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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On logical fallacies

What is the role of logic in an argument? Well, let us take this example: Mintoo makes two statements:

1] Ministers are corrupt.
2] Therefore, free markets are bad.

Now, Chintoo pops up here, and feels that statement 2 does not necessarily follow from statement 1, and the "therefore" is misplaced. Perhaps Mintoo hasn't explained that thread of thought fully. So Chintoo asks for a clarification on that point, pointing out that statement 2 does not follow from statement 1: in other words, it's a non sequitur.

The best way for Mintoo to counter that statement is to show, in a series of logical steps, how statement 2 does follow from statement 1. Isn't it?

Pinky then pops in and says that if Chintoo supports free markets, then he must be in favour of private companies cheating people and committing fraud on a large scale. Chintoo, of course, believes no such thing. All free-market supporters, he points out, believe in the importance of the rule of law. What Pinky is doing, he feels, is creating a version of a free-market supporter that doesn't exist, but one that she can knock down easily to pretend she has won the argument. In other words, a straw man (or, in even simpler terms, a caricature). Chintoo says so.

The easiest way for Pinky to prove Chintoo wrong is to either a) show that free-market supporters do indeed support lawlessness or b) show that Chintoo misunderstood her, and to clarify what she meant to say. Isn't it?

Instead both Mintoo (accused of a non sequitur) and Pinky (accused of creating a straw man) turn on Chintoo and accuse him of using empty phrases (like 'non sequitur' and 'straw man' and 'caricature'), and they refuse to argue further on issues. Instead, the discussion degenerates into a discussion about Chintoo and his friends. The central point of the argument is lost.

It is like a human-rights activist calling Narendra Modi communal, and Modi, instead of proving that he is not communal, accuses the activists of using empty phrases like "communal". Suddenly, it is the activists under attack, as Modi turns all sanctimonious and suchlike. (And, of course, it provokes neutrals into thinking that Modi perhaps is communal, if he is shifting goalposts -- another empty phrase? -- in such a manner.)

That is why, if someone ever accuses you of committing a logical fallacy, the best course of action is to show that you haven't committed one. Non sequitur? Show how you reach statement B from statement A, and the person who made that accusation will be proved wrong. And the discussion will go forward in a productive manner. But if you then attack the person, and mock his pointing out logical fallacies, well, you've just demonstrated your inability to argue your point. Why do that?

This is a hypothetical example, of course. Heh.

Update: Also read this: "On getting personal."
amit varma, 10:25 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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