Logical Fallacies 1
Yes, the reader will be tested on this. In point of fact we are tested on logical fallacies every single day of our lives. You never noticed? You failed. Sorry. It’s not too late though…
Logical fallacies. We live submerged in a sea of them, yet most people seem oblivious to them or even make constant (mis)use of them. I suppose when advertisers, leaders, experts, talking heads and so many others make non stop use of logical fallacies, it’s not surprising that so many people follow suit. Still, it’s sad. No real discourse is possible when people simply trade logical fallacies. They tend to be very persuasive if one already agrees with their conclusions, such is the secret behind the success of many radio personalities. They can also be useful for changing people’s minds in the short run, but if one wants to change someone’s mind in the long run, logical argument has more staying power.
What is a logical fallacy specifically? A logical fallacy is an argument or debate technique that is logically flawed to the point where it isn’t an argument. Simple examples would be lying or insulting your opponent in a debate. Lying about something obviously doesn’t prove anything, and insulting your opponent may be satisfying but it doesn’t address their argument. There are two codicils to keep in mind when dealing with logical arguments. The first is that they are not always invalid, it can depend on the context. The second is that reality trumps logic every time, no matter how logical something appears, it may not actually be the case in real life.
In any event, this is a short list of five common logical fallacies I run across a lot. I find it very amusing to listen to or read an opinion piece and try to spot the fallacies. Once one gets proficient at recognizing them, they are everywhere. Many letters to the editor and editorial columns will simply be series of them strung together, with no underlaying anything. It’s like finding out the Moon really is made out of green cheese. And of course politicians seem to be unable to open their mouths without spewing them constantly.
There are dozens of different types of logical fallacies, divided into hundreds of subtypes. Rather than try to cover them all, I’m going to concentrate on the most common fallacies, or families of fallacies more accurately. If a person can learn to recognize these fallacies, they will be a lot harder to fool. Even better, they will be less likely to make fools of themselves. And it can be really curious to see who is trying to pull wool over your eyes. So astound your friends, confuse your enemies, and just generally stop sounding like an idiot…
1. Lies, context, and repetition. Possibly the most common family of false argument. Lie about something, repeat it over and over. The main way lies are used is to state a premise that is false, and then argue from there. When presented with an argument, always look for the premises. If the premise is suspect, everything that follows is a false argument no matter how reasonable it sounds.
George Bush mentioning Saddam and 9/11 in the same speech on dozens (hundreds?) of occasions is unfortunately a perfect example of this fallacy in action. There has never been a shred of evidence connecting 9/11 to Saddam, in fact Saddam and Al Qaeda were mortal enemies. Yet this technique was so effective that tens of millions of Americans still believe Saddam had something to do with 9/11.
I did say false arguments can be remarkably effective, didn’t I?
2. Ad Hominem, personal attack, poisoning the well. Attacking the source of the argument or the person making the argument. This can be a simple as insulting the opponent, it more often involves casting doubt on their credentials. The inverse can also be used, claiming to be persecuted for one’s theory is common. What all ad hominen arguments have in common is that they are about the circumstances and surroundings of the argument, and do not directly address the argument at hand.
“The proponents of Intelligent Design have few if any scientific credentials to back their arguments with.”
Even if true, so what? A theory or argument has to stand on its own merits. This doesn’t mean credentials or character aren’t important, but as argument themselves, they are usually a weak argument.
3. Straw Man Arguments. This one is frighteningly common. One simply makes up the argument an opponent is using, and then attacks that:
“The Democrats want to pull out of Iraq. They would have us turn Iraq over to Al Qaeda. What patriotic American would want Iraq to be run by Al Qaeda?”
No Democrat has suggested turning Iraq over to Al Qaeda, but that hasn’t stopped critics of the American involvement in Iraq of being accused of just that.
4. Slippery Slope. This is where one argues that a minor change will lead inevitably to far more extensive changes. Again, a very common fallacy that is invoked repeatedly by just about any group with an agenda. Hell, this fallacy is so common that most people actually seem to believe they are making a profound point when they use it.
“Gun registration will inevitably lead to gun confiscation.”
“Gay marriage will lead to group marriage and people marrying animals.”
5. Anecdotal evidence, cherry picking, biased sample, counting the hits and ignoring the misses. This is where an argument is based on a few selected examples rather than a wider or more objective view. These can range from very simple arguments to entire grand “theories” based on carefully assembled bits of evidence. This fallacy is so embedded in our culture that many people simply live their lives by it:
“I don’t wear seat belts because I had a friend who burned to death because they were unable to unbuckle their seat belt.”
For a comprehensive list of fallacies see the The Nizkor Project. For a nice overview of logic and constructing an argument, and another list of fallacies, see Logic & Fallacies, Constructing a Logical Argument.
Coming soon, a primer on how to review an article for logical fallacies. Something I could use brushing up on myself I am afraid. And a post on the so called “dirty bomb.” Turns out it’s a comic book fantasy weapon, we might as well worry about little green men with ray guns.
(The above image of Albert Einstein is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. This is an iconic image that is so frequently reproduced that it is hard to believe that its use on Doug’s Darkworld could possibly have any effect on the copyright holder. Einstein was sick of being hounded by photographers this day, little did he know that his disdain for being asked to pose for yet another photo on his seventy second birthday would change how the world viewed him forever. Credit: Arthur Sasse, 1951)