Hello and welcome to chapter four on creative non-fiction ethics, legal issue, and other important stuff. The last part may seem vague, but just hang in there and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
This is that black and white area where if you choose to only keep your lies “white,” then you will be in the black. I’ve used two books as a guide in explaining this to you.
The first is Writing Creative Nonfiction by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. Some of the important things to keep in mind:
- Irony and humor
- Internal monologues
- Expanding on the truth
- Plain style
- Legal stuff
- Fictional bits
We haven’t yet discussed the use of dialogue in a piece – but when trying to capture the essence of a person’s speech there are some things to keep in mind.
It is your obligation as a writer to truly capture the way the person talks as a writer. Everyone has an accent – everyone. Meaning, everyone has a way of speaking that is different from someone else. It is up to you to listen carefully to the way a person expresses themselves and make sure you take careful notes.
This is important because each person is different and you can easily distinguish between a volley of dialogue in a piece by distinguishing between the uniqueness of the way people talk. The gurgles of a baby, although their language is not documented in the Oxford dictionary can still add a deep richness to your writing.
If the person is grammatically incorrect – quote them. If they are politically incorrect, quote them. If they use profanity…we’ll discuss this next.
Just like when you’re watching TV and you see the notice come on the screen that this program may be more suitable for mature audiences – you want to use this style when you’re dealing with your editors.
Flag to them (flag meaning take notice in this case, rather than follow-up); the fact the piece contains profanity.
A note to the wise – know your audience. If you’re writing for a children’s magazine, it’s obviously not wise to use profanity.
Here’s an example of the complexity of diction and language usage from the preface of The Canadian Reporter: News Writing and Reporting by Catherine McKercher and Carman Cumming:
A Note on Pronouns
While reading this text you’ll note that the authors have wrestled with one of the most common problems facing English-language writers, the lack of a neutral third-person pronoun.
In the past, a common practice was to use “he” as the generic pronoun. Though grammatically acceptable, this practice is troubling because it tends to make women readers feel excluded.
Some modern authors deal with the problem by rewording to avoid the singular pronoun or by avoiding pronouns altogether. This works well in some cases, but in others, it sacrifices clarity. For that reason we have chosen, in cases where a singular pronoun is desirable, to vary the gender – using “he” in roughly half the examples and “she” in the rest.
We feel this approach works well. We hope you agree.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is an excellent resource for punctuation and grammar. Here is a quick refresher:
Nouns: according to the Gage Canadian dictionary, a noun is a person, a place or a thing. They also note it’s a quality, an event, etc.
Examples: person – Donna K (Me), place – United States, thing – shoes, an event – World AIDS conference
pronouns: again, according to the Gage Canadian dictionary – a pronoun is a word used instead of a noun.
Examples: he, she, it, that
Verbs: expresses an action.
Examples: fight, struggle, sing, dance, play, listen, and hear
Adjectives: used to describe a noun.
Examples: beautiful, wonderful, rainy, sunny, snowy, tropical, dry
Irony and Humour
Words can heal…words can hurt – remember that and it will make you a better writer.
In term of ethics, using words that heal is highly ethical. In terms of ethics, using words that hurt is not.
Keeping in mind what I said before about diction – if a source says something that may truly be funny, but would hurt even one person’s feelings – that’s a reader you may have lost. It’s simply not good business. Of all the books in this world, you can only please some of the people some of the time. As a writer and if you want to make this your livelihood in a mainstream or “lefty” alternative fashion – which most creative non-fiction writers generally fall into – watch your mouth, your pen, your typing, and your thoughts.
Here is an example of some irony and humor from The National Post’s columnist Shinan Govani, dated August 10, 2006:
You never do know who’s going to show up at the bar on the top of the Park Hyatt. One day it’s Jude Law and his main-est squeeze; the next, it’s a certain Alfie from Parliament Hill.
Not long ago, a source informs, that movie star couple – Jude and Sienna Miller
– held court on the vertigo-chic terrace of the hotel bar. She then went to a semi-private audience with the Law. (She spent a good deal of her time on Jude’s lap, is what I mean to say.)
“She was on him like a kid,” is how one person describes the terribly droll vignette.
If only he’d had a sucker for her, the scene would have been complete. But, sadly, he didn’t and the poor girl had to settle for just the lap – and a view, we suppose, of the Royal Ontario Museum.
I hope you find this as amusing as I do. There are a few turns of phrases here and the entire situation is drôle – “funny” in French.
The English language is a strange one and was built in an oppressive situation historically. However, I’ve just delivered the bad news – the good news is that words like “fantastic” make me smile just by writing them. When I hear them they sound even more beautiful. We’ll get into word-use more in chapter five and six.
