Christmas is the Season for Reason: Abandoning Logical Fallacies

The following is the basic transcript of the program presented by Tyler Owen on December 13th, 2015 for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Burlington. A part two was presented on February 28th, 2016 which you can read here.

My name is Tyler Owen and I consider myself a Scientific Skeptic. It is the name of a social movement that can be summed up quite simply: I want to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible. I adopted the title of Skeptic only about 5 years ago, but I think the mentality of Skepticism started when I was young.

I wrestled for a long time with the moral conundrum of homosexuality. I knew I was not gay myself, but being raised in a conservative Christian home I had difficulty understanding why it would be wrong to be homosexual. As I was exposed to the religious arguments against same-sex relationships I could never understand how the conclusions followed logically from the arguments. It just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t until much later that I realized these faulty arguments had a name. They are called Logical Fallacies and they are one of the many mysteries of the human brain. We are all guilty of using them, and yet they can be exceedingly difficult to rid ourselves of. The fact is that we are all tribalistic, biased, pattern-seeking, unreliable observers. Bullet-proof logic is not something we evolved to be especially great at. We simply need practice. So I’m hoping that today I can introduce you to a few specific logical fallacies and perhaps you can use that knowledge to help you be more skeptical in your daily lives.

  • Straw man

    • Misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to attack.

    • Example: Sally: “Humans share a common ancestor with apes.” Joe: “Well, if humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

    • Explanation: Joe responds to a point that Sally never actually made. Sally did not say that humans came from monkeys. She didn’t even say humans came from apes, merely that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which would not imply that apes should no longer exist.

    • Lesson: Sometimes this fallacy can be used maliciously to purposefully misrepresent the opponent's position. But often times it comes from one side not having a full understanding of their opponent’s position. To avoid this yourself you can have your opponent describe their position in more detail before addressing their argument. Ask direct questions for clarification. Try to repeat their position in your own words and ask if it is accurate. Once you are at a common understanding you can more easily avoid making an accidental Straw man fallacy.

  • Ad Hominem

    • Attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument.

    • Example: Matt: “I think the school should have lower calorie food options to help students eat healthier.” Jessica: “What would you know about healthy food? You’re the fattest kid in school!”

    • Explanation: This one should be obvious. Ad Hominems are just mean.

    • Lesson: A person can still be right about something they are advocating even if you dislike them personally. Try to separate your opinion of someone from their convictions or personal traits. This is one of the most common logical fallacies and it can be tempting to stoop to your opponent’s level when ad hominems are used against you.

  • Argument from Ignorance / Personal Incredulity

    • Finding something difficult to understand, or being unaware of how it works, and using that as evidence that it is probably not true.

    • Example from The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan: “There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore, UFOs exist, and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe.”

    • Explanation: The conclusion of the argument may be true, but the reasoning is fallacious. The only time where it would be reasonable to assume that UFOs exist is if we had evidence that supported that. A lack of evidence against something is not equivalent to evidence in support of that same thing.

    • Lesson: To combat this on a personal level you must constantly reassess the evidence that supports the ideas you believe in. It can be very easy to have inherent biases that lead you to conclusions that are not supported by facts. If there is something you find hard to believe because you don’t understand it, try to find someone who is knowledgeable about that topic and have them explain it to you. Then you will be better prepared to make an assessment.

  • Genetic Fallacy

    • Judging something as either good or bad on the basis of where it comes from or from whom it came.

    • Example From Attacking Faulty Reasoning by T. Edward Damer: "You're not going to wear a wedding ring, are you? Don't you know that the wedding ring originally symbolized ankle chains worn by women to prevent them from running away from their husbands? I would not have thought you would be a party to such a sexist practice."

    • Explanation: These kinds of arguments can be insightful into the origin of a concept, but often times the modern context can be and is separate from the historical origin. In this case the historical origin of wedding bands, even if accurate, does not provide a reason to believe this context still exists today.

    • Lesson: It can be difficult to avoid using the Genetic Fallacy sometimes. Historical context can elicit a powerful emotional response. It is perfectly acceptable to use historical context in your arguments, but if your argument hinges on something that used to be good or bad, you must still argue on why it is still good or bad today. When most married women and men choose to wear wedding bands it’s difficult to argue that anyone is still being hurt by the practice today. There is one specific Genetic Fallacy that is so common that it has a latin-styled name of it’s own. Reductio ad Hitlerum. It refers to comparing an argument to Hitler or Nazi policies. A common example is to point out that Hitler was one of the earliest proponents for a universal healthcare system. Anyone who makes this comparison is still expected to point out why universal healthcare would be a bad idea. Associating it with Nazis in general is an attempt to discredit the concept as “evil” without providing any concrete reasons to believe so.

  • Anecdotal Fallacy

    • Using a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence.

