I also believed that a democracy needed an informed citizenry, and I believed that America had the world’s most viable democracy because our citizens strived to be politically informed.
I learned years ago that I was wrong. Fact, logic and reason do not play much of a role in the political decisions of most Americans. Too many of us are misinformed or uninformed or ill-informed, or all three. Too many have become intellectually lazy when it comes to politics.
One result of this malady is that we fail to put politicians — those who make important decisions about our individual lives, the nation and the rest of the world — to the rigorous test of truth. Too many have learned to be comfortable with the blatant lies and rhetorical tricks of our leaders and would-be leaders.
I know I am spitting in the wind, but I want voters who watch the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday night to set aside their emotions and listen for the logic in the candidates’ arguments. Try to detect logical fallacies and when the candidates fail to use sound reasoning.
Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of logical fallacies are intentional. They are honed by highly paid speechwriters. The candidates cynically believe fallacious arguments will be effective and win votes.
Below are a few fallacies to listen for as the candidates spar this week. My major source is “The Bedford Handbook for Writers,” Fourth Edition, by Diana Hacker:
* Hasty generalization: a conclusion drawn from insufficient or unrepresentative evidence that uses words such as never, every, always and all. A stereotype, often derogatory, is a hasty generalization. Obama suggested, for example, that rural Americans cling to their guns and religion. Romney described Obama supporters as people dependent on government largesse who see themselves as victims.
* Non sequitur: a conclusion that does not follow from what has been asserted or is derived from irrelevant information. Example: Romney is a Mormon; therefore, the White House will be run in Salt Lake City.
* False analogy: a comparison between two basically dissimilar things. Here is one we regularly hear: A person who has headed a successful multibillion-dollar private company is qualified to be president of the United States. Yes, both jobs require being in charge and making big decisions, but many of the challenges the president of a company faces are nothing like those the president of the world’s lone superpower faces.
* Either/or fallacy: the assertion that there are only two alternatives when there actually are more. How often have you heard that if you don’t finish college, you won’t get a good job? Tell that to the dropouts making millions of dollars with the clever mobile apps they are producing. The truth is that many occupations do not require one day of college.
* Faulty cause-and-effect reasoning: the assumption that because one thing follows another, the second is the direct result of the first. This is a leap to an unverifiable conclusion. Example: Unemployment has dropped in Florida since Rick Scott became governor.
“Clearly, the governor knows how to produce jobs,” his spokeswoman says. Not so fast. Unemployment numbers may have dropped because officials do not count people who stopped looking for jobs. The reason also could be that the tourist season, which requires many workers, is kicking off as it always kicks off this time of year. Did the governor’s policies have anything to do with this natural cycle?
n Appeals to emotion: An attempt to win sympathy instead of intelligent agreement. How many times have we heard a candidate implore us to vote for him because he hails, say, from coal-mining roots in rural West Virginia? His father died of black lung mere days before his son became a cadet at West Point. Ad hominem, Latin for “to the man,” is an appeal to emotion. Here, you attack the man (“He’s a Muslim”) instead of logically refuting his stance on the issue.
From now until Nov. 6, we will be bombarded with exaggeration, lies, mudslinging and every other rhetorical device as the candidates vie for the White House. I believe we have a duty as voters to pay close attention to the logic of what Romney and Obama utter on the stump and during the debates.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.