UG6: Fallacies

“For the most part people succumb to fallacies not because they are being illogical, but rather because of their emotional attachment to the conclusion."


A particular focus of our thinking, although we are often not conscious of it, is the use of logical arguments, whereby we use some information we have to draw some particular conclusion. However there are valid or reasonable ways in which conclusions can be drawn from known information and there are invalid or unreasonable ways. The invalid or unreasonable ways are what are called fallacies, and as with cognitive biases there are many of them, and they have been understood for many thousands of years.

Learning the names of particular fallacies will help you more readily spot them, and help you be more precise with others should you engage with them on the validity or reasonableness of an argument.

Fallacies are commonplace, but can be difficult to spot. They are particularly difficult to spot when spoken. If someone’s logic in support of an argument appears to be flawed, then it probably is. If it is important that you understand whether or not a given argument is valid or reasonable, then get it written down, simplify it as much as you can to reduce it to its essential form, and then check it for fallacies.

The following are some of the more common fallacies:
'The Fallacy of Accident'
The applying of a general rule inappropriately to a particular case that is outside the scope of the general rule.

We simplify ideas for practical everyday purposes, which is ok for practical everyday purposes, but our simplifications are not necessarily absolutely true in all circumstances and thus we should not abuse the simplification. Birds can fly is a simplification, but there are some birds that cannot.
'Argument By Selective Observation'
Counting the hits and ignoring the misses. Specific examples of this fallacy include the Fallacy of Suppressed Evidence, where some particular evidence is ignored, and the Fallacy of Confirmation Bias, where only evidence that supports an argument is sought or presented.

This, in significant part, is why there seems to be continually contradictory advice about what is good for you. Large numbers of tests are continually being undertaken and they will throw up many different outcomes just be chance. The vast majority give ‘boring’ results which confirm what we already know, but occasionally a result is counter to that expected, and the media then jumps on it as being ‘newsworthy’. After a brief flurry of interest we never hear of it again, as the follow up studies then support the ‘boring’ expected results which are then no longer newsworthy.

It is estimated that up 20% of study results in scientific journals are based on ‘false positives’ whereby they have been selected because they provide ‘interesting’ results, but the results themselves are only ‘statistically significant’ by chance.
‘“Ad Hominem”, Argument To The Man’
Where it is the person who is making the argument that is attacked rather than the argument itself, ‘Who would believe a man who …’. Such statements are usually irrelevant to the argument. Only if the person’s credibility is itself part of the argument - where for example they ask us to believe something because they are an expert - is it valid to then question whether they are truly an expert in the matter under consideration.

This is a fairly obvious ploy to spot but can be effective nonetheless. It is particularly effective in an emotionally charged environment since negative feelings are readily transferred from a person to a general rejection of anything they have to say.

Keep in mind that even the most heinous people in history still believed many things that were factually correct.
‘An Appeal to Authority’
We are frequently asked to believe something because it is said by someone who is claimed to be an expert. And whilst indeed expert witness is often appropriate, it is not necessarily so, for example when the expert is not really an authority in this particular subject, or when the expert cannot be relied upon to be telling the truth, or when there is significant disagreement between experts on the matter in hand.

Whilst those in authority may have a certain coercive influence over what we do, the truth of what they say is not necessarily to be taken at face value. Many of those in authority are more concerned with getting us to do whatever it is they want us to do, than they are with truth. Be particularly wary of authoritarian or populist leaders in this regard.

As regards advertising, putting someone in a white coat and paying them does not turn them into an expert.
‘The Fallacy of False Balance’
The fact that there is some disagreement between experts is sometimes taken to be a proof that a matter is doubtful, such as in the case of climate change or of evolution. However where there is a vast majority of experts in favor, with supporting evidence, the fact that a few disagree does not make the issue doubtful. If those going contrary to the majority have strong evidence to support their claim, then this will eventually win out. In cases such as climate change and evolution however they blatantly don’t.

