Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently did a show on crisis pregnancy centers, closing the piece with the creation of his own, completely legal crisis pregnancy center van. As should not be surprising to those familiar with the show, Oliver was very critical of these centers. His focus was on the deceptive practices of these centers and how these deceits can be harmful to women. This matter is clearly of philosophical concern.
One obvious concern, and a criticism that has been advanced against me in the past, is my reference to John Oliver when discussing an issue. Three rational ways to launch such a criticism are as follows. First, there can be the charge that one engages in a fallacious appeal to authority by referencing Oliver. While an appeal to authority can be non-fallacious, they tend to be relatively weak because the idea is that a claim should be accepted because the person advancing the claim is an expert. This reasoning is non-fallacious, roughly put, when the person really is an unbiased expert speaking in their legitimate field. Obviously enough, Oliver is not an expert on ethics, medicine, and the various subjects covered in his piece. He is an expert, though some might dispute this, in comedy. As such, it would be a fallacy to accept that Oliver is right about the subject because he is an authority, because he is not. However, it would also be a fallacy to conclude that Oliver is wrong because he is not an expert on the subject. Fortunately, this attack does not apply here—I am not claiming that Oliver is right because he is an expert. After all, I just contended that he is not.
A second logically reasonable line of attack is to contend that Oliver is biased and that this reduces his credibility. People who have an interest (as opposed to being disinterested parties) come under suspicion of advancing claims based not on evidence, but on their ideology or interests (such as getting paid to hold a view). However, even if a person is biased, it does not follow that their claim is false. To accept this “reasoning” would be to embrace a fallacy as well. What follows from evidence of bias is that the claims should be given proper scrutiny, not that they should be dismissed. I am aware of Oliver’s views and it is accurate to cast him as having a bias. As such, I did not simply accept his claims without evidence. As such, dismissing Oliver’s claims because of his lack of authority or his alleged bias would be fallacious reasoning. It would also be an error to simply accept his claims because one shares his bias. As such, what is needed is evidence.
While Oliver is a comedian and makes it clear that he is not a journalist, his show is carefully researched. In fact, the care with reach the research is conducted and the depth of the examination certainly make it seem to be investigative comedic “journalism” and this takes us to a third concern: his show is comedy.
It is quite reasonable to point out that a comedy “news” show is comedic and to note that it includes claims that are absurd as part of the comedy. The use of comedy is, of course, a rhetorical device and is thus logically neutral. This neutrality goes both ways: the fact that something is comedic does not prove the claim, nor does it disprove it. As such, the fact that Oliver’s show is comedy does not disprove the claims made within the show—they must be assessed on their own merits. As noted above, while Oliver denies being a journalist, his shows are researched to a depth that casts shame upon many news shows. Oliver is careful to source his evidence, thus allowing this evidence to be assessed. He also includes people speaking in their own words, though there is the usual concern with how audio and video are edited. As such, while Oliver’s show is comedy, it does provide a source of credible evidence that is subject to confirmation. As such, to simply dismiss Oliver’s claims on the grounds that he is a comedian doing a comedy show would be a mere ad hominem. As always, one must engage with the evidence and the arguments. In the next post I will turn to a discussion of the ethics of pregnancy crisis centers.