Here’s an example from The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell about infusing humor in a story. Blundell uses an example from Marilyn Chase about a different park in San Francisco. The story was printed in 1981:
San Francisco has long been toasted as one of the world’s easiest places to get drunk and stay drunk. It has the requisite amenities: relatively cheap liquor, a temperate climate, and legions of tourists who are easy marks for a practiced panhandler. Now, to these attractions is added another: a park dedicated exclusively to winos….
Wino Park, officially called Sixth Street Park, is a transformed sandlot tucked amid the transient hotels, pawn shops and liquor stores of the city’s tough South-of-Market area. There, a wino can recline with a bottle of Thunderbird or Night Train Express wine, build a bonfire, cook a meal, sleep, loiter or play a game of sodden volleyball without being arrested. A brass plaque commemorates famous people like a roll call of heroes: “Honoring: Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, W. E. Fields, John Barrymore, Betty Ford, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas…..,” they intone….
On a mild and sunny afternoon, they are among the tree dozen regulars who congregate in the tiny park. To an outsider, the first sensations suggest that this is some kind of crazy, landlocked beach party: blowing sand from the arid planters, the smell of woodsmoke from a midday bonfire, outdoor cooking, the blare of a radio tuned to soul and gospel music, and people drinking from Styrofoam cups.
A.W., 60 and gray-bearded, is the park’s elder statesman. He occupies a chair next to the bonfire and despite the balmy spring day wear a fake Persian-lamb hat. It is adorned with a button that reads, “I’m alive,” the slogan of Glide Memorial Church. “Winter was rough,” he says slowly, “but it’s alright now. All right.” Hogshead, glowering and blind drunk, sits alone in a corner. He is the park’s wood gatherer.
Ben, about 50, assumed the leadership role from S.Q. He is a robust black man with salt-and-pepper hair, print polyester shirt and a vest with a nametag read- ing “Glide staff. My name is Ben.” He surveys the park with a proprietary eye and says the winos are holding their ground in perpetual turf battles with drug traffickers.
“I am here every day, seven days a week, from 6:30 in the morning. If I pick up a broom, everybody here will do the same,” he says with an expansive gesture.
Ben’s steady lady is Peggy, 34, a plump, freckled, toothless, ponytailed bacchante attired in fuzzy slippers and a shapeless plaid shirt. Her conversation indicates that somewhere, there lurks a proper, middle-class upbringing. She asks a reporter for a stock tip, and when none is forthcoming, explains: “My broker is in Connecticut, and anyway, I don’t trust him. But if I were investing, I’d buy Kimberly-Clark, because of the Rely tampon scandal…..”
Using a wealth of vocabulary, Chase was able to discuss the poverty among the people in Wino Park and bring them to life. I find her most brilliant point of humor is when Peggy asks her for the stock tips and talks about her broker being in Connecticut. However, there are many elements to find amusing in this story about a serious topic which turns it into a slice-of-life piece.
Also note that by the end of this ebook you’ll have learned how to create pieces like this which use research to start your story, narration to tell your story and dialogue to bring your story to life.
Again, we haven’t discussed dialogue yet – that’s coming in chapter six and there will be an assignment with that chapter.
Just to explain a little now….when I was talking about research earlier, sometimes you can get so close to your subjects with creative non-fiction writing you either are or feel like you’re sleeping with them.
This gives many writers the freedom to feel they can write “internal monologues,” or feel like they are reading a person’s mind. An example can be when you’re chatting with one of your family members and you mention a friend of yours they know. When you’re speaking with your friend, you may mention that your mother or father says “hello,” even if they didn’t actually say that. You just know they would – kind of like you read their mind or know them well enough to know they would say that.
Whether you believe in mind-reading or not – Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese are some of the most common users of this style. Keep in mind it’s hotly debated and many people, including many traditional journalists who have been in the business twice my lifetime, don’t agree with this style.
With this in mind….you can decide for you. I will explain the style and hope you will show the initiative to practice it. Read Wolfe, Talese, and Capote and you will probably get a good sense of how you think it works. If you find it fits your style, go for it. If you like debating, you can always go on the online forums to defend your point of using the method or not.
Expanding on the truth
True non-fiction writing must be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – no buts about it.
If you are weaving pieces of information from various sources, some of it being it true and some t being false – this is not creative non-fiction – it’s fiction. Non-fiction is based on facts. The creative element comes with your vivid vocabulary, dynamic dialogue, rich research, etc. I hope this is enough said.
Cheney in her book Writing Creative Nonfiction expresses concern that she may be encouraging non-fiction writers to write non-factual information. To be honest, when I saw this book (although it looked interesting); I was concerned about the same thing.
