FAIRFAX, VA—Questioning truth is relatively easy. Defending truth is hard. Our schools are teaching our children how to question the truth, but the tough job of defending truth has fallen to us parents. Here is some help for those philosophical discussions with teenagers.
We must enter the conversation. Our teenagers hear a lot of nonsense, and they test it on us — they are not necessarily arguing with us. They are testing ideas. Rather than dismiss their rhetorical arguments as nonsense, we can take their arguments apart, piece by piece. We can show them the logical errors. In doing so, we will teach them how to think critically.
Finding logical errors is not hard. We don’t have to be wonks. True enough, scholars from before the time of Socrates onward have categorized logical errors — perhaps more than 50 species and subspecies, and most have Latin names. However, we can catch most logical errors with four simple questions. The health care debate provides ample examples of logical errors:
1. So what? catches most logical errors. All other developed countries have socialized medicine… might be true, but it is irrelevant to the proposition that the American needs socialized medicine. The argument that We’ve always done it this way also fails the So what test. Epithets to intimidate speakers always fail the So what test. The president’s assertion that We must stop the bickering is a dismissive slap at anyone who disagrees with him, a specious ad hominem attack.
2. Specified how? ensures that relevant statements have adequate support. Politicians are particularly guilty of sweeping generalizations. Our health care system is broken — okay, but specify how it is broken. 40 million Americans are uninsured — if the statement is relevant, then give specifics: Who are the uninsured, and why are they uninsured?
3. Is it true? deals with fact checking. An accidental error in fact is an error in logic. A deliberate error in fact is a lie — and also an error in logic. Ultimately, we need to know whether our facts are true. The definition of The Big Lie in George Orwell’s famous book 1984 is a statement that answers the So what question by offering relevant points and satisfies specified how by offering compelling facts, except that those facts are false. Unscrupulous people have no shame in trotting out falsehoods. The only defense is to check facts. The president’s assertion that the health care plan does not cover illegal aliens fails the Is it true test, as Congressman Joe Wilson announced rather bluntly.
4. Says who? prevents us from making false appeals to authority. We need nationalized health care because health care is a right — says who? We need to cite policy, the law, religion, or a real subject matter expert. Socrates cautions us that if we are sick, we should consult a physician — not a politician, certainly not some Hollywood celebrity. We should be especially suspicious of statements like, Everybody knows, it is universally understood, it is expected…. People who lack facts love to cite anonymous authorities.
Other logical problems are in the words, and we need a keen ear to catch these errors. Terms should be defined and adhered to consistently. For example, those who assert that Health care is a right should define right. In my lexicon, a right is something the government cannot take away from you. In fact, nationalized health care takes away a person’s right to health care: the government takes all those decisions to itself. We should not tolerate replacing terms such as socialized medicine with the more innocuous public option. Politicians are quick to abandon unpopular words in favor of synonyms.
The sword of logic cuts both ways. Logical errors from the Right are just as specious as those from the Left. However, at present, the danger to our school-age children is mostly from the Left.
Many busy parents ignore critical thinking; it does not pay the bills. They believe that truth will somehow take care of itself. But we can all learn the lesson from the trial of Socrates: He defended the truth, but he was outnumbered and out-organized by the sophists, and he got the cup of hemlock. If we do not defend the truth today while we still can, we and our children can expect the cup hemlock tomorrow. The temptation is to beat the sophists at their own game, but we do not defend the truth by becoming the better sophists.
Copyright by Daniel Graham and www.fgfbooks.com, the website of the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if the copyright information is included.
Daniel Graham has provided training and consulting services for 25 years to corporations and government agencies throughout North America and Europe. He has trained more than 70,000 engineers, scientists, and business professionals to write better documents faster. His articles on law, engineering, risk management, Catholic issues, and family topics have been published in diverse journals. He is an award-winning novelist.
Daniel Graham earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Alabama and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The College of William and Mary. For 10 years, he served as an officer in the United States Army with assignments in tactical and strategic intelligence. When serving as the Chief Executive Officer of High Frontier, Inc., he founded the Journal of Practical Applications in Space. He is the father of seven children.
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