Why Fallacies are Stupid

Recently, Mariah at Post-Abe wrote a post challenging Hicksians to defend Hicks. She explicitly discouraged them from using logical fallacies, going so far as to include a link to a chart displaying a lot of the popular ones. That’s when things get silly. Someone named Flipside decides to comment on the matter:

Mariah–how fair, let alone rational, is it to invite a “defense of Esther Hicks”, which you say you will be “…glad to hear”, and then, before anyone has even offered anything at all, you limit said defense with “no logical fallacies”? Wow! And I don’t see any responses. What a shock!!

It’s hard to find words to describe how amazingly oblivious that comment is. Being rational pretty much means minimizing the use of logical fallacies, as does being fair in an argument. If this were a saner world, discouragements like Mariah’s wouldn’t even need to be typed, but apparently some people are so out of touch with reality and/or so shameless in their deceit, they’d object to such reminders. They generally aren’t so explicit about it, though.

In logic, a valid argument is one where if the premises are true, the conclusion will be true. A fallacy is an invalid argument because the premises can be true but the conclusion can be false.┬áThere’s some fuzziness with the real world, since there’s uncertainty, but on that level, there are “cogent” arguments, where correct premises will lead to the conclusion most likely being true. Fallacies undermine the cogency of an argument for the same reasons. In many cases, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises at all. There’s no connection between P and Q. It’s a non-sequitur. Hence, rational people will favor valid or cogent (non-fallacious) arguments to reach conclusions and reject fallacious arguments.

Using logical fallacies is inherently unfair. It’s also like in math class when you don’t get any points on a question because you didn’t show your work. If you skip the process, the teacher is justified in suspecting you just stole the answer instead of actually working the problem. If you rely on logical fallacies, we’re justified in suspecting that your assertions are baseless and that your conclusions are likely to be wrong. People with a sense of fair play (and the requisite critical thinking skills) will call out fallacies because they’re a way to cheat your way to the illusion of a correct answer and a way to cheat your way past some people’s critical thinking abilities to convince them of the accuracy of an unsupported conclusion. Humans have cognitive biases that distort our thinking towards irrationality. Fallacies are often employed by propagandists and other deceivers precisely because they unfairly exploit our irrational tendencies.

The non-sequitur type fallacies are probably the best reason why Mariah moderates her comments. As much as I like to roast trolls at times, it’s often pointless because they simply won’t learn what they’re doing wrong, and many readers will just roll their eyes as they try to dominate the topic while everyone else tries to convince the troll that he’s wrong on a seemingly obvious and fundamental level. The trolls will just spin their wheels and double down on their insanity without actually contributing anything meaningful to the discussion, forcing the others to either dwell on a PRATT (Point Refuted A Thousand Times) or let the troll get the last word in and have the illusion of victory and unearned self-esteem. It can be quite draining and distract from thoughtful comments that might get skipped over as a result of the troll’s inability to learn basic logic.

It really sickens me that society has been lax in combating fallacious modes of thought. Many so-called “journalists” will happily let people say pretty much any absurd thing unchallenged and unquestioned in the name of “balance” against rational positions, rather than do the critical thinking, research, and investigation involved in their job. Politicians happily employ fallacies in the form of propaganda. Religions demand special exemptions from rational scrutiny. I often wonder if the problem’s getting worse, and/or if I’m becoming more aware of it.

Now, to some popular fallacies, why they’re stupid, and why you should naturally feel ashamed of yourself if you rely on them.

Ad hominem: Attacking the arguer instead of his arguments. It’s one of the big favorites, and it’s worth pointing out that insults are not necessarily ad hominems. “Your argument is wrong because X, Y, and Z, and you’re an idiot because you didn’t realize that” is not a fallacious ad hominem. The ‘idiot’ part is a largely pointless (though sometimes stress-relieving) side conclusion. It does not affect the refutation it’s packaged with. “Your argument is wrong because you live in your mom’s basement” is fallacious. Before you try to badly mimic a critical thinker and sling the phrase around as if it were a magical totem, think. Oh, and welcome to the internet. If you can’t take a few side insults along with the meat of the argument, you’re probably not mature enough to be arguing with adults. This goes double if you’re going to waste the other commentator’s time by whining about the tone and nothing else, trying to halt serious discussion while you go on about your overly delicate feelings. Grow up. If you want to change our minds, do the mature thing and address the meat of the argument before doing any pointless stuff. Or how about doing one better and not doing the pointless part at all? If you’re civil, that will more likely encourage civil tone.