Although your writing should be creative, your facts must be accurate. Creative non-fiction is based on gathering facts. A good example of understanding this kind of journalism is reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This is probably one of the best creative non-fiction, new journalism, new new journalism – whatever anyone wants to
call it – it’s all the same thing. It’s a superb book – make sure you read it if you haven’t already. Or, you could always see the movie on DVD.
While doing extra research for this ebook (I’ve been researching this ebook the majority of my life through my writing, educational and professional experience), I felt passionate about re-reading The Canadian Press Stylebook. Centennial College where I teach uses this guide for its print-based books.
Since all writers worldwide don’t have access to this information unless you visit The Canadian Press’s (CP’s) website and order, I will make it simple by expressing just a bit of what it says from page 101, and see this as Journalism Ethics 101:
- Carelessness and bad judgment on legal questions can ruin people’s lives. Every journalist must weigh this responsibility when working.
- It is dangerous to publish statements that damage a person’s reputation or livelihood unless the statements are probably true or unless the law clearly provides a special exemption.
- It is particularly dangerous to suggest criminal conduct unless it has been proved in the courts.
- Every person charged and before the courts are entitled to be presumed innocent and to receive a fair trial. It is forbidden to publish anything that passes judgment on an accused or that could hinder a fair trial unless it has been admitted in court as evidence. (Of course, the court’s judgment is publishable).
- Juveniles involved with the law – accused, witnesses or victims – must not be identified, even indirectly, without legal advice.
- In cases where legal action is a possibility or could involve a dispute over what was said, reporters should keep notes, audio tapes and related documents for three months. It’s expected that notification of any legal action would be given by that time. Reporters should also note that during an examination for discovery related to the story in question – including such things as e-mails to sources or other versions of the story.
These rules are based on Canadian law and it’s different in different countries. However, keeping some of these things in mind will help you with legal issues. Some other important things to remember, on page 102 of CP’s stylebook use.
- Check legal authority before writing anything legally doubtful.
- Cut out anything that looks legally questionable until it can be cleared for
- If legal doubts arise after a story has been distributed, order the story killed or withheld immediately until the doubts can be resolved.
As you can see there is a lot to keep in mind when it comes to ethics and legal stuff. Discussing copyright and the legal elements of running your own business as a writer will be discussed in Chapter 11.
Logical fallacies: This phrase represents the content which is often used in media that presents information that can be misleading to the reader.
What is normally done in the opinion and editorials, as well as in some general articles found in newspapers, magazines and online is an argumentative type of stories. With the foundation of a “slant,” meaning the angle of the story – the writer is supporting the focus of their story by presenting the facts. This produces a story which may be representative of truth in society – as well as being viewed as a sound argument.
A logical fallacy o, on the other hand,s an error in reasoning. The facts are presented, or what is perceived as the facts, but they may actually not lead to a conclusion of truth.
Here are some examples of logical fallacies.
- Inductive Argument
Premise 1: Most American cats are domestic house cats. Premise 2: Bill is an American cat.
Conclusion: Bill is the domestic house cat.
This is a fallacy because the conclusion does not take into consideration the margin of error in premise one.
- Factual Error
Columbus is the capital of the United States.
This is a fallacy because Washington, not Columbus is the capital of the United States. It’s completely untrue.
- Deductive Fallacy
Premise 1: If Portland is the capital of Maine, then it is in Maine. Premise 2: Portland is in Maine.
Conclusion: Portland is the capital of Maine. (Portland is in Maine, but Augusta is the capital.)
This is a fallacy because it runs along the same belief that because both Toronto and Ottawa are in Ontario, that would make Toronto the capital of Canada. This is also untrue along with the above. Actually, Ottawa is the capital of Canada.
- Inductive Fallacy
Premise 1: Having just arrived in Ohio, I saw a white squirrel. Conclusion: All Ohio Squirrels are white.
(While there are many, many squirrels in Ohio, the white ones are very rare). This is a fallacy because it’s based on assumptions.
The following are also fallacies:
- Ad Hominem – from Latin to English, “Ad Hominem” means “against the man” or “against the person.” It takes this form:
- Person A makes claim X.
- Person B makes an attack on person A.
- Therefore A’s claim is false.
It is a fallacy because usually the claim or the attack is not the truth. An example:
- Bill: “I believe that abortion is morally wrong.”
Dave: “Of course you would say that you’re a priest.”
Bill: “What about the arguments I gave to support my position?”
Dave: “Those don’t count. Like I said, you’re a priest, so you have to say that abortion is wrong. Further, you are just a lackey to the Pope, so I can’t believe what you say.”
- Appeal to Authority – this fallacy is committed when a person is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious.
