Time again to take a break from posting about tarot card readers who see leprechaun ghosts while giving readings to craniosacral therapists, and to spotlight critical thinking.
Critical thinking entails separating one’s self from biases in order to analyze an issue, then using a series of sound statements free of logical fallacies to support a conclusion. While this requires ongoing effort and can be challenging and complex, there are two simple actions that build critical thinking skills. One is sticking to the point. Most logical fallacies in some way deflect from the issue being discussed. Second, remember that an idea must have supporting evidence. Just throwing something out and expecting it to be accepted on its face is the logical fallacy of Begging the Question, which we’ll address later.
In purporting to prove the existence of God, columnist Matt Barber wrote, “The manifest intentionality and fine-tuning of all creation reveals design of breathtaking complexity.” He assumed creation was a given, then used that assumption to try and prove that’s why we see design in the world. But he had failed to support his conclusion with anything other than the conclusion worded in another way.
Still the most common critical thinking error is the Genetic Fallacy. This is when the counterargument fails to address the points made, but instead focuses on the persons making the argument, or their characteristics. If National Review and Mother Jones both ran columns on whether the minimum wage should be raised, it’s easy to know which side both would come down on. However, if someone wanted to argue against the conclusions, it would be inadequate to say, “That comes from National Review/Mother Jones,” and dismiss it for that reason. The issues raised would still need to be addressed.
A similar tactic is to Poison the Well, where an unrelated characteristic of the speaker is highlighted rather than his or her argument. If a conservative Christian outlined his proposal to stimulate the economy, bringing up his opposition to gay marriage and support of gun rights in an attempt to win over liberals would be poisoning the well. Unrelated stances on other issues should never come into play. “Helium’s atomic number is 2” is an accurate statement whether it’s uttered by a Supreme Court justice, an information technology specialist, or a serial killer.
Also, beware the Ad Populum fallacy. Your mother understood this one when she asked, “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?” The ad populum attempts to use a subject’s popularity rather than its merits to make the case. In arguing for GMO labeling, Bernie Sanders, said, “All over Europe, we’ve got dozens and dozens of countries which do label GMO products. We should be able to do that in the United States as well.” Nothing in his statement addressed GMO safety or outlined why such products should be labeled.
An opposite approach portrays a position’s unpopularity as proof of the believers’ elite status. This is common among conspiracy theorists, who feel they and their fellow independent thinkers (who swallow everything from the YouTube channels they subscribe to) are vastly superior to brainwashed sheeple. A third way this fallacy is used is in trying to get a target to believe that a position is the accepted one for a group the listener identifies with. For instance, it is almost de rigueur for Republican presidential candidates to do battle amongst themselves over whose positions most espouse true Christianity.
Related to the ad populum is the Appeal to Tradition, which holds that how long an idea or tactic has been used is related to its merits. But slavery lasted for millennium, while the polio vaccine came along just 80 years ago. The appeal to tradition fallacy is ubiquitous in New Age medicine, where a technique having been used in ancient Egypt, China, or Greece is highlighted to gloss over the lack of double blind studies indicating its efficiency. In most instances, the antiquity claim is also false, but even if true, the number of centuries thyme has been used to cure arthritis is unrelated to whether it will alleviate your aching joints.
This fallacy is sometimes manifested in the mantra, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But perhaps another approach would improve the situation, perhaps circumstances have changed since the current way of doing things developed, and perhaps new evidence suggests there is a better way.
Going back to the Matt Barber example, when writers claim as evidence for their argument the conclusion they are attempting to prove, they are Begging the Question. Often, the first claim is loaded with the conclusion the speaker has yet to prove. An example would be, “Teenagers are old enough to look out for themselves, so curfew laws should be abolished.” The conclusion assumes that the introductory phrase is correct.
Another fallacy is Appealing to Irrelevant authority. The opinion of experts in their fields should carry weight, especially the closer the expert opinion is to a consensus. The authorities could be wrong, but until that is proven, it is proper to defer to the experts. But this fallacy refers to touting someone as an authority even when they address issues outside their area of expertise. To cite Steve Jobs’ opinion in an argument over the best fuel injectors would be fallacious. The appeal to irrelevant authority frequently occurs when fitness, nutrition, or alternative medicine products are hawked by celebrities.
Speaking of celebrities, Justin Timberlake was the focal point in the use of a logical fallacy by a Grio editor this week. Timberlake tweeted the seemingly innocuous and biologically correct observation that there is only one race, human. This earned the wrath of Blue Telusma, who argued against this proposition because “People of color need their identities and cultures embraced.” However much this may be true, it failed to address the scientific evidence that race is a social construct. Telusma had committed the logical fallacy of the Argument of Consequences, where a position’s possible outcome, rather than its accuracy, is attacked. Telusma further argued that Timberlake’s position was compromised since he was white, which you likely recognize as a genetic fallacy. Curiously, she said nothing about his music, about which there is much to criticize.