Rebutting Michele Bachmann on the 2009 Food Safety Modernization Act.
Twenty years ago, when I was in college and studying for a BA in Philosophy, one of the courses required for my major was Logic. I do not really recall that I enjoyed the subject all that much, especially learning Aristotelian truth tables (see, e.g. http://aristotle.tamu.edu/~rasmith/Courses/Logic/Exercises/2.0.html), but I did earn an A in the class. I also obtained the ability to quickly identify logical fallacies, failures of reason, and irrationality. Indeed, to this day, when I hear someone making a poorly reasoned argument, or one that is based on no reasoning at all, I cringe. For me, it is like seeing someone write 2 + 2 = 5 on a chalkboard. I know immediately that it does not add up. And no matter how many times someone writes that equation on the board, or attaches to it an appeal to fear (or, in logical terms, an argumentum in terrorem), 2 + 2 = 5 is still not a true statement, and it never can be.
Logic can teach us to objectively evaluate an argument, and to recognize logical fallacies and statements that are not true. And as just mentioned, logic can teach those who take the time to learn it, to reject appeals to fear as a logical fallacy. These appeals take the following form (which will also tell you a little bit about logic and truth tables).
Either P or Q is true.
P is terrifying and awful.
Therefore, Q is true.
The conclusion of this argument is false because the manner in which is reached rests upon a logical fallacy–actually, more than one. First, even if the prospect of P is terrifying and awful, or appears to be so, the fact of it coming to pass might not be so. Second, even if the first statement in this argument is true (as it must be under the rules of logic), this argument assumes the truth of the second statement–also called the minor premise. And thus this argument is a form of circular reasoning, also known as begging the question (or Petitio Principii), since if you are just going to assume the truth of that which you are supposed to be attempting to prove, by attempt the proof at all? Finally, this argument also refutes a proposition that is irrelevant, most often because it is not a position held by the person being criticized or attacked. The position refuted thus acts as the “straw man,” which is the name of this particular logical fallacy, and part of the larger category of fallacies referred to as “red herrings.” Indeed, all three of the fallacies just discussed fall into this category, a favorite of sloppy thinkers and the intellectually dishonest. Tyrants love this kind of “reasoning” too.
The power of logic is like the power of arithmetic; its premises cannot reasonably be disputed without rejecting the validity of the system as a whole. The validity of the system, along with its premises can, however, be ignored. Just as someone can continue to insist that 2 + 2 = 5 by ignoring the arithmetic impossibility of such an assertion, one can also continue to insist on validity of an otherwise utterly invalid argument. Which brings me to what inspired the above disposition in the first place: Michele Bachmann, and her most recent lunacy, this one about the food supply in the United States, and the impact of the food safety bill now pending in Congress.
During a floor speech in the House of Representatives on Monday, September 14, 2009, Congresswoman Bachman made the following argument–or “argument.”
Then-candidate Obama, Senator Obama, made the statement during the course of his campaign. He said, Americans can’t think that they can drive SUVs, set their thermostats at 72 degrees, or eat as much as food as they want, and think the rest the world will be okay with that.
Well, let’s take a look at the report card since President Obama has come into office. By taking over GM and Chrysler, what we’re seeing is the diminution of the SUV. We’re seeing a lot of these high-end vehicles now being phased out, and instead we’re seeing the new cars that the President wants to have put in place by Government Motors. That’s the SUV portion.
What about setting our house temperature at 72 degrees and buildings like this one at 72 degrees? Well, once we have the government effectively nationalizing energy, people won’t be able to afford to set their thermostats at 72 degrees. They will be sitting at home shivering at 55 degrees in winter, and in summer most likely won’t even be able to turn on the air-conditioning.
And what about food? President Obama said we can’t eat as much food as we want and think the rest of the world will be okay about that–as if that matters to freedom-loving Americans. Well, we just heard last week that the Federal Government now under the Obama administration is calling for a re-ordering of America’s food supply. What’s that going to mean? Now will the White House decide how many calories we consume, or what types of food we consume?…My farmers are very concerned about this.
(Note: The italics above are my own, and were added for emphasis. The video of Bachmann’s speech, if you dare watch it, can be found at YouTube.)
