Many a young, impetuous acolyte, on first learning the lore of the Thinking Fallacies, seeks to infuse their knowledge throughout both their lives and those around them, but lo! such a path is fraught with danger, because the Fallacies are not easily tamed. Within inexperienced hands, they can be poor weapons, even dangerous to the wielder.
Ahem. ‘Scuse me. Anyway, this post began as a comment on the misunderstanding of just one thinking fallacy, but I soon realized that there were more that could be addressed. Thinking fallacies, or debating fallacies or logical fallacies, are common mistakes made in discussions or criticisms that fail to effectively support a position; they’re generally good things to know about. Yet, some are misunderstood or used incorrectly, and in one case there’s even a poster that inaccurately summarizes some of them. So, here’s a quick (but by no means complete) rundown of some of the most common abuses of them.
Ad hominem – An ad hominem attack doesn’t actually refer to being insulting. It only refers to a judgment on character being the sole reason to disregard someone’s argument. Feel free to be insulting, if you think it expresses your level of disagreement or contempt (and I’m very much behind it being warranted in too many cases,) but always ensure that your rational argument remains clear.
Occam’s Razor – This is frequently used as if it’s a law of probability, saying that the simplest explanation is always correct. Instead, what it means is that the more complicated some explanation or theory becomes, the more support is necessary, and chances are we’d see evidence of this support. But overall, it remains a weak argument and shouldn’t be used often.
Appeal from Authority and Appeal from Popularity (or, if you want to use the Latin versions and sound like a pompous jackass, Argumentum ad verecundiam and Argumentum ad populum) – The first means if an expert said it, it must be true, and the second paraphrases as, “this many people can’t be wrong.” But like ad hominem, these are fallacious only if they’re the sole argument. A consensus among people who work in the field of the discussion topic, however, stands a very good chance of being useful information, and it’s been demonstrated that a consensus of popular opinion can have a surprising degree of accuracy. The biggest problem with the latter is, popular opinion can be radically wrong as well, especially when influenced by culture, and the only way to tell is to know the accuracy ahead of time, making the appeal from popularity completely pointless.
Begging the Question and Special Pleading – I have seen so many different definitions of what these entail that it’s better off just enumerating what you see wrong rather than trying to sound smart by using either of these terms. To me (and the only way I ever use this,) “begs the question” refers to a question dictated by logical consequence, which is an obscure way of putting it, so let me illustrate. When someone says something like, “Most cases go unreported,” the question that is begged is, “How could you know this?”
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc and Middle Ground – The first means, “if B follows A then A caused B,” and the second refers to the best answer being in the middle of two extremes, a compromise. Like the phrases, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and, “correlation is not causation,” there is a word missing in all of them: “necessarily.” In truth, A may very well lead to B, the middle ground might be the best solution, and absence of evidence is the only possible thing that can be evidence of absence. Again, these are fallacies only if they’re the sole argument, a misuse or misunderstanding of logic.
Tu Quoque – Actually, I haven’t seen this used, so it’s a minor thing, but it has misunderstanding written all through it. Rough translation from Latin means, “You, also,” which helped a lot, didn’t it? Yeah, we need to stop using the damn phrases when they’re completely meaningless to everyone. What it is intended to express is hypocrisy, inconsistency, or contradiction from the same source; if someone argues in favor of capital punishment, but also against abortion because “all life is sacred,” there’s an obvious consistency problem. The fallacy isn’t the inconsistency, however; it’s using this inconsistency to render their argument (either part of it) wrong. Logically, both arguments should rely on the reasoning behind them – but that’s where anyone’s efforts should be spent anyway, for everyone embracing critical thinking. Wrong is a subjective term; just illustrate the flaws. Yet the inconsistency is a very relevant thing to highlight, because it reveals that the arguments have not all originated through rational consideration. In short, inconsistency highlights a flawed debate, but selecting the flawed side by how it compares to the other is tu quoque. Can’t say I’ve ever seen this happen anyway.
Fallacy Fallacy – If someone uses a fallacious argument to support their viewpoint, claiming that this makes their viewpoint wrong or flawed is the fallacy – they could simply be terrible debaters while their point remains valid. This means that what I’m about to point out is the Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy, because in the vast percentage of cases, anyone familiar with fallacies in the first place is not trying to establish right or wrong; these terms are, in fact, wildly misleading because they’re value judgments, not facts. Most discussions revolve around whether a particular standpoint is rationally supportable (or logically consistent.) Thus, anyone who uses a fallacy in support of their standpoint fails, leaving their standpoint unsupported. There may be other arguments that would support it, but this begins to delve into the “Not Negative” fallacy – the goal is to establish the support, not merely entertain the possibility. Which leads us to…
Right/Wrong, Win/Lose Fallacy – This is missed far too frequently, even when defining fallacious arguments, but discussion should never be about right or wrong, and most especially not a personal competition to see who wins or loses. Even science itself does not deliver proof, but merely the weight of the evidence and the probability of some state of affairs – in many cases, this weight or probability is so high that it’s close enough to “proof” for any practical application, yet we remain open to evidence that may disprove it later. In discussions, however, the goal should always be to examine the arguments, their supporting structure, and the reasoning behind them to see what makes more sense, or provides a greater understanding. The goal is not to see who scores the most points, but to have everyone agree to be on the same side. For all of the guides that can be found on logical fallacies and diagramming arguments, this little gem receives almost no attention at all, yet it serves as an excellent map for behavior.
There are perhaps more, and truth be told the misuses of these fallacies isn’t exactly an epidemic – this is more to illustrate that critical thinking is not partisan or biased, if there could be claimed to be a ‘proper’ application anyway. Fair’s fair, and we can at least try not to hypocrites.