Saturday, July 29, 2006

Logical Fallacies, Part 4: Unequal Comparison

The unequal comparison inappropriately links unequal ideas. Such comparisons greatly compromise the credibility of the writer. The two examples below appeared in the writing of students in my writing seminars:

The Mayor’s social policies are no better than Hitler’s.

The manager’s attempt to reorganize our department is tantamount to a hostile takeover.

The first example likened an American mayor to a leader whose social policy called for genocide. No American mayor has such a draconian policy.

The second example is flawed in two ways:
  1. Since the manager already is an insider running the department, she should not be compared to an outsider attempting to acquire a company against the will of its staff, which is the definition of a hostile takeover.
  2. Reorganizing a department, even if it is against the staff’s will, does not share the magnitude of an organization-wide hostile takeover.

Once I pointed out the logical fallacies, the writers revised their sentences as follows:

The Mayor’s social policies are insensitive to the interests of the city’s minority groups.

The manager’s attempt to reorganize our department is rash because it contradicts our corporate mission and strays from the sound managerial approaches of other departments.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Logical Fallacies, Part 3: Ad Populum

An ad populum comment is an appeal to popularity, also known as bandwagoning. Using this line of reasoning alone rarely lacks validity. Examples:

Anyone who cares about freedom would vote for the libertarian candidate.

If you disagree with my position, then you are a racist (or ageist, classist, sexist, etc.).

When asserting a position to find the common ground or to discredit an opposing view, choose words and phrases carefully. The following sentences may be regarded as improvements of the previous examples:

Since the libertarian candidate bases her platform on individual freedom, a vote for her would signal your support of a less restrictive government.

How would you distance your position from the apartheid policies formerly practiced in the Republic of South Africa?

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Logical Fallacies, Part 2: Ad Hominem

Even if you are unfamiliar with the term ad hominem, you have read or heard examples of it countless times. The Latin term has come to mean an attack against a person to discredit that person’s argument. In politics, it is so commonplace that we have become numb to it—but many careful readers see through the weakness of the position and judge the attacker accordingly. Examples:

Since Aristotle had a low opinion of women, his philosophical theories are without merit.

No wonder the Mayor is opposed to tax credits for families—he is a bachelor.

The CEO does not have a religious affiliation; therefore, her opinion on our merger with XYZ Corporation must be flawed.
Of course, attacking a person to advance an argument is not always flawed. Here are some perfectly acceptable examples:

We should not leave decisions about how to best run our school in the hands of an inexperienced Student Council president.

Since Mr. Camilleri us a political pundit, I would not trust him to have the final say on issues of national defense.

Check for the ad hominem attack in your own position papers and proposals. Attack the position, not the person.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Logical Fallacies, Part 1: Straw Man

Establishing faulty assumptions, asserting opinions as facts, and drawing improper conclusions are colossal credibility killers. When I point them out to people who have committed them, they often confess to being unaware of the misstep or to having let their strong emotional attachment to the issue override their otherwise logical approach to argumentation.

As an example, below the writer interjects a straw man, an easily refutable argument which one attributes to an opponent who has not made that argument.

Since Mr. Vella is opposed to capital punishment, he clearly favors rewarding murderers by allowing them to live. This just goes to show that Mr. Vella cares more about murderers than their victims.

The straw man is only one of numerous persuasive missteps that muddle the meaning and heighten the hostility of what could otherwise be a principled argument. These rhetorical flaws fall under the broad category known as logical fallacies. They are often used, little understood, and easy to recognize and remedy. Since avoiding them in favor of sound argument is vital to excellent writing, they will be the topic of coming installments of WORDS ON THE LINE.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

E.G. or I.E.?

Writers tend to confuse the Latin abbreviations e.g. and i.e., so the request to distinguish between the two often pops up in my writing seminars. Here is a list of common questions and their answers to clarify the confusion.

Question: What do e.g. and i.e. mean?
Answer: e.g. stands for exempli gratia, or for example; i.e. stands for id est, or that is.

Question: Can I use e.g. and i.e. interchangeably?
Answer: No.

Question: When should I use e.g.?
Answer: Use e.g. to give an example of something you’ve just indicated. In the sentence below, the writer assumes that the reader would know that pens, pencils, and notebooks are only examples of a larger list of needed supplies.

Please bring the supplies (e.g., pens, pencils, notebooks).

Question: When should I use i.e.?
Answer: Use i.e. to provide an explanation of something you’ve just indicated. In the sentence below, the writer describes the complete list of needed books.

I need the books (i.e., dictionary, thesaurus, style manual).

Question: How should I punctuate e.g. and i.e.?
Answer: See the examples above. They appear in parentheses and have periods after each letter followed by a comma.

Question: Since Latin is a “dead” language, should I even use e.g. or i.e.?
Answer: Why not? We use other Latin terms. Many competent writers use them—writers who are far more skilled than the grammar police who discourage their use. So feel free to use e.g. and i.e. But use them correctly, because they are different, and use them sparingly, because overusing them could become an excuse for not writing clearly.

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