This post deals with several forms of invalid reasoning, and the first of these is Begging the Question, additionally known as Assuming the Answer, a form of circular reasoning.
As an informal argument, this is borrows from the form of a tautological argument, and a common fallacy, in particular involving factual, definitional, value, or policy claims or arguments which the conclusion of the argument, is one of its own premises, or reasons given to support it.
With this fallacy, specious in claims of fact rather than its use in pure mathematics or strict symbolic logic, where this form of argumentation can be valid if sterile, the premise assumes the conclusion’s proof as a given when this is the very thing that has to be demonstrated, especially in those arguments where the conclusion is in some way controversial or otherwise uncertain.
- I’ve heard that this house is haunted, and I saw a ghost last week when I was drifting off to sleep, so this house must be really haunted.
- Psi abilities are defined as a significant deviation from the laws of chance, so any significant deviation from the laws of chance must mean that psi abilities are operating.
- The uncanny precision of the fine-tuning of universal constants that allow life to exist requires the work of an intelligent agency to perform the fine-tuning, therefore an intelligent agency fine-tuned the universe.
- My gods speak directly to me when I read Their holy Word, since Their holy Word states that They speak directly to me when I read it.
- Of course Cthulhu will eat his brain if he reads that dangerous book, because if it wasn’t dangerous, Cthulhu wouldn’t eat his brain for reading it!
Employment of the phrase ‘begging the question’ in ordinary language isn’t a fallacy as long as no argument is being made, in the usage of ‘questions that beg for answers.’
Next in line we have…
This is a frequently encountered and generally rude flaw in arguments, from discussions to formal debates, though more conducive to annoying and heated quarrels than constructive dialogue, a common fallacy, and well-known as a red-herring strategy.
It’s use is most often appreciated by those who intentionally employ it, for this fallacy is incredibly easy to execute.
A quick and easy way to make it look like one won a debate is to deliberately misrepresent one’s opponent’s position, especially by distorting it to make it look ridiculous or weak and easily refuted to the target audience.
Once this is done, the user can argue against the misrepresented position and claim that the opponent’s actual argument has been summarily dispatched.
A Straw Man argument is an informal fallacy and its use is intended to avoid or distract from the real argument instead of actually addressing the position an opponent is actually taking, and for this reason is always a logically unsound, and often intentionally dishonest form of argument.
Included in this fallacy are such tactics as intentionally misdefining words, such as the following:
- “Global Warming is a religion, and policies concerning it shouldn’t be undertaken by the Federal government…”
- Misdefining ‘Gravity’ and ‘theory’ and ‘fact’ to declare that “Gravity is not a fact, just a theory,”
- Putting words into one’s opponent’s mouth…
- …and that all-time favorite of ideological apologists of all mutant strains, quoting one’s opponent out of context, even completely fabricating a quote, which becomes an Argument from Quotation.
Straw man arguments are often committed, not intentionally, but out of a genuine misunderstanding of an opponent’s position, so it is important to actually understand your opponent’s arguments before offering your rebuttal.
Believing that you understand an opponent’s position when in fact you do not is what psychologist Ray Hyman refers to as a Type III cognitive error. Needless to say, this is something to be avoided.
A few more examples of this fallacy are below:
- If humans came from apes, then why are there still apes? (The question is a lot like “If children come from adults, why are there still adults?”)
- “Evolution teaches that energy, such as heat or light, plus matter, eventually becomes new life.”
- Mainstream cosmologists ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit their preconceived beliefs and deny that there is an electromagnetic causation for anything in space.
- If you don’t think that psychic phenomena are real, then you must also disbelieve in dark matter and dark energy, because you haven’t seen those either, and therefore you deny that 90% of the universe exists!
