Tag Archives: fallacy - Page 2

Just Doesn’t Get It

Rhetoric of Reason

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When it comes to persuading people, a catchy bit of rhetoric tends to be far more effective than an actual argument. One rather neat bit of rhetoric that seems to be favored by Tea Party folks and others is the “just doesn’t get it” device.

As a rhetorical device, it is typically used with the intent of dismissing or rejecting a person’s (or group’s) claims or views. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. They think raising taxes is the way to go.” The idea is that the audience is supposed to accept that liberals are wrong about tax increases on the grounds that its has been asserted that they “just don’t get it.”Obviously enough, saying “they just don’t get it” does not prove that a claim or view is in error.

This method can also be cast as a fallacy, specifically an ad hominem. The idea is that a claim should be rejected based on a personal attack, namely the assertion that the person does not get it. It can also be seen as a genetic fallacy when used against a group.

This method is also sometimes used with the intent of showing that a view is correct, usually by claiming that someone (or some group) that (allegedly) disagrees is wrong. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. Raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.” Obviously enough, saying that someone (or some group) “just doesn’t get it” does not prove (or disprove) anything. What is needed is, obviously enough, evidence that the claim in question is true. In the example, this would involve showing that raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.

In general, the psychology behind this method seems to be that when a person says  (or hears)”X doesn’t get it”, he means (or takes it to mean)”X does not believe what I believe” and thus rejects X’s claim. Obviously enough, this is not good reasoning.

It is worth noting that if it can be shown that someone “just doesn’t get it”, then this would not be mere rhetoric or a fallacy. However, what would be needed is evidence that the person is in error and thus does not, in fact, get it.

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Is/Ought

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

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While on a run in Maine, I happened to be thinking about the Is/Ought problem as well as fallacies. I was also thinking about bears and how many might be about in the woods, but that is another matter.

This problem was most famously put forth by David Hume. Roughly put, the problem is how one might derive an “ought” from an “is.” Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.” This is, unlike the more common fallacies, rather controversial. After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of  simple relevance. While I will not address the core of the matter, I will present some thoughts on the periphery.

As I ran and thought about the problem, I noted that people are often inclined to make moral inferences based on what they think or what they do. To be a bit more specific, people are often inclined to reason in the following two ways. Naturally, this could be expanded but for the sake of brevity I will just consider thought and action.

The first is belief. Not surprisingly, people often “reason” as follows: I/most people/all people believe that X is right (or wrong). Therefore people ought to do X (or ought to not do X). For example, a person might assert that because (they think that) most people believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, it follows that it ought not be done. This is, obviously enough, the fallacy of appeal to belief.

The second  is action. People are also inclined to infer that X is something that ought to be done (or at least allowed) on the basis that it is done by them or most/all people. For example, a person might assert that people ought to be able to steal office supplies because it is something everyone does. This is the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.

While there are both established fallacies,  it seems somewhat interesting to consider whether or not  they are potentially Is/Ought fallacies when they involve deriving an “ought” from the “is” of belief or action.

On the one hand, it is rather tempting to hold that they are not also Is/Ought errors. After all, it could be argued that the error is exhausted in the context of the specific fallacies and there is no need to consider a supplemental error involving deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

On the other hand, these two fallacies seem to provide a solid foundation for the Is/Ought error that is reasonably well based on established logic. This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.

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Straw, Lies & Errors

Straw Man

Straw man is a rather commonly committed fallacy. Interestingly, it is almost as common for people to accuse others of making straw men as it is for people to actually commit said fallacy. Since I am in a phase of holiday laziness, I decided to write a bit about straw men, lies and errors rather than take on a major topic.

Defining the straw man fallacy is easy enough:

The straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.) and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Obviously enough, it is reasonable to point out when someone is making a straw man and to note that any attack on the straw man will fail to do any damage to the original version. Of course, it is important to be sure that such an accusation actually fits.

Whether a characterization is a straw man or not depends, obviously enough on what is being characterized. Roughly put,  “strawness’ is a relative thing and what might be a straw man characterization of one person’s position could very well be an accurate description of another person’s view. As such, a person can be wrongly accused of presenting a straw man because the accuser is mistaken about which position the accused is actually describing. I have even noticed that people sometimes assume that the writer must be writing about them when, in fact, the writer is not.

So, before crying straw it is a good idea to see what the person is actually characterizing. While it might seem to be distorted or exaggerated it might really be spot on.

While most straw men are distorted versions of specific views, there is also variation of the straw man which involves presenting a position that “no one” actually holds and attacking it. In many cases, these positions are attributed to vaguely identified groups (feminists, liberals, conservatives, etc.)  rather than specific individuals. While it is obviously legitimate to point out when people do this sort of thing, it should be determined whether the person is actually setting up such a generic straw man. As noted above, there are views that are really held that would tend to seem like willful distortions on the part of the person describing them.

There are various other ways to use straw men, but I’ll leave those for people to bring up in comments.

