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ANALYSIS BY

Stanislava P. Jovanovic

MA in Psychology

Faculty of Philosophy Nis

Plzen, Czech Republic

 
Stanislava P. Jovanovic

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Stanislava P. Jovanovic is a psychologist, currently working as a writer in the field, which allows her to maintain a wide spectrum of professional engagement and constantly learn about new concepts and findings. She had worked with socially endangered groups for several years, mostly with children and young people. She is a certified peer educator and a peer life coach, with vast experience in organizing workshops, trainings, courses, seminars etc. She is also a certificated assertive communication trainer.

 
Joined On:
July 06, 2017
Last Active:
February 08, 2018
 

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02/08/2018

When An Argument Goes Sideways – Logical Fallacies And Cognitive Distortions In The Us Media

Have you ever noticed how some arguments make you feel like you’re going insane? You probably experienced a situation when someone talks about an issue and you feel that there is just something completely wrong with their argument, but you can’t pinpoint what it is. What usually happens in such instances is that the speaker, on purpose or unconsciously, exploits a range of logical fallacies and associated cognitive distortions to support their position. And the US media often resort to this strategy of convincing (read: tricking) their audience. Let’s examine one such case, and you’ll be able to notice the rest fairly easily.

Tucker Carlson and the Fallacies, Sophisms, and Cognitive Distortions

Although often amusing to watch, one of the champions in taking advantage of logically incorrect ways of presenting an argument is Fox’s Tucker Carlson. He has a habit of utilizing a wide range of fallacies during his show. You can clearly see the effect this has on his guests – with almost no exception, they feel lost in the exchange and by the end of the interview, we often witness an awkward squirming interrupted by Carlson in the most effective moment. It’s a great show, no doubt about that, but the argument itself is usually far from a real discussion.  

First, let’s not fall into a logical fallacy ourselves — this analysis will have nothing to do with any of the political stances, and endorse only the correct way of thinking and presenting an argument. A similar analysis can be performed with any interview or report in the US media, regardless of which side the reporter is on. It is a pure analysis of the structure of an argument, content aside.

Ignoratio elenchi

That said, let us get back to how Tucker Carlson often develops his point. Although apparently convincing, many of his arguments rely on something that can be described simply as missing the point. Or, more precisely, it is the fallacy named ignoratio elenchi, also known as the irrelevant conclusion. You might be seduced to believe Tucker Carlson or those like him don’t miss their point. They seem so persuasive! Yet, what happens behind the scenes, behind what the cameras, the suits, the video and audio production present to you, is simply a logical fallacy. Ignoratio elenchi is an argument in which the speaker really does not address the point being made in the conversation. This point could or could not be valid in itself, but that is not important. The important thing is that it redirects the conversation while it might seemingly go on in the same realm.

To be more specific, let’s examine one such example. In a discussion Carlson led with one of his guests, a question of whether and in what ways (illegal) immigration contributes to a community was being addressed. In a proper argument, all the points would revolve around each specific issue at a time, and not fall into the fallacy of irrelevant conclusion. Yet, what happens in this particular conversation is that the arguments bounce between many issues and fail to maintain a focused argumentation. For example, at one point, the guest asserts that not all illegal immigrants present a burden to a community, and mentions an example of one such person who started a tech company and contributed to the society. At this point, Carlson asks about the exact number of illegal immigrants who started tech companies. Here we see a very good example of ignoratio elenchi. The guest’s point was that some illegal immigrants can bring benefit to a local community. Carlson’s question is simply not relevant to this assertion, regardless of what the answer might be. In other words, yes, there probably aren’t many illegal immigrants who did such a specific thing as starting a tech company and succeeded, but that doesn’t answer the question of illegal immigration and its potential contribution to the society (there are many ways in which this contribution may or may not happen, starting a tech company is barely one of them).

Ignoratio elenchi is a fairly common fallacy and it is often found in the basis of other errors in thinking. You can learn to recognize it by acquiring the habit of asking a simple question: “Is this really relevant?” Yes, it might be persuasive, but does it truly address the point? You’ll be amazed how often it doesn’t.

Other Logical Weapons

Tucker Carlson has a way of misusing other fallacies as well. He does it to manipulate a guest through the interview so that they completely lose their way and end up giving a range of equally incoherent but far less effective responses. As an example, in the same discussion, he keeps coming back to something that can be seen as an abuse of a well-known sophism: The Bald Man (phalakros) paradox. In this paradox, the question of whether pulling a person’s single hair off their head would make them bald is examined. The intuitive (and wrong) answer is that it won’t. But the question in the sophism is repeated, and in the end, the person is left with only one hair on their head. If we pull that hair off, does that make the person bald? Similarly, Carlson insists that if immigration enriches a community, then there should be thousands or even millions of immigrants coming in. Such argument might have a disarming effect, as it is a paradox to which philosophers don’t have a definite solution. In essence, the problem here is — how many is too many? And it was used as a potent weapon in this debate.

Tucker Carlson in this clip also uses a maneuver in which he utilizes the word “fact” as a fact itself, without really supporting such use. More precisely, he states something, names it a fact, with no reference to what makes it a fact, and then continues to treat his assertion as an unquestionable truth. In relation to such a line of argumentation, here and in other interviews he also heavily uses alleged certainty fallacy (also known as “assuming the conclusion”). In this fallacy, the speaker calls on some presumed general opinion and uses it as a proof of the truthfulness of what is being told. Carlson does this often. You can hear him stating that “we would all concur,” “everyone knows that,” “as you would surely agree,” etc. And for the guest, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight off not only Carlson’s dominance given it is his terrain and his show, but now they also feel that they have to battle the entire world who would, apparently, agree with Carlson.

The Effect the Fallacies Have on the Viewers

Now, the guests in Tucker Carlson’s (and not only in his) show do have a hard time maintaining their composure under such rain of arguments, out of which many are based on logical fallacies and sophisms. But, how does this affect viewers? Unfortunately, it can be assumed that, with almost no exception, an average viewer will be swayed by the appearance instead of the logical correctness of the arguments.

The US media exploit the wide influence that they have on the viewers through the sound, the images, the emotions that are displayed... It is a form of a show, a theatre, and it often comes down to who plays it better. Therefore, a guest who appears bedazzled by the host might have a hard time conveying their message. The US media tend to form a mass cognitive distortion in which everything is black or white, based on what the particular channel or host asserts. If Carlson is persuasive about something, immigration, for example, the majority of the viewers will learn to dismiss any nuances of such a delicate issue, and accept a black or white attitude.

***

I hope that, even if you did wonder at the beginning of this article why this might be an important issue, now you can see clearly that using logically incorrect thinking and argumentation in the media can have detrimental effects on us, the media consumers. We might get lazy and stop thinking on our own, we might allow the media to form our attitudes and to distort our view of the world. And such loss of freedom is something an individual should never allow to happen. I think we would all agree on that. (Did you notice it? Good, then this article served its purpose.)

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