placed many German soldiers in danger, the fact that our soldiers are in danger, is in itself no reason to support any war.

This clincher takes the kind of "logic" that Raegan wants us to follow and applies it in a situation in which it gives an answer that most people (ie, non-Nazis) would find unnacceptable. If we assume, as I do, that the Nazi invasion of Poland could not possibly be justified, this application of Reaegan's candidate principle demonstrates that it isn't a logical rule at all. (I call such attempts at producing logical rules "candidate principles" since they are implicitly offered to us as possible logical rules.) Logical rules are universal, so if Raegan's candidate principle works for her, it works for Hitler. Since it doesn't work for Hitler, it doesn't work for Reagan, and in fact it isn't a logical principle at all. (This is not a trick I expect you to master right away, so if this paragraph made no sense to you, don't worry about it for right now.)


Cubewarrior. Your idea to save money by not including monitors in the package deal we're getting from the vendor won't work. The old monitors are worn-out and won't work with the new system, and if we buy monitors later we won't get the package deal price. So your way will cost more.
Pointyboss. This is just another example of your negative thinking. Of course we will save money. Why are you being so negative about this?

Pointyboss's argument rests on the fact that Cubewarrior is making a negative point by saying that the company won't save money. It's true that Cubewarrior is making a negative claim, but the fact that this can be characterized as "negative thinking" doesn't in any way imply that it's false.

I don't want you to worry about whether you phrase the clincher the same way I do. The important thing is to make sure you explicitly mention the crucialfact that, once seen, makes nonsense of the argument. Here the crucial fact is that not all negative claims are false. You could also explain Pointyboss's candidate principle of "all negative claims are false," which would have to be true for his argument to work, and show that it's false by applying it in another situation. For instance, you could point out that "you can't build a high-performance supersonic jet fighter out of cheese" is a true negative claim.


Begging the Question

An argument is begging the question when its main "premise" is either a restatement of its conclusion, or is otherwise so clearly unsupported that the listener instinctively wants to jump in and question that main premise. The argument relies upon a premise that's almost as controversial as the conclusion. In begging the question, the arguer more-or-less assumes the very thing he is supposedly trying to prove, or something that is so close to it that it might as well be the same thing. As before, each example is followed by an appropriate




This argument fails because the two phrases "stories are valid" and "accurate in their recollections" mean exactly the same thing, so the argument amounts to "these stories are true because these stories are true." Since the truth of these stories is exactly what is in question here, the speaker cannot simply assume that they're true, and expect us to go along with him.

The crucial fact here is that the "arguer" is not actually making an argument at all. Instead, he's merely repeating himself in different words.



This argument fails because it is the speaker's policy that itself stands in need of justification. Merely to say that one has a policy of something doesn't justify following the policy. If the speaker were able to give a reason in support of the policy, that would be one thing. But he gives no reasons in support of his policy, and so his argument fails.

Here the crucial fact is that merely making something into a policy doesn't justify that thing.



Bad arguments can have true conclusions, so even if the conclusion of the argument is true, that couldn't possibly make the argument logically good.



This arguer is substituting his own pre-existing opinion for logic and evidence. If he could point out a specific factual or logical problem in the argument, that would give us a basis for possibly thinking that the argument might be bad, but he has pointed out no such problem. Even if he had an independent argument for the faslity of this conclusion, that would not be enough to support his claim, because then we would just have two competing arguments. However, he doesn't even have any independent reason for thinking that this conclusion is false. So, if we have no evidence of a logical problem with the argument, then it might very well be a good argument, in which case it's conclusion would be true, whether this arguer likes it or not.

Amazingly, there is a popular (and otherwise very good) philosophy of religion textbook that commits exactly this fallacy!

And here's a personal favorite.

Delilah. I don't think we should consider President Suharto of Indonesia a humanitarian leader. After all, he did lead Indonesia in an invasion and occupation of East Timor in which they killed about a third of the East Timorese.
Garrison. You're making that up!

This should be fairly easy, right? I mean, it should be clear that Garrison is begging the question. The trouble is, this set is based on a real conversation with a fellow graduate student. He really reacted like that. He heard something he didn't want to believe, so he immediately jumped to the conclusion that I had made it up. He even laughed. So let's make this perfectly clear: the automatic dismissal of information you don't like is always a fallacy. Always.

