The fallacies I’m calling word formulas (and there are many varieties) are properly called syllogistic fallacies. That is, they are syllogisms that are used poorly.
A syllogism is, as you might guess, a word formula. Aristotle gets the credit for defining them, though people certainly used them beforehand. The classic syllogism goes like this:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
I think you can see the mathematical structure of this:
Thought A + Thought B = Conclusion C
People who study logic use precise terms for these parts (the ones above would be major premise, minor premise and conclusion), but in simple terms these are formulas built of words rather than numbers.
And, if used very precisely, a syllogism is just fine. The Socrates example above is a true statement. Socrates was a man, and was mortal.
There are serious problems with syllogisms, however. The first is simply to use them badly, kind of like this:
I’ve known eight drunks.
All were Spaniards.
Therefore, all drunks are Spaniards.
Obviously, eight drunks is a very small percentage of all drunks, and there’s no reason to think that there couldn’t be any other kind. Still the statement above is in the form of a syllogism, and errors like this (though hopefully not as obvious) happen all the time.
The other problem with word formulas is a far larger problem, and it is this:
Numbers are precise, words are not.
The number 2 will always be the same; every time it is used, anywhere in the world, even anywhere in the universe. Even a wild number like pi, which we still can’t define perfectly, is always the same everywhere in the universe.
Contrast that certainty with words: Even the most common words have fuzzy definitions. Consider these common words which nearly everyone seems to use a bit differently:
Happy, Nice, Super, Okay, Tall
In fact, most words take on different meanings depending upon their context. If I say, “Bob is very tall,” it has a much different meaning than describing an office building as very tall. Six and a half feet is a long way from eight hundred feet. Such words are fine for everyday speech, but they are not fine for a formula.
If we accept words as having a mathematic certainty, we’re almost certain to fall into error, especially in longer arguments. A fuzzy word in the first statement – a little bit wrong, or at least uncertain – can lead to massive errors a couple of statements later.
How The Trick Works
While many syllogistic errors are honest mistakes, I’ll give you an example of the word formula used as a dirty trick:
Years ago I found myself watching a televised argument between a man from the political Left and another from the Right. The issue of the day was a Middle Eastern group called Hamas, who was presently firing rockets at a couple of residential neighborhoods in Israel. The man from the Left was defending Hamas and the man from the Right condemning them. Their conversation went like this:
Left: We all believe in supporting democracies, don’t we?
Right: Yes, of course.
Left: Well, Hamas was a democratically elected.
Right: (Mumbles uncomfortably.)
Left: And so you must support Hamas.
Because he had accepted the premise of the man of the Left (the first statement, about democracies), the man of the Right was more or less forced to conclude that he should support Hamas… a group bombing families as they sat at their dinner tables.
This trick worked because of two things:
- The man of the Right followed, uncritically, a formula built of words.
- He accepted a first statement that was questionable, as if it were a perfect statement.
I think we can bypass another explanation of point number one (treating word formulas like we do mathematic formulas), but I think I should explain point number two.
By accepting that “We all believe in democracy,” the man of the Right accepted something that was really a statement of faith. Democracy, of course, is the great political idol of our time; the sort of thing that everyone will nod their heads to. And that is a core problem.
Regardless of democracy being the greatest possible thing or the worst, agreeing to something because everyone else agrees with it is a primary error: Everyone else doesn’t make anything right. Something is true if it matches reality. So let’s be very clear:
Everyone believing it or no one believing it doesn’t make anything more true or less true.
True statements stand on their own and false statements fail on their own. Popular opinion can change like the winds, and very frequently wanders far from the truth. Popular opinion, in fact, is where liars and manipulators ply their craft on a full-time basis.
So, everyone believing in democracy, even if true, matters nothing. And by buying into that, the man of the Right stepped into a trap.
Now, before we finish this section, let’s get back to honest mistakes:
Many people will accept a word formula argument because of the appeal to authority we covered previously. But usually, it’s an appeal to authority combined with confusion. It goes more or less like this:
- We find a structured argument being pushed toward us and feel a bit intimidated by it, perhaps fearing that we’ll be exposed as being not very smart or educated.
- Being intimidated, our thinking either slows down or freezes. When the next step of the argument comes along, we’re not ready to process it and we get confused. Our mind loses it’s grip on the argument.
- In that condition, we instinctively go for the opinion backed by authority, feeling that it’s the safest.
Bear in mind, please, that step #3 involves built-in brain routines: Our brains divide, automatically and within 40 milliseconds, between higher and lower status choices. That’s precisely the kind of thing we fall back into, without fully realizing it, when we’re confused and rushed.
What To Keep In Mind
When you encounter a word formula, the one thing you really need to keep in mind is that they are not to be trusted. There is a small chance that the word formula will be correct, and a much larger chance that it will not. Being critical in advance isn’t a very good thing in most of life, but it is when encountering word formulas. Treating them as suspect is a fitting starting position.
Once past that, remember to watch for imprecise words, and especially watch for feelings of intimidation or confusion. If you feel those, take a step back and start over slowly, something like this:
Wait, please. I want to be sure I’m following your argument here… You’re saying that every democracy is always good in everything it does? And you’d like me to agree with that?
From there on, it’s fairly easy.
More next time.