A few logical fallacies and some nonsense

Ok, I know I said I’d write about TCP/IP ports and how to enable remote access over the Internet, but I lied.  I’ve had to read a few posts today by ignorant, conservative fundamentalist loons and just had to take a few minutes to write about a few of my favorite logical fallacies.

A logical fallacy is a pattern of thought which is demonstrably wrong; it doesn’t matter what you actually talk about, but rather what matters is how you talk about it.  All logical fallacies are known as non sequitors, which is Latin for “it does not follow”.

By far my favorite is the good old argumentum ad hominem.  An ad hominem is where you simply attack a person, belief, or something else that is of no substance to the argument at hand.  Prime example: I say evolution is true because of fossil evidence, biochemistry, archaeology, etc.  You then counter saying that evolution is false because I’m an atheist, and as an atheist I can’t believe in the power of creation.  See what happened there?  No response to the evidence for evolution, just an attackabout the lack of belief in religion of the speaker.  It’s an ad hominem and doesn’t matter.  I could be a Bhuddist, Hindu, or worshipper of the FSM; it doesn’t change the evidence, thus is irrelevant.

There is an inverse to the argumentum ad hominem known as argumentum ad verecundiam; this is where you attack a person’s credentials or past mistakes within the area of debate.  For instance, if I debate a person who has a degree in Theology about computers (a field in which I will soon have a PhD), I could use an argumentum ad verecundiam to say that the Theologian does not have the understanding of computers necessary to counter me.  I’m not a fan of this, however, as really it is just an appeal to authority.  A Theologian could very well be qualified to discuss computers, if they can demonstrate appreciable knowledge in the field.

Appeals to authority are by and large the biggest logical fallacy I see; well, so and so said it was true, so it must be true!  Enter the dumb fuck Jenny McCarthy.  Old Jenny is setting herself up as an authority as to what does and does not cause autism.  People from all over listen to this hag because she’s a celebrity, instead of listening to the evidence.  Jenny isn’t an authority on autism and has demonstrated no knowledge of the subject, thus we have an appeal to authority.  The causes of autism are determined by evidence, not the ramblings of a former centerfold.

Strawman!  This one is great, really.  A strawman is where you create a new issue for the purposes of attacking it; it means that you couldn’t answer the original statement and instead you need to divert attention to something you feel more comfortable wailing on.  For example, let’s talk about gay marriage.  I say gay marriage is just fine because I have no right to infringe on the rights of others.  You then say that if we allow gay marriage that it opens the door to all sorts of immoral behavior such as polygamy and bestiality.  See what happened?  You didn’t refute my statement about infringing on others’ rights, you simply created a new issue about morality, loosly aligned it with gay marriage, and then attacked it.

Oh, and that brings me to another fallacy, argumentum ad consequentiam , or agument from consequences.  Let’s look at gay marriage again and ignore the strawman argument about the immoral behavior associated with it.  This is an argument from consequences whereby you you effectively say that if we allow gay marriage (which you’ve not refuted), then the consequences would be severe.  So, you argue that since the precedent (immorality) is not desirable, that gay marriage (the antecedent) is wrong.  This specific form is also called modus tollens, which is where you try to assert that a condition is wrong because the outcome is wrong.  And the entire time, you’ve not refuted gay marriage, you’ve only made an appeal to emotion about the destruction of the moral fabric!

Another example of modus tollens is again with evolution.  Some morons believe that if evolution were true, it would lead to an immoral, Nihilistic society.  Unfortunately, even if that were true, it would not have any impact on the truth of evolution, so you’ve made a logical fallacy, or non sequitor if you will.  I always say that atomic theory is not wrong just because it gave us an atomic bomb and gravitational theory is not wrong just because your grandma fell down the stairs.

Poisoning the well: this is a good one!  This is where you try and set up a negative view of a speaker before they ever get a chance to talk.  A good example would be if someone introduced me as an atheist to a group of Christians right before I was to speak about the impact of computers on society and ethics.  My being an atheist has no impact on this, but the purpose was to make me look bad before I could ever discuss what I was there to discuss.

Moving goal posts is a favoriate of the evolution denying fundamentalist Christians/Muslims.  This is where you set a goal to serve as requirement of proof, then when the goal is met you simply change it again.  The purpose is to simply hold on to preconceived notions while trying to maintain some impression of legitimate interest.  You’re not interested in the goals, you just want to look as if the goals are impossible and you, by default, are correct.  For instance, we were told that evolution is wrong because we had never seen speciation.  Well, we have seen it.  Now we’re told it’s wrong because, well, the speciation was just a small change, we want a bigger change!  No change will suffice for these people.

False dilemma, or false dichotomy, is where you present two possible solutions to an issue as the only two, where in truth there may be many possible answers.  For instance, either the universe was created out of nothing, or it was made by god (of choice).  Well, what about the universe has always existed?  Which universe, what if there are more than we can see?  Or how about this one: you either believe in god or you don’t.  This leaves out agnostics completely, the guys who are on the fence.

And last, let’s talk about argumentum ad populum, or argument by popularity.  This is where you insist that something is true or false based upon the number of people who agree with you.  There must be a god because so many people believe in one.  Nope, that’s not an argument.  As the saying goes, if a million people believe a silly thing, it is still a silly thing (I believe that’s Thomas Paine).

