If you can put your hands on a copy of Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument by Ward Fearnside and William Holther (and what, really, isn’t available anymore at our fingertips?), the four-page introduction alone will be worth your time and treasure. Published in 1959, this utterly solid (and what is solid may be dense at times) college-level discussion of mistakes in reasoning will help bring some much needed order to the disarraying confusion that is our public discourse—and much of the written word—at the present moment.
Introductions are meant to give an overview, so these first few pages of Fallacy will only, but importantly, whet your appetite for the full course of ideas the authors present in the book. Only a few paragraphs in, and we read this eerily prescient comparison written over 60 years ago:
The triumph of rhetoric is like the spread of a virus infection. When an epidemic spreads through an area, it is said to prevail there, and local measures may be taken. But to say it prevails does not mean that everyone is infected. Some persons escape infection; others are immune. It is not necessary to labor the analogy in order to show that it would be a good idea if the community could somehow develop a serum against some forms of persuasion.
These five sentences could serve in their own right as an instructive entry in a writer’s commonplace book: the simile of the first sentence grows into a more elaborate analogy, which the authors then prune (“it is not necessary to labor the analogy”) before it outgrows its pot. But we concentrate now on the subtle substance the passage carries. The authors’ quarrel is hardly with the right and proper measures taken responsibly to address an epidemic. Rather it is with the unwarranted conclusions that arise and solidify to the harm of many when we do not think closely and clearly about a situation we find ourselves in, when our emotions run riot (“the triumph of rhetoric”) and dispassion enflames with fear.
A fallacy (the word derives from the Latin fallax, deceitful, false, or treacherous) is an error in reasoning, a mistake in the way we argue for or against something: what would you know, you’re not from around here, or he said it, so it must be true. The treacherous quality of fallacious reasoning lies not only with those who knowingly employ deception to confuse others, but also with those—ourselves?—who accept such reasoning unbeknownst. Fallacies are often plausible mistakes in reasoning; they appear acceptable, and are often not suspected at all, because of both the context to which they are marshaled (often of pressing consequence and decision) and the manner in which they are presented (often of passion and emotional flourish). Fallacies risk taking us where we don’t want to go, and they prevail as long as they are not questioned. Upon examination, though, which means if we think about things a little more critically, we find they are specious—their appearance as truth is an illusion.
To speak of thinking critically brings us to the importance of books like Fallacy, and there are, thankfully, many of them, old and new. “Logic,” the authors write, “is the defense again trickery,” and that should be enough to hold our attention through an admittedly tricky subject. The study of logic, or what is more properly called material logic, can be a steep climb because it depends first on our understanding the basics of sentence structure: subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, clauses both independent and subordinate. Our natural language carries the complexity of our thinking, and the argument for studying logic is that if we can see into the form our thoughts assume as we speak and write, we can work our way more deeply into a clearer understanding of their implications and meaning.
What makes the study of logic so important a complement to the study of grammar and writing is the fact (and we must just admit it, I think) that we are a suggestible species. We want so much, often for the best of reasons and often not, and that inalienable tendency to see things the way we want them to be can leave us wandering around the world of ideas, taking this one or that in an effort to substantiate our position in the hope, often sadly slim, to prove that we are right. A little farther on in the introduction of Fallacy, the authors write, “Ordinary speech, arising in a live situation, is not designed to satisfy the formulas of logicians. What does matter is the taking advantage of ellipsis, complexity, and verbal display to deceive and obfuscate.” It is the mixing of truth with untruth or lies that is the source of so much trouble, and that source is tainted with a special poignancy when we realize we weren’t even aware that such were the goings on around us.
When even only a corner of the curtain is pulled up and the elaborate gearwork of illusion-making is caught sight of, we have then a chance to understand how language—and we ourselves—can be so masterfully manipulated. The critical thinking that the study of logical fallacies fosters advances the best work of grammar and rhetoric, and those three disciplines together, each tempering the excesses of the other, can help us keep our eye on the truth, particularly in such confusing times as ours.