Distraction

Any fallacy which diverts attention from the argument: an usurping proposition—or the question of whether it is relevant or not—takes over, or is intended to do so. A potent source of disorder.

If you were having an argument with a person who was armed with a gun, angry and determined to make you see things his way, you might be tempted to concede the point, for now at least. He would have won a battle of sorts—forcing a switch of attention to something else. Distraction breaks the thread of argument by loading it with objections, threats, claims or other interventions which, whether they are true or not, have nothing to do with the case. It distracts attention and, in effect, sabotages any attempt to discuss things sensibly.

In the case of the man with the gun, of course, the distraction is all too obvious: the argument itself remains undecided, and it is likely to resurface to give him trouble in the future. The most common distractions do better than that. They insinuate; they come in disguise; they confuse. They are the knotweed of logic. Reasonable argument survives only in the habitats which distraction has not yet destroyed.

Here is the villainy of distraction revealed by the simplest of all possible subjects for debate: the proposition that two and two makes four. Distraction might urge, for instance, that the idea is old-fashioned, that the time has come to move on from traditional thinking on the matter, or that it is too technical for the public to understand. It could take the form of an ingratiating assurance that the only thing that matters, naturally, is the well-being and happiness of everyone concerned. Distraction might urge that it is perfectly okay nowadays to think that two plus two makes five; or that even thinking about it means an unforgivable neglect of the far more important proposition that three plus four makes seven. You might be invited to take note that there is money to be made by taking a different view of the matter, or that we have to move on from the notion if we are to be competitive, or that the proposition is a bit rich coming from someone with a private life like yours. Or it could insist with some passion that, contrary to the view that two plus two makes four, we must take our place at the heart of Europe. Distraction might add, with hoped-for finality, that the argument has already been lost: two plus two is going to make five in the future, whatever we do.

Distraction, evidently, has the power and freedom to cause havoc wherever it likes. It is a spoiler, worse than the cheat: the cheat at least recognises the existence of the rules on which argument depends if it is to make any sense, even though he then proceeds to break them, hoping not to be found out. Distraction recognises nothing except conquest: the argument is too serious to have any connection with the orderly rules of honourable play; it will be settled by other means. Rules? What rules? It presumes the death of logic.

A characteristic form of distraction is to make an assertion which is not true, but which is hard to disagree with. This happens, for instance, with the appeal to the inevitable: the distracter does not argue for or against a proposal; instead, he simply asserts that it is going to happen anyway, and he may do so in a slightly bored drawl that passes off the sell-out as if it were a routine comment on the weather. Don’t stand for this: it is one of the ways in which our citizen’s right to have a say in deciding for ourselves dwindles into a loss of belief that we can influence anything at all. It is designed to induce give-up-itis, an acceptance that technology and the sweep of history make the decisions. What we are then supposed to do is to surrender, to make sure we are not in the way.

To prevent distraction developing its potential, it is necessary to be acutely aware of it, of its sources, consequences and remedies, of people who exploit it, others who resist it with courage, and those who give way in bewilderment. Fallacies of distraction are varieties of fraud in action and disreputable ways of carrying on; they are, however, arguments we encounter often. All of us, undoubtedly, will have committed some, at least, of these logical crimes ourselves, perhaps quite recently, perhaps even today.

And yet, errors can be like scaffolding—not the building you want, but a useful start. When they are identified, captured and named, you have got their measure: fallacies become insights. In Lean Logic, alchemy lives on: each wrong—after some conjunction and congelation, precipitation and putrefaction, separation and sublimation, fermentation, fixation and fire—finally filters out into a right.

 

Related entries:

Ad Hominem, Big Stick, Cant, Demoralisation, Icon, Innocence, Irrelevance, Many Questions, Pharisee, Rationalism, Shifting Ground, Straw Man.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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