Less than five minutes into last night's presidential debate, John McCain started talking about a man he called "Joe the Plumber," who didn't think he would benefit from Barack Obama's tax plan.
And Kevin Heron, a senior at McDaniel College, began scrawling on his bingo card. He was among 50 students playing "Debate Fallacy Bingo" - a game devised by McDaniel professors to show how the candidates' arguments often fail basic tests of logic. Each student had a bingo card, and each box contained a type of logical fallacy.
Heron wrote "Joe the Plumber" in the box marked, "Appeal to authority: fake expert." As McCain continued, Professor Anne Nester shouted out, "Whoa! Class warfare! Anybody got dysphemism? Yield to fear, anyone?"
While most viewers of the debates this fall have listened for how the candidates would fix the economy or end the war in Iraq, students at McDaniel College in Westminster have focused on the arguments themselves, looking for red herrings, loaded language, hyperbole, smoke screens and innuendo.
"This is the only time of year when the American obsession is rhetoric and reasoning, so we're trying to work off that and have students look at this stuff critically," said Peter Bradley, an assistant philosophy professor who created the bingo game with Nester, an adjunct professor. Bradley has always shown presidential debates in his critical thinking classes, but he saw the bingo game as a way to further engage students.
When McCain said the voter registration group ACORN was "destroying the fabric of democracy," a student cried out, "Slippery slope!"
Nester added, "Hyperbole!"
"Not only are we listening to the debate, but you get a mini-lesson at the same time and you see how much of persuasive argument is made up of bull crap," said Heron, 21, of Frederick. He supports Obama and says the bingo games have reinforced that by highlighting Obama's clear thinking.
Obama is a careful speaker and not as prone to fallacy, Nester said. But still, he said, the Illinois senator's claim that 100 percent of McCain's ads have been negative could be hyperbole, while the Democrat's suggestion that the U.S. should lead the way in fuel-efficient cars was an "appeal to shame."
McCain's invocation of running mate Sarah Palin's concern for special-needs families prompted Heron to cross off the "Appeal to emotion: kindness" box on his card. And just 30 minutes into last night's debate, he had already scored a bingo and earned one of the prizes - a bag of M&Ms.;
Bingos haven't been hard to come by this fall. Bradley said Palin has been a gift to anyone looking for logical fallacies in arguments. But he's nonpartisan in his approach: "Some could say the entire Democratic campaign platform is guilt by association," he said, referring to the party's tactic of linking McCain with the policies of President Bush.
In an earlier debate, Obama said McCain voted for "three George Bush budgets." Obama was also guilty of using a straw man argument - attributing to your opponent an oversimplified and easy-to-defeat view - when he said McCain believed that "if we remove all regulation, prosperity will just rain down."
For his part, McCain has used hyperbole, saying that America is "the greatest force for good in the entire history of the world." And he used "appeal to emotion: friendship" in his repeated use of the phrase "my friends" at the Town Hall debate.
No surprise, then, that Heron had crossed off every box on his card by the end of the night.