Logical Fallacies (Part 3) and How to Avoid Them
The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 29
How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.
Welcome to Part 3 of our series on logical fallacies and how to avoid them! We have looked at many of these common fallacies thus far, but there are still plenty more besides. If you have missed either of our last two episodes, I’m sure you would enjoy giving them a listen as well.
Who doesn’t love a good card trick? No matter how closely we try to pay attention, all it takes is a clever sleight-of-hand or subtle misdirection on the magician’s part to bypass our powers of perception. In no time it all, we may find ourselves convinced that what we saw was magic.
Logical fallacies are used in similar ways. They sure-up our ideas and make our arguments sound stronger than they really are. On the surface, we can amuse and dazzle our audience. Our logic may sound stable and well-thought-out, but upon further inspection, it is all just a trick. Behind the curtain, these flimsy fallacies can be seen crumbling under their own weight. Join me as we unveil four more common logical fallacies.
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13. Composition or Division
This is when someone assumes that one part of something has to be applied to all, or other, parts of it; or that the whole must apply to its parts. Often when something is true for the part it does also apply to the whole, or vice versa, but the crucial difference is whether there exists good evidence to show that this is, indeed, the case. Because we observe consistencies in things, our thinking can become biased so that we presume consistency to exist where it does not.
Daniel was a precocious child and had a liking for logic. He reasoned that atoms are invisible. Therefore, since he was made of atoms, he must be invisible as well. Unfortunately, despite this feat of logic, he lost the game of hide and seek.
I’ve met so many people in Texas who are bad drivers. Therefore, Texans are all bad drivers.
All joking aside, you may commit this fallacy more often than you think. It is hard not to make generalizations based on a small handful of examples. I see this a lot with people who break-up. They say things like “All men are so selfish” or “All women are crazy” without realizing that they may have just been unlucky enough to date someone who was especially selfish or crazy. We may admire a certain company and then be surprised when we meet one of its employees who doesn’t conform to our expectations. We may love the free sample, only to find that buying it in bulk was a bad idea.
A related common sign that a scientific study was poorly done is that it has a small sample size. True, they found that 9 out of 10 people loved the taste of super-wow toothpaste, but only 10 people were asked about it in the first place. That is a terrible representation of the population. What is true of 10 people isn’t necessarily true for everyone. Now if the number of people surveyed was 2,000, that study just got a lot better.
We also see this in politics. We assume that one member of a minority, for example, is some de facto representative of that minority, because those types of people must all act and think the same. Therefore, we can trust any one person to accurately speak for their social group, right? Wrong. I can’t speak for all aspiring free-thinkers. You can’t speak for all people who listen to podcasts. That line of thinking is just flawed.
To avoid making this fallacy, slow down. Don’t be in so much of a hurry to find simple rules that explain complex things. Avoid making broad-sweeping statements or hastily-made generalizations. Even if we want things to behave in a pattern, that doesn’t mean they do. As I brought up before, reality can be messy, surprising, and filled with nuance.
Instead, provide data, numbers, and actual relevant statistics, whenever possible. Scientific papers that have large sample-sizes, long-running experiments, and duplicated studies are all preferable to those without. Rely on reputable sources as long as you have a clear idea of how the data was collected. Rather than using vague generalizations and hoping that your audience agrees, let the experts, careful studies, and numbers speak.
If you used a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence, then you have presented anecdotal evidence. Which is easier? Understanding complex data and variation across a continuum, or believing in what someone said? Quantitative scientific measures are almost always more accurate than personal perceptions and experiences, but our inclination is to believe that which is tangible to us, and/or the word of someone we trust over a more 'abstract' statistical reality.
Jason said that that was all cool and everything, but his grandfather smoked, like, 30 cigarettes a day and lived until 97 - so don't believe everything you read about meta-analyses of methodologically sound studies showing proven causal relationships.
Even though the overwhelming majority of doctors and scientists assert that vaccines are safe, my little Kenny got a big cold after his first shot, so your child should never be vaccinated!
We’ve really hit the motherlode with this fallacy. If you are going to be logical or scientifically-minded, you must be willing to let personal experiences go. They are like counterfeit money or the promise of a Nigerian Prince in your inbox. When it comes to figuring out what is real, personal stories are worthless.
As a quick side note, on the moral, social, or emotional side of things, listening to someone’s story and experiences is really important. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if something actually happened. The only thing that matters is that the person believes that it actually happened. If you are a teacher, a nurse, a counselor, or clergy member, then empathetic listening to someone’s personal experience is paramount. It is important to validate what a person is feeling, and offer them some open-mindedness.
But this episode isn’t about relationship-building or giving emotional support. It is about maintaining a strong grasp on reality. It is about building a resistance to nonsense. When it comes to the cold hard facts, personal stories and experiences do not register as valid evidence. But why is that the case? Here are a couple of reasons.
First off, our memories are not that reliable. We’re only human. When compared to video footage, data from sensors and other inanimate recordings, our most-detailed recollections come off as flawed, hazy, and highly corruptible. Every time we remember something, we taint that memory. If a question is worded a certain way, we will modify our memory to form what we think is a good answer. We tend to remember meaning, not facts. We interpret our experiences through subjective filters along continuums such as happy to sad, fair to unfair, or fun to boring. The formation of each memory is highly influenced by our stress-levels, our goals, our beliefs, and other factors in the moment (and after the fact).