It is an unfortunately common mistake to think that just because an argument supports one's pre-existing opinion, that argument must be a good one. Even more unfortunately, it is another common mistake to think that just because an argument opposes one's pre-existing opinion, that argument must be a bad one. This kind of "thinking," (or anti-thinking), is only very rarely made explicit, because it operates at the gut level, but it is absolutely lethal to critical thinking. And to morality. (And, historically, it has literally been lethal to literally millions of innocent people.)

Such people are simply refusing to think. And refusal to think can lead to conversations like the following.



If you ever wondered how people could support vicious dictators, here's a big part of the answer.

Here's one more example of begging the question:


It's true that, if Zombingines can exist, enginism is false, but to assume that they can exist is to assume that enginism is false, so claiming they can exist is just another way of claiming that enginism is false. It's never an argument to say "it's false so it's false," so imagining that Zombingines can exist doesn't get you anywhere in proving enginism false.

Ad Baculum

Ad baculum, or the fallacy of force occurs when an arguer tries to make you believe something by threatening to hurt you is you don't believe.

You'd better believe that an airplane's "black box" is black. If you don't I'll come over there and slap you silly!

The speaker's ability to hurt his listeners doesn't make him right. It is no part of logic to think that might makes right. If this were true, Saddam Hussein's ability to get Iraqis to agree that he was a humane and wise leader would have made him actually a humane and wise leader.

Notice that the first sentence in my clincher simply states the crucial fact that kills this argument. The second sentence explicitly denies that arguer's candidate principle. And the third sentence illustrates the weakness of the candidate principle by applying it to a situation where, if it were a true logical principle, it would give a result that the arguer himself would (hopefully) reject.

Any time a speaker tries to intimidate you into believing something, she's comitting a fallacy ad baculum. I find that logic doesn't matter to such people, so my preferred response is to pretend to agree and then, when the speaker isn't looking, hit him very hard with a heavy stick. This doesn't always work of course, which is why I own knives, swords and guns. I'm no fool.


Ridicule

The fallacy of ridicule occurs when an arguer misstates an argument or claim in such a way as to make it look ridiculous, and then pretends that she has thereby refuted that argument or claim. She pretends the argument or claim is ridiculous, she says things that make it seem ridiculous, she laughs, she sneers, but she doesn't give us any actual reasons to think there's anything wrong with the argument or claim.
 
The CIA funneled drugs to the inner cities? Uncle Sam a drug smuggler with an eye-patch and a wooden leg? God you're gullible! I suppose you also think the US government irradiated retarded kids, or withheld treatment so that some black men died of syphilis. What an idiot you are!

This arguer merely makes fun of the claim he's attacking. He doesn't give us any logical or factual reason to think that the claim is false, so he hasn't said anything we need to pay any attention to.

There's a radio source in the sky that turns on and off in a perfectly regular pattern? Oh, yeah, and there's a star that blinks the William Tell Overture!

The arguer wants us to follow the rule that "if an idea can be distorted to make it sound funny, then that idea is false." But this is surely not a good logical rule, because absolutely any belief can be made to sound funny.

Notice that the first clincher takes the crucial fact approach, while the second argument explicates and then demolishes the argument's candidate principle. You could do your clinchers either way, depending on what you think works best. Or you could try to include both, just to make sure.

Straw Man

An arguer commits the straw man fallacy when she pretends to refute someone else's argument by holding up a different argument and refuting that other argument instead of the real one.  

Example. Those anti-war protestors say American military intervention is bad because our soldiers love to hurt people. That's ridiculous! Everyone knows we hate doing the terrible things we have to do.

Here the arguer misrepresents the other side in two distinct ways. First, he ignores the fact that, while many protestors are pacifists, the majority of anti-war protestors generally protest specific wars. They're not necessarily opposed to American military intervention in principle, just in cases where they believe it to be unjustified. Second, he invents an imaginary premise, "American military intervention is bad because our soldiers love to hurt people," that he falsely represents as the main premise of the anti-war argument. Thus he represents the main anti-war argument as

American soldiers love to hurt people.
All American military intervention is bad.

Where it should be something like.

