Exercises in critical thinking

Political ads are, unfortunately, everywhere right now. About the only time they tell you anything of substance about the candidates is when one of them promises to do something horrible, and even then you can hope they’re lying. They do, however, provide a lot of opportunities for exercising critical thinking capabilities and spotting fallacies.

An ad I saw at least three times yesterday complained that a Massachusetts candidate (I don’t remember who) refuses to answer questions about illegal gambling by family members. What’s significant is what the ad doesn’t say, i.e., pretty much anything.

It didn’t name any family members or make any charges, but just claimed that the candidate should answer questions about unspecified illegal gambling which family members may or may not have engaged in. Even if they did, why should I care? I don’t think any honestly run gambling should be illegal. Even if you think some should be, currently illegal betting includes trivial violations like placing small bets with bookies, as well as Internet gambling, which is illegal only to satisfy the extreme anti-betting faction and the legal gambling operations that keep their margins high by outlawing most competition. If the ad came out and said, “The candidate’s cousin makes bets with bookies,” who’d care?

The tone of the ad can make you feel that something deep and important is being covered up, but it actually provides no support for that implication. It’s a common tactic.

Update: The candidate in question is Rep. John Tierney, whose brothers-in-law allegedly ran an offshore gambling business in Antigua, and whose wife has been convicted of helping them to file false tax returns. My own reaction to this, provided the bettors weren’t cheated, is “So what?” Others may think that if a member of Congress turns his back on anything illegal, no matter how victimless, that casts doubt on his qualifications. But the point relevant to the critical thinking issue is that the ad didn’t give any of this information and couldn’t be used to draw any legitimate conclusions.

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2 Responses to “Exercises in critical thinking”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    I agree of course with your point about the ad; I haven’t seen it, but I take your word about its failure to give specifics, and the fallacies you identify in that.

    However, just because someone gives a bad defense of a point doesn’t prove a point invalid. In this case I think the attack on Tierney is justified. When a congressman’s relatives break the law, serious questions should be asked about it. If the law is wrong, then the congressman should work to repeal it, not turn a blind eye to his own family breaking it while the law is enforced on everyone else.

    In the specific case of participation of US citizens in offshore gambling, this was outlawed in 2006, by a law with the ridiculously misleading name “Security and Accountability for Every Port Act”. Looking at the vote records, we can see that Tierney voted for it. It is very likely the passage of this law helped make his brothers-in-law’s gambling house more profitable by suppressing competitors who were less willing to break the law. It is true that the law was passed by a huge margin, so his vote didn’t make a practical difference; but still, the fact that his family profit from illegal activity that he voted to make illegal, does demonstrate something highly unsavory about him.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      That’s interesting additional information, and makes his apparent indifference to his in-laws’ activities worse. I was reacting to the ads I saw in general, with that as the clearest example of using innuendo instead of facts, and trying to get something constructive (fallacy-spotting practice) out of the experience.


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