Bingo makes for lively debate viewing

October 13, 2008

When the two presidential contenders, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, recently squared off in a nationally televised live debate to convince millions of Americans to vote for them, a group of McDaniel College students assembled to closely scrutinize the candidates’ words for flaws in their logic or arguments.

The promise of candy was also at stake.

As part of their Critical Thinking class, the students had gathered for another round of “Debate Fallacy Bingo.”

In this case, instead of numbers and letters, the squares on their game sheets were filled with terms such as, “hasty generalization: unrepresentative sample,” “guilt by association,” “appeal to emotion: fear,” and “attack on character.”

“Debates are fertile ground for rhetorical trick,” said Anne Nester, an adjunct lecturer of Philosophy, who along with the help of Peter Bradley, assistant professor of Philosophy, created the spinoff game. “This is a fun way for students to practice being active observers of politics.”

According to Nester, the students identified several examples of flawed logic and faulty arguments, and each candidate committed his share of fallacies, including:

Guilt by Association – Obama said McCain voted for "three George Bush budgets" and wanted to give "the average Wall Street CEO a tax cut,” trying to associate McCain with unpopular figures.

Straw Man – Obama said that McCain believed that "if we remove all regulation prosperity will just rain down;" probably McCain's position is more realistic than that.

Appeal to Emotion: Friendship – McCain constantly repeated "my friends."

Hyperbole – McCain said the U.S. is "the greatest force for good in the entire history of the world.”

Bradley, Nester and their students have met for each of the debates – three presidential and one vice-presidential standoffs leading up to next month’s election – and compared notes about the outcomes.

During the debate between McCain and Obama’s running mates – Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph Biden – Bradley found himself within one square of a bingo, and thought he might go without a bingo for the evening.

“I had finished the whole row except ad hominem circumstantial, which is an attack on the person's circumstances, rather than what he or she said,” Bradley recalled. “I had just said to Anne that I would never get it.”

But then, Palin uttered this response:

"It's a nonsensical position that we are in when we have domestic supplies of energy all over this great land. And East Coast politicians who don't allow energy-producing states like Alaska to produce these, to tap into them, and instead we're relying on foreign countries to produce for us."

But Bradley knew that for Palin to reject the position as “nonsensical,” she should be providing reasons.

“Instead, her assertion is merely that people who oppose her view … are from the East Coast, and, presumably, would change their minds if their geographic circumstances were different. Hence, ad hominem circumstantial.”