Tag Archive | Fallacy

Project Logicality | The Non Sequitur Fallacy

What’s going on when the reasons we give to support or refute a statement have no relation to it at all? What is the fundamental error of reasoning underpinning almost all logical fallacies, and when does this represent special cases?

Here we discuss the general fallacy of the Non Sequitur, Latin for does not follow.

This can generally refer to any sort of logical fallacy, any argument where a logical connection between premises is implied that just isn’t there.

This fallacy is often found with other forms of invalid reasoning in the very same statement. Here’s a couple of handy examples of the most common form:

Our cult shall be feared by all, for Azathoth is freakin’ scary when annoyed.

Human-caused global warming is impossible, because it’s cyclical, the ozone hole over the antarctic is closing, cow farts, and Mars is warming too, not just the earth.

But there are more specific named forms of this fallacy as well:

The Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle:

In which a conclusion is incorrectly drawn from two given or assumed premises, and takes the form of:

All Xs are Cs.

A is a C.

So, A is an X.

An obviously ridiculous example would be:

All birds generate their own body heat.

My cats generate their own body heat.

My cats are birds.

There is…

…Denying the Antecedent:

Which takes the form of:

If C is true, then D is true.

C is false.

So, D is also false.

A good example would be:

If I am in ancient Athens, I’m in Greece.

I’m not in ancient Athens.

So, I’m not in Greece.

This is absurd, as there are many locations and times in Greece other than Athens or the Ancient period. There is also…

…Affirming the Consequent:

which takes the form:

If C is true then D is true.

D is true.

So C is true.

An example:

If my Senior Technician intends to transfer me to another project, she’ll have a talk with the Program Director.

My Senior Technician is going to talk with the Program Director.

She wants to get me transferred to another project.

This last is clearly an example of invalid reasoning because the Senior Tech could be seeing the Program Director for entirely different reasons than those given.

One problem people sometimes have with this fallacy is that it can be subtle, and they are often too proud to speak out when they cannot see how an argument follows, or are too polite to point out its lack of relevance to the speaker.

It’s important to more specifically pick out what is being said even as a less general sort of fallacy, including the non sequitur’s aforementioned variants.

So be careful that what facts you bring to an argument are actually relevant to the point you’re trying to make. Otherwise, it may just fail the application of the “so what” test!

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Fully Updated, Retitled, Broken Links Removed on 2017.06.06)

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Project Logicality | The Appeal to Force

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(This post contains rough language, and at least one rather graphic example, not particularly kid-friendly, is provided. Then, this is not a kid-friendly blog, so no biggie.)

What happens when the threat of force is used as an argument? Is such use valid? If so, when?
Here we discuss the appeal to force, just for the sake of annoying pedantry, the argument from the cudgel, or the ad baculum fallacy.

It’s an informal, language-derived argument, often an irrelevant appeal, to compel compliance or even merely seeming agreement with a claim using force or its threat, whether physical, psychological, or legal.

It may be thought of as a subset of the argument from final consequences, and in a simple and slightly vulgar formulation basically amounts to:

Agree with me and do as I say, or I’ll kick your f**king *ss!

Or a bit less crudely,

Agree that I’m right because I’m badder and meaner than you are and I can light you up!

There’s also:

Do as I say, not as I do …or else!

That last might also double as an argument from authority, it and the ad baculum both being not-so-subtle forms of bullying.

It’s a fallacy when the threat implied or expressed used has no valid relation to the claim. It aims to exploit a demand for submission to authority or fear to substitute for good argument.

This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a classic example I’ve seen in one of my Great Courses lectures, of something attributed to Hitler, on hearing the then Pope’s displeasure with his policies, in which he allegedly said:

“…and how many tanks does the Pope have?”

Not exactly a rhetorical question.

But that nicely illustrates the use of this argument in exploiting the idea that ‘might makes right.’

Another example of this is Pascal’s wager, with its choice, actually a false dichotomy, of theistic belief while supposedly losing nothing and maybe winning everything, or non-belief and the supposed risk if ‘wrong,’ whatever that means. There are many unstated assumptions going into the wager without independent support, which if not presupposed undermine Pascal’s case, but I won’t deal with that here.

An ad baculum argument can have valid applications, as when the threat made directly relates to the claims and not just to overthrow discussion by substituting intimidation or fear for real justification of a claim.

There are those criminal penalties imposed as punishment in various legal systems. This includes crimes like theft, fraud, murder, and treason, with such penalties as narfling the Garthok, or maybe being consigned to Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor pit for making awful movie references on this blog.