Straw Man: A favorite of politicians as well as woos. The popular metaphor is the image of two combatants; one combatant hastily constructs a straw effigy of his opponent, commences to pummel the straw man into oblivion without touching his real opponent, and then declares victory. Simply put, this is about attacking an argument your opponent never made or attacking a position he never asserted. It makes you look closed-minded because you don’t want to deal with reality. It tells people you’d rather play softball with figments of your imagination than challenge yourself. Oh, and asking a question about someone’s position isn’t a straw man, it’s a question. So many trolls seem to assume that we just know what they believe and that every request for clarification is actually intentional, malicious disinformation. If you don’t know what a person’s position is, ask and listen. Then you can start constructing criticisms based on what they actually say, not merely rehearse a script.

Argumentum ad Populum / Appeal to popularity: Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true. Epistemology isn’t American Idol. Truth isn’t determined by popular vote or by fashion. The world wasn’t flat until scientists convinced enough people it was round. What’s sick is that I’ve seen trolls use this fallacy and then call skeptics sheep when they start pointing out their fallacies as a result of thinking about it. Of course, there’s something of a hipster reversal of this fallacy, where a troll assumes that popular or consensus ideas must be wrong because they’re popular or consensus and that we must bow down to how superior and independent-thinking he is for subscribing to the most obscure belief we’ve never heard of, even if it is completely baseless.

Appeal to Authority: Here’s a tricky one that trolls never learn the nuance about. If you’re under a time crunch, it’s okay to accept the word of a recognized expert. If I’m severely injured and rapidly losing blood, I’ll trust the paramedics and doctors to do their job. If there’s no time crunch, however, the appeal can become fallacious because it becomes unnecessary. In your typical blog conversation, there’s no pressing deadline, so we don’t have to bow down before an alleged expert’s assertions. That’s when we get into the nitty-gritty details. The real authority is in the diligence of the experiments and observations and the logic behind interpreting the results, not the guy with the most letters after his name. We don’t treat anyone as an absolute authority or divine, infallible prophet. Ironically, I find a lot of trolls who try to assert that skeptics use this fallacy are more often projecting their own authoritarian tendencies, since they’ll often offer up an alternative expert, complain when we dare to question his magnificence, and go on to pretend the whole thing is a clash of two titans of light and darkness, not about logic or the steady accumulation of quality evidence by an entire world full of scientists.

It’s frustrating knowing that so many people out there don’t understand the basics of how to argue, and prefer to rely on cheats and volume to get their way. So many are raised in segments of society that coddle ideas and shelter people instead of striving for something better.

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9 responses to “Why Fallacies are Stupid

  1. This is an excellent post, Bronze Dog! Familiarity with logical fallacies is a good way to cut through the BS! I’m still scratching my head that someon would complain about disallowing logical fallacies in defense of Esther Hicks.

  2. One gets the impression that the trolls don’t realize that fallacies are called that for a reason.

    Anyway, on the Argument from Authority: The people who like to use it seem to assume that expertise in one field = expertise in everything. I read Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True and came across an excellent counterexample. Coyne’s expertise is in biology; he completely fails at the history of the Roman Catholic church.

    Basically, he was discussing biogeography and mentioned that the guy who figured out the ordering of fossils in rock strata was a Catholic monk. He then goes on to state that monk was canonized in, IIRC, 1986. The obvious problem with that statement was that he named the alleged canonizing pope and it wasn’t John Paul II. Some googling around yielded two tidbits that Coyne got wrong: 1) the pope he named held office one hundred years before JPII and 2) JPII didn’t canonize the monk in question; he beatified him.

