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A Guide To Spotting Pretzel Logic On The Campaign Trail

Politicians often offer arguments that make no sense.

“Fallacies are used all the time in campaigns,” says Sam Nelson, director of forensics at Cornell University’s school of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“Human beings are busy. We have all kinds of information around us all the time, we don’t have time to logically think through every argument, so we’re looking for short cuts,” Nelson says. “The issue is whether you can recognize these short cuts that are really fallacies and avoid falling for them.”

Luckily, Scott Neuman at NPR put together an awesome guide to spotting the top five logical fallacies — The Latin is optional.

What it means: There’s nothing like name-dropping a Founding Father, a former U.S. president or a Nobel laureate to boost your argument. But that still doesn’t change the substance of the argument.

Why it works: “It’s the devil we know as opposed to something new, which we’ve never tried,” Nelson says. “There’s always risk in change. Some people are big risk takers, but most people seek safety.”

Examples from the campaign trail:

Mitt Romney, July 29
“Ronald Reagan was one of our great foreign policy presidents. He did not come from the Senate. He did not come from the foreign policy world. He was a governor.”

The Take-Away: “As Reagan’s presidency has grown more distant, his star has sort of grown. He’s a very appealing authority figure,” Clayton says.

President Obama, Aug. 1
“You do not have to take my word for it. Just today, an independent, nonpartisan organization ran all the numbers on Gov. Romney’s plan. This wasn’t my staff. This wasn’t something we did. An independent group ran the numbers.”

The Take-Away: “This is a shortcut for most citizens who aren’t willing to do the hard policy analysis. Obama is saying these people did the work so you don’t have to,” Nelson says.

Still curious? The formula Cicero laid out to win an election in 64 BC still works today.