THE LOGICAL FALLACIES OF 'GOLFGATE'
9th September 2020
A recent golf outing in Clifden, Co Galway and the resulting fall out, has received saturation coverage in the Irish media.
Interestingly, the actions of the various 'actors' in this saga; the Irish media, the various politicians and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen are classic examples of some of the most common logical fallacies.
A logical fallacy is a false assumption which invalidates an argument.
The Irish media presented the story of the golf outing as thus:- A group of arrogant politicians, who believe themselves to be above the law, knowingly flouted the Covid 19 lockdown guidelines by attending this event. Sensationalist headlines followed, designed to boost newspaper circulation and website traffic.
This reporting by the Irish media illustrates 'The Straw Man Fallacy'. The media misrepresented what actually happened in Clifden, Co Galway. The truth was much more complex.
At the time the invitations were made to the various politicians, the planned event was in compliance with the lockdown guidelines. However, these guidelines were changed just a few days before the event. We know that the politicians who resigned over the affair, all claimed to have made enquiries as to whether the event was in compliance with the new guidelines, which now restricted such gatherings to 50 people. Yes, they were told, it's all OK, either by their advisors, or the organisers, or by the hotel management. On making further enquiries, they were informed that the group of approximately 80 people would be divided into two groups, so that each group would consist of less than 50 people. This would ensure compliance with the new guidelines, they were told, and apparently the Irish Hotels Federation was consulted on the mater.
That is a much more complex set of circumstances than what was portrayed in the media. The media deliberately over-simplified the facts of what happened here, to make it easier to attack the politicians.
The next logical fallacy that then came into play was 'The Bandwagon Fallacy'. The media, which had deliberately presented the facts of what had happened in Clifden, in a misleading way - then interviewed members of the public, who of course, had been influenced by this misreporting. Various adverse comment was made about the politicians concerned, and this was replayed on the airwaves and on television as evidence that the public were "enraged" by the "affair".
This illustrates 'The Bandwagon Fallacy'. Just because a majority of people believe that something is true, that does not mean it actually is true.
Next up was 'The Appeal to Authority Fallacy'. That means that you attempt to validate your argument by appealing to an authority figure to back your position on the matter. This is exactly what the key members of the government did, being the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and the leader of the junior coalition party, by appealing to the European Commission President to force the Trade Commissioner, Mr Phil Hogan, to resign.
The matter as to whether Mr Hogan had, or had not, breached the Irish government's lockdown guidelines was outside of the Commission's expertise. Ms von der Leyen was then forced to rely on the Irish government's report on the matter. The Irish government then allowed the perception to develop that the EC President had supported its aggressive stance against Mr Hogan.
And so we go on, to our next logical fallacy 'The False Dilemma Fallacy'. Those politicians who attended the event and held senior positions, we were told by their political rivals, had no option but to resign. This lead to the forced resignation of the Minister for Agriculture, the vice chairman of the Senate and the aforementioned EU Trade Commissioner, Mr Hogan.
Of course, there was another option and that was to explain why the media reporting of the event was misleading. Another option was to admit that the constantly changing guidelines, and inconsistencies within the guidelines, render these somewhat confusing, to say the least. That latter option would indicate incompetence on the part of the government, so unsurprisingly that road was not taken.
Next up is 'The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy'. This gets its colourful name from a story about a Texan gunslinger who shoots at point blank range at a barn door. He then paints a target around the cluster of bullet holes, and tells everyone what a great sharpshooter he is.
Enter Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein, from the Opposition Benches. Before 'golfgate' they were telling us that the government was incompetent, as the lockdown guidelines were being changed continuously, and were sometimes inconsistent or difficult to adhere to in practice. Remember all that stuff about "mixed messages"... That all changed with 'golfgate'. "The guidelines are perfectly clear" harrumphed Mary Lou, "and Phil Hogan (et al) must go".
And then we had the 'No True Scotsman Fallacy'. This one is the story where John says all Scotsmen love the sound of the bagpipes. Mary disagrees. She says she knows a Scotsman called Stewart who hates the sound of the bagpipes. "Well then, he is therefore not a true Scotsman" replies John...
The only politician who put up a fight against the various absurdities of the government's position was the (now former) EU Trade Commissioner, Mr Phil Hogan. His political opponents then maintained that he was "in denial" about the "public anger" over the affair, and was therefore unsuitable for office. The 'No True Scotsman Fallacy'.
And we are not finished yet. We finally had the 'Tu Quoque Fallacy'. The 'Tu Quoque' is Latin for 'You Also'. This fallacy is an attempt to discredit your opponent by criticising them on some other matter, rather than addressing the specific claim he is making (or action he has taken).
"And why is there such a thing as an Oireachtas Golf Society? Isn't it yet more evidence of an Old Boys Club in the Dail?" said Mary Lou.
Tu quoque, tu quoque..... you are guilty because of your association with a golfing society.
As I write this, I've noticed something on my bookshelf; 'All The President's Men'. The iconic rapportage of the Watergate Affair in the 1970's. When I bought it as a young teenager, I believed the narrative that the media are the good guys. They work fearlessly, tirelessly and with great courage to expose the truth. Et cetera, et cetera.