Country X is not threatening it's neighbors.
Country X is not abusing the people in its power nearly as much as other countries that the US supports.
Country X is not threatening the US.
American military intervention against country X is wrong.

As you can see, the first version is far easier to refute than the second.

Example. Those feminists and civil rights people should just shut up. Why should we give special rights to women and minorities?

Here the arguer writes as if the feminist/civil rights argument is.

Women, people of color and homosexuals want rights that other people don't have. 
Women, people of color and homosexuals should have rights that other people don't have. 

When the real argument is more like.

It is immoral to give opportunities and decent treatment to some groups but not others
There is no morally relevant reason to withhold opportunities and decent treatment from women, people of color and homosexuals. 
Women, people of color and homosexuals aren't given some of the opportunities and decent treatment that other people get routinely. 
Women, people of color and homosexuals have a right to the same opportunities and decent treatment that other people have. 

Again, the first argument is easy to refute, but the second is much harder.

As you might guess, this is a very popular fallacy, particularly with politicians and political commentators of all kinds. One of the reasons I don't listen to AM radio is I get tired of hearing this fallacy used over and over and over again. It's an easy fallacy to commit. No-one wants to take the time to understand an argument he thinks is wrong, so people often simply misunderstand the other side's position. But if you don't understand the other side's position, you can't possibly refute it. Committing the straw man fallacy is like knocking down a picture of Arnold Schwartzenegger and then claiming you've defeated the real Arnold! It doesn't work.

Finally, consider the following exchange.

Elmer. William Shirer has produced documentary evidence that the German High Command invaded Poland to get land for people of their own nationality.
Vivian. But that's silly, because we know that no members of the German High Command got land in Poland.

Vivian thinks that she has refuted Urg's argument by showing that the people he mentions did not profit in the way he mentions. But did Urg say that any members of the German High Command got land in Poland? Did he say that they were trying to get land for themselves? Vivian speaks as though Urg's argument is.

Members of the German High Command got land in Poland.
The German High Command invaded Poland to get land for people of their own nationality.

or perhaps

Members of the German High Command got land in Poland.
The German High Command invaded Poland to get land for themselves. 

(which can both be easily refuted by pointing out that the premise isn't true), when in fact Urg's argument is.

There is documentary evidence that the German High Command invaded Poland to get land for people of their own nationality.
The German High Command invaded Poland to get land for people of their own nationality.

Which cannot be refuted by what Vivian says.

Throwing Logic Out The Window

I don't know if there's a name for the following fallacy, but it will become significant later in the semester.

Oolof. Donald, I think your aardvark is dead.
Donald. Don't be silly, my aardvark isn't dead.
Oolof. Well, look, things are either alive or not alive, right?.
Donald. Yes, of course!
Oolof. And the word "dead" just means "not alive." right?.
Donald. Absolutely. The word "dead" was coined to mean "not alive.".
Oolof. Good. So your aardvark is either dead or alive..
Donald. With you so far.
Oolof. Now, living aardvarks, have pulse, respiration and body heat, don't they?
Donald. They sure do!.
Oolof. Well, your aardvark hasn't moved in 24 hours. It has no pulse. It isn't breathing, and it's really starting to smell funny.
Donald. Yeah. So, what's your point?
Oolof. Well then, it's dead, right?
Donald. Oh no, those things just mean that my aardvark isn't alive. They don't mean it's dead.
Oolof. But doesn't the lack of pulse, respiration and body heat mean that it's dead?.
Donald. No, they just mean it's not alive. We already know it's not dead, so this must mean that there is some third state, which I will call "free", which is neither being alive nor being dead.
Oolof. So, let me get this straight. It's not alive, right?
Donald. Right.
Oolof. And it's not dead, so it's not not alive, right? .
Donald. Right. It's free, which means it's not alive, and it's not dead either.
Oolof. You are the biggest dumass in the history of the universe.
Donald. Hey!
Oolof. I've met pieces of toast that were smarter than you.
Donald. What?
Oolof. In fact, your dead aardvark is smarter than you!
Donald. That's unfair! I've got a Ph.D. in philosophy you know!
Oolof. I don't care if you're Regis Professor of Cunning at Weasel University! There's no third state that neither alive nor not alive!.
Donald. No, but there's one that's neither alive nor dead!.
Oolof. That's the same thing, you dimwit!.

