As students return to school in the coming months, freshmen the world over will open their Philosophy 101 textbooks and make the first steps to learning the art of critical thinking. Critical thinking, discursive reasoning, and the art of argumentation all go hand-in-hand. As the capacity for rational thinking is among the most characteristic traits of our common humanity, learning how to think well is among the most important steps in learning how to live life well.
But learning how to think well and reason properly also requires studying where thinking breaks-down; what philosophy calls the “logical fallacies”. While examples of false and abortive attempts at reasoning abound throughout the history of human discourse, in the past weeks the media have presented us with fresh examples of all of them.
Take, for example, a front-page article by the New York Times on July 21 titled “With Planned Parenthood Videos, Activist Ignites Abortion Issue”. This is not, note well, an opinion piece (there is a separate opinion piece written by the Editors in the same issue of the NYT entitled “The Campaign of Deception Against Planned Parenthood”). This is an article purporting to report on the second video on Planned Parenthood and the sale of baby parts.
(Link to first video. Link to second video. Link to third video. Link to fourth video. StemExpress, the company which supplies the fetal parts has taken out an injunction against the release of the next video in a series of 12.)
The argument that Center for Medical Progress lead researcher David Daleiden is posing for us in his series of videos is contained, fleetingly, in the opening lines of the NYT article, where writers cite that Daleiden is “alleging that Planned Parenthood clinics are selling tissue from aborted fetuses for profit”, to which the NYT immediately adds: “…a charge the group denies.” Daleiden himself says in the very opening sentence of the article “I don’t think I’m the story.” The argument, the discussion, should be about – as Daleiden reminds us – Planned Parenthood selling baby body parts. And yet, see how the NYT twists its report by introducing a number of classic logical fallacies:
Ad hominem: The whole article is built on this one. Daleiden is “the man behind the story and the hidden camera – the anti-abortion activist who has provoked a storm with his video stings”, which sets the pace of the piece. It proceeds to be all about Daleiden, suppressing the videos and the graphic reality they reveal.
Straw man: “Once again, Planned Parenthood condemned the scam for deceptively characterizing its handling fees for covering expenses,” continues the Times, shifting attention with sleight-of-hand language and focus. The article mis-frames the argument by calling it a scam, and a deceptive characterization of allegedly legal practices, thus moving away from the main story of selling baby body parts.
Appeal to emotion: “(Daleiden) guessed he had enough recordings for perhaps a dozen videos that he can release at the rate of one a week for the next few months. The time frame all but ensures political tumult ahead.” Recall, this did not appear in the opinion section on the editorial pages.
Begging the question: This fallacy of presenting a circular argument in which the conclusion is wrapped in the premise is woven throughout (Daleiden is untrustworthy, therefore his ‘deceptive scam’ is untrustworthy; Planned Parenthood is a solid health care provider, therefore its practices are solid and beyond reproach.)
Bandwagon: The videos arrives as the large field of Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination takes shape, and already “rivals are competing to denounce Planned Parenthood as they seek to appeal to anti-abortion conservatives in the party’s base.” This plays into the Times’ readership, largely liberal and aligned with the Democratic party.
Slippery slope: Republicans in Congress may be holding spending bills “hostage unless they are amended to eliminate money for Planned Parenthood”…with the risk being “a government shutdown.” How did we get so far off the topic of marketing fetal tissue?
There are five to six paragraphs in this article that proceed to cover the politics of the Republican party and a host of fallacies as the Times drifts further from the main argument: Planned Parenthood is selling baby body parts, discussing such sales with potential buyers with language, tone and an attitude of disregard for human life that is evident throughout the video series.
Daleiden expressed confidence that his videos will change minds. He wanted to release them last year, notes the Times, but needed more time to get material on what he called “the whole world of selling baby parts.” Scare quotes tactically used.
And there’s more. The Times article proceeds with fallacies, like the “loaded question” of whether fetal tissue research may actually have potential benefits for curing and treating diseases (which is also a “red herring”). It continues the ad hominem attack on Daleiden, delving into his background in “anti-abortion militancy” and questioning the veracity, integrity and reputation of his colleagues in advocacy work over the years.
“Some liberal websites have suggested that Mr. Daleiden is also a friend and ally of James O’Keefe, who…is a well-known video provocateur, for his campaign that brought down the liberal community organizing group Acorn.”
What does any of that have to do with the fundamental premise of the argument that Planned Parenthood is marketing baby body parts? Engage the argument. Stay with it. Report on it, giving opposing voices the chance to refute the argument. Give readers facts and let them form their own reactions and opinions. In this front-page, above-the-fold article, the New York Times is taking the persona of Planned Parenthood and launching a fallacy-laden defense of the abortion industry giant. This would never pass high school logic, or qualify for the debate team.
Watch the videos and make up your own mind. The Times would have you think that seeing the truth in a series of videos will lead to a government shutdown. This piece ferrets out the origins of the video campaign without addressing, at all, the argument those videos pose.
Sheila Liaugminas is the editor of the MercatorNet blog Sheila Reports. Andrew Liaugminas is a doctoral student in at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he is studying the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas.