Philosophical Case Study of Fallacies (Pseudoreasoning)

PHL 202 Instructor John Ding

I. What is Philosophical Case Study?

Case study is a useful methodology when a holistic, in-depth investigation is needed. Case studies are designed to bring out the

details from the viewpoint of the participants by using multiple sources of data. Case studies have been used in varied investigations,

particularly in sociological studies, but increasingly, even in philosophical instruction. A critical case study can be defined as having

strategic importance in relation to the general problem.

Case studies are multi-perspective analyses. This means that the researcher considers not just the voice and perspective of the

actors, but also of the relevant groups of actors and the interaction between them. The unit of analysis is a critical factor in the case

study. It is typically a system of action rather than an individual or group of individuals. Case studies tend to be selectiv e, focusing on

one or two issues that are fundamental to understanding the system being examined. The data generated by case studies would often

resonate experientially with a broad cross section of readers, thereby facilitating a greater understanding of the phenomenon .

Generally speaking, “philosophical case studies” are written examination, verification, justification, and argumentation of real-life

cases based upon data and research. These studies require you to think through the key issues involved against both theory an d the

larger comparative environment, and to identify appropriate strategies for the resolution of the “case” weigh the pros and cons of the

remedial options/strategies recommend and present a rationale for the best resolution.

“Critical thinking” may use two general ways: a practical reasoning approach that emphasizes the application of abstract

philosophical, logical or ethical theories and principles to specific cases, and the case method approach to solute real issues.

II. The Process of Developing a Philosophical Case Study

Philosophical case study methods emphasize a more rational and thoughtful examination of a single instance or event, provide a

systematic approach of investigating events, collecting data, analyzing information, and generalizing the consequences, and also

construct a research strategy, an empirical inquiry that investigates a phenomenon within its real-life context.

There are four applications for a case study model: 1) explain complex causal links in real-life interventions, 2) describe the real-

life context in which the intervention has occurred, 3) describe the intervention itself, and 4) explore those situations in which the

intervention being evaluated has no clear set of outcomes. There are also five components of case studies: a study’s question, its

propositions (if any), its unit(s) of analysis, the logic linking the data to the propositions, and the criteria for interpreting the findings.

The following is the process of developing a philosophical case study:

• Select a single instance or event (case) from any credential sources (newspapers, magazines, books, etc.);

• Define the objective of the case study (The research questions framed as “who”, “what”, “where”, “how”, and “why” determine the relevant strategy to be used);

• Identify the most important player or actor (individuals or organizations) and his/her/their major opponents in a real case;

• State the major problem (perhaps subsequent problems and implications) as one of actual fallacies such as “red herring,” “burden of proof,” and “personal attacks”, etc;

• Outline the reasoning, criticizing, analyzing, or arguing process;

• Compare controversial views or points as regards pros and cons, theory and practice, and analyze information and evidences;

• Make your own examination, verification (falsification), justification and argumentation;

• Develop the conclusions, recommendations and implications, and write a summary or analytic generalization focusing on key elements.

• The length of the case study is about 3-4 double space typing pages.

• Attach original case scanned from those media sources, otherwise readers will not be able to understand the “object”

(target)of your critical analyses.

In brief, 1) find an actual fallacy (only major one) in a real case from a reliable source (What is wrong?); 2) make a rational, critical,

thoughtful, argumentative, analytical and explanatory examination of this fallacy (Why it is wrong?).

III. Sample Cases of Fallacies

1. Dana Milbank of The Washington Post gives some nice examples of George Bush’s favorite technique for fallacious argument, “The Straw Man”: This is when you caricature the argument of your opponent, and then refute the caricature. Finding examples of this technique in

politics is no great task, but Bush makes it all too easy. In the typical speech, Bush explains the prewar intelligence indicating Saddam

Hussein had such weapons, and then presents in inarguable conclusion: “So I had a choice to make: either trust the word of a madman, or

defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America every time.” Missing from that equation is the actual choice Bush confronted:

support continued U.N. weapons inspections, or go to war. And my favorite: There seems to be no end to the crazy positions the straw men

take. Indeed, some have argued in favor of deeper recessions. “Some say, ‘Well, maybe the recession should have been deeper,’ ” Bush said

last summer. “That bothers me when people say that. You see, a deeper recession would have meant more families would have been out of


2. “You would think that taxes should be lowered because you are a Republican [and therefore your argument about taxes should be rejected].” This example might normally be considered an example of a Genetic Fallacy — an ad hominem fallacy which involves the

rejection of an idea or argument because of the nature of the person presenting it. And indeed, this is an example of that fa llacy, but it

is also more. It is essentially circular to assume the falsehood of the Republican political philosophy and thereby conclude that some

essential element of that philosophy (like lowering taxes) is wrong. Maybe it is wrong, but what is being offered here is not an

independent reason why taxes should not be lowered.

