Paul Jacob

Actually they're not rules, they're laws: the laws of logic. These laws can get complicated. But they boil down to just one: the law of identity.

The law of identity says things are what they are. Framed negatively, it is the law of non-contradiction; the fact, in Aristotle's words, that "the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect." A boulder does not have the features of a donut. If you want to know what a donut is like, inspect a donut, not a boulder. (Assume a fresh donut.)

Logic is good for everything, from crossing the street to doing journalism. One thing logic enjoins as you're doing journalism is that you be internally consistent in your depictions and assessments. Also that you report about the real world, not your free-floating fantasy construct. Fiction has its own logic, of course, but not the logic of reports that carry the weight they carry because of the assumption that there is an effort to use facts, not fictions, as the building blocks.

Let's now examine a textbook example of illogical reporting by an alleged reporter: a newspaper article by Michael Dresser that was reprinted under various headlines around the country. The most apt headline--i.e., the one most clearly indicative of the biased, slanted illogic--was the Orlando Sentinel's: "Women's Progress in Politics Has Stalled" (August 17, 2003). Better would have been "Women's Progress in Politics Has Stalled Thanks to Those Dang Term Limits," but you can't have everything.

The article illustrates several logical fallacies of the sort that I puncture periodically in my Common Sense e-letter, read only by the most sophisticated and politically savvy people. Let's consider two of these fallacies.

1. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Latin for "after this, therefore because of this." This is the fallacy of treating a temporal relationship as if it must be a causal relationship. So let's say that in 1990, voters pass state legislative term limits in California. Later there's an earthquake, mud slide, fire, Gray Davis, or what have you. You cannot then say, "Aha! See what happens when you have term limits?" No, you have to actually supply evidence showing that term limits cause all bad things. Then, and only then, can you argue that term limits cause all bad things. Sequence does not equal causality.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.
 



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