Switching now to lies, I have noticed that when I teach this fallacy my students inevitably ask about the difference between presenting a straw man and lying.

On the face of it, a straw man would be a form of lie. After all, a person knowingly presenting a distortion or exaggeration with an intent to deceive would seem to be engaged in an act that falls nicely within the kingdom of lies. As such, I do not see any significant problem with characterizing intentional straw men as involving a lie (or lies) as a component.  For example, when the health care bill Obama was supporting was characterized as establishing death panels and attacked on those grounds, then that would seem to qualify as both a straw man and a lie.

That said, there is more to a straw man than merely lying. As noted above, the straw man fallacy involves more than just presenting a distortion-it also involves rejecting the original on the basis of an attack on the distorted version. As such, it would probably be best to say that a straw man makes use of a lie (or lies).

The deceptive aspect of the straw man also brings in a moral element on top of the critical thinking element. After all, engaging in poor reasoning need not be immoral. However, the intentional use of deceit is often morally problematic (although, as people will no doubt point out, there are intuitively appealing exceptions). One obvious concern is that if a position is actually bad enough to morally require that deceits be used to attack it, then it would seem to follow that it could be justly criticized “in the flesh” rather than “in the straw.” No doubt there are exceptions to this as well-positions that are wicked or flawed and yet could not be defeated by arguing against them in their actual forms.

While many straw men do involve intentional deceits, there are others that do not. These are cases that involve errors.

One obvious example of straw man by error is when someone tries to honestly characterize a view and simply gets it wrong because the view is rather difficult to understand. For example, I often see such straw men in student papers when they try to summarize the arguments of a philosopher. These

Another example of straw man by error is when someone presents a straw man out of ignorance, sloppiness or some such reason. For example, a person might receive an email that distorts the Republican position on tax cuts and then go on to use that version in his blog. In this case, the person is not engaged in an intentional exaggeration.

To use an analogy, this could be seen as being a bit like counterfeit money. A person who knowingly creates a straw man is like a counterfeiter: she is created a deceitful product that she hopes others will accept as the real thing. Someone who accepts the straw man and unknowingly passes it on to others is like a person who gets counterfeit money and spends it herself, unaware that she is passing on phony money.

As with counterfeit money, the person who passes the straw man along in ignorance is not morally responsible for the deceit-she is acting in good faith and is also a victim. This, obviously enough, assumes that the person passing it on took a reasonable amount of effort to assess what was passed on to her.

Sticking with the money analogy, if I pick up some flawless counterfeit bills in my change at the grocery store and I pass them on to others when I buy things, I would seem to be an innocent victim. After all, the source is supposed to be safe and the bills pass all the tests I could reasonably be expected to use. However, if I am handed bills from a questionable person or the money looks a bit fishy, then I would be culpable (to a degree) for uncritically accepting them and passing them on to others.

If this analogy holds, then a person who passes on a straw man from others might be called to task for this or might merely be an innocent victim. In some cases it might be rather hard to determine which category a person falls into.

As one final point, people sometimes make the mistake of conflating errors and straw men. For example, I might claim that WikLeaks’ leak was a good thing because it revealed important new information to the public, such as the fact that Saudis provide considerable support to terrorist organizations and the fact that Pakistan also lends support to such groups. In response to this someone might say that I made a straw man because it is already well known that the Saudis and Pakistanis are supporters of terrorist groups.

However, there is a difference between merely being in error and making a straw man. To be specific, being in error is merely being wrong and a straw man is, well, what was defined above. In the example just given, I could be completely wrong (some have claimed that almost everything leaked was already available), however it would not be a straw man because there was no attempt to present a distorted or exaggerated version of a position. The main test (which is not perfect) is to ask what position, if any, is being distorted or exaggerated. If there are not plausible grounds for claiming an act of distortion has occurred, then it is more reasonable to claim that the person is wrong about the facts rather than accusing him of creating a straw man. Naturally, there will be gray areas in which it is not clear what is the most plausible explanation.

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Defending 42 Fallacies

One thing I have found interesting about making my popular (in both senses) work on fallacies readily available is that it generates some rather hostile criticisms. In fact, one such criticism, posted as a comment by argumentics,  was removed from this blog site.

When I found that the comment had been deleted, I was somewhat split in my view. On the one hand, allowing comments that go beyond criticism into hostility can be damaging to a blog by allowing the conversation to spiral down rapidly. On the other hand, criticisms should be taken seriously and addressed.

Of course, if someone wants his or her criticism to be taken seriously and considered an addition to the conversation, that person should present his/her comments in a suitable way. That is, in a civil manner.

While I will not reproduce the entirety of the deleted comments, I will present the criticisms made by this person (without the condescending remarks and personal attacks) and reply to them. This is mainly because I do not like to walk away from an attack.

Also, the criticisms raised by argumentics are not new-over the years the same sort of comments have arrived in my email. By addressing what I take to be misinterpretations of my work I hope to lower the chance of other people making the same mistakes.

