Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Internet message boards have opened my eyes to a lot of things. One thing they've taught me is that I should avoid Internet message boards. I find them more addictive than any other stimulus I've ever encountered, and the effect they have on my ability to think clearly is profoundly negative.

Another thing, hopefully more important, that I've learned from these online repositories of e-blurting is that there is a shocking dearth of logic in our society. It has nothing to do with politics - you are as unlikely to run across a truly sound, reasoned argument on a Democratic message board as you are if you are perusing a Republican hangout.

Logic, it should be noted, has severe limitations. One of the more poorly understood lessons of Plato's Republic is that even a logically sound idea, extended far enough, becomes absurd, and the ability to tell when this is happening is a difficult capacity to acquire. Still, this doesn't mean we can abandon logic, and it certainly doesn't give us license to go around accepting and propagating known fallacies.

There are a few fallacies, I've found, that people are generally able to identify and deconstruct. The "straw man" fallacy is a technique that has become so common in arguments that many people are effectively inoculated against it. If you say, for example, that Saddam Hussein was no threat to the United States, and I say "So you're saying that we should have just let Saddam Hussein acquire nuclear weapons and destroy the earth" you probably aren't going to fall for that. If I can obfuscate my point by using a lot of flowery language, or by declining to mention who exactly I'm alleging made this statement (in a column, for instance) I might get away with it for a while, but you'll eventually figure it out and call me on my fallacious reasoning.

Sadly, the same is not true for other, equally common fallacies. In fact, there is one fallacy that has become so prevalent both in the major media and in smaller, more populist media such as message boards, that it has effectively paralyzed the discourse. This may seem like hyperbole, but it would be hard to overstate the seriousness of this problem. If you like, you can test it for yourself.

The next time you watch a news commentary program, look out for the "appeal to authority" fallacy, which is generally combined with a veiled "ad hominem" argument. If you don't like news programs, don't worry - you won't have to watch for long. This type of argument is virtually the only argument that anyone uses anymore. It's really quite shocking when you start to notice it; in fact, the technique so pervades our discourse that as you read this you may find yourself thinking "but how else would we discuss these things?" Indeed, that is the crucial question we must examine.

The key story in the news right now is the Paul O'Neill flap. There are basically two camps on the O'Neill question - one side thinks that O'Neill is a man of conscience who decided he had to speak out, and another who thinks he's a disgruntled former employee trying to stick it to his boss. Virtually all of the "debate" in the mainstream media has been on this question, with people bringing out arguments to support either position.

In reality, both arguments are fallacious. It matters not one little bit why O'Neill spoke out. What matters is whether what he said is factual, and then, more crucially, what conclusions we can draw from whatever facts he did expose. It's doubly amazing that O'Neill's new "retraction" is getting so much ink - he says now he never meant to imply that Bush was hell-bent on war with Saddam from Day One. Well, Paul, I hate to sound like Scottie Mac here, but who cares what you think? The facts O'Neill publicized are for us, the thinking public, to analyze. We have no obligation to accept O'Neill's interpretation just because he was the guy who requested the documents from the WH counsel.

When Laurie Mylroie's bogus "exposure" of Suskind's book as a hoax hit the Web early this week, DemocraticUnderground went crazy with people condemning her and calling her argument a crock of shit. That's fine, really - her argument WAS a crock of shit, after all. But what was really remarkable was that ZERO people on the message board identified the actual logical fallacy in Mylroie's email - a completely unvarnished "false comparison" in which she equated Saudi Arabia and UAE (two staunch U.S. allies) with Iraq (an official enemy.)

This is not because people on DemocraticUnderground are stupid. It is also NOT - repeat, NOT - because no one who read the threads in question understands elementary logic. But our discourse has become so polluted that in a way, reasoned arguments seem out of place, and it can be difficult to even formulate such thoughts, much less express them. It is all too easy to get caught up in the Personality Wars, tearing down authority figures who say things we don't like, and cheering the ones who say things we do like.

If you are interested in this phenomenon, here's your assignment for this weekend - watch a Sunday talk show, one of the round-table discussions with five or six panelists. Watch for someone to try to move the discourse toward some logical or factual endeavor, such as an analysis of whether a certain politician's statement is actually true. This time you have to watch closely, but this will normally happen once or twice in a half-hour show. Within two seconds of the beginning of such an effort, another panelist will interrupt the speaker and make an "ad hominem" argument, which will likely be followed by an appeal to authority.

It's quite fascinating to watch.

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