How not to argue your point

I saw a web site recently that raised a few red flags on the ol’ skeptical radar that I’ve been exercising a lot over the last year or two. But this time it wasn’t because of some outrageous pseudoscientific alternative healthcare ghost-hunting Bigfoot-finding paranormal UFO conspiracy claim. It was a site dedicated to the increasing of the speed limit in Ontario from 100 km/h to 120 or 130 km/h. It’s not that I don’t believe in this cause; in fact I’d be totally fine if that were to happen. The flags were raised because the strategies employed by the people who created the site are very similar to other sites with more questionable goals like trying to convince people that water fluoridation is dangerous or that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.

facepalmThe site is called and the main page is full of ugly colourful infographics, most of which link to their facebook page, though there are other documents on the site as well. Also out in full force on this site: logical fallacies. Below, I’ll list some of the more obvious ones. Quotes from the site are in quotation marks and italics.

Appeal to popularity

Also called “bandwagon” – if many people believe something, it must be true. Hundreds of years ago, the vast majority of humanity believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. Didn’t make it true.

  • One of the first things you see on the site is the question: “Do you want to legally drive at 120 km/h?” – even if 99.9% of respondents said yes, this means nothing. First off, most people coming to this site are likely to agree. Secondly, the fact that many people want something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
  • Growing in strength… over 1300 identified members on board.” Again, the popularity this movement is not relevant.
  • Most drivers prefer to flow at a very comfortable 120-130 km/h“. I’d be interested to know how they know what “most drivers” prefer. This is purely anecdotal, but I cruise on the highways around 110-115 km/h, and I don’t generally find that I’m going slower than “most drivers”.


Appeal to emotion

This is where they don’t use actual logic. Instead, they use your emotions (in this case, anger and mistrust of government) to try and sway you.

  • Enough lies, enough propaganda, enough politics, enough fear“. What lies are they talking about? How is keeping the speed limit artificially low a political move? They are using many people’s mistrust of government to imply some kind of conspiracy.
  • They want the government to stop “treating Ontario drivers as dangerous and incompetent by posting one of the lowest speed limits in the world“. By saying this, they are trying to piss people off and get them angry at the government so that they will agree with these conclusions.
  • They talk about the “decades of inaction since 1976“, as if the government should frequently revisit this issue.


Appeal to authority

Someone else said this and they’re really smart so it must be true.

  • They mention the fact that many other countries have higher speed limits than Ontario. So what? It may be that some of these countries require driver education before you can be licensed, or require occasional re-testing, or have better roads. I’ve driven in Europe (both Great Britain and France), and in my experience, drivers there are vastly superior to drivers here in terms of things like driving in the correct lanes, passing safely, and keeping up with the flow of traffic. It might just be that drivers there can handle faster speeds because they’re better drivers. Sorry, my fellow Ontarians, if you feel offended by that but that’s how I see it.
  • On the other hand, it may also be that countries with higher speed limits also have higher accident rates than Ontario. There is one page that says that this is not true about Germany, but nothing is mentioned about anywhere else. They do say that Ontario has some of the safest highways in North America, which implies that the accident rates elsewhere are higher.
  • They use the fact that other places like Texas have recently increased their speed limits. Texas also has the death penalty, allows anyone to carry a concealed weapon, and the Texas Republican party has stated that they do not agree with the teaching of critical thinking. Perhaps using Texas as the model for our legal decisions isn’t the best choice.
  • How do we know that other countries are looking at Ontario and saying “Ontario has had a 100 km/h speed limit for decades, and Ontario highways are some of the safest in North America [as stated on this site], so we should lower our speed limit”?


Affirming the consequent

These are what are commonly referred to as “non-sequiturs”. You state that A is true and therefore B must also be true, but A does not imply B. “Non-sequitur” literally means “it does not follow”.

