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Logical Fallacies in Politics

June 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I am still seeing two issues come across the news and social media quite a bit in regards to Minnesota politics. One is the lack of a budget (vetoed by Gov. Dayton)/upcoming special session/tax rates. The other is the gay marriage amendment. My idea here today is to show how rampant the use of logical fallacies in defending each side, and to give a lesson on common logical fallacies so we can all spot them and make more informed decisions.

One of my favorite podcasts is The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Their website carries a great explanation on what is a logical fallacy:

All arguments have the same basic structure: A therefore B. They begin with one or more premises (A), which is a fact or assumption upon which the argument is based. They then apply a logical principle (therefore) to arrive at a conclusion (B). An example of a logical principle is that of equivalence. For example, if you begin with the premises that A=B and B=C, you can apply the logical principle of equivalence to conclude that A=C. A logical fallacy is a false or incorrect logical principle. An argument that is based upon a logical fallacy is therefore not valid. It is important to note that if the logic of an argument is valid then the conclusion must also be valid, which means that if the premises are all true then the conclusion must also be true. Valid logic applied to one or more false premises, however, leads to an invalid argument. Also, if an argument is not valid the conclusion may, by chance, still be true.

Most of us will be guilty of using logical fallacies often. I am guilty of it myself, but for most of us it is done by accident. It takes reflection and discussion to uncover the fallacies and form a more sound, logical argument. Politicians are guilty of using logical fallacies purposely to advance their personal or party views.

Here is an egregious logic fallacy committed by AFSCME. The key statement here is this:

The Republican majorities are choosing to protect the richest 2 percent. They’re making sure these households – making $300,000 or more – don’t have to do their share to fix the state’s budget problems.

This claim falls under a few different categories. The first would be a False Dilemma. AFSCME’s assumption here is the only way to solve the state’s budget problems is to raise taxes on the rich. I haven’t looked at the budget in detail, but my understanding is the budget vetoed by Gov. Dayton was roughly a 6% increase in spending (with no tax increases). According to the BLS, inflation from 2010 was under 3%. If inflation stays at the same pace, then the 6% increase in dollars is a true increase in spending as well since the extra dollars should be able to buy more even when considering inflation. So is the state’s budget truly dire when we can increase spending without a tax increase? Yes, I know this could be construed as it’s own logical fallacy since government is only one sector of the economy and it is possible inflation in those sectors is much higher. The counter-argument to that is to then ask why is inflation higher in those sectors since the government is so heavily invested in those certain sectors of the economy, it could be partially due to their own doing.

The second fallacy of AFSCME’s statement is an example of an Appeal to Emotion, more specifically an Appeal to Spite. Saying the GOP is “protecting” the rich is a way of inciting an emotional class warfare. These people have way more than most people, and that “isn’t fair.” You could even say this is an Ad Hominem attack, saying the GOP’s position is wrong simply because they are protecting those people which most people hate.

Finally, AFSCME uses an Appeal to Belief that the rich don’t pay a fair share of taxes. Statistics on the federal level are readily available and reported. The top 1% of income earners pay 40% of federal income taxes and the top 5% of income earners pay 60% of federal income tax. The democrats want to tax the top 2% of Minnesota incomes on the premise that they don’t pay enough. Think of an analogous situation: If 100 people are in a bar and in total ring up a $5000 bar tab. 1 person in the bar pays $2000, 4 more people pay another $1000, leaving the rest of the people in the bar to pay just over $21, even though the average bar bill was $50. Did the first 5 people pay their fair share? Let’s say they each drove away in a Bentley, would you then feel cheated by how much of the bar bill they paid? Maybe you could make a moral argument that they should pay more, but claiming they didn’t even pay a fair share is simply a bad conclusion.