You might call Donald's fallacy "refusal to face facts." I might call it "gibbering insanity," but that doesn't seem strong enough.

Just to remind you, there will be a short in-class quiz on these fallacies at the beginning of class.

Exercises

Following are some lousy arguments. For each lousy argument, write your own "clincher." That is, write out a short, but clear and complete, explanation of why that argument is bad. Make sure you include the crucial facts that would prompt any reasonable person to recognize why the argument is bad. Don't just say it's bad. Don't just name the fallacy it committs. Name the material facts or logical principles that make it bad. Try to figure out the crucial facts that kill the arguments and the bogus candidate principles they rely on. Look for clinchers that include at least one of these things. Also make sure that the clincher gives appropriate credit, includes necessary details, and explains the problem in non-technical language. (Using technical language is not necessarily a problem. The problem arises when we rely on language that others might not understand. Technical language can be just fine, if comes with a complete explanation of what it mean and how it applies to the present situation.)

Exercise 6. Pick out the best clincher for the worst argument in the following pair.

Rocio:             Jesse Jackson says that Charleston, S.C. police need better training and better pay.
Estevan:         We can't take Jesse Jackson's word on political issues. He wears a tie.

Remember, the best clincher will, 1. say exactly why the opposition argument is bad, with all relevant detail, 2. give logically good reasons why that argument is bad and, 3. state those reasons in clear, non-technical language that any reasonably literate reader can understand.

1. "Estevan is just giving his opinion while the other argument gives facts. Facts are always better than opinions, so Estevan's argument fails.." (Answer)

2. "Estevan says that Jesse Jackson's word is not enough, but Jesse Jackson's word is good enough, so Estevan's argument fails." (Answer)

3. "Estevan says that we shouldn't listen to Jesse Jackson because Jesse Jackson wears a tie. Oh please! Wearing a tie has nothing to do with it, so Estevan's argument is garbage." (Answer)

4. "Estevan commits a fallacy ad hominem in his argument. No fallacy is ever a good argument, so Estevan's argument fails." (Answer)

Referring to one side's claims as "opinions" and the other side's claims as "facts" never works. Just because you dislike someone's opinion doesn't make it okay for you to characterize the facts that they offer in support of that opinion as "opinion." By the same token, merely disagreeing with someone's conclusion doesn't make their argument fail. The best clincher is the one that makes it clear what the problem is, even if that clarification is done in a colloquial or jocular manner. Finally, merely giving the technical name for the fallacy committed by the arguer isn't enough. Identifying the fallacy is fine so long as you explain how the fallacy works and how it turns out that this argument is an instance of that fallacy. Just giving the name of the fallacy won't give the reader this information, and you have to assume that your reader does not know the names of the fallacies, does not know how they work, and cannot recognize an argument as a fallacy without your help.

Exercise 7. Pick out the best clincher for the worst argument in the following pair.

Helmuth. You know, the American Revolution was as much a civil war as anything else. After all, thousands of American colonists fought for the British during the revolutionary war.
Igor. That's not true! Admit that all colonists were patriots or I'll tar and feather you!"

1. "Igor is nothing but a politically motivated thug. He is a moral coward who cannot bear to think about anything that contradicts his comfortable little view of the world. Deep in his heart, he knows he's wrong and he is so afraid of having his illusions shattered that he reacts with threats of violence the moment anybody confronts him with any evidence that does not fit his self-satisfied picture of the world." (Answer)

2. "It is a fact that the so-called "American Revolution" was much more of a civil war than a revolution. Igor should just accept the truth and go on with his life without whining." (Answer)

3. "Igor gives us nothing to contradict the evidence that the American Revolution was as much a civil war as anything else. His threat cannot count as an argument because complete liars can make threats in defense of claims that they know are false. Even if Igor is 100 percent serious about his threat, his willingness to hurt others cannot tell us anything about the American Revolution." (Answer)

4. "Igor's argument is a logical fallacy because we know that as many colonists supported the British as supported the patriots during the American Revolution." (Answer)

Speculating on an arguer's motives tells us nothing about his arguments. Even if we are 100 percent right about Igor's moral cowardice and propensity for violence, his argument could still be a good one. A mere belief in an opposing conclusion cannot make it all right to ignore somebody's argument. The clincher must focus on real and specific problems with the opposition arguments, or it fails. The correct clincher is the one that faces the opposing arguments squarely and says what is precisely wrong with each one. Finally, the premises of one argument can never make the logic of another argument bad.