Ouch.

For example:

If you read the forbidden (and completely made-up) haiku collection ‘Reflections on Infinity,’ horrible and nasty critters (equally fictitious) from the Outer Void (as made-up as the first two) will show up and slowly eat your brain. Attracting the attention of such horrors can be horrific, worse than death, as madness comes while they eat your brain. To best avoid this unpleasant fate, you must not read ‘Reflections on Infinity.’

Okay, so that was a little over the top.

With many arguments, sometimes using fallacies or not, valid or invalid use depends on context. The use of it for furthering is valid and invalid for squelching reasonable discussion.

Most such fallacies are not simple and easy matters of the argument structure. They depend on meaning bound up in language, which is not merely decorative filler as with formal logic.

Content matters. With informal arguments, content and meaning are structure.

One final note as well: an argument may be formally valid in terms of structure, yet informally invalid, committing a fallacy, or several fallacies, in the exact same statement.

So we must examine our assumptions going into an argument, and our reasoning to our conclusions on two fronts, both formally and informally.

And that, I think, goes a bit further to making us better, smarter thinkers, and more skillful with our reasoning as a means of self-defense for the mind in a post-truth world.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Project Logicality | Reducing to Absurdity

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48What happens when we carry a train of reasoning to its ultimate extreme, far past the reaches of sanity to the realm of the patently absurd? Here, we discuss such an argument in informal logic, borrowed from formal mathematical reasoning, and here known as the Reductio ad Absurdum.

In formal logic it may be used to show an argument’s claim to be false by following it to its ultimate logical conclusion, revealing a contradiction, an absurdity, or it may be used as a form of Straw-Man argument, known here as the False Reductio. I’ll deal first with the latter.

This works by forcing a conclusion that while absurd, doesn’t use the actual reasoning of the original argument, such as:

If you’re skeptical of the existence of UFOs, Bigfoot, and ancient aliens, then you must also be skeptical of the existence of the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, and the Empire State Building, since you’ve never been there to see those places.

This is fallacious because the proportional nature of the claims requires proportional standards of evidence. The criteria for each differ, and the argument itself ignores the use of evidence other than anecdotal testimony and grainy, low-resolution, or obviously photoshopped videos and photos.

Here is one of my favorites:

If you don’t believe in psychic abilities then you also disbelieve in dark matter and dark energy, so 90% of the Universe does not exist to you because you haven’t seen those either.

Again with ignoring evidence other than personally witnessing something. Also, it fails to consider the fact that though there is some question as to what dark matter and dark energy are, they have been reliably observed by their effects on the visible universe itself, and the evidence shows that they are real. Clearly, elusive supernormal psychic abilities and invisible but indirectly observable astrophysical phenomena are not analogous.

But all is not without a ray of light in the dark. There is an informally valid and intellectually honest use of this as well, to highlight the fallaciousness of some extraordinary claims. Here, the actual train of logic of the original argument is kept intact.

Here are a couple of silly claims I’ve come across:

The ancient Egyptians could not have built the pyramids without alien or Atlantean help. They were far too primitive a civilization.

 

In order to know what a human skeleton looks like, the Maya and Aztecs must have been given X-ray machines by ancient astronauts.

Such claims reek not only of thinly disguised racism and colonialist arrogance, but stupidity and historical shortsightedness as well. Typical of most of the claims of pseudo-archaeology, especially where ancient non-whites are not given due credit for their accomplishments.

And skeletons? Come on, that’s just silly!

Meh!

Here, we may apply the same train of logic to what the proponents of these ideas, mostly whites of Western descent, dare not apply it to: historical Europeans:

How could the Medievals possibly have had the intelligence to invent such marvels as the crossbow, stained glass windows, steel armor and weapons, and those massive cathedrals! They had to get their technology from aliens, because they were too inept to come up with them on their own! They must have gotten medical imaging technology from the aliens too, because Medieval art has lots of skeletons in it, and how could they have possibly known what those looked like without using it?

Absurd? Clearly it is, and in retaining as closely as can be the reasoning of the original applied to another subject, it shows that.

A side note: Technology is cumulative, and evolves over time, with earlier, precursor technologies leading to better, more advanced ones, with archaeological remnants to show this progression, no matter the location, or ethnic and cultural makeup of the civilization. This is true even dating as far back as the Paleolithic with stone tools.

Never underestimate human genius. There exists brilliance in every human era, with no need to gift early peoples with technology from super-civilizations for such tasks as constructing even impressive monuments, which require only engineering, tools, and social organization which we know they had, as opposed to the claims of pseudo-historians in massive, and dare I say, monumental, arguments from ignorance.

But I digress.

Reason is a tool. Use it well and it will serve you reliably, leading to the acquisition of more true conclusions than false ones. But abuse it, and the content of the claims you accept and promote becomes much more prone to error. Especially when you misrepresent the chain of another’s reasoning for ideological ends.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | Moving Goalposts

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48Have you ever had a discussion with someone who never lets you convince them on some matter no matter the strength of the evidence? What’s going on when people, even perfectly sane, otherwise rational, and sincere people give excuse after excuse as to why the evidence and argument just isn’t ‘good enough’ to compel their assent no matter its truth or validity?

Note that it is easily possible to set the bar for evidence too low, but we can also make it impossible, or virtually so, to reach.

So here, I deal with a favored rhetorical tactic of cranks, pseudoscientists, grand conspiracy theorists, charlatans of all stripes, and yes, ordinary people in everyday discussion: the Moving Goalpost.

Most people are fairly closed-minded and find changing their stance on things uncomfortable. It takes good metacognitive skills, thinking about thinking, to correct this tendency.

The fallacy takes its name from an analogy with American football, in which the goalposts are always out of reach of whoever is carrying the ball, and continue to recede further still.

With this tactic, the more unreasonable the standard of proof for refuting or confirming the claim, the better. It involves either arbitrarily redefining one’s claims to put them conveniently out of reach of any disproof, or setting impossible standards from the very beginning.

The objective here is to avoid having to rescind whatever claims one is making, when one has a political, financial, personal, or ideological stake in a position. For some, no amount of evidence and reason is enough, and it shows in this use of rhetoric.

A couple of examples might be:

Show me just one experiment conducted in a lab on Earth that has ever created dark matter, directly measured gravity, manufactured a black hole, or generated controlled stellar fusion! Establishment Cosmology™ is silly, fallacious, and wrong!

This argument clearly sets impossible standards from the beginning.

It and what follows use a version of the “show me just one proof” gambit common among creationists and crank cosmology proponents (Sometimes those are one and the same!).

The next illustrates shifting standards of proof each time evidence is presented:

I want to see any example of a transitional species before I think evolution even remotely plausible! Just one!

Tiktaalik? Ambulocetus?

There are still gaps in the fossil record between those and what came before and after! Where’s the evidence for those??

You’ve filled in those gaps?

Now there are more gaps to fill! Fraud! Fake! Amoral evilutionist! Evolution is a sham!

It’s important to proportion to the claim just what criteria of evidence and logic you will accept, and to stick with that as your gold standard throughout. Set reasonable standards, then admit it and change your mind once those standards have been met.

Consistency might be called the bugaboo of small minds, but it’s what’s needed when assessing claims open-mindedly and rationally.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Project Logicality | False Causal Reasoning

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What goes wrong with our reasoning when we think backward from effects to causes, connecting events in ways that mislead us into inferring unsupported and often unsupportable causal accounts, those that on closer examination just ain’t so?

Here we have a closely related group of mistakes in reasoning, quite common, quite normal, but nonetheless leading us to make erroneous connections between events.

The first shall be…

…The Post Hoc Fallacy:

Also called in the Latin, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, (“after this, so because of this”)t has a very simple form, when events follow each other in time:

Y occurred before Z. What comes before causes what follows. So Y must have caused Z.

Examples follow:

I wanted to get revenge on someone, so I danced around my kitchen table, said a few profound-sounding nonsense words, sacrificed one of my gerbils, and a week later this guy I really hate was injured in an accident. The ritual must have worked like it was supposed to!

 

I had the flu, so I took some homeopathic remedy I got at the pharmacy and a few days later my flu went away. Seems to me that the remedy cured my flu.

There is also….

Confusing association with causation:

Also known by the Latin Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, so because of this”), this fallacy also has a rather basic, though subtly different construction from the previous fallacy:

X is found with Y. Things found together are connected. So X caused Y.

Some examples follow:

I got a really good test score while wearing my propeller beanie, So I think that wearing a propeller beanie improves test scores!

 

My horoscope forecast a rough day for me during the conjunction of Pluto and Jupiter with the center of our galaxy, and it was in fact very stressful and hectic. So the cosmic conjunction must have been responsible for my bad day.

These fallacies have resulted in much in the way of superstition and magical thinking throughout human history, including the present day, forcing upon some the thankless task of social damage-control.

