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Irrelevant Conclusion

by Hans Bluedorn

When I say something, I try to express myself as clearly as possible. I try to make my words easy to understand. Well, sometimes people aren't so clear. Sometimes people become purposely ambiguous. They try to slur the meanings of words in order to make their point seem more logically possible than it actually is. Unfortunately, this logical ellipsis goes unnoticed by most listeners. They assume the speaker is right because...it sure sounds like he makes sense. That is why the slurring of the meaning of words and phrases becomes a very dangerous logical fallacy. Last week, when speaking about his new proposals for national regulation of education, Clinton discredited those who might disagree with his approach by saying: "Now, some in Congress believe the national government has no business helping communities improve their schools."(...)"But I think strengthening education is a national priority." This fallacy of diversion could be called "irrelevant conclusion." This is a very slippery fallacy. The key element is a statement which is generally accepted ("strengthening education is a national priority") and which seems, on the surface, to be related to a prior statement ("national government has no business..."). The reality is that this second statement ("national priority") has no necessary logical connection to the first statement; therefore it is irrelevant to the conclusion. When this second statement is cleverly slipped before the audience, unless they notice the subtle change of subject, they will be either completely deceived or thoroughly befuddled by the outcome of the argument. Bill Clinton correctly described his opponent's position: "national government has no business helping communities improve their schools." Then he stated something with which most everyone, including his opponents, would agree: "strengthening education is a national priority." He left it to his audience to draw the conclusion, "Your opponent's admit it is a national priority but they don't want to treat it like a priority." That is the seemingly obvious but unstated contradiction between the two statements. However, what Clinton actually meant by the words "national priority" is that education is an issue which everyone in this country should consider important. Now Clinton equated this with Congress acting. But there is no necessary logical connection between the two. Eating breakfast in the morning should be a priority to everyone in the nation, but that doesn't mean it should be on Congress's list, let alone at the top. Bill Clinton is talking in two different senses and making them sound the same. He does all this in such a clever way that it looks like anyone failing to endorse his legislation is a hypocrite. How should we respond to this fallacy? The only way is to point out the diversion, as we have done. Clinton is talking about two different things that seem similar, but not the same. The nation's priorities and the actions of Congress are not one and the same thing. Unfortunately, what makes this fallacy so effective is it often takes more explaining than most people's attention span can take. And in our day, when nearly everyone has been raised on socialized education, it is particularly difficult to point out an error to which their philosophy blinds them. Hence you not only have to straighten out the words, you also have to straighten out the philosophy. Good luck.

Copyright February 16, 1999, all rights reserved. 4919 views


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