Exercise 8. Pick out the best clincher for the worst argument in the following pair.

Marsala. I've seen a summary of the results of all the studies that have ever been done comparing the murder rates in states with and without the death penalty. After all the corrections have been made to account for all the variables and other demographic factors, it turns out that there's no evidence that the death penalty has any deterrent effect whatsoever. Since the effect would show up in a difference in murder rates if it existed, we should conclude that there is no deterrent effect.
Naan. You're misunderstanding the nature of statistics. Actually, the evidence for the deterrent effect of the death penalty holds up pretty well. You have to understand that there are all kinds of things that can go wrong with a study. There may be bias, for instance. Or the data may be incomplete. Or the researchers might have compared demographically dissimilar groups. So it should be clear to you now that we can discount these studies, and should affirm that the death penalty does have a deterrent effect.

1. "Yeah Naan, lots of things can go wrong with a study, but did any of them go wrong with Marsala's studies? Naan doesn't come up with a single actual problem with any of Marsala's studies, and since only actual problems count, Naan can't do anything to knock down Marsala's studies. So nuts to you, Naan." (Answer)

2. "Naan, you've got nothing. Nada! Marsala's got the goods, and you know it. Nothing you say means anything about what Marsala says. All of your little digs and sneers and comments don't count for anything because none of them have anything to do with Marsala's argument." (Answer)

3. "Naan has no effective arguments. None whatsoever. Marsala gives a good argument, and Naan seems to be aware of this fact. None of the material discussed by Naan has any significant relevance to Marsala's argument. This is true of her general comments as well as of the specific facts that she cites in her argument, simply because none of them are relevant to the argument presented by Marsala." (Answer)

4. "Naan commits the fallacy of red herring by mentioning material that is not relevant to the issue." (Answer)

Again, the best clincher is one that makes it most perfectly clear what the problem is with the argument. Notice that the first choice says exactly the same thing as "Naan mentions a lot of things that can go wrong with a study, but she does not say that any of these things was wrong with the studies cited by Marsala. Therefore Naan has not given us any reason to think that there is anything wrong with Marsala's studies. This means that those studies stand uncontested, and Naan fails to defeat Marsala's argument." If this is correct, then the same thing phrased in a more sarcastic manner is also correct. General comments, even if basically correct, still fail to be effective clinchers if they fail to get into the specifics of the argument. This is true whether they are phrased colloquially or academically. Finally, correctly identifying the fallacy committed by the arguer is still much less effective than carefully explaining precisely what is wrong with his argument.


Exercise 9. Pick out the best clincher for the worst argument in the following pair. (Remember that technical language is okay if it comes with an explanation.)

Ezequiel. That Morticia de Ath is a bloody murderer! You know she picked up a loaded gun at that gun show and just blasted away at random people, killing seven of them.
Kelli.
She's not a murderer. "Murder" is defined in the dictionary as unjustifiably killing a person with malice aforethought. Morticia de Ath acted completely without malice, and she certainly didn't have any forethought of any kind, so what she did couldn't possibly be murder.

1. "Kelli's argument is bad because the dictionary definition of murder does not include the phrase "with malice aforethought." Since Kelli is wrong about the dictionary definition of murder, her argument fails." (Answer)

2. "Kelli commits the fallacy of false authority. In this case, she uses the dictionary as her authority for her claim that Morticia de Ath is not a murderer. However, the dictionary is not an authority in this case, so the fact that the dictionary says that Morticia de Ath is not a murderer doesn't mean that she isn't, so Kelli's argument fails." (Answer)

3. "Kelli is out of her mind! Of course Morticia de Ath is a murderer. She randomly shot seven people, for gods sake! True, it was at a gun show, so the net effect on the human gene pool was probably positive, but still, come on!" (Answer)

4. "Kelli commits the fallacy of red herring, which is basically the mistake of bringing up something that cannot be relevant to the issue. In this case, the red herring is that part of the dictionary definition that refers to "malice aforethought." Even if the dictionary includes malice and forethought as elements of murder, the much more central element of killing innocent people without justification would be sufficient to define Morticia de Ath's actions as murder. Kelli's argument does not address this central element, and so it fails to defend Morticia de Ath against the label of 'murderer.'" (Answer)


Exercise 10. Pick out the best clincher for the worst argument in the following pair. (Remember, an explanation of how a fallacy works in general is not good enough.)

