And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for…
… (and waiting much too long for. BTW, sorry about that) …
First off, what the hell is a Logical Fallacy?
Glad you asked.
A logical fallacy is a piece of faulty reasoning.
Dig that? It’s bad. Incorrect. Doesn’t make sense. Is, uh, not so good.
And there are a ton of logical fallacies.
I’m not joking. There are a metric-fucking-ton of them. Go weigh them yourself. I’ll wait…
Yep, knew you would.
All of these fallacies, these bits of bad reasoning, fall into a number of categories, which you don’t need to know.
Feel free to take a minute and thank whatever deity/ nature spirit/ guru/ unnameable eldritch horror fits your bill.
Like I promised before in Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3 of this series, I’m going to stick to the fallacies I see most often in common discourse. At the end of this post, I’ll link to more exhaustive resources, if you find yourself so inclined.
So, there are 8 logical fallacies that I see all the time. Briefly, they are:
Begging the Question
Argument from Ignorance
Argument from Tradition/ Authority/ Popularity
(I’m leaving out False Premise, because usually you can tell when someone has constructed their argument, completely or in some part, out of pure bullshit.)
So, let’s jump head-first into the shallow end with the fallacy you’re going to see more often than not – especially if you watch any of the cable “news” shows:
Have you ever tried to make a point, only to have the other person completely misrepresent that point, or blow it all out of proportion? Then, instead of arguing against your actual point, they argue against this monster of language they’ve created?
Then you’ve fallen victim to the straw man fallacy.
(in philosophy there is something called ‘the principle of charity’ where you attempt to give the best representation of your opponent’s argument. The straw man fallacy is its diametric opposite.)
A straw man is a distorted, or completely fabricated version of an argument that is easier or more favorable to argue against than the original argument.
You can see why this is bad reasoning, because it is a sneaky way to change the subject or avoid a contest that is untenable.
Once you start looking for this, you’ll see it more than you’ll be comfortable with. Trust me. And sometimes, it’ll be so subtle that it’s hard to detect. That’s one of the reasons it gets used so frequently. Often, people don’t know that they’re doing it; a side effect of learning discourse from television.
Next up on our tour of the generally wrong-headed:
(you may also know it by the name: Black and White fallacy)
Ever have someone present only two options to you while completely ignoring the possibility that there might be a third or fourth or fifth out there somewhere?
It’s that, “You’re either with us or against us,” type of shit.
Either you love chocolate and puppies, or you’re a sociopath.
Either you think our country is beyond question/ reproach, or you’re not a patriot.
(Did that last one resonate? Yep, me too.)
The aim of bifurcation is to try to trap you into acceding to an artificially limited set of options, usually one which has been heavily weighted towards the negative on one side.
There’s usually more than two options. Be seriously skeptical when anyone tells you there isn’t.
The next steed on our carousel of credulity:
(I know. Latin, right? It just means: ‘to the man’. Because we’re not as sexist as the Ancient Romans, we’ll modernize it to, ‘to the person’. Makes me feel better, at any rate.)
Have you ever had someone try to dismiss your argument by saying you’re an Asshole, Dipshit, Democrat, Republican, Man, Woman, Child? I’ll bet you have. And that motherfucker was committing the Ad Hominem fallacy.
Ad Hominem favors, instead of arguing the point at hand, attacking the person making the point.
This one is so similar, they damn near go hand in hand, so, now joining Ad Hominem on stage:
Whereas Ad Hominem seeks to dismiss your argument because you may or may not be whatever the opponent is claiming you are, the Genetic fallacy seeks to negate the argument by attacking the origin or background of the argument.
Both of these fallacies attempt to discredit the argument. One by directly attacking your person. The other by attacking where the argument comes from.
A little example:
J: (some cogent, valid, sound argument.)
B: J is an asshole!
J: (some cogent, valid, sound argument.)
B: J’s argument is wrong because assholes thought it up!
See the subtle difference?
It’s often so subtle that they can almost be thought of as interchangeable. But you can see why they’re both bad thinking, yes?
It’s because neither engages with the actual point of the argument.
