Logical Fallacies?

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

I vaguely remember when I first discovered logical fallacies (hint: it was not in a government school); I recall being thrilled that there were some boundaries for argumentation that could be used to reject some poor arguments and help find the truth of things. I have long used Stephen Downes’ site as a particularly good exposition of them, since it also includes instructions how to prove or disprove that a logical fallacy is in fact being used.

But something about them makes me a bit suspicious. For one thing, the ruling class often co-opts worthy concepts for its own ends: education, protection services, and news become indoctrination, police state thuggery and propaganda. Would they uncharacteristically leave logical fallacies alone, untouched and unsullied?

When I first encountered Downes’ site, I avidly read through it. I noticed something funny after a while, when looking at the examples of each fallacy that he provided, of which there were usually two or three per fallacy. There seemed to be a disparity. I started counting the examples of fallacies that might have been mouthed by a conservative, versus the number that might have been mouthed by a liberal. Interestingly, the conservative examples outnumbered the liberal by a large amount. At first I thought, “Well, Downes is a liberal college professor; one would naturally expect this bias.” Although it did make me wonder what his true intention was in publishing that website! I contacted him with this information, certain he’d want to fix his site and remove the bias by evening things out, since an impartial treatment would be more likely to help spread the knowledge of logical fallacies than a biased one would. He responded politely, but essentially blew me off!

Well, one questionable actor does not destroy the legitimacy of a concept; but I noticed something else. It seems every person working in this area has his own list of fallacies, and the lists do not match up. That was a bit worrisome.

And then I started wondering about particular fallacies. Let’s look at Slippery Slope.

First look at example 1, “If we pass laws against fully-automatic weapons, then it won’t be long before we pass laws on all weapons....” Now, it is not too hard to see what is fallacious about willy-nilly stringing together a bunch of “if-thens.” But to disprove it, we need only show that, “this final event need not occur as a consequence of P,” as the proof puts it? That’s it? Nothing more?

If that is all the proof need do, then any predicted sequence of events can always be called a slippery slope, a fallacy, because in the infinite universe of possibilities, in each step there need only be one that does not lead to the final conclusion.

To amplify this point, let’s just take a subset of example 1: “If the government passes laws on all weapons, then they will begin to restrict other rights.” Now, this is not hard to understand, since weapons deter bad actions; and absent the deterrent, more bad actions are likely to occur. But note, that is not 100% certain. What if Ron Paul was elected President just after the previous Congress had banned all weapons? Then we can be pretty sure the government would not start restricting other rights. It doesn’t matter how likely the outcome that is predicted, nor does the record of history matter. According to Downes, we need find only one counter-example and the prediction we are examining becomes a fallacy.

Now one could respond that the sequence could be properly argued by adding the word “probably” in each step. I suppose this is true (if formulaic), but doesn’t it also mean each step must be proved as “probably” true? We cannot trust human intuition on this. How much will the observer (with the typical short attention span) tolerate this? Does the ruling class bother with these niceties? It’s pretty fine for them if they can tie us down with rules that they themselves never bother to obey. In fact, that might be a good definition of “ruling class.”

Another one is Argumentum Ad Hominem.

The third example for that fallacy is, “We should disregard Share B.C.'s argument because they are being funded by the logging industry. (ad hominem circumstantial)”

The proof is, “Identify the attack and show that the character or circumstances of the person has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the proposition being defended.” In what sense does being funded by an interest group have nothing to do with support for that interest group? Downes is imagining a world filled with dispassionate and non-self interested people. The average man wants to bring home a paycheck to put food on the table for his family. He is going to bite the hand that feeds him and his family, to avoid committing a logical fallacy? I don’t think so!

One of the most important facts in the human world is that people act in their own interest. This overpowers almost everything else. Remember that old “banality of evil” thing?

It’s essentially impossible to prove that any proponent is affected by his character or circumstances, while only the terminally naive would say this means there is no effect!

What good is this fallacy anyway? People have an intuition about these things; they look at who employs the proponent, and this does not seem unwise. That is why proponents look so hard to find a disinterested or even supposedly hostile witness for their point of view. For example, the gun banners have recently taken to enlisting doddering old hunters in their silly campaign to deny us battle rifles (a smart tactic, but I suspect it won’t work).

I still think the concept of logical fallacies is important, and still think children ought to be taught it (this requires getting your kid out of the government school). But even knowing about the fallacies might not be enough. A certain amount of skepticism based on knowledge of human foibles ought to be part of every education. Eighty percent of the human world is self-serving bullshit. Even the concept of logical fallacies itself, I would argue, can be used that way. So look out for it!

