October 30, 2007

A Fallacy of Fallacies

Justin Katz

Putting aside his petty complaints that Dan Yorke and Lori Drew interrupted him on the radio (but noting that I heard him interrupting Ms. Drew moments before chastising her for doing the same), this aspect of John McNally's thoughts on his appearance on Dan Yorke's show relates to a question that I've had since first coming across his blog last night:

When the d.j. Dan Yorke jumped in (Dan also interrupted me in the first part of the segment), he wanted to argue my point by comparing Will's essay to a security system in the school. What if, he supposes, she had complaints about security? Shouldn't she have the right, as a parent, even though she's not a security expert, to bring this to the attention of the school? My reply was that it was a logical fallacy to compare a security system to an essay that's part of a school's curriculum. He said, "It's not a logical fallacy," and I, making the mistake of thinking this was a debate, and interrupting him as both he and the mother had done to me, said, "It IS a logical fallacy." ...

(Just because two issues share SOME things in common -- like schools and teachers -- doesn't make it a valid comparison. This is Freshman Comp 101, not rocket science, but if that makes me an academic jack-ass, so be it. I'd rather be the person who can distinguish those differences than the one who can't. And if my tone here is elitist, so f***ing what?) ...

So, yes, okay, I'll concede: Maybe I am a certain kind of academic jack-ass who thinks his s*** doesn't stink. Those who know me, of course, are howling right now, but pay no mind to them, because you know what, Dan Yorke? I'd much rather be me than you, a jack-ass d.j. who doesn't know what a logical fallacy is, and whose only come-back is yet another logical fallacy: the ad hominem attack.

Frankly, I'm not persuaded that Mr. McNally is entirely clear on what constitutes a logical fallacy, himself. Here, McNally flings the label upon hearing Yorke equate school security with a reading assignment, which would have been a fallacy of composition and division (some aspects of each thing are like, therefore, they are like in total and, therefore, in other particulars). But this is a strawman (fallacy). A comparison's being invalid doesn't make it logically fallacious. It falls to McNally, at this point, to explain why security and reading assignments are not comparable in the aspects that Yorke intended (in this case, the right, even obligation, of parents to speak up when they think the academic professionals to be in error).

Elsewhere, McNally replies thus to a commenter who questioned whether he would have a problem "if the school assigned Bill O'Reilly or some right-wing book to students to read":


In this instance, the rules of argumentative writing are a red herring (another fallacy), via which McNally attempts to divert attention from the questions. Those questions may be irrelevant, but that's an opinion requiring further debate; posing them doesn't represent a failure of logic.

As I suggested in the comments to my previous post, McNally is employing the technique of calling comparisons and analogies that he finds erroneous or inapplicable "logical fallacies" even though it's not the logic that is fallacious in those cases (which labeling is, itself, a fallacy of persuasive definition). He uses the phrase "logical fallacy" as an invisible wall to be thrown up around rhetorical opponents in order to invalidate their arguments on grounds that he presumes them not to understand.

The not-quite-unexpected irony of the post is that the centerpiece of his own argument is itself a logical fallacy:

My main complaint with this woman isn't that she doesn't want her daughter to read Will Clarke's essay, which she found offensive, but rather that she doesn't want the book in the school at all. In other words, she wants to dictate curriculum. So, you see, she's trying to dictate what OTHER KIDS in the class should be reading, not just what her daughter should be reading.

McNally presents a false dilemma: Either Drew must shut her yap, or she is attempting to "dictate curriculum" (sic). The alternative that this reasoning overlooks is that Drew is dictating nothing; indeed, she is inherently powerless to do so. (She hasn't even suggested, as far as I've seen, that she's considering legal action.) Rather, she's attempting to bring the matter into the open in the hopes that pressure will be brought to bear on those who do have the authority to raise the intellectual and moral level of the education offered in Cumberland's public schools.

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Mr. McNally's attitude is sadly all too common in education.

ar·ro·gance: an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.

Unfortunately it is a barrier rarely broken. Thankfully, Ms. Drew was successful in her attempt to raise enough of a public outcry to cause change. I'm confident that Mr. McNally will have something to say about the outrageous use of the democratic process.

Posted by: John at October 31, 2007 8:03 AM
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