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A Man’s Strange Hard-on and His Even Stranger Sermon on Logic

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.

10 thoughts on “A Man’s Strange Hard-on and His Even Stranger Sermon on Logic”

  1. “Naturally, I’ve been wondering why he has a such a hard-on for that phallacy.”

    Some people say that puns are the lowest form of humor, but that one is beautiful.


  2. Years ago I was having what I vainly hoped would be a discussion with a woman about the false statements made by members of the Bush administration during the build up for the war in Iraq. I mentioned something about President Bush talking about the mushroom cloud, and she countered with: “You want to talk about what people SAID? How about, ‘it depends on how you define is!'” I mumbled “But that’s changing the subject.” Of course she didn’t see it that way.

    Don’t know why I get myself into these conversations. After all, I’m married to a CPA.


      1. I refuse to engage with him on any topic that concerns politics or religion. When he starts to rant, I remind him that he’s breaking the rules of our relationship. And I ignore him completely on Facebook where he spends most of his time ranting and raving about Obama, the intellectual elite (I must remember to ask him if he thinks it would be better if everyone was well educated, thereby eliminating the elite part of the equation… but then I’d be breaking the rules), and the liberal media.

        So, yeah. We talk about the weather. 😉


      2. I hope for both your and his sake it’s only a phase he’s going through. I have a friend who might be a bit like him. My friend was pretty much reasonable until he got into watching Fox News. After a while, he quit seeking out other news sources, except CNN — and then, only so he could sit in front of his TV and parrot Fox criticisms of liberals when he watched CNN. But I figure at some point, he’ll lose interest in being an ideologue.


  3. Red herrings are a very useful debate tool. I don’t even regard it as a fallacy so much as a rhetorical tactic. And, of course, “progressives” can and do use this tactic liberally as well. Is it dishonest? Sometimes. Though it depends on the opponent not recognizing its use and falling into it. It is often accompanied by the fallacy of equivocation. Schools teaching to tests don’t have much time for critical thinking, rhetoric or basic logic these days. It leaves the ill-equipped especially vulnerable to propaganda, which thrives on a steady diet of red herring sweetened with undetected equivocation.


    1. Hi DK! Nice to see you again!

      Red herrings are a very useful debate tool. I don’t even regard it as a fallacy so much as a rhetorical tactic.

      I think of it as both an informal fallacy of relevance and a frequently used debate tool. I’m disinclined to approve of it though, perhaps because it does nothing to logically undermine the original point. It only rhetorically undermines it.

      Is it dishonest? Sometimes.

      I’m trying to think of cases in which a red herring would not be dishonest — other than when they were unintended. Can you help out? Are there any such cases?

      It is often accompanied by the fallacy of equivocation.

      That’s an interesting point! I’ll start looking for that. Thanks!

      Schools teaching to tests don’t have much time for critical thinking, rhetoric or basic logic these days. It leaves the ill-equipped especially vulnerable to propaganda…

      Your critique of schooling strikes me as spot on. I couldn’t agree more.


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