Private Emails = Hidden Information?
In recent news, Hilary Clinton created and used email accounts during her term as Secretary of State that were not publicly accessible or searchable by the State Department. This has raised questions about motive and accountability. Several news organizations have covered this story by relying on comments and arguments that persuade through logical fallacies. Let’s take a look at some of them on Fox New’s The Kelly File.
Megyn Kelly opens up her segment (at 0:25) with an announcement from Hilary Clinton via Twitter: “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they would review them for release as soon as possible.”
Kelly goes on to say that (at 0:33): “But the State Department only has the emails that Mrs. Clinton’s minions chose to turn over.”
Kelly interviews Thomas Fitton (President of Judicial Watch) about his Freedom of Information Act Lawsuits that involved Hilary Clinton. When talking about how he was unsuccessful in subpoenaing Hilary’s emails, Fitton commits a fallacy (from 1:10-2:25):
Kelly: “Have you gotten any emails of hers (Hilary Clinton’s) over the past six years?”
Fitton: “None that we can tell. We have filed over 150 requests at the State Department…we can’t find anything in any of the Benghazi documents that we have obtained…and we noticed in those (Benghazi) documents: where are the Hilary Clinton emails? So we sued again, more directly at her (Hilary’s) office just to make sure. And we still hadn’t gotten anything.”
“But the State Department only has the emails that Mrs. Clinton’s minions chose to turn over.”
What do minions have to do with this? While this poor choice of words isn’t the core of Kelly’s argument here about Hilary Clinton, it does have the scent of the fallacy known as Personal Attack or Ad Hominem.
Appeal to Reason
This is an attempt to distract the audience from the argument. Trying to undermine Hilary by attacking her “minions” is a way of not engaging in what Hilary’s tweet said, but instead shifting the focus to something that is irrelevant, if not also untrue.
What makes you think that Hilary only turned over the emails she wanted to turn over? Is it reasonable to assume that the State Department doesn’t have all of Hilary’s emails from her private email account?
To see why this argument is illogical, and therefore a Non Sequitur, let’s break the argument down into its parts:
- Premise 1: Hilary says that the State Department will release her emails
- Premise 2: Hilary hid emails by using a private email account
- Conclusion: The State will only get the hidden emails Hilary wants them to have
Now we can clearly see why this argument does not work: it is not logical! The conclusion that Hilary won’t give up all of her hidden emails does not follow from the premises: the fact that she said she would give up these hidden emails and the fact that she did hide emails using a private email account. While there may be reason to suspect that Hilary was up to something by choosing to use a private email account, we can not say for sure that she is and will continue to hide emails from the State Department or public.
Appeal to Reason
To the unsuspecting audience, Kelly’s claim that we won’t get all of Hilary’s hidden emails may sound reasonable because it is based on two true statements of fact. However, if we listen closely enough, we can see that the facts do not guarantee that the conclusion is true, because the facts aren’t fully connected to the conclusion.
The start of this whole interview rests on an assumption that Hilary Clinton has something to hide and that is why she is using private email accounts. But do we know this for sure?
Now, depending on how we break down the argument Kelly and Thomas are developing together, we can see two possible fallacies at work:
- An argument that is logical, but is still a fallacy because it rests upon an unreasonable assumption. Also known as Begging the Question.
- An argument that is not logical. Also known as Causal Fallacy.
- Premise 1: The Benghazi documents don’t have any email correspondences from Hilary Clinton
- Premise 2: Hilary Clinton must have emailed about Benghazi (because she was the Secretary of State)
- Conclusion: Therefore, Hilary Clinton is hiding her emails about Benghazi
This argument is an informal fallacy called Begging the Question. This is a type of circular reasoning since the conclusion is hidden in one of the premises (often in a way that is intended to conceal this fact). The claim that Hilary Clinton is hiding her emails about Benghazi is also found in supporting evidence that there would be no possible way that Hilary Clinton didn’t email about Benghazi. The argument assumes that Hilary Clinton emailed about Benghazi. We can see that the argument fails and is not reasonable because it only proves what is already assumed.
Appeal to Reason
Viewers may find this argument compelling because on the surface it seems to work: it is logical. If the premises are true then the conclusion is guaranteed to be true. But we must ask, are the premises true? In this argument the second premise is assuming that Hilary Clinton emailed about Benghazi, and this is also the same statement found in the conclusion. Until we know if this assumption is true, or at least why it may be reasonable, we cannot accept this argument as compelling or reasonable.
If we break down Thomas’ argument differently, it takes this argument structure:
- Premise 1: If Hilary Clinton has something to hide, then there won’t be emails
- Premise 2: There weren’t any emails in the Benghazi documents
- Conclusion: Therefore, Hilary Clinton has something to hide
This argument’s structure is not logical, and it is therefore the formal fallacy called the Causal Fallacy because the conclusion can be false even if the premises are true. This happens when something is taken to be the only possible cause for something else, when it in fact there could be multiple possible reasons why something happens. Let’s apply it to this argument: there not being any emails from Hilary Clinton is not necessarily because she had something to hide. Having something to hide isn’t the only cause of not having emails. Isn’t it possible that the reason why there were no Hilary Clinton emails about Benghazi is because Hilary didn’t send any emails?
Appeal to Reason
On the surface this argument sounds reasonable because it is making a statement about the root cause behind the lack of Hilary Clinton emails in the Benghazi documents. We often tend to confuse correlation as cause and effect in our everyday thinking. However, it is important to remember that just because two things happen together (and therefore correlate) does not mean that one thing caused the other. That is, two things happening together does not guarantee that one caused the other because it is quite possible that it was a coincidence or that a third thing was the cause for them both.