    • Example: “I won’t get a flu shot. I think vaccines actually make you more likely to get sick. My friend got a flu shot once and the next day he had to call in sick to work with the flu.”

    • Explanation: Anecdotes like this one are not a very reliable means of identifying larger trends or statistical probabilities. There are always exceptions to every trend, and it can be easy to think of our own surroundings as a representative sample of the larger environment, when in reality we may happen to be exposed only to the outliers. In this example, the claim that flu vaccines actually make you more likely to get the flu based on only a single data point has misled the individual and perhaps given them what they feel is a rational excuse to avoid something they already disagree with or find inconvenient.

    • Lesson: You probably rely on anecdotes more than you might think. For example, you might avoid going to see a movie in theaters because a family member saw it and said it was terrible. In this case your decision is proportional to the evidence you have about the movie and it is not necessarily a fallacy. You might generally agree with your family member’s taste in movies, so a single data point is enough information for you. Plus the decision is largely inconsequential, since you can just watch the movie when it comes out on DVD. With more important issues, an anecdote can still qualify as evidence. Eyewitness testimony is one example of this. But in order to confirm a claim it is always preferable to gather a larger body of evidence. When trying to convince someone of your position be sure to appeal to many sources in addition to your own experiences.

  • Naturalistic Fallacy / Appeal to Nature

    • Arguing that because something is “natural” it is therefore valid, justified, inevitable, good, or ideal.

    • Example From Dr. Bo Bennett: “Nature gives people diseases and sickness; therefore, it is morally wrong to interfere with nature and treat sick people with medicine.”

    • Explanation: So far I have been fairly abstract in my examples of rebuttals, so let’s try to be more specific with this one. With every logical fallacy there must be some aspect of the argument that does not lead to the conclusion. In this case there are several assumptions that lead to a faulty conclusion. Assumption #1) “Nature” is presented as almost a sort of “force” that “gives” people diseases. The conclusion presents human medicine as an intervention with that force. It could just be the way the argument was phrased, but the opponent has not shown that this force exists nor that it should be allowed to function without intervention. Assumption #2) “Nature” has a discernible morality that is always better than human morality. This point has not been proven in the opponent’s argument. This is actually a logical fallacy within a logical fallacy called Circular Reasoning. What the opponent is essentially saying is that Natural things are good and they are good because they are Natural. Assumption #3) Human intervention is not “Natural”. The opponent here has not provided a definition of Natural that supports this point. The common counterargument would be that humans are indeed a part of nature through evolution and common ancestry.

    • Lesson: To avoid this fallacy yourself you must be willing to be open-minded and accept that there may be things that are commonly considered “unnatural” which are in fact beneficial or good. There may also be some things that are commonly considered natural that are indeed harmful or worth intervening with.

When you think someone else is guilty of using a logical fallacy it is important to remember that you don’t need to prove their conclusions false, you simply need to point out that there is no reason to accept their conclusions as true until you are presented with more reliable and logically sound evidence. Just because someone is using a fallacy it does not necessarily mean that their conclusion is inaccurate… their conclusion simply does not follow from the argument. And that brings me to one final logical fallacy:

  • Fallacy Fallacy

    • Arguing that because a point has been poorly made, or a fallacy has been used, that the claim itself must be wrong.

    • Example: Let’s go back to our previous UFO example where the opponent argued “There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore, UFOs exist, and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe.” Someone responds to this by saying “You have just made an Argument from Ignorance. Your conclusion about the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe is faulty, therefore it is obvious that there is simply no life elsewhere in the Universe.”

    • Explanation: This responder is guilty of the Fallacy Fallacy.

Logical Fallacies are not a trump card to use in a debate or discussion that will instantly reverse your opponent’s position. Identifying logical fallacies is simply a skill. A skill you can use not just to convince others of your position, but one you can use to analyze your own beliefs and take a neutral position. When discussing difficult topics it is okay to take a middle ground stance. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”. In fact, I think that is one of the most powerful positions you can take. It is a position of humility. It is a position that inspires exploration of further knowledge. A search for truth. At the end of your personal explorations sometimes you will change your position and sometimes you won’t. However, I do believe there is something to be commended for having the strength to change your mind. In our culture, especially American politics, we have a disdain for so-called flip-flopping, but I would argue that changing your mind should never be discouraged. Changing your mind for bad reasons should be.

Additional Resources:

Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies - A website that gives examples of some of the most common fallacies. They also provide a large reference poster that you can print out to help you remember each of the fallacies.

List of Fallacies - A wikipedia page with a comprehensive list of almost all logical fallacies. A great source for helping to identify faulty reasoning.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe - A podcast that largely introduced me to the idea of Skeptical thinking and how to identify logical fallacies.

The Moral Landscape - During the discussion portion of today's program we discussed using logic, reason, and science to come to objective moral conclusions. This book by Sam Harris goes into great detail about how this is possible.