Found on a website…

ARI has shipped 1.1 million books as part of the “Free Books for Teachers” program. So if the books have a lifespan of four to five years, then four to five million students are reading Ayn Rand’s novels in their English classes. By the end of the decade, over seven million kids will have read Ayn Rand.

Aside from the fact that I think it’s scary someone wants kids to read Rand (I think her greatest accomplishment is that she wrote thick books) this is also a great example of what we philosophers like to call a ‘fallacy.’

Aside from working on the thesis, getting well and moving offices (and who says a man can’t multitask) I am slowly building up a store of new examples for PHIL105, the class I am ‘triumphantly’ returning to in the summer semester.

So why is this a good example, you might ask? And has it anything to do with Conspiracy Theories? The answer to the latter is no, unfortunately (unless you think the actions of the ARI are malacious, covert and out to achieve some ignoble end). In regards to the former question, well…

The arguer assumes that the unsolicited books are going to be put to use in the classroom. This is, of course, not necessarily the case. I’m no expert on North American schools, but I suspect they have a curriculum, assigned texts and, of course, limited teaching time. Most teachers tend to select books based upon their knowledge of the work, how useful they think it has been in the past, et cetera. A new, unsolicited text, unless highly recommended, probably isn’t going to creep into the reading list. Sure, some whackjob teacher might end up using it, but I suspect a lot of them will end up in the bookstall at the school fair.

What kind of fallacy is this an example of? It’s an example of insufficient evidence; the arguer assumes that, by the end of the decade, over seven million kids will have read Ayn Rand. Structure-wise, it looks a little like this:

P1. ‘The Fountainhead’ is available as an assignable reading in sixty-two percent of New Zealand secondary schools.
Therefore, probably,
C1. It has been found useful in many New Zealand secondary schools.
Therefore (probably),
C2. ‘The Fountainhead’ might be a useful assigned reading for secondary-aged children.

Yes it might, but might does not imply is (somewhere, out there, a philosopher giggles).

This kind of fallacy is common; the fact that five million copies of a certain book have been sent out to schools throughout a country is just an empty claim if there is no further evidence or theory to base an argument about. You might as well argue that as Bibles are found throughout a majority of houses in New Zealand then most New Zealanders are Christian. The former does not imply the latter without further justification.

Enough of that. Work to do. Back to the paucity of postings.

3 thoughts on “Found on a website…

  1. I sit corrected (but, when it comes to making this an example all identities will be changed, places renamed and organisations made up, so the fallacious nature of the argument will be amplified a thousand-fold, or something like that).

    (This is what comes from having a rational fear of Objectivists.)

    Actually, the fact that teachers might request the books doesn’t really change all that much about the strength of the conclusion (this is an inductive argument, I think) for two reasons:

    1. Teachers request a lot more books than they ever use as teaching aides.
    2. Your point about the assumption of how long a book ‘lives.’

    (There’s also the possibility of 3 which is the notion that, just maybe, teachers will use the material critically and thus 4 to 5 million kids will read Rand and realise just how irrelevant she is.)

    Now to 1, a devotee of Rand might argue that if the books are solicited, then they will be used, but given the teaching profession (and limited time, resources, et cetera) a better assumption is that if the books are solicited, then they might be used. Anyway, 2 is more interesting.

    Granting the shipping of 1.1 million books, what can we say about premise 2, the lifespan principle. Where does that come from? Are we measuring the lifespan of the book (because that somewhat indicates that the books are very badly printed or bound), or the lifespan of the books’ use by a teacher? Or some other measure? The teacher who solicits the book may not stay with her school for all that long, and teaching resources belong to schools, not teachers, so the lifespan of the books’ use really will change depending on whether new teachers use the material. Also, given that Rand wrote such long monstrosities (and most classes require that students read a range of texts) the books might get ruled out on length (or only partially read, at which point the text might be used for all sorts of purposes the Randians might not approve of).

    Of course, assigning a text doesn’t mean all the students will read it, either. Here in the Antipodes, fed as we are on a diet of American sitcoms, we know all about the existence of Cliff Notes and that no student reads anything else.

    Material galore to work with. But first, breakfast.

  2. Due to a silly mistake with a trackball I just deleted a comment from someone called, I think, Diana. Sorry. Anyway, my reply to you was:

    Do you know if it is a moral or a legal requirement to teach the book(s)? Knowing something about how teachers horde potential teaching material (that they will often take whatever free resources are being offered, due to chronic underfunding of the education system) suggests to me that unless they are required to teach the book you might well be sending the books off to dusty storerooms in Alabama.

  3. Well, the books aren’t exactly unsolicited (unlike some of the stuff from the Heartland Institute (again)). The ARI says it only sends out promotional flyers first, and teachers must then actively ask for the books to get them. So I suppose the argument isn’t “fallacious” in this particular way.

    But I still don’t really get their argument, which goes like this:

    1. ARI has shipped 1.1m books. (fact)
    2. Books have a lifespan of 4–5 years. (assumption)
    3. Therefore 4m–5m kids are reading the books. (conclusion?)

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