[Kim Seong-kon] Logic can be defeated by logical fallacies

By Kim Seong-kon
  • Published : Sept 18, 2018 - 17:15
  • Updated : Sept 18, 2018 - 17:15
We may think that we are absolutely right because we are logically impeccable, and that all others are wrong accordingly. By firmly believing so, however, we may inadvertently commit logical fallacies. Moreover, logic can be easily defeated by what we call logical fallacies. Max Shulman’s “Love is a Fallacy” well illustrates this compelling issue.

The protagonist of the story is a narcissistic law student who believes that he is always absolutely right, smart, and logical. One day, upon spotting a pretty girl named Polly Espy on campus, he decides for selfish reasons to make her his future wife. He thinks that having a beautiful, gracious, and intelligent wife is crucial in furthering his career as a lawyer. Polly is indeed beautiful and gracious, but unfortunately not very intelligent. Therefore, he plans to make Polly smart by teaching her logic.

First, the narrator teaches Polly the fallacy called “Dicto Simpliciter,” which is an argument based on an unqualified generalization, such as “Exercise is good. Therefore, everybody should exercise.” Polly wholeheartedly agrees with it, not realizing that exercise is bad for those who suffer heart disease.

Next, the narrator takes up the topic of the “Hasty Generalization.” He tells Polly, “You can’t speak French. I can’t speak French. So we can conclude that nobody at our University can speak French.” “Really? Nobody?” asks Polly, surprised. The narrator has to hide his exasperation.

He continues with “Ad Misericordiam.” He says that when a man applies for a job and tries to appeal to the boss’s sympathy by talking about his six children that he has to support, rather than about his qualifications, it is a logical fallacy. Hearing this, however, Polly begins to sob, whispering, “Poor man!”

He wants to scream, but goes on with the “False Analogy.” He says that it would be wrong to argue that students should be allowed to refer to their textbooks during exams, just as doctors have X-rays to guide them during a surgery. But Polly likes the idea very much, not understanding that unlike doctors, students take exams to see how much they have learned.

Fighting off a vast wave of despair, the narrator moves on to the “Hypothesis Contrary to Fact.” He asks Polly: If Madam Curie had not happened to find radium at the exact time and place that she did, would the world today not know about radium? “True, true,” exclaims Polly. The narrator has a hard time explaining to her that someone else would have discovered it.

The narrator decides to give her just one more chance. He explains “Poisoning the Well” to Polly. He asks her why it is wrong for a man in a debate to accuse the other of being a liar. Miraculously, a glimmer of intelligence appears in her eyes for the first time. “It’s not fair,” she says. “What chance has the second man got if the first man calls him a liar before he even begins talking?”

Finally, his job is done. Polly has become a logician at last and will be a fit wife for him now. At their next meeting, therefore, the narrator decides to ask for her hand. He proudly announces, “My dear, we have now spent five days together, studying logic. It is clear that we are well matched.”

“Hasty Generalization,” replies Polly instantly, pointing out that five dates are not enough to say they are well-matched. Embarrassed, he answers condescendingly that five dates are enough because you do not need to eat a whole cake to know if it is good. “False Analogy,” says Polly promptly. “I’m not a cake. I’m a girl.”

Irritated and nervous, the narrator decides to change his tactic and tries to appeal to her soft spot, saying that he will refuse his meals and be in anguish if she refuses his love. “Ad Misericordiam,” says Polly without hesitation. Now the narrator becomes desperate and tries to remind her that if he had not come along, she never would have learned about logical fallacies. “Hypothesis Contrary to Fact,” she promptly returns. He croaks and tries to persuade her that she does not have to take all these things so literally because they are just classroom stuff that does not have anything to do with life. “Dicto Simpliciter,” she says cynically.

When Polly says she already has a boyfriend whom he despises, the narrator shrieks, “Polly, he’s a liar. He’s a cheat.” “Poisoning the Well,” Polly concludes and walks out on him.

The narrator is completely ruined by his own Frankenstein. Watching the fall of the arrogant man, we come to realize that a self-righteous person can easily be trapped and ruined by his own logic. We all are prone to fallacies, but they are not necessarily bad all the time. After all, love, the greatest thing on earth, is a logical fallacy, too.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at sukim@snu.ac.kr -- Ed.