Fallacies In Brief, Part 2

Today we’ll continue covering fallacies in brief.

Proving too much: When an argument leads to an overly-generalized conclusion. For example: The because some notable criminals listened obsessively to Rock and Roll, Rock must cause criminality.

This trick is rather obvious, of course, but it works as so many others do: by riding on emotions to bypass analysis.

Psychologist’s fallacy: An assumption, on the part of an observer, that his or her perspective gives them a special objectivity, especially about a behavioral event.

This is an arrogance, of course, and the name is often appropriate, because it applies to psychologists and psychiatrists significantly more than it does, for example, to carpenters or delivery drivers.

The primary factors that make the trick work are intimidation and authority. These, as we’ve covered in our primary fallacies, are emotional attacks; their purpose being to eliminate analysis and to gain fast victories.

Misplaced concreteness: Treating an abstract belief as if it were a concrete, real thing. For example, that evolution picks traits to be passed along (evolution is not a conscious entity) or that our “personal energy” attracts good or bad things to us (we can’t define physical energy very well, much less personal energy).

Referring to evolution or energy (or whatever) as symbolic things is fine, but to treat them as concrete and real often leads to bad conclusions. More than that, skilled manipulators can use the confusion generated by this error to confuse people and get them to go along with foolish and/or damaging things.

Special pleading: Maintaining that something is an exemption to a generally accepted rule or principle without justifying the exemption. “This time is different,” or “this case is different” are statements that need to be justified with facts.

Special pleadings tend to work when people really want something to be true. By helping them wish… by making it easy for them to hope and believe in what they want… a manipulator can get them to act rashly.

Circular reasoning: Reasoning in a circle, as when someone begins with what he or she is trying to end up with. A common example regards religion and the Bible:

God is real because the Bible says so, and we know the Bible’s true because God says so.

God may be real and the Bible may be a good book, but this argument is circular and proves nothing. It plays mainly to those who are confused or who want to believe in the first place.

Cherry picking: Pointing to facts that confirm a particular position, while ignoring facts that contradict that position.

If a speaker can assemble a list of facts supporting his or her new idea and torpedo opposing ideas well enough, people will tend to give up and take his or her cherry-picked facts as legitimate. This is something that especially bright and motivated people can sometimes get away with, particularly when they have the advantages of authority, status or intimidation. The economist John Maynard Keynes was such a man, and here’s what fellow-economist Friederich Hayek had to say about his use of this trick:

He was so convinced that he was cleverer than all the other people that he thought his instinct told him what ought to be done, and he would invent a theory to convince people to do it. That was really his approach.

False analogy: Using a poorly suited or false analogy as proof of something. For example: Physics teaches us that all things are relative, and so we can’t be sure of anything.

It’s first important to remember that a parallel doesn’t prove much at all. Analogies and metaphors allow us to communicate very richly (“a picture is worth a thousand words,” and such), but they are not proof, they are illustration.

And so, a well used analogy is a useful aid to communication, but is not to be mistaken for proof. Proof must be direct.

Jumping to conclusions: Drawing a conclusion based upon too few or inappropriate facts. This trick usually involves the harnessing of emotional pressures and weaknesses, then rushing them to a pre-chosen conclusion.

The solution, of course, is to notice the emotional pressures, to buy a bit of time (“Wait, I want to understand this…”), then to bring reason into the center of the discussion.

Oversimplification: Assuming that there is a simple cause or a few simple causes) of some outcome, when it may have been caused by any number of additional causes.

Again, this trick works by confusing, intimidating and/or rushing people through the process of judging.

Furtive fallacy: Assuming that bad outcomes are caused by having bad people in oversight. For example, in my youth is was continually said that certain political policies didn’t work, “because we didn’t have the right people in office.” And yet, half a century later and with many stark changes of the types of “people in office,” the same policies still haven’t worked.

In many cases – and very notably in political situations – it isn’t the people in offices that drive results: the structure of the system drives results. The placeholders don’t make very large differences.

Argument from ignorance: Assuming that a claim is true or untrue because it hasn’t or can’t be proven true or false. The fact is that a thing can be true, even though we don’t know how to prove it true. Likewise a thing can be false, even though we’re unable to prove that it’s false.

Appeal to ridicule: Presenting the opponent’s argument in such a way as to bring ridicule upon the opponent and/or their argument. This is intellectual thuggery, of course… it is malice cloaked in vocabulary. Sadly, however, it does work, mainly because bystanders will be afraid of being ridiculed if they agree with you. And so they may go along with a bad and ugly argument.

As we’ve noted before, being a clear thinker and protecting the minds of others requires emotional strength. In particular, we must be willing to bear the abuse of manipulators. Suffering is generally to be avoided, of course, but not at the cost of our minds. And if we care about others, we must be willing to suffer for their benefit as well.

We are moving slowly into a better world, but for now we may have to absorb abuse from intellectual thugs. The alternative is to abandon our best selves.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg