Abandoning Logical Fallacies - Part 2

This program is the second part in a series presented by Tyler Owen on February 28th, 2016. You can read the transcript of the first part here.

I mentioned in my previous talk back in December that I consider myself a Scientific Skeptic and a member of the Skeptical movement. My motto is to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible.

Back in December I discussed with you one of the most powerful tools in a skeptic’s arsenal, logical fallacies. When Rick asked me if I would like to give another program for the fellowship I quickly jumped to my old notes. There are so many fascinating logical fallacies that last time I had to limit myself to only 6 or 7. So I’m back today to share some more examples with you, but this time I’m going to see if you can point out the fallacy in the example first. It’s okay if you don’t know the official name of the fallacy, but I think many of you will be able to identify the failures of logic.

  • Special Pleading

    • Making a special exception to a rule.

    • Example: Jane: “I think drunk drivers should have to go to jail, but my son is different. He didn’t know what he was doing!”

    • Explanation: Is your opponent trying to treat a certain situation as a “special” exception? Possibly even “pleading” with you to allow the exception without justification? That’s probably Special Pleading. How does Jane expect us to accept her argument when it goes against the rule she already stated? This is only a fallacy however if there is not sufficient justification given for the exception. In Jane’s case we don’t have any reason to consider her plea other than the fact that the drunk driver is Jane’s son. In contrast, we can consider an instance with proper justification. For example, most people believe that murderers should be jailed. However, we often consider self-defense to be an exception to this rule. Knowing that someone killed because they thought they might be in danger themselves is sufficient justification in most cases.

    • Lesson: To avoid making this fallacy yourself, make sure you don’t gloss over your justifications. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that others automatically share our opinions or beliefs and assume that they understand our justifications implicitly. You might be accused of special pleading if you do this. Always make your arguments explicit. 

  • Slippery Slope

    • Stating that one event will inevitably lead to another.

    • Example: “When you say it's not a man and a woman anymore, then why not have three men and one woman or four women and one man? Or why not, you know, somebody has a love for an animal...? There is no clear place to draw a line once you eliminate the traditional marriage." -Rep. Louie Gohmert R-Texas

    • Explanation: Similar to Special Pleading, we seem to be lacking a connection between our argument and our conclusion. Where is the justification for believing that legalizing of gay marriage will lead to polygamy or bestiality? Often you will notice that the resultant events described in a Slippery Slope argument are universally reviled or at the very least generally undesirable. In this way Slippery Slope arguments could be considered a sort of Association Fallacy, where the qualities of one thing are implied to be inherent qualities of another. Somewhere in Rep. Gohmert’s mind marriage equality and bestiality share some negative qualities. This is obviously a negative association Slippery Slope, but it can be used positively as well. You might hear someone argue that if you vote for their candidate it will result in more jobs, higher wages, better health care, and less crime, etc. Saying that these things will be a certain result of your vote is irresponsible and fallacious. You could say that the candidate will fight for those issues, but without the proper data or sufficient justification you cannot profess to know future events.

    • Lesson: Most Slippery Slope arguments are simply opinions stated as facts. So you can abandon this logical fallacy by making slight adjustments to the way you phrase your arguments. Avoid language that implies you have some predictive power over future events. Stick to what you know or what you believe. Don’t pretend to know what others believe or how they will act.

  • To Quoque

    • Answering criticism with criticism.

    • Example: Dan: “My opponent has said that he has always been against the Iraq war, but in 2002 he voted for the Iraq Resolution in the House.” Steve: “Dan, if I recall correctly I believe that you also voted for that same resolution sir.”

    • Explanation: To Quoque is Latin for literally “You Also”, as in an accusation of hypocrisy. This is actually a specific form of a Red Herring Fallacy. Something intended to distract from a particular argument. In this example we would like to know why Steve might say he has always been against the Iraq War but his voting history would seem to betray that fact. Dan has rightfully pointed out Steve’s inconsistency regardless of his own vote on the issue. Perhaps Dan still supports the invasion of Iraq (whether you agree with that or not) which would make his statements consistent whereas Steve still needs to explain his inconsistency. In this case the issue presented by Dan is whether or not Steve has lied about his position over time. It is not about whether or not it was appropriate to invade Iraq.

    • Lesson: This is one of the most tempting fallacies to use in an informal debate, and indeed we see it all the time in the world of politics. Passing up an opportunity to accuse your opponent of hypocrisy can be very difficult, but we have to restrain ourselves and ensure that an accusation of “You Too!” is valid in the context of the argument. If Dan had said “Steve should be ashamed of his vote for the Iraq War in 2002.” then it might be more relevant to point out that Dan made the exact same vote. Even then however, it would be more appropriate for Steve to counter by explaining why he should not be ashamed of his vote. Perhaps giving his reasons for why he voted that way at the time and explaining his change of position. Turning an argument on your opponent can be a compelling emotional gambit, but to truly rid ourselves of fallacious reasoning we must rely on logic rather than emotion.

  • Loaded Question

    • Asking a question that has an implicit unjustified assumption.

    • Example: The New Zealand corporal punishment referendum of 2009 was a public voting issue where the question on the ballot read as follows: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?".

    • Explanation: I’m actually impressed that this question ever made it to the ballot. The implicit assumption in the question is that smacking your child is part of “good parental correction”. You could make an argument that it is, but the way the question is asked can drastically affect the way voters respond. Perhaps a better way to phrase this question would be “Should hitting a child, including by a parent as part of behavioral correction, be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”. This removes the moral implication while still including the issue of parental correction.

    • Lesson: Asking questions is one of the most valuable and effective ways to uncover truth and that’s why I find this particular logical fallacy so insidious. It portends to be a way to uncover truth while simultaneously undermining it. Injecting your own biases and preconceptions into a question meant to corner your opponent doesn’t help anyone get closer to the truth. Sometimes we can even do this accidentally. Have you ever heard someone ask “When is the baby due?” only to have the individual respond “I’m not pregnant…”. The question asker in this case may have been well-intentioned, accidentally guilty of a Loaded Question, or perhaps their intent was to shame the individual for their weight, knowing that they were not actually pregnant. The latter explanation is obviously more nefarious and avoidable with just a basic application of our moral compass, but the accidental Loaded Question can be avoided just by making fewer assumptions about our topic or our debate opponent. Are we asking a question for clarification? If so, then ask questions that actually help us uncover truth rather than muddy the waters.

  • False Cause

    • Confusing correlation for causation.

    • Example: Greg: “Last night I used a ouija board with my roommates and the fire alarm went off! The whole dorm had to be evacuated. I think we angered the spirits.”

    • Explanation: Greg has jumped to a pretty extreme conclusion based on very little evidence. In fact he has seemingly eliminated the most simple explanation. Some freshmen probably tried making brownies in the common room oven that only gets used like once a year. Smoke alarms tend to go off when there is smoke.

    • Lesson: As a skeptic, this is one fallacy that I spend a lot of my time trying to fight. Communities around the US are starting to push back against the inclusion of fluoride in municipal water supplies due to the mistaken belief that it causes cancer, ignoring the incredible dental health benefits that are shared, especially for children living in poverty whose families can’t afford proper dental care. Well-meaning parents all over the world have fought to blame vaccines for increased instances of autism with no evidence of causation, despite the incredible strides we have made towards eradicating disease. Environmental activists are fighting to ban genetically modified foods for fear that they will have unforeseen consequences on our health, however, every study shows that we have nothing to fear and in fact we have everything to gain when you consider the ability that GMO foods may have to provide proper nutrition to some of the world’s most suffering populations. The False Cause fallacy runs rampant in our society as a crutch for poorly evidenced fear-mongering. Correlating scary sounding new technologies with even scarier sounding consequences is a major roadblock in the path of social progress. It’s something I could spend an entire program discussing. To avoid this yourself you often need to educate yourself better in the scientific process.

And this is where the Science comes into the label of Scientific Skeptic. The strength of your belief should only be as strong as the evidence that supports it. And that goes for all fallacies, not just the fallacy of the False Cause. Science is a process, not an ideology. And it’s not only for scientists. The cool thing about science is that you can check it all out for yourself. There’s plenty of evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism, but unless you have investigated that evidence for yourself you can’t rely on intuition or common sense to pull your conclusions. One of my favorite political lines from the last five years or so is “I’m not a scientist, but…”. If you ever hear anyone say this you should stop them right there and ask them, “well have you asked a scientist to show you their evidence?” Most scientists I know, my wife included, will be downright thrilled to explain something to you, just as I have been happy to share with you today my understanding of logical fallacies and the importance of skepticism.

Additional Resources:

Spurious Correlations - A website featuring examples of very close correlations that are obviously absurd to assume that either is a cause of the other (related to the fallacy of the False Cause).

The Believing Brain - An amazing book about why we believe the things we do and why our brains are to blame. Addresses many of the topics that came up during the questions after the program, including superstitions and confirmation biases.

I mentioned GMO foods passively in the False Cause fallacy, but it seemed to spark a lot of discussion after the program. So here are some resources that you might find interesting if you are currently skeptical of GMOs.

Skeptic's Guide to the Universe Episode #428 - An entire episode of the podcast where they discuss the safety of GMO products. Their discussion surrounds an article that contains the following quote (with links to relevant statements/studies):

"Within the scientific community, the debate over the safety of GM foods is over. The overwhelming conclusion is, in the words of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that "consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques." Major scientific and governmental organizations agree. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that "no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population," and a report issued by the European Commission made the same claim. The World Health Organization has concluded that GM foods "are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health."

There are certainly other issues related to GMO products like farming monocultures and corporate interests, but the question of health and safety seems to have been adequately addressed by science, at least to my satisfaction.

Monsanto Myths - A segment from the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast where they discuss many popular myths about Monsanto, a company intrinsically tied to many discussions about the ethics of GMO foods.