A Guide To Spotting Pretzel Logic On The Campaign Trail : It's All Politics President Obama and Mitt Romney routinely put forth arguments on the campaign trail that wouldn't pass muster at a college-level debate. Top debate coaches and Logic 101 professors help break down the top five fallacies lobbed. It's a "no Latin required" election-season primer.
NPR logo A Guide To Spotting Pretzel Logic On The Campaign Trail

A Guide To Spotting Pretzel Logic On The Campaign Trail

Can you recognize the top five logical fallacies lobbed so far in this year's presidential campaign? spxChrome/iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Can you recognize the top five logical fallacies lobbed so far in this year's presidential campaign?


It's a good thing presidential campaigns aren't college debates because politicians routinely spout arguments on the stump (and in their ads) that would never pass muster on the university rostrum.

Campaigns are rife with logical fallacies aimed at whipping up voters and herding them to the polls. Some are deceptively difficult to recognize, while others are familiar but no less seductive.

"Fallacies are used all the time in campaigns," says Sam Nelson, director of forensics at Cornell University's school of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"Human beings are busy. We have all kinds of information around us all the time, we don't have time to logically think through every argument, so we're looking for short cuts," Nelson says. "The issue is whether you can recognize these short cuts that are really fallacies and avoid falling for them."

As we head into the final months before November elections — with party convention bluster, brutal ad wars and debate posturing — Americans will almost certainly be exposed to a lot more pretzel logic. So with the help of Cornell's Nelson and Storey Clayton, a debate coach for Rutgers University Debate Union, here's an election-season primer to help people at home spot the top five logical fallacies so far in this year's presidential campaign. The Latin is optional.


What it means: There's nothing like name-dropping a Founding Father, a former U.S. president or a Nobel laureate to boost your argument. But that still doesn't change the substance of the argument.

Why it works: "It's the devil we know as opposed to something new, which we've never tried," Nelson says. "There's always risk in change. Some people are big risk takers, but most people seek safety."

Examples from the campaign trail:

  • Mitt Romney, July 29

    Evan Vucci/AP
    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
    Evan Vucci/AP

    "Ronald Reagan was one of our great foreign policy presidents. He did not come from the Senate. He did not come from the foreign policy world. He was a governor."

    The Take-Away: "As Reagan's presidency has grown more distant, his star has sort of grown. He's a very appealing authority figure," Clayton says.

  • President Obama, Aug. 1

    "You do not have to take my word for it. Just today, an independent, nonpartisan organization ran all the numbers on Gov. Romney's plan. This wasn't my staff. This wasn't something we did. An independent group ran the numbers."

    The Take-Away: "This is a shortcut for most citizens who aren't willing to do the hard policy analysis. Obama is saying these people did the work so you don't have to," Nelson says.


POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC — 'After this, therefore because of this'

What it means: The argument attempts to turn simple correlation into false or questionable causation. A textbook example: Because the birds sing every morning before the sun rises, the birds' singing causes the sun to rise.

Why it works: "It's a very appealing, intuitive fallacy," Clayton says. "A lot of the arguments that people make around presidential campaigns, for example, are essentially drawing the inference that whatever happened in one's time in office is their responsibility, whether or not they were actually responsible."

Examples from the campaign trail:

  • Mitt Romney, Aug. 1

    "We have fewer jobs under President Obama. Then there's unemployed and underemployed. That's gone up, that's in red, because that's a bad direction. Then we have the unemployment rate, that's bad too, that's why that's in red."

    The Take-Away: "What you're trying to do in a presidential campaign is take relatively complex issues that there's a lot of division on and simplify it so that everyone understands what you're trying to say," Nelson says. "Everyone understands the idea of a report card. Holding it up visually even makes it better. Now, is that report card based on reliable information? We don't know."

  • Ex-Steel Plant Worker Joe Soptic, Speaking In Obama-Affiliated PAC Priorities USA Ad

    "When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care. My family lost their health care. A short time after that, my wife became ill. ... She passed away in 22 days."

