Logical Fallacies and Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Logical Fallacies and Don't Ask Don't TellOn Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), the ban on allowing gays and lesbians in the military to serve openly.

The debate around DADT has been going on since it was first put into place as a legislative compromise in 1993.

However, passing an identical bill in the Senate is now the last major obstacle.

While I'd love it if everyone agreed with me and encouraged their senators to repeal the ban before the session ends, I'm more interested in seeing you engage in analysis of the arguments on both sides.

As such, here's what I'm going to do:

I'll dissect a couple of flawed arguments against repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell made by Senator John McCain, one of its most prominent advocates.

Then, I'd like to see you all, in the comments, point out flaws in the arguments of those favoring the repeal. Of course, you can also point out flaws in the arguments of those against repeal.

Why might you want to put yourself in the other side's shoes? Playing devil's advocate can help you to find weaknesses in your argument, leading you to ultimately improve its strength.

Anyway, here are a couple of flaws:

Moving the Goalposts

* In October 2006, Senator McCain said, "The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it." (Wikipedia).

* In January 2010, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen came out in favor of changing the policy (repealing DADT), McCain suggested that they weren't really relevant because in their current posts, they don't directly lead troops (NYTimes).

In other words, McCain shifted the type of leadership position that he considered relevant. When a sufficient condition for him to consider changing the policy was met, he imposed new requirements (such as "further study").

Failure to Acknowledge Opposing Evidence

McCain said the support of Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and other leaders wasn't enough - a study of DADT repeal's impact was necessary. A 10-month study Pentagon study basically found that DADT repeal wouldn't be so bad. However, it seems that because McCain didn't like the study's results, he refused to accept its validity. While we know from the LSAT that studies and surveys are often flawed or poorly-conducted, McCain's particular criticisms don't seem to carry much weight (Huffington Post / Daily Show).

Examples of the same flaw in actual LSAT questions:
PrepTest 30 (December 1999 LSAT), S2, Q2 (p54)
PrepTest 34 (June 2001 LSAT), S2, Q24 (p201)


There's a lot more I could say, but I'd really like to turn this discussion over to you.

What are some other flaws being committed on either side of the debate?

How about:

-Appeal to Emotion?
-Appeal to Popular Opinion?
-Straw Man (Misrepresenting the Argument)?

If so, what kinds of arguments contain them?

I look forward to reading your responses!


Further Reading:

Scott Brown And Lisa Murkowski Back Standalone DADT Repeal Bill [TPM]

House Votes to Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [NYTimes]

Rep. Louie Gohmert: Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Threatens American 'Existence' (Video) [HuffPost]

Repeal Of DADT Paves Way For Gay Sex Right On Battlefield, Opponents Fantasize [The Onion]


  1. These are all very real flaws in McCain's case for DADT, but I'm curious about one thing. Are these technically considered logical fallacies--errors in the internal logic of each argument? They strike me as just plain dishonest position-shifting on McCain's part--moving the goalposts, in other words--which I've never really seen as a logical fallacy...

  2. Hey Akil,

    Logical fallacies can be formal or informal. Moving the goalposts is an informal logical fallacy (and it's position-shifting, too, of course).

  3. Don't ask don't tell is a fallacy on the questionable cause. Assuming that asking will result in a tell. Assuming that tell is a taboo admission of one's sexuality. This lends a bad connotation to tell.

    Description of Questionable Cause - This fallacy has the following general form:

    1. A and B are associated on a regular basis.
    2. Therefore A is the cause of B.

    A - Don't ask equals B don't tell

    I shall put A and B in another context:
    Assuming that of course B and A are interchangeable:

    Doctor "are you gay", patient "don't ask"

    Professor: Student are you cheating? Student: don't ask.

    Lovers: did you pass your HIV test? answer: don't ask.

    This is analogous to the "tell" being a bad admission.

    Don't ask don't tell in a good setting:
    Is that a jewelry box under the Christmas tree?
    Husband: don't ask

    the exaggeration of don't ask, don't tell

    Is that a large white elephant on my lawn? don't ask

    Did the Bush family endorse and finance 9-11? don't ask Michael Moore

    The general idea behind this fallacy is that it is an error in reasoning to conclude that one thing causes another simply because the two are associated on a regular basis. More formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the cause of B simply because they are associated on a regular basis. The error being made is that a causal conclusion is being drawn from inadequate evidence.

