Truth-seeking 101: Logical fallacies

Key strategies to avoid when building sound arguments

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Image: Nathan Difiesta

By Patrikas Balsys

To be honest, I was in the middle of writing a post about the current pandemic situation. But, I’m no authority to be listened to when it comes to global pandemics, and the world probably doesn’t need another opinion piece. So instead, let’s explore a vital principle to be aware of when discussing, well, anything — logical fallacies.

Ad Hominem, Strawman, Slippery Slopeyou might have heard of some of these but, weren’t exactly sure what they meant. These are examples of logical fallacies, errors in reasoning. They’re often used to undercut arguments from others, but the logic of these counterarguments is flawed in one way or another. Let’s look at some of the most common fallacies that people use, along with some examples.

Ad Hominem: an attack on the arguing party, instead of the argument
A very common way to dismiss an argument is by attempting to discredit the source. If you thought this article was poorly written and presented me with arguments as to why, getting a response along the lines of “you haven’t ever written an article, so what would you know,” wouldn’t be helpful. Articles are dedicated to our dear readers, so their criticism should be considered no matter what. I’m not saying all criticism is of equal value, but disregarding it entirely isn’t the right approach.

Strawman: misrepresenting an argument
This one often starts with “so you think that…,” and follows with a caricature of what the original idea was. For example, if someone states that “we should plant more trees,” the other person could answer with “so what you’re saying is that just planting trees will solve climate change?” It’s not always easy to spot this one, but if an argument suddenly loses its credibility with the audience, it’s often the result of a misrepresentation via strawman.

Slippery Slope: appealing to the potentially dramatic consequences
“If absolute freedom of speech is allowed, then everyone will start cursing and slinging insults!” Well, it seems that in countries where freedom of speech exists, you can still have a civilised discussion, so that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rarely can we be absolutely sure of the consequences a particular change will bring, and the slippery slope fallacy often tends to fearmonger, more than anything.

Burden of Proof: redirecting the need of proof to the other arguing party
The most commonly cited example of this is Russel’s teapot, the argument that there is a teapot hovering in space between Mars and the Earth, and since no one can prove otherwise, it must be the truth. An excellent aphorism to keep in mind is the Sagan standard — “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Bandwagon: appealing to the popularity to support an argument
This one would be quite relevant in the discussion of whether going outside right now is the best idea. After all, everyone else is doing it, so there couldn’t be much harm in it, yeah? I personally don’t have the right answer to this conundrum, but suffice to say, stating that something is popular doesn’t constitute for it being correct.

Argument from Authority: appealing to unrelated authority to support an argument
Often you see a celebrity endorsing a product and the masses buying it because this fallacy just works that well. It doesn’t matter whether the celebrity is a credible source of the recommendation. There is, however, a more dangerous example we must watch out for, which is the improper mentioning of a PhD degree to support an argument. A person might be a doctor of chemistry but, does that mean they’re the authority on what your diet should look like?

False Dichotomy: stating that there are only two options, which might not even be directly related
This is my favourite one, or rather, the one I hate the most. You often see it in phrases like “there are two kinds of people…” I hate to break it to you, but the world is rarely black and white, and most issues don’t have clear-cut answers that’ll satisfy everyone. “You either donate to orphanages every month, or you must hate children!” sounds quite ridiculous but, people often view others in such light when discussing topics they care about.

Affirming the Consequent: holding the belief that one thing is the cause of another, and confirming it with a correlation
The last fallacy here is often summed up as “correlation does not equal causation”. Just because two things are correlated, doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. Large feet correlate with the ability to read, and that would look like a weird connection, until you consider the fact that kids who have larger feet are probably older, hence their improved reading abilities. to explore some ridiculous correlating graphs.

There are way more logical fallacies to discuss, but if you are genuinely interested, I’d highly suggest listening to episodes and from a podcast called By Stephen West.

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