LSAT Logic in The Onion

LSAT Blog Logic OnionThis is the next blog post in my ongoing effort to distract you from LSAT studying by analyzing random videos (see the Arrested Development and Colbert Report posts for more.)

For the past few years, the fine folks at The Onion (wiki) have posted short, and often hilarious, 2-3 minute YouTube videos.

Fortunately, their latest video, "Obama Axes Pentagon Plan To Build Billion Dollar Tank In Shape Of Dragon" is more worthy of LSAT-style analysis than most, so I finally have an excuse to share one of their videos with you.

My student Ashley has written a detailed analysis of the logical fallacies this video contains, so I've decided to share her response with everyone on the blog.

Watch the video here or below, keep track of the logical fallacies you notice, then see how your analysis compares with Ashley's.

Ashley's analysis:

The General defending the dragon tank against budget cuts doesn’t have a terrible argument, per se – “if we are to maintain the supremacy of the U.S. military, then we need to invest in new technology” (an important assumption being: it doesn’t really matter what it costs if it’s important for our military). But it’s an argument he doesn’t give any compelling (or relevant) evidence for.

Consider the contrapositive: if we don’t invest in new technology, then we won’t maintain the supremacy of the US military. For this argument to be legit (and to relate to the argument he's actually trying to make...the necessity of the dragon tank program), he needs to makes sure he makes the case this particular multi-billion dollar tank is an absolutely essential piece of the entire U.S. military’s investments in new technology, that it is the “brink” investment, the key program, and that if we take it away, all of the other investment will be worthless and we might as well hoist the Canadian flag and rightfully accept hockey rather than baseball as the national pastime. (I am for this.) But he can’t, so instead, he tries to distract his audience with irrelevant evidence and quite a bit of flawed reasoning (see below).

A good example of this is his (fabulous) non sequitur:

General Cotti: Developing new technology is essential to maintaining American military advantage. Just last week for example, we figured out how to make the dragon’s scales glow in the dark.


A better journalist might have pushed him on this a little harder. For example, he or she could have asked about the opportunity cost of the dragon tank, relating it perhaps to other investments that are more likely to pay off and (thus) actually benefit the U.S. military. (In other words, the dragon tank itself could be reducing the readiness of the US military by sucking away resources from good investments!)

And then, of course, there’s the possibility the existence of the dragon tank is angering our enemies (or making them nervous?) which makes them more likely to attack us, rather than less. (Ok, admittedly less plausible in this case, but think about the arguments against nuclear deterrence theory – when major powers maintain nuclear weapons, smaller countries and/or terrorists know how they can use them to get powerful countries to listen to them, which leads to the spread of nuclear weapons and instability…rather than the promised stability that comes from "mutually assured destruction").

Regarding the “limit” to out-of-control military spending, he says the Pentagon is being “reasonable” because it cut the pool and the ballroom. In this, he moves the goalpost" on what is reasonable so he can meet it…but just because you cut something doesn’t mean you are being reasonable.

He uses irrelevant analogies (karate and the atomic bomb) when addressing the question of how long it will take to develop the dragon tank.

(Steve: Although I'd like to think the dragon tank is an "achievement" worthy of being compared to karate or the atomic bomb, it's probably not nearly as useful in practice, and it's more likely to be turned against its creators. For this reason, one could argue this is a false analogy.)

He uses an emotional appeal/appeal to fear (“lives will be at risk!/soldiers will die!”) rather than justifying this particular program. Also, I don’t know how to categorize this one, except for "appeal to emotion", but there’s also some weird shit going on with the simulations (the tank shooting down what look like Muslim people and which looks like a video game, and the tank bulldozing a city that looks a lot like the Middle East...where we are fighting and losing two wars at the moment...), which is probably included to win over the portion of the American population that uses the word “Islamofacism” instead of trying to tap into our cost-benefit analyses.

(Steve: Ashley continues by identifying an example of a classic correlation vs. causation flaw and an ad hominem attack. I've included the following quote for anyone who can't watch the video or just wants to read part of it. This quote is the main reason I decided to send this to Ashley in the first place. It takes place at 1:19 in the video.)

General Cotti: We've made this mistake before. When Bill Clinton was elected, he canceled the giant invisible squid submarine project, and then the USS Cole was bombed.

News Anchor: Well, that's true, but the military has had 5 years to complete the dragon tank---

General Cotti: Was the atomic bomb, or karate, developed in 5 years? President Obama is putting lives at risk. The only explanation I can think of is that he's terrified of dragons.

