Tim Mathieson on Marg Abbott: sound reasoning, but an incorrect premise

And we open our account with a classic syllogism in formal logic, demonstrating the importance of correct premises for producing correct conclusions.

The unfortunate failure in this case is Tim Mathieson, one time ‘First Bloke’ now relegated to his shed in the former prime minister’s backyard.

The Weekend Australian for September 6-7 reports:

Former “first bloke” Time Mathieson, the partner of Julia Gillard, took an undignified swipe at Mrs Abbott in May, saying he was disappointed she was not doing enough charity work. His misguided attack overlooked her below-the-radar efforts for numerous not-for-profit events.[1]

Tim’s reasoning appears to have run along the lines:

If Mrs Abbott were doing sufficient charity work, then I would see media reports of her doing it.

I do not see media reports of Mrs Abbott doing charity work.

Therefore, Mrs Abbott is not doing sufficient charity work.

If we let ‘P’ represent the statement ‘Mrs Abbott is doing sufficient charity work’, and ‘Q’ the statement ‘I see media reports of Mrs Abbott doing charity work’, then, mutatis mutandis, we can represent Mathieson’s reasoning with the following syllogism:

If P, then Q.

Not-Q;

Therefore, not-P.

As far as the syllogism goes, this reasoning – known as Denying the Consequent – is flawless: assuming that the first premise is correct, if Q does not exist, then its concomitant, P, also cannot exist.

The problem arises with the first (the general) premise. It is not always the case that we will observe people’s acts of charity. This is especially the case for someone like Mrs Abbott, who goes to great lengths to keep herself out of the public eye.

As a result, the first premise is false, and as a result the conclusion is also false.

Mathieson’s mistake here was to assume that Mrs Abbott was a public figure, and that her charity work would follow the pattern of other public figures.

Best to examine the soundness of one’s assumptions in all of our reasoning – but especially before making critical comments, in public, about others.

[1] Stefanie Balogh and Dennis Shanahan, ‘The real Margie busy making her mark beyond reach of cameras’, The Weekend Australian, September 6-7, 2014.

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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