In the gay marriage amendment debate, I have heard 2 arguments for passing a gay marriage ban. The first one is the idea that being homosexual is biologically unnatural because it doesn’t lead to procreation and that it would be like saying “sand is food.” Human psychology and physiology is much more complex than simple procreation. While it is true that humans are animals and sex is mostly about procreation, Wikipedia has a great summary showing examples in other animals where sex is more than just a mechanism for procreation. To get very basic, it is unnatural for human males to be with only one partner in marriage. In many large mammal species, the biggest and strongest males get to breed with several females to best ensure the survival of the species. Another example where we go “against biology” is when men shave their face or women shave their legs. Biology intended that hair to be for warmth and protection. Should we ban shaving too because it is “biologically unnatural?”

Yes, that last question is a Straw Man argument, but I was employing it in this case as an exaggeration to prove a point that the “sand is food” argument is also the same type of argument. Homosexuality isn’t a biological “wrong” and cannot be explained that way. There are layers of biology, psychology, and other reasons beyond a simple “yes or no” explanation. So the “sand is food” argument doesn’t prove anything.

The other argument used is the past history of voting on this issue in the U.S. I haven’t looked at each vote and what was specifically addressed, but the claim is 34 votes banning gay marriage have taken place and all have had the outcome of supporting a ban. This is wrong based on both the Appeal to Popularity fallacy, as well as the Appeal to Common Practice fallacy. This is easy to explain. I am sure everyone remembers a parent saying to you, “If friend A and B jump off a bridge, are you going to as well?” Just because something is popular or has always been done doesn’t automatically make the position or action correct.

Both major parties are horrible at explaining their logic and presenting evidence for their positions on issues. Most usually want to ignore past data to support an idealistic position that is popular. For example, raising taxes on the rich sounds like a great idea in theory, but it never comes out in practice because we ignore the fact people will adjust their behavior to derive maximum benefit for the amount of work they do. It is human nature. If we taxed every dollar above $1 million at 95%, do you think many people are going to work much past that $1 million mark? Stated another way, if I make $1 million for working 6 months out of the year and make $2 million if I work 12 months, but I keep $500,000 if I work 6 months and keep $550,000 to work 12 months, how many months do you think I am going to work?

My example above doesn’t mean a tax increase isn’t warranted in this budget cycle. Maybe it does need to be part of the solution. But to say tax increases on the rich are always justified is wrong. It is also wrong to assume raising taxes will raise the revenue needed to solve the budget concerns.

If the GOP gets its budget passed in Minnesota, it does look like some people are going to lose their access to the social programs they rely on. That could affect them negatively in the short-term. However, we can’t simply look at the first layer of the consequences in a government policy and make our political decisions based on those outcomes. Taxing the rich gains us money in the short-term, but what if that change prompts a corporation to relocate? What if the rich work less or change their investments and the revenue doesn’t pan out to the projected amounts? What if a person dies due to lack of coverage?

As callous as it sounds, we do have to look at the cost/benefit in these decisions. People die more often because of the 70 MPH speed limit on the interstates in Minnesota than they would if the speed limit were 40 MPH. The higher speed limit saves everyone time (and time is money), thus costing less to transport goods, giving us more time for production, etc. We have chosen to set the speed limit at a reasonable human cost in balance with our own financial interest. Most insurance policies have a co-pay to prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor. Maybe someone skips going to the doctor because they think they just have a mild flu (rather than pay the $20) and end up dying when their infection quickly worsens. (Yes, this is more anecdotal because it is harder to quantify scientifically, but I thought it made some sense to discuss here).

Hopefully you are still reading and didn’t get too bored with some basic insights on logic. My point is to stress the importance of analyzing your political positions carefully, especially if you are perfectly aligned with the ideals of a particular political party. Be especially wary if your party or candidate uses an Ad Hominem Tu Quoque attack, where the attack is simply based on the fact the opponent changed their mind. Use your mind, think logically, discuss with a measured reason, and don’t be afraid to change your mind.

The importance of language and logic in political debate.

