It’s that part of the democratic cycle again: political junkies stay tuned into their favorite 24-hour news sources while most of the rest of us seek to escape the endless deluge of nonsensical ads, non-sequitur attacks, and noncommittal answers to the questions that surround the presidential election season.
Political campaigning is by nature rhetorical: every candidate and every campaign exists to convince you that they’re right, and would prefer to keep you from spending too much time thinking through your values and determining what candidates and approaches offer the best solutions to our societal problems.
As November looms, your civic responsibility grows heavier every day: you can’t afford to let the campaign trail cacophony lull you into lazy thinking. To maintain your clarity of thought this election season, acquaint yourself with the most egregious and ubiquitous violations in rational thought carried out by our political candidates, and by doing so strengthen your intellectual defenses against irrational thought.
Beware Cognitive Bias
Cognitive biases are lapses in rational thinking that are simply the result of our imperfect human brains constantly needing to make imperfect decisions with imperfect information. Our natural mental reflexes categorize things and dismiss certain information as unimportant often resulting in assumptions or omissions that we never even notice ourselves making.
Confirmation bias is one of the most endemic, that little psychological short-circuit that inspires our deep love of listening to voices that sound like and agree with our own. It’s why most of us have a favorite news channel or paper that happens to line up unsurprisingly well with our own worldview.
Through the digital age our cognitive biases have gone viral, yielding the subjectively skewed social media bubbles we post and tweet and read in every day. Google and Facebook spend a lot of time finding out what you like so they can give you more of it and hide dissenting opinions from your search results and news feeds. Being unaware of the effects of the transparent social bubble encapsulating your mind can lead to such cognitive errors as availability heuristic or the bandwagon effect.
Most social justice warriors could benefit from tuning into Fox News a couple times a week, just as defenders of traditional values and fiscal responsibility could stand a dose of MSNBC now and then. The mental exercise of engaging thoughtfully with the often ridiculous-sounding voices of the “other side” may not sway your beliefs one way or another, but it will ensure that you better understand the pros, cons, interests, and assumptions surrounding issues that are never as black-and-white as our politicians present them to us.
Cutting through Common Logical Fallacies
Reading a list of logical fallacies is like reading the guide to campaign rhetoric. Whereas cognitive biases are errors within your own subjective mind and thinking, logical fallacies are objective errors or inaccuracies in others’ argumentation; put simply, it’s when someone talks a smooth line, but the logic doesn’t quite add up.
There are more logical fallacies than rational statements in today’s election cycles, and lists attempting to enumerate them all run long. Here are three of the most common offenders during election season:
1. Post hoc fallacy
“Under the President X Administration, jobs were lost/crime increased/cost of living went up” is an argument endlessly thrown at us from both sides. There’s also its opposite: “During my time as governor/senator/mayor, unemployment fell and healthcare became more affordable.”
The post hoc fallacy is one of the most pervasive because it’s one that, on the surface, usually seems to make sense without much thought. It’s the assumption that when thing B happens after thing A, then thing A must be the cause of thing B.
When listening to such claims, be sure to ask yourself a few questions, like how Candidate X’s policies influenced outcomes in Issue Y.
2. Failing to address the argument
“I think what we really ought to be focused on” and “the real issue at hand here is” are just two of the least subtle ways candidates outright refuse to address ideas and arguments, but the more subtle ways can be more dangerous.
Also known as a red herring argument or the ignoratio elenchi fallacy, it’s most misleading when it succeeds in distracting its audience. This fallacy often teams up with our innate confirmation bias, leading us to praise the off-topic answers of our favorite candidates but call foul when the other team breaks the rules.
When watching a debate or interview, be wary of any talking points that follow a sudden redirection of the topic to what “the real problem” is, and instead seek out substantial answers on the issues that matter to you.
3. Ad hominem – attacking the person, not the argument
This one seems particularly egregious this election cycle, with the name-calling and mudslinging seen across the political spectrum. Ad hominem attacks denouncing someone as a bigot or unpatriotic or otherwise attempting to discredit a speaker based on their identity is a small logical step above schoolyard taunts and spitballs, and none of it constitutes actually saying something thoughtful about an issue.
Be wary of candidates who spend most of their campaign time talking about other candidates’ characters and personal lives than their positions on the issues. Remember that even though public officials make mistakes, that doesn’t make the beliefs they profess inherently flawed.
When it comes down to casting your vote this election season, be sure to do it with clarity of thought. Carefully navigate your own cognitive biases and cut through the distractions of the fallacious rhetoric, and don’t let election season devolve into one giant, ironic distraction from the issues that matter to and affect you.
To reflect further and think deeper about your own political beliefs, non-partisan sites like www.isidewith.com and www.politicalcompass.org offer thought-provoking quizzes meant to explore how your own values and beliefs line up with those of current and historical candidates and schools of thought. You can also find detailed information on candidates for public office, their positions, and voting records at www.votesmart.org.