Professor’s Bingo game exposes fallacies in presidential debates

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October 23, 2012

While the Presidential candidates were on TV waging a war of words, viewers all over the country joined Peter Bradley’s students playing Debate Fallacy Bingo – a game the Philosophy professor invented to exercise his students’ critical thinking skills.

“It’s the only time in American culture when rhetoric is a sport,” says Bradley, who introduced the game during the 2008 presidential debates, explaining that the debates are perfect opportunities for his students to look for and find classic fallacies in speech.

Each player has a card with 25 blocks (5 by 5) noting fallacies and a cheat sheet naming and defining about 60-some possible fallacies. As they watch and listen to Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney or Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan debate, participants mark off the fallacies they hear.

But the term “Bingo” may understate the game’s difficulty. Identifying fallacies – which are not the same as untruths – isn’t as simple as it seems, especially when they range from ad hominem (attacking the person, not the person’s argument) to false analogy, euphemism to moving the goalposts, and include slippery slope, innuendo, non sequitur and genetic fallacy.

Try identifying the relatively common causal fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Here’s a clue from Bradley’s cheat sheet: It means “after this, therefore because of this” or, for example, “I took a sip of my drink and right afterward, the Red Sox scored a run. I’ll take another sip to make them score again!”

While playing Debate Fallacy Bingo hasn’t changed their minds about the presidential candidates, it has shown players Travis Compton and Doug McKenney that fallacies litter the statements the candidates make on stage. And the two Philosophy majors have become much better at identifying them quickly.

Still, their reason for playing is simple – it is downright fun, they say.

“It is a great exercise in critical thinking,” says McKenney, a senior from Queenstown, Md., who is president of the Philosophy Club, sponsors of Bingo. “I’ve even learned a few new fallacies, such as ‘red herring’ and ‘smokescreen’ from playing Bingo.”

The fallacy used most in the debates, McKenney and Compton agree, is irrelevance, with ad hominem and red herring close behind.

“Both Romney and Obama make irrelevant statements – responses that don’t answer the question asked,” says Compton from Bellmore, N.Y., who also has a minor in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies. “They have their talking points, and they swing the questions back to those points. If asked about education, they will tie it to the economy to get their points across.”

While the game draws mostly Philosophy and Political Science majors, a number of Business and Economics majors and even Computer Science majors have joined the dozen or so students gathered to find fallacies in what the next leader of the free world is saying. Sometimes students who aren’t as familiar with the classic fallacies on Bradley’s cheat sheet will push the card aside, sit back and listen as the debate continues and various students in the room shout out the fallacies they’ve detected.

This time around, Bradley posted 100 unique Bingo cards and the cheat sheet online for anyone to use. During the debates, he tweeted fallacies using #fallacybingo. In South Carolina and Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and other states in between, debate viewers have downloaded a card and the cheat sheet. They too tweeted the fallacies they found.

Bradley followed their tweets while tweeting the fallacies he heard. Debate Fallacy Bingo went viral.

With these players, neither candidate gets away with anything. Romney’s fallacies are more often in the attack category, while Obama tends to use fallacies geared to demonstrate he can relate to voters, McKenney and Compton say.

But chances are, neither of the candidates has half the fun of the Bingo players. 

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