There is, too…

…The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:

Here one falsely assumes causes in random data patterns, giving them any relationship or meaning one wants to see, often unconsciously, frequently done in some paranormal research with the misuse of statistical methods, like interpreting statistical artifacts and anomalies as scientifically important evidence for the paranormal.

The fallacy takes its name from an imaginary gunman who randomly fires his pistol at the side of a barn while nobody’s looking, and then paints bullseyes around the holes so that he can boast of his skill.

So too, we have…

…The Wrong Direction fallacy:

This one would be claims like:

Tooth cavities cause overeating of sweets and sugary drinks!

 

Some forms of sterility in men cause ionizing radiation exposure!

Next up is…

…The Complex Cause Fallacy:

When one assumes only one out of a set of causes at the cost of the others, inferring causation only partially true, like:

I think that children’s reading ability just comes from getting older…

…when it is actually caused by both that and education as they mature.

The Joint Cause Fallacy:

in which one assumes causation between a set of things, when they are all caused by the same thing. For example:

Children’s math ability comes from their shoe size!

This claim despite the fact that both are caused by the development of children as they physically mature, grow, and learn.

And finally, there’s…

…The Regression Fallacy:

Inferring causes other than the tendency for extremes of chance to wander ever closer to a statistical average. A good example would be a chess-player who has strings of wins and losses in matches but overall comes out average over time, but feeling as if he is winning, or losing, in ‘streaks,’ a belief in the ‘hot hand,’ as it is known in sports superstitions.

Related to this is the Denial of Causation, such as when the fossil fuel industry dismisses anthropogenic global warming, with one among many spurious claims from their advocates being:

The world’s getting hotter each year, but it’s the sun, stupid! Human causation is impossible and presumptuous to even consider!

That despite obvious clear indications of reduced solar activity from observatories over decades. But mentioning that fact makes the discussion quickly devolve into one of silly Evil Conspiracies to Fudge the Data and Hoax the World to Wreck the Economy by Liberal Scientists™ or some such foolishness.

Another:

The HIV virus doesn’t cause AIDS. There’s no connection between HIV in the blood of those with the disease and immune deficiency. AIDS is just caused by lifestyle and/or diet.

Cue rants on Big Pharma Shills™ and conspiracies of evil doctors. Be those as they may, however,

It’s easily possible for any causal thinking to be spurious, but science offers methods to make correct inferences. Important in such arguments is taking into account any conceivable, testable alternative hypotheses that could be implicated in the actual cause of a given event. Untestable hypotheses of course, needn’t be considered as they are scientifically uninteresting. They are worse than wrong, and not even wrong.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | The Argument from Ignorance

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48One of the first things to discover when adopting a skeptical viewpoint is how vastly ignorant we all are of much of what there is to know. But ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s oblivion. And it’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge, is downright dangerous.

Here we deal with a common mistake in thinking that exploits ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge, the Argument from Ignorance, also the Appeal to Ignorance or in Latin, ad ignorantiam.
Using this argument does not imply that one is ignorant in any demeaning sense, merely that the one using it isn’t making a valid argument or a reliable claim.

It attempts to make a definite claim to understanding by using what is not known rather than what is. It often takes the general form of:

I don’t know X, so I know Y.

Or put differently it goes something like this:

No one has proven X false (or true), so X must be true (or false).

Or perhaps:

I can’t explain X, so I can explain X.

A few examples follow:

No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so Godzilla is real.

 

I’ve never seen any real, absolute, rock-solid proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so the Apollo missions were a hoax.

There’s no fallacy committed when there’s knowledge of missing evidence that should likely be found, and it’s known what the expected evidence should be. Absence of evidence in the right context is indeed evidence of absence when its lack is glaringly obvious, even if it’s not absolute proof of absence!

There’s no fallacy committed in and of itself when acting upon incomplete data for precautionary purposes, such as the threat of terrorists, who can be expected to operate in secret until they strike, if and when they do, or acting upon the threat of global warming in the absence of total certainty.

The following is a valid argument:

All of the scheduled openings of this library are listed. I don’t see a listing of it opening at this hour of the day. So it must be that the library is closed until two hours from now.

This, however, is not:

I see a strange light in the sky. I can’t think of an explanation for it off the top of my head, so it must be the aliens from Independence Day!

Or this:

There are gaps in the fossil record. I do not know of a plausible explanation as to why there are such gaps. So it must be that a Intelligent Designer has created or interceded in the creation of life.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, which is fallacious because it assumes implicitly that the current state of knowledge represents the ultimate limits of the knowable, which is just wrong on so many levels.

