Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wrestling for a Fall(acy)

Presently, I'm struggling to distinguish the various kinds of logical fallacies.  More specifically, I need to determine the proper definition of the anecdotal fallacy. 

This arises out of last night's practice quiz question treating of Socrates' Apology.  It's the place where he's maintaining that in condemning him to death, the assembly really isn't doing him any harm, since death is either a dreamless sleep, or else a chance to meet and converse with the good and the great from the past.  To buttress his assertion that sleep without dreams is a good and pleasant thing, he appeals to common experience.  He asserts that everyone, from kings to slaves, including "you," the citizens sitting in judgement over him, knows by experience that this is true.  Can't exactly recall how the question was phrased, but I chose the answer saying that he is appealing to empirical (or experiential) evidence which could perhaps be confirmed by formal study.  (Or disproven, which is the nature of experiment).  The official answer was that Socrates was appealing to anecdotal evidence, and his argument was therefore faulty.

Huh?  I thought anecdotes were specific, descriptive, individual, and (usually) unconfirmed incidences of an event or condition.  As in, "This certain thing happened to me; it must be true for everybody."  If I appeal to the experience of the mass of humanity, and that in an experiential way, how is that "anecdotal"?

I've looked up the definition of the anecdotal fallacy online, and every place I've looked seems to agree that it does imply something specific.  Here's a good definition from The Fallacy Files:  "The Anecdotal Fallacy occurs when a recent memory, an unusual event, or a striking anecdote leads one to overestimate the probability of events of that type occurring―especially if one has access to better evidence of the frequency of such events."  This was not what Socrates was doing, so I still aver that the practice quiz maker erred.   

That said, I probably was wrong, too.  Upon closer thought I'd suggest that Socrates was making a bandwagon appeal.  As in, "Everybody thinks this is true, so it really must be! (And maybe there's something wrong with you if you don't!)"  The proposition that "everybody" thinks a dreamless sleep is best is not in the same empirical category as the assertion, say, that people feel better after a good meal.

Another thought, on process.  On these practice tests, I'm frequently experiencing brain-paralysis when they ask a question like, "What logical fallacy is the writer guilty of in this excerpt?" or "What organizational method is the writer using?"  Then follow the names of four examples of the relevant category and I'm left babbling, "Oh gosh, oh gosh, I can't think, I can't remember, I'll just have to guess!!!!"

But I know these categories!  I can recognize when people are using them!  How much better for me to ignore the nouns for the nonce and focus instead on the verbs!  To look at the actual text and ask, "How is the author arguing badly or deceptively?  Oh, yes, look, he's inserted a distractor to get us off the main issue!  The red herring fallacy, hooray!"

(And in that case (grumble, grumble), "red herring" had jolly well better be one of the multiple choice options.)


Miss Kitty said...
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Miss Kitty said...

Weird answer to that question! Hmm. I can put it to the folks on the WPA (Writing Program Administrators) Listserv if you like. We had a great and hilarious discussion a few weeks ago in reponse to a New York Times article saying that no one should be teaching the logical fallacies any more.

The fabric store you commented about on E&P: They don't sell over the web, but I can get you some pictures and swatches next time I go up there. If you decide you reeeeeally want some fabric, let me know. I can get it for you and then you can reimburse me for it + shipping. I'll be in there anyway, so it's not any trouble. :-)

Mom will address your silk shell dilemma in her next Ask Mom column. It'll be posted on my sister's blog next week, and I'll direct everyone to it from E&P. :-)

St. Blogwen said...

Thanks, Miss Kitty!

After I finish flunking this exam tomorrow (which I probably shall, since I dallied around for a year and a half and didn't read or reread all the literature on the recommended list), I can go back and actually cite the excerpt and the possible answers. I doubt doing so would come under ABCTE's confidentiality ban, since this material is not replicated on the actual exam. (That we're forbidden to reproduce, even by memorization. LOL!)

I'd appreciate your mom's input. Wow. As for buying any new fabric, I probably shouldn't, considering how many half-finished sewing projects I have lying around . . . and how much work I have to do on my house . . . but . . . . ;-)