Chapter 4 Fallacies

Fallacies

There are many different ways our reasoning can be flawed, but some of these mistakes are so common that they have names. This chapter explores fallacies, inhabitants of the often ridiculous but not always obvious world of flawed reasoning.

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fallacy is a type of flawed reasoning, while a fallacious argument is an argument that commits a fallacy. There are two great reasons to study fallacies: to prevent yourself from being fooled by them, and to prevent yourself from committing them unintentionally.

Ground Rules

· Fallacies can be found in both deductive and inductive arguments.

· Fallacies can seem very plausible and, when undetected, are often persuasive.

· The presence of a fallacy doesn’t necessarily mean the conclusion is false. It just means that the logic is flawed and so the argument isn’t compelling.

Tips for Spotting Fallacies

· Become familiar with the common ones.

· Evaluate assumptions in an argument.

· Find the conclusion, and then ask yourself if the premises are relevant to it.

· Look for things in the argument that distract your attention from the main point.

Common Fallacies

For the rest of the chapter, we are going to explore 12 of the most common fallacies.

1. Red herring: fallacy in which the arguer raises an irrelevant side issue to distract the opponent or audience from what is really at stake.

I don’t know why you’re arguing that working a full day on Saturday drains you and makes you less productive in the work week. You should consider yourself lucky—before there were unions, factory laborers would have to work 14 hours a day for six days a week!

Bringing up the conditions of factory workers in pre-union days is mostly irrelevant to the opponent’s main point that a full day of work on Saturday reduces productivity for the following week.

2. Appeal to popularity: fallacy in which the arguer attempts to bolster his or her argument by mentioning that “everybody” (or a large group of people) shares the same belief, preference, or habit.

Diane, getting an iPhone will make your life better. I mean, look around—practically everyone in America has an iPhone by this point!

The fact that millions of people own iPhones is not a logically sound reason to believe that buying one will make Diane’s life better.

3. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: fallacy in which the arguer assumes that because there is a correlation between two events (i.e., one preceded the other), then the first must have caused the second. The phrase is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”

In the years after nutrition facts were added to food packaging, obesity rates in the United States rose higher than ever before. Therefore, listing nutrition facts causes people to get fatter.

Even though the rise in obesity rates happened to coincide with the new practice of listing nutrition facts, no logical reason is offered as to why one might have caused the other.

4. Appeal to ignorance: fallacy in which the arguer claims that because something cannot be proven false, it must be true unless the opponent can disprove the conclusion.

Well, you can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster DOESN’T exist, can you? So until then, we can assume that the beast is real.

The individual making this argument attempts to sidestep the responsibility of providing evidence to support the existence of the Loch Ness Monster by wrongly shifting the burden of proof to his or her opponent.

Answer the following questions about the material above.

Short Answer Question

In the aftermath of a shooting at a local high school, Helen starts a movement to ban the fluoridation of water in the community. She uses statistics that demonstrate how more school shootings have occurred in the years since fluoride was added to the water. Assuming that this is the only evidence she provides in her argument, explain what fallacy Helen is committing and why her argument doesn’t work.

Does the presence of a fallacy in the above argument automatically prove that the conclusion is false? Explain your answer.

Deborah argues that it would help the environment if Ron recycled. Ron responds that the environmentalism movement has gotten politicized to the point that people often just support environmentalist policies based on party lines. Explain what the red herring is in Ron’s fallacy.

Why is it a fallacious argument to assume that just because something extraordinary can’t be proven false, then it must be true?

· because there’s never any reason to believe in something that you have not directly experienced

· because the burden of proof is shifted away from the person making the extraordinary claim

· because science has already figured out essentially everything there is to know about the natural world

· because someone someday might be able to definitively prove it false

In your opinion, are there ever any situations in which appealing to popularity (i.e., arguing that everyone else is doing it) is an appropriate justification for an action? Explain your answer.

 

Practice: Fallacies

Prehistoric Theories of Causation

At what point in human history did people start explaining the world around them, and at what point did the first person catch logical flaws in the explanations provided? While no one can know for sure, the following video offers a light-hearted imagining of what it must have been like to be the world’s first critical thinker.

Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

YouTube video. https://youtu.be/g1X1FOZmmVA. Uploaded August 3, 2012, by the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. To activate captions, first click the play button and then click the CC button in the embedded player. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

Why does Cooter’s reasoning that peeing on the fire would make animals easier to catch commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc?

· Just because the events of peeing in the fire and successfully hunting were correlated, that doesn’t mean one caused the other.

· Since Cooter has never peed on a fire before hunting in the past, he has no reason to believe that it would increase his chances of success.

· When Cooter peed on the fire and then went hunting in the past, he actually hunted fewer animals.