- Appeal to Emotion – the article above uses this technique. This fallacy is committed when someone manipulates peoples’ emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true. More formally, this sort of “reasoning” involves the substitution of various means of producing strong emotions in place of evidence for a claim. If the favorable emotions associated with X influence the person to accept X as true because they “feel good about X,” then he has fallen prey to the fallacy.
- Appeal to Fear – the article above uses this technique. More examples of the appeal to fear:
- “You know, Professor Smith, I really need to get an A in this class. I’d like to stop by during your office hours later to discuss my grade. I’ll be in your building anyways, visiting my father. He’s your dean, by the way. I’ll see you later.”
- “I don’t think a Red Ryder BB rifle would make a good present for you. They are very dangerous and you’ll put your eye out. Now, don’t you agree that you should think of another gift idea?”
- You must believe that God exists. After all, if you do not accept the existence of God, then you will face the horrors of hell.”
- “You shouldn’t say such things against multiculturalism! If the chair heard what you were saying, you would never receive tenure. So, you had just better learn to accept that it is simply wrong to speak out against it.”
- Appeal to Popularity – the Appeal to Popularity has the following form:
- Most people approve of X (have favorable emotions towards X).
- Therefore X is true.
The basic idea is that a claim is accepted as being true simply because most people are favorably inclined towards the claim. More formally, the fact that most people have favorable emotions associated with the claim is substituted in place of actual evidence for the claim. A person falls prey to this fallacy if he accepts a claim as being true simply because most other people approve of the claim.
Bandwagon – the Bandwagon is a fallacy in which a threat of rejection by one’s peers (or peer pressure) is substituted for evidence in an “argument.” This line of “reasoning” has the following form:
- Person P is pressured by his/her peers or threatened with rejection.
- Therefore person P’s claim X is false.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because peer pressure and the threat of rejection do not constitute evidence for rejecting a claim. This is especially clear in the following example:
Joe: “Bill, I know you think that 1+1=2. But we don’t accept that sort of thing in our group.”
Bill: “I was just joking. Of course, I don’t believe that.”
It is clear that the pressure from Bill’s group has no bearing on the truth of the claim that 1+1=2.
It should be noted that loyalty to a group and the need to belong can give people very strong reasons to conform to the views and positions of those groups. Further, from a practical standpoint we must often compromise our beliefs in order to belong to groups. However, this feeling of loyalty or the need to belong simply does not constitute evidence for a claim.
- Begging the Question-Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of “reasoning” typically has the following form.
- Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
- Claim C (the conclusion) is true.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: “X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true.”
Some cases of question begging are fairly blatant, while others can be extremely subtle.
Examples of Begging the Question
- By law, it is not be prohibited by the law.
- “The belief in God is universal. After all, everyone believes in God.”
- Interviewer: “Your resume looks impressive but I need another reference.”
Bill: “Jill can give me a good reference.”
Interviewer: “Good. But how do I know that Jill is trustworthy?” Bill: “Certainly. I can vouch for her.”
- The burden of Proof – Burden of Pros a fallacy in which the burden of pros placed on the wrong side. Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of proof actually rests on side B. A common name for this is an Appeal to Ignorance. This sort of reasoning typically has the following form:
- Claim X is presented by side A and the burden of proof actually rests on a side
- Side B claims that X is false because there is no proof for X.
In many situations, one side has the burden of proof resting on it. This side is obligated to provide evidence for its position. The claim of the other side, the one that does not bear the burden of proof, is assumed to be true unless proven otherwise. The difficulty in such cases is determining which side, if any, the burden of proof rests on. In many cases, settling this issue can be a matter of significant debate. In some cases the burden of pros set by the situation. For example, in American law, a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty (hence the burden of pros on the prosecution). As another example, in the debate the burden of pros placed on the affirmative team. As a final example, in most cases, the burden of proof rests on those who claim something exists (such as Bigfoot, psychic powers, universals, and sense data).
Examples of Burden of Proof
- Bill: “I think that some people have psychic powers.” Jill: “What is your proof?”
Bill: “No one has been able to prove that people do not have psychic powers.”
- “You cannot prove that God does not exist, so He does.”
- confusing Cause and Effect – Confusing Cause and Effect is a fallacy that has the following general form:
- A and B regularly occur together.
- Therefore A is the cause of B.
This fallacy requires that there is not, in fact, a common cause that actually causes both A and B.
This fallacy is committed when a person assumes that one event must cause another just because the events occur together. More formally, this fallacy involves drawing the conclusion that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are in regular conjunction (and there is not a common cause that is actually the cause of A and B). The mistake being made is that the causal conclusion is being drawn without adequate justification.
