No, it’s not a Harry Potter spell. (The reason you think it’s a Harry Potter spell, incidentally, is because J.K. Rowling used Latin for her spell names. Which is, frankly, unbelievably awesome.) It’s my favorite logical fallacy. Wikipedia describes it as “the informal fallacy of presenting an argument that may in itself be valid, but does not address the issue in question. Arguments which shift the focus of debate to ‘safer’ but less relevant ground fall into this category.”
Although it is a common error in academic arguments, we see a rudimentary form of it in the media quite frequently. No doubt you’ve heard the opinion posed that the government is “wasting their time” on an issue when there are “more important things going on.”
One of the best examples I can think of is when Congress decided to investigate steroid use in baseball. Outraged Americans claimed that they were “wasting their time.” This seemed odd to me, because one of Congress’s responsibilities is to regulate American business. And sports is… let me check… one of the biggest businesses in the country. If there’s something seriously wrong with a business, it is Congress’s responsibility to investigate it. I don’t remember hearing anyone say otherwise during the Enron scandal.
Then this funny thing happened where Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens lied under oath. Naturally, both were tried for perjury. Naturally, Bonds was found guilty and Clemens was found innocent (pay no attention to the color of their skin.) But here’s the crazy part: people stubbornly repeated the assertion that it was a “waste of time” when there were “more important things going on.”
Wait, what? Explain this one to me. These individuals often carefully avoided mentioning where these proceedings took place (a court of law, which has… let me check… nothing to do with wars or financial crises), opting instead to generalize that “they” were wasting “their” time. Suppose we allowed that to pass without comment, and allowed that some monolithic representation of “the government” was involved here. There are two basic problems with this “wasting their time” argument.
1) We do not, we do not, we do not stop trying people for high crimes because “other things are going on.”
2) Even if Congress were directly involved in either of these trials, what should they be doing that investigating this would in any way prevent them from doing? Does the government generally do one thing at a time? (Hint: the answer is no.)
Considering how transparently silly these arguments are, I’m really astonished how popular they are both among people paid to disseminate their opinion for public consumption, and in casual conversations on the subject. (Admittedly, the latter likely derives somewhat directly from the former.)
I probably shouldn’t be wasting my time pointing this out when there are other things going on, though.