I used to teach logic out of a textbook called A Concise Introduction to Logic by Patrick Hurley, but I will never use that book again. There is an exercise in which the student is instructed to "Identify the fallacies of relevance, weak induction, presumption, ambiguity, and grammatical analogy committed by the following arguments...If no fallacy is committed, write 'no fallacy.'" It then gives the following as one of the sample arguments:
Pope John Paul II has stated that artificial insemination of women is immoral. We can only conclude that this practice is indeed immoral.You know how some books have the answers to selected questions in the back of the book? Well, it just so happens that this question has an answer at the back of the book, so I looked to see what the student was supposed to write. The answer: appeal to unqualified authority. Never mind the fact that it is highly disputable whether this is actually an appeal to unqualified authority--unqualified authority isn't even one of the fallacies the student was supposed to be looking for!
Well, it's one thing to be accused of appealing to an authority that isn't really an authority, but I think that I've identified a new fallacy, one that has not been identified before to my knowledge, the reason being, I think, that it is a fallacy of a sort that is not likely to be intentionally committed by very many people. I call it the Argumentum ad scientiam, or "appeal to knowledge". This fallacy occurs when you accuse somebody of knowing what they're talking about with a view to making it seem like what they're saying is irrelevant or unimportant.
How could that happen, you ask? Well, let me give you an example. Just the other day I was engaged in a dialectical exchange in which I made a claim about what followed from something somebody else had said, and my interlocuter replied that I was making "a fetish out of philosophical rigor." (Logical) Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, after all. It is totally accidental and beside the point that I am a philosopher, but by pointing out that not everyone makes "a fetish out of philosophical rigor" my interlocutor subtly suggested that, precisely because I am a philosopher and hence prone to drawing useless and pedantic distinctions, we need not take seriously the point that I was making. In other words, he used my own expertise in critical analysis as a point against me! An "appeal to my knowledge/expertise" in an attempt to discredit my point has got to be one of the most sophistic fallacies ever but, in a way, I have to admire it. To quote Jerry Seinfeld: I'd like to meet his balls.
I'm not the only victim of the Argumentum ad scientiam. I've actually seen it used quite often, though not often intentionally. You will often find references to "academics" made in such a way as to suggest that academics are unrealistic, or just a little bit weird, or dangerously out of touch with "reality". When I was in graduate school at Duke I used to drive over to Durham from Chapel Hill every day for classes, and to pass the time (even though it is only 6 miles away, traffic usually made the trip last about 30 or 40 minutes) I would often listen to Rush Limbaugh. One afternoon he was laughing very hard about a book he had recently heard about. The reason for his merriment: the book had raised a question about the evolution of sex, wondering what sort of advantage it offered that would make it something that was selected for by natural selection. He thought that was just about the funniest thing he had ever heard--only an egg-headed brainiac academic would be puzzled about how on earth sex could have been selected for, it seems. So even though the book was actually very scholarly and scientific, Limbaugh wanted to leave us with this impression that it must actually be kind of kooky and, hence, untrustworthy--precisely because only some kind of academic weirdo would even think of such a project.
Although it is rather tempting to wonder what on earth Rush Limbaugh could possibly know about sex, that would be the fallacy of Argumentum ad hominem, so we won't go there. Suffice it to say that in the popular culture the disdain for academics and intellectual pursuits is endemic and at least partly explains the culture of mediocrity that prevails in many school systems, where being intellectually curious is so uncool that some students actually avoid it and ostracize those who do not avoid it. I was not exactly a little Einstein when I was in grade school, and I remember how the kids who were perceived as geeky and smart were treated by the rest of us. I think things are marginally better in some school districts these days, but I'd be willing to bet that in other districts things have gotten worse, if only because the prevailing mediocrity of the popular culture has itself gotten much worse. Is it any wonder that more and more people are choosing to home-school their children?
I worry a little about my own son in this regard. He is finishing up the sixth grade this year, and next year it's on to middle school--in a different building from where he has spent the last seven years and with kids from all over the district (there are four elementary schools in Athens, but only one middle school). He has never been a bad student, but in the past two years he has become a great student, earning all As this year. I don't even want to think about the grades I used to get when I was his age. Is F-- a grade that lots of people used to get, or was it just me? But I have noticed that he has many fears and apprehensions about moving on to middle school and I wonder how much of that is connected to a worry that he will be perceived--and treated--as different.
Because I work closely with the Honors Tutorial Program here at Ohio University I get to see plenty of students for whom hard academic work and intellectual curiosity are ways of life. I am very fortunate, too, that most of the regular students I see have a healthy respect for learning even when they struggle with their own grades. But I also see students for whom the whole college experience is nothing more than a ticket to a job, and for whom critical analysis of arguments is just a waste of time. For these students, there is no need to think carefully about whether or why abortion is right or wrong, or capital punishment, or physician-assisted suicide, or gay marriage. They just form opinions and stick to them no matter what any old "argument" might suggest. For these kinds of students arguments don't do any good anyway, because they often are immune to the compelling power of logical validity. I'm not saying that there are tons and tons of these kinds of students around, but there are more than you might think, and it's more than a little disheartening to think that they could be informing themselves and strengthening their reasoning skills with logical rigor and critical acumen, except for the fact that their culture has persuaded them that it's just too uncool to make "a fetish out of philosophical rigor."