Logical Fallacies (Part 1) and How to Avoid Them

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 27

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

The Human Mind is astonishingly complex, an impressive product of natural selection, and humanity’s greatest asset as a species. But if our brains had a “default mode,” it would be a power-saving mode labeled “Lazy thinking.” We naturally tend to prefer logical short-cuts, easy answers, and Ideas that “feel true,” even when they are false. This is why we are so easily hood-winked by smiling news reporters, fast-talking salesmen, pandering preachers, and anyone else who is eager to take advantage of our sloppy thinking. When our thinking is lazy, we tend to miss, fall for, and make logical fallacies. But what is a logical fallacy?

Defined by the amazing website, Yourfallacyis.com: “A logical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning. Logical fallacies are like tricks or illusions of thought, and they're often very sneakily used by politicians and the media to fool people. Don't be fooled!” In this episode, the first in a three-part series, we will look at the first eight of 24 common fallacies that can hinder an intellectually honest and productive conversation among truth-seekers and free-thinkers. After each fallacy, a more preferable option is suggested that we can all use in our next forums, conversations, and debates!

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Rene Descartes was a big fan of thinking. He said, in a sense, that we should question everything, and doubt even our strongest-held beliefs. He’s the guy behind the Cartesian plane you first saw in your algebra or geometry class. He was a major part of the Scientific Revolution and a founding father of modern philosophy. Descartes was an absolute genius and free-thinker (long before freethought was cool). Even at his level of mental prowess, I find it interesting that he still spent much of his time quietly reflecting, thinking, and meditating. He suggested that we would all be better off if we just gave ourselves time to think. I think he’s right. When I look at logical fallacies, I get the sense that these are all mistakes we make when we are in a hurry. As we look at eight of these fallacies today, I invite you to slow down and really give yourself time to think.

With a solid understanding of logical fallacies, you will be able to politely identify them when they are being used accidentally or intentionally. Doing so may allow a good-intentioned discussion to continue from the potential dead-ends caused by these examples of sloppy thinking.

Rather than looking only at the logical fallacies we or others may make, we will also consider what the better option would be in each case. For the most productive and intellectually honest discussions, these favorable behaviors should be followed as much as possible.

Many of the definitions and examples used in this podcast come from yourlogicalfallacyis.com, an amazing tool created by the School of Thought organization. Be sure to check their website out. If you like what you see, I strongly encourage you to send them a donation.

1. Strawman

This is when someone’s argument is misrepresented to make it easier to attack. By exaggerating, misrepresenting, or just completely fabricating someone's argument, it's much easier to present one’s own position as being reasonable, but this kind of dishonesty serves to undermine honest rational debate.

After Will said that we should put more money into health and education, Warren responded by saying that he was surprised that Will hates our country so much that he wants to leave it defenseless by cutting military spending.

To keep from committing the strawman fallacy, why not try “steelmaning” your opponent’s argument instead? If you find yourself disagreeing with someone, pause, and see if you can rephrase their argument in the most generous way possible. If you do that well enough, the other person will feel like you “get it.” This allows them to relax and open-up a little to what you have to say. But if you cut them off and immediately jump into the argument with both feet, then they will probably feel like you never understood what they had to say in the first place.

I think that the best way to steelman someone is by following Rapoport’s Rules. Daniel Dennett (an American Scientist and Philosopher) shares the following four rules that can help in his book “Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking.” These rules are summarized from those given originally by Russian-American mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If we could all get into the habit of steelmanning the ideas of those with whom we disagree, we will come off as much more reasonable, open-minded, and fair.

2. False Cause

If someone presumes that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other, they have committed the “false cause fallacy.” Many people confuse correlation (things that happen at around the same time) for causation (that one thing actually causes the other to happen). Sometimes correlation is coincidental, or it may be attributable to a common cause.

Pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the numbers of pirates have been decreasing; thus pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax.