Don’t take the fact that there is an alternative view as proof that a given matter is questionable. There are always those who will give an alternative view. Consider the weight of evidence and also the extent to which there may be vested interests.
‘An Appeal to Consequence’
Arguing that we should believe something as true or false based on whether or not we find the consequences acceptable. Thus you might believe someone to be innocent because they are a close friend and it is inconceivable that a close friend would do such a thing.

This arises from a number of our cognitive biases whereby we don’t question what we believe to be true and close ourselves off to any evidence that might suggest otherwise. An appeal to consequence is a refusal to face up to uncomfortable facts. Remind yourself that facts are facts whether convenient or not. By all means question whether or not the facts really are so, but don’t reject them just because they are other than you would have liked them to be.
‘Appeal to Human Nature’
The claim that some general behavioral trait is built in to us as a result of our evolutionary past. And whilst some traits are, cognitive biases for example, and instinctive emotion responses to certain situations, those who use this appeal often do so for some prejudicial statement for which there is no objective evidence.

You can mostly counter an appeal to human nature by simply pointing it out that it isn’t true, particularly if the appeal is specific or moralistic. Moreover a statement that someone’s behavior is ‘against human nature’ is largely self-contradictory since presumably the someone is a human and they are behaving in accordance with their nature. There are clearly a wide variety of behaviors which humans are prone to, and whilst certain behaviors may be frowned upon in particular societies, there have likely been societies in the past when they have been accepted.
‘Ad ignorantiam, an Appeal to Ignorance’
An argument that basically states that a specific belief is true because we can’t prove that it isn’t true. It is used to unreasonably shift the burden of proof. There are many things that can't be proven not to be true, ranging from the eminently possible to the absolutely ridiculous. However just because something can't be disproven doesn't mean it is a reasonable thing to believe.

The simple counter to this argument is thus offering up some alternative beliefs which are blatantly ridiculous but which equally can’t be proven to be false. Bertrand Russel used the example of a small tea pot in orbit around Jupiter, however I’m sure you can find equally absurd examples of your own.
'Appeal to the People, Ad Populum'
To suggest that something is true because it is what most other people also believe. There have however been plenty of examples of popular opinions being wrong.

As a result of our cognitive biases, in particular those relating to group biases and a strong desire towards wanting to belong, we have a tendency to go along with prevailing opinions. False beliefs by the masses, the people, are not only possible, but are common, and can be readily created by charismatic leaders or through simple consistent constantly repeating messaging through the media and through advertising. Whilst what most people believe might be true, the fact that most people believe it is not a valid argument for why it is true.
'Appeal to Silence'
Because someone doesn’t say they disagree then it is taken as agreement.

There are many reasons why someone may not explicitly disagree with an argument which is other than an agreement. They may not have had time to respond or even realized they were being asked to. They may not want to say they disagree for reasons nothing to do with the argument itself. Whilst putting the emphasis on the other person to explicitly disagree is a technique often employed, it does not strengthen or prove the argument itself.
'Changing the Goalpost, or raising the bar'
Occurs when evidence is provided to support a claim, but it is then insisted that further evidence is required for a further more extreme claim. This is usually done in a way to distract attention from the fact that the initial claim has been demonstrated to be valid.

In such cases persistently return to the original claim and the desire to ‘finish’ that argument. Refuse to move on to any further argument, which you may or may not chose to engage in, until the initial argument is done with.
‘Fallacies of Composition and Division’
What is true of the whole is not necessarily true of the parts; and what is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. It is common in arguments to find people accidentally or purposefully using part of an argument to refer to individuals but their conclusion concerns the group, or vice versa. Thus a politician might argue that because a few people are abusing some particular system that the whole system should be scrapped.

