A GREAT deal of what passes for serious political discussion these days is plain old textbook-variety fallacious reasoning. Of course, the commission of logical fallacies occurs across the political spectrum, among liberals no less than conservatives. But the art of fallacious persuasion seems to have reached new heights in the realm of that recently rejuvenated medium - talk radio. Here the voice of Rush Limbaugh holds sway.
Rush is not unique in logical sin. Most of us commit fallacies (though not quite with Mr. Limbaugh's prolificacy). But with a weekly media audience of tens of millions (''dittoheads,'' as they are known), Limbaugh has the potential for enormous political influence. It's obviously desirable that he be held to the highest standards of reason.
In ''Logic and Mr. Limbaugh: A Dittohead's Guide to Fallacious Reasoning,'' I take Rush to task for more than a little sloppy thinking, and I try to impart a few lessons in the avoidance of logical legerdemain. Rush is not always wrong, of course. But he's not ''documented to be right 97.9 percent of the time'' (as he likes to say) either. Below, I offer a few modest examples - just for entertainment, of course.
Here's Limbaugh attacking Vice President Al Gore on the environment. This example provides a nice illustration of Limbaugh's stock in trade - the ad hominem (against the person) fallacy:
''There is something intrinsically anti-American about the way [Gore] flagellates the US over its environmental policies. He writes that cultures are like families, and 'our civilization must be considered in some ways dysfunctional [because of its brutal assault on nature] ....' This from a guy who gets lost hiking in a park with the Secret Service!''
There is Limbaugh levity here. But let's not lose sight of the logical thrust of the passage. Rush is using Gore's apparent ineptitude in the woods as a means of discrediting the vice president's theory about our civilization. The argument may be represented as: Gore says our civilization must be considered dysfunctional in its treatment of the environment. But he got lost hiking in a park. Therefore, we can dismiss his view that our civilization is dysfunctional (implied).
The attack on Gore, even if true, is irrelevant to the main point - Gore's ideas and arguments about our allegedly dysfunctional civilization.
(Note well, dittoheads, that the ad hominem fallacy is not simply a personal attack, as Limbaugh seems to think. It is an attack that, even if true, is irrelevant. If I argue that Joe Smith is dishonest because he cheats on his income tax, there is a personal attack but no ad hominem fallacy. But if I try to discredit Mr. Smith's ideas about, say, reducing the deficit by saying he cheats on his wife, I commit the ad hominem fallacy.)
Animals and kindness
Rush doesn't think much of the animal-rights movement. Here he argues that animals don't have a right to kindness:
''One woman called my show to protest that animals do at least have one right: to kindness. I told her she was mistaken. Look at what they do to each other. They tear each other limb from limb.''
He is arguing that animals don't have a right to kindness because of the way they behave toward one another: Animals tear each other limb from limb. Therefore, animals do not have a right to kindness.
There are two serious errors here. First, we have an unwarranted premise. Many animals don't tear each other limb from limb. Second, once again Rush offers a non sequitur. Even if all animals did tear each other limb from limb, it would not follow that they have no right to kindness. After all, some humans brutalize others, yet we don't on that account deny all humans a right to kindness (understood at least as a right against cruel treatment). And even if we decide that extremely mean people should not have such a right, surely we don't want to deny the right to those who can't be held morally responsible for their actions - animals, for instance. The question of a right to kindness in these cases has nothing to do with intellect or behavior but with the individual's or animal's capacity to suffer.
One of Limbaugh's hugest howlers is his ''proof'' of the absence of a causal connection between poverty and crime:
''Let me posit two facts that prove conclusively that there is no direct causal connection between poverty and crime: 1) Most poor people never resort to crime; and 2) even some wealthy people commit evil acts to enrich themselves further.''
The reasoning here is simple:
Most poor people don't commit crimes. Some rich people do. Therefore, poverty doesn't directly cause crime.
We don't have to take a position on whether poverty causes crime to see that Rush's ''proof'' is fallacious. We can illustrate his error with an analogous ''proof'' of our own:
Most people with bullet wounds do not die. Some people without bullet wounds do die. Therefore bullet wounds are not a direct cause of death.
Both of the above arguments have true premises leading to a false conclusion (always a sure sign of invalid reasoning).
A dittohead might reply that Rush only means to deny direct causation between poverty and crime; that is, poverty does not always (invariably) result in crime. In this sense of ''cause,'' it's true that poverty does not cause crime. (I now hear applause for Rush. But do read on - there's an important logical point yet to be made.)
Unfortunately, this sense of ''cause'' (invariable cause) is not what social scientists mean when they ask if poverty causes crime. They are primarily concerned with cause in a statistical sense. This is the sense in which, for example, smoking is said to cause cancer.
So if Rush is using ''cause'' to mean invariable cause, his conclusion follows, but it's irrelevant to whether poverty causes crime in the statistical sense that is at issue in social sciences and public policy. This makes his argument a fallacy of irrelevant conclusion. He also misrepresents his opponent's position: Nobody - neither liberals nor conservatives - holds that poverty invariably results in crime. This is the straw man fallacy.
Many Americans admire Rush Limbaugh for his war on ''political correctness.'' No doubt there is much to admire, depending on your politics. Logical correctness, however, is a very different matter. There is, after all, only one logic, and its principles must be obeyed by conservatives and liberals alike. Otherwise, the quality of our national dialogue will continue to decline.