In this second post on discourse and debate we’ll take a look at the use of fallacy and other argument defects. Like my article on credible sources, I’m compelled to write this by the items I’ve seen shared on social media, and the comment debates that follow. Often when I bring up fallacies in conversation, some people will only hear the initial sound of the word and at first think that I’ve said “phallus”. Since these are two distinctly different topics of conversation I’ll throw in a couple of definitions to avoid confusion.
- A mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound arguments
- A failure in reasoning which renders an argument invalid
- Faulty reasoning
The definition of ‘argument’ is something we should get out of the way quickly as well.
- An exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one
- A reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong
Here I will be using the word ‘argument’ in the context of the second definition above.
I love to argue (second definition). The intricacy of debate, the thought process that it requires, and the educational, even mind-changing opportunities argument provides are extremely valuable to me. I will often take up a pro or con position on something contrary to how I actually feel about the issue (or on an issue I have no absolute opinion on) just for the chance to have a good debate. All too often though a debate that starts with arguments of definition 2, and quickly morph to one that is solely made up of this of definition 1. Even more often an exchange just starts as an argument of definition 1 and is just a “fight”. Either way, fallacies are the biggest enemy of a decent debate, and will quickly cause an exchange of ideas and opinions to devolve into something much less informative and entertaining.
Based solely on the definition of fallacy we should easily conclude that using them in an argument is not a good idea. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as the ‘fallacy fallacy”, which is the assertion that if an argument contains a fallacy its conclusion is false. Although it is often the case, use of fallacy does not automatically mean that the conclusion of the argument is false, just that the argument is faulty and unsound. That being said, it should be kept in mind that some fallacies, especially the fallacy of slippery slope, almost always ends with a false conclusion.
If you perform a Google search for “list of logical fallacies” you’ll find some links to lists which are quite long. I have a textbook in front of me (Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic) that dedicates an entire chapter to informal fallacies. There’s a list on the University of Texas at El Paso website that is long, but very informative, and one of my favorite resources, the Purdue University Online Writing Lab has a more concise list of some of the more prevalent logical fallacies. We’ll cover just a few of the most frequently used fallacies.
With that out of the way…
The “Slippery Slope”
The fallacy of slippery slope is a variety of the false cause fallacy. It occurs when the conclusion of an argument rests upon an alleged chain reaction and there is not sufficient reason to think that the chain reaction will actually take place”. [Hurley]
A favorite of politicians and so many others, especially when forming arguments around issues of ethics, this fallacy can be absolutely maddening. Most often this argument rests on “mere emotional conviction on the part of the arguer that a certain action or policy is bad” [Hurley].
Sound familiar? I personally have either seen or been directly presented with something like this in the last few weeks: “Legalization of same-sex marriage will lead to acceptance of pedophilia!!” (one of my favorites), or “polygamy!!!”, or “bestiality!!!”, or even better yet “people will be allowed to marry their [insert inanimate object here]!!!”
These argument come from a basis of emotion, usually fear, and I have yet to see one that includes any kind of rational, and fact based reasoning for the conclusion. This kind of argument comes from a place of weakness, and there is almost never an explanation for how event A leads to event B.
Ad Hominem (argument against the person)
This is another very often used fallacy in political and ethical debates. Sometimes it can be very subtle, and other times extremely bombastic. “Liberals/conservatives love to say [insert position here]” is an example of a subtle ad hominem argument. This kind of argument, usually in the form of a response or retort comes from the standpoint that a statement is made only because a person subscribes to a particular ideology, and that the particular ideology (liberal, conservative, etc.) is inherently flawed.
Another subtle ad hominem argument, one that I have personally dealt with recently is “you’re just confused about [simple and quite obvious concept]”. This one can be pretty insulting, and is generally thrown in when the arguer has little basis for their premise, other than insinuating that the opposing argument comes from ignorance.
The more ‘in-your-face’ “you’re an idiot”, “this guy is an idiot” or even better, “[some person] is an absolute idiot!” (emphasis mine), is a lot easier to spot, and often followed by some other fallacious statement. These kind of fallacies are seldom followed by cogent argument or factual statements about why the “idiot” is wrong. He’s just wrong because (the arguer says) he’s an idiot. Seldom includes any factual evidence of “idiocy” as well, since and idiot by definition is someone with a mental handicap or a very low IQ, which would require either medical evaluation or an IQ test.
Here’s the thing about ad hominem attacks: They almost always result when there is no cogent argument to be made, or when the arguer is unable to form one. Also, this is the kind of fallacy most likely to turn an argument from “A reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong” to “An exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one”.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc
Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”, this is one we’ve seen quite a bit, and it’s an easy one to spot. The fallacy is that if A happened after B, B caused A. Pat Robertson, an infamous Southern Baptist media personality, is predisposed to claims that natural disasters are caused by the moral failings of their victims. In a way this is an “armchair quarterback” version of the slippery slope fallacy. I haven’t had to personally deal with this one in any of my recent debates, I include it here mostly because “post hoc ergo propter hoc” sounds good. Latin can be entertaining.
Last one for now, I promise. When political debate heats up, like it is now, I notice a lot of this. Also referred to as “blind obedience”, it is an “over-reliance on authority, a corrupted argument from ethos that puts loyalty above truth” [UTEP]. We often here politicians of one party or another, one after the other, repeating the same “talking point” over and over. Seldom is there much justification for the position, just the repetition of the statement. Unfortunately, if some people here the same thing repeated enough times, it will become their “truth”.
It’s likely that you will notice this in your Facebook or Twitter feed. If you watch one of the ultra-partisan “news” outlets like Fox or MSNBC for more than 30 minutes I can almost guarantee that you’ll notice it. In fact, do both; Watch Fox and MSNBC for a while, then take a look at Twitter and Facebook. Not only will you notice it, you’ll probably easily identify the source.
In my utopian version of society everyone would take a logic class in high school, right along with civics, sex ed and PE. Everyone would have an understanding of how much the use of fallacy in their arguments weakens their position and can turn a debate from a valuable exchange of ideas nothing to more than a ridiculous back-and-forth of nonsense. All people would have the basic skills required to for reasoned and cogent arguments for what they believe, and the ability to change their position if they find there are none.
Since society is made up predominantly of human beings, this will never come to pass, so maybe the least we can do is try a little? If you are tempted to make a fallacious argument, call a friend and have them talk you down. Don’t let fallacious arguments go unchallenged. Call them out! Maybe, just maybe, if we stop letting these kind of arguments slide they will become less pervasive?