12/13/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Negative Ads vs. Aristotle

In order to demonstrate why I like negative ads (since, unlike positive ones, they tend to include an argument that we can use as the basis for analysis), I'm going to reach back into the recent presidential campaign and look at an attack spot created by the Romney team called "Doing Fine" (which you should watch before continuing).

Are you back? OK, if you can get past the ominous background music and other devices designed to manipulate viewers emotionally, a message emerges from the ad which goes something like: "President Obama says the private sector is doing fine when, in fact, it is not doing well at all. Therefore, the President is out of touch with economic reality."

For this example, we're going to turn this persuasive message into a logical syllogism, one of those classic three-part arguments created by Aristotle in which two premises either lead (or don't lead) to a conclusion.

Since people don't normally talk (or write ad copy) in the syllogistic language of "All A's are B's," "No B's are NOT C's," etc.), this process usually involves a little translation to get the argument into the proper syllogism format. But with a little effort, we can turn the message of the ad into the following:

Premise 1: President Obama says the private sector is doing fine when, in fact, it is not doing well at all.

Premise 2: Anyone who claims the private sector is doing fine when it actually is not is out of touch with economic reality.

Conclusion: President Obama is out of touch with economic reality.

Now syllogisms can be "broken" in one of two ways. They may be invalid (meaning the premises do not lead logically to the conclusion), or they may be unsound (meaning the premises are not true or don't provide the required real-world evidence to support the conclusion).

Proving that an argument is invalid (ideally by showing that it ends in a logical contradiction) is one of the most effective ways to destroy an opponent's case. But 100 percent valid arguments can be built on false or nonsensical premises. For example, the argument that "All mermaids are leprechauns; Clara is a mermaid; therefore, Clara is a leprechaun" is valid, despite the lack of leprechauns or mermaids here on earth.

So while it might be tempting to try to translate an opponent's argument into something that comes off as invalid, we often get more mileage by creating a valid syllogism out of an opponent's statements (as I did with the "Doing Fine" attack which was translated into the valid syllogism above) which sets us up to see if the premises are sound or not.

In this case, the premise that is most vulnerable is the first one since it can easily be challenged by (1) asking if the "Doing Fine" quote accurately reflects the president's beliefs and (2) determining if the private sector is, in fact, doing fine or not.

Regarding action (1), if we look at the original statement in its full context, I think it's fair to claim that President Obama demonstrates a comfort level with the current state of the private sector economy. However, it is also clear that he understands the struggles the private sector has gone through over the last four to five years. And, more importantly, he is making a case that other economic issues (the crisis in Europe, challenges in the public sector) are more problematical (and thus need more attention) than problems in the private sector.

So if we look at the original first premise of the argument drawn from the "Doing Fine" ad, a more charitable description might say "President Obama thinks the private sector is doing better than other parts of the economy and thus needs less attention from government."

Moving onto action (2), the TV ad provides just three pieces of evidence (shots of newspaper clips discussing fears associated with slow job growth). But these sources are problematical, given that they are just snippets from three newspapers (only two of which are identifiable); and that none of these stories clearly focus on the subject at hand, which is the current state of the private sector economy.

Further examination of these sources might show that they do support the original ads assertion of a struggling private economy. But even if they do, they do not provide sufficient evidence to support the claim that the private sector is doing so terribly than anyone who says otherwise is out of touch with reality.

Fortunately, the same Internet that lets us look at both the "Doing Fine" video as well as the original press conference the quote was drawn from in their entirety whenever we like, also allows us to perform our own research regarding the state of affairs with the private sector (with how to perform such research being the subject of this Critical Voter podcast).

But if we assume that the private sector is challenged but not collapsing and combine it with what we concluded from watching the original press conference, I think it's safe to say that the original attack ad provides an argument that is of unquestionable validity, but questionable soundness.

This does not mean that any assertion questioning the president's connection to economic reality is inherently unfair or illegitimate. It simply means that those posing such assertions need to present more evidence than they do in the "Doing Fine" attack ad to convince those of us who have been equipped by Aristotle to not let other people do our thinking for us.