Hunting for logical fallacies in the daily news is like fishing in a well-stocked pond—it’s easy and glibly rewarding. When criticizing a politician’s record, the fallacy of Tu Quoque is particularly useful; the New Atheists seem to find the Straw Man fallacy quite efficient when characterizing Christians; and when reporting on sex-abuse scandals, Selective Attention has done its part to portray the Church as morally monstrous. Poisoning the Well is, alas, alive and well when affixing political prefixes to conservatives; the Congress’ discourse was rife with False Dilemmas when arguing the partisan points of health-care reform; and Guilt by Association has long been a popular choice for dealing with Supreme Court nominees. We can instantly recall dozens of recent instances of Appeals to Emotion, Appeals to Ignorance, and Question-Begging.
Besides misadventures in informal logic, philosophical jargon is often co-opted for less precise purposes. “Logical” used to mean “related to logic,” but now it seems to be a synonym for “reasonable.” To “refute” an argument used to mean to defeat it decisively; now it seems only to indicate counterargument. “Justifying” something, if I recall, used to mean giving a sound line of reasoning to excuse an action. But in today’s New York Times, a headline reads, “U.S.-Born Cleric Justifies the Killing of Civilians.” Does he now? Anwar al-Awlaki’s utilitarian argument, the Times reports, is that American civilian deaths are merely “a drop in the sea” compared to the plight of Arab civilians in war zones. Some justification.