Critics of the Trump administration contend that it has undermined education. If college students are a reliable indicator, maybe we critics are mistaken. This past semester, for example, students in my logic course completed a project in which they had to identify 10 cases of faulty reasoning — called fallacies or pseudo-reasons — found in the current news, instances in which people present irrelevant or distorted points to “support” their views rather than offer pertinent facts or coherent reasons.
The personal attack (ad hominem for those who like the Latin name) is one of the most widely used fallacies. It focuses on the individual’s character or circumstances while ignoring his or her thinking. Most of us resort to this fallacy at times. The president embraces it daily, whether calling war prisoners losers or belittling women’s looks.
This fallacy was too easy for students to catch, so they scouted for others and found begging the question (petitio principii) or circular reasoning. Children often resort to this, such as telling their parents they believe the kid next door “is bad, because he’s not very good.” One student recognized this fallacy when during a press conference President Trump insightfully explained, “The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”
Amid the legal investigations of various personnel associated with Mr. Trump’s campaign or inner circle, a frequent defense is the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy (tu quoque, or in vernacular terms, “you did it too!”). Rather than support their innocence with evidence and solid reasons, they counter that Hillary Clinton did much worse with her e-mail mishaps; or, President Bill Clinton’s mistresses were no different than President Trump’s extramarital peccadilloes before he ran for office.
Several students caught White House officials in “straw man” fallacies. They occur when people grossly distort another’s position, thus making it easier to mock or reject. Defending Mr. Trump over his denials of human induced climate change, adviser Anthony Scaramucci claimed that the notion of global warming resembled those outdated beliefs that the earth is flat or the center of the solar system. Just as scientists refuted those beliefs, so too will they refute claims about climate change.
This fallacy overlaps with the numerous “red herring” fallacies the White House raises to distract reporters and citizens from a central theme. When asked about school violence and mass shootings, Mr. Trump avoids the topic of the availability of military-like guns and instead distracts his audience by citing the “level of violence on video games,” which he says “is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” Students have fun with this fallacy, as they have played violent video games since childhood and somehow reached college without massacring anyone.
Finally, to wrap up this brief lesson, there is the false dilemma (also called either/or) fallacy. It hinges on distorting or ignoring third or fourth plausible options. A child does this when insisting on having pizza or hot dogs for lunch. A responsible parent reminds the child of other options. According to several students, President Trump’s campaign began with a false dilemma: Either build a wall or Americans will soon have Mexican rapists, gangsters and drug-dealers invading their neighborhoods. As if talking to a child, students point out that there are other reasonable options.
Fallacies can be effective forms of persuasion because they frequently appeal to our emotions. Yet the president’s habitual use of them is striking, as today’s students readily attest.
And in that, he has performed a service: He has given students an opportunity to develop and hone their skills in critical reasoning and careful deliberation.
And for that, I thank him.
Alexander E. Hooke (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University and co-editor of the recently published “The Twilight Zone and Philosophy” (Open Court, 2018).