3. “Free trade will be good for this country. The reason is patently clear. Isn’t it obvious that unrestricted commercial relations will bestow on all sections of this nation the benefits which result when there is an unimpeded flow of goods between countries?” (Quoted

from With Good Reason, by S. Morris Engel)The argument presented in this example is a little bit more like the way the fallacy

normally appears in reality, because most people are smart enough to avoid stating their premises and conclusions in exactly the same

manner. In this case, “unrestricted commercial relations” is simply a long way of stating “free trade” and the rest of what follows that

phrase is an even longer way of saying “good for this country.” This particular fallacy makes it clear why it is important to know how

to take apart an argument and examine its constituent parts. By moving beyond the wordiness, it is possible to look at each piece

individually and see that we just have the same ideas being presented more than once.

4. The U.S. government’s actions in the War on Terrorism also provide good examples of the Begging the Question fallacy. Here is a quote (adapted from the forum) made in reference to the incarceration of Abdullah al Muhajir, accused of plotting to construc t and

detonate a ‘dirty bomb’: “What I do know is that if a dirty bomb goes off on Wall Street and the winds are blowing this way, then I and

much of this part of Brooklyn are possibly toast. Is that worth possible violations of the rights of some psycho-violent street thug? To

me it is.”Al Muhajir was declared an “enemy combatant,” which meant that the government could remove him from civil judicial

oversight and no longer had to prove in an impartial court that he was a threat. Of course, incarcerating a person is only a valid means

of protecting citizens if that person is, in fact, a threat to people’s safety. Thus, the above statement commits the fallacy of Begging the

Question because it assumes that al Muhajir is a threat, exactly the question which is at issue and exactly the question which the

government took steps to ensure was not answered.

5. In philosophy, Burden of Proof is a fallacy in which the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side. Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of proof actually rests on side B. A common

name for this is an Appeal to Ignorance. This sort of reasoning typically has the following form: 1. Claim X is presented by side A and

the burden of proof actually rests on side B; 2. Side B claims that X is false because there is no proof for X. For example when

behaviorism was the dominant ideology in the study of animal behavior, but social conditioning was dominant in human behavior

according to Mary Midgley. “there was a remarkable discrepancy between what was treated as a parsimonious explanation for a piece

of human behavior and what could count as such when the behavior was of some other animal. The practice was that, in the human

case, the normal, indeed practically the only, licensed form of explanation was in terms of culture or of free deliberate cho ice, or both.

Anyone who suggested that an inborn tendency might be even a contributing factor in human choices tended to be denounced as a


The burden of proof was accordingly laid entirely on this suggestion, and it was made impossibly heavy. To put it another way,

any explanation that invoked culture, however vague, abstract, far-fetched, infertile and implausible, tended to be readily accepted,

while any explanation in terms of innate tendencies, however careful, rigorous, well-documented, limited and specific tended to be

ignored. In animal psychology, however, the opposite situation reigned. Here, what was taboo was the range of concepts that describes

the conscious, cognitive side of experience. The preferred, safe kind of explanation here derived from ideas of innate progra mming

and mechanical conditioning. If anything cognitive was mentioned, standards of rigor at once soared into a stratosphere where few

arguments could hope to follow.” The logical fallacy which she is exposing in this case is the attempt to argue that view A is to be

preferred to view B because “B cannot be proven” when the burden of proof is laid on view B to an impossibly heavy level, and in

particular to a level under which A could not be proven either. Keith Lehrer suggests that “generally arguments about where the

burden of proof lies are unproductive. It is more reasonable to suppose that such questions are best left to courts of law wh ere they

have suitable application. In philosophy a different principle of agnoiology [the study of ignorance] is appropriate, to wit, that no

hypothesis should be rejected as unjustified without the hypothesis of common sense, then there is no burden of proof on eith er

side …argument against it. Consequently, if the skeptic puts forth a hypothesis inconsistent with the hypothesis of common sense,

then there is no burden of proof on either side ……”

6. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the follo wing

form: 1. Topic A is under discussion; 2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually

not relevant to topic A); Topic A is abandoned. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of d iscussion

hardly counts as an argument against a claim. An extreme example of the Red Herring Fallacy is called the “Chewbacca Defense”.

Chewbacca Defense originated in the animated series South Park. The show satirized attorney Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument

defending O.J. Simpson in his murder trial. “Chewbacca Defense”, meaning a defense consisting solely of nonsensical arguments

meant to confuse a jury, has since been applied outside of references to South Park and has been integrated into popular culture slang.

In the episode, Chef discovers that Alanis Morissette’s (fictional) hit song “Stinky Britches” is the same as a song he wrote years ago,

before he abandoned his musical aspirations. Chef contacts a “major record company” executive, seeking only to have his name

credited as the composer of “Stinky Britches.” Chef’s claim is substantiated by a twenty-year-old recording of Chef performing the

song. The record company refuses, and furthermore hires Johnnie Cochran, who files a lawsuit against Chef for harassment. In court,

Cochran resorts to his “famous” Chewbacca Defense, which he “used during the Simpson trial”, according to Gerald Broflovski.