It’s a dodge. A sidestep. It’s hiding the ball in your mitt until the runner is too close to stop the slide. Basically, it’s misdirection – trying to trick one’s way out of the argument.
Now batting for the Muddville Slingers:
(You know this one, even if you don’t know you know it. And as soon I give the example, you’re going to have the epiphany. You’re welcome, in advance.)
Ever been arguing with somebody, and it feels like the argument just twisted out of your grasp? Ever look back on it and wonder, “What the hell happened there?” Only to then realize the direction of the argument changed because the person you were arguing against changed the meaning of one of the important words in the discussion?
Of course, you have.
(you might even be feeling a bit sheepish right now because you’re realizing you’ve committed this fallacy yourself. Don’t feel bad. I’m right there in the wool with you. In fact, I’d say just about every human being has committed this fallacy at some point in their lives. It’s an easy one to slip into. And it happens a bunch. So much so that I almost put it at the top of the list.)
Equivocation happens when a word has more than one meaning, or connotation, and the person using it in the argument switches between meanings to make the argument work. If the meaning of the word substantially changes how the word operates, this is a fallacy of reasoning.
Here’s the simplest example:
The word “Law”
A: “If there are natural laws, there must have been a law giver.”
(Theists love this one, BTW.)
The problem is we understand that “Laws of Nature” is a colloquial term for the complicated physics and mechanics of the Universe. They’re not legal statutes. By switching the meaning to legal statutes, the opponent here is swapping connotations. But changing the meaning of the word changes how it operates, and thereby changes what the whole argument means. Arguments don’t float when one tries to change ships in mid-stream. And often if you blink, you’ll usually miss this type of fallacy.
Yet another reason to have as large a vocabulary and understanding of your native language as possible.
(That means read, people. Read a lot.)
And now, as we circle the drain of discourse:
Begging the Question:
(This is probably the least understood, by the general populace, of all the fallacies. I’m about to fix that, for you anyways.)
First off, Begging the Question does not mean ‘raising the question’.
Start chewing on that fact now. If a statement leads to a question, it does not beg the damn thing.
Begging the Question is a form of circular reasoning where the conclusion, in some part or whole, is stated as one of the premises that are meant to logically lead to the conclusion.
Confusing enough for you?
(The appropriate answer to that question is: Fuck yeah it is! You know, if you were wondering.)
Here’s an example out of S. Morris Engel’s book, “With Good Reason”:
A: “How do you know?”
B: “The Bible says so.”
A: “How do you know what the Bible says is so?”
B: “Because the Bible is the word of God.”
Did you see it? There is a God, because the Bible says so. The Bible is correct because it is the word of God.
It’s a neat little circle, that I see here in the South all the fekkin’ time. It just also happens to be completely nonsensical.
How about a less religiously charged example:
A: “Politician X lies.”
B: “Why do you say that?”
A: “Because X is a politician.”
You see how that’s just an unsupported statement twisted up to try to look like a proper argument?
I knew you would. You beautiful geniuses you.
A conclusion cannot prove itself. This is why circular logic is faulty logic.
(Like I said, I run into Question Begging a lot, while arguing with theists, but you’ll generally run face first into it when arguing with any ideologue that isn’t introspective enough to examine their own deeply held positions. It’s a favorite of Johnny-Come-Latelys that are too lazy to actually do the research.)
Speaking of theists, here another faith-based exercise in non-critical thinking:
Argument from Ignorance:
Have you had a conversation with someone, where some version of this happened:
“Well, we don’t know how X came about, so it must be Y.”
(usually the Y in question is something else we can’t explain.)
“We don’t know how X came about/ works, so X must not be the case.”
A version of this fallacy is more commonly known as the “God of the Gaps”, wherein specifically, anything we don’t understand the mechanics of is attributed to the supernatural workings of a deity.
Don’t know why the planets and stars move in the sky? God did it. It’s part of God’s plan.
You’ll notice that the Argument from Ignorance also does not suggest an explanatory answer to whatever question is posed.
There’s another type of the Argument from Ignorance:
Suggesting that something just is not so, because the opponent does not know/ understand how it works.
