After a friend of mine changed his college major to accounting, I wanted to know why. “I’m going to be a CPA”, he said.
“What’s a CPA?”, I asked.
“Certified Public Accountant. Do you know what that is?”
“A book keeper?”
He got a look of disgust on his face — so I quickly decided it was best to distract him before he gathered the steam to lecture me on my ignorance: “Well, can you explain it”, I said.
He paused for a moment, thought about it, then turn cheerful. “Sure”, he said, “A business owner puts an ad in the newspaper. ‘Help Wanted: Need a CPA’. When the first applicant shows up, the owner asks him, ‘What’s 2 plus 2 equal?’.”
The applicant says, “Four”.
The owner says, “Nope. You’re a bookkeeper. I need to hire a CPA.”
When the second applicant shows up, the owner asks him, “What does 2 times 2 equal?”
The second applicant says, “Four”.
The owner says, “Nope. I don’t need a bookkeeper. I need a CPA”.
When the third applicant shows up, the owner asks him, “What does 2 minus 2 equal?”
The third applicant says nothing. Instead, he stands up, takes off his jacket, and crams it in the space between the office door and the floor. Then he goes over to the windows, closes the blinds, draws the curtains. Last, he comes back, leans into the owner’s ear, and whispers, ‘What do you want it to equal?'”
“At last!”, says the owner, “A CPA!”
I was thinking this morning that — when it comes to reasoning things through logically — many of us are like the “bookkeepers” in that joke when we don’t have an axe to grind, and like the “CPA”, when we do.
Or, at least I am. If I don’t take a deep breath and step back from an issue, I usually don’t reason it through as logically as when I remember to step back from it.
I think that might be because logical reasoning is for me a process of first tossing out an idea, then checking its logic. That is, I don’t think like a Vulcan. I don’t unfailingly toss out logical statements.
Instead, I toss out all sorts of statements to myself — both logical and illogical — and so I have to then check those statements for logical validity. When I forget to step back from an issue, I usually forget to check, too.
I don’t think I have a favorite mistake or fallacy. I prefer to make them all. But I have come to know a guy on the internet who very strongly favors a particular fallacy. It’s true he now and then commits others, but he is downright revival-tent religious about committing this one. He doesn’t just commit it — he preaches it. Preaches it!
Naturally, I’ve been wondering why he has a such a hard-on for that phallacy.
His fallacy is called “The Red Herring“:
The red herring is as much a debate tactic as it is a logical fallacy. It is a fallacy of distraction, and is committed when a listener attempts to divert an arguer from his argument by introducing another topic. This can be one of the most frustrating, and effective, fallacies to observe.
The fallacy gets its name from fox hunting, specifically from the practice of using smoked herrings, which are red, to distract hounds from the scent of their quarry. Just as a hound may be prevented from catching a fox by distracting it with a red herring, so an arguer may be prevented from proving his point by distracting him with a tangential issue.
And this guy has a little twist to it that I’ve personally never seen before. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let me give you the setting.
I know this guy from watching him discuss politics on the net. And here’s how he operates: Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you were to state that Glenn Beck falsely characterized Obama as a Socialist. He will come right back at you by stating that, while Glenn Beck might have done so, Rachel Maddow routinely does much the same thing, and neither one can be believed.
Or suppose you say Ayn Rand had a poor understanding of economics. He is likely to return that Paul Krugman has just as poor an understanding of economics as Ayn Rand ever did.
And most people fall for it. They quickly get sidetracked into defending Rachel Maddow or Paul Krugman.
The little twist he puts on it is self-righteousness. He will freely admit to purposely sidetracking the argument. But in his world, he is justified in doing so because you, according to him, are trying to suggest that things are one-sided. That is, he insists that you believe Progressives are above making mistakes because you have stated that Glenn Beck, who is a Conservative, made a mistake. He, on the other hand, is only restoring balance and fairness to the conversation.
He is passionate about that. He is absolutely certain that you unfairly believe all Conservatives are jerks if you say even one Conservative is a jerk (thus, he commits an additional fallacy or two). And he is absolutely certain it is his duty to correct you. He delivers that news like a sermon. He preaches it at you. And he is often enough sanctimonious when preaching it.
I’m intrigued by his misuse of logic. I wonder whether he does it intentionally to deceive people, or because he doesn’t step back to check his work, or for some other reason that I haven’t guessed. Since my pocket tMRI scanner is broke, I am not able to look inside his head, and I may never know why he does it.
Yet, regardless of why he loves that fallacy, he sure preaches the gospel of it.