Sorting Through Sophistries:
Fallace E. Coyote

By Gabriel Blanchard

How do you distinguish the slippery slope fallacy from a slope that is, in fact, slippery?

Of Why Geometry Is Esteemed a Liberal Art

Western civilization! the grandeur that was Greece, the glory that was Rome, the string of increasingly meaningless adjectives that was France, etc. It has produced many popular works of art; many financially successful works of art; many that have garnered approval from those who are pleased to call themselves art’s critics. But there is one work that does, truly, combine the genius of the dramatist, the naturalist, the engineer, and the philosopher—one only that (if one dares to say it) is worthy to set itself beside the likes of the Hidden City of China, the ancient Toltecs’ Pyramid of the Sun, or India’s 1.8 million-word epic, the Mahābhārata. We refer, of course, to the Merrie Melodies cartoon “Beep, Beep,” their second to feature Wile Ethelbert Coyote and the Road Runner.

More specifically, we may consider the sixth of his (in this case) seven attempts to capture the expeditious fowl for purposes of light ornithophagy. Though the final issue of Mr. Coyote’s suit against the Acme Corporation thirty-four years ago was a gross miscarriage of justice—despite shocking testimony for the plaintiff from the Road Runner himself—his counsel’s summary of the events admirably combines concision with detail.

Hampered by these injuries [caused by the Acme Rocket Sled and described in a preceding paragraph], Mr. Coyote was nevertheless obliged to support himself. With this in mind, he purchased of Defendant as an aid to mobility one pair of Acme Rocket Skates. When he attempted to use this product, however, he became involved in an accident remarkably similar to that which occurred with the Rocket Sled [vid. sup.]. Again, Defendant sold over the counter, without caveat, a product which attached powerful jet engines (in this case, two) to inadequate vehicles, with little or no provision for passenger safety. Encumbered by his heavy casts, Mr. Coyote lost control of the Rocket Skates soon after strapping them on, and collided with a roadside billboard so violently as to leave a hole in the shape of his full silhouette.*

The Acme Rocket Skates’ actual operability (or lack thereof) furnishes us with an analogy for the Slippery Slope Fallacy. Rather than allowing Mr. Coyote to continue adjusting his path to the movement of the Road Runner but with the benefit of extra speed, the skates increased his momentum so drastically that changing course became impossible, producing his original trajectory geometrically. In essence, this fallacy contends that a given principle, decision, or behavior will exhibit results comparable to Acme Rocket Skates: the principle, decision, or behavior under discussion will have uncontrollable or even uncontainable effects. (Slippery slopes tend to fall into two groups, the practical and the intellectual—the first type deals mainly in uncontrollable bad results, where the second tends to deal in unavoidable ugly conclusions.)

Of couhse you realize dis means wauh.

Examples are legion. The famous proverb about how to boil a frog is a good one. Anybody who has tried to maintain their balance on a surface that is not only slick but in any way inclined will immediately see where the name came from! “Burst dams” and “thin ends of the wedge” generally refer to the same fallacy. To appoint Mr. A as chancellor will lead to the suspension and ultimate destruction of the national constitution; to allow Miss B’s right to protest will lead to more and more controversy and rejection of authority, culminating in a state of anarchy; to schedule a document’s final drafting Tuesday will lead to its being drafted on Thursday, and then Sunday, and then Tuesday again but the wrong one.

About the aforementioned frog. It’s been cited as an example of the slippery slope fallacy, which may surprise some people; isn’t it true that frogs will leap out of hot water but sit still if the heat is turned up slowly? In fact, no: if a frog is dropped into boiling water, I’m afraid it will expire before it has time to escape, while—more cheerfully—if it is placed in cool water and the heat is slowly turned up, the frog will notice and hop out when it gets uncomfortable. (Frogs are evidently less lazy than people.) This highlights an odd difficulty many of us have with this fallacy: namely, remembering that it is a fallacy at all. We are more likely simply to laugh at the hapless Mr. Coyote while strapping on our own set of rocket skates, confident that we will be able to steer just fine.

Is the Slope Actually Slippery?

Sorting out this fallacious argument from genuine instances of unintended consequences or unforeseen implications can be tedious work. For of course, the reason so many of us have trouble with this fallacy is that, in reality, most of us have experience with finding out after the fact that the results of a choice we made were not what we wanted or expected, or with realizing that we had not thought through all of the logical consequences of adopting such-and-such an opinion. There are such things as icy roads and waxed floors. The sophistry lies in claiming there is a danger of ice or wax when there isn’t.

Predicting consequences in the practical realm is extremely difficult once we leave any but the very simplest questions—stuff like Will this uncooked egg break if I drop it from quite high up onto the kitchen floor? (The answer, surprisingly, is “no”! Try it at home.) Any glance at the cultural and political forecasts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the beginning of this century will show that, and also in most instances their passion for velocipedes. The present author will make no attempt of the kind; having read The Napoleon of Notting Hill for himself, he knows very well that the winning, and indeed only, strategy when playing “Cheat the Prophet” is to go and do something else. Man (they say) is made in the image of a God that maketh diviners mad.

The intellectual versions of the sophistry, however, can be sorted out from real implications more easily. The procedure may be irksome, as it does involve isolating the syllogisms the argument uses (often a tough and time-consuming process, known in many cases to last minutes on end) and then examining them for validity and soundness of premise. But, while it may not be easy work, it is at least straightforward. That alone, to the dedicated philosopher, may make a refreshing change!

*Stenography of the suit was conducted by one Ian Frazier; in an irregular decision, it was disclosed to the public via The New Yorker while the suit was still in progress, as plaintiff held that availability of information about the Acme Corporation was in the public interest (and this at least the court upheld).

Gabriel Blanchard (a known former user of velocipedes) has a bachelor’s in Classics and serves as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoy the Journal, don’t miss out on our podcast, Anchored, hosted by Jeremy Tate. Further information about Leopold Stokowski (besides of course his Wikipedia entry) may be found in this short selection from the documentary “Long-Haired Hare,” itself a study in the practical-consequence variety of slippery slopes.

Published on 2nd May, 2024. Page image of Grand Teton, located in northwestern Wyoming.

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