Secondly, personal experiences are easy to fabricate. Some people are extremely good at lying with a straight face. There are plenty of reasons for someone to be dishonest in any given situation. People do it all the time and they start young. So if you are about to believe someone’s story, just because they told you a story, that goodwill is probably going to be used against you.
How can we avoid making this fallacy? Well, for starters, only use personal anecdotes for fun or for flavoring. By themselves, they shouldn’t be used to convince anyone of anything. Present Information that is objective or quantitative. Avoid arguments based on personal experience. A strong argument is not based on something so subjective or non-repeatable. Rather, use numbers, measurements, statistics, verifiable history, and other cold objective and quantitative facts. The truth should be something that is accessible to any seeker, not the unique experience of a privileged seer.
15. No True Scotsman
If someone dismisses relevant criticisms or flaws to their argument by making an appeal to purity, then they have committed the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. In this form of faulty reasoning, one's belief is rendered unfalsifiable because no matter how compelling the evidence is, one simply shifts the goalposts so that it wouldn't apply to a supposedly 'true' example. This kind of post-rationalization is a way of avoiding valid criticisms of one's argument.
Angus declares that Scotsmen do not put sugar on their porridge, to which Lachlan points out that he is a Scotsman and puts sugar on his porridge. Furious, like a true Scot, Angus yells that no true Scotsman sugars his porridge.
Jordan said that if Matt was a real atheist, Matt would be a murderer. But Matt wasn’t a murder, so Jordan said he wasn’t really a TRUE atheist.
This is another case of special pleading. It is like when someone is teaching you the rules of a new board game. At first, you’re both having fun, but when you start to win, they tweak and change the rules in their favor. What a rotten cheater! Well, people do the same thing in arguments, debates, and discussions. Hopefully, by now, you have developed a sense for when someone starts to change the rules mid-game. Here are a few things you can do to make sure they don’t get away with it:
To start off, agree on definitions. Lockdown what you are talking about and what you mean when you both say certain words. After that, stick to them and never let them be altered. This is a pretty well-known fallacy, so if you pick up on it, call it out. “Are you saying that No True Scotsman would sugar his porridge?” You can also deconstruct the claim. If they say that Howard couldn’t be the thief because he is a good Christian, then throw the claim back at them. “So are you saying that it is impossible for a Christian to commit a crime?” In many cases, it is helpful to let a person’s social group, label, or status fade away. Treating people as individuals who act and think individually is far more practical. Lachlan is a Scotsman, but he also sugars his porridge, deal with it.
16. The Texas Sharpshooter
This is when someone cherry-picks a data cluster that suits their argument or finds a pattern to fit a presumption. This 'false cause' fallacy is coined after a marksman shooting randomly at barns and then painting bullseye targets around the spot where the most bullet holes appear, making it appear as if he's a really good shot. Clusters naturally appear by chance, but don't necessarily indicate that there is a causal relationship.
The makers of Sugarette Candy Drinks point to research showing that of the five countries where Sugarette drinks sell the most units, three of them are in the top ten healthiest countries on Earth, therefore Sugarette drinks are healthy.
The Texas Sharpshooter makes an argument based on certain information, then uses that same information to confirm it, often while dismissing whatever doesn't support it. He remembers the hits but forgets the misses. This is confirmation bias.
If statistics are unusually wordy, oddly specific, leave out large sections of the relevant data, or seem unnecessarily convoluted, that should be a red flag that confirmation bias is running amuck. You and I both know that any data set can be manipulated to sound dramatic, impressive, or shocking. Does that mean that we should throw out any static we hear? Of course not. What it means is that we shouldn’t believe any percentage, graph, or chart on face value alone. To resist the allure of this fallacy, we must use some brainpower. Read and think about the information. What is actually being said?
When I hear that less-than 1% of scientists seriously doubt evolution, I’m not impressed. So that is why that particular number is never brought up in creationist propaganda. Instead, only the credentials of the one or two scientists interviewed are mentioned.
We run into confirmation bias every day. The trick is to embrace the whole truth, not just the parts that we like. After Tracy told me to get lost 50 times, she finally agreed to go with me on a date! She must me in love with me! Omar knew he bought the winning lottery ticket because he had a good feeling! But what about all of the other times he got a good feeling before buying a losing ticket? Judith knows her prayers are answered because this morning she couldn’t find her keys, said a prayer, and then found them! Well, what about all of her other prayers that went unanswered? You should listen to Todd’s 12 steps to becoming a millionaire because he owns a successful business. That’s great, but what about his five other businesses that went bankrupt?
To get to the truth, we have to look at the whole picture. We need to count our misses, not just our hits. We have to remember the failures, not just the wins. All of the data is important, and it should be represented, even if it isn’t helpful. If you are making a claim, be upfront about the data that doesn’t match what you want. Talk about outliers, unexplainable oddities, and counterintuitive results. Sometimes, that is where new discoveries are waiting to be found.
Sometimes the truth is messy, unflattering, inconclusive, boring, unpredictable, ugly, or unsatisfying. If you are a rational person, then you are concerned about what is true, rather than what you want to be true.
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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative