Advocacy and debate are healthy dynamics of democracy. We need argument, but argument as practiced in our public forums is often dangerously irrational. Watching the presidential debates, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are sorely in need of regulation.

Consider this argument, which is often cited in discussions involving the recent stimulus package:

“I was against the stimulus package. But it passed Congress and became law. And look at what happened: unemployment is over 8.5 percent. The stimulus was a big mistake.”

Sound reasonable? Now consider this argument:

“I knew the stimulus package was far too weak. But it passed Congress and became law. And look at what happened: unemployment is over 8.5 percent. We needed a much bigger stimulus.”

That also sounds plausible. Most Americans would credit one of the two arguments. Some would credit both. Since the arguments have the same logical structure and rely on the same basic facts, it follows that if one is valid so is the other.

Yet the conclusions are diametrically opposed. They can’t both be valid, therefore neither is valid.

That’s logic. And we need more of it in the public sphere.

Certainly issues such as the economic stimulus divide us today. But often we’re divided artificially. Voters make decisions that run against their interests and values because of misleading arguments and discussions. They rely on reporters, fact-checkers and pundits to help them sort these out.

Take, for instance, the confusion caused by the irrelevant answer. When candidates dodge questions during debates, wouldn’t you like to hear the reporter follow up with, “With all due respect, Governor, the question was….” Since we can’t ask questions ourselves, we rely on reporters to get us honest, logically relevant answers. And if the follow-up is dodged we should hear, “I guess you’re not prepared to answer the question at this time. We’ll move on then….”

The timing of the analysis can be just as vital in helping Americans make reasoned decisions. Commentary by political pundits following debates often builds on illogical statements. News outlets routinely employ fact-checkers, but they generally don’t publish detailed results until the next day. The debates would be much more meaningful with some sort of immediate input during the debate. Seem impossible? I have a suggestion.

In the National Football League (NFL), coaches are allowed to challenge an on-field call. They are permitted to use two challenges in each game. The game halts after each challenge while the referees look at the tapes, huddle and review the play.

I propose that candidates at a debate be granted the same privileges as coaches. If at some point one candidate thinks the other has abused logic, I would allow the candidate to ask for a ruling. The debate would stop while a team of logicians reviews the tape. Coming to a decision would not be difficult. In a minute or two, logicians should be able to answer the question and the debate could then proceed. As in the NFL, I would limit the challenges to two per candidate. Unlike the NFL, I would permit challenges to continue after the two-minute warning.

It would be nice if we could extend this strategy to questions of fact. But facts are slippery, so it might be difficult to issue a fair ruling as quickly in every case. Logic is easier to evaluate.

The effect on debates could be considerable. What candidate wants to be caught passing off a dumb argument? Ratings might rise, too. Think of it as reality TV with special relevance.

This article first appeared in Smith College’s online magazine and is reprinted by permission of the author.


About The Author

Jim Henle

James Henle teaches Mathematics at Smith College. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Henle's fields of interest include: set theory, logic, nonstandard analysis, mathematics education, philosophy of mathematics, music and food. Henle was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines and has made research trips to England and Venezuela. His current research takes him to to flashing lights, sticky bounces, historic camera angles, economic inequality and tiling planes with squares. Henle is the author of An Outline of Set Theory and the co–author of Infinitesimal Calculus (with E. M. Kleinberg), Sweet Reason (with the late Tom Tymoczko) and Calculus: The Language of Change (with David Cohen).