Cochran: Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, Chef’s attorney would certainly want you to believe that his client wrote

“Stinky Britches” ten years ago. And they make a good case. Hell, I almost felt pity myself! But, ladies and gentlemen of this supposed

jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet

Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!

Gerald Broflovski: Dammit!

Chef: What?

Gerald: He’s using the Chewbacca Defense!

Cochran: Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of two-foot tall Ewoks? That

does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies

and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me. I’m a lawyer defending a major record

company, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of

this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that jury room deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation

Proclamation, [approaches and softens] does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make

sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.

7. “I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.” — President Bush, meeting Iraqi amputees at the White House on May 25.

For President Bush, this is the season of the straw man. It is an ancient debating technique: Caricature your opponent’s argument,

then knock down the straw man you created. In the 2004 campaign, Bush has been knocking down such phantoms on subjects from

Iraq to free trade. In a speech on May 21 mentioning the importance of integrity in government, business an d the military, Bush

veered into a challenge to unidentified “people” who practice moral relativism. “It may seem generous and open-minded to say that

everybody, on every moral issue, is equally right,” Bush said, at Louisiana State University. “But that attitude can also be an excuse

for sidestepping life’s most important questions.” No doubt. But who’s made such arguments? Hannibal Lecter? The White House

declined to name names. On May 19, Bush was asked about a plan by his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), to halt

shipments that are replenishing emergency petroleum reserves. Bush replied by saying we should not empty the reserves — something

nobody in a responsible position has proposed. “The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would put America in a

dangerous position in the war on terror,” Bush said. “We’re at war.” The president has used a similar technique on the stump, when

explaining his decision to go to war in Iraq in light of the subsequent failure to find stockpiles of forbidden weapons. In the typical

speech, Bush explains the prewar intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein had such weapons, and then presents in inarguable

conclusion: “So I had a choice to make: either trust the word of a madman, or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend

America every time.”

Missing from that equation is the actual choice Bush confronted: support continued U.N. weapons inspections, or go to war.

On May 4, Bush was discussing the war on terrorism, when he said: “Some say, ‘Well, this is just a matter of law enforcement and

intelligence.’ No, that’s not what it is.” On May 10, he posited: “The natural tendency for people is to say, oh, let’s lay down our arms.

But you can’t negotiate with these people. . . . Therapy won’t work.” It is not clear who makes such arguments, however. All but a few

lawmakers in both parties support military action against al Qaeda, and Kerry certainly has not proposed opening talks with Osama

bin Laden or putting him on the couch. Bush is obviously not the first politician to paint his opponents’ positions in absurd terms.

“Honorable people could disagree about the real choice between tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans and health care and

education for America’s families,” Kerry has said. “I’m ready for that honest debate.” But Bush has been more active than most in

creating phantom opponents: During the 2000 campaign, Bush fought against those who say “it’s racist to test” students — even though

his opponent, Al Gore, was saying no such thing.

Recently, though, even some ideological allies have called Bush on his use of straw men. On April 30, for example, Bush was

discussing Iraq when he said: “There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same

as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-

govern. I believe that people whose skins . . . are a different color than white can self-govern.”

The columnist George Will asked who Bush was talking about, then warned of the “swamp one wanders into when trying to deflect

doubts about policy by caricaturing and discrediting the doubters.” There are some, including in the State Department, who ar e

skeptical about the ability of the United States to spread democracy in the Arab world, but that is a far less sweeping argument than

the one Bush knocked down.

In some cases, Bush’s straw men are only slight exaggerations of his opponents’ policies. “Some say that the federal government

ought to run the health care system. I strongly disagree,” he said on April 5. Although mainstream Democrats are not proposin g a

government-run health care system, they do support considerably more federal involvement than Bush does.

On trade, similarly, Bush has said those who disagree with him are isolationists. “There is a temptation in Washington to say the

solution to jobs uncertainty is to isolate America from the world,” he said on March 25. “It’s called economic isolationism, a sense that

says, ‘Well, we’re too pessimistic, we don’t want to compete — as opposed to opening up markets, let’s close markets, starting with our

own.’ ” Some lawmakers do favor more trade restrictions than Bush does, but only a few could be called isolationists. There seems to

be no end to the crazy positions the straw men take. Indeed, some have argued in favor of deeper recessions. “Some say, ‘Well, maybe

the recession should have been deeper,’ ” Bush said last summer. “That bothers me when people say that. You see, a deeper recession

would have meant more families would have been out of work.”

Now who could argue with that?

(“Making Hay Out of Straw Men”, By Dana Milbank, Washington Post, June 1, 2004)

Philosophical Case Study of Fallacies