Thursday, February 09, 2017

The logical fallacies of Elizabeth Warren


Yesterday morning, I was busy putting the finishing touches on my logic class. Once a week I teach a logic class to 7 high school students at our homeschool co-op.  They are a sharp group of kids. So far we have learned about premises and conclusion, validity and well-groundedness, and we have learned about red herrings, special pleading, ad hominem attacks, genetic fallacies, Tu Quoque, appeal to authority, straw man, circular reasoning, equivocation, loaded questions and slippery slopes. So by this time, they have quite a nice little tool box of logical fallacies that they should be able to pick out quickly.

But I always worry about having something interesting for them to watch and consider during our class time and as I was copying out the notes for class, I saw something flash about Elizabeth Warren being told to sit down in the senate.  I quickly turned up the volume to hear what was going on and discovered a gold mine of logical fallacies to present to my class.

So here's some background.  The Senate has rules about how you can talk on the Senate floor. This rule is called Rule XIX. You can read it here.   There is a specific part of that rule which says:

2. No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.

4. If any Senator, in speaking or otherwise, in the opinion of the Presiding Officer transgress the rules of the Senate the Presiding Officer shall, either on his own motion or at the request of any other Senator, call him to order; and when a Senator shall be called to order he shall take his seat, and may not proceed without leave of the Senate, which, if granted, shall be upon motion that he be allowed to proceed in order, which motion shall be determined without debate. Any Senator directed by the Presiding Officer to take his seat, and any Senator requesting the Presiding Officer to require a Senator to take his seat, may appeal from the ruling of the Chair, which appeal shall be open to debate.

Elizabeth Warren is a Senator from Massachusettes. She was addressing the Senate about the confirmation of another senator, Jeff Sessions from Alabama, for the office of Attorney General.


So to put it simply, while Ms. Warren could address the Senate about the confirmation and her reasons for not confirming him, neither she or any other senator would be allowed to use words to "Impute" Mr. Sessions, because he is a senator too!

I'm not saying I agree with that rule, but I think without it the Senate could start to look like Parliament!  Nonetheless, that's the rule and Ms. Warren was probably aware of that rule since she has been a senator since 2012.

Yesterday, Senator Warren started reading a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, and her opinion about Jeff Sessions.  She didn't get too far into it before Rule 19 was invoked!!

When she was called on it by Senator Mitch McConnell she started a cavalcade of fallacies.



1. Appeal to the popular - invoking the name of Coretta Scott King.
2. Special pleading - the letter is from Mrs. King, so it should supersede Senate rule 19!
3. The ad hominem attacks in the letter that Senator Warren wants to use against Senator Sessions.
4.  Red herring - the issue is NOT whether or not Mrs. King's words are worthy of debate by the senate.
5.  This is probably a straw man argument too because the real question is whether or not reading this letter is breaking rule 19, and not whether or not the words of Coretta Scott King are worthy of debate in the Senate. But the chairman saw through it and Senator Warren had to sit down.

A bad day for her - but a great opportunity for my students to see logical fallacies in action, and that even those in high places still resort to them!



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