Logic 9: Fallacies

Fallacies are common errors or problems in reasoning, like those we studied in the Indian Nyaya Sutra.  There is no set list of fallacies, nor is there a complete understanding of how they relate to logical or correct reasoning.  The more dogmatic believe that truth and false are exclusively separated, while the more skeptical believe that the reasonable and the unreasonable, the rational and the irrational, are interrelated.  Myself, being skeptically inclined, believe that fallacies occur when reason and rationality do not fit or overshoot their particular situation.  The rationality of an argument and its component pieces depends on how it is used or abused in context, not abstractly with regard to its form.  We are going to talk about some of the common fallacies that logic texts discuss, even though there is not one set list of these fallacies nor a system of their structures.  I found three different but overlapping lists in the three texts I reviewed for the class.

Appeal to Emotion

There are many types of appeals that cater to positive emotions we wish to sustain such as happiness and status, and negative emotions we wish to avoid such as pain, fear, pity, and ignorance.  Advertising, of course, appeals to both desires and insecurities frequently.  The recent khaki pants ad that says, “Wear the pants”, is appealing to male desires for dominance and status as a strong and respected man.

An Appeal to Authority is repeating something said while citing its source, either an individual, an institution or a culture, to support an argument by appealing to a sense of security and trust.  For example, “The chief of police said crime is up”, “9 out of 10 scientists (that we hand picked) say you should brush your teeth with Happy Time Toothpaste”, or “Native American Shamans used tobacco to cure diseases”.  Notice that an appeal to authority is a fallacy if it is misleading, and whether or not it is misleading or informative is debatable.  For example, if the chief of police is untrustworthy or there is good evidence that she wants to increase her budget this year, we may argue that the first example is a fallacy, an improper appeal to authority, but if we trust her then her testimony could be valid and it is not a fallacy but a proper and justified appeal to authority.

An Appeal to Force is threatening that if a position is not supported there will be harmful and dangerous consequences.  For example, “If you don’t believe me and build a giant wall, Islamic extremists will eat your baby”, or “If I am wrong about this, may God help us all”.  Notice that an appeal to force is a fallacy if the threat is unjustified, but perfectly reasonable if the threat is justified, and that this is often debatable.

An Appeal to Pity is like an appeal to force, but emphasizing sadness and pain inflicted on the poor, unfortunate and defenseless.  For example, “If we don’t do it like I say, small children will cry”, or “This particular country has been poor for hundreds of years, so we should totally sell them a bunch of weapons to make them feel better about themselves”.  Like other appeals, it can be debatable whether or not an opponents position will hurt the unfortunate, as well as whether or not the harm is an unfortunate but necessary consequence.

An Appeal to Ignorance is a special kind of ‘sharing the fault’, one of the fallacies of the Nyaya school of India.  When we argue, “There are things about X we don’t know, so my opponent can’t be sure”, we are saying something that is true about every human position, including our own.  For example, during Bush Jr.’s presidency the head of the American Academy of Sciences said, “Global warming is just a theory”, which is true but does not say anything about how justified a theory it is compared to any other alternative.  For the skeptically inclined like myself and the Jains, all human truth is “just a theory”, so it is improper to use this against an opponent in argument to try to particularly associate their position with ignorance.

Straw Man

The ‘straw man’ refers to setting up a scarecrow as a fake person.  In debate, we say, “That is a straw man” when our opponent presents our own position in an oversimplified way to make it easy to argue against, like setting up a straw dummy to knock down.  This is one of the most common fallacies that people accuse each other of doing: “My opponent is misrepresenting my position on the issues”.  Wittgenstein says that this is what both sides of the objective truth versus subjective truth do too often to each other.  For example, if I am arguing against a war, and I say that my opponent always loves each and every war and blood thirsty people are untrustworthy, I can be accused of setting up a straw man.  My opponent need only site one example when they disapproved of a war to show that I have oversimplified their position.  In debate, we are often arguing to convince not our radical opponents but moderates who are on the fence.  While it is useful to simplify an opponent’s position to highlight its faults, it carries the risk of being accused of oversimplification.

Slippery Slope

The slippery slope is a particular kind of overly simple straw man which involves a domino effect over time, taking a consequence of the opponent’s position and blowing it out of proportion over the course of several steps.  For example, “If we legalize marijuana, more people will try it, then more drugs will be legalized, and then everyone will be shooting heroin and civilization will collapse”.  It is most likely true that if marijuana were legalized, then more people would do it, but it is doubtful that the majority of the population would end up heroin addicts as a consequence regardless of whether marijuana should be legalized or not.  This person took the consequence of some new users and it slides all the way down the slippery slope of over-simplifying judgment to everyone becoming an addict.  Another example: “If we to legalize homosexual marriage, then people will want to marry their family members, and then marry animals and clock radios”.  Because my examples are quite progressively biased, we can give another: “If we let people own concealable hand guns, people will develop a taste for heavy artillery and begin stock piling their own personal arsenals”.

Red Herring

To say, “That’s a red herring” is to say that an opponent has missed the point by focusing too much on an insignificant detail.  There are two competing explanations of the origin of this expression.  The first is that hunting dogs were trained by dragging a fish behind a horse to see if they would be easily thrown off the true prey’s trail.  The second is that a food scare occurred in the 1920s just after the Russian Revolution when a company spraying red dye into sardine cans to make them look fresh sometimes made one sardine dark red, starting rumors that Communists were secretly poisoning Americans.  I found a good example of red herrings in an article about fallacies that examined child custody court transcripts.  A parent would often accuse the other of being irresponsible in general, and then site a particular example (such as a time when they were too busy to pick up a child).  The parents would then argue about the single event and lose sight of the overall issue of irresponsibility.  If there are examples and counter examples for many things, sometimes we argue particular examples are marginal and other times that they are critical.  If the example is marginal and insignificant, focusing on it could bring the charge of misleading oneself and others with a red herring.

Personal Attack

One particular type of red herring, certainly the most popular, is the personal attack, when one attacks the opponent and not the opponent’s argument.  In a way, it is the opposite of an appeal to authority.  For example, “You cannot believe a word my opponent says, because she is a communist, Mormon, atheist, aquatic bird, etc”, or “His scientific theory is questionable, because he is a gambler”.  Like with any red herring, it can be debatable whether or not a person’s character has any relationship to their argument, but a genuine and fallacious personal attack occurs when there is an unjustifiable appeal to fear based on the distrust of the group a person belongs to or a particular trait of the person.

Fallacy of Composition & Fallacy of Division

The fallacy of composition is wrongly attributing the property of a part to a greater whole.  For example, “If water is wet, and humans are three fifths water, then humans are wet”, or “If San Francisco is progressive, then all of California is progressive”.  Notice that this fits with Wittgenstein’s analogy of the oven and how it is always ignorant of the complex situation to simplify things into a single component or essence.

The fallacy of division is wrongly attributing the property of the greater whole to a particular part, the fallacy of composition in reverse.  For example, “If water is wet, and water has two hydrogen molecules, then hydrogen is wet”, or “If San Francisco is progressive, then my conservative uncle who lives there must be progressive”.

Notice that bigotry and prejudice are types of fallacious composition and division.  If I say, “He is a Hindu, and he is a jerk, so all Hindus are jerks”, I have committed the fallacy of composition.  Likewise, if I say, “All atheists are immoral, she is an atheist, so she is immoral”, I have committed the fallacy of division.

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