The Ides of Science III: Logical Fallacies

In 1981 the Australian current affairs program “60 minutes”’ aired an interview between Australian reporter George Negus and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During the interview a poorly-framed question by Negus enabled Thatcher to skillfully dodge the question with a well-established political tactic. The exchange, which can be found here or here, went as follows:

Negus: Why do people stop us in the street almost and tell us that Margaret Thatcher isn’t just inflexible, she’s not just single-minded but on occasion she’s just plain pig-headed?

Thatcher: Would you tell me who has stopped you in the street and said that?

Negus: Ordinary Britons.

Thatcher: Where?

Negus: In conversation.

Thatcher: I thought you said you had just come from Belize.

Negus: Oh it’s not the first time I have been here.

Thatcher: Would you tell me who, and where, and when?

Negus: Ordinary Britons in restaurants…

Thatcher: How many?

Negus: I would say at least one or two.

Thatcher: I’m sorry it’s an expression I have never heard. Tell me who has said it to you. When, and where.

Negus: These are people we meet in passing… who tell us we have a tough prime minister but she’s a little bit pigheaded – she won’t be told by anybody.

Thatcher: Isn’t this interesting, even the tone of the voice you’re using is changing from what you used earlier.

Negas asked her to address the claim that she is pig-headed but clumsily framed it using the “some people are saying” technique (a technique that is still used today). Thatcher replied by addressing a different part of the question and turning the question back on the interviewer. This put the interviewer in a position where he would feel a need to justify his wording and, all of a sudden, the interview becomes about that rather than about the original question. Thatcher then concludes by attacking Negus personally by suggesting that his tone has changed, implying that he has become aggressive, forcing Negus to further defend himself.

It’s a skillful political tactic, but a very obvious one. One would hope that such an approach would not work in today’s media, but it probably would.

This is an example of a logical fallacy being played to its maximum effectiveness. Thatcher has successfully set up a straw man and manipulated the interviewer to address it. In doing so, she has successfully dodged the original question while creating the impression that the interviewer was treating her improperly.

 

Logical fallacies appear just about everywhere there is a case being presented. They appear in debates, discussions, arguments, news articles, journals, and I would be confident in saying that all of us have indulged in logical fallacies in making a point of our own. We may not even be aware that we have done so.

 

To state some examples, have you ever said or thought…

that something is true because you can’t prove that it is false?

that rolling a 6 on a die is less likely when you have just rolled a 6?

that something is true because a famous person said it was?

that something caused something to happen because the first something happened before the second?

that there are only two possibilities for something, when really there are more than two?

that a concept could not be correct because it cannot explain everything?

 

These are all examples of logical fallacies and are all incorrect positions. They are, in fact, so common that they have been given specific terms. In order, these are the argument from ignorance, Gambler’s fallacy, appealing to authority, false dilemma, and the Nirvana fallacy.

 

My goal in this blog is to raise awareness about the logical fallacies in the hopes that we can be conscious of them in the future. Rather than simply present a list of them, I thought I would present a short essay that is riddled with them This essay will be obviously flawed in many ways and it is not to be treated as serious in any way; my objective here is to include as many logical fallacies as I can while still maintaining a somewhat coherent narrative.

 

I would urge the reader to consult a full list of the logical fallacies. Wikipedia offers a great list and all of the links in the assessment below point to this page. This list also includes the syllogistic fallacies that I presented in the last blog: syllogistic fallacies are known as formal fallacies.

 

Here is the essay. See how many logical fallacies you can catch.

 

I Created our Galaxy

There are only two possibilities: Either I created galaxy or nothing did. These two possibilities are equally probable and since I did not create the Andromeda Galaxy then this makes it a certainty that I created our galaxy. We know of no means by which nothing created the galaxy, and it cannot be proven that I did not create the galaxy.

There are those that say that the galaxy formed by gravity contracting mass but this cannot be the case, since a contract is a legal agreement between two parties and a natural force cannot make a legal agreement with how much something weighs. The experts don’t agree as to how this can be done, so it is clearly incorrect and the most prominent advocate of the gravity argument is a questionable source because he regularly kicks his dog and has received millions in funding from NASA, which obviously has a gravity-focused agenda. On the other hand this other worker is very knowledgeable, has been in the field for 20 years, his work is at the cutting edge of research, and he once said that gravity may not necessarily be the only cause.

Therefore, until we have inconclusive evidence, we must conclude that I created the galaxy.

 

How many logical fallacies can you find?

I counted 24. Let’s break it down.

 

“There are only two possibilities: Either I created galaxy or nothing did.” This is known as the false dilemma, as we are presented with these two possibilities as if they are the only two.

