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Language, Logic, and Action Pt. 1: Logical Lacunae

In a time of great distress, the worst thing we can do is act impulsively. Yet that seems to be the very thing we typically do. Rather than calming down, praying, and thinking through whatever issue it is we are facing, we resort to doing what feels right. This is more than irrational and unwise, it is sinful. For if we are emotionally impulsive, subjecting rationality to our feelings rather than subjecting our feelings to the truth/reason, then we are not exercising self-control, and that is evil.1 Moreover, while we are not emotionless fleshly robots, we also aren’t a-rational animals who are not morally culpable for acting out of pure instinct. We are the image of the living God, whose very word (logos/reason/rational revelation2) is life.3 It’s incumbent upon us, therefore, to think first and emote later, and in a manner corresponding to the truth. 

We fail to do this when we don’t think through the ways in which information is communicated to us, by institutions or individuals. We need to think through the reasoning put forward in the communication, asking simple questions like – 
  • What does the speaker/writer intend to communicate to me? 
  • Does the speaker/writer argue soundly or unsoundly? 
  • Does the speaker/writer use emotionally evocative words? If so, why? 
In this series of posts I will be looking at articles in which COVID-19 is being discussed, as the subject is still very much in discussion. However, I believe you will see how my analyses can be utilized when dealing with reports on other distressing situations. 

Filling in the Inferential Blanks

Firstly, we need to note that if bad news is communicated to us it will include the following – 
a. A narrative/story. 
b. A person or group of persons who either caused or received, or caused and thereby received, some form of harm.
A good example of how this works can be found in the following New York Post article published not too long ago. Here is a short selection from the beginning of the article – 
A Virginia pastor who criticized the “mass hysteria” surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has died of the illness, according to new reports.

Landon Spradlin, of Gretna — a small town halfway between Lynchburg and Danville — started to feel sick while in New Orleans, where he went to preach to the crowds gathered for Mardi Gras celebrations, according to the BBC. 

A month later, Spradlin — who was also a seasoned musician inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016 — died.4
The article is fairly straight forward, and it does not contain an implicit or explicit warning against behaving as the pastor did. However, the way in which it is reported easily leads the undiscerning reader to fill in the blanks. This is evident from looking at the title of the article itself – 

Pastor Who Criticized Coronavirus “Mass Hysteria” Dies from Illness 

This title ties together two events – 

i. The pastor criticizing coronavirus mass hysteria,
 
and 
 
ii. The pastor dying from COVID-19 – 

suggesting to most readers that the relationship between them is causal. To most readers skimming over the headlines, in other words, the article suggests a link between the pastor’s “downplaying” of the seriousness of COVID-19, and his death from the virus. The problem is that the pastor could have criticized coronavirus mass hysteria and died for reasons completely unrelated to him “downplaying” the seriousness of COVID-19. There is no necessary causal relationship between the pastor’s attitude toward COVID-19 and his later death from it. Moreover, the article also suggests that the pastor’s death refutes his belief about the media producing mass hysteria by the way they were reporting on COVID-19. However, the pastor’s death from COVID-19 is irrelevant to considerations of whether or not the media produced mass hysteria around COVID-19.5

Let me explain.
[Please note that the example of sun poisoning given below isn’t meant to be scientifically accurate.] 

Let’s say John6 has a friend who is known for exaggeration in his story telling, and he informs John, with tears in his eyes, that everyone in John’s neighborhood is dying from sun poisoning. John would probably assume that he is exaggerating the reported cases of sun poisoning, as well as the reported number of deaths from sun poisoning. Now let’s say John has other data informing him of the kinds of people who typically get sun poisoning, as well as the kinds of environments which contribute to those at risk of sun poisoning actually becoming ill, and John sees that his neighbors do not fall under that general category of sun poisoned persons, and that his neighborhood actually is not conducive to individuals getting sun poisoning. Would John be justified in thinking that his friend was hysterical and, perhaps, causing masses of people he and his friend knew to become just as hysterical? 