Now, I will not attempt to unwind this Gordian knot of a speech so as to find (or try to find) how many threads it contains; I will, however, make a couple of points that are illustrative of my discussion of logical fallacies. First, Bachmann plainly delights in quoting President Obama out of context, which is — no surprise here — a form of straw man argument. When he made the statement to which Bachmann points, and on which she bases her entire argument, President Obama was discussing global warming, and the importance of “lead[ing] by example.” He was also arguing that it was crucial for our country’s global competitiveness that we develop and become leaders in green technology that the U.S. could be profitably exported to developing countries. But, to Bachmann, that is all beside the point, which is to say, beside the different point that she wants to make based on her distortion of what the President actually said. This is because she has a second logical fallacy to construct — that is, an in terrorem argument to make. According to Bachmann, Obama is going to nationalize energy, just like he did with “government motors” in his quest to abolish SUV’s. And even worse, Obama is go to exert control over every thermostat in the U.S. and force us all to sit at home in the winter and shiver!
Oh, and as if all that was not horrible and terrifying enough: President Obama will soon “decide how many calories we consume, or what types of food we consume,” all under the guise of making food safer. I mean, imagine that–trying to rid the U.S. food supply of deadly pathogens like E. coli O157:H7, all as a means of lowering the caloric intake of “freedom loving Americans” everywhere. If this plan were not so diabolical, it just might be funny–hysterically funny. Or perhaps, considering the source of the warning, just hysterical. Of course, if I decided to accuse Congresswoman Bachmann of being hysterical, as a way of attacking her argument, I would then be guilty of a logical fallacy too–an ad hominem argument (also a form of red herring), in which I attack the person of my opponent rather her position. Let me thus take a moment to attack Bachmann’s position, and not her person (as tempting at that may be).
According to Bachmann, any government effort that attempts to limit what, or how much, “freedom lovi
ng Americans” eat is, for lack of an even more generic, or neutral term, bad (or not good). If we accept, for the sake of argument, that this is true, then we must also accept as true that all Americans must be free to eat anything they want, in any quantity they want. Similarly, it must be accepted as true that any limitation on this freedom, direct or indirect, which is caused by government action (or inaction) is bad, and would be harshly criticized by Bachmann. It therefore follows that she must be in favor of food subsidies for all Americans, given that all Americans are not free to eat anything they want, in any quantity, if they lack the money to do so.
So does Bachmann actually support the freedom of all Americans to eat what and how much they want, without federal restriction of any kind? Of course not. And that of course means that the premise of her argument is false. All restrictions on what Americans eat are not bad. Consequently, it is necessarily true that some restrictions on what Americans can eat are good. (See how much fun logic is?) But faced with such logic, I suspect that Bachmann would disagree, and clarify that “freedom loving Americans” only need (or want) to be free to eat what they can afford to eat based on their own hard work and freely-earned earnings. In other words, government has no business subsidizing the food supply such that Americans have more of certain things to eat than others, and some food items are cheaper than they would otherwise be in the absence of federal subsidies.
But wait! What about the farmers for which Bachmann expressed such concern? Does not the government provide them subsidies, and provide price support for their crops, thereby increasing the cost of food, and, as a direct result, limiting the quantity and kinds of food that “freedom loving Americans” can afford to buy and consume? And what about the subsidies that apply to only a few kinds of crops, like corn, wheat, and soybeans, thereby causing surpluses of these items that prevent “freedom-loving” farmers from being free to grow whatever they want, instead of what the government tells them to grow? What about that Congresswoman Bachmann?
(Side-note: Bachmann collected $47,128 in federal farm subsidies between 2004-2005 for part ownership of a farm in Wisconsin, according to the Environmental Working Group. She has also consistently voted against restrictions of wealthy “urban farmers”–i.e., non-farmers who have only an ownership interest in a farming operation as an investment.)
Of course, I doubt very much that I would get an answer to these questions from the honorable Congresswoman from Minnesota, not ones that addressed the questions themselves. Instead, were Bachmann to follow her typical strategy, I would likely be accused of being a non-freedom loving American — or, worse yet, a crazy socialist (and probably a gay one to boot). And this is the sad fact of so much political argument in the United States today; when confronted by their own illogic, few speakers already certain of their rightness are going to be dissuaded by evidence or “mere” logic. And that, in the end, is the essence of sophistry: the effort is not to convince, but to deceive. Whereas logic seeks truth, sophistry (and its close cousin eristic argument) aims only to win an argument, by any means possible, especially by shouting down all those who deign to disagree by, for example, pointing out that the food safety law now under consideration in Congress is intended to keep “freedom-loving Americans” from dying of food poisoning, not dictating what and how much they eat.
But don’t tell that to Congresswoman Bachmann, she’ll call you a commie.