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6 Responses to “A few logical fallacies and some nonsense”

  1. cl Says:

    Nice blog! I just stumbled upon it from ScienceBlogs, that thread where commenter ‘Bonnie’ has embarrassed herself to no end. Not to be a crank or anything, but there’s a few points I’d make to this article. Notably, what you list as strawman argumentation is actually the slippery slope fallacy. A strawman occurs when you attack a false caricature of your opponent’s argument. For example, if in a discussion about evolution, you’re arguing for PE and I offer arguments against classical gradualism, I’ve committed a strawman by attacking a false caricature of your position.

    Also, you’ve described the false dichotomy (also called the either/or fallacy) just fine, however, from a scientific standpoint,

    Well, what about the universe has always existed?

    You know this is like saying what if evolution has never happened, right?

  2. Richard Wolford Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, that Bonnie was intolerable. I will have to disagree about strawman, though. A slippery slope is when you accept something which is only slightly related to the argument at hand. For instance, if I concede that the human body uses electrical currents, it would be a slippery slope to then accept things such as psychic abilities; we’ve not gone that far yet. But you did represent a strawman, since you’ve raised a new issue and attacked it without discussing PE. But if I use PE to get you to try and accept something else, that’s a slippery slope.

    I’m not sure about equating the universe has always existed with saying that evolution has never happened, but I may not have been clear enough. My argument would be that the universe has always existed in some form, and within some of those forms life could evolve.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. cl Says:

    I was actually interested in hearing her arguments! She talked a big talk in the letter, no?

    Rereading your definition, I think it’s actually your example I got hung up on, not your definition. Here’s your definition:

    A strawman is where you create a new issue for the purposes of attacking it; it means that you couldn’t answer the original statement and instead you need to divert attention to something you feel more comfortable wailing on.

    This is correct, but it doesn’t always mean you were unable to answer a certain question, because it can be done consciously or via genuine misunderstanding. I can commit a strawman by purposely misrepresenting your position, or by genuinely misunderstanding it. In the latter case I’m not unable to answer you, I just misunderstood you.

    From Wikipedia:

    A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.[1] To “set up a straw man,” one describes a position that superficially resembles an opponent’s actual view, yet is easier to refute. Then, one attributes that position to the opponent. For example, someone might deliberately overstate the opponent’s position.[1] While a straw man argument may work as a rhetorical technique—and succeed in persuading people—it carries little or no real evidential weight, since the opponent’s actual argument has not been refuted.[2]

    So your definition seems intact. However, this is a slippery slope argument being introduced as a strawman, so that’s where I got confused:

    I say gay marriage is just fine because I have no right to infringe on the rights of others. You then say that if we allow gay marriage that it opens the door to all sorts of immoral behavior such as polygamy and bestiality.

    I suppose technically, this person is introducing a new issue and erecting a strawman, but note that the new strawman issue they address is in the classic slippery slope argument format: “If we allow X, Y and Z are going to happen for sure!”

    Make sense?

    So – my apologies – it was actually myself who misunderstood your writing (which is nice, BTW), and in doing so strawmanned you! Ha! What a kook…

    As for the evolution / eternal universe analogy, what I meant was that as with evolution, the vast majority of observable data fits the flat universe model. IOW, the eternal universe is about as scientifically implausible as the idea that evolution does not or has not occurred. But I agree you constructed a proper either/or fallacy for the purposes of illustration.

    At any rate – tangential question – for example the Bonnie thread – do you think anything positive comes of all the harsh ranting on some threads? I have mixed feelings about Pharyngula sometimes – not PZ – but the validity of the entire thing. Surely polemics and pundits play a vital role in a free marketplace of ideas, but it seems all the flaming just creates a bigger divide when we need people to start seeing eye to eye. What do you think?

  4. Richard Wolford Says:

    Actually yes, you make perfect sense, my example was a bit off I suppose, which isn’t a big surprise for me 🙂 I can’t much more into the definitions of the universe, however, as my expertise is certainly not physics 🙂 I’m more of the guy on the sideline just rooting for the teams so to speak, not actually playing the game.

    I also wonder if rants and such do more harm than good, but I think that for the most part they’re intended for those sitting on the fence and not the true believers. When all courses of logic and reason fail, ridicule is really the only last resort. A free marketplace of ideas is certainly idealistic, but with the caveat that not all ideas are equally valid or worthy of discussion. I think that the key is to demonstrate why ideas are not worthy (such as creationism and ID), and then summarily discard them. Those who cling to nonsense ideas only attract ridicule. Who was it that said the difference between a great scientist and a crackpot was that a scientist can admit when they’re wrong?

  5. Will Dwinnell Says:

    “By far my favorite is the good old argumentum ad hominem. An ad hominem is where you simply attack a person, belief, or something else that is of no substance to the argument at hand.”

    Isn’t your whole series of “Stupid Bible Quotes” one big ‘ad hominen’ attack? Your posting of Mar-02-2009 is an excellent example. The commentary provided with the quote clearly misinterprets the meaning of the quote.

  6. Richard Wolford Says:

    Nope, not at all; I’m attacking the ideas in and of themselves. And no, there is no misinterpretation whatsoever, it is verbatim from the KJV. Perhaps a course in logic would do you good.

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