· Occ has scientific evidence to show that peeing on the fire makes animals harder to catch.

Multiple Choice Question

After Cooter explains his reasoning for why fire is orange and Occ asks him how he could possibly know whether any of it is true, Cooter responds, “How do you know it ain’t?” Which fallacy is Cooter committing here?

· post hoc ergo propter hoc

· begging the question

· appeal to popularity

· appeal to ignorance

Multiple Choice Question

Cooter makes an appeal to popularity when he claims that he knows his fire theory is true because he and his friends voted on it, and since everyone believes it is true, it must be true. What problem does Occ identify in this reasoning?

· The laws of nature simply exist, regardless of the consensus opinion.

· Cooter is unable to present any evidence that his friends did indeed vote in agreement with him.

· Cooter’s friends aren’t intelligent, so their opinions are irrelevant.

· There is no way that the handful of people who voted with Cooter is representative of the opinions of everyone in the world.

Short Answer Question

Occ accuses Cooter of falling prey to confirmation bias when Cooter argues that peeing in the fire helped him bag more deer because it “worked every time, except for the few times it didn’t.” Explain why this is confirmation bias.

While Cooter’s theories about fire and hunting are clearly absurd, what contemporary beliefs do you think this video might be implicitly criticizing?

More Fallacies

Another four common reasoning errors are described below.

5. Straw man: fallacy in which the arguer sets up a vulnerable version of his or her opponent’s position and then presents evidence to knock down the distorted position.

I know some of you may have heard arguments from the pro-life side, where they want to strip women of all rights and forbid the sale of birth control, but hopefully my argument will reveal why that’s so irrational.

This argument describes the pro-life side of the abortion debate in a very exaggerated way that is not characteristic of the side as a whole but is thus easier to persuade the audience to oppose.

6. Begging the question: fallacy in which the argument relies on a premise that resembles the conclusion, depends on the conclusion, or is as controversial as the conclusion.

Taking Thin Bod diet pills will help you burn off countless pounds because Thin Bod diet pills are the best dietary supplement out there for helping you lose weight.

See how the conclusion that the diet pills “will help you burn off countless pounds” is supported solely by the claim that they “are the best … for helping you lose weight”? It sounds like an argument, but it’s really just the same claim twice. That’s “begging the question.”

7. Ad hominem: fallacy in which the arguer attacks his or her opponent’s personal characteristics, qualifications, or circumstances instead of the argument presented. The phrase is Latin for “to the man.”

Don’t listen to anything that Terence says about the negative health effects of smoking. He’s one to talk—he’s a smoker himself!

Is it possible for Terence to make a valid argument about the ill effects of smoking and to also be a smoker? Sure. So this counter-argument offers nothing in the way of compelling evidence—it just attacks Terence as a non-credible source.

8. Weak analogy: fallacy in which the arguer uses a comparison to support his or her argument, but the two things being compared are not similar enough for the comparison to be relevant.

Mom, you shouldn’t punish me for breaking curfew. Punishing people always makes things worse, just like when the Allied nations punished Germany for World War I, and then World War II happened.

A teenage child and a WWI-era nation are not alike in enough relevant ways for one to logically assume that punishments will cause negative results in both cases.

Answer the following questions about the material above.

Multiple Choice Question

Nolan argues that the reason so many people are watching a particular new reality show is that “it’s the hottest and most popular show on television right now.” Which of the following fallacies is he committing?

· begging the question

· ad hominem

· weak analogy

· straw man

Multiple Choice Question

Tyrone tries to persuade his friends not to believe in evolution because “evolutionists all believe it’s impossible for there to be any higher power or spirituality in the world and say there’s no more meaning to life except for the fact that we all used to be monkeys.” What fallacy is Tyrone committing here?

· weak analogy

· slippery slope

· straw man

· red herring

Short Answer Question

Father McDowell presents an anti-abortion argument in which he argues that life begins at conception and that scientific studies have demonstrated that fetuses can feel pain. Roger responds to this argument by saying, “You can’t listen to Father McDowell—he’s biased because he’s a Catholic priest, so he has to be against abortion!” Explain why Roger’s statement fails to adequately rebut Father McDowell’s argument.

Julio is trying to get his friend Megan to upgrade her flip phone to a smartphone. He tells her that not having a smartphone in this day and age would be like driving a horse and buggy in the 1930s when the rest of the world had upgraded to automobiles. Do you think the parallels between driving a horse and buggy in the 1930s and using a flip phone in the 2010s are strong enough for the analogy to be persuasive, or do you think Julio is committing the fallacy of weak analogy? Explain your answer.

 

Practice: More Fallacies

Fallacies in Policy Discussions

Should funding for schools be dependent on standardized test scores?