Be on the look out for this type of argument. It is common for people to inappropriately attribute characteristics applicable to parts to the whole and vis-a-versa. That it is not true is obvious in examples such as the fact that a ‘whole’ often has characteristics the ‘parts’ don’t, a car for example has many characteristics we wouldn’t attribute to its parts. Or just because a nation behaves in a certain way this does not mean every person who is a member of the nation behaves that way.
‘The Fallacy of Distortion’
Where someone’s view is twisted to something other than what they intended in order to make it easier to attack. An example is the Straw Man Fallacy whereby an exaggerated or caricatured version of the intended argument is attacked.

As with the Fallacy of changing the Goalpost, it is important to stick to your guns with regards the original argument and reject out of hand the alternative version of the argument. Make clear that you are not arguing for the exaggerated or caricatured position, and reemphasize what it is that you are arguing and keep focused on that argument.
‘The Dope Pushers Defense’
The argument that if I don't do it, someone else will. It is an approach that leads to the lowest possible standards becoming the norm. We can and should consider those using such an argument for their own selfish ends as being morally corrupt and untrustworthy.

The ‘Dope Pushers Defense’ is not so much an argument as a personal justification for immoral behavior and should be seen as such. The fact that there are people in this world who will lie and cheat to get what they want is not a reason why we should also do so.
‘The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle’
The implicit assumption that there are only two alternatives when in fact there are more. For example, assuming Atheism is the only alternative to Fundamentalism, or that reckless spending is the only alternative to austerity. This fallacy is also sometimes called a False Dichotomy or False Dilemma.

It is generally relatively easy to point out that there are many shades of grey or even color between two alternatives, unless the alternatives are explicitly expressed as A or not-A, which they rarely are. However those who do think in simplistic ‘black and white’ terms are generally those of an extremist nature. Whilst you can clearly point out that the view of only two alternatives is almost certainly oversimplistic, this will probably not convince them.
'The Fallacy of False Analogy’
Having identified something in common between two things we then assume other things will also be common, without any particular evidence to justify it.

We can often be very creative in finding analogies between even very different things, in the sense of finding some characteristics we can argue are in common. However there is no reason to believe that therefore other characteristics must also be in common and we should challenge any claim that implicitly assumes they are.

Note however that a well-crafted analogy can create a powerful misleading impression which even if we know it to be logically incorrect can still stick in our minds and influence us.
'Argumentum ad Logicam, also known as the Fallacist’s Fallacy’
Occurs when as a result of finding a fallacy in an argument we assume that the conclusion is therefore false. This however is not the case. The conclusion has simply not been proven by that particular argument.

They said that Paul did it because a witness said they saw him outside the shop before the incident, but it turns out the witness was mistaken. Therefore Paul didn’t do it. This argument almost sounds persuasive, however it is invalid. The fact that the witness proved to be unreliable does not imply that Paul was innocent. If you spot this fallacy it is relatively easy to point it out by asking what is the evidence for the conclusion. In this case the argument that Paul is innocent because a witness misplaced him outside the shop clearly does not hold water.
'A Hasty Generalization'
The fallacy of taking a few instances, often personal experiences, as the basis for a general rule. In any hasty generalization the strength of an argument that is based on small sample sized is overestimated. A specific example is the Fallacy of Anecdotal Evidence where people give far greater weight to anecdotes than they do to statistical evidence.

This is a general cognitive bias that is then used as an argument. We present our personal experience as proof of a general belief, however different people have different personal experiences, and thus an argument of this type can be used by different people in support of different directly contradictory beliefs. Since an argument is seeking to establish a general truth or reasonable belief, then use of personal experiences, or a biased subset of information available does not provide the basis for a valid argument.
'Poisoning the Well’
Refers to the deliberate use of certain terms aimed at creating an atmosphere that is prejudicial against a particular argument or against the person who is making an argument.

