College students tend to wax enthusiastic about the lessons they pick up in class. Curiously, this very admirable trait, a thirst for knowledge, has a downside to it. When one learns at a rate best described as "alarming," which college students often must do, little time exists to sit and sift through all that new material carefully. And this burdensome task would mandate yet more study time, which luxury few students can afford.
This means that, for very practical reasons, they will tend to accept readily the sermons that echo from academic pulpits. Consumers of media information have nearly the same problem -- a large flow of information thrust at them, and little time to sort through it. Election years only magnify this problem, and political candidates can grind axes with the best of them. When a scandal breaks out, the media blitz can sometimes blind even the more critical viewers. So we have done some of the extra homework for these groups to help them make the best of this unhappy situation. Here, we offer a clear-headed set of rules to disperse the fog quickly, adding daylight to the topic at hand.
As a first step in adopting a cautiously critical posture, we would like to introduce the rule, "take careful notes and develop a long memory by referring back to them now and again." Spin-doctors count on the fact -- a most unhappy truth -- that most people do not remember what the sales script said that they fed to the masses last week. This way, when they later change the story, you can call them on it. If it's a political speech in question, "Tivo" it, so you can play it back when later when spin proponents deny that their guy ever said it in the first place.
Second, isolate the parts of the speech or lecture that seem to form the main points of the argument. Often this or that advocate will avoid stating the main points of his argument explicitly, only implying them. Make the implied parts explicit yourself by asking, "what assumption(s), does this depend upon that he has not stated openly?" Then write them down. For instance, if one were to argue, "We had to attack his country because the guy is a tyrant," then note that this assumes -- unless otherwise qualified -- that we must attack all countries where tyrants rule. Given today's political climate, this would not promote a very promising course of action. So stated, we would have to attack almost everyone, starting with the I.R.S.
So remember to make a list of the important claims in question -- whether the speaker or writer has stated, implied, or simply assumed them.
Third, "Always examine a claim by itself first."
This provides a fast and easy way to prevent reckless professors, for instance, from hoodwinking students into bogus philosophies (as is their custom). For instance, consider the popular claim, "There are no moral absolutes." This would mean that claims about morality necessarily have exceptions. Evaluating this claim by its own words, however, quickly reveals that it provides to us an example of a moral absolute. It allows no exception, while speaking to the topic of morality.
Ironically, then, the claim instances an example of just what it denies. The claim cannot be true on ITS OWN terms. Such claims would play the roles of felon AND whistleblower all at once. They represent a form of logical or propositional suicide, since they affirm by example, and yet forbid by principle, the very same thing. Look for these and you will find more than you imagine might suffuse popular chatter.
Fourth, compare and contrast these claims, assumptions, and implied assertions with one another, asking, "Are these logically consistent with each other, or do they get along like Larry, Moe and Curly when the ladder-swinging begins, and the paintbrushes start to fly?" Sometimes speakers will utter logically incompatible sayings within a very short span. So you will need to learn to identify them to note when this happens. Here, you will have located spin, exaggeration, unwarranted claims, or even outright lies. You might even get two-for-one.
For instance, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, it did so against the voice of the U.N. inspectors, who wanted more time. This shows that the U.S. (or at least the current administration) believes it proper to ignore whatever authority the U.N. might have when it deems it necessary. Yet when Iraq defied the very same U.N. authority (Saddam, as we say, "dissed" the U.N. inspectors) the Bush administration claimed that this provided grounds to invade Iraq. The "Okay for us, but not for them" trick is called the fallacy of self-exception. One commits this error in reasoning when he lays down a rule for everyone or every argument, and then arbitrarily excuses himself (or his position) from following, or being subject to, the same rule.
Finally, spin-doctors notoriously create mind-fog by abusing langauge. Sometimes they utter deliberately vague or ambiguous sayings. Sometimes they simply make fine-sounding claims and offer no proof. You have heard this many times: "Our product delivers twice the chocolatey goodness and only half the calories!!" (And Joe Fried-potato, who happens to be wider than your dining room, AGREES!!). The simple way to fight mind-fog comes from asking questions that clarify.
