A carnival of fallacies

There’s been a couple of noteworthy responses to Mr Eugenides fisking of Polly Pot’s recent Blairite love-in that, in turn, deserve a response.

Tom, at Let’s Be Sensible, seems to be trying to be, well, sensible in taking issue with Mr E’s humourous commentary on vegetable masturbation and proves…

…well only that tastes vary.

Like so many oither things in life, humour is in the eye of the beholder – either you find Mr E’s depiction of Polly Pot fantasising over Gordon Brown while masturbating with a carved organic carrot purchased from Tesco, or you don’t, in much the same way that some people find Richard Pryor hilariously funny, while others prefer the Chuckle Brothers, at least until they’re served with an order under the Mental Health Act.

Elsewhere, Pootergeek takes Mr E to task for pulling apart Polly’s use of logical fallacies and then throwing in one of his own…

What case does Mr E offer in reply? The “what if a bad government took control?” one. Yep, a fallacy so limp that no one can be bothered to give it a fancy Latin name (though I’m happy to be corrected).

Someone better versed that I could probably put an exact name to the fallacy that Pootergeek claims on Mr E’s behalf, which would certainly fall within the bounds of an appeal to consquences (argumentum ad consequentiam to give it its fancy latin name) with shades of an appeal to probability and a hefty dose of both misleading vividness and a parade of horribles – the outcome of introducing ID cards, that is, not Mr E and Pootergeek.

Aside from noting that Pootergeek wanders right into a logical fallacy of his own by framing much of his critique in the form of an appeal to ridicule – humour invariably entails the use of fallacy, in the form of exaggeration and hyperbole, and is therefore best avoided as a counterargument to another fallacy – he also makes a few assertions that don’t really stack up when looked at seriously, for example:

it’s partly because the supposed civil liberties arguments are so shockingly feeble and so poorly made that Tony Blair can get away with backing a centralised database of citizens on the grounds that it would be more “modern” to have one than not to.

The civil liberties arguments in relation to ID cards are certainly not feeble but they are complex and problematic in the sense that one is dealing first with an abstract concept (civil liberties) and second with a situation in one is required to exercise soem predictive judgment in suggesting both what consequences might flow from their introduction and whether those consequences should be thought of as either good, bad, or a mixture of both.

This creates a problem in that it tends to encourage arguments that rapidly degenerate into an exchange of fallacies – those arguing against their introduction resort to the much discredited ‘slippery slope’ line of argument against which their supporters will usually wind-up throwing in the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy in the form of ‘no democratic government would ever…’.

Neither is entirely correct.

Slippery slopes tend to rely heavily on painting scenarios which offer the worst possible outcome, as in the classic canard that suggests that legalising gay ‘marriage’ will lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. If you want to see the slippery slope argument in action, just pop over to Mad Mel’s as it a standard feature of almost all her output. It is also equally fallacious to suggest that just because something hasn’t already happened it can’t or won’t happen, which is the general gist of the argument deployed by supporters of ID cards.

Nor, however, is either entirely incorrect, either.

Slippery slopes can, on occasion, come to fruition – hence Pastor Neimoller’s oft quoted statement that begins, ‘First they came for…’ and if they don’t, then quite obviously the position of those who argued that the sky isn’t going to fall is vindicated.

The civil liberties argument in relation to ID cards is, consequently, not ‘shockingly feeble’ but requires a complex value judgment as to the consequences that will emerge, if any, as a result of their introduction, one that requires serious and careful contemplation if one is to arrive at any valid conclusions.

That Blair is able to deploy the argument that we should introduce ID cards purely because they represent modernity is not a function of the weakness of civil liberties argument but of a more general malaise that afflicts British political and media culture as a whole. Over the last 30 years or so, under first Thatcher and latterly Blair, Britain has developed an attention deficit political culture in which large swathes of the population have been conditions by both politician and the media to expect and respond to certain things either postively or negatively.

Strong leadership, party unity and simplistic solutions that promise immediate action (i.e. dog bites child therefore ban all dogs) have been relentless promoted as ‘good’, while debate, dissention, argument and complexity have been pushed as being ‘bad’.

To consider, fully, the civil liberties implications of introducing ID cards requires one to consider a whole raft of complex issues and possibilities with due reference to extant historical precedents, which in many instances are the best we have to go on in trying assess where prevailing trends in government may lead, a process that is the antithesis of the prevailing political and media culture, which values, instead, the immediate gratification of a conditioned Pavlovian response to propaganda in the form of soundbites.

Notwithstanding the legitimate civil liberties objections one can raise against ID cards for which there are strong historical precedents – and it should be noted that this includes pointing out that direct comparisons to countries such as Sweden, France and Holland are wholly invalid not only because none of those countries back up their own use of ID cards with anything like the all-encompassing database system that will sit behind the UK’s system but because of fundamental differences in legal culture between common law and civil code countries – perhaps the single greatest argument in favour of extreme caution is simply that the vast majority of the British population do not sufficiently understand the issues, as they arise out of ID cards and the development of what has been called the ‘database state’ and the ‘surveillance society’ to genuinely make informed choices as to how far, and and what pace we should proceed down that road, if we should go there at all.

One of the signature characteristics of the ID cards debate over the last two years or so is that the govenment has consistantly both relied on deception and refused outright to engage in meaningful debate with the schemes opponents on any complex issue, whether this the potential impact on civil liberties or simply the question of costs. Throughout, its stock response to any awkward or problng question has been simply to announce that it either rejects the view of opponents outright or refuses even to recognise the arguments.

In such circumstance, when a government refuses to enter into open public debate on legislation it is seeking to pass, the only wise, sensible and prudent response is not to permit them that legislation.

2 thoughts on “A carnival of fallacies

  1. Look, I love the classification of fallacies as much as the next geek, but it’s only really useful when you’re dealing with a problem of logic. A complex policy decision is not actually a quesiton of logic, it’s a matter of judgement. Nobody is trying to prove or disprove that ID cards are a good / bad idea on a formal logical basis.

    While I’m opposed to the current ID proposals in principle, I think the overriding consideration is that – given a reasonable understanding of the current limits of biometrics and database technology, some basic knowledge of security principles and practice, and further given the well-known history of pretty much every comparable IT project in the history of, well, history – any reasonable person would have to conclude that it simply will not work, and it cannot be made to work.

    It’s a bit like arguing about whether you think it’s a good idea to build a Dyson sphere. The point is that we can’t, even if we wanted to, so let’s not waste time and money trying.

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