This is a distracting technique which unfortunately is often effective, particular in spoken arguments since it elicits an emotional response which then prejudices the rationale assessment of an argument. Whilst you can and should point out the use of prejudicial terms the fact that they are being used is generally an indication that the party using them is not interested in the conduct of a rationale argument.
'Post Hoc ergo Propter Hoc’
Translates to “after this, therefore because of this”. Often referred to as the Post Hoc Fallacy, it relates to the frequent line of argument that ‘A occurred then B occurred, therefore A caused B’. People often fall into this fallacy when it is a regular occurrence, or when it suits what they want to believe. However there are other reasons why B may always follow or appear to follow A. Both events may themselves be the result of some other cause. Or it may be selective attention and we fail to notice that B often occurs even though A doesn’t, or A sometimes occurs when B doesn’t.

Be wary of assuming events that follow each other are necessarily causation, particularly if there is not a clear explanation for how and why one causes the other. In the absence of an explanation of the how and why then a belief that one event is causing another could well be little more than prejudice.
Whereby someone takes a possible explanation as though it is the only explanation; usually because it is of benefit to them or is what they would like to be the case.

Whenever you are presented with a possible explanation, always ask yourself is this the only or the best explanation. This is a habit you need to get into. Your brain won’t naturally question your rationalized explanations for events, it is something you need to trigger your brain to do. You have only so much mental energy through the day, so you don’t need to and can’t be questioning every instinctive thought you have, however sometimes you will find yourself rationalizing about something that is more important, and use the realization that it is more important to trigger yourself to question your explanation.

You will regularly see other people rationalizing. Again you can’t and shouldn’t question them every time they do so, however occasionally you can and should, by trying to open their mind to other possibilities. You may or may not be able to get them to do so, and your success in doing so may depend on the particular circumstances and how well you can get them to think more rationally without them becoming defensive.
'The Spotlight Fallacy’
The implicit assumption that all members of a group exhibit the same characteristics as a few prominent members or a visible subset.

Thus a group may have a few well known extremists and it is then argued that all members of the group are extremists. Such misrepresentations are common in the media, for example a poll taken of a biased subset of a group is portrayed as being representative of the wider group.

Remember that there is generally a great deal of diversity in any group, and beyond the defining characteristic of the group, there is unlikely to be any particular uniformity of opinion. So be wary whenever someone claims there is.
'The Fallacy of Tu Quoque’
Committed when we reject an argument because the arguer does not, or did not at some point in the past, practice what they preach. Whether they did or not is usually irrelevant to the validity or reasonableness of the argument itself.

There is often a right thing to do, irrespective of our ability to do it, and the fact that someone is unable to live up to their principles does not mean those principles are wrong. The fact that someone preaches something they do not practice, or have at some time in the past not practiced, does not make what they are preaching wrong. It is however a distraction, and whilst logically it may not be relevant to the argument, in practical influencing terms it is often very significant. One argument to counter a ‘you do not practice what you preach’ assertion, assuming it is true, is to claim you have learnt your lesson. This however is more convincing if it was sometime in the past, rather than appearing as though you have just recently been caught out.
'The Victim Fallacy'
When a person claims they are being discriminated because they are the member of a group that is sometimes prejudiced against, but with there being no evidence of biased prejudice. There are people who, if not performing well or who make a mistake, will shift the blame from their own poor performance or mistake to a claim that they are being victimized because they happen to belong to a particular group. Of course, prejudice is also very common: and you need to consider particular circumstances.

It can be difficult to differentiate true discrimination from victim fallacy, and those guilty of victim fallacy will readily play the discrimination card. However whilst discrimination undoubtedly exists, it is not everywhere. And whilst unconscious bias undoubtedly exists it is not, at least not in relatively liberal open societies, an overriding dominant feature of most people’s thought processes. In judging others it is important to keep to standards that are openly understood and fairly applied, and that a relatively objective measure is applied. This is particularly the case where we are judging those from a different background to ourselves, and we must err in giving the benefit of the doubt in that a certain amount of unconscious bias possibly will leak through when comparing those who are similar to ourselves with those who are different. Note that in many business settings it is generally to our longer-term advantage to have people around who are different to ourselves and able to give a different perspective.