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How Not to Debate: A Dummy's Guide To Logical Fallacies

29/09/2015 8:35 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Television News in India has become a race for TRPs and sensationalism. On the rare occasion that I do flip over to one of the televised debates, the scene makes me cringe. Six or more panelists having a cumulative IQ equal to the ambient temperature of the recording studio, mixed in with a couple of anchors with high decibel vocals, all embroiled in a shouting match with one another.

Having diverse views on contentious issues is normal in a healthy democracy. But the total lack of coherence and logic in the way we articulate our views is appalling. Politicians, journalists and even renowned intellectuals are often guilty of making imbecilic rebuttals on prime-time debates and twitter handles. So here's a crash course on some of the most blatant logical fallacies in recent debates, on issues that have polarized the world's largest democracy these past few months.

1. Criminalising Marital Rape (#MaritalRapeDebate 20th July on Times Now):

Fallacy #1: What about men's rights? What about misuse of laws such as 498A?

This is an example of Appeal to Equality Fallacy; citing "equality" for disallowing the introduction of laws to protect women. This is a disingenuous argument since men are not vulnerable to the same nature of sexual abuse in a hetero-marriage as women are. Yes, the anti-dowry law (498A) has been misused in many cases. There's even a website devoted to it. Yes, laws should stress on hard evidence rather than hearsay. But that doesn't negate the fact that over 8200 brides are murdered for dowry every year (as per NCRB records). That's one bride every 63 minutes!

This is also a form of Argumentum ad Captandum: a specious argument that is likely to win popular acceptance, especially among this bizarre breed of humanoids who call themselves "Men's Rights Activists". We (men) have enjoyed our rights ever since the first Homo Sapiens etched out the Palaeolithic symbol for "patriarchy" on his cave wall. Nuff said!

Fallacy #2: Marital Rape laws will erode the sanctity of marriage.

This is classic Argumentum ad antiquitatem: An appeal to antiquity & tradition. Or as I like to call it, the Indian Culture Fallacy. It presupposes that all decent countries that criminalized marital rape have sham marriages. Whereas India coming in 5th on the charts for forced marriages, wherein a majority of unions are arranged to a stranger by the house elders, is an exemplar of marital bliss; and a law criminalizing marital rape will somehow destroy this sacred institution.

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Sometimes I wonder if we have accidentally opened a wormhole in the space-time continuum that sucked in medieval hoards into 2015.

Fallacy #3:

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Appeal to Extremes (Reducto ad Absurdum) or reducing the argument to the absurd: This fallacy is committed by turning a reasonable argument into an absurd one by taking it to its extremes, such as this tweet from a prominent journalist/activist does above. Criminalising marital rape does not mean couples will have to sign a consent form every night. It means we will finally acknowledge that a marriage certificate is not a licence to own a sex slave; it means granting basic human rights to Indian women like most decent democracies have already done.

Fallacy #4: India has a much lower number of rape crimes than the United States & European countries.

This statement is often made in articles refuting the charge that sexual violence is endemic in India. It was especially propounded in opinion pieces against the BBC documentary 'India's Daughter'. How dare a bunch of white colonists call us out on our misogyny when their own nations are clearly far worse off?

This stems from the Biased Sample Fallacy or Loaded Statistics Fallacy, by far the most rampant of all logical fallacies in the media. The reason why a higher number of crimes against women are recorded in western countries is because a very large percentage of victims approach the justice system. Whereas in India, rape crimes are notoriously underreported. Cultural paradigms and social stigma against victims is a major factor that prevents them from coming forward. Some sources claim that for every reported rape case, there may be as many as 30 that go unreported.

2. The Radhe Maa controversy:

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This tweet is an example of fallacious reasoning (as opposed to a fallacious argument). Our national neurosis on the self-styled god-woman's skirt was rather fatuous. This sort of slut-shaming falls into Ad Hominem.

Indians were not in the least bit bothered by the fact that Radhe Maa was peddling the oldest snake-oil known to mankind, namely-- faith in the transcendent. The fact that she did it wearing a skirt on the sly while she was away from the public eye, made us diabolical in our condemnation. That a free-thinking intellectual like Taslima Nasreen would trip over the said fallacy is surprising.

3. On the Death Penalty (Yakub case): No other issue in recent times has thrown up as many imbecilic arguments as this one; from both the pro-death penalty & the abolitionist camps. Let us analyse a few.

Fallacy #1 (pro-death camp): If you had your loved ones killed in terror attacks you would not be asking for mercy you filthy terrorist sympathiser!

This is a combination of Argumentum ad Passiones (appeal to emotion fallacy) and Argumentum ad Odium (appeal to anger).

Person1 claims X is true. Person1 is angry/ outraged, hence X is true.

While the stories and visuals of innocent civilians in the aftermath of terror strikes are truly heartbreaking, that has no bearing on whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent against such crimes. Proponents of this argument confuse vengeance with justice.

Fallacy #2 (pro-death camp): If you are against hanging terrorists, you are an anti-national (Go-to-Pakistan Fallacy).

The Appeal to Patriotism Fallacy makes any form of dissent against popular national sentiment a crime of treason. It's the oldest trick in the fascist's book to silence political critics.

Fallacy #3 (anti-death penalty camp): Why are persons of a particular community being hanged? First hang *insert random name* who did *insert gruesome crime* and is still free.

This is a mix of appeal to emotion & cum hoc ergo propter hoc (confusing correlation with causation) by making an absurd claim based on a false premise, mostly employed by rabble-rousers. There is no data to suggest a communal bias in handing out death sentences. This argument attempts to play on the insecurities of a particular cultural/ethnic or religious group.

Source: Logically Fallacious by Bo Bennett, Published by eBookIt.com

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