And, of course, he discounts every single other possibility on the face of the planet (the recession? that he wants to spend more money on other things? that it’ll never work?) when he concludes, ad hominemishly, that Obama is against the program because he is “afraid of dragons.”

Just because things happen in succession doesn’t mean they are causally related. Just because Bill Clinton canceled the giant invisible squid submarine project, and USS Cole was bombed afterward, it doesn’t mean the bombing was because of the cancellation. Also, even assuming for argument’s sake that the two were related, just because it happened in the case of the giant invisible squid submarine doesn’t mean it’ll happen in the case of the dragon tank!


Steve: Have you come across an example of an LSAT-style logical fallacy in an online video or article? Email it to me, and if I think it's funny and worthy of analysis, I'll cover it on the blog!

Photo by thetruthabout / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. To start, I really enjoy your blog. Thank you so much for keeping it going!

    You say that General Cotti is guilty of the Ad Hominem fallacy: "when he concludes, ad hominemishly, that Obama is against the program because he is “afraid of dragons.”

    But what he says is: "The only explanation I can think of is that he's terrified of dragons."

    Is this really a case of an Ad Hominem attack? Although he is arguing badly by claiming that there are no other explanations for why Obama would not support the Dragon, it seems that here he may at least be arguing consistently by claiming that since all other explanations are clearly impossible, the last and only plausible explanation must be the correct one. (This is, of course to be a bit charitable.)

    It seems to me that General Cotti is drawing the conclusion that Obama must be afraid of Dragons, rather than claiming that Obama's implicit argument for why the Dragon project should be scrapped is bad because Obama is a coward.

    So why is this an Ad Hominem attack?

    Also, there were parts of Ashley's analysis that I thought could be disputed on grounds that she takes the most uncharitable interpretation of the General, e.g. when she says: "He uses an emotional appeal/appeal to fear (“lives will be at risk!/soldiers will die!”) rather than justifying this particular program."

    This seems to me to be bring up a reasonable premise, namely that lives being in danger or the death of soldiers is can be prevented through the use of the Dragon. I think there is a danger here of oversimplifying to make everything a case of one fallacy or another. Douglas Walton addresses this and shows why we must be quite cautious in labeling certain arguments as instances of fallacies -- even Ad Hominem arguments can be legitimate!

    - Richard Kim

  2. Hi Richard,

    I agree. Sometimes, ad hominem attacks aren’t 100% fallacious. For example, you could look at a politician whose stated purpose in politics/life is to promote a very narrow brand of Christian family values – a politician who was, in fact, elected on such a platform – who goes and has an affair (or many affairs). Douglas Walton uses this precise hypothetical, and he argues that attacks on the politician’s own conduct and behavior are fair game insofar as they could “[bring] the sincerity of his convictions on the family [values] issue into question…question this candidate’s veracity or reliability…[question] his ability to guide his country in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation that requires good judgment and an ability to function under pressure. This is all part of the democratic system of representation, in which officeholders are elected in the trust that they will show integrity by sticking to their principles, and judgment in running affairs of state.” (Informal Logic p 139—apparently when this book was written in 1989, there weren’t many female legislators having wild affairs? Sigh.) At the end of the day, though, there are so many better arguments to be made here, where you don’t even need to stoop to pointing fingers and calling people hypocrites. In this hypothetical, we could talk about the separation of church and state, we could talk about personal freedom and privacy, etc. etc.

    One key distinction between fallacious ad hominems and…uh..less(?) fallacious ad hominems, according to Walton, is whether “the personal characteristics of an arguer are relevant to the issue under discussion.” (Walton 140) Here, Obama’s alleged “fear” of dragons doesn’t offer any support for The General’s conclusion (that the dragon tank shouldn’t be cut). Even if Obama were more afraid of dragons than the thought of being stuck in a Smartcar on a cross-country road trip with Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, it wouldn’t make all of his other arguments against the tank (which, conveniently, aren’t addressed), less relevant or persuasive or important. (Indeed, he could be afraid of spiders, but why does this mean shouldn’t trust his judgments?) Think of the smoking parent who tells his kid not to smoke because he’ll die of cancer. Is the kid’s rebuttal -- “but you smoke too” -- really all that persuasive?

