Science

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.

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.