There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote floating about of a patent clerk in the late 19th or early 20th century who quit his job, because he thought that everything important had already been invented.

There’s also the silly claim, still circulated, that it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly because science can’t explain it, therefore it’s magic. Well, science has explained it, and it deals with the mechanics of a bumblebee’s wings and the physics of fluid dynamics.

This is understandable, even from perfectly normal, intelligent, sane, and sincere people. It’s reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly or easily to mind.

It just so happens that supernatural or paranormal explanations are among the easiest to conceive of on the spur of the moment. They are more immediately available, and we are more prone to them through the biases and mental shortcuts we take in our default thinking under whatever narrative influences our brains at any given moment, to paraphrase Dr. Steven Novella.

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the argument from ignorance is not a violation of logical form as much as an attempt to subvert efforts toward getting at sound explanations for our claims.

It’s important not to confuse a lack of evidence for its presence, though absence of evidence can indeed be evidence for absence in the case of demonstrating the existence of entities in the real world. If the data you logically expect to see as a consequence of a phenomenon just isn’t where is should be found, that’s a good sign that it’s not real.

The prudent position, the conservative one, is to abstain from postulating unobserved and unobservable things, or those which can and should be observed but tellingly are not.

Otherwise, belief in such entities comes down to a matter of faith, and that is entirely one’s own choice to make.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | False Choice Fallacies

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Here, we discuss a common error in reasoning, the False Choice, also known as the False Dichotomy, the Bifurcation fallacy, the Either-Or fallacy, the Fallacy of Negation, the False Dilemma, and for a common variant with only three options, the False Trichotomy.

This uses informal, or language-grounded, logic, and takes the form of a Dilemma, a class of argumentation that takes its effectiveness from resemblance to a formal argument known as a Disjunction.

A Dilemma, false or not, unlike a Disjunction, has a conclusion that follows only to a degree of probability, not necessarily or with complete certainty.

As a fallacy, this argument uses a misleadingly simple choice of two or otherwise too few options, one assumed as true to the negation, discredit, or rejection of all alternatives. In all variants, this falsely constrained selection of options are presented as though they were the only ones.

It generally takes the following form:

Either X or Y.

Not X.

So Y.

In any realistic choice there is often a much greater selection of options to take than rhetorically suit the purposes of those who like to use this argument strategy.

On occasion, however there are exceptions, when there do exist a restricted selection of options, as when a prediction made by a scientific hypothesis is either provisionally validated or falsified, or with the argument against theistic moral theories from the dialogues of Plato, Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Sets of choices that reflect realistic limits would not count as a commission of this fallacy.

I’ll provide a few of examples of the False Choice below:

Either young-Earth creationism is true or we came about through blind evolution. But I declare evolution to be false as it contradicts the literal truth of scripture, which I know to be true. Since evolution is false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

You either worship my God, or you worship the Evil One. You don’t worship my God, and since everyone worships something, you must worship the Evil One.

If these are redone as false trichotomies, we get:

Either young-Earth creationism, Intelligent design, or Darwinism is true, and since Darwinism and Intelligent design are false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

This argument completely ignores the vast variety of theological systems and creation myths of all the world’s cultures, past and present, misleadingly presenting an anachronistic 19th century caricature of modern evolutionary science, the creation myths from Genesis (Both of them!) as interpreted by biblical literalists, and Intelligent design as the only possible options.

There is also:

You either worship my concept of God, the Evil One, or the fleshy gods of materialistic science.

This ignores the fact that one may in fact worship nothing at all, no gods, no masters, no devils, no objects of worship of any kind, as is usually the case with atheists.

The rest are simple (and of course, simplistic) dichotomies…

You’re either a believer and a theist, or you’re a skeptic and an atheist.

Two words suffice to refute this: Martin Gardner. Look him up.

Anyone who doesn’t support the Patriot Act supports terrorists!

Either the girl broke her ex-boyfriend’s jaw with that slugger, or it started flying around and fractured his jaw by itself!

Either your cat stole my burrito or maybe a psychic just teleported in and grabbed it? Suuure…

If you are not with us, you are against us.

You’re either pro-choice or pro-life. There’s no middle ground!

Note that realistically, not all imaginable options in a set of alternatives need to be considered, only those options that are somehow meaningfully testable, as with the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, or the principle of theoretical economy.

Also, there is at least one other reason that this argument is not always a fallacy, such as when it is used to further the goal of advancing a critical discussion, and not merely block further consideration or thwart attempts to resolve a controversy.

Tf. Tk. Tts.