Politicians’ expert-led fallacies

Natalie asked:

What fallacies do you find most interesting and why?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In responding to this question, I follow its spirit and give a very indulgent answer by demonstrating a particular type of fallacy that I find to be interesting: other panel members may have their own favourites. Often fallacies are grouped into two types: ‘formal fallacies’ used in logical structures where an incorrect premise may invalidate a whole argument; and ‘informal fallacies’ common within semantic reasoning and discussion. Here, I demonstrate a type of informal fallacy which often originates from of a group of persons who are experts in their field and their opinion contains much credence and immediately convinces many of its validity. The problem starts where the experts have drawn the incorrect conclusion from the information available; and this is further compounded by persons in power adopting the conclusion, without too much questioning of its validity, as it supports their cause. Often such fallacies are the first argument opening a debate and beg to be repudiated. Furthermore, being quite original, they generally do not involve the deliberate weakening of another’s argument or the deflecting of attention from another’s argument.

Here, I will provide a recent example of such a fallacy, which eventually collapsed. It originated from the world of economics and was fervently endorsed by some politicians. It occurred during ‘the Brexit debate’: which discussed whether the United Kingdom (UK) should relinquish its membership of the European Union (EU) prior to a referendum being held to decide the matter; (now, I hasten to add that this does not indicate a stance for or against Brexit, as it attempts to be impartial and allows us to learn by recounting events which actually took place).

Two events preceding the referendum held on 23 June 2016 are quite telling. Firstly, on April 2016 the British government distributed a leaflet to all households in the UK describing why they felt it would be better for the UK to remain within the EU; they believed that a ‘leave’ vote would rapidly bring forth disruption in society resulting in an ‘economic shock’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk#fn:15).  The document was replete with references from notable economic experts including banks, reputable universities and the International Monetary Fund.

Secondly, anticipating the referendum on the 15 June 2016, a member of the government’s opposition, namely Alistair Darling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, joined with the then current Chancellor of the Exchequer to warn of the need for an emergency budget if the UK voted to leave the EU; the budget would require the populace to suffer tax hikes in order to fill a predicted government deficit (https://www.politicshome.com/news/europe/eu-policy-agenda/brexit/news/76168/george-osborne-and-alistair-darling-warn-emergency). This type of fallacy may be said to fall into the category of fallacies known as ad baculum: where the arguer attempts to sway the undecided by disproportionately emphasising the consequences of not supporting the arguer’s stance (and the reader may like to review the entry ‘argumentum ad’ in The Oxford dictionary of Philosophy for definition of many common fallacies; other dictionaries are available).

However, after voting to leave the EU, the immediate economic hardship failed to materialise and to this day, the UK’s economy remains stable. Many experts have been forced to backtrack and reassess their contribution to the debate; (see https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/oct/04/imf-peak-pessimism-brexit-eu-referendum-european-union-international-monetary-fund as one example). However, it provides an example of politicians seemingly throwing a deliberate fallacy into the debate in both a Machiavellian and clumsy manner.

The questioner also asks ‘why’ some fallacies may be interesting.  For me, this example reminds us that we must have the confidence to form our own opinions and maintain a healthy scepticism towards both the experts and those in power. Such fallacies may grow unchecked until they face the acid test which is their undoing. They may be compared to the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes as they convince many of their validity; but when they are disproved, they are rejected rapidly.

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