Art of Reason – those poor horses

This is my second attempt at an “art of reason” article. The hope is to help people think through the truth claims they are presented with. We get hundreds of them a day so this is an important skill to develop. I hope this is helpful; let me know.

My wife and I enjoyed a nice getaway at a cabin in the woods. Around the property it is not uncommon to see wild animals, including wild horses. We didn’t see any while we were there, but I did notice that the home owners had put a pile of postcards on the kitchen counter. The postcards were meant to raise awareness about a government policy with respect to rounding up and domesticating wild horses every year. The postcard is designed to be sent to government officials as a message that the signator would like to see changes to the legislation in this respect.

The message on the postcard is intended to persuade us to let the wild horses remain wild. See if you can spot all the logical problems with the message of the postcard. Here it is,

I want to express strong opposition to the annual roundup of Alberta’s free-roaming horses. These horses are regulated under the Provincial Stray Animals Act and governed under Horse Capture regulations, both of which are severely inadequate.

Horses are an integral part of Alberta’s heritage, despite the designation applied by this government. J. Edward Chamberlin, in his book “HORSE – How the Horse has Shaped Civilization”, pays homage to this creature who ‘worked the land, pulled wagons, carried the men and women, and herded the stock.’ Saskatchewan has passed legislation to protect wild ponies. Rather than being dictated by industry, Alberta must introduce similar legislation that will grant its wild horses status, or create a sanctuary, that will protect them.

I’ll break this down bit by bit. The first paragraph is not too bad, except that it doesn’t tell us exactly what is “severely inadequate.” The final sentence in the second paragraph seems to do this, but even that is rather vague. On to the second paragraph.

Horses are an integral part of Alberta’s heritage, despite the designation applied by this government. My first question would be, in what sense are they an integral part of our heritage? Are wild horses an integral part of our heritage, or domesticated horses? If domesticated horses are the integral part of our heritage then that fact does nothing to support leaving wild horses wild. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

J. Edward Chamberlin, in his book “HORSE – How the Horse has Shaped Civilization”, First question, who is J. Edward Chamberlin and what makes him qualified to address this issue? A little poking around the internet leads one to his book, which is available at Amazon. At the Amazon site we discover that Chamberlin is an historian. Ok, that would seem to give him some credibility to address how horses have impacted society in the past. One of the reviews of the book, however, comes from somebody who claims to also be an historian, but also has “close to 300 books on horse training, horse breeding, horse history, and horse everything else in my private collection. I live and breathe horses.” Of course, we have no way of confirming that this is the case, but this reviewer claims, of Chamberlin, “He’s obviously fairly well acquainted with them, but this book smacks of casual not dedicated research.” Several examples are provided of Chamberlin’s apparently less-than-scholarly knowledge of horses.

Ouch. To be fair, there are other reviewers and they are far more positive, and I will freely acknowledge that I am not in a position to deliberate on Chamberlin’s qualifications. The postcard uses the logical fallacy of “appeal to authority” if Chamberlin is not quite as qualified as he ought to be. Though, as I said, he may be qualified and the reviewer may be out to lunch.

[I cover a handful of logical fallacies in Arguing with Friends, but I strongly recommend A Rulebook for Arguments for an easy-to-read introduction to this subject.]

As it turns out, Chamberlin’s credentials are irrelevant because of the way the postcard draws on Chamberlin’s work, which we now turn our attention to.

Chamberlin, “… pays homage to this creature who ‘worked the land, pulled wagons, carried the men and women, and herded the stock.’” Hold on one second! We have to stop right here! Let’s ask a very simple question, all the great things that horses have done – the great things Chamberlin describes – were they done by wild horses or domesticated horses? Obviously domesticated horses. When’s the last time a wild horse worked the land? Have you ever heard of a wild horse pulling a wagon? No wild horse has ever carried men and women, nor herded stock. Every great example of horses that is provided are all examples of domesticated horses; and this on a postcard encouraging us to leave wild horses wild.

Why in the world would they include that quote in a postcard that is meant to persuade us to leave wild horses wild and not round them up? This isn’t so much a logical fallacy as it is quite simply shooting yourself in the foot. Moving on.

Saskatchewan has passed legislation to protect wild ponies. This is nothing more than the logical fallacy of an appeal to popularity. You may remember back to junior high when the most powerful persuasion took the simple form, “everybody is doing it…” Well, for those of us who graduated from junior high peer pressure should have become a thing of the past. For many people it has not. This postcard hopes the reader is one of those people. The problem with using this is two-fold. First, just because “everybody is doing it” doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Second, it may be possible to find other examples of provinces, nations, or what have you that do even more rounding up of wild horses than Alberta does. Should we follow their lead? All in all, this is a bad form of reasoning.

Rather than being dictated by industry, Alberta must introduce similar legislation that will grant its wild horses status, or create a sanctuary, that will protect them. Why bring up industry? It would be enough to simply end off with the declaration that wild horses deserve a status or a sanctuary, but to turn this into an “us versus industry” thing (especially when there has been no mention of industry up to this point) seems utterly superfluous. This smacks of the logical fallacy of “guilt by association,” if you do not agree with us then you are siding with the big, bad, evil “industry.”

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of the postcard is the fact that the conclusion follows after absolutely no good reasons have been provided. Reasons have certainly been provided (some “expert” says so, everybody else is doing it, etc) but they have not been good reasons. In fact, at least some of the reasons seem to support the exact opposite of what the postcard is attempting to argue. All in all, this was a very unpersuasive postcard.

Concluding thoughts

Just a couple of observations. First off, I don’t have any strong feelings on wild horses. I frankly know next to nothing about them so I am not passionately in favor of domesticating them, keeping them wild, or just leaving “the system” as it is. The point of this article is simply to show that the case which was made by one group of people, via one medium of communication, was frankly very poor. They may be absolutely right, but they have not shown me that they are.

Speaking of the medium of communication, that is quite likely a major part of the problem. It’s a postcard. How detailed of a line of argument can you seriously put on a postcard? This is almost like using twitter to debate people; it’s just a bad idea. They didn’t even put a website for further info or anything like that.

If you want to argue persuasively you need to pick an appropriate medium of communication and you need to make sure your arguments are reasonable. This particular cause, which may be of utmost nobility and well supported by solid reason, just did not do a very good job.

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