Was it right for the United States to get involved in the war in Iraq?

Should the United States outlaw the death penalty?

Whenever you’re reading or watching a discussion about a controversial issue, an ability to pick out fallacies in arguments is a valuable skill. As discussed before, the presence of a fallacy in an argument doesn’t necessarily mean the argument’s conclusion is false… but it might indicate that a particular premise offered doesn’t hold water, and more evidence might be needed before the argument can be considered strong or valid.

The first video below shows a clip from ABC News in which George Stephanopoulos interviews Barack Obama regarding a comment Sarah Palin made about his nuclear weapons policy. The second video features a clip from The Colbert Report in which Stephen Colbert interviews Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and a proponent of the legalization of marijuana.

Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

Obama Slams Palin

YouTube video. https://youtu.be/AppHOYxpquQ . Uploaded April 10, 2010, by NewsPoliticsInfo. To activate captions, first click the play button and then click the CC button in the embedded player. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

Assuming that George Stephanopoulos has not quoted Sarah Palin out of context, Palin’s comment likening Obama’s nuclear policy to a child on a playground begging to be punched can be BEST described as an example of which fallacy?

· ad hominem

· begging the question

· false dichotomy

· weak analogy

Multiple Choice Question

When George Stephanopoulos asks Obama to respond to Palin’s criticism, instead of addressing her argument, he says, “Last time I checked, Sarah Palin is not much of an expert on nuclear issues.” His response can be BEST described as an example of which fallacy?

· ad hominem

· begging the question

· weak analogy

· straw man

·

·

Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

· Ethan Nadelmann on the Colbert Report

Comedy Central video. http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/zhiu9l/ethan-nadelmann . Aired April 30, 2009, on the Colbert Report. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

Summarize the conclusion of Nadelmann’s primary argument, as well as at least two premises that he uses to support it.

Colbert opens the interview by summarizing Nadelmann’s argument to the audience, saying, “Ethan, you say we should legalize drugs and that would solve all of our problems. Go on. Sell ‘em on the idea of giving weed to my kids.” Explain how this is a straw man fallacy by describing what Nadelmann’s argument really is and how it differs from Colbert’s interpretation.

When Nadelmann admits that he has “smoked the occasional joint” and Colbert concludes, “So you are a criminal, and none of your arguments have validity now,” what fallacy is Colbert utilizing?

· straw man

· weak analogy

· ad hominem

· post hoc ergo propter hoc

Multiple Choice Question

When Nadelmann supports his argument with statistics about how many Americans, Democrats, or members of the audience support the movement to legalize marijuana, what fallacy is he committing?

· begging the question

· weak analogy

· ad hominem

· appeal to popularity

Even More Fallacies

To wrap up this chapter, the final four fallacies that commonly occur in arguments are given below.

9. Appeal to emotion: fallacy in which the arguer tries to persuade the audience by arousing feelings such as pity, fear, patriotism, flattery, etc., in lieu of presenting rational arguments.

Picture it: a little boy named Nicholas, eight years old, not going to school because he has to work in a sweatshop. Instead of daydreaming about playing soccer with his friends like most boys his age, he’s worried about making enough money to feed his baby sister. That’s why you need to support our charity that provides aid to developing countries—to help little boys like Nicholas live a life of potential.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a charity ad trying to gain the sympathy of its audience… the problem is that it’s not enough. The inclusion of the phrase “that’s why” suggests that an argument is present, but the ad doesn’t provide any reasoning that this particular charity will help children like Nicholas. Everything may be true as described, and it may well be the case that donations to the organization will end up helping Nicholas. But there is no reasoning here, just an appeal to the reader’s sense of pity.

10. Unqualified authority: fallacy in which the arguer tries to get people to agree by appealing to the reputation of someone who is not an expert in the field or otherwise qualified to give evidence that something is true.

My ear doctor, who has two PhDs and is very smart, recommended this stock to me, so I think it’s safe to invest in it.

Although the ear doctor’s credentials may give him authority to speak on matters of aural health, this argument offers no reason to believe that he has exceptional expertise in the area of financial investments.

11. Slippery slope: fallacy in which the arguer suggests that one event is going to spark a chain of events leading up to an undesirable outcome, even when there is no logical reason to believe that the first event will most likely cause that chain of events.

We can’t allow homosexuals to get married. Next thing you know, they’ll be allowing polygamous marriages, and then they’ll be letting people marry animals!

The arguer does not offer sufficient evidence to demonstrate that legalizing marriages between two people of the same sex will lead to marriages between people and animals.

While arguments that invoke a slippery slope line of reasoning are often fallacious, they are not necessarily so. It’s up to the critical thinker to decide whether the continuum of steps from A to Z is plausible enough to persuade the audience that if A happens, Z will inevitably occur.