Remember that “Correlation is not Causation." Just because one thing seems like it causes another, that doesn’t mean it does. If more violent crimes take place when ice cream sales are high, does that mean that ice cream causes more violent crimes? If a group of people dance and a rainstorm takes place soon after, does that mean the rain dance worked? Of course not.

Even though these examples sound silly, they represent a real problem. We are so easily tricked by fancy advertisements that make these false connections. I especially see this fallacy made with alternative medicines and pseudoscientific claims. The next time you hear someone say that one thing MUST have caused the other, I hope that you maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. If something does indeed lead to another, it should be something that can be demonstrated, not just supposed. Demand to see the evidence. If there is no evidence, then you are probably dealing with yet another case of correlation, not causation.

3. Slippery-slope

This is when people say that if we allow A to happen, then Z will eventually happen too; therefore A should not happen. The problem with this reasoning is that it avoids engaging with the issue at hand, and instead shifts attention to extreme hypotheticals. Because no proof is presented to show that such extreme hypotheticals will in fact occur, this fallacy has the form of an appeal to emotion fallacy by leveraging fear. In effect, the argument at hand is unfairly tainted by unsubstantiated conjecture.

Colin Closet asserts that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, then the next thing we know we'll be allowing people to marry their parents, their cars, and even monkeys.

How can we avoid making the slippery-slope fallacy? Try this: Only make a case if there is a precedent. Has this one thing led to another in the past? Did that lead to yet another thing? If so - bring it up! Be ready to give evidence or examples and establish that “this has happened before.” If it hasn’t happened before, then you should be open about that. Admit that your argument is only conjecture, or just keep it to yourself. It is intellectually dishonest to scare people into agreeing with you because you made-up an unrealistic chain of events.

4. Ad Hominem

When a person attacks their opponent's character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument, then they have made this fallacy. Ad hominem attacks can take the form of overtly attacking somebody, or more subtly casting doubt on their character or personal attributes as a way to discredit their argument. The result of an “ad hom” attack can be to undermine someone's case without actually having to engage with it.

After Sally presents an eloquent and compelling case for a more equitable taxation system, Sam asks the audience whether we should believe anything from a woman who isn't married, was once arrested, and smells a bit weird.

In my opinion, Ad Hominem is one of the most cowardly and underhanded tricks people use to get out of having to really address the issues. It’s a distraction tactic. I see this all of the time on social media. So how can we avoid doing the same? Here is a great rule to live by: Only Attack Ideas, Not People. People have inherent worth and rights. Ideas do not. Don’t let the conversation get personal. Attacking a person is always off limits, but their IDEAS - their ideas are fair game. We should allow ourselves to criticize all claims and ideas, no matter who said them. Good ideas can take a beating. Bad ideas deserve to be beat!

5. Special Pleading

This is when someone moves the goalposts or makes up an exception when their claim was shown to be false. Humans are funny creatures and have a foolish aversion to being wrong. Rather than appreciate the benefits of being able to change one's mind through better understanding, many will invent ways to cling to old beliefs. One of the most common ways that people do this is to post-rationalize a reason why what they thought to be true must remain to be true. It's usually very easy to find a reason to believe something that suits us, and it requires integrity and genuine honesty with oneself to examine one's own beliefs and motivations without falling into the trap of justifying our existing ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us.

Edward Johns claimed to be psychic, but when his 'abilities' were tested under proper scientific conditions, they magically disappeared. Edward explained this saying that one had to have faith in his abilities for them to work.

I see people moving the goal posts a lot when trying to believe in intelligent design. “Ha-ha,” they may say, “but there is no missing link between apes and humans.” Soon after, we find a fossil that comes from a creature that fits that description perfectly. But then the same intelligent design proponent says, “well where is the missing link between that fossil and humans?” You see, no matter how much evidence you throw at them, they will always demand more. This is “special pleading.”

