The logic of what leaders say

The logic of what leaders say

September 25, 2017

When we analyzed the media coverage of Trump and the NFL over the weekend, we noticed a number of quotes that had questionable reasoning. When outlets quote leaders and other sources, and those quotes have flawed logic, it can influence how readers interpret the facts.

For this analysis, we selected four separate stories—some recent, some older—and analyzed the logic of statements made by leaders and companies ranging from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, from Roger Goodell to Uber. (To read background on each news event, see the Raw Data section below). Here they are:

1) Sept. 22: Trump criticized professional athletes who “disrespect” the American flag and national anthem (CNN)

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” President Donald Trump said.

  • There is both explicit and implied faulty reasoning in this quote. Explicitly, Trump’s opinion about what should be—e.g. players standing for the anthem—doesn’t following logically from facts about what is – players “making millions of dollars in the NFL” (see Hume’s Law).
  • Perhaps more problematic is Trump’s implication that “making millions of dollars in the NFL” means a player must show respect for the flag. The flaw is this: players’ “respect” for the country is separate from how much money they make, what sports league they play in, and whether or not they stand for the anthem.

Responding to Trump’s remarks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

  • Trump may have a “lack of respect” for the NFL, but his comments don’t necessarily “demonstrate” this. It’s misleading to take Trump’s criticism about a specific action and generalize it as a “lack of respect” for football, the NFL and all its players. Likewise, it’s possible to criticize players for kneeling during the anthem and still recognize the “good” that the “clubs and players represent.”

2) Sept. 22: London denies licence application to Uber (The Guardian)

Uber said in a statement the decision would “show the world that, far from being open, London is closed to innovative companies”.

  • The underlying logic here is:
    • Uber is an innovative company.
    • London is revoking Uber’s license.
    • Therefore, “London is closed to innovative companies.”

It doesn’t follow, does it?

3) Sept. 10: Hillary Clinton gives interview before her book release this month (Fox News)

“And then this speech [by Trump], a cry from the white nationalist gut,” Hillary Clinton said.

  • This is more of an opinion than a logical claim, but it hints at a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the facts. A ”white nationalist” is defined as “one of a group of militant whites who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation.” However, Trump didn’t say white people were superior or anything about racial segregation in his speech, so calling it “a cry from the white nationalist gut” implies a motive that doesn’t necessarily follow from what he said.  

4) April 16: US launched airstrikes on Syrian government air base (The New York Times)

“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed…As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies,” Trump said.

  • According to the Times, Trump is referring to “failures by the world community.” By saying “as a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen,” he’s stating that failures by other countries are primarily responsible for the continued “crisis.” Such failures may have played a role, but they aren’t the only factor. Given that Assad is the president of Syria, his decisions and actions are likely more responsible for the current situation.

“The more we fail to respond to the use of [chemical] weapons, the more we begin to normalize their use,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said.

  • Although not explicitly stated, the implication here is if you don’t respond to the use of chemical weapons with force (i.e. an airstrike), you allow their use to become the norm, effectively condoning them. However, if you don’t want to condone something, it doesn’t necessitate any one particular response. There could be many, perhaps even non-violent, ways to respond that wouldn’t condone the use of chemical weapons. This quote may also imply that using force is necessary to stop the use of chemical weapons, but it’s possible that an airstrike may not prevent their use in the long run.

The issue isn’t necessarily that the outlets chose to include these quotes. There’s value to knowing what people said, no matter how misleading the quote may be, and especially if the statements are central to the news event. But what responsibility might the media have when including quotes like those above?

At times, outlets can contribute to or obscure faulty logic by adding flawed reasoning or misleading language of their own. Although we did not discuss it here, subjective language (spin) and one-sided reporting (slant) can support or mask the faulty logic of a quote. Furthermore, providing readers with facts from a diversity of viewpoints can also provide counter-evidence to some erroneous claims, or at least highlight weaknesses in a particular line of reasoning. Often, outlets don’t include such information.

News consumers also have a responsibility to build and apply critical thinking. We hope that the above analysis can help detect faulty reasoning.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Top Spin Words

  • Sparked an Outcry

    Uber has been stripped of its London licence in a surprise move that dealt a serious blow to one of Silicon Valley’s fastest rising companies and sparked an outcry from a coalition of customers, government ministers and drivers at the ride-hailing company. (The Guardian)

  • Hobbled

    The decision to remove Uber from one of its biggest markets is the latest blow for a company that has shot to a $70bn (£52bn) valuation since it was founded in 2009 but has been hobbled by opposition from national and municipal governments around the world – including in Italy and Rio de Janeiro – due to concerns over safety or the threat to existing taxi businesses. (The Guardian)

  • Embroiled

    Trump’s tweets and harsh reaction highlight an extraordinary moment — the President, NFL commissioner and top basketball players embroiled in a public fight over unity and patriotism. (CNN)

  • Dramatic turnabout

    The events of Thursday night marked a dramatic turnabout for Mr. Trump, who until this week had displayed virtually no interest in a deeper role for the United States in the long, bloody conflict. (The New York Times)

