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Raising Thoughtful Citizens by Teaching Logical Fallacies

Has there ever been a time when it was more important to teach students how to critically discern what is true from what is false when encountering political rhetoric? Has there ever been a time when this has been more difficult? A teacher who tries to talk about politics in the classroom is likely to stir up heated emotions in students and their parents, and we can sympathize with beleaguered administrators who ban such discussions to avoid angry emails and calls.

But for Christian educators who believe that every square inch belongs to God, eliminating a discussion of political rhetoric from the curriculum leaves a lot of acreage unplowed. Now, as much as any time in our history, it is crucial to teach our students how to sift through partisan claims and opinions from a Christian perspective and winnow out what is true from what is not. Students need to learn how to use the tools of critical thinking, reason, evidence, distinguishing fact from opinion, and biblical insight to become thoughtful prophets and fruitful citizens within their countries and communities.

Recognizing Logical Fallacies

One important critical-thinking tool is recognizing logical fallacies in politi­cal rhetoric. Logical fallacies are errors in logic that render a claim untrue or unsubstantiated. The slogans and comments on protest signs, tweets, and Facebook pages provide numerous examples of the faulty logic that can short-circuit rational, considered arguments. Both conservatives and liberals commit logical fallacies, so including examples from both sides helps a teacher avoid the accusation of partisanship.

False Dichotomy

The logical fallacy that underlies much of the polarization we face today is the false dichotomy. Other names for it are false dilemma and black-and-white thinking. In a false dichotomy the speaker insists that there are just two opposing positions one can hold. In politics the two positions are generally the one the speaker or writer holds and considers to be right and the one his or her opponents hold, which is wrong. This is a fallacy because there are usually many other positions in between or altogether different from the two stated positions.

Take the slogan “You can either build a wall or build a table.” The underlying message of the slogan is that building a table, inviting others to fellowship with you, is good and building a wall, keeping others out of your community, is bad. But you could build both a wall and a table, inviting some in and keeping others out. Or you could build something completely different. What would it mean, metaphorically speaking, to build a platform or steps or a boat? It could be a productive exercise to have students brainstorm possible building projects and interpret what each could symbolize about human relationships in order to help them understand the blindered nature of a false dichotomy.

A more consequential false dichotomy is the pro-life versus pro-choice debate about abortion. Some people see just two positions when it comes to abortion. The first position is that life begins at conception and all or almost all abortions should be illegal, as several of the state legislatures would have it. The second position is that a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body and there should be no prohibitions on abortion. This is the default policy in Canada, where there are no laws regulating abortions. Between those extreme positions are many other possible positions, even for Christians. Some Christians believe that life emerges gradually and mysteriously, rather than all at once at conception, and that as the fetus becomes more and more human it deserves more and more protection. The US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling is also between the two positions, as it restricts abortion after the fetus is viable but not before.

To help students discover what they believe, put two columns on the board headed “Abortion is wrong when . . .” and “Abortion is acceptable when . . .” Have students think for a few minutes about what they would put in each column, and then share their ideas. Prompt them with “what ifs” as needed: What if the mother’s life is at risk? What if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest? If life begins at conception, is it wrong to use birth control that prevents the embryo from implanting in the uterus? Does it make any difference how far along the pregnancy is? These kinds of discussions are risky, but this is how students learn to discern and make careful distinctions instead of repeating generalizations without reflecting on them.

Slippery Slope

A logical fallacy related to two-valued orientations is the slippery slope fallacy. Those whose thinking reflects this fallacy propose that a succession of dire consequences will result from conceding even a small point to the opposite view. For example, pro-choice advocates might say that any restriction on abortions will lead to restrictions on all abortions, which will lead to a restriction on birth control and a reliance on dangerous “back alley” illegal abortions. And pro-life advocates might say that allowing any abortions is the first step to allowing all abortions and then to killing unwanted babies after birth. After presenting this fallacy, ask students whether these consequences are likely to occur as a result of small steps and what could be done to prevent dire scenarios from happening.

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Joan Stob is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was a teacher and instructional leader at Legacy Christian School before she retired.