    Also, here’s the thing. The General is not allowed to just “claim” that “all other explanations are clearly impossible.” He has to prove it (or at least attempt to show it, with evidence), and since he doesn’t even address a single other explanation, we can’t give his argument much weight, and we can probably conclude that he’s not trying to actually convince us that Obama is afraid of dragons, and instead is trying to tell us not to listen to a popular and trusted authority.*

    Regarding the appeal to emotion: I characterized the “troops/Americans will die” statement as an appeal to emotion because he never did the “work” he needed to do in the earlier part of the argument—namely—to connect the dots between the dragon tank and the strength of the US military. I agree that appealing to the safety of troops/American citizens isn’t always an appeal to emotion [remember all the arguments in the 2004 presidential election about the need to properly equip and "actually support" the troops?] but it certainly is in this case, because he uses it as an argumentative crutch to avoid actually justifying the continued existence of this weapon (instead, he talks about how the scales can glow in the dark). Indeed, “Americans/our troops will die!” has been the reflexive argument our political leaders reach for when trying to pass gazillion dollar DOD budgets (when maybe 1% goes to armor and humvees and things troops actually need to stay safe), or see:

    I thank you for not [sic]ing my “ad hominemishly.” It is my ardent hope that someday, it can land in the dictionary, alongside such gems as "staycation".

    *though appeal to authority is also a fallacy…ahem

  3. Hi Ashley,

    I do agree with you that the General's argument is pretty bad. He doesn't, as you point out, support many of his claims.

    But what I was trying to defend was whether or not there is a valid and consistent reconstruction of the General's arguments. Of course, an argument can be valid without being sound in that one or more of the premises can be false. But at the least, I did think that there were ways of reconstructing some of the General's points that had some inductive value.

    Take for example the part where he makes the "troops/Americans will die statement." I think here is a way of reconstructing the argument in a way that shows some promise:

    (1) Without sufficient military strength, American soldiers will die.
    (2) Unless the military possesses the awesome powers of the Dragon, the military will not have sufficient military strength.
    Therefore, (3) Not continuing with the research of the Dragon will lead to the deaths of American soldiers.

    You do point out quite aptly that the General doesn't connect the dot between the Dragon and military strength, showing that (2) is weak. (2) would have to be supported through further empirical arguments to give more credence to the argument's soundness.

    But still, the argument seems at least valid. And so I still disagree that the General's statement here is merely an appeal to emotion! If that statement only served to appeal to emotion, the General's argument would have the following kind of structure:

    (1) Death of American soldiers is bad! (Boo to their deaths!)
    (2) Therefore, we ought to support the Dragon.

    Now this, or something like it, would indeed be guilty of merely appealing to emotions.

    But I think the first reconstruction is more of what the General had in mind. But I take it that your response here would be that, still, the General brings up a point that draws forth negative emotions to build up the case rather than show why the Dragon and military strength are correlated. I would probably agree that you would be right if the General was really trying to show why the Dragon is necessary just by claiming that we hate the deaths of American soldiers. But I wanted to at least try to give the General the best possible interpretation of his argument. (Though perhaps I am being a overly-charitable!)

    I still disagree, though, that the General's statement about Obama's fear of dragons is an instance of an ad hominem attack. You are right when you say that:
    "Here, Obama’s alleged “fear” of dragons doesn’t offer any support for The General’s conclusion (that the dragon tank shouldn’t be cut)."

    But, as I said earlier, it still seems that the General was merely drawing (albeit an unwarranted) CONCLUSION, rather than trying to take the proposition that Obama is afraid of dragons as serving a premise for the conclusion that the dragon tank project ought not to be cut.

    But in that case the statement about Obama's fear is not to be looked upon as an ad hominem attack being used to SUPPORT a conclusion -- since he's not trying to support a conclusion at all here -- but rather, he is merely DRAWING a conclusion. Namely that since every other possible explanation has been shown to be false, the only remaining explanation, i.e. Obama's fear of dragons, must serve as the explanation of why Obama is cutting the dragon tank project.

    At any rate, thinking through this stuff seems quite valuable. I think it is quite possible that some of the differences in our viewpoints here suggest a deeper disagreement about the nature of informal fallacies. And this goes into a much deeper and difficult philosophical issues regarding the subtle ways in which context plays into an argument. And just how we ought to reconstruct the arguments of others.

    Let me know what you think! I wouldn't be surprised if I had committed an error or two. I have been known to do that!

    - Richard

  4. Hi, Richard.

    I think the only point we really disagree about is whether or not the “Obama is afraid of dragons” bit constitutes an ad hominem.