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Normally when I get fired up about some political topic, it is because of some news story on an issue or some misunderstanding of an issue I see people having in their conversations. However, tonight what has me thinking is the importance of language or word choice. I am in no way claiming I am a spectacular writer or a master of the English language. My issue is when people have time to think about their choice of language and do not choose to correct it, or when someone wants to attack another based on their choice of language without giving them time to correct it.

Note: There are those that have said I tend to be one-sided. While it is true I have a tendency to support Republican policy when it comes to taxes and economic policy, I don’t consider myself Republican. Tonight, I am going to try to show some language concerns from both sides along with a little bit of logic mixed in to address the policies themselves.

Here’s a tweet from a liberal blogger:

Where is the shared sacrifice? Other than all the poor, kids, elderly, mentally & vets get to sacrifice so richest 5% don’t

What bothered me about this tweet was the word sacrifice. To say the groups mentioned in tweet are sacrificing something is wrong. You can’t sacrifice something that is not yours. If you are receiving government aid, and the government sends you less, that is not a sacrifice on your part. A sacrifice would involve voluntarily giving up something which belongs to you. The other side of this is the idea that taxing the rich is somehow a sacrifice. The government takes money through the power of force. If you don’t pay your taxes, they can take your wages or put you in prison. Taxation is not sacrifice. Keep in mind the top 5% of income earners pay 60% of all taxes on the federal level. The bottom 50% of income earners pay no federal taxes.

We could encourage the rich to “pay more” by giving them a reason to do so. Right now because of the AMT, high income people do not get to write off all of their donations to non-profit organization. If we could write a smart tax policy (so they can’t donate to their own charity for example), we could get high income people to give more to those in need, and we cut out the government “middle-man.” That’s a win-win in my opinion.

I think the government should be the one looking at sacrifice. We are spending billions of dollars on rail projects that have yet to prove any decrease in congestion. We bailed out corporations instead of letting them fail and allowing those jobs, products, and services to go to other more successful and efficient companies. The government needs to sacrifice its unlimited spending for political gain and instead find ways to better use the money we give them. Cutting veterans’ benefits over light rail? Energy tax credits over education? We need to stop pleasing everyone and instead get the government doing the most vital things. Let’s make a list of priorities and stick to it. You can’t tax everyone 100%, so let’s agree we pay enough and instead focus on the important thing.

A more controversial topic is the one of the gay marriage amendment proposed in Minnesota. Conservatives say they are ensuring they “defend marriage.” As several liberal blogs have pointed out, many of these legislators are themselves divorced. If marriage is so sacred and in need of protection, then perhaps they should have spent more time making a good decision on getting married and they should have also worked harder to defend their own marriage.

Republicans have failed on a couple of areas of logic here. First is the political play they are making to play to their voter base as some conservative political analysts have said. I for one, along with groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans or the or the Gay Patriot Blog, understand that true conservatism means we stay out of people’s lives, bedrooms, pockets, and everything else. Government isn’t there to rule over us, they are there to make sure our rights are protected.

There is also a case to be made that this is a religious intrusion into our personal lives. If you really look at the way marriage is treated in law, it is a standard contract as dictated by law that is between two individuals. A person can only be in one contract at any time, and the way to terminate the contract is also done in a certain set manner. We allow religious figures to execute the contract as well as certain government officials. The only case that conservatives can make on this issue is a religious objection.

When our Constitution was passed, many of these individual rights were somewhat assumed within the common law procedures already in place. The argument against the Bill of Rights was that the Constitution was meant to enumerate powers to the federal government, with all other powers and rights being delegated to state governments or to individuals. Others felt that individual rights needed enumeration to ensure the most vital ones would never be encroached by any government within the United States. The preamble to the Bill of Rights states:

The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

The very first issue raised in the first amendment is religion:

 Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

So, if a religion feels that gay marriage is OK, is it not in violation of the “free exercise” clause? The counter-argument is one of polygamy. Some religions support polygamy, so should we allow that free practice as well? Here’s where it gets tricky. The government is set up for monogamous marriages only. If you want to be married to multiple people within your religion, that is not the government’s business. However, if you want your marriage contract to be legally recognized by the state, you need to pick which partner with which you will execute that contract. The rest of your partners will be without that contractual protection. It might not fit all religious beliefs, but by allowing any two people to be in a marriage contract it is applying the law equally. That is the essence of the Constitution – fairness.

