disagreeing with important people

02 May

Spurred on by a friend to keep up-to-date with the reith lecture goings-on, I’ve listened to the first three since the beginning of this week.

There’s a lot of interesting thought-provoking stuff in there. I don’t agree with a host of the opinions of Jeffrey Sachs, but I do have a real sympathy with many of the goals he is aspiring to. I have therefore continued to listen to him speak motivationally about these goals, despite having to bite my tongue at some of the theories he has about how to obtain these goals.

However, during listening one quote in particular has been bugging me. It really bugs me, for the simple reason that it isn’t true.

Ok, the truth of the general statement is, I’m guessing, an unprovable matter. But I can at least present a justification for one particular word being deceptive, and so ‘untrue’ in my book.

“Our problems are manmade – therefore, they can be solved by man.”

President John F. Kennedy

Is it just me… or is that “therefore” looking rather ‘floppy’ in there?

Just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t quite appreciate its true floppiness, I’m going to argue my case. (Ok, well, I want to rant it off my chest anyway! So I’m going to rant πŸ˜› whether I have an excuse to or not…)

The word “therefore” suggests that what has gone before is somehow an explanation or a justification for the conclusion that is stated.

So, if you accept the ‘premise’ – or starting point – of the argument, and if you’re willing to be rational, then accepting the truth of the premise means you have not a leg to stand on if you want to deny the conclusion.

Ok, to get all technical about it, the format of argument used here is not quite just purely wrong. What we have here is a group of premises, which could – in theory – fully support the conclusion in question. But what is so cunningly annoying about it, is that only one of the premises is actually stated out in the open. The other premises are just assumed – assumed to be recognised, assumed to be agreed with, and (critically) assumed to be true.

Fair enough, they might all *be* true… but if you’re presenting the justification of something, you don’t do so by missing out the evidence.

If I was being cynical, I could give you my first draft of the idiots guide to ‘utilising’ this kind of fallacy:

  1. Gather your set of premises.
  2. Pick the easiest one to justify as being black-and-white true.
  3. Use that one as the solitary “open” premise.
  4. Present your arguement with no reference at all to the other premises.

When I see this kind of thing in practice, it always sets the alarm bells off at full volume. I always ask why, if someone has got that strong a case for being right in the first place, why don’t they show their true strength in being open about it in the first place. But this paragraph shouldn’t really be part of my argument – its a rather circumstantial kind of poke-in-the-back.

Anyway, to go back to Kennedy’s quote, I would reject this conclusion as untrue, because I do not accept the truth of one of the other (assumed) premises – I’m not going to tangent into giving my reasons for disagreeing here πŸ˜‰ but feel free to prod me if you’re interested! But, to un-digress, disagreeing with even one required premise, it logically becomes perfectly fair game to deny the conclusion.

However, the part that twists me up all wrong, is that if I were to say to someone just straight out without explaination “I don’t agree with Kennedy’s conclusion” I suspect I would be met with astonishment, and disbelief. “Why are you being irrational?” “You can’t deny the premise, so you must be denying the principles of sound logic… surely?”

Urm, no… actually I’m not!

Actually I’m the one being rational. Actually I’m the one that’s gone to the effort of putting the structure together in my head to justify to myself I’m being rational. Actually, I’m the one wanting to get “the complete picture” instead of relying on what is the hidden-but-assumed-to-be-true premise of the argument.

I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that by obscuring not only the evidence, but also the true structure of the argument, the general perception of the argument is very often not too much squared with reality.

So, I just utterly despise it when some statement of fact is preceded by a “therefore” joiner and another statement. A statement that of itself is true, but that carries very little weight – if any – as far as backing up the conclusion is concerned. Yet it slyly receives some weight because it is a true statement. By pretending there is some ‘reasoning’ going on, the conclusion is thereby given extra credence.

There’s an awful lot that is said by that little word “therefore”. Yes, I am reading quite deeply between the lines, but I don’t think I’m reading anything that isn’t actually written there.

And so, I rest my case. The word “therefore” – as quoted – is a lie.

OCD disclaimer: *is counting down the seconds until someone points out something logically unsound about my argument here… in an analogus way to this.*


Posted by on Wednesday, May 2, 2007 in philosophy


Tags: , ,

4 responses to “disagreeing with important people

  1. Peter Reynolds

    Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 12:24 am

    Hmph…. no wonder the world is in such a mess if its leaders could make statements like that. I mean, “Abigail tore a page in her book” (thankfully a rare occurrence) … therefore “Abigail can fix it” – oh yeah?? Even her wonderful and adored daddy can only patch it up – it may look OK to her but it’s not “good as new” is it?

  2. Fat Mungo

    Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    How ironic that you post a topic on disagreeing with important people before publically jousting with [Edit: nickname removed to protect the innocent]. Go Rachel, give her what for… πŸ™‚

  3. Angela

    Sunday, May 6, 2007 at 12:44 am

    Nothing unsound about your logic (so far as I can follow ;o) but if you take his words less literally don’t you agree with some of the sentiment behind the statement? If it’s taken as a want to try and fix some the disagreements of man with other men, surely that’s a just cause?

  4. rach

    Monday, May 14, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Yes…. I could get into a very lengthy discussion about that πŸ™‚ I think the short answer would be that I agree with you for the most part! I’m not saying the statement is completely wrong, but rather that it doesn’t do any good to use a flaky argument as justification for it.

    Was sorta trying to avoid getting drawn into that tangent in this post… πŸ˜‰ but maybe if I have willing discussion-participants I could re-consider…

    *thinks you could have an extremely ‘cultured’ blog πŸ˜› if you wanted to*


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