    I’ll concede for the sake of argument that it would be valid reasoning to say: “I have systematically examined every single other possibility (and then list possibilities 1 through, oh, 1000, and here is a list of why each one could not possibly be the case), and, thus, the only remaining possibility is that Obama is afraid of dragons.” This strikes me as a very indirect and weak way of proving his point (versus, say, if he had joined some sort of "Dragon Fearers Anonymous" club). Nevertheless, if the reporter were reporting on the “pressing question” of whether or not Obama is, or isn’t, afraid of dragons (how sad is it that I could see that happening, given the coverage of the recent "beer summit"??)…then, sure, this might be okay.

    However, in this particular case, I have to disagree, because “proving” that President Obama is afraid of dragons isn’t the point of the argument he’s making. I would ask: if the General is, in fact, “merely drawing (albeit an unwarranted) CONCLUSION, rather than trying to take the proposition that Obama is afraid of dragons as serving a premise for the conclusion that the dragon tank project ought not to be cut”, why he is even bringing up how Obama feels about the issue? Like, if it isn't tied to his defense of the dragon point, then why is it relevant? Instead, you need to look at what this “conclusion” actually supports – you have to look at the overall structure of the argument, and you’ll see that it IS, in fact, a premise. He says:

    “President Obama is putting lives at risk. The only explanation I can think of [as to why he would put lives at risk by opposing the dragon tank] is that he’s terrified of dragons.”

    In other words, he uses the fact that Obama is allegedly afraid of dragons as support for a subconclusion; it is not a stand-alone conclusion (President Obama is putting lives at risk BECAUSE he is afraid of dragons—see my brackets above). He attacking someone’s character*, rather than the substance of their opposition. I believe that’s more or less the definition of an ad hominem.

    *I think it’s fair to say this is an attack on Obama's character (even though it’s not overtly about morals and ethics, for example), because it’s not exactly a neutral statement for someone to taunt you as being “afraid” of something when you are a Democratic commander in chief. Really…Can’t you see some kid on the playground following this up with “nanny, nanny, boo boo?” (Steve, can we call this the new ad hominem test? If you could see it happening on the playground, then it’s pretty safe to say it’s an ad hominem?) :)

  5. Hey Ashley,

    That was a fine response!

    Let me start by conceding a point. You are right that Obama's fear of dragons is not merely a stand alone conclusion, but a sub-conclusion that is being used to support the overarching argument that the dragon project ought not to be cut.

    But now I realize more clearly why I do not believe that this is an instance of an ad-hominem fallacy.

    If the proposition that Obama is afraid of dragons is a sub-conclusion (which I think you conceded), then the proposition is, indeed, derived from other premises. Of course, I'm not saying that this is a justified derivation but that it is still a conclusion reached through argument.

    But if the proposition that Obama is afraid of dragons is a sub-conclusion derived from other premises, then we must now look at whether or not the conclusion serves any kind of role in supporting the overarching conclusion, namely, that the dragon project ought not to be cut. If this is an ad-hominem attack, then the fact that Obama is afraid of dragons would be absolutely irrelevant to the argument and would serve merely to undermine Obama's character.

    But here it seems that if the proposition that Obama is afraid of dragons is a (sub) conclusion drawn from a process of elimination (albeit a bad one!) then it does seem relevant to the overarching argument.

    Let me give an example to illustrate. Suppose President Obama opposed a bill that would give funding to help better the lives of homeless people. Now suppose that I give an argument and conclude that Obama must be opposing the bill because he is afraid of homeless people.

    It seems that the proposition that Obama is afraid of homeless people, if true, would be quite relevant if I wanted to argue that Obama is wrong to decide to cut the bill. Although this proposition is really an attack on Obama's character, it seems that this would be a relevant fact that would help support my argument. Of course, this doesn't mean that his fear of homeless people is sufficient to warrant to conclusion that the bill ought to have passed, since he may still be right to oppose it despite his fear of homeless people.

    Of course, the sub-conclusion that Obama is afraid of dragons was reached through a very quick argument. Nevertheless, here it seems that the proposition would be relevant to the overarching argument since if it is true that the only reason why Obama is cutting the dragon project is that he is afraid of dragons, then it is plausible to be a bit more suspicious of Obama's decision to cut the project.

    At the end, I think you may be right that this could still be an instance of an ad-hominem attack, if all that means is that you use a statement about a person's character to support an argument. But I don't think this would not be an instance of an ad-hominem fallacy, which I take to be the proper term to label bad uses of ad-hominem attacks.

    Now the following would be clearly an instance of an ad-hominem fallacy:

    (1) Obama smokes cigarettes.
    (2) Therefore, the dragon project ought to be cut.

    At this point you could point out that the fear of dragons is completely different from the fear of dragon-tanks. But I think we've now exhausted the argument since the whole thing was a bit silly anyways.

    - Richard