For instance, in your criminology course, you might ask Professor Plumb, "Professor, you said something about a candlestick in a library. Precisely what did you mean by "candlestick," and did you mean to refer to this literally, or as some sort of symbol that stands for something else? Press the point, when you feel that someone tries to sell you something, as it were, under-the-table -- and make them sell it over-the-counter instead. Make them say just what they mean, clearly and precisely.
Once you have a clearer idea of the nature of the claim he wishes to promote, you can toss it into the pool of "noted claims to compare and contrast," first measuring that claim by itself, and then by checking it against the other claims in the pool. Some claims will swim, while others will plunge like the Titanic at an iceberg party.
Here, just below, we have collected a few of our favorite sayings popular on college campuses, most of which we have heard Professor Spin mumble more than once from his academic pulpit. Not only do most of these refute themselves, but they also don't get along with each other very well, as we will see. Our helpful and irreverent responses to these appear in brackets.
1. No one can really know anything for sure, when all is said and done. [Really? Are you certain?]
2. All religions are equally valid [Most, but not all, religions deny this] [But we are absolutely sure this is true anyway].
3. We must tolerate all views [except those which deny this][Which includes most, but not all, religions] [but we are absolutely sure that the dissenting religions are all equally wrong][And, of course, we will not tolerate those dogmatic religions].
4. There are no ethical absolutes [And we mean absolutely none] [Note: This claim contradicts #1, 2, and 3 also.]
5. Slavery is wrong [Although this is true, we put it here so you would notice that it contradicts #1, #2, #3 and #4, which shows that claims 1-4 are false, but popular enough anyway].
6. Education is the key to solving the world's problems [Unless we count all the logical problems created by educated people (see above) who say impossible things]. [Note: this also contradicts #1, #2, and #4.]
7. Your western views are too binary [You see, there are only binary views, and non-binary ones -- which is itself a binary view -- oops] [hint: all views logically exclude some other views] [Which, of course, shows that NOT all views are equally valid] [Some views, like "the earth is flat" are just goofy, and these are only "equally vaild" with other stupid ideas].
8. Religion is responsible for killing too many people [which implies that murder is wrong, even though this sounds like a moral absolute] [This also contradicts claims #1-4, and #7.] [And note that, if this statement were true, it would render all religions equally bad, not "equally valid," whatever that might mean].
9. Bible-thumping Christians are too dogmatic. [It is written: Thou shalt not be dogmatic!] [And we are sure of this] [So, follow instead OUR dogma, even though it refutes itself] [Which means that BTC's should not be tolerated, contrary to #3 above] [And that their religion is not "equally valid" with non-thumping religions, contrary to #2].
We could go on, and have great fun doing it, but you get the point. This band of hired accusers failed to coordinate their testimonies in advance. And so many of the views promulgated from academic pulpits turn out just a little nuttier than Jif. Just because a confused-but-confident professor, politician, or spin-doctor says it loudly and often -- this doesn't make it true. So when she says, "question authority," you might want to take her at her word, and start by putting her own claims on the chopping block first.
In any case, by keeping these five rules handy, you can arm yourself against all manner of rhetorical shenanigans and verbal skullduggery.
Carson Day has written approximately 1.3 gazillion articles and essays, many with very insightful, if alternative, viewpoints. He presently writes for Ophir Gold Corporation, and specialized in the history of ideas in college. He has been quoted in the past as saying "What box?" and remains at large despite the best efforts of the civil authorities.
You can visit the Ophir Gold Corporation blogsites at http://scriberight.blogspot.com (Writing With Power), http://ophirgoldcorp.blogspot.com (OGC's Free Web Traffic), or http://ophirgold.blogspot.com (Church and State 101)