Duck Soup: Fallacy Fells Masked Crusader

"It is better to remain silent and have people think you a fool than to open your mouth and prove it." That is excellent advice which those of us who publicly commentate utterly ignore. We are more in the way of volunteer clay pigeons, repeatedly flinging our thoughts and ourselves into the line of fire.It may be hard to believe, but once in a while the critics who take pot shots at we commentators hit their mark. My latest come-uppance could be loosely translated to mean, "Bothwell, you are out of your ever-lovin' mind." Being a judicious and reasonable person I quickly decided to ignore my critic. I mean, who is the commentator here, hmmmm? It took a little longer for the fact that she was right to wiggle its way into what passes for my thinking process. But even that was not enough to force me into the following public display of abject contrition. No. It took painful high school memories and the high falutin' language of ancient Rome to bring me around. "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc."That may sound like it should be the fine print on a pawn ticket -- some sort of a warning to abandon hope of ever buying back your grandad's watch -- but it is far more significant. It is a warning to the unwise about the hazards of sophomoric logic. It describes the fallacy of assuming that because one thing follows another it was caused by the other. My favorite chemistry teacher once shot me down with this Latin coup de grace. "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc." After this, therefore because of this. An example would be the argument that because human beings appear to have climbed above other earthlings on the evolutionary ladder, we are the immutable crown of creation. Philosophic Tyrannosaurs probably bought that one too. Sic transit, Rex baby.Some weeks ago, the subject of my scorn was our county library computer catalogue. I was unable to find books on the shelf which the computer thought were there and vice versa and only received one quarter of the books I requested from other branch libraries. What I did not know was that the situation used to be much "worse." However, in the past the missing books and missing cards were not visible to the public. They were the librarians' little secret. Now, although the situation has greatly improved, it is viewable by all via computer. So what I perceived as a failure is actually a resounding success.To top it off I asserted that librarians liked the old system better. Well, I blew that one too. Back when the new system was starting up I heard from a few of them that they preferred the old methods. Now the consensus seems to be that the new scheme is far superior. In this case I witnessed the resistance to change that many people feel when the tried and true is exchanged for the novel, and I assumed that they were reacting to the new system rather than to the newness itself. I crawled out on a weak logical limb and my friendly critic cheerfully sawed it clean off the tree.More recently I advocated major tax relief for farmers to encourage them to reject commercial development. On this subject my great idea turned out to be old news. In several regions around the country Land Trusts have been developed which buy out farms with the provision that the farmer and his heirs can continue to farm the land in perpetuity, even sell the buildings and equipment. But the land will never be turned into shopping centers and ranchettes.It is very easy to hold strong opinions. It is considerably more difficult to hold strong opinions that hold water. If there is any value in commentary on the air or in print, it lies here. Writers and readers, listeners and commentators, duel and dance with ideas. We agree and understand better why we agree, or disagree and bolster the underpinnings of our doubts. We learn from ourselves and each other.Every once in a while we even learn that we are wrong.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close