Fallacies in the Headlines

Continuing our bold policy of examining the glaring failures of logic currently taking place in our public discourse, we present yet another collapse of rationality RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES. Recently, there has been a plethora of idiotic remarks, an embarrassment of riches, to choose from. In another post, we’ll look at the effect of fallacious reasoning on the abortion debate. In this post, we’ll look at a pretty significant lapse in an important argument about climate change.

The Fallacy? This time it’s a double! A two for one! Just think of the efficiency of this.

Count number 1: the Hypothesis Contrary to Fact fallacy

Count number 2: the Hidden Assumption fallacy

The Perpetrator? US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The Flagged Play? “If Eisenhower wanted to build the interstate highway system today, people would ask how we’d pay for it.”

The congresswoman recently communicated this statement, and it contains the fallacy known as Hypothesis Contrary to Fact. I bet that once you start listening for it, you’ll be surprised how often you use it yourself.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made the statement in the context of her goal of 100% renewable energy for the US by 2030. Right now, our renewables stand at about 20% of our overall energy use, and I think even that figure is a little on the optimistic side. A number of people who have studied the issue closely say the transition to 100% can’t be done any earlier than 2050, even with a full-blown, can-do, all-out, red-blooded American effort. So the issue of funding came up, at which time she uttered the aforementioned fallacy.

One cannot base a claim (the ‘hypothesis’) on something that never happened (the ‘contrary to fact’ part). You can’t use a non-event to support your argument. Why? Because it makes no sense, it’s counter-factual. How can a claim about reality be supported by something that doesn’t exist? You know the answer: it can’t.

Obviously, Eisenhower is not here to propose building the interstate highway system; in fact, that feat has already been accomplished. And I’m pretty sure people back then did ask how we would pay for it. And it’s a reasonable question today, given the current state of our energy problems and the nearly complete absence of any effective, positive action on the question. 

But the remark also carries a Hidden Assumption that building an interstate highway system and switching the nation to all-renewable by 2030 are comparable tasks. Yes, they are both monumental undertakings, but I think there are some significant differences between laying concrete all across the country and refining, implementing and deploying a number of new technologies that aren’t fully operational yet. And so, even as an analogy, this remark really isn’t working. An example of two fallacies at work in the same claim.

Revving people up by putting forward exciting ideas is great; but once folks are revved, you better pay off or you’ll leave distrust and cynicism in your wake. This is why knowing how to put forward goals that are not illusory but achievable is an important leadership skill.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.