Falsehoods and fallacies

On New Years Day, Anne Mei and I flew to Denver to visit Laura’s brother Carl and his family.  On the plane I started to read Ben McIntyre’s Double-Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  He frames his story around a remark that Churchill made to Stalin at the Tehran Conference in November 1943, where they met with Roosevelt to discuss plans for the invasion of Europe, Churchill said: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

For obvious reasons I immediately associated this remark with the year that had just ended and with the year beginning that day.  I wondered whether the plethora of lies—by commission and omission, possible, partial, accused, proven, debated, doubted and denied—that fill our TV and computer screens, I wondered if they were a sign that we are really at war.  Some of the purveyors of these lies obviously consider themselves as warriors to change society or to protect society from other warriors.  But I wondered whether the situation has gone beyond personal or political motivations to a dynamic that may tear our community apart, even violently.

My first defense against this pessimistic line of thinking was that it is based on a logical mistake, affirming the consequent.

If we are at war, then we will tell lots of lies.
There are lots of lies going on.
Therefore, we are war.

As attractive as this argument might appear, it is not valid.  But then I realized that the antecedent condition in Churchill’s quip to Stalin was not a simple “we are at war.”  Rather it contained two conditions, which sometimes allow this kind of reasoning.

If we are at war and truth matters in war, then truth should be protected by hiding it behind lies.
Truth is being hidden by multiple lies.
Therefore, we are at war.

Ignoring the complication that this is a practical syllogism (“should”), the second statement affirms (part of) the antecedent condition, thus making the syllogism appear valid.  It’s still not.  The two conditions are not necessarily connected.  War is not the only time we tell lies to hide the truth.  Ask any cheating spouse.

My argument against where I fear lies are taking us fits C.L. Hamblin‘s classic definition of a fallacy as “an argument that seems valid but is not.”  Even a series of true statements can be fallacious if they don’t work as an argument, however emotionally appealing or apparently valid the argument may appear.  At the same time, there is a difference between a lie and a fallacy.  Hamblin explains that “someone who merely makes false statements, however absurd, is innocent of fallacy unless the statements constitute or express an argument.”

In our current environment this distinction tends to get forgotten.  We become obsessed with checking statements in isolation from the arguments in which they occur.  When we show that these isolated statements don’t fit the facts or the data, but people still don’t change their behavior, we get frustrated.  There must be something wrong with them.

The problem may lay more with the fact-checker, who’s missing the point, that is, not listening to the argument that some people are making and others are hearing.  Fact-checkers try to settle issues by stepping outside or above the discussion.  They take what Hamblin calls an “onlooker” approach.

Truth and validity are onlookers’ concepts and presuppose a God’s-eye-view of the arena. …. Used by participants in the argument, these terms cannot have the same function as for onlookers. And alternatively, if I as a former onlooker decide to intervene to give Smith the glad tidings that his argument is valid or Jones the news that his premisses are false, I am likely to find that I have become simply another participant in an enlarged dialectical situation and that the words ‘true’ and ‘valid’ have become, for me too, empty stylistic excrescences. To another onlooker, my statement that so-and-so is true is simply a statement of what I accept.

Lies matter when they are part of an argument to convince people to think and act in certain ways, to win an argument.  As MacIntyre relates some spies and double-agents fed lies to the German Abwehr, which missed, ignored, or otherwise failed to appreciate what they were being told.  The lies didn’t matter because the audience wasn’t listening to the would-be argument.

Same with fact-checking.  It is not an end in itself.  It has to be part of an argument in which the audience is engaged.  Some people in the media aspire to the role of ultimate arbiter of the Truth, as if anything were true outside of an argument for accepting it.  That puts the ball back in our court.  The truth is in our hands, not the hands of the powerful or the cognoscenti.

Where do dialectical rules derive their authority, and who enforces them? The answer to these questions is simple, if a little disquieting in its ultimate implications. Although there are special circumstances in which there may be a Chairman, a Judge, or others whose job it is to control proceedings, in ordinary discourse there is no such person. The control of each dialogue is in the hands of the participants themselves. (Hamblin)

Daniel José Camacho makes this point less abstractly in his recent blog post in The Christian Century, specifically that control of our dialogues does not remain automatically “in the hands of the participants themselves.”  Some people aspire not merely to the role of onlooking judge, but more to the one who makes truth through the exercise of power.  They must be resisted.

Hitler was a master in using lies to persuade people.  The long association of lying with the art of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, has given rhetoric a bad name.  The antidote to such rhetoric is not more rhetoric, nor even science or logic, but practical dialectic—engaging in argument and arguing about how to engage.  George Lakoff may not cite Hamblin, but his long-running critique of how progressives have let the right frame the arguments mirrors Hamblin’s insights.


  1. Taking up George Lakoff’s suggestion to keep reminding ourselves that Donald lost the popular vote and is a minority president, how about referring to him as “DLo” “the minident”?

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