In some cases, it will be evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a person might claim that an illness was caused by a person getting a fever. In this case, it would be quite clear that the fever was caused by illness and not the other way around. In other cases, the fallacy is not always evident. One factor that makes causal reasoning quite difficult is that it is not always evident what the cause is and what is the effect. For example, a problem child might be the cause of the parents being short-tempered or the short temper of the parents might be the cause of the child being problematic. The difficulty is increased by the fact that some situations might involve feedback. For example, the parents’ temper might cause the child to become problematic and the child’s behavior could worsen the parents’ temper. In such cases, it could be rather difficult to sort out what caused what in the first place.
In order to determine that the fallacy has been committed, it must be shown that the causal conclusion has not been adequately supported and that the person committing the fallacy has confused the actual cause with the effect. Showing that the fallacy has been committed will typically involve determining the actual cause and the actual effect. In some cases, as noted above, this can be quite easy. In other cases, it will be difficult. In some cases, it might be almost impossible. Another thing that makes causal reasoning difficult is that people often have very different conceptions of cause and, in some cases; the issues are clouded by emotions and ideologies. For example, people often claim violence on TV and in movies must be censored because it causes people to like violence. Other people claim that there is violence on TV and in movies because people like violence. In this case, it is not obvious what the cause really is and the issue is clouded by the fact that emotions often run high on this issue.
While causal reasoning can be difficult, many errors can be avoided with due care and careful testing procedures. This is due to the fact that the fallacy arises because the conclusion is drawn without due care. One way to avoid the fallacy is to pay careful attention to the temporal sequence of events. Since (outside of Star Trek), effects do not generally precede their causes, if A occurs after B, then A cannot be the cause of B. However, these methods go beyond the scope of this program.
All causal fallacies involve an error in causal reasoning. However, this fallacy differs from the other causal fallacies in terms of the error in reasoning being made. In the case of a Post Hoc fallacy, the error is that a person is accepting that A is the cause of B simply because A occurs before B. In the case of the Fallacy ignoring a Common Cause A is taken to be the cause of B when there is, in fact, a third factor that is the cause of both A and B. For more information, see the relevant entries in this program.
Examples of Confusing Cause and Effect
- It is claimed by some people that severe illness is caused by depression and anger. After all, people who are severely ill are very often depressed and angry. Thus, it follows that the cause of severe illness actually is the depression and anger. So, a good and cheerful attitude is key to staying healthy.
- Bill sets out several plates with bread on them. After a couple days, he notices that the bread has mold growing all over it. Bill concludes that the mold was produced by the bread going bad. When Bill tells his mother about his experiment, she tells him that the mold was the cause of the bread going bad and that he better clean up the mess if he wants to get his allowance this week.
- Guilt by Association – the article above uses this technique – Guilt by Association is a fallacy in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
- It is pointed out that people person A does not like accept claim P.
- Therefore P is false
It is clear that sort of “reasoning” is fallacious. For example, the following is obviously a case of poor “reasoning”: “You think that 1+1=2. But, Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Joseph Stalin, and Ted Bundy all believed that 1+1=2. So, you shouldn’t believe it.”
The fallacy draws its power from the fact that people do not like to be associated with people they dislike. Hence, if it is shown that a person shares a belief with people he dislikes he might be influenced into rejecting that belief. In such cases, the person will be rejecting the claim based on how he thinks or feels about the people who hold it and because he does not want to be associated with such people.
Of course, the fact that someone does not want to be associated with people she dislikes does not justify the rejection of any claim. For example, most wicked and terrible people accept that the earth revolves around the sun and that lead is heavier than helium. No sane person would reject these claims simply because this would put them in the company of people they dislike (or even hate).
Example of Guilt by Association
- Jen and Sandy are discussing the topic of welfare. Jen is fairly conservative politically but she has been an active opponent of racism. Sandy is extremely liberal politically.
Jen: “I was reading over some private studies of welfare and I think it would be better to have people work for their welfare. For example, people could pick up trash, put up signs, and maybe even do skilled labor that they are qualified for. This would probably make people feel better about them and it would get more out of our tax money.”
Sandy: “I see. So, you want to have the poor people out on the streets picking up trash for their checks? Well, you know that is exactly the position David Count endorses.”
Jen: “Who is he?”
Sandy: “I’m surprised you don’t know him, seeing how alike you two are. He was a Grand Mooky Wizard for the Aryan Pure White League and is well known for his hatred of blacks and other minorities. With your views, you’d fit right into his little racist club.”
Jen: “So, I should reject my view just because I share it with some racist?” Sandy: “Of course.”
- Hasty Generalization – this fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough. It has the following form:
- Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population P.
- Conclusion C is drawn from Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
- X% of all observed A’s are B”s.
- Therefore X% of all A’s are Bs.
The fallacy is committed when not enough A’s are observed to warrant the conclusion. If enough A’s are observed then the reasoning is not fallacious.
