Sunday, October 6, 2013

Logical Fallacies and the 9th Commandment

The most valuable course I took in my entire education was Introduction to Informal Logic. I took the class my second quarter of college simply because it fit in my schedule and didn't look horribly boring. I loved that class so much that I changed my minor to philosophy and almost decided to go on for a PhD in the subject.

When I taught freshman composition, I made sure to introduce my students to the logical fallacies so that they could identify and guard against them. They're pernicious and tend to crop up everywhere.While there are several logical fallacies, there is one in particular that I'm going to discuss today that is unbecoming a Christian.

That fallacy is the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy is where someone argues not against their opponents' position, but against a ridiculous, false, or weak characterization of their opponents' position. Wikipedia summarizes it nicely:
To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position. This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged, emotional issues. In those cases the false victory is often loudly or conspicuously celebrated.
Here is an example from real life:

True position: Feminists believe that men and women deserve an equal opportunity to develop and use their talents and gifts both inside and outside the home.
Straw man position: Feminists hate babies and want to become men.

See how they're not even remotely similar? But many people skip right over the true position and go knock down the straw man because addressing the true position is harder than defeating an argument that you made up yourself and that nobody actually subscribes to. It's bad logic.

It is also a sin.

The ninth commandment states "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Exodus 20:16. Going around misrepresenting your opponents' arguments in order to make them look bad is the very definition of bearing false witness. So, in the words of President Utchdorf, "Stop it."

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