A. Tyshawn. I think that sex education is a good idea. It would help kids cope with their sexual feelings if they knew where they were coming from and what they could lead to.
Magdalena. You'd think that wouldn't you. The problem is, Dr. Laura Schlockslinger says that sex education is immoral and dangerous, so we should ban it from schools. That proves that sex education is a bad idea.
Tyshawn. Isn't Schlockslinger a Ph.D. in physiology? What does that have to do with morality?
Magdalena. Don't change the subject! She's a doctor, isn't she? That should be enough for you.

1. "A doctorate in physiology is no qualification in the study of ethics or public health, which means that Dr. Laura Schlockslinger is not an authority on the question of whether or not sex education is immoral or dangerous." (Answer)

2. "Magdalena commits the fallacy of false authority. This is the fallacy where an arguer chooses someone as an authority who is, for some reason, not qualified to speak authoritatively on the issue in question. The "authority" might be disqualified by reason of holding no qualifications in the relevant area, having a bad track record for claims made in the relevant area, or may have a particular material interest that might sway his judgment on the matter in question. Use of a false authority is a fatal flaw in any argument, so Magdalena's argument fails." (Answer)

3. "So Dr. Laura Schlockslinger says that sex education is immoral and dangerous. So what? What does she know? What makes her opinion better than anyone else's? Nothing, that's what! So we can ignore whatever she says." (Answer)

4. "Magdalena commits a red herring fallacy by bringing up something that is irrelevant to the issue. In this case, the irrelevant thing is the fact that sex education is immoral and dangerous. What do immorality and danger have to do with whether or not something should be in our schools? Schools are boring. They would be a lot more fun if there was more immorality! And the danger would only make our schools more exciting. Fun and excitement are good things, not bad things, so we should have sex education in schools." (Answer)

Clinchers do not have to be long and complicated. If you can sum up what is wrong with an argument in one clear sentence, that's just as good as a paragraph that says exactly the same thing. On the other hand, a long paragraph that describes a fallacy type in detail without explaining how the opposing argument is supposed to be an instance of that fallacy type completely fails to be an effective

Before you do the homework, I suggest you practice by writing your own fists of death for the argument sets I give in this chapter, and then checking your answers against the answers I give above.

There will be a quiz at the beginning of the next class period, and the quiz will test your knowledge of the four fallacies described above, so I suggest you also do the practice questions that follow the homework, and then check your answers against the text above.


Possible Quiz Questions (This ain't homework! Memorize the answers for next class, cuz there will be a quiz.)
1. In your own words, define the term "conclusion."
2. In your own words, define the term "premise."
3. What is a "suppressed premise?"
4. What is a "suppressed conclusion?"
5. Define the fallacy of Red Herring in your own words.
6. Define the fallacy of Begging the Question in your own words.
7. Define the fallacy of Ad Baculum in your own words.
8. Define the fallacy of Ridicule in your own words.
9. Define the fallacy of Straw Man in your own words.
10. What fallacy tries to get you to change your mind by threatening you?
11. What is it called when an arguer tries to distract you by introducing true, but irrelevant information?
12. What fallacy tries to get you to agree by making fun of the opposite conclusion?
13. What fallacy tries to support a conclusion by giving equally controversial premises?
14. What fallacy tries to refute another argument by pointing out flaws in a totally different argument?
15. Is "if you can make a belief sound funny, then it is a false belief" a true logical principle?
16. Is "if I can hurt you for not believing me, then what I say is true" a true logical principle?
17. Is "if you can make basically the same claim in two different ways, then it's true" a true logical principle?
18. Is "if I can make you think about something else, then my conclusion is true" a true logical principle?
19. Is "if I can poke holes in a different argument that kind of looks like yours, then I've refuted your argument" a true logical principle?

Copyright © 2006 by Martin C. Young

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