Logic-checking a heated argument from the Democratic primary debates
To introduce you to the concept of logic-checking, let’s start with some timely material related to the Democratic debates.
As mentioned previously, logic-checking can help you understand situations when true facts might lead to untrue or questionable conclusions by picking out and analyzing arguments embedded in political discussion and debate. During the most recent debate, for example, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Corrie Booker had a lively exchange regarding the latter’s wealth tax while other candidates argued over healthcare and foreign policy.
Although the candidates did not provide adequate information on stage to fully flesh out their arguments, we could perform research on campaign and third-party web sites and other information sources to better understand what each candidate was proposing. To simplify this introduction to logic-checking, however, I’d like to start with a much simpler argument contained in something called a “zinger.”
The zinger is a debate exchange during which a candidate brings up a pre-planned talking point, usually to embarrass a specific opponent, often disguising the attack as a response to a moderator’s question. It takes a certain level of skill to make slipping a zinger into the conversation seem natural and spontaneous, and the most successful application of the zinger during this year’s nomination process was Senator Kamala Harris’ dramatic attack on Joe Biden over his stance on bussing (a form of school desegregation which she claimed Biden opposed in the 1970s) during an early debate in June.
While this exchange led to multiple headlines, it also highlighted the need to supplement the fact-checker’s arsenal.
That’s because Harris’ accusation, coupled with other comments regarding Biden’s relationship with segregationist Senators James O. Eastland and Herman E. Talmadge, were not random claims regarding the former Vice President. Rather, they served as statements upon which a larger argument was being presented.
The Argument Within
By argument, I am not talking about people shouting or throwing food at one another. Rather, I am using the term to describe a logical argument where someone is asking you to accept some evidence, and further stating that accepting this evidence requires you to accept a certain conclusion.
In this case, Harris’ two charges (that Biden fought against bussing and supported segregationist senators) are her evidence, but what was the conclusion she wanted her audience to draw from it?
Some have proposed that she wanted people to conclude that the former Vice President is a racist, but Harris herself claimed during and after the debate that this was not the case. We could choose to reject her denial as insincere, but a simpler solution would be to come up with a less harsh conclusion that accepts her denial, but does not ignore that she was making a point regarding Biden and race, such as “Joe Biden is out of touch with current attitudes regarding race in America.”
Given this evidence that (1) Joe Biden fought against a federal government role in school desegregation programs involving bussing and (2) Joe Biden had warm relationships with segregationist senators and even praised them on occasion, we could begin by fact-checking both claims to determine if they are true or false. But logic-checking starts from a different place.
Is the Argument any Good?
To logic-check Harris’ accusation, we need to start by accepting all of the evidence as true and seeing where that takes us. While this might seem counter-intuitive to a fact-checker, this step can help us spot a weak argument where the evidence – even if true – does not support the conclusion.
In this case, it is easy to accept the evidence but still reject the conclusion by pointing out, for example, Biden’s record on civil rights, his eight years as Vice President serving America’s first African American President, and a lack of any pattern of behavior that would indicate lack of sensitivity to race issues on the part of the former Vice President. Given these objections, it is not only possible to accept the evidence but reject the conclusion, but actually quite reasonable to do so since the evidence Harris provided in her two accusations is not sufficient to establish the conclusion’s truth.
There is no reason you cannot also subject Harris’ evidence to scrutiny, analyzing the accuracy of her bussing charge or of Biden’s denial, for example, or further arguing over whether praising segregationist Senators meant praising them for their racist beliefs. But notice that questioning the evidence is not required since we have already shown that Harris’ claims – even if unquestionably true – do not provide adequate reasons to accept the conclusion.
This doesn’t mean that the conclusion of the argument is false. But if we are being asked to accept that Biden is out of touch on issues of race, that conclusion must be supported by a stronger argument than the one provided by Harris.
The research-based fact-checking process is a powerful method for determining whether politicians or others are making true or false statements. But in cases where true facts are being marshalled in support of a potentially untrue (or at least unjustified) conclusion, logic-checking provides another method of getting to our ultimate goal: truth, or at least a better understanding of the world.