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Author Topic: Verbal Fallacies Nearer Home  (Read 3426 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: August 08, 2009, 12:34:14 AM »

Over breakfast last Monday, just when I was about to wrap up my series on the logical fallacies, my wife Leonor wagged the front page of her favorite newspaper at me and said: “Look at this headline at the very top of the paper. It says ‘State of public education: 1 doctor per 90,000 studes.’ I can’t say exactly what the problem is, but I think there’s something terribly wrong here.”

I stared at the headline and blinked: “‘State of public education: 1 doctor per 90,000 students’? Mmm... I think the headline-writer really meant ‘State of school health care: 1 doctor per 90,000 studes.’ The poor guy must have missed a lot of sleep. That there’s only one doctor per 90,000 students in the public schools certainly couldn’t be a measure of the state of public education. Literacy and quality of instruction perhaps, but doctors? That’s really weird!”

“So why do they make a headline like that?” Leonor asked. “Look, they must have been pretty convinced that they were correct. They even printed exactly the same headline on Page 2.”

“Well, in formal logic, that headline would be called a fallacy of irrelevance, which is better known by its Latin name of ignoratio elenchi, meaning ‘irrelevant conclusion.’ This type of fallacy tries to establish the truth of a proposition with arguments that support an entirely different conclusion.”

“You mean the guys putting out this paper don’t know that? Don’t they teach formal logic in mass communication or journalism?”

“Of course they do! Formal logic is a college requirement, but sometimes, when mental fatigue sets in, even the best minds become susceptible to fallacies of irrelevance. The worst case is the non sequitur, another Latin term that literally means ‘it doesn’t follow.’ Non sequiturs are arguments that fail to establish a connection between their premises and their conclusion. And then, of course, there are the so-called verbal fallacies, those false conclusions people make when words are used improperly or ambiguously. That headline is, if I’m not mistaken, also a classic case of the verbal fallacy of abstraction. That’s the logical error of focusing on only one aspect of reality and then pronouncing it to be the whole truth.”

“Well, I’m sure the country’s Education officials can simply ask schools to teach logic better. It’s scary. If this newspaper can be this illogical right on the front page, I can’t imagine how it will be with the lesser ones.”

“It’s really scary, Leonor, but I’m not very sure if our Education officials will be of much help,” I said. “It looks like they have the same problem with English and logic—probably even worse. Just yesterday, while passing by their central offices along Meralco Avenue in Pasig, I saw a huge streamer and a big billboard of theirs that almost made my eyes pop out.”

“Why?” she asked, sipping her coffee. “What did the streamer and billboard say?”

“Well, the streamer on the front gate carried an Education department message in big, bold letters: ‘Join in the Observance of the Celebration of the 105th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Philippine Independence Day.’ Those words exactly.”

“You must be kidding! That sounds so wordy and so stilted and so convoluted to me, even if I’m not a grammarian like you. I would have simply said, ‘Let’s All Celebrate Our 105th Philippine Independence Day.’ But is that a fallacious statement?”

“No, just very bad English usage,” I said, “but it makes me wonder how they can enforce President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s directive to restore English as the country’s language of instruction. I think they have a language proficiency problem themselves.”

“Well, Dear, that’s just too bad, but that’s not your problem,” she said. “You have your own day job to worry about. So finish your coffee now. But wait, you haven’t told me yet what was in that billboard. What did it say?”

“Well, the billboard had something to do with iodized salt. It said that it was a joint project of the LGU, DEC, DOH, Kiwanis, Australian Aid, and UNICEF—the big guns in development, you might say. But you wouldn’t believe the slogan they had on that billboard. It said: ‘Be Intelligent. Use Iodized Salt Every Day.’”

“So what’s wrong with that? Seems to me like sensible nutritional advice.”

“My dear,” I chided her, “don’t you see? That slogan is actually a very serious verbal fallacy. It’s called the fallacy of equivocation. It uses the word ‘intelligent’ in more than one sense, yet gives the impression that only one is meant. The first fallacy is that you can make yourself intelligent simply by an act of will. The second is that using iodized salt every day will make you intelligent. They are a double non sequitur, a double absurdity. Both childish oversimplifications—and very dangerous.”

“I see what you mean. You’re right, and now that really scares me like hell!” (June 26, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 26, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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