Thursday, November 19, 2009

A field guide to dud arguments: the temporal red herring

A long time ago, I used to participate in a usenet forum on capital punishment. That experience gave me an up-close view of all the common logical fallacies, and I eventually developed a list of "dud" arguments: arguments made (by both sides) which contained one or more logical fallacies.

I hope to make this the first of a series of web-log posts exploring bad logic as I encounter it today, in issues of municipal government, in provincial issues, and national and international issues as well.

Over the past year, I have repeatedly heard variants of the phrase: "you can't turn back the clock". It frequently appears in arguments about modes of transportation, where opponents of cycling have attempted to paint the bicycle as a "nineteenth century" mode of transportation, and advocates for "developing" Toronto's port lands have attempted to argue that marine transportation has likewise had its day.

Like all really good duds, this argument does not advance a simple falsehood, so much as fail to apply an important truth in a clear manner. As circumstances change, the solutions we use logically have to change as well. And since all change happens as a function of time, we easily gravitate to the use of time as a substitute for change. But an argument based on nothing but time, such as referring to a technology as "nineteenth century", with the actual changes that have taken place since the nineteenth century unmentioned, qualifies as a dud. Arguments against relying on bicycles for transport may exist, although I have yet to read any good ones, but the words "nineteenth century" do not, in any sense, qualify. The same holds for marine transportation, and many other technologies and customs. The changes that time brings may indeed create good arguments for doing (or not doing) things in a certain way. The passage of time itself does not.

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