Do you engage in special pleading? Here is how to avoid it. Be consistent, and admit personal error. If you can’t admit it when you’re wrong, then you are not reasonable, and people will be able to tell! Be consistent, and play by the same rules that you expect of all other participants. If you say things like, “No, you’re right, I’ve never looked at it that way” or “I wish I knew all those things before, in that case, I was definitely wrong about that,” then you will be well on your way to thinking more logically. As an added bonus, people will probably find it easier to be around you.

Another good rule is to agree on definitions before getting too deep in the conversation. If we can all agree on what we mean when we use words like “faith,” or “GMOs,” then we will be able to have a productive conversation. Otherwise, we may end up talking past one another, engaging in special pleading, or moving the goal posts.

6. Loaded Question

This is when someone asks a question that has a presumption built into it so that it couldn't be answered without appearing guilty. Loaded questions are particularly effective at derailing rational debates because of their inflammatory nature. The recipient of the loaded question is compelled to defend themselves and may appear flustered or on the back foot.

Grace and Helen were both romantically interested in Brad. One day, with Brad sitting within earshot, Grace asked in an inquisitive tone whether Helen was still having problems with her drug habit.

The classic example is, “when did you stop beating your wife?” (This is where biased journalists show their hand.) If you are listening to news reporters and you pick up on one loaded question after another, you should probably reconsider tuning-in to that program.

You can avoid asking loaded questions by only asking genuine questions. First off, being genuine increases your likability, charisma, and relatability. Your audience will be better able to sympathize with your position. Secondly, it leads to a more personal connection with the person with whom you’re talking. Who knows, maybe their answer will surprise you or change your mind!

Here is another thing to keep in mind: Only ask a question if you really want to hear what the other person thinks. This is especially true when you do feel like your feathers are getting ruffled. Your questions shouldn’t be statements. You shouldn’t be playing to some audience. When you ask a question, it should be because the other person has an answer that you want to hear.

7. The Gambler's Fallacy

If you said that 'runs' occur to statistically independent phenomena such as roulette wheel spins, then you’ve made this mistake. This commonly believed fallacy can be said to have helped create an entire city in the desert of Nevada. Though the overall odds of a 'big run' happening may be low, each roll of the dice is, itself, entirely independent from the last. So whilst there may be a very small chance that heads will come up 20 times in a row if you flip a coin, the chances of heads coming up on each individual flip remain 50/50, and aren't influenced by what happened before.

Red had come up six times in a row on the roulette wheel, so Greg knew that it was close to certain that black would be next up. Suffering an economic form of natural selection with this thinking, he soon lost all of his savings.

Here is the deal, human beings like to see patterns in nature, even when they don’t really exist. To keep from committing the gambler’s fallacy, you need to keep the basic rules of math in mind. Your roulette wheel, dice, coin, or any other random number generator doesn’t “remember” what it did last. Every spin, roll, or flip should be treated as a fresh new randomized experience. Each time, you should expect random results from random chance.

8. Bandwagon

This is an appeal to popularity or the fact that many people do something as an attempted form of validation. The flaw in this argument is that the popularity of an idea has absolutely no bearing on its validity. If it did, then the Earth would have made itself flat for most of history to accommodate that popular belief.

Shamus pointed a drunken finger at Sean and asked him to explain how so many people could believe in leprechauns if they're only a silly old superstition. Sean, however, had had a few too many Guinness himself and fell off his chair.

Can one person be wrong about something? Yes. So can groups of people be wrong about something? Yes. It’s like what your mom said, “If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” A billion people can believe in something, and they can all be wrong. The universe doesn’t care what we believe. Reality doesn’t change because a group of people all have the same opinion. You would do well to ignore appeals to popularity. Sometimes, only one person on earth is right. In the cases of most scientific discoveries, they began with only one person on earth holding the most correct view. So the popularity of an idea really isn’t what is important. The truth of the idea itself (with consideration to things like evidence and plausibility) is what really matters.

If you have enjoyed this conversation or have learned something from it, please leave a like, subscribe, and share it with other open-minded people. All of those small things really do make a big difference and help others find our group and our podcast.

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative