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Logical Fallacies + Email Forwards = Misinformation

A while ago I wrote about an email forward I had received that gave an “example of socialism in action: in a classroom”. I disagreed with several aspects of the email and responded to my family members accordingly.

This has sparked a rather long winded debate ranging from the mundane to the overly repetitive. However, I am pleased to say that everyone has kept a civil tongue (fingers?) even if the conversation seems to have degenerated into the realm of heels being dug in and non-acceptance.

That being said, I thought I would share a bit of my last email regarding the subject because we are now talking about logical fallacies in general and I think that more people ought to be aware of some of the more common ones.

Namely the Strawman and the Point of Ignorance. (Not point of stupidity… it is actually called point of ignorance, I am not being rude.)

Original Email: Used a “classroom real life example” to show the drawbacks of socialism.

I have two problems with this. First, the “classroom real life example” didn’t happen. It is a classic bit of netlore, it would be an unethical use of a teachers power, and according to Snopes there is no record of this happening. And because we can’t prove it happened, we don’t have to buy that it did. In fact, the evidence seems to stack up against any such “experiment” happening. True, we don’t know that it didn’t… just like we don’t know that a teapot isn’t currently orbiting Jupiter. But we can be pretty sure. (This insistence of belief bassed on the fact that we don’t know for sure if it didn’t happen is arguing from a point of ignorance.)

Why this matters: It is hard to look at the example given when it seems to come from a place of sensationalism and find merit.

But, even if we agree (for the sake of argument) that such a classroom experiment did happen.. we get to problem 2.

The whole story is a Strawman argument. What the writer of the email has done is make a very sloppy (oversimplified and downright invalid) picture of what socialism is and what it means. Making such a caricature of a concept to easily knock it down (and thus never really dealing with the actual concept) is classic Strawman logical fallacy.

(Another really popular one would be “If evolution were real, there wouldn’t be monkeys since we evolved from monkeys… since there are monkeys, evolution isn’t real.” This is a Strawman because it starts with a bad definition of what evolution is and what it means in terms of monkey populations.)

OK, but getting past all that… if we look at the actual themes of the example we can see that they are flawed as well.

First off, it seems like all human behavior is being distilled down to personal gain. Now, personal gain is an intrinsic part of capitalism and socialism as well… the difference is that socialistic ideas (that encompasses teamwork) put the needs of the many above the needs of the individual. This is a social trend that can be found in teams but also in certain societies and cultures around the world… such as hunter gatherer societies. Basically we are looking at socialism (or socialistic attitudes) in a cultural setting which affects the economic setting.

This leads us to a point I think we agree on; theories are great… but the addition of people can mess it up.

(A statement that is true for all economic or cultural modes… not just the nice idealized version of socialism.)

If the students had had a different cultural attitude regarding the grades… if they had worked together, if they had pooled their resources with the goal of increasing the class’s average, they would have been working out the ideas of socialism found in teamwork. They didn’t… either because it didn’t occur to them, they didn’t want the hassle, or they felt it was unfair. This is the problem with any change of system… the hold outs can potentially (and sometimes will) “ruin” it for those who might want to try something new.

But I digress.

The whole thing boils down to a cautionary tale against socialism that is misleading, full of logical fallacies, and fails to take into account some of the good socialistic sort of things we currently enjoy (the military, the police, the libraries, the public highways, Medicare, even to a lesser extent the post office.) Capitalism is a theory that works… and works very well for higher levels of the society. But capitalism is flawed as well… which is why we have things like anti-trust laws and labor unions.

My main quibble is that the email did a rather poor job of explaining how socialism could be bad… it relied on people not looking too closely and being distracted with fear and misleading information.

To sum it up… again, socialism and capitalism are theories that have both positive and negative qualities.

The original email forward, however, seems to have only negative.


Elliott said...

I got this e-mail forward a while ago, and since I'm a sucker for a silly analogy, I couldn't help but indulge them with a response:

"I'm glad our entire economic system can be effectively modeled by a class of students and an arbitrary grading system.

Here is a better economics lesson. There are a fixed number of grade points to be distributed to a class of 100 people. If they were distributed evenly, everyone could get a B. However, the way it stands, there are two students with A+'s, eight with B's, and 90 with D-'s, who could be flunked out at any moment.

The teacher requires less work of the students with A's and B's, and allows them to 'lend' grade points to the people with D's. The D's take the test for the A's and B's, and hope to get bumped to a C, but even if they do well on the test, they have to pay back the grade points with interest, so they rarely, if ever, make it to C, and if they flunk a test, they lose it all. (entrepreneur)

D students can also make agreements with the A's and B's to do their homework for them. In this case, A's and B's pay D's with grade points by the hour, but their point wage is only enough to keep them from flunking out. (wage slave)

If a D student gets sick and misses a class, they are in real danger of failing, because they can't do homework for A's and B's, and they can't take tests for them. A's and B's don't have to worry about this, because they can pay off the teacher with a few grade points. (private health care)

You can see where I'm going with this, and you can see how unfair it is."

I never got a response.

L. said...

Oh, gosh, I've gotten that email too, and from people I usually consider critical thinkers
I wish I had your succint, cogent response to send back at the time, but
at least from now on, anyone sending that to me gets a link to your post!

Kay said...

Elliot: Will you cage match fight my dad?

L: link on! (and that response was after a lot of other responses that I didn't copy/paste... and that I fact checked with The Maifan-San before I posted.)

JOE TODD said...

I really enjoyed your post. I'm afraid "people" on both sides of an argument are resorting to such tactics. "Fear" is a great motivator.

BPOTW said...

'Thinking' is the missing element in most arguments these days.