Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Harmful Fallacies: Rubio and Refugees

False Dichotomy: Rubio on Welders or Philosophers

Last week US Presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed that "we need more welders and less philosophers."

It turns out that Rubio's assertion that welders make more money than philosophers is factually incorrect according to labor statistics.  A nice round up of philosophers' responses can be found on this post on Daily Nous, and Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show even had a crack at it.

My concern isn't with the inaccuracy of Rubio's claim, but with his reasoning.  Rubio is effectively making the following argument:

1. We have to choose between having more philosophers or having more welders.
2. We should have more welders.
3. Therefore, we should have fewer philosophers.

This is a textbook case of a logical fallacy called False Dichotomy (or False Dilemma).  Rubio has given no reason to think we can't have both more welders and more philosophers.  There's also no reason that some individuals can't be both welders and philosophers at the same time.

I agree with Rubio on his point that we should respect and encourage vocational education in skilled professions like welding.  Welding is noble and important work.  But this doesn't mean we need less (or fewer) philosophers.  Perhaps Rubio would have noticed his error if he had taken a course in logic and critical thinking -- the kind of course often taught by philosophers!

The conceivable harm here is that Rubio's comments could encourage a narrow-minded educational policy when a broader-minded policy might be better.  I'm also worried about the tendency Rubio and others seem to have to judge people's moral value by the amount of money they make. Philosophy could still be valuable even if welders on average made more money, and welders are still valuable even though the opposite seems to be true.  I'd hate to see this turn into welders versus philosophers.  The real conclusion here is that Rubio may not know what he's talking about concerning either welding or philosophy.

Hasty Generalization: Terrorism and Refugees

Recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris (and most recently in Yola, Nigeria) have disturbed people throughout the world.  And rightly so.  But how should we respond?

The Paris attacks have prompted some state governors in the United States to bar Syrian refugees from emigrating to their states.  This is despite the fact that there are no firm links between the attacks and Syrian refugees (Syrian passports found at the scene are probably fake).  Even worse for their plan, US state governors have no legal basis to outright bar refugees.

Syrian refugees
The governors' basic argument seems to be something like this:

1. Since the Paris attacks were possibly perpetrated by terrorists claiming to be Syrian refugees, these specific people should have been refused entry into another country as refugees.
2. Therefore, all people claiming to be Syrian refugees should be refused entry into another country as refugees.

The fallacy here is called Hasty Generalization.  The basic idea is to use a small or unrepresentative sample to make a generalization about a large group, you know, hastily.  

Even if the Paris terrorists were posing as Syrian refugees (and that is far from clear), would this group of eight or nine people be a good reason to be wary of a group of about three million refugees from Syria?  

Think about it like this: The serial killer Jeffery Dahmer was an American.  Is this a reason to suspect that a large number of Americans may be serial killers?  Maybe it's a good reason to take precautions to make sure you aren't dating a serial killer, but it's unreasonable to think that a large number of Americans are serial killers.

Whether the US or other countries have the resources or moral obligation to accept large numbers of refugees are important questions, but those aren't the issues I'm discussing here.

The harm of this fallacious reasoning is that it could keep refugees escaping from civil war and terrorism in Syria from finding a safe place to live.  Even if US governors can't legally halt refugees, such reasoning is indicative of attitudes that could impact future policy.  Call me old fashioned, but I don't think important policy decisions should be based on fallacious reasoning.

I see this Hasty Generalization as a more specific version of the kind of reasoning responsible for a lot of Islamophobia.  Some people seem to think that the actions of a very small group of Muslims (or people who call themselves Muslims, anyway) should lead to a negative attitude toward a group of 1.6 billion people.  This is a pretty obvious Hasty Generalization.  (Furthermore, the vast majority of terrorism is not committed by Muslims.)

The Harm of Fallacies

Fallacies are common mistakes in reasoning, which shows that human beings don't always reason well.  But since we are capable of reasoning well, I think we owe it to ourselves to learn to do so.  This isn't just a philosopher's nitpicking.  It's about self-respect and fulfilling our potential as human beings.  It's also about refusing to let our rational failings dictate our treatment of others so that they can fulfill their potential as well.


  1. "The real conclusion here is that Rubio may not know what he's talking about concerning either welding or philosophy." Or he doesn't know enough about reasoning or education or.... in the worst possible case, is intellectually dishonest. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I would dearly love our politicians to be held to at least minimum standards regarding their critical thinking skills. Thanks for this post! Amara Novi

    1. Thanks for the comment! I can't claim to know the mind of Marco Rubio, so I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Of course, a more cynical view is that he's deliberately making a false dilemma (or "wedge issue") in an attempt to appeal to a certain segment of Republican voters of an anti-intellectualist bent by scapegoating a small and poorly understood segment of society (philosophers, the humanities, and academia more generally). Of course, politicians would never do such a thing!

  2. Another article on Rubio: Why Marco Rubio Should Have Majored in Philosophy and Why You Should:

  3. See this excellent post from Daily Nous: Philosophers on the Syrian Refugees: