Elections have consequences. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, there are five debate tricks you need to know so, in the words of The Who, “We don’t get fooled again.” Being able to spot someone you oppose using one of these tricks will make you feel good. Spotting someone you like using them may give you second thoughts. There are more than five tricks, of course, but the following are the most common and most damaging to rational discussion.
Just so you don’t think that I’m taking sides, examples will refer to candidates Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. As far as I know, they haven’t endorsed any political parties this year.
Ad Hominem Attack
Ad Hominem is a Latin phrase meaning “against the man.” You’ll hear a lot of this in political campaigns when a candidate chooses to attack the person making an argument, rather than dealing with the facts or logic of the argument itself.
For example, candidate Tom says, “I think peanut prices should be subsidized, so no one will have to go without peanut butter.”
Huck responds, “What do you expect from the son of a peanut farmer? I wonder which one of his father’s farms Tom was kicking back on when he had that idea?”
Notice that Huck hasn’t dealt with the issue. Do people really need peanut butter? What may occur to the prices of other crops if peanuts are subsidized? Are there other alternatives to providing subsidies to peanut farmers? Instead, he attacked Tom, implying he is selfishly motivated and doesn’t really care about people’s needs.
Because you can attack a person doesn’t mean their arguments are invalid. Also, because a person, in this case Tom, may benefit from a proposal, doesn’t mean the proposal is a bad one.
The Straw Man
The Straw Man trick consists of distorting an opponent’s position, then attacking the distortion rather than the real position. The opponent’s position may be distorted by misstating it, only stating part of it, restating it in a weakened variation, or exaggerating it.
Candidate Huck might make this proposal: “I think we need to cut the budget by ten percent across the board, no exceptions.”
Tom might respond, “Cutting the defense budget is crazy. I just don’t understand why Huck wants to leave us completely defenseless. We have to be able to defend ourselves.”
First, Tom has picked only one part of Huck’s proposal. He has exaggerated its effect. Finally, he implies that Huck doesn’t want people to be able to defend themselves, something Huck didn’t say. Tom has created a straw man to attack, rather than deal with Huck’s budget proposal.
The Post Hoc Fallacy
This trick has several names, but they all derive from the Latin phrase “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” This means “After this, because of this.”
Huck might make the claim, “When you elected Tom, the bottom fell out of the economy and people lost jobs.”
The fallacy involved with this trick is that just because those things happened after Tom was elected, does not prove that Tom caused them. There is a famous episode of The Simpsons (Season 7, “Much Apu about Nothing”) that illustrates this and provides some giggles.
Homer: Not a bear in sight. The “Bear Patrol” must be working like a charm!
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock. But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
Appeal to the Majority
Tom might say, “There is no reason not to build a bridge over the river at Hannibal. Everybody in the county wants it.”
Tom’s argument implies that because the majority wants to build a bridge at that location that it’s the right thing to do. Just because the majority of any given population wants or believes something does not mean it is the right thing to do or is true.
A variation of this fallacy is the Appeal to Authority. Huck might counter Tom by saying, “I’ve spoken to Professor Clemens and he is totally opposed to the project. That’s why we shouldn’t build it.”
Even though Professor Clemens may be an expert on bridges, he could be wrong about the Hannibal project. He might be misinformed, or not have sufficient information.
Neither Tom nor Huck have presented facts or reasoned arguments about the bridge issue and that’s why their arguments are bogus.
Begging the Question
This is perhaps the most subtle and dangerous trick. It occurs when a fact is assumed as part of a question.
Huck might say, “Tom, have you stopped beating your dog?” The question implies that Tom was beating his dog whether he was or not.
When the facts are harder to ascertain, or an opponent is not there to point out the fallacy, this can be more insidious. Tom could make the claim, “State funding of dog shelters has proven to be essential. If you like dogs, why wouldn’t you believe in this?”
The reasoning becomes circular. If you like dogs, you’ll want to have state funded dog shelters, because people who like dogs support state funded dog shelters, and you said you liked dogs, didn’t you?
Hopefully, working though the above has not made your head hurt. But, don’t worry. With nine months of debates, 24-hour news, political conventions, and endless speeches coming down the chute, your head is bound to hurt at some point.
Keeping in mind these tricks, and looking for others because this is not an exhaustive list, should help you make better candidate and issue decisions. It takes work to be a good citizen. That’s part of the price we pay to be free.