12. False dichotomy: fallacy in which the arguer inaccurately portrays a circumstance as having a limited number of possible outcomes, thus setting up an either-or situation with the intent of presenting one of those alternatives as drastically more preferable.

Do you want to buy a hybrid car, or do you want to live a life of environmental wastefulness and ignorance?

dichotomy is a division of two things that are very different or opposites of each other. Are these the only two options? If not, that’s a false dichotomy. In this case, because it’s easy to imagine alternative situations where a person lives an environmentally conscious life without the purchase of a hybrid vehicle (riding a bike, recycling, using public transportation, etc.), the dichotomy presented is a false one.

Answer the following questions about the material above.

Multiple Choice Question

Madeleine says, “Standardized testing does more harm than good in the education system,” and then she cites a single authority for where she got this information. You could make the MOST persuasive case that Madeleine was guilty of the fallacy of unqualified authority if her source was which of the following?

· a summer-camp counselor who leads horseback-riding activities for 10-to-12-year-old girls

· a researcher who recently completed a study about standardized testing

· a recently retired middle-school math teacher with 30 years of teaching experience

· a professor of education who was quoted in a peer-reviewed article

Multiple Choice Question

Kyle is an anti-vaccine advocate who brings up evidence of instances when specific vaccines have resulted in health problems, and then he poses the question, “Do we allow doctors to administer dangerous vaccines, or do we eliminate the harmful practice of vaccination?” What fallacy is Kyle committing?

· ad hominem

· unqualified authority

· false dichotomy

· appeal to emotion

Top of Form

Consider the following argument:

 

Kids should develop reading habits from an early age. Kids who don’t read are more likely to fall behind in school. Kids who fall behind in school are more likely to drop out before they graduate. And kids who don’t graduate from high school will have a much harder time getting a well-paying job than those with a diploma.

 

Would you consider this to be a fallacious use of a slippery slope argument? Explain your answer.

 

Give an example of a time when either you or someone you know has been persuaded to do or believe something because of emotional appeals rather than pure reason.

Practice: Even More Fallacies

Put Up Your Hooves

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of opinionated voices on television weighing in on highly controversial issues like immigration. The trick is figuring out how to separate credible experts from unqualified authorities, proven facts from hasty generalizations, and sound arguments from fallacious ones. In the following clip from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart discusses immigration with “Resident Expert” John Hodgman.

Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

Comedy Central video. http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/9hryow/immigrant-disease. Aired June 28, 2007, on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

Read Text Version

Multiple Choice Question

Throughout the video, John Hodgman puts fake prestigious titles in front of the names of the “television experts” he cites (e.g., referring to Newt Gingrich as “Noble Laureate Gingrich” or Pat Buchanan as “Dr. Buchanan”). Considering that this is satire, which of the following is MOST likely his point?

· to make fun of how opinionated experts with academic degrees are

· to draw attention to the fact that our appeals to expert authority are often misplaced

· to suggest that “television experts” are usually well educated with numerous academic accomplishments

· to imply that people who speak on television are usually the best authorities on any issue

Multiple Choice Question

Consider the following argument:

Premise: If we let people immigrate into the country illegally, they might bring diseases like leprosy.

Premise: If leprosy gets into this country, it will spread and become an epidemic.

Premise: If a leprosy epidemic breaks out, it will lead to the majority of Americans losing fingers.

Conclusion: Therefore, illegal immigration will lead to the majority of Americans losing fingers.

Which fallacy does this argument BEST illustrate?

· false dichotomy

· appeal to emotion

· unqualified authority

· slippery slope fallacy

Multiple Choice Question

John Hodgman cites a number of individuals to support his argument that immigrants carry disease, but when Jon Stewart points out a 60 Minutes report that discredits many of Hodgman’s claims, Hodgman dismisses the report as “typical limousine leper propaganda.” What type of bias is Hodgman guilty of here?

· expectation bias

· anchoring bias

· confirmation bias

· self-serving bias

Short Answer Question

Jon Stewart suggests that bringing disease into the immigration debate is just a scare tactic. Using one of the video clips Hodgman cites, give an example of a way that emotions are appealed to in the arguments presented.

Multiple Choice Question

In the interview, Jon Stewart and John Hodgman ridicule Pat Buchanan’s position on immigration based on the fact that he’s Irish-American. This is an example of which fallacy?

· appeal to ignorance

· false dichotomy

· appeal to popularity

· ad hominem

The straw man fallacy occurs when the arguer presents an extreme version of the opposing position in order to make it easier to attack or ridicule. Do you believe that Stewart and Hodgman are attacking a straw man version of one side of the immigration debate, or are they making a fair critique of common beliefs and hypocrisy? Explain your answer.