Now, let’s say a few days after John hears the report of “everyone dying” from sun poisoning he begins to notice he is not feeling well. He realizes he has been severely sunburned. The next day he wakes up ill, and in three weeks he dies from sun poisoning. Does John’s death indicate that the sun poisoning situation is as bad as his friend has made it out to be? No, it doesn’t. Rather, it seems to indicate that John, perhaps unbeknownst to him, was susceptible to sun poisoning. Does John’s death indicate that he should have taken sun poisoning more seriously when he was informed of its dangers by his friend? No, it doesn’t. John was, of course, responsible for the knowledge he possessed at the time; and at the time he didn’t know that he was susceptible to dying of sun poisoning. John’s attitude toward the report he received from his friend was based on the following pieces of information he had – 

1. John’s friend, the reporter, is someone given to exaggeration when relaying a narrative/story. 

2. John knows that only a certain class of persons are susceptible to getting, and dying from, sun poisoning. 

3. John knows that his neighbors do fit into that category of susceptible persons. 

4. John knows that the environment plays a part in whether or not susceptible persons actually get sun poisoning. 

5. John knows that his neighborhood is not an environment conducive to causing people to get sun poisoning and, later, die from it. 

John’s response to the claim that sun poisoning was killing every one of his neighbors, as we can see, was rational, warranted by the data, and far from irresponsible. The report he was given by his friend was false, although it contained a modicum of truth (viz. some people were contracting, and dying from, sun poisoning), and John was logically and ethically justified in not taking his friend’s report as incontrovertible truth and, consequently, not formulating an intellectual and ethical response to the sun poisoning epidemic on the basis of the false information given to him. 

So returning to the NY Post article, we should ask ourselves – Did the pastor have reasonable justification for saying that the media was producing mass hysteria around COVID-19? And if we are aware of just how badly certain institutions and media outlets have lied COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, we must answer: Yes. However, let us, for the sake of argument, say that the pastor’s stance was not reasonably justifiable. Does that mean his stance caused him to contract COVID-19 and die from it? No, it doesn’t. And while the article insinuates that the pastor’s attitude toward COVID-19 mass hysteria led to his continued open air preaching, and that this, in turn, led to him contracting the virus and eventually dying from it, there is no necessary causal or logical connection between the pastor’s preaching and his death from COVID-19. 

The article does not explicitly employ the post hoc fallacy, but it gives the reader information in such a way as to encourage him to employ the post hoc fallacy. By doing this, the writer of the article avoids having to take responsibility for (a.)drawing the fallacious post hoc inference mentioned above, (b.)having to defend his belief that x caused y because x preceded y, and (c.)whatever damaging course of action his reader may take in order to avoid the pastor’s fate. It is necessary, therefore, for readers to think about the way in which information is being communicated to them, especially in a time of distress. Are we filling in the inferential blanks? If so, are we doing so analytically? If we are not doing so analytically, then do we not have good motives for questioning whether or not our consequent actions are not only warranted, but rational at all. 



1 cf. 2nd Tim 3:3b.
2 See Clark, Gordon H. “Special Revelation as Rational,” Trinity Foundation, http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=323.
3 cf. John 6:63.
4 Woods, Amanda. “Pastor Who Criticized Coronavirus ‘Mass Hysteria’ Dies from Illness,” New York Post, April 7, 2020, Accessed May 22, 2020. https://nypost.com/2020/04/07/pastor-who-criticized-coronavirus-mass-hysteria-dies-from-illness.
5 "Filling in the blanks," we should note, is not speculative opinion regarding how we read newspaper headlines. As Florent Monclombe explains in his article "The Deviant Syntax of Headlinese and its Role in the Pragmatics of Headlines" -

In the case of headlines, the inferential lexical adjustment processes of concept narrowing or broadening (which normally take place in any situation of communication) are based on an impoverished context: in these conditions, readers end up creating “ad hoc contexts and build[ing] occasion-specific sense”...based on their own culture and expectations. Perhaps paradoxically, involving the reader in the construction of the meaning of the headline actually enhances its relevance, provided the reader is cooperative...

[E-rea: Electronic Journal of Studies on the English-Speaking World 15.2 (2018),
6 Note that this is a fictional person for the sake of the argument being made here.
Comments
JB said…
Well said! I read this really famous guy the other day. Really famous. The headline was unmistakable. And because he was willing to put what he thought in print, I paid special attention. Everyone in the world has heard of him. He has been quoted millions and millions of times, so his wisdom must be impeccable. Every news outlet practically worships the guy because he is so focused and his message is so clear. They all have quoted him at some stage or other. Only a fool would disagree.
His name is Little - C. Little.