    The Take-Away: "Someone responsible for a business is not necessarily responsible for every single decision or every single aspect that's made within that business," Clayton says. "But that's exactly what this ad is trying to argue. It's a classic example of giving someone responsibility over foreseeing every possible effect or every possible outcome."


ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINEM — 'Argument to the man'

What it means: Anyone who's ever been verbally taunted or bullied in a schoolyard is familiar with argumentum ad hominem — basically a fancy debate term for name-calling. Its purpose, like that of all fallacies, is to divert attention away from substantive arguments.

Why it works: "It short-circuits the thinking part of your brain and makes you think, 'This guy's an idiot,' " says Rutgers University's Clayton.

Nelson of Cornell agrees, saying ad hominems are "funny and memorable" and that the person launching one often benefits from being perceived as a fighter. "It appeals to aspects of American culture that we got on the schoolyard and we still have when we're adults," he says.

The Take-Away: "These examples basically reduce everything to name calling," Clayton says. "They cut through the logic and all the rational arguments."

Examples from the campaign trail:

  • President Obama, Aug. 6

    Gov. Romney "would ask the middle class to pay more in taxes to give another $250,000 tax cut to people making more than $3 million a year. It's like Robin Hood in reverse. It's Romney Hood."

  • Mitt Romney, Aug. 7

    "We've been watching the president say a lot of things about me and my policies, and they're just not right. And if I were to coin a term, it would be 'Obamaloney.' "


ARGUMENTUM AD LOGICAM, aka 'Straw man argument'

What it means: Falsely creating an overly simplistic or undesirable argument because it's easier to defeat than the real argument.

Why it works: "It basically works like an inoculation," Nelson says. "Just like a vaccine uses a weakened version of a virus to stimulate an immune response, you tell the person a weakened version of an argument so that when the real thing appears, they have an idea how to answer it. You explain someone's argument in a way that doesn't give it full strength, and then you knock it down."

Examples from the campaign trail:

  • Mitt Romney, July 18

    "[President Obama] said something ... which really reveals what he thinks about our country, about our people, about free enterprise, about freedom, about individual initiative, about America. ... I just want to say it exactly as he said it, speaking about small business and business of all kinds, he said this, 'If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.' "

    The Take-Away: In his speech, Romney takes Obama's remark out of context to reduce a complex argument about the collective nature of success to a simple straw man, Clayton says. He adds: "So, he is characterizing the argument that Obama did make, but he's taking the worst possible, least relatable version of what Obama was saying and defeating that."

  • President Obama, Aug. 9

    Carolyn Kaster/AP
    President Barack Obama
    Carolyn Kaster/AP

    "We're certainly not going to follow Mr. Romney's lead and go back to the days when women didn't have control of their own health care choices."

    The Take-Away: Obama hyperbolizes Romney's position, "making it sound like you're going back to the 1300s and that women would have no control over their health care choices whatsoever," Clayton says. "So, he's making the most dramatic, worst-case version of the argument. Then it's easy for him to make the case that his policies are better."


What it means: This is pretty self explanatory. It plays on someone's fear of a (real or imagined) undesirable consequence.

Why it works: "Fear motivates people, especially if they're already nervous," says Nelson. "If you've just lost your job or think you are going to lose your job and someone says, 'Things are going to get worse.' That will get your attention."

Examples from the campaign trail:

  • President Obama, Aug. 14

    "Last week, we found out that Gov. Romney expects you, middle-class families, to pick up the tab for this big tax cut. ... [Economists say] Gov. Romney's tax plan would actually raise taxes on middle-class families with children by an average of $2,000."

    The Take-Away: "He's basically playing off the fears of the middle class and saying Romney's going to saddle you with a larger and larger tax burden," Clayton notes.

  • Mitt Romney, May 28

    "I wish I could tell you the world is safe today. It's not. Iran is rushing to become a nuclear nation. ... Pakistan is home to some 100 nuclear weapons. China's on the road to becoming a military superpower."

    The Take-Away: "Not only are you telling your story, but you're trying to saddle your opponent with another narrative. So, the narrative you're trying to saddle Obama with is he's weak because he just wants to get along," Nelson says. "You're saying he's naive about the real threats and he's not minding the store."