Too old?


Last week, you were introduced to inductive reasoning, a form of logic that can be used to evaluate arguments where not all facts are known, or situations (like what will happen in the future) uncertain. Given that most political debates, including those over who should move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2021, fall into this category, let’s dig a little deeper into how to organize and analyze inductive arguments.


In the first example, you saw the inductive argument Pete Buttigieg used to justify his run for the presidency at such a young age. So today let’s look at an argument over the oldest candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders who at 78 is more than twice the age of Buttigieg.


There has been a fair amount of talk this primary season about the age of not just Sanders but also former Vice President Joe Biden (who is one year younger than Sanders at 77) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (70) – all three of whom seem to have survived the winnowing process better than candidates who are decades younger.


Sanders’ age became a significant issue after he suffered a heart attack on the campaign trail with some people fearing his age and condition made him a risky choice as a candidate. A bare-bones argument capturing this concern might look like this:


Premise 1: Bernie Sanders is 78 years old.

Premise 2: Bernie Sanders had a heart attack.


Conclusion: Bernie Sanders will die of another heart attack during the campaign or, if elected, during his first term in office.


By now, most of you will recognize that this is an inductive argument since accepting the premises does not require you to accept the conclusion. But even if inductive arguments do not require the same level of certainty as do deductive ones, this two-premise argument seems weak, given that it lacks any context that can help us better evaluate the risks associated with Sanders’ age and condition.


This can be solved by providing additional premises:


Premise 1: Age and stress are major risk factors for heart disease.

Premise 2: People who have had one heart attack are more likely to have another one.

Premise 3: Bernie Sanders is 78 years old.

Premise 4: Bernie Sanders had a heart attack.

Premise 5: Running a presidential campaign, or running the country, is a source of high stress.


Conclusion: Bernie Sanders will die of another heart attack during the campaign or, if elected, during his first term in office.


You can look up the facts supporting the first two premises on any number of authoritative web sites, and premises 3 and 4 are statements of fact. Premise 5 is one no reasonable person would disagree with, and stress is a particular concern given the candidate’s decision to jump back into campaigning after leaving the hospital.


While these new premises make our argument considerably stronger, the conclusion still seems to be too certain, something we can fix by weakening that conclusion so that our final argument reads:


Premise 1: Age and stress are major risk factors for heart disease.

Premise 2: People who have had one heart attack are more likely to have another one.

Premise 3: Bernie Sanders is 78 years old.

Premise 4: Bernie Sanders had a heart attack.

Premise 5: Running a presidential campaign, or running the country, is a source of high stress.


Conclusion: Bernie Sanders is at a higher risk of dying from a heart attack than are younger candidates or candidates who have not already had a heart attack.


Notice that weakening the conclusion actually makes the argument stronger. It also helps us determine the right level of concern we should have over Senator Sanders’ health and longevity which should neither reflect indifference nor apocalyptic fear (although probably a bit closer to the latter than the former).


We could do something similar with arguments over questions about Joe Biden’s age-related issues, although those concerns are mostly about his mental agility which seems to have slowed in recent years. This can be the result of harmless mellowing of a politician who historically has seemed less than mellow, up through worries over physical conditions such as the onset of senility or even Alzheimer’s. As you might imagine, an argument helping us make sense of those concerns would involve more subjective considerations of mental states versus the cut-and-dry question of whether someone in a high-risk age bracket had a heart attack.


While a few commentators have tried to characterize such conversations as a form of age discrimination, keep in mind that no similar concerns have been raised regarding the Democratic party’s third septuagenarian, Elizabeth Warren. This might be because 70 is different than 77 or 78, but a strong argument could be made that the Sanders’ known heart condition and questions raised by watching the Joe Biden of today (versus just a few years ago) means people are not concerned so much with chronological age than they are about observable health issues.


I’ll be signing off until after the new year, but a you head off to holidays that will no doubt include at least one political conversation or debate, consider using what you have learned so far to think through the logic of those with whom you disagree or – in the spirit of the holidays – think through the logic supporting your own political beliefs.

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