“These two possibilities are equally probable…” This is known as the Ludic fallacy, where we make the claim that the outcome of occurrences can be presented as a solid statistic.

“…and since I did not create the Andromeda Galaxy…” This is an example of begging the question, as we are providing the conclusion of a claim as a premise.

“…then this makes it a certainty that I created our galaxy.” Here we are assuming that the occurrence of one possibility changes the chances of another possibility, an assumption called the gambler’s fallacy.

“We know of no means by which nothing created the galaxy…” This is a classic case of the argument from ignorance fallacy, as we are drawing a conclusion based on our inability to come up with an alternative. It is also an example of equivocation, since we are taking advantage of the multiple uses of the word “nothing”.

 

An Aside Comment

As an aside, here is an example of syllogistic logic that is also an equivocation fallacy:

Nothing is better than eternal happiness.

A cheeseburger is better than nothing.

Therefore a cheeseburger is better than eternal happiness.

Notice that this takes the correct form for a syllogism, as highlighted in the last blog. The fallacy here is not in the syllogistic structure, but rather that we are using two different usages of the word “nothing”.

 

Back to the Action

Anyway, let’s continue. Here is the end of the first paragraph:

 “…and it cannot be proven that I did not create the galaxy.” Here we are shifting the burden of proof. The burden is on the individual making the claim, so it is a fallacy to demand that others prove that the claim is incorrect.

 

Moving onto the second paragraph:

“There are those that say that the galaxy formed by gravity contracting mass but this cannot be the case,…” Here we are rejecting a claim because it is not precise; this is called the continuum fallacy.

“…since a contract is a legal agreement between two parties…” This contains two fallacies: we return to equivocation once again since we are broadening the usage of the term “parties”. We are also setting up a straw man here, as legal contracts have nothing to do with a scientific-based case that we are trying to present.

“…and a natural force cannot make a legal agreement with how much something weighs.” We are using the historical usage of the word “weigh” here and equating it with the modern term involving gravity. This is an example of the etymological fallacy.

“The experts don’t agree as to how this can be done, so it is clearly incorrect…” A classic case of inflation of conflict: The experts of a field of knowledge disagree on a certain point, so we conclude that the scholars must know nothing.

“…and the most prominent advocate of the gravity argument is a questionable source because he regularly kicks his dog…” We have three examples of “red herring fallacies” here, a type known as ad hominem. The first is the abusive fallacy, where insult an opponent rather than arguing the legitimacy of their proposal, and the second is poisoning the well, where we present adverse information about a person with the intention is discrediting their claims. The third is called tone policing, where we make a claim that is intended to provoke an assessment based on emotion.

“…and has received millions in funding from NASA,” This contains another ad hominem fallacy called appeal to motive. We continue our assault on an individual by questioning their motives, while continuing to avoid the validity of their claims. Another red herring fallacy makes its appearance here too: appeal to poverty, where we refute an argument because the target of our criticism is wealthy.

“…which obviously has a gravity-focused agenda.” This is a statement without any proof other than that it has been stated a few times elsewhere; this is called the proof by assertion fallacy.

“On the other hand this other worker is very knowledgeable,” here is another red herring fallacy called appealing to authority. This is the opposite to the ad hominem claims as we are assigning undue authority in an individual because of their credentials rather than the validity of their claims. The next statement continues along these lines with an appeal to accomplishment and an appeal to novelty:

“…has been in the field for 20 years, his work is at the cutting edge of research,”

And we conclude the paragraph with another continuum fallacy:

“…and he once said that gravity may not necessarily be the only cause.”

 

Finally, we have two logical fallacies in the final sentence:

“Therefore, until we have inconclusive evidence, we must conclude that I created the galaxy.”

The first is called moving the goalposts, where we dismiss a claim (in this case a counter claim) and further evidence is demanded. We also see the appearance of the Nirvana fallacy, where we reject a case because it is not perfect.

 

Concluding Comments

I hope this serves to highlight how logical fallacies are always a potential hazard for those forming an argument or making a case. Keep in mind that even peer-reviewed publications can fall victim of them.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude this blog with one final important fallacy, known simply as the fallacy fallacy (also known as the argument from fallacy). This is the claim that an argument is automatically rejected if it contains a logical fallacy. This is an important trap even for those that are sensitive to the logical fallacies. An argument may contain fallacious components but this does not automatically mean that we have cause to disregard an entire argument.

For example, one may believe that their government lies to them, but it would not be appropriate to believe that they are lied to by the government all the time. Each claim will need to be assessed on their merits and with the available evidence.

 

My advice is to treat each claim based on its own merits, and accept whichever parts of the premise are supported. Those that do not should not necessarily be rejected outright, but they can be temporarily rejected until they can be supported on their merits.

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