Deconstructing Bad Arguments in the EU Debate

Three months from now, voters in the UK will get to vote in a referendum on whether we should remain a part of the European Union or to leave. Whatever the outcome, it will mean profound political changes on one side or the other. Both the In and Out campaigns have support from all political wings and all major parties, so this is not something on which you can vote along political lines.

By MPD01605 - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mpd01605/6755068753/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18364047
By MPD01605 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/mpd01605/6755068753/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18364047

I’m not here to tell you how to vote, and I wouldn’t dare. What I do want to do is help you make the right decision in weighing up the arguments and recognising bad arguments for what they are. Over the last few weeks since the campaigns got under way, both sides have used bad arguments to convince you to vote their way. The things I highlight here though could apply to almost anything when there are two sides to an argument.

Fear: Sadly, politics in the UK and US countries in recent years has become primarily based on fear. Fear of what will happen if the other side gets in. That is appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s nasty, it’s unnecessary, it’s polarising and it’s damaging to the country. In American politics, if we believe the media – each Presidential Election is a choice not between Republican and Democrat, but between Fascist and Communist. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader last year showed that we are not immune to that in the UK. This video from College Humor from 8 years ago expresses that divisive sentiment rather well. If the person trying to convince you is using fear of what will happen if that lot get their way then treat it with the cynicism and disdain it deserves.

Ad hominem (meaning “to the man”): put simply, this is personal attacks, focusing on an element of the character of the person making the argument, or where you focus on the actual person making the argument rather than the content of their argument. It’s another insidious tactic and about getting cheap laughs rather than doing politics. Creationists point out that Charles Darwin married his cousin as though that somehow disproves evolution. Climate change denialists point to the socialist leaning of some climate scientists as though that means their work is invalid or irrelevant. Labour did it when David Cameron was elected as Tory leader…

That was a party political broadcast on behalf of The Labour Party. What does it tell you about the party or their policies? Nothing at all. It was an attack on David Cameron’s (then) recent election to party leader who would then face off in the General Election which was still 4 years away. Not that Cameron is innocent of ad hominem though. Week in and week out, he does it to Jeremy Corbyn instead of answering questions put to him during Prime Minister’s Questions. In February when the Labour leader asked a question about the NHS, the PM responded by attacking Corbyn’s dress sense and telling him he should sing the national anthem.

Straw man fallacy: Straw men are easy to knock down and straw man arguments are designed to be easy to knock down. In dismissing another’s claim or question, the opponent will create a caricature of their argument in order to show how easily it may be beaten. The caricature may have only a tangible link to what the person being argued against is actually saying. Let me give you an invented example:

Evolution can’t be true as it suggests that a chimpanzee just gave birth to a human one day. Evolutionists believe that crocodiles can give birth to dogs and dogs in turn can give birth to cats.

The Straw Man Fallacy simply creates a parody of the argument being made in order to make the person presenting the argument seem absurd, to destroy an argument they are not making.

False dichotomy: “You believe A therefore you believe B”. It’s an extension of the straw man argument. It says that if person A thinks one thing, then it naturally follows that they also think a certain way about another situation. There are people who do fit their beliefs around their political persuasion (it’s a particular problem with identity politics) but that is not what I want to talk about here. Here is an example of false dichotomy in a conversation on the merits of the EU…

Person 1: I want us to stay in the EU, I like being able to travel on the continent unhindered once there.

Person 2: If you think we should stay in Europe then you believe that anyone should be allowed in to our country, including terrorists. Why do you love terrorists so much?

Person 1: No I don’t think that at all and I hate terrorists as much as you do. Must I remind you that we’re not in The Schengen Area?

Person 2: You want to stay in the EU, so you must want to be in The Schengen Area, otherwise you wouldn’t support continued membership of the EU.

The Tories have used similar arguments against those who don’t want our Trident nuclear submarines renewed. It’s easy to dismiss them all as spineless pacifists and when you do, you don’t have to focus on the argument they are making.

Slippery slope fallacy: UKIP (the major anti EU party) are experts at crafting the slippery slope fallacy; it usually works in conjunction with fear. In a recent video for the “Out” campaign, they focused on the number of Turks who could come to the UK. Turkey is not a member of the EU and it is unlikely to ever be, and certainly not while ISIS threatens its eastern border and unlikely to be permitted entry to Schengen immediately. There are a number of bad arguments in this video, mostly fear, and mostly driven by the erroneous logic and a false “threat” that Turkey will be a member by 2020. Slippery slope – if Turkey joins in 2020, 15m of their population (a whopping 20% of it) could steal European jobs. Basically, their argument is get out before the Turks take over and impose Sharia Law on everyone, rape all our women and take all our benefits while stealing our jobs.

Other slippery slopes include the suggestion that the government will abolish most legal rights that we’ve had since joining what was then the EC and impose a Dickensian style working environment on the country’s population. While I am concerned what a future Tory government might do with The Human Rights Act, some of our equality laws have been introduced in spite of the EU and not because of it. I see no return of the workhouses in 2020 should we leave the EU. Even if that was the Tory government’s plan, we have an Upper Chamber in the House of Lords to stop that eventuality and a wilful population not afraid to stand up to government taking liberties.

Generalisation: It’s another way of othering or dehumanising people with whom you disagree – to portray them as a general block who all think and act the same way. We see this in the UKIP video above about Turkey and their membership of the EU (which is unlikely to ever happen) leading to Sharia Law in Europe. Turkey is not the entirety of the Islamic world and they are a secular country. There is also a culture difference as I understand it between traditional east and the secularised western area that gets millions of visitors every year from Europe.

How Should You Vote?

I’m still not going to tell you how to vote but I will implore you look at the arguments of both sides but not to take them at face value. Get yourself out of the echo chamber that is feeding you what you want to hear and consider the other arguments. No side has the total truth, no side is immune from making bad arguments and no individual is immune from falling for bad arguments. Treat every argument with the same level of scepticism and, if possible, fact check to make sure you are being given the whole truth. Then, and only then, will you know how to vote.

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Bad Arguments in the EU Debate

  1. I think so far the thing that has struck me most about the arguments made by either side is how similar their projections are. Either way, if pundits and economists are to be believed we are (potentially) doomed and may all be wishing we had voted the other way.
    Some actual facts may sway the argument, if they can find/manufacture any in time…

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