Logical Fallacies (Part 2) and How to Avoid Them

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 28

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

I had a great time creating Part 1 of this series and it looks like you really enjoyed it too! We’re back with Part 2 in our three-part discussion about logical fallacies and how to avoid them.

I’m sure you’ve heard that a fool and his money are soon parted. This is an idea that scammers, con artists, modern-day snake oil salesmen, and cult leaders all understand well enough. Think of the billions of dollars collected from all of the good people who fall for just one of these subtle lies, cons, or tricks! Entire industries and economies are built atop the premise that it is easy to fool the average consumer, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Today, we are taking a look at four more tricks used by the dishonest, the mentally clumsy, and, yes, even us when we are not being careful.

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Why is it so remarkably easy for scammers to fool us? Why is it so common for people to fall for ridiculous ideas or be cheated out of their money? You could say that it is because we all have feeble minds, but I don’t think that’s it. I think many of us fall for these fallacies mainly for two reasons:

First, most of us simply lack any education on logical fallacies, common cons, or the tactics of scammers. So let’s spread a little education on this topic! When you have a clear understanding of logical fallacies, they are easier to detect. When you are being fed a lie, you are better able to pick up on its small red flags when the lie may otherwise fly under your radar. When you have a clear understanding of logical fallacies, deceptive advertisements, slanted news stories, and shady arguments will begin to “smell fishy.”

Second, many of us see skepticism or doubt as untoward characteristics. Many of us make a choice to be trusting, agreeable, faithful, or open-minded. We rely on the better angels of our nature and hope that others have our best interests in mind. After all, what is the alternative? Constant cynicism and distrust?

Here is an important thing to remember: Skepticism is not the same as cynicism or pessimism. If you are skeptical, that means that ideas have to meet a high standard before you believe them. You can be the most optimistic person in the world and still be a skeptic. In fact, that is probably the wisest option.

To me, it isn’t a matter of temperament. It is a matter of self-defense. You can have faith in humanity but still lock your doors. Trust, but verify. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good-natured and kind the victim of fraud is. They are still the victim of fraud.

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. Those guys totally deserve all of the donations that come their way!

9. Appeal to Authority

This is when someone says that because an authority figure thinks something, it must, therefore, be true. It's important to note that this fallacy should not be used to dismiss the claims of experts, or scientific consensus. Appeals to authority are not valid arguments, but nor is it reasonable to disregard the claims of experts who have a demonstrated depth of knowledge unless one has a similar level of understanding and/or access to empirical evidence. However, it is entirely possible that the opinion of a person or institution of authority is wrong. Therefore the authority that such a person or institution holds does not have any intrinsic bearing upon whether their claims are true or not.

Not able to defend his position that evolution 'isn't true' Bob says that he knows a scientist who also questions evolution (and presumably isn't a primate).

My math teacher has been teaching math for 15 years. Therefore, she can never make a mistake in front of the class.

“Nullius in Verba” is found on the coat of arms of the oldest science academy in the world, the Royal Society of London. Fellows of this society include Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, and Alan Turing. The Latin phrase means “take nobody's word for it.” In other words, it doesn’t matter who said it. A bad idea is a bad idea. If something is real, there should be proof that it is real. “Because I said so” is never a valid argument. This principle is at the core of modern science. It doesn’t matter how famous or well-published you are. If you claim to have discovered or invented something new, your peers will still demand to see your evidence and paperwork.

The only thing that guarantees that an idea is true, is that the idea is, in fact, true. It helps if your findings are reproducible. If other people can do the same things you did and find the same results, then you are working with good science. It doesn’t matter who says it first or who promotes it. So why not let the Ideas speak for themselves? The idea must be able to compete based on its own merits. If it is a good or bad idea, that should come to light through inspection, examination, testing, and discussion. So the next time you are at an elaborate presentation where someone is making a big show of their history and credentials, take it all with a grain of salt. Ask yourself: If a complete nobody presented it, would the speaker’s content still be valid?

10. Black-or-White

When someone presents two alternative states as the only possibilities, when in fact more possibilities exist, then they have committed the black-or-white fallacy. Also known as the false dilemma, or false-dichotomy, this insidious tactic has the appearance of forming a logical argument, but under closer scrutiny, it becomes evident that there are more possibilities than the either/or choice that is presented. Binary, black-or-white thinking doesn't allow for the many different variables, conditions, and contexts in which there would exist more than just two possibilities. It frames the argument misleadingly and obscures rational, honest debate.

Whilst rallying support for his plan to fundamentally undermine citizens' rights, the Supreme Leader told the people they were either on his side, or they were on the side of the enemy.

This fallacy is terribly simple, powerful, and speedily made. People say things like, “well everything is either a creator or a creation.” This dichotomous argument leads to incredibly lazing thinking, easily co-opted by escalating emotion or public mania. It is hard to spot a riot or violent protest that wasn’t spurred by this particular fallacy.