  4. My husband is in the military, and while he does not personally agree with DADT, he knows many, many people who do. There is a point where LSAT logic holds no relevance in this argument, and that point is when soldiers' unity is disrupted because of hatred or discomfort towards the subject of homosexuality. It might not be right; it might not be fair, but it's the situation the military faces.

  5. What about the study showing that most troops would be fine with it?


    Isn't logic always relevant? You can use unity disruption as potential evidence to make an argument if you like, but you need to back it up in order to make a good argument.

  6. McCain also is misrepresenting how the public feels about DADT. He says that most people are not concerned about repeal but studies have showed that 2/3 of Americans support the repeal.

  7. A quick response to:

    "There is a point where LSAT logic holds no relevance in this argument, and that point is when soldiers' unity is disrupted because of hatred or discomfort towards the subject of homosexuality. It might not be right; it might not be fair, but it's the situation the military faces."

    How many soldiers 'who's unity is disrupted' is enough to repeal the DADT policy? Is it just some or most? What if other factors, such as race or gender affected troop unity? Would that reasoning be enough too if it became the situation where some or most of the soldiers' unity was disrupted? Thus, does it follow once a disruption occurs, that disruption is sufficient to the removal of the cause of the disruption without regard to the individuals affected by the disruption?

    Is it that LSAT logic has no relevance (strong opinion by the way) or that people too often succumb to emotions and illogical viewpoints not backed by reason? If so, are we then to pronounce public policy to defend this reasoning inadvertently encouraging it in the military and society in general? I'm confused by your viewpoint to say the least.

  8. Steve- I agree.

    For fun though... ('weaken' answers coming!)

    1. Moving The Goalposts- Assumption: Leadership did in fact tell McCain the policy should be repealed (Gates and Mullen offered as evidence).


    C. Dozens of 3 and 4 star generals from all branches of the military came to McCain with either personal reservations concerning repeal or direct arguments against it.

    2. Acknowledging evidence- Assumption: The evidence was conclusive and decidedly in favor of repeal.


    B. A section of the Marine Corps responses in the study showed that significant and detrimental operational impacts would be incurred if repeal was enacted.

    Arguments ARE fun!

    I love the LSAT too, Steve.

  9. McCain never defined "leadership" in his original statement. He clarified his definition of "leadership" in his second statement. He did not change the definition by moving goalposts because you cannot change the definition of leadership until it is first defined.

  10. Tommy Z,

    The point is he never defined leadership but rather altered/clarified his definition to fit the purpose of his argument. Next he'll have to "define" directly as it applies to leadership of troops. If a group of Generals came out in support of DADT he can still say well there is no direct leadership, as in an NCO position. Just something to think about.

  11. Steve is being mysteriously silent, I wonder if he is lost with Alice in Wonderland or reading the comic's life at LSAT - which by the way WAS the funniest material since Dave Chapelle!

  12. Hey all,

    This is a great discussion!

    Just wanted let you know that I am reading the comments. I just like to let you all have your space here to talk things out.

    However, if I have the time and something to say not already covered, I'll generally jump in.

  13. Soldiers in the US are adults who volunteer for service in the name of our nation and society and its integrity. Our society has determined that discrimination is immoral. People who enter our institutions, such as the workplace, universities or our military must set aside their personal prejudices and act according to the norms of those institutions. A corporation or employer cannot discriminate based on race, sexuality, gender in hiring or face legal repercussions. This reflects the values of the society.

    In the case of the military, as part of Government, it is clearly not acceptable to do discriminate either. In the case of soldiers who are uncomfortable or have issues with peoples difference, attending to those differences is not the higher priority. They will mature and get over it when they are faced with fellow human beings, doing their jobs and learn that its not a big deal. The military is an education and a socialization. The more it reflects the society as a whole and its norms, the better example we set in the world.

    Of course there are elements within the culture who disagree like white supremacists and anti gay factions but they do not dictate the policies in the end. Just because anti-gay sentiment is common does not make it acceptable in our institutions. Slavery was common. Oppression of women and minorities is common. Vilification of immigrants is common. All are not legal.

  14. Part of the problem with the opposition of DADT for me is that it so much of it is rooted in tradition--a tradition that sought to repress and oppress the minority homosexual community from experiencing the same rights and freedoms as the (presumably straight) majority. DADT was the middle ground approach found between democratic progress (complete openness allowed), and a prior regulation which completely banned gays and lesbians from serving in the military. As a result, I find that it is difficult to untangle many of the current arguments against the repeal from this tradition. I therefore tend to understand them (and I could be wrong in doing so. Point it out to me if I am) as relying on a faulty appeal to precedent--or as presuming that what was once the case is still the case. I'll try to be brief without leaving too many gaps.

    Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos: "I don't want to have any Marines I'm visiting at Bethesda (Naval Hospital) with no legs as a result of any type of distraction. So that's where I come down on this." The argument presumes that what was once the case (anxiety over homosexuality) is still the case; otherwise, there would be no cause for the distraction that he speaks of. The cause of the distraction is presumably an increased knowledge of who is gay, which he believes would have negative consequences on soldiers in combat.

    But polls (i mention this even though studying for the LSAT has caused the word 'poll' to raise many a red flag) suggest that Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the homosexual community. What if this trend of increased approval is a good reflection of both the american public AND its military? Wouldn't an increased approval of homosexuality by active service members cast at least some level of doubt on his (and other's) arguments? It's possible, of course, that there will always be a percentage who are uncomfortable serving with homosexual comrades--something that shouldn't stand in the way of democratic progress, especially if it is a shrinking proportion of the whole. It's possible that this isn't the case, but isn't the current batch of soldiers entitled to the most current, the most relevant data? I think gay soldiers are entitled to arguments and reasons not based on opinions derived from [potentially] outdated traditions.

    Moreover, Amos' argument--and other opposing arguments for that matter--are actually assumptions based on assumptions. The assumption founding his argument is that the repeal will likely cause an increase in the level of openness amongst his troops, which will in turn be (Assumption #2) a distraction that will cause increased levels of injury, and a decreased level of group cohesion (which is, as mentioned above, the assumption that what was once the case is still the case).

    Will the repeal cause gay and lesbian soldiers to increase their openness during active service? And, would a heightened level of openness bring about the kind of consequences Amos and other opponents fear? Granted, gay soldiers won't have to fear the administrative consequences of their sexuality and thus would have the option of being open about their orientation. But their actual reaction is still unknown! Thus, I find it interesting that the opposition to the repeal assumes that gay soldiers will be more open with their sexuality after the repeal than before, which is where they assume, in turn, that the repeal will have a negative impact on overall unit performance.

    what if one of the key reasons why homosexual soldiers are not open, in addition to the fear caused by the potential administrative consequences, is because they fear their comrades' reactions?

  15. I intended to edit "I think gay soldiers are entitled to arguments.." (a sentence that lacks argumentative force) to read "the general public is entitled to reasons not based.." (stronger wording IMO) but forgot to amid the other edits I made. But the argument is still the same.

  16. I'm the anonymous poster whose husband is in the military. Not sure why I decided to read this again, but I thought I'd answer some of what I've read directed towards my post.

    I didn't say LSAT logic has no relevance in this situation. I said there is a point where it doesn't matter in the real-world situations of our military. Sometimes emotions and values cannot be explained by logic. There is no logic in some people's feelings towards homosexuality; it's a matter of their personal values. You can make all the logical arguments you want, but it won't change their minds.

    I understand there is a study that says it will be fine when implemented- I read Steve's post- but I'm talking about my husband's unit specifically. Despite being located in what one would otherwise consider a "tolerant", more liberal area of the state, he has brought home many, many stories of people being upset over this and incidents against those thought to be gay in his unit. I bring up the area of the country because I'd be willing to bet this sentiment exists in more conservative areas to an even greater degree.

    I'm not arguing against reversal of DADT. I'm not arguing against Steve's logic in the post. I'm just saying there are consequences and realities people may not understand or want to accept. I think it should be reversed, but I also think a greater plan needs to be in place in order for it to be a smooth change of policy. We need to be prepared to discipline and otherwise handle sentiments that may complicate our troops' cohesion and effectiveness.

    And as for the question of "how much unity" needs to be disrupted in order for us to examine this issue- I would say even one incident is enough, because one incident is enough for someone's life to be endangered because of bad relationships between our military members.