Small samples will tend to be unrepresentative. As a blatant case, asking one person what she thinks about gun control would clearly not provide an adequate sized sample for determining what Canadians, in general, think about the issue. The general idea is that small samples are less likely to contain numbers proportional to the whole population. For example, if a bucket contains blue, red, green and orange marbles, then a sample of three marbles cannot possibly be representative of the whole population of marbles. As the sample size of marbles increases the more likely it becomes that marbles of each color will be selected in proportion to their numbers in the whole population. The same holds true for things others than marbles, such as people and their political views.
Since Hasty Generalization is committed when the sample (the observed instances) is too small, it is important to have samples that are large enough when making a generalization. The most reliable way to do this is to take as large a sample as is practical. There are no fixed numbers as to what counts as being large enough. If the population in question is not very diverse (a population of cloned mice, for example) then a very small sample would suffice. If the population is very diverse (people, for example) then a fairly large sample would be needed. The size of the sample also depends on the size of the population. Obviously, a very small population will not support a huge sample. Finally, the required size will depend on the purpose of the sample. If Bill wants to know what Joe and Jane thinks about gun control, then a sample consisting of Bill and Jane would (obviously) be large enough. If Bill wants to know what most Australians think about gun control, then a sample consisting of Bill and Jane would be far too small.
People often commit Hasty Generalizations because of bias or prejudice. For example, someone who is a sexist might conclude that all women are unfit to fly jet fighters because one woman crashed one. People also commonly commit Hasty Generalizations because of laziness or sloppiness. It is very easy to simply leap to a conclusion and much harder to gather an adequate sample and draw a justified conclusion. Thus, avoiding this fallacy requires minimizing the influence of bias and taking care to select a sample that is large enough.
One final point: a Hasty Generalization, like any fallacy, might have a true conclusion. However, as long as the reasoning is fallacious there is no reason to accept the conclusion based on that reasoning.
Examples of Hasty Generalization
- Smith, who is from England, decides to attend graduate school at Ohio State University. He has never been to the US before. The day after he arrives, he is walking back from an orientation session and sees two white (albino) squirrels chasing each other around a tree. In his next letter home, he tells his family that American squirrels are white.
- Sam is riding her bike in her hometown in Maine, minding her own business. A station wagon comes up behind her and the driver starts beeping his horn and then tries to force her off the road. As he goes by, the driver yells “get on the sidewalk where you belong!” Sam sees that the car has Ohio plates and concludes that all Ohio drivers are jerks.
- Personal Attack – the article above uses this technique – a personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.
Not all ad hominems are fallacious. In some cases, an individual’s characteristics can have a bearing on the question of the veracity of her claims. For example, if someone is shown to be a pathological liar, then what he says can be considered to be unreliable. However, such attacks are weak, since even pathological liars might speak the truth on occasion.
In general, it is best to focus one’s attention on the content of the claim and not on who made the claim. It is the content that determines the truth of the claim and not the characteristics of the person making the claim.
Examples of Personal Attack
- In a school debate, Bill claims that the President’s economic plan is unrealistic. His opponent, a professor, retorts by saying “the freshman has his facts wrong.”
- “This theory about a potential cure for cancer has been introduced by a doctor who is a known lesbian feminist. I don’t see why we should extend an invitation for her to speak at the World Conference on Cancer.”
- “That claim cannot be true. Dave believes it, and we know how morally repulsive he is.”
- “Bill claims that Jane would be a good treasurer. However I find Bill’s behavior offensive, so I’m not going to vote for Jill.”
- “Jane says that drug use is morally wrong, but she is just a goody-two shoes
Christian, so we don’t have to listen to her.”
- Slippery Slope – the Slippery Slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:
- Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
- Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.
Examples of Slippery Slope
- “We have to stop the tuition increase! The next thing you know, they’ll be charging $40,000 a semester!”
- “The US shouldn’t get involved militarily in other countries. Once the government sends in a few troops, it will then send in thousands to die.”
- “You can never give anyone a break. If you do, they’ll walk all over you.”
- “We’ve got to stop them from banning pornography. Once they start banning one form of literature, they will never stop. Next thing you know, they will be burning all the books!”
The above is just an example of some of the more common “logical fallacies” which can be found in media. The information is from The Nizkor Project which can also be found on the Internet for more information. They are presented to
you in this chapter so you, as a budding writer, can avoid this type of sloppy jour- nalism and communication and ensure you present sound arguments. Help to de- velop a generation of journalists that can all be respected for their honesty, bring- ing more honour to the profession.