We should always leave the door open for nuance and complex answers. Very few things in the real world are simple or plainly binary. If you tend to crowd out all possibilities for middle-ground, alternative explanations, unexpected variation, exceptions to the rule, or subtle gradations on a continuum, then you are not being reasonable. I have been in so many conversations where the way forward is to think of a third or fourth option. In a forum of free-thinkers, it may be tempting to tell someone “you’re wrong and I’m right,” but doing so runs the conversation into a brick wall. The other person loses face and you are both worse off. I like to think of discussions like many streams merging into a river. One stream doesn’t dominate the flow and force all other streams to match its direction. Rather, there is a convergence, in a new direction. Sometimes, that is the only way the truth is found. The answer isn’t just Einstein’s cosmological constant or the static universe model. The electron isn’t just a wave or a particle. Rome wasn’t simply an evil empire or a benevolent republic. Sometimes, we have to take the best parts of all previous arguments, combine them, and forge a new path forward.

11. Begging the Question

This is when someone presents a circular argument in which the conclusion was included in the premise. This logically incoherent argument often arises in situations where people have an assumption that is ingrained and taken in their minds as a “given.” Circular reasoning is the “smoking gun” of an illogical argument.

The word of Zorbo the Great is flawless and perfect. We know this because it says so in The Great and Infallible Book of Zorbo's Best and Most Truest Things that are Definitely True and Should Not Ever Be Questioned.

I see this a lot when skeptics debate fundamentalists. The fundamentalists believe that they already know the answer to a specific question. That is their starting point, so they try to make arguments that always point back to that belief. Even if you find holes, self-contradictions, or other problems with their proposal, they will still fall back on that fundamental belief, because it is, in their definition, always true, no matter what.

In a logical discussion, you should be able to ask plenty of questions about the foundation of the other’s argument. Complex ideas should be able to be broken into smaller and simpler parts. But circular arguments don’t behave in this way. When you look below the surface of such, you find yourself back where you started. If you are not satisfied with a claim, ask the other person to explain it. If that explanation sounds week, dig deeper. If you hear the same ideas over and over again, then you should point that out.

I have been approached by fellow church members, coworkers, and friends in the past who were working for multi-level-marketing companies. Asking Leading Questions was their bread and butter. What would you do if you had one million dollars right now? How would you like to quit you job? How would you like to work less and make more? Each question is carefully designed to lead you to answer a certain way. Likewise, when I showed some skepticism, I was met with circular logic. “What is the catch?” I would ask. “How could it be so easy?” I was told that there was no catch, and it was just that easy. There were never any down-sides, complications, or issues to consider. Each question I asked was just a dead-end, and met with a kind of auto-reply, leading me back to the first slide of the proposal. As you can imagine, I have gotten into the habit of turning down several of these so-called “once in a lifetime opportunities.”

Another major rule to remember is that you should always start with an observation, not a conclusion. Good science, as well as good logical thinking, does not assume any kind of conclusion. It is disingenuous to start any experiment or line of logic with a predetermined end-point. If you are making the case for something, it should follow a linear progression. This idea leads to that idea. This other idea is based on those ideas. If your ideas seem to have popped into existence with no roots or foundation, then it may be this (or a similar fallacy) rearing its ugly head. Ask yourself, what led you to believe what you believe. Go as far back as you can. If the ideas along the way still stand on their own merits (like the bricks of a pyramid), then that is a good sign. If, instead, you find that they rely on your conclusion (like a marionette hanging from strings), that’s a bad sign.

12. Appeal to Nature

This is the argument that because something is 'natural' it is therefore valid, justified, inevitable, good, or ideal. Many 'natural' things are also considered 'good', and this can bias our thinking. But naturalness itself doesn't make something good or bad. For instance, murder could be seen as very natural, but that doesn't mean it's always good or justifiable.

The medicine man rolled into town on his bandwagon offering various natural remedies, such as very special plain water. He said that it was only natural that people should be wary of 'artificial' medicines such as antibiotics.

This is definitely another fallacy we see a lot in alternative-medicine. What is with all this hate with modernity? It seems that some people have nothing but contempt for modern science, cars, shoes, airplanes, computers, and the like. The truth is that the rise of civilization and technology has improved our lives in countless ways. We are healthier, we live longer, and we are surrounded by conveniences that allow us to get more done and have more fun. True, there can be a unique beauty and simplicity to nature. But nature has its dark side.

Rather than being stripped of all its natural goodness, this supplement is still covered in dirt! That means it has to be good for you, right? Wrong. We pasteurize milk for a reason. We refine aspirin from tree bark for a reason. Purified water is better for you than lake water. A multi-vitamin is better for you than a cup of pebbles. Fresh air, trees, butterflies, and flowers are all great and all, but do you know what else is natural? Flesh-eating bacteria, toxic volcano smoke, uranium, snake venom, and poison Ivy.

To be fair, I make this mistake a lot too. You will hear me say that something is human nature, or perfectly natural. By itself, however, this is a weak argument. Because if something is natural for humans to do, this doesn’t make it good or bad. Rather, it’s just natural, plain and simple. This should be seen as a neutral statement.

A far better practice is to come prepared to provide multiple forms of supporting evidence. To the rational thinker, a claim is only as good as its supporting evidence. The bolder your claims, the more evidence you should be prepared to provide in support of them. It is like what Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.” So the next time you hear someone make an argument that something is great because it’s natural, don’t be afraid to point out that that is an appeal to nature fallacy.

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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? What feedback or ideas do you have for this program or our organization? Feel free to share your perspective!

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

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