  3. I first learned about these fallacies when begining to examine skeptical liturature. I’m glad because now I will recognise when one of these perfectly natural fallacies is being used to support a dying theory (some theories long-dead but still earning believers).
    However, when bringing up these facts of thinking and motives for belief, those I am trying to teach are so defensive and angry that I might be fighting their valued data.
    When my family are having fun debating each other and I approach, someone always says, “Oh No! Here comes Woody with his knowledge of logical fallacies!” I’ve tried to help them understand that these things are common to people and that I’m not immune to them myself, but to them they are just a critical thinker’s weapon against their arguments and nothing more.
    I will continue, less obviously, to help them understand the natural appeal of these fallacies, how they are a part of us all and how knowing and avoiding them strengthens our case and understanding.

  4. I often wonder why woos don’t learn to throw in the odd “maybe” or “perhaps” into their diatribes. I know why New Age teachers don’t do that — it makes them sound less certain and therefore less marketable. But it wouldn’t hurt normal every day woos to get into the habit of acknowledging the extent and limits of their knowledge.

    (P.S. Heartfelt congratulations, Bronze Dog!)

  5. it’s cheap just to say ‘that’s a logical fallacy’ when it’s someone’s opinion. logic and emotion don’t always mix. if all you can say as a response is a list of fallacies you should probably improve your debating skills a bit. personally, i’m tired of hearing how my opinion is a fallacy because they don’t agree with it.. that’s bullshit.

    • It sounds like you’ve failed to grasp the whole idea of fallacies and are just whining that people don’t instantly agree with you or take your word for things.

      An argument using a logical fallacy is invalid. With a fallacious argument, the premises can be true, but the conclusion can still be false (for reasons other than probability). That’s why it’s a bad idea to accept a conclusion that was reached through the use of fallacies. Logical fallacies are a unit that bullshit can be measured in, and knowledge of logical fallacies is a powerful tool for detecting lies, another unit of bullshit.

      Why bring emotion into this? What is your specific complaint about the intersection between emotion and logic? I can’t read your mind, so I can’t understand what you’re trying to say without making wild guesses.

      If you’re talking about opinions, you need to clarify what kind of opinion you’re talking about. Some types of “opinions” are actually facts and/or predictions, like whether policy A will be more effective than policy B. Some opinions are indeed just emotionally based, like whether you like flavor A more than flavor B, and thus logic and evidence aren’t involved.

      • i know exactly what fallacies are but i’m just tired of you snarny people coming in with some stupid list of things that allegedly ‘prove’ i’m wrong simply because they don’t agree with what i had to say. i like Obama (and i’m white) yet every time i agree with something he did and explain why some right wing hack comes in to say my argument was wrong because of the big list of fallacies. my opinion is my opinion, my version of logic is my own, there is no ‘ultimate logic’ or ‘ultimate knowledge’.. everything is subjective.

    • Wingnuts. Figures. Most likely, you’ve gotten a bad example in the form of insane troll logic. In my experience, they just parrot the phrases without the slightest understanding of what they mean, trying to look intellectual. It’s cargo cult science and logic, grasping at the trappings while losing the substance. I’ve long suspected they’re fans of the “no objective truth” anti-epistemology, given that they’re typically more interested in what’s politically convenient, rather than what science says. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen a lot of right wing and libertarian rhetoric coming from various woos, particularly alties.

      Here’s the thing: There is an objective truth, but there is a subjective layer where we use our emotions to determine what we want out of the universe, defining morality and other abstract ideas that determine what we do with our knowledge. We can’t grasp the entire truth or perfect knowledge because of our limitations as human beings, including being an inseparable part of the universe, but we use science to get increasingly accurate approximations of the truth.

  6. I just want to say that it isn’t always the case that the use of an informal fallacy means an argument is incorrect. If they use a formal fallacy such as denying the antecedent that invalidates an argument but informal fallacies don’t work like that. They merely point out potential issues or lazy arguing, they still could be logically sound though.

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