Logical fallacies in the news: the facts


A series, by Morgan Welch

During the 2012 election season, a pollster for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said, in response to criticisms that ads attacking President Obama’s welfare policy had no basis in fact, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

People will believe what they like, but it’s still surprising when someone essentially comes right out and says “MY ARGUMENT IS RIGHT EVEN IF IT HAS NO BASIS IN FACT.” More commonly, people back up their points with logic and reason of some kind—although there are still elected officials out there that couldn’t pass a Logic 101 class if their lives depended on it.

Informational site Rational Wiki has an entire page listing common logical fallacies; 429Magazine is presenting a short series of articles on the topic, highlighting a select number of fallacies with examples from recent news stories.

Argumentum ex culo: just plain making things up.

Using Pat Robertson as an example may be like shooting fish in a barrel (this entire series could be written with “arguments” he’s used), but a statement he made on August 27, 2013 was mind-boggling even for him; on his show The 700 Club, he claimed that gay men in San Francisco are deliberately spreading AIDS via… handshakes and a “special ring.”

He told his co-host on the show, “if they got the stuff [HIV/AIDS] they’ll have a ring, you shake hands, and the ring’s got a little thing where you cut your finger. Really. It’s that kind of vicious stuff, which would be the equivalent of murder,” he said, according to Gay Star News.

Later that same day, Robertson defended himself to the Atlantic, claiming that he was told by security guards in San Francisco that “AIDS-infested activists” were “deliberately trying to infect people like me by virtue of rings which would cut fingers and transfer blood.”

It is entirely possible Robertson believes the story himself (after all, it would mean the evil homos are out to kill righteous people like him because… the gay agenda/AIDS conspiracy demands it?), but even if someone did indeed tell him that at an unspecified point in time in the Gay Mecca, that fact that he felt it was believable, at least in part due to the story being told by a security guard, illustrates another logic fallacy:

Argumentum ad verecundiam: the appeal to authority; because if a person in a position of power believes something, then it must be true.

Being a security guard does likely mean seeing more assaults than the average person, but unless the supposed source of the “special ring” story has personally confiscated multiple rings dripping with blood from HIV-positive AIDS activists (and can magically tell someone’s status by looking), their job title has little or nothing to do with their credibility.

A story told by a local may have some merit—they live here, therefore they probably have some idea what’s going on—but then again, a local will also be exposed to the area rumor mill, and may or may not have the critical thinking skills, curiosity, or resources to know for certain what is and is not true.

The topic of LGBT people in the military, even after the strikedown of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, remains a hot one—and prone to some especially inane arguments. Societal acceptance of the LGBT community has come far enough along so that people can’t just say “gay people aren’t fit to serve” without explaining why. This leads to another common logic fail:

Overgeneralization: taking a condition that applies to part of a group and calling it a general rule regarding the entire group, with no regard as to accuracy.

It’s a sad fact that yes, sexually active gay men are generally considered at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. However, not every gay, bisexual, pansexual, or otherwise not-straight man is sexually active, many of those that are do use protection, and some actually are in monogamous, faithful relationships.

In 2008, the President of the Center for Military Readiness, Elaine Donnelly, testified at a hearing held by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel that having gay soldiers would only mean having HIV-positive troops that were too sick to actually serve: “Given the officially recognized correlation between homosexual conduct and HIV infection, it is reasonable to expect that repeal of the law could increase the number of troops who require medical benefits for many years but cannot be deployed.”

With that logic, as Congressman Vic Snyder pointed out at the same hearing, “we ought to recruit only lesbians… because they have the lowest incidence of HIV in the country.” For that matter, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also identified the African-American community as being at high risk for the disease, should blacks be banned from the military?

Rational Wiki’s full list of common logical fallacies can be found here; a similar one on Wikipedia is here.



Homophobic Bingo

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Just another multi-disciplinary writer and bundle of contradictions trying to figure out how to get the most out of life, and make a living while I'm at it.

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