The other logic this issue fails is the level of importance. Certainly there are people on both sides that are very passionate about this issue. But as we see above, we have a crisis of spending. In Minnesota, we are bound by our Constitution to have a balanced budget so we are not in as much danger. But at the federal level (bold for emphasis) – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone pay out more than the entire federal government take in starting this year. We have much more pressing issues on finding a way to take care of our elderly, our military veterans, our roads and bridges, and other vital government functions to be worried about gay marriage. It just doesn’t belong on our radar at this point when these other issues haven’t been addressed.

Language and logic seem to be lost on the political parties when it comes to the issues. I am at a loss as to how to get the political system changed so we can have real conversation instead of gaming and misusing the language for political gain. I am unsure how to get my representatives to understand logic. I’m also unsure how to get the political extremists to do the same. Until we get back to a certain level of honesty, respect, and logic, I only see a continued regression of our government.

Birds falling from the sky does not mean the end of the world.

January 5, 2011 1 comment

After seeing today’s news, I thought it would be a good time to get something up on the web to debunk some of these crazy people.  Some of you may have heard of the birds dying in Arkansas and Louisiana, or more recently in Sweden. There have also been large fish deaths in various areas around the U.S.

Crazy people say it “is a sign from god” or that “the end of the world is near.” Other different crazy people claim the government is poisoning us and the death of a U.S. official is proof of such a claim.

The first premise is pretty easy. An all-powerful god is going to kill a few of the millions of birds and fish as a way of communicating? Alfred Hitchcock must therefore be god. (That was sarcasm if you didn’t notice)

The more complex scenario is the government conspiracy theory. Because of the way probability works, there isn’t a way to 100% rule out that there is some secret government entity involved in these strange happenings. But with a little math, a little reading, and a little logic, you can be at ease that this was a natural, albeit unusual event.

Here’s a real basic summary of why large government conspiracies don’t work. Let’s say from top to bottom 200 people are needed to carry out such a mission of testing chemicals on the U.S. Further, let’s say that they are 99% likely they will keep quiet about such events. In such case, you take 0.99^200 = 13.4% chance that no one will talk. I think WikiLeaks has shown it is pretty hard to keep anyone quiet for long. Another example regarding JFK can be found here.

Tackling logic second brings us to the principle of Occam’s Razor. Again this is not definitive proof, but somewhat of a natural order that says that the “real” or “correct” theory tends towards the simpler ones. It is a delicate balance of leaving enough information to adequately explain the outcome of a scenario or hypothesis without unnecessary complexity. Some government conspiracies also fall under the argument from ignorance (Ad ignorantiam). This is the “well, prove me wrong” argument. Lack of evidence of non-existence does not logically make something exist.

Finally, reading about past events and talking to scientists will reveal much more likely scenarios. First, there was severe weather in Arkansas the day of the event. Secondly, it has been a very cold winter and could have caused too much stress on the birds. (see this link with a quote from a fiction book that talks about this type of phenomenon) These types of birds have poor night vision and usually roost at night, so if they were frightened by weather or fireworks as proposed, it is easy to imagine them running into power lines, houses, cars, etc. These birds are pretty fast, so imagine thousands of people riding their bikes in fog or rain without headlights at 20 mph and see how many would crash. There are other strange phenomenon of frogs and fish raining from the sky that can often come with a simpler explanation than the “end of days.”

So don’t believe the crazies such as those in this comment section or believe the government is secretly poisoning us. We may not get a definitive answer, or it could be multiple causes. We could also find out with good certainty what caused each of these events. Just know that it isn’t the end of days.