Your rating: None Average: 8.5 (2 votes)
Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


Glock27's picture

Read Tarabay's diatribe regarding guns. Though not relevant to fallacies, oops, just maybe the whole article was a fallacy.
The author in the article jabbers about assault weapons, I have not figured out exactly what an "assault weapon" is. My understanding is that such and animal does not exist, but is a term confabulated by someone. The issue all rests on appearance. O-o-o-o-o. scary black gun. One point was true however, generally you only get one shot at an animal. If you are lucky you get a second because sometimes the animal has just not registered what has happened. Me. I want to have and shoot whatever I desire. Another thing which was entirely missed in the article is that many hunters purchase a long rifle for more than just hunting, especially today.
It seems to me that Paul has made an perceptive association regarding fallacies, which makes me ask the question, could not freedom also be a fallacy?
Thanks for the article Paul. It helps neophytes like myself in this realm.

Samarami's picture

Good food for thought, Paul.

    "...Eighty percent of the human world is self-serving bullshit..."

Fortunately, you and I are firmly ensconced in the other twenty percent -- right? (ha ha ha) Altruistic, humanitarian, philanthropic, etc etc.

Most of us who write and/or comment do so out of an element of self-interest. I have to feel that there is some pay-off for me by creating in your mind certain impressions you have about me through your reading of things that I write -- else I would spend my time away from STR and the stirring of minds in which we engage through libertarian discussion.

    One of the most important facts in the human world is that people act in their own interest. This overpowers almost everything else.

How true. And it's important to keep foremost in our minds the fact that those psychopaths -- often referred to with the acronym TPTB ("the powers that be") -- who claim to have "jurisdiction", understand that quite clearly. Which is why general, overriding fallacies are so pervasive all around us. They have been engendered and accelerated and inculcated into the minds of the hoi polloi since the rising of the rulers and the khans -- the progenitors of the empire to which we are hoping to see an end.

Delmar England phrased it thus:

    The prevailing (global) philosophy is saturated with popular fallacies so large in scope, so varied in surface type, so nearly universally accepted, they emotionally appear as unquestionable truth, as absolutes without alternative and not to be questioned. This is the atmosphere into which you were born and now live.

An example of "logical fallacy" is pointed up in your assessment of Downe's "Slippery Slope": the issue isn't the legitimacy of automatic weapons at all -- the issue is the legitimacy of "law". Mark Davis posted a good article a couple days ago pertaining to the "lifeboat" argument/fallacy. Mark summed up:

    Enlightenment is thus forsaken in the quest to avoid an admission that quaint emotional attachments overrule their reasoning capabilities.

I admire both of you for urging us to see through the detritus to get to the meat. Sam

Glock27's picture

"...people act in their own interest (self-interest!). I think this is a biological, evolutionary, primitive fact that has attached itself to human beings from the very beginning, and to escape the idea that we all operate out of self-interest I believe would leave us with a freak fallacy of its own.
Self-interest, from my perspective, pertains fundamentally to self-survival, the self protecting its "self" from embarrassment; to covering up wrong deeds and etc. I do not see how any human being could possibly escape the act of protecting their "self", other than socio-psychopathic individuals, yet these individuals also act out of self interest.
I look a Harry Reid, democrat. The man is a walking, talking, breathing fallacy and he does it all out of his personal self-interest.

Interesting points Sam.

Samarami's picture

In thinking about your essay and rereading it this morning, I see my comment of yesterday rather missed your main thrust: that truths that are intrinsic but contradictory to particular interests are often turned around to appear fallacious. And this can be done through various "lists of fallacies" such as Downes' and other similar web publishers.

Memes abound by showing basic truths to appear as examples of fallacies. Along the same line of thought John Hasnas (<== pdf) has this to say about "Anarchy":

    Anarchy refers to a society without a central political authority. But it is also
    used to refer to disorder or chaos. This constitutes a textbook example of Orwellian
    newspeak in which assigning the same name to two different concepts effectively
    narrows the range of thought. For if lack of government is identified with the lack of
    order, no one will ask whether lack of government actually results in a lack of order.
    And this uninquisitive mental attitude is absolutely essential to the case for the state.
    For if people were ever to seriously question whether government is really productive
    of order, popular support for government would almost instantly collapse.

Using the "fallacy" tactic it is not that difficult to identify anarchy as fallacious by those with an appetite for monopoly rulership -- and sycophants thereto, including virtually all media and probably 95% of the unwashed masses. Those of us in what is commonly called "the liberty movement" ('though I avoid "movements") should probably stay mindful of this gambit -- show it for what it is, but refrain from engaging in it ourselves. It's dishonest, phony to the core, and the subtle means by which liberty seekers are dissuaded from becoming truly free. Sam

Paul's picture

It's not surprising my point was not particularly obvious in this article, since I too have trouble seeing it! I'm just hoping people understand the concept of logical fallacies along with some necessary skepticism, rather with just faith. It's similar to my concern about "rights". There is no tool or meme, that cannot be turned around by the ruling class and used against us.