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    Logical Fallacies and the Black Plaque

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    Logical Fallacies and the Black Plaque

    This exercise requires you to look at a historical event, the Black Plague, and evaluate the claims made about its cause by those living at the time. Here is some background:

    In October 1347, Italian ships on the Black Sea en route to and from China dock in Messina, Sicily -- their crews are dead or dying. Whatever is killing them quickly spreads ashore. Within a month, it passes through Sicily and moves back out over water. By January 1348, it has penetrated France via Marseille and North Africa via Tunis, and by July 1348, it spreads through France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Eastern Hungary, and Southern England. This is all the more amazing given that at this time it took a person one to three months to travel from London to Rome. The plague died out in the winters and was resurrected in the springs. At the end of 1349, it had spread throughout the British Isles and Scandinavia and continued to move east.
    The death toll was massive -- the "official" figure is one-third of Europe dead between 1348 and 1351, when it temporarily abated, but keep in mind that in some towns the death toll was 90 percent -- in others 10 percent. Further, the poor and anyone else living in close quarters (monks, for instance) died at a higher rate. Many monasteries were completely wiped out, but the death rates among the nobility and the nobility of the church were very low. Understandably, people wanted to know why this was happening to them. Here are the four prominent hypotheses of the day:

    Group Claim Evidence Used to Support Claims Problems People Had With Evidence

    Academics and Physicians The plague was the result of a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars on March 20, 1345. Medicine at the time was based on astrology and astronomy. Most physical sickness was attributed to poor alignment of the stars. The conjunction had happened, and it was a rare celestial event. Other events had been tied to celestial causes. Many were waiting to see what the triple conjunction would cause, and when the Black Plague occurred, they felt that they had found out. Nobody but the academics and physicians believed their explanation!

    The Church God's wrath -- it was a punishment for the people's sins. The Church said, "look around." Everywhere there was plunder, looting, rape, prostitution, war, and drinking. God's wrath had shown itself in very destructive ways before -- the people of Noah's time were hit with a flood, and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. If God's wrath has already descended, there's no reason to change one's behavior. The attitude was roughly, "If we're already doomed, why alter our behavior?"

    Mayors and Town-Controlling Nobles Poor sanitation. Dumping waste in the streets leads to sickness (a revolutionary claim at the time -- no one actually knew this to be true). The sanitation workers were among the first to die, and other diseases were suspected to be related to poor sanitation. Later sanitation workers appeared to be immune (unknown to the people, they'd been exposed and had developed a resistance). If it really was poor sanitation, why weren't they still dying? In fact, this immunity among sanitation workers caused many people to think they had magical powers. People followed them on their street cleaning routes trying to absorb some of the immunity. Others, more desperate, actually applied waste to themselves feeling that it would keep the disease away.

    The Masses (i.e. everyone else) The Jews are poisoning the wells. Confessions were tortured out. The Jews were believed to be "jealous" of the Christians (because, it was thought, the Jews knew "in their hearts" that they were damned). The lepers had been blamed for poisoning the wells and causing the Typhus outbreak in 1320 (after the Black Plague, it was believed that the Jews set them up to it). So many Jews died too (why would any community poison themselves?). The other problem is that the Plague was present in areas were no Jews lived.

    Discussion Question

    Select one of the claims given above (e.g., the Church's, or the academics', etc.). Consider the evidence given and the problems with the evidence. Answer the following question:

    Each of these claims required an underlying assumption on the part of those who believed it. For a modern example, consider the claim that hip-hop music contributes to gun violence. A person supporting this claim is operating on the assumption that music has the power to shape behavior. That person may offer evidence to support the claim and draw the conclusion from the evidence that the claim is true. You, as the reader, may reject the entire argument (claim, evidence, and conclusion) because you do not agree with the underlying assumption -- that music has the power to shape behavior. Turning back to the Black Plague claims, on what underlying assumption does the claim of your choice rely? What are your personal reactions to that assumption? In addition, using the Lesson 2 Lecture, identify at least two logical fallacies in your chosen claim. It is not enough to state, for example, "Relying on Anecdotal Evidence." You need to identify the logical fallacy and explain how it applies specifically to your chosen claim. Finally, one claim "won" as the official explanation at the time. Which do you think it was and why?

    Your post must include: the underlying assumption of your chosen claim; your personal reactions to that assumption; two logical fallacies of your chosen claim; and which claim you believe won out (was accepted as the cause of the plague) according to those in the fourteenth century and why.

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    Solution Summary

    Referring to the causes of the Black Plaque, this solution assists in identifying the underlying assumption of the chosen claim; personal reactions to that assumption; two logical fallacies of the claim; and which claim won out (was accepted as the cause of the plague) according to those in the fourteenth century and why.