I bet I can guess what you thought this morning when you got out of bed.
“I really wish I could go back to college so I could sit in class and take quizzes and prepare for midterms.”
(My first thoughts are more along the lines of “Damn adulthood….”)
Now, I loved college as much as the next guy, and the pursuit of learning brings with it an incredible thrill, but there are just some things I don’t miss all that much from that time in my life.
Generally, class and quizzes and midterms are among those things.
Perhaps you’re like me. Even still, I hope you’ll let me run you through a quick course on fallacy.
Fallacy is important to recognize, because people use fallacies (knowingly or not) to manipulate others into agreeing with a specific point of view. Many criticisms against the Church involve fallacies designed to mask important considerations. Fallacies make arguments sound true, but actually cloud the real issues and conclusions.
More importantly, it’s easy to miss unless you know what to look for.
So, let’s talk about some things to look for.
An Introduction to Fallacy
Consider the following argument:
- (Premise) All mammals have hair
- (Premise) All dogs have hair
- (Conclusion) Therefore, all mammals are dogs (1) (2)
We know the conclusion is false, and as we look at the structure of the argument we can see that something is just not right.
This argument is actually fallacious, meaning that it breaks certain logical rules. Even though it may look convincing, the conclusion of a fallacious argument doesn’t follow from the premises (regardless of whether the conclusion is ultimately true or not).
Look at the argument below. It has the same form as the argument above, but that is a little harder to see:
“Among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, Jews have the lowest rate of intermarriage; the religiously more devout also have a lower frequency of mixed religious marriages. Thus, Jews are more religious than either Protestants or Catholics” (Larry Barnett, “Research in Dating and Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family).
Did you see it?
- Jews have the lowest rate of intermarriage
- The religiously more devout have a lower frequency of mixed religious marriages
- Therefore, Jews are more devout (1) (2)
Jews may be more religiously devout than Catholics or Protestants, but this argument doesn’t “prove” it.
Fallacies of Irrelevant Appeals
Appeal to Force
This fallacy is simple. It helps opponents “see the light” through threats, physical or otherwise.
Think of the Godfather – “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Appeal to Emotion
This fallacy tries to win over an opponent or audience by invoking emotions like patriotism, sympathy, hate, sexual desire, religious fervor, or fear. Advertisements are often built on this fallacy. So are liberal politics (oh snap!).
Consider this radio advertisement – “Before your children are abducted and your wife is mugged, join the Local Gun Club and protect yourself and your loved ones.”
Appeal to Ignorance
This fallacy points out that we don’t really know whether the conclusion is true or false.
Here’s an example – “People have tried for centuries to disprove astrology, but no one has ever shown that it doesn’t work. So, just to be safe, one should read the astrology chart in the newspaper and follow the advice it gives.” The idea is that since we supposedly don’t know that astrology is false, we should assume it’s true.
Fallacies of False Emphasis
This fallacy occurs when