Teaching Logic with Presidential debates

by Harry on November 8, 2016

My excellent colleague Michael Titlebaum told me about an exercise he did with his Logic class. (It’s a First Year Interest Group class—20 first years who take 3 thematically linked courses, the composition of the program is disproportionately first generation, low income, and minority students—the idea being that students will get connections with each other around academics, and develop relationships with faculty early). I asked Titlebaum to write the exercise so I could include it here: mainly because it is an excellent example of the kind of pedagogy we should use more with our students in large public institutions like mine [1], but also, partly, because it is funny, and might entertain you on election day… Here’s his story:

I’m teaching introductory logic to twenty first-years in a special small-format class this semester, and the political season offered an opportunity too good to pass up. In class on October 18 I spent the entire lecture going over with them various logical fallacies and illicit rhetorical strategies. Then on October 19 I had all the students over to my house for pizza and debate-watching. I divided them into two teams, then had them score points by calling out instances of fallacies as they happened in the debate in real time.

The first astonishing thing was how many fallacies we found. 45 minutes in, my students had called out over 60. (And that was only on the two candidates—we ruled out scoring points off the moderator, despite Chris Wallace’s many loaded questions.) At that point we took ad hominem, red herring, hyperbole, and smokescreening off the table, mostly because I couldn’t count them fast enough. (Smokescreening is responding to a question by piling on related points or complications until everyone forgets the original question and the fact that you haven’t answered it.)

The next interesting point was the distribution of fallacies. Trump had many—as I had anticipated—but Clinton had her fair share as well. I think it was eye-opening for the students to systematically break down how a seasoned politician uses rhetorical strategies to shift even issues questions towards points she’d rather be discussing and away from those she’d rather not. My sense of my students was that most (but not all) of them lean Democrat. Nevertheless, within a few minutes they were calling out fallacies on Clinton with gusto.

Finally, it was amusing to me which fallacies didn’t pop up. It took until the very last minutes of the debate for us to find a genuine straw man fallacy. The students who haven’t been following the election closely sometimes called “straw man” on Clinton early on. But then we’d rewind to hear what she had actually said (DVR helped here), and perhaps consult the internet to see if Trump had actually uttered the words she was accusing him of. The answer pretty much always turned out to be yes. Meanwhile, Trump wasn’t straw-manning her positions; he was either reporting them accurately and then leaping to a far-fetched consequence, or skipping any precise characterization of her positions in favor of general labels like “terrible” and “the worst”.

What did we all learn? It’s difficult to say. But at least my wife and I found a way to get through the third presidential debate without throwing anything through the television.



Gareth Wilson 11.08.16 at 4:06 am

Has he tried this exercise with the Constitution?


kidneystones 11.08.16 at 4:20 am

On the value of logic and decision-making

Arlie Hochschild and Robert Wright



Patrick S. O'Donnell 11.08.16 at 6:46 am

When I taught a “critical thinking” course at our community college, we viewed the film “12 Angry Men” (1957) (which most of the students had never heard of, let alone seen) and then discussed the many informal logical fallacies in the jury deliberations. I think it was an effective pedagogical exercise (and the students were surprised they could enjoy a b&w film staged largely in one room). And insofar as critical thinking is not just about logic (formal or informal), the film is also useful for discussing heuristics and cognitive biases, as well as several legal topics, including the nature of jury deliberations in a criminal trial, racial bias….


ZM 11.08.16 at 7:39 am

The first thing I thought was this could be a philosophy students drinking game ;-)


nastywoman 11.08.16 at 1:34 pm

‘What did we all learn? It’s difficult to say’

Perhaps that teaching logic doesn’t prepare students for the illogical world of the 21h century?

– and I did in the (Ex?) ‘Blue Northern Rust Belt’ of Michigan Ohio and Pennsylvania – what Arlie Hochschild did in the ‘Red South’
And logic doesn’t prepare you very well for the idea – of supposedly voting against one’s own interest.
What prepares one much better is the ability to change the spark plugs on the motor of a Harley Davidson. And I know how ‘corny’ that sounds – but as much as Arlie Hochschild learned about some ‘Deep Truth’ in the South – one can learn in Detroit – that there is no reason why some very angry and disappointed workers have to be on the side of a Racist Fascistic Birther.


Chris Grant 11.08.16 at 2:14 pm

Tymoczko and Henle did this in _Sweet Reason: A Field Guide to Modern Logic_.


Pete 11.08.16 at 3:08 pm

For British TV interviews, this is essentially the role of Jeremy Paxman: to prevent the interviewee getting away with not answering the question.

It’s interesting to see which positions are allowed by the public and media to “get away with” logical inconsistency, and how much Trump sounds like a strawman of himself.


engels 11.08.16 at 3:58 pm

Using elementary logic to try to liberate yourself from the vortex of propaganda that is the US political debate is like trying dig your way out of the Labyrinth using a toothpick.


Mike Schilling 11.08.16 at 8:28 pm

“So, in honor of the debate, we’re going to do a slight twist on a classic kind of logic problem. There’s an island with two kinds of people on it: one always lies, while the other never tells the truth.”


derrida derider 11.08.16 at 10:37 pm

As a particularly “colourful” (even by Australian standards) politician of ours once said “Never answer the question you were asked. Always answer the question you wish you were asked”. Of all the moves listed above, smokescreening is clearly the most frequently used one by skilled politicians in interviews. Speeches and debates, of course, are different.


Moz in Oz 11.08.16 at 10:43 pm

I wish we had someone like Paxman in Australia, but our government has moved decisively to end the independence of the ABC. They can’t do it by legislation, so they’re doing it by budget cuts and political appointments, and very pointed questions (contacting senior staff directly to say “you were wrong to allow that to be published”… sure, it’s not actually a lawful direction, but it’s also not something that’s going to be ignored). There’s “no smoking gun” just cuts and lies

Instead we get the “fair and balanced” Murdoch news dominating our media.


JPC 11.08.16 at 11:21 pm

I don’t find this kind of thing helpful any longer (after years of doing it). One problem I found was that the focus on fallacy identification seemed to cause the students to over-diagnose them. This ended up making them worse at argument analysis. They were on the lookout for violations of rules without grasping the underlying issues.


GrueBleen 11.09.16 at 4:51 am

Just a bit like 1st and 2nd year med students, JPC – much overdiagnosing going on. A kind of ‘availability’ error, I guess.

Surely a much more useful skill would be to learn how to recast the ramblings of the various dissertators as some kind of structured formal argument, simply discarding all the errors and fallacies along the way – and then see if anything actually valid or positive remains at the end.

My expectation is that, in most cases, there would be nothing left at all.


nastywoman 11.09.16 at 8:53 am

– or did ‘logic’ bring US F…face von Clownstick?

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