(You see this a lot with idiots trying to argue against evolution. Just because one doesn’t understand a thing does not mean that the thing is non-existent.)
There’s a phrase we use in philosophy that’ll keep you out of trouble:
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
Meaning, just because one can not explain a thing, that does not automatically mean that the thing is not the case.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
Also a good quote to keep you from veering too far off the track.
Pulling into the final station on our whistle-stop tour of the wildly illogical:
Argumentum Ad Populum:
(Yeah, I know. More Latin. Roughly translated it just means argument from the population/ masses. You could also think of it as: argument from the majority.)
There are three of this type of argument:
I’ll address them together because they use the same reasoning to get where they’re going, they just aim at different targets.
First at the plate – majority:
Ever called somebody out on some piece of bad behavior only to be told, “But, everyone’s doing it.”?
(The parents feel this already. ‘If Tommy Anderson jumped off the bridge, would you jump off it too?’ Maybe I’m getting old. Do parents still say that?)
The “everybody’s doing it” part, that’s the fallacy. A majority of the populace can agree to something, and they can still be wrong.
Having numbers on your side doesn’t make you right. Neither does going along with the majority. Sometimes you’ll hear this version referred to as the Bandwagon Fallacy.
An easy example:
Probably a majority of small children in America believe in Santa Claus. Does it mean he exists because so many believe he does?
Second at bat: tradition:
Ever been told, “But we’ve always done it that way,”? Then you’ve been hit by, you’ve been struck by a smooth argument from tradition fallacy.
Just because a thing has been the case historically, that is no argument that it should be continued or approved of.
“Everyone used to keep slaves,” is not a reasonable argument for keeping slaves.
(No, there actually isn’t a reasonable argument for owning another human being. I know some idiots in the media have said something like the contrary. But they’re jackoffs and shouldn’t be listened to with a serious ear. Generally, don’t let jackoffs into your head, it never ends well.)
We’ve been pumping pollution into the air and water at huge rates since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That doesn’t make it right, and it isn’t a reasonable argument for us to keep doing it either.
And now, on cleanup: authority:
(parents will also recognize this one, from the other end.)
Ever been told, “Because I said so!”?
Yep, everyone of us, in all likelihood. I excuse exasperated parents, mainly because children aren’t logical. Not until about the age of 28, at any rate.
But there are plenty of other examples of people saying a thing is right and proper because someone in perceived authority said so.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a parent (in the case of adult children), the President, or God. An argument does not carry weight just because of the status of the person making it.
(Now, if someone is an authority/ expert in a given field, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt on factual matters pertaining to that field. I mean, I’d like to know everything about everything, I just don’t have the time. But I don’t accept their argument merely because they are an expert.)
In my experience, all arguments from authority boil down to: “Because I said so!”
But we’re grown and don’t have to take anyone’s word for anything.
Especially non-arguments like this.
That’s the eight we should all love to hate.
What do we do with this information?
(Thanks for asking. I knew I could count on you.)
For starters, learn to recognize them. You don’t have to point them out to everyone you notice using them; unless you are the occasional sleep deprived, too-literal asshole that lurks beneath my skin from time to time.
Just notice them.
As you notice them, and digest this information, you’ll be able to stop using them yourself. Around that same time, you’ll be able to stop people from using them against you.
(Now, there are plenty of other ways to persuade that don’t involve logic. But that’s a whole other series I’m not keen to fuck with just now.)
Do I think understanding these 8 fallacies will cure all the ills of our society? Fuck no. But being able to recognize them will make you a better thinker, and a better advocate for change.
Once you’ve figured these out, and mastered how to get around them, you can begin to teach others – mainly by example, and if they ask.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll reach a critical mass at some point.
I don’t suggest you hold your breath, but it’s a lovely dream.
There really isn’t a conclusion to this essay that approaches satisfaction. Not for me anyways. I might write a final post that wraps everything up, if I recover from the writing of this one. I’ll think about it later.
For those of you whose thirst this essay has whetted, here are some links to more exhaustive resources:
and one more, just for fun:
And there is always S. Morris Engel’s Book: “With Good Reason”
I’m sure you can find that somewhere…
Until next time.