Time for another critical thinking spotlight, where we will examine some of the logical fallacies that trip up an argument.
We’ll start with MAGICAL THINKING, where one event happens after another other, so a connection is assumed even if there is no causation. It could take the form of, “A black cat crossed my path and, sure enough, an hour later I broke my arm.” This was the logic that blamed hard rock for teen suicides in the 1980s. In a case from 1984, the parents of John McCollum blamed Ozzy Osbourne, specifically the song “Suicide Solution,” after their son took his life. In actuality, the song had an anti-alcohol message, but even if a song glorifies offing one’s self, it is not necessarily valid to draw a connection with listening to the song and acting on it. A teen can become aloof for many reasons and may use music as an escape from an increasingly unsatisfying existence. Unfortunately, some teens commit suicide and attributing it to what is on their iPod list requires magical thinking, AKA post hoc reasoning. These tragedies happened long before the advent of recorded music.
A RED HERRING is attempting to change the subject in order to divert from the real issue. A ticked-off driver examiner might exclaim, “A jayparking ticket?! Don’t police have real crime to worry about?” This reasoning is seen frequently in politics, as in, “The governor is touting the new bridges that opened ahead of time and under budget in order to deflect from his personal scandal.” This would be no more valid than an opponent saying, “They’re just bringing up the governor’s indiscretions because they want to deflect from his success with the bridges.” These are unrelated items and should be addressed individually.
Another way this ploy can be attempted is with the APPEAL TO HYPOCRISY, which is usually a subset of the genetic fallacy. Thomas Jefferson spoke some of the most eloquent words championing freedom, such as, “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Another gem was, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Some say his words are vacuous because his status as a slave owner meant he wasn’t practicing them. He was being hypocritical, but that does not lessen the legitimacy of his statements. In a presidential election year, appeals to hypocrisy are some of the most frequently-sited animals on the logical fallacy landscape. In the wake of the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal, I have seen liberals point out that Dick Cheney committed similar offenses, and have seen conservatives bring up Clinton when discussing Kim Davis potentially violating Kentucky’s Open Records Act. Cheney, Clinton, and Davis may have all violated the law, but none have anything to do with each others’ cases.
Next, we’ll look at the STRAW MAN, which is fabricating or greatly distorting an opponent’s position in order to have an easy target to attack. American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon said, “The humanist point of view is that man came from nowhere, is going nowhere, and has no responsibility to others.” Wildmon’s opening phrase is presumably referring to the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution, which are documented with strong astronomical, geological, and anthropological evidence, making them the antithesis of nothing. Going nowhere presumably means thinking they are not going to Heaven or Hell, nor even Purgatory or into a reincarnated body. While most Humanists might agree with that part, Wildmon’s insinuation that they lead meaningless existences is nothing he bothers to substantiate. Persons can grow, have valuable experiences, and help their fellow man without religion. The no responsibility line is borderline slanderous, as Humanists engage in robust charity work and fight for the underprivileged. By falsely creating a nihilistic, selfish, aimless opponent, Wildmon has an easy opponent to topple.
While not usually associated with critical thinking errors, we sometimes see the NON SEQUITUR in logical fallacy form. Imagine a homeowner saying, “I have added insulation and installed new windows, but am still feeling a draft, so I need to call in a ghost hunter.” This is fallacious thinking because we would need to first establish there is a ghost and that it is the source of the draft. This example may seem silly, but thinking this ridiculous happens whenever police departments use psychics to try and find missing persons or a murderer. There have been no cases where this has been successful, yet it is a method still sometimes used.
The logical fallacy that I committed most often in my pre-critical thinking days was the SLIPPERY SLOPE, and I was especially guilty of it when discussing potential legislation. I would dream up the worst possible outcome, which sometimes would necessitate anticipating a series of future events in order for this calamity to occur. I should have been able to speak for or against the legislation simply on the merits or drawbacks of it. For instance, Congress made an attempt to censor the Internet in 1996, and the way the law was written, it would have been valid to say, “It could be illegal to e-mail your 17-year-old brother the Birth of Venus.” It would have been a slippery slope fallacy to declare, “If this law is passed this year, it may be illegal to criticize the president the next year, and the year after that we could all be behind barbed wire.”
Like the slippery slope, the FAULTY ANALOGY lacks focus. It relies on two unrelated cases to make a point. Rep. Charles Rose defended taxpayer money spent on telepathy research by saying, “This country wasn’t afraid to look into the strange physics behind lasers and semiconductors.” Lasers and semiconductors were the consequence of steady advances using the Scientific Method, something remote viewing conspicuously lacks. Or someone might say, “Rational thinking and Dilly Bars are both mighty fine. But too many Dilly Bars will rot your teeth and make you fat, so too much rational thinking is bad for your mind.” The most common occurrence of this fallacy asserts that if we sent a man to the moon, we can eradicate drugs (or some other goal that could not be reached by the same methods that were applied in the Apollo missions).
While the previous two fallacies may wind all over the place, the FALSE DICHOTOMY by contrast artificially limits the options. This is where two (or maybe three or four) choices are presented as the only options, with no other choice or middle ground available. An example would be, “You serve either Jesus or Satan.” In fact, one could serve Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or no one. Another example would be, “You either support the war or hate the United States.” One might very well love the United States and feel that the war is not in its best interests.
With the COMPOSITION fallacy, the speaker incorrectly attributes the properties of one part to the whole. “Hydrogen and oxygen are both dry, so water is not wet.” Its opposite is the DIVISION fallacy, where it is falsely asserted that what is true of the whole must be true of the parts. “This is a great coaching hire. He played for Nick Saban’s Alabama teams, so you know he’s going to be committed and focused.”
Onto the FALLACY OF MISPLACED CONCRETENESS, in which an abstract concept is treated as tangible object. It occurs when declaring war on drugs, crime, poverty, or terrorism. These never achieve victory because they are abstract concepts incapable of surrendering or signing peace treaties. They cannot be shot, bombed, or interrogated for intelligence. A similar mistake is treating a word as equivalent to the act. Moral crusaders sometimes seek to eliminate references to thuggery in song, comic books, and video games in hopes this will reduce crime. This fails because words and deeds are separate.
Next, we’ll consider the ARGUMENT FROM NEGATIVITY. This is a frequent ploy of Flat Earthers, geocentrists, and creationists. In these cases, a supposed shortcoming in one aspect of astronomy or geology is considered proof of the alternate position. But even if your opponent is wrong, you might be mistaken as well. If your opponent says 2+2=5, that doesn’t mean your math of 2+2=7 is correct.
This fallacy is closely related is the APPEAL TO IGNORANCE, which is common among conspiracy theorists. In this fallacy, the speaker appeals to a lack of information to prove a point, or argues that since the opponent cannot disprove the claim, it is true. BBC, acting on information from an emergency worker that damage to Tower 7 meant its collapse was imminent, prematurely reported that it had fallen even though it was still standing in the background. 9/11 Truthers assert that since no video exists of the emergency worker saying this to the reporter that means it never happened, and that BBC was in on the plot.
Finally, we have the ARGUMENT FROM INCREDULITY, where one asserts an argument must be false because of the listener’s inability to understand it. But my ignorance of the intricacies of the internal combustion engine does not mean automobiles won’t run. Similarly, a lunar landing denier’s inability to conceive of how Mankind could have reached the moon doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Then again, if we didn’t send a man to the moon, maybe that explains why we haven’t eradicated drugs yet.