That last is an example of a Reductio Ad Absurdum as well…
This fallacy probably takes its name from the idea of two individuals being at odds with one another, whereupon one builds a straw effigy of his foe, and destroying it, claims to have vanquished his actual opponent…
…but sources vary, and another probable origin for the term is the use of straw target dummies used by some military training camps for bayonet and combat knife practice by recruits, effigies that crudely simulate a live but immobile opponent for the purpose of repeated poking with sharp objects and other pointy things.
It is a straw man argument to claim that one’s opponent is committing a straw man, when the opponent is actually making a counterargument which deals with one’s argument using the definitions established from the beginning and in its true context.
And then there is…
…Shifting the Burden of Proof:
This is one of the more common intellectual strategies of anti-science contrarians, also called the Negative Proof Fallacy.
The intent is to attempt to shift the burden of proof for a claim away from oneself, and onto the critics, arguing that said critics must prove that the pet claim in question isn’t true, or to demand proof to an impossible standard of evidence that a widely accepted and otherwise well-supported theory is true. This last use is also a Moving Goalpost fallacy.
This is a fallacy because of a principle in science known as the Null Hypothesis, which demands that the burden of proof falls upon the party making a claim of fact that has yet to be established, not the claim’s critics.
Simply put, it demands that ‘Any new idea is to be considered probably untrue until it is tested and demonstrated true beyond the doubt of a reasonable person exercising critical judgment.’
This applies to all new theories, and any theory passing this gauntlet will become accepted by the scientific community at large, despite what you may hear from cranks. Any theory not passing this requirement is then relegated to the intellectual garbage heap of failed ideas.
Also, It is simply not possible to prove a universal negative, to prove absolutely that a claim of fact isn’t true with a finite data set. It may be possible to move the probability of something being true ever closer to zero, but you can never actually reach that with a finite amount of even negative evidence.
Nor is it possible to prove anything absolutely true, to a probability of exactly one excepting those singular documented events that have already happened, like life arising and evolving on Earth the way it has.
Repeatable phenomena can only be demonstrated beyond a rational doubt, which is really all that is needed in science.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s doubt is rational, thus leading to the commission of this fallacy by proponents of pseudoscience, who insist that critics explain away all of the data, to their satisfaction or demand that the critics explain absolutely any perceived ‘anomaly’ in a standard theory, such as evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics or such, again to a standard of satisfaction that cannot be met, arguing that if it is not, that the standard theory is ‘in crisis’ or ‘on shaky ground.’
It’s just a rhetorical stunt, and any attempt to thus improperly shift the burden of proof in these ways should simply be met with a refusal to comply with this intellectually dishonest tactic, and a firm reminder of on who the burden actually rests. It’s most often used when the proponent of a theory has no real positive evidence in favor of his own idea, which is usually the case in pseudoscience.
…The Tu Quoque Argument:
Tu Quoque is a Latin term, and in English it means “you as well.” It is a subset of ad hominem in which one attempts to justify wrong doing by arguing that one’s opponent commits the same, that one’s opponent is no better. This is a way of cheaply dismissing an argument without actually addressing it, as per a normal ad hominem, by attacking the one argued with rather than the argument. A few examples are provided below:
Why should I accept your contention that global warming is real, and at least partly caused by human beings, when you drive a gas-guzzling SUV of the same make and model as mine? Your argument is bogus!
I do not feel compelled to hold free elections in this country to restore peace when your followers in the opposition party commit just as much violence against my militia and others of my own tribe as you claim mine do!
and a third comes to mind…
Your argument that the evidence for psi is not sufficiently robust to establish it’s reality carries no weight when your organization launches scathing personal attacks against my institute’s staff in response to our criticism of your blind materialistic ideology.
Needless to say, I find it amusing to go on forums and skim over the threads for these and other fallacies. It’s even fun to pick out and identify new ones, or new variations of familiar ones, and just as fun to construct counter-arguments for the examples you see there.
While you probably won’t spontaneously develop pointed ears, arched eyebrows or a black goatee, familiarizing yourself with invalid reasoning can make it easier to identify it in one’s own argument even without being a member of the Evil Spock school of logic.