Tuesday, 26 November 2013
“Like a Straw Man?” she said, and I nodded.
“Okay, a Straw Man is when you attack a dummy of the person’s argument, so you attack what you say they said, rather than what they said. Like, if you put words in their mouth that they didn’t say.”
Perfect, I said. Anything else?
“A home …. Daddy…home…” she faltered. A home? I asked.
“Noooo,” she said like a frustrated teenager. “You don’t understand; I can’t think of the proper name, but it sounds something like that.” It sounds like ‘Daddy Home?’ I asked, and then I realised – Ad Hominem.
“That’s it!” The Girl said with a chuckle. “Attacking the person rather than the argument. I knew it was something like that.”
Very good, I said. Anything else?
“A false dilemma,” she said. “You act like there are two choices, but there might be more.”
Good, I said. Tonight I’m going to tell you about another bad argument, perhaps the one you will hear most as a grownup: the Argument from Fear. She perked up and smiled, like a child about to hear a ghost story. The Argument from Fear, I said, is when people tell you to believe something, not because they have evidence that it’s true, but because you’re scared – ‘Believe we're right or something bad will happen to you.’
“That’s blackmail!” said The Girl, and I agreed, giving some examples from politics or religion. Those were cumbersome issues for a nine-year-old to wrestle with, though, so I turned to popular advertisements. Have you ever seen the adverts on the telly for soap? I asked. The ones with the talking germs?
“Oh yes!” The Girl said. “They have little cartoons of germs, and tell you that germs are all over your body. And they are – but most of them are good! We’re made of germs!” she said.
Exactly, I said. I mean, keeping things somewhat clean is important, but there are gems everywhere, and we can’t and shouldn’t kill them all.
“Then why tell people that?” she asked.
To get you to buy what they're selling, I said, as The Girl looked indignant. If you can get people to feel scared of germs everywhere, you can get them to pay you money. But you haven’t said anything about whether you need to kill more germs than you do, or whether you’ve already killed too many, or whether your soap will do that, or whether some other soap would work better.
“So what do you do?” The Girl asked. “Can you stop being scared?”
Everyone feels scared sometimes, I said. But if you recognise a bad argument when you see it, I said, people can’t manipulate you as easily.
“What happens then?” she asked.
Then, I said, you might make them scared.