Over time, you’ve heard my repeated plea that we need to elevate our political dialogue to ever higher levels, avoiding personal attacks and other forms of incivility which only serve to circumvent the real issues and mask the truth.
Logical fallacies are another form of public discourse that we should avoid like the plague. These are flaws in reasoning or illusions of thought which, though sometimes inadvertent, are often intentionally used to trick people into adopting an irrational point of view.
Unfortunately, logical fallacies have been rampant in Boulder City’s debate over Ballot Question No. 1, a measure which asks voters whether to remove that portion of our controlled-growth ordinance that restricts the number of residential permits in a single development to 30 per year (the “30 restriction”).
Following are just a few examples: The Slippery Slope Fallacy plays on our fears by using unsubstantiated hypotheticals, suggesting that if we allow one seemingly innocent thing to happen now, we’ll be on a slippery slope to an endless parade of problems in the future. For example, if we keep guns at home, then our kids will grow up to be hardened criminals and join radical militias. Or, if we overlook one student’s tardiness today, then before you know it, the whole school will simply stop showing up.
Likewise, an argument commonly used by Question No. 1 opponents is that if we eliminate the 30 restriction, then we risk opening the floodgate to further amendments down the road, including elimination of the annual 120-home limit and eventually even the entire growth-control ordinance. Such camel’s nose, domino theory and slippery slope arguments are no less absurd than the gun and tardiness examples above, but that hasn’t stopped people from making and gullibly accepting them.
The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy gets its name from the image of a marksman shooting randomly at barns, then painting bull’s-eye targets around the spot where the most bullet holes appear to make it appear that he’s a really good shooter. Like bullet-hole clusters from a randomly fired gun, clusters of data sometimes naturally appear by chance, but they don’t necessarily indicate cause-and-effect relationships. And we obviously shouldn’t go out of our way to paint false bull’s-eyes around them in order to make it seem like we’ve discovered a scientific correlation that supports our preconceived agendas.
For instance, it would be wrong for Dr. Pepper to highlight research showing that three of the countries where its soft drink sells best are among the world’s five healthiest nations, then conclude that Dr. Pepper is therefore healthy.
Similarly, Question No. 1 opponents frequently cite a report issued by Ledcor Construction, which supposedly asserts that the average number of homes built by Las Vegas homebuilders is only 32 per year, from which they conclude that there’s consequently no need to eliminate the 30 restriction.
Not only have these opponents never read the Ledcor report, their use of this data, even if it is true, makes them culpable of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The reality is that Las Vegas homebuilders are all over the spectrum when it comes to the number of homes they build each year, some building only one or two and others building dozens or even hundreds, but it just so happens that the average is 32 (assuming that’s even correct). Think about it.
No one would rationally argue the every single Las Vegas homebuilder builds exactly 32 homes each year and then quits. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a single developer that built exactly 32 in any given year. But Question No. 1 opponents are quick to draw their bull’s-eye around this average data cluster to make you believe that their anti agenda is supported by scientific evidence.
Employing the Strawman Fallacy means that you misrepresent or exaggerate your opponent’s stance on the issues, or, worse yet, completely fabricate and attribute a false strawman position to your opponent, making him much easier to attack and your own perspectives much easier to defend.
In this election, one of the many strawmen fabricated by Question No. 1 opponents is that the City Council is pushing a massive growth agenda to build thousands of homes in Boulder City, so we need to strike down Question No. 1. Like deluded Don Quixote who imagined that windmills were monsters to be destroyed, Question No. 1 opponents have created phantom notions out of thin air in order to have an easy target against which to tilt their lances.
Nobody on Council, however, has ever espoused anything other than modest growth, and manufacturing fictions like these is blatantly dishonest and only serves to undermine fair and rational debate.
If I had the space, I could debunk dozens of other logical fallacies employed in this campaign, mostly by no-growth advocates. The point, however, is that they’re all misleading, substantially increasing the likelihood that we’ll make decisions based on deception rather than truth.
Of course, I would never presume to tell you how to vote on Question No. 1 (though it’s probably not hard to see how I feel). But I will tell you that your vote and, more importantly, our public debate on issues like these should always be based on facts rather than fiction and fallacies.
Rod Woodbury is mayor of Boulder City. He has been serving on the City Council since 2011 and is the president and managing shareholder of his law firm, Woodbury Law.