Here’s an article that is peppered with logical fallacies. When you read newspapers, even the most reputable of journalist are guilty confusing their writing
with logical fallacies. They do this because it helps create an emotional story. This doesn’t make it right, this makes it sell. There is a big difference. As a non-fiction writer, you will also be tempted by these fallacies. Appeal to authority, and popularity, personal attack, and emotionally fueled language are just four fallacies that are used often in journalism. Journalist will say things like “Janet was found dead in her lower east side apartment wearing a short leather mini skirt and a copious amount of face makeup”. Journalist will give you completely irrelevant facts about a death, because they want you to come up with your own mislead, but exciting conclusion. Below is an article that was recently taken from Yahoo news.
SALT LAKE CITY – Houston’s
FBI office has placed the fugitive daughter of a deceased Utah polygamist on the agency’s “most wanted” list after getting a tip about the woman from a relative in prison. (** instructors notes: Notice how the author started this paragraph with the terms “fugitive daughter”. This is the logical fallacy guilt by association. He also tells of her fathers sexual preference being “polygamist” (meaning having more than one sexual partner), to make you think that this persons morals are be- low the average American moral standard. This too is a logical fallacy because it has nothing to do with the daughter who is in question. It is simply emotionally fueled language that both confuses cause and effect, makes a “hasty generaliza- tion” that because a father had a certain moral standard, so will his daughter”
and accuses the daughter of guilt by association by informing that her father was a fugitive. This first paragraph alone should make you see how logical fallacies make for exciting writing, but from a journalism standpoint, weaken you as a writer. Moving on to the article again. (*** end of instructor comments). Jacqueline Tarsa LeBaron is wanted in connection with four 1988 murders in Houston and Irving, Texas, according to a wanted poster on the agency’s Web site. She’s been a fugitive since 1992.
A telephone message left by The Associated Press with the Houston FBI office was not returned Saturday. (*** instructor’s comments: Here is an example of an appeal to emotion. They again are trying to lead you to believe that non returned phone call is proof of guilt).
LeBaron is a daughter of Ervil LeBaron, the former leader of the Church of the
Lamb of God, a polygamist sect with enclaves in Mexico.
The elder LeBaron ordered the executions of rival polygamists in the 1970s, inves- tigators have said. In 1972 he was convicted in Utah of ordering family members
to kill his brother, who was said to have disobeyed church laws.
Ervil LeBaron died in the Utah state prison in 1981. Before his death, he report- edly wrote a “bible” which included a commandment to kill disobedient church members.
It was also rumored that he left behind a “hit list” and that some of his 54 chil- dren were carrying out his commands.
Jacqueline LeBaron is one of six LeBaron family members charged with the June
1988 murders of three men who chose to leave the sect and the 8-year-old daugh- ter of one victim. Each was shot in the head with a shotgun.
In 1995, three of the accused killers were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Another was convicted of ordering the deaths and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The youngest, who was 16 at the time of the murders, pleaded guilty to killing the child and served five years in prison.
Houston FBI special agent Todd Burns said there is renewed interest in Jacque- line LeBaron because a half brother who claims to have had a religious conver- sion in prison came forward with new information.
“He said they had an agreement to meet in Mexico. At one time they talked about meeting there before they got arrested and that never took place,” Burns said.
“He claims to not know anything about her whereabouts or whether she’s living.” Authorities believe Jacqueline LeBaron, who has worked as an English teacher,
is in Mexico, where she was born and where the family had several polygamist colonies. (End of article)
As you can see, the above article is filled with logical fallacies. Does it make the article more interesting? Probably. Does it make the article right? Not necessarily.
So you can become better aware of what a logical fallacy is I will present a story here where your assignment is to find the logical fallacies in the article.
Logical fallacies happen all the time in different types of news, especially crime stories, as wells as health stories. This example was printed from The Washington Post on August 29, 2005 and is titled “Just Check the ID” by Sally Jenkins
Just Check the ID
By Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 29, 2005; Page E01
Athletes do things that seem transcendental — and they can also do things that are transcendentally stupid. They choke, trip and dope. Nevertheless, they possess a deep physical knowledge the rest of us can learn from, bound as we are by our ordinary, trudging, cumbersome selves. Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with some- thing that we aren’t? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design?
The sports section would not seem to be a place to discuss intelligent design, the notion that nature shows signs of an intrinsic intelligence too highly organized to be solely the product of evolution. It’s an odd intersection, admittedly. You might ask, what’s so intelligently designed about ballplayers (or sportswriters)? Jose Canseco once let a baseball hit him in the head and bounce over the fence for a home run. Former Washington Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte gave himself a concussion by running helmet-first into a wall in a fit of exuberance. But athletes also are explorers of the boundaries of physiology and neuroscience, and some intelligent design proponents therefore suggest they can be walking human laboratories for their theories.
