Saturday, March 22, 2014

Common fallacies in an (attempted) rational debate

By no means extensive, and certainly debatable, this particular blog post is a collection of the common fallacies I have come across in my discussions online. Given the political climate in the country, the discussions have increased in number and have become heated, at times. The other motivation for this blog post is to have, at one place, the common fallacies and my reasoning behind calling them so. That way I don’t have to explain myself from the start in every new discussion. Lastly, my objective of engaging in a discussion is for both parties to end up with a more informed opinion. I think it is very childish to speak of “your” and “my” opinions. I think it is more reasonable to progressively improve one’s opinion (much like what a scientist does).

1. Knowing what the basic assumption is: All ratiocinations rest on certain axioms. Euclidean geometry follows from certain axioms. Linear analysis follows from certain others. (This is a limitation of deductive reasoning). Similarly, any discussion should, a priori set forth what the assumed axioms are. For example, in our democracy, the basic setting is that the judiciary is the sole source for delivering justice (i.e. for acquitting/convicting people). Also, until proven guilty, a charge levied is just an alleged accusation (be it Asaram Bapu, Chidambaram or any one). This is important, because it has come up time and again in many of my discussions – like the clean chit given by Karnataka HC to Yedurappa, by the SIT to Modi in his role in 2002 riots, etc. People are just not willing to accede that Modi or Yeddy are not guilty. This doesn't mean that the judiciary is infallible. A citizen is certainly allowed to contest even the SC’s decision, but with specifics. For example, if someone wants to hold Yeddy guilty of corruption, he/she should clearly quote the inadequacies of the court ruling and even better, contest it again in a higher court of law. It is important to note this, because this gives us a common baseline to work with. Otherwise, who is to decide which court ruling is correct and which isn't?

2. Digressions from the discussion: This is a problem when one of the parties has the attention span of a woodpecker. For example, in a discussion on one of Wendy Doniger’s books and the prospect of factual inaccuracies in it, if someone describes the mindset of a fanatic mob (what has that got to do with the discussion?), that is digressing. One has to give facts that are verifiable and not concoct some unverifiable conspiracy theory. The other instance is, in a recent debate on communalism and in another on AAP’s funding, someone was asking Dr. Subramanian Swamy on why he had joined the BJP when he had opposed it during Vajpayee’s rule. What has that got to do with communalism, (or AAP's funding) which is the topic of the debate? (Dr. Swamy can and should be asked about his opposition to the BJP back then and I am sure he will answer it). Digressions are bad because most of the times they can be vague and not verifiable. More importantly, they detract focus from the topic of discussion.

3. Self-serving statements: In an argument, one gentleman (opposing Modi and BJP and probably supporting Congress or AAP) had said something to this effect: “How can someone, despite being educated, support BJP?” This is hardly an argument. You can replace the word “BJP” with any party you like to criticize.  Hypothetically, one might as well ask “How can anyone in the right frame of mind vote for AAP except for AAPtards?” These are self serving questions/statements and hardly add value to the discussion. They don’t prove anything. Very recently, when asked not to mumble something but to explain himself, a gentleman had this to offer “Even dimwits can understand this”. Statements like these help push propaganda or make one look like an intellectual. In the face of reason, they crumble like a house of cards.

4. Circular logic: When proving a hypothesis or a theorem, you can’t use the hypothesis itself in the proof. For example, a definite integral follows from the knowledge of the formula for a rectangle‘s area. That is, you assume that you know the formula for the area of a rectangle when defining definite integrals. In order to calculate the area of a rectangle, you can’t use integration theory because that is circular logic. Similarly to prove that AAP is not the B-team of Congress you cannot use the fact that "AK defeated Sheila Dikshit in Delhi". Let me explain. The contention (or conspiracy theory, if you will) is that AAP is the B-team of congress. What does this entail (if true), politically? It means that having either Congress or AAP in power is the same. Given this, what does one mean by "AK defeating Sheila”? It is just an "exchange" of power between the two, if the contention were true. You don't prove a hypothesis by using it in the proof. This is just a shoddy piece of argument. I am not suggesting that AAP is the B-team of Congress. I am saying that you don't disprove it in this way.

I reiterate, this list is by no means exhaustive. They include some observations of mine over a period of time. If factually incorrect or logically inadequate anywhere, feel free to comment.