Argumentics begins by claiming that there is “no single difference between your example of “Inductive Argument” and that of “Inductive Fallacy”. What resembles (and makes them both “inductive”) is that they are deductively invalid: their form is not that of a valid syllogism.”

Argumentics is in error here. What makes an argument inductive is not being deductively invalid. After all, affirming the consequent is an invalid argument but is not classified as an inductive argument.

While inductive arguments are all technically invalid (since an inductive argument can have all true premises and a false conclusion at the same time), they are not intended to be valid and are assessed by different standards.

Turning back to the examples themselves, they are different.

Example of an Inductive Argument
Premise 1: Most American cats are domestic house cats.

Premise 2: Bill is an American cat.

Conclusion: Bill is domestic house cat.

Example of an Inductive Fallacy
Premise 1: Having just arrived in Ohio, I saw a white squirrel.

Conclusion: All Ohio squirrels are white.
(While there are many, many squirrels in Ohio, the white ones are very rare).

The non-fallacious inductive argument is an inductive  syllogism (see comments below)and the specific example is a strong argument. After all, if it is true (which it is) that most American cats are domestic house cats and Bill is an American cat, it is very likely that Bill is a domestic house cat. In short, the truth of the premises makes the conclusion likely to be true and this makes the argument strong.

In the example of the fallacy, the inference is from one example (the white squirrel) to all Ohio squirrels. The truth of the first premise does not make the conclusion likely to be true, hence the reasoning is poor. It is, in fact, a classic example of a hasty generalization.

Argumentics also brings up a not uncommon comment, namely that my examples are not really arguments. For example, s/he asserts that the following is not an argument: “Equal rights for women? Yeah, I’ll support that when they start paying for dinner and taking out the trash! Hah hah! Fetch me another brewski, Mildred.”

Argumentics does raise a reasonable concern here. After all, the imaginary person does not clearly identify his premises or conclusion and could be taken as merely saying stuff rather than as committing an error in reasoning. As such, it would seem to be something of a leap to take this as a fallacy and also it could be contended that I should have provided an example with a clear conclusion and clear premises. For example, a “complete” example would look something like this:

Premise 1: I have mocked the idea of equal rights.
Conclusion: Therefore, women should not have equal rights.

However, the reason why I used the original example is that when people engage in fallacious reasoning in “real life”, they typically do so in a very rough and informal manner. In fact, sometimes it is so rough and informal that it might be a matter of reasonable dispute as to whether or not the person is actually even arguing. However, in the example I gave, the person seems to intend to reject the notion of equal rights for women on the basis of his making fun of the idea, which seems to be an appeal to ridicule.

I am willing to admit that this is a reasonable point of concern and is, in fact, one my students raise: how do we distinguish between a fallacy and someone merely saying things that sort of look like a fallacy (the same applies to non-fallacious arguments)? In some cases, we can clearly tell. In other cases, it can be a matter of judgment. What, I think, is important is being able to tell when good reasoning is absent-either because a fallacy is being committed or because reasoning turns out to be absent altogether.  At a later date, I should write more about this.

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42 Fallacies for Free

As a free gift to the readers of the Talking Philosophy blog, I offer my 42 Fallacies. It is a PDF book containing definitions and examples of 42 common fallacies. I assure you that it is worth every penny. For Kindle fans, it is also available for 99 cents (or the equivalent in other countries) in the US, the UK and elsewhere. 

Perhaps the best (and meanest) use was suggested by a friend of mine: email the file to someone with the subject “You really need this.” This could lead to a discussion on the ethics of using a philosophy book in an act of cruelty.

 

 

 

 

The book contains the following fallacies.

Ad Hominem
Ad Hominem Tu Quoque
Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief
Appeal to Authority
Appeal to Belief
Appeal to Common Practice
Appeal to Emotion
Appeal to Popularity
Appeal to Fear
Appeal to Flattery
Appeal to Novelty
Appeal to Pity
Appeal to Popularity
Appeal to Ridicule
Appeal to Spite
Appeal to Tradition
Begging the Question
Biased Generalization
Burden of Proof
Circumstantial Ad Hominem
Fallacy of Composition
Confusing Cause and Effect
Fallacy of Division
False Dilemma
Gambler’s Fallacy
Genetic Fallacy
Guilt by Association
Hasty Generalization
Ignoring a Common Cause
Middle Ground
Misleading Vividness
Peer Pressure
Personal Attack
Poisoning the Well
Post Hoc
Questionable Cause
Red Herring
Relativist Fallacy
Slippery Slope

 

 

 

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Fallacy Interview

For those who would like to learn more about fallacies or just hear what I sound like, I was recently interviewed on that subject. Here is the link: http://gnosticmedia.podomatic.com/.

Yes, this is a shameless act of self-promotion. But, it is not commercial in nature so it is okay. Right? 🙂