  • Blasted

    President Donald Trump came under harsh criticism Saturday from the NFL and some of the NBA’s top players after he blasted prominent athletes for kneeling during the national anthem and refusing to come to the White House, putting himself in the center of a controversy with significant racial and cultural undertones. (CNN)

  • Stripped

    Uber stripped of London licence due to lack of corporate responsibility (The Guardian)

  • Scrambling

    ‘Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs Province, where the base sits, told Reuters early Friday that ambulances and fire trucks were scrambling to respond to fires there. (The New York Times)

  • Horrific

    Administration officials described the strikes Mr. Trump ordered as a graphic message to the world that the president was no longer willing to stand idly by as Mr. Assad used horrific weapons in his country’s long civil war. (The New York Times)

Sept. 22: Trump criticized professional athletes who “disrespect” the American flag and national anthem

President Donald Trump suggested at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday that NFL players who “disrespect” the American flag should be fired. On Saturday, Trump tweeted that players “should stand for the National Anthem.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to Trump’s remarks, calling them “divisive” and showing a “lack of respect for the NFL.”

Last year, Colin Kaepernick, who played for the San Francisco 49ers at the time, did not stand during the national anthem, saying he did not want to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Other players have done similar acts since then.

Sept. 22: London denied Uber license renewal

On Friday, London’s transportation authority announced it would not renew Uber’s license to operate in the city. Transport for London (TfL) said the decision was made due to “public safety and security implications” relating to the U.S.-based transportation and technology company. Uber said it would appeal the decision, and started a public petition on Change.org appealing to Mayor Sadiq Khan to reverse the decision.

Uber has 21 days to appeal the decision. Uber’s current license runs until Sept. 30, and the company can keep operating while appealing. Uber has around 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million passengers in London.

Sept. 10: Hillary Clinton gave interview before her book release

Hillary Clinton gave her first television interview since the presidential election with Jane Pauley on the “CBS News Sunday Morning” show, on Sept 10. She discussed her experience leading up to and following the U.S. presidential campaign and election, when she lost to then Republican candidate Donald Trump. The interview took place before her memoir titled “What Happened” was released on Sept. 12.

April 6: US launched airstrikes on Syrian government air base

President Donald Trump announced on April 6 that the U.S. launched an airstrike on a Syrian air base located in the Homs province. The Syrian army said at least six people died and Syrian state-news agency SANA reported that nine civilians had been killed. Neither report had been independently verified.

Trump said the airstrike was a response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in a Syrian town two days earlier. At least 86 people died in that attack, according to U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Turkey said the dead had been exposed to the toxic nerve agent sarin, based on samples gathered from those affected. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government denied carrying out the attack and said it did not use chemical weapons.

Additional Sources: The Washington Post; Al Jazeera

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 45% Spun

  • 71% Spun

  • 72% Spun

  • 83% Spun

Fact Check

Misleading

But Greg Hands, who is also minister for London, said: “At the flick of a pen Sadiq Khan is threatening to put 40,000 people out of work and leave 3.5 million users of Uber stranded. (The Guardian’s article on Uber)

This statement may suggest that Uber’s 3.5 million users will be left without a comparable alternative to Uber, which isn’t true.

According to Techworld.com, Londoners can choose from five other “ride-hailing” apps, such as MyTaxi, which runs 17,000 black cabs in London; Gett, which offers flat pricing (no increased fares during peak driving times) and runs in cities outside of London; Addison Lee; Kabbee, which claims to be 65 percent cheaper than a black cab; and Blablacar, which offers carpooling services.

 

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Trump had decided the United States could no longer “turn away, turn a blind eye…The more we fail to respond to the use of these weapons, the more we begin to normalize their use,” Mr. Tillerson said. (The New York Times article on Syria)

This may imply that the U.S. has previously “turned a blind eye” to chemical attacks, which may misrepresent former President Barack Obama’s efforts to oppose their use.

For example, after the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons on its people in 2013, Obama asked Congress to vote on whether to authorize the use of force against Syria, saying, “we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.” Obama said, “the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.”

Before Congress could vote, Russia, in conjunction with the U.S., negotiated a deal with the Syrian government for it to destroy its chemical weapons stock.

 

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect ….” Trump tweeted. “Our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” (CNN article on Trump and the NFL)

As stated in The Distortion, a player’s respect for the country is separate from whether or not he stands during the National Anthem. Furthermore, we don’t know for sure a player’s reasons for not standing – it may or may not be meant as “disrespect.”

Missing data

“Since it first came on to our streets Uber has broken the law, exploited its drivers and refused to take responsibility for the safety of passengers. This immoral company has no place on London’s streets,” said Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association. (The Guardian’s article on Uber)

Neither the general secretary nor Transportation for London (TfL) mention what Uber specifically did, such as the laws the company allegedly broke. TfL’s official statement says Uber’s “approach” to issues, such as reporting “serious” criminal offenses and how medical certificates are obtained, “demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility,” but it doesn’t give evidence to back these vague claims.

In 2015, TfL took Uber to court to determine whether its GPS smartphone system worked similarly to a meter on a standard cab (private car services are outlawed from charging metered fares in London). The Judge ruled that the technology was dissimilar and Uber could continue using GPS as part of its fare charging process. The Knife didn’t find any other legal cases suggesting law violations by Uber in London.