First, let’s get rid of the idea that ID (intelligent design) is a form of sly creationism. It isn’t. ID is unfairly confused with the movement to teach creationism in public schools. The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo- Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is
inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world. Creationists are attracted to ID, and one its founding fathers, University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, is a devout Presbyterian. But you don’t have to be a creationist to think there might be something to it, or to agree with Johnson when he says, “The human body is packed with marvels, eyes and lungs and cells, and evolutionary gradualism can’t account for that.”
The idea, so contentious in other contexts, actually rings a loud bell in sports. Athletes often talk of feeling an absolute fulfillment of purpose, of something powerful moving through them or in them that is not just the result of training. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, “intrinsic intelligence.” Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart’s mental state as he handles a high-speed car “is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation,” Schwartz said.
Instead, Schwartz theorizes that when a great athlete focuses, he or she may be “making a connection with something deep within nature itself, which lends itself to deepening our intelligence.” It’s fascinating thought. And Schwartz would like to prove it’s scientifically justifiable.
Steve Stenstrom, who played quarterback for the Bears and 49ers, works as a religious-life adviser to athletes at Stanford, where he organized a controversial forum on intelligent design last May. “I don’t think it’s a reach at all,” he said. “Talk to any athlete, and if they really are honest, they realize that while they have worked and trained, and put a lot of effort into being great, they started with some raw material that was advantageous to them, and that it was meant to work a certain way. We all recognize that we have a certain design element.”
A strict Darwinist would suggest this is an illusion and point out that there are obvious flaws in the body. Peter Weyand, a researcher in kinesiology and biomechanics at Rice University, observes, “Humans in the realm of the animal kingdom aren’t terribly athletic.”
Racehorses are much faster, and, for that matter, so are hummingbirds. We seem to have a basic quest to go higher, farther, faster — one of our distinguishing features is that we push our limits for a reason other than survival, and construct artificial scales of achievement — but we have some built-in debility. Human muscle can only get so strong; it will only produce as much force as it has area, about 3.5 kilograms of weight per square centimeter. “We’re endowed with what we have by virtue of evolution, and it’s not like engineering where we can pick materials and throw out what doesn’t work,” Weyand said.
Our bodies break down a lot. If we were designed more intelligently, presumably we wouldn’t have osteoporosis or broken hips when we get old. Some evolutionists suppose that the process, through which people evolved from four-legged creatures to two, has had negative orthopedic consequences.
We are flawed cardiovascular. Horses carry much more oxygen in their blood, and have a storage system for red blood cells in their spleens, a natural system of blood doping. Humans don’t. Also, while a lot of aerobics can make our hearts bigger, our lungs are unique. They don’t adapt to training. They’re fixed. We’re stuck with them, and can only envy the antelopes.
None of which satisfies Schwartz, or Stenstrom. “I don’t think we can attach athletic design to ‘better’ design,” Stenstrom said. “. . . Some people are designed with an ear for music, others with a capacity to think deep thoughts about the world.”
Schwarz finds little or nothing in natural selection to explain the ability of athletes to reinterpret physical events from moment to moment, the super-awareness that they seem to possess. He has a term for it, the ability to be an “impartial spectator” to your own actions. “The capacity to stand outside yourself and be aware of where you are,” he said. “Deep within the complexities of molecular organization lays an intrinsic intelligence that accounts for that deep organization, and is something that we can connect with through the willful focus of our minds,” he theorizes.
Crackpot speculation? Maybe — maybe not. ID certainly lacks a body of scientific data, and opponents are right to argue that the idea isn’t developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution. But Darwin himself admitted he didn’t know everything about everything. “When I see a tail feather on a peacock, it makes me sick,” he once said, before he understood it was for mating. And try telling a baseball fan that pure Darwinism explains Joe DiMaggio. As Tommy Lasorda once said, “If you said to God, ‘Create someone who was what a baseball player should be,’ God would have created Joe DiMaggio — and he did.”
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be wary of the uses for which ID might be hijacked. In the last year, numerous states have experienced some sort of anti- evolution movement. That makes it all the more important for the layman to distinguish the various gradations between evolutionists, serious scientists who are interested in ID, “neo-Creos,” and Biblical literalists. One of the things we learn in a grade school science class is a concrete way of thinking, a sound, systematic way of exploring the natural world.
But science class also teaches us how crucial it is to maintain adventurousness, and surely it’s worthwhile to suggest that an athlete in motion conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn’t explained by mere molecules. Johann Kepler was the first to accurately plot the laws of planetary motion. But he only got there because he believed that their movements, if translated musically, would result in a celestial harmony. He also believed in astrology. And then there was Albert Einstein, who remarked that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Historically, scientific theorists are sandlot athletes, drawing up plays in the dirt.
Good luck with the assignment!