  • Speed limit on Ontario’s 400-series highways was 112km/h (70 mph) forty years ago.” So? How does that prove (or even imply) that driving 120 km/h is as safe as 100 km/h?
  • Ministry of Transportation claims Ontario’s roads are some of the safest in North America and the statistics confirm this.” What makes you think that this isn’t directly attributable to our lower speed limit?
  • Divided highways are the safest roads ever invented and designed!” This is probably true, but it doesn’t mean that a 120 km/h speed limit is any more or less safe than a 100 km/h speed limit. Irrelevant.
  • The Provincial Government must stop… issuing unfair speeding tickets to vast majority of motorists who demand and wish to drive at globally accepted speeds of 120-140 km/h“. First, driving over the posted speed limit is by definition speeding, and so a speeding ticket is not unfair. (This coming from a guy who was given a speeding ticket just last week. Was I happy about it? No. Was it unfair? No.) Second, who says that speeds of 120-140 km/h are “globally accepted”? Third, where are the stats saying that the “vast majority of motorists demand and wish to drive” that fast? All these non-sequiturs in a single sentence!
  • According to the site itself, the speed limit was reduced in 1976 “to ration gasoline and widespread oil shortages“. Since these people are advocating reversing that decision, it stands to reason that they believe that global dependence on fossil fuels is significantly lower today than it was then, i.e. this is no longer a problem so we can increase the speed limit again. Is this true?
  • In a number of places, they talk about the lowering of the speed limit as having been a “political” decision, but I’m not sure what they are trying to say by that. It was a decision made by politicians, but seeing as they’re the only ones who can actually change the laws, that makes sense. Surely they’re not trying to say that there was no science or logic behind the decision, are they?


Misuse of statistics

This isn’t really a logical fallacy, it’s just misleading. They show a chart of data supplied by the MTO itself, and interpret the data to “prove” their point. The numbers show that in 2009, 6.7% of fatal accidents were caused by “speed too fast”. Because this is such a small percentage (compared with things like “failed to yield right of way” and “lost control”), they argue that “Speed kills” is false. (They actually use the word “propaganda” here, as if it’s a government conspiracy to keep us all driving slow.)

But looking at the data, we see that “Driving properly” was listed as the cause of 41.3% of fatal accidents. Surely “Driving properly” is the real culprit here, and we need to clamp down on it! Also, it’s not clear where these “Apparent driver action” types came from or who categorized the accidents. It’s therefore unclear what these statistics actually mean. If a driver is driving too fast, and attempts to pass someone improperly and then loses control, that single accident falls under three categories in this list. How would that be categorized?

Right above the chart of data is a graph showing “Fatalities by location” for 1990, 2000, 2008, and 2009. The 2009 graph (same year as the data chart) shows 924 fatalities on rural roads, 803 inside urban areas, and 297 on motorways. But the data chart says that there were 828 total fatalities. At least one of these pieces of data is wrong.

In an open letter to the Minister of Transportation, they open by saying “The movement with over 800 identified and millions of anonymous supporters
around the Province…
” Where is the “millions of anonymous supporters” claim coming from? If they really have millions of anonymous supporters, why have only 800 of them (1300+ now) given their names?


On the other hand…

The site isn’t entirely without merit; there are some good points raised. Most of the quotes from politicians about keeping the speed limit where it is involve safety, but as they point out, safety wasn’t the reason the limit was lowered in the first place. But if we’re talking about safety anyway, modern cars are far safer than cars in the 60’s and 70’s when the speed limit was higher, with things like better seat belts, ABS, air bags, crumple zones, etc. In addition, modern highways are better designed than those of forty years ago.

One argument that they didn’t use relates directly to the reason the speed limit was decreased in the first place, that being the oil crisis in the mid-70’s. The idea was that cars driving at 100 km/h would use less gas than those driving at 110, so society would use less oil and we’d all be better off. But cars today are far more energy efficient than those of the mid-70’s. Your average 2012 car driving 120 km/h uses far less gas than your average 1976 car driving 100 km/h, so even if we increase the speed limit back to 110, we’d still be using less oil than we did in 1976.



Given what I’ve written above, it may seem surprising that I don’t actually disagree with the premise that the speed limit should be increased on the 400-series highways. I’d be fine with the limit being raised to 110 or even 120, but no higher than that. Despite their claims to the contrary, I think a lot of people would see a 120 km/h limit and immediately start driving 140 km/h everywhere. I also think that if they’re going to do this, they need to put a 90 km/h minimum speed, and enforce it. The minimum speed would only apply if weather and traffic conditions allowed it, but if the road is wide open and the weather is fine, there’s no reason for some idiot driving 80 km/h on the 401. I don’t believe speed by itself is as big a factor in accidents as the difference in speed between vehicles.

But the myriad of logical fallacies and statements of opinions as fact on this site dilute their points, and I don’t think it helps their case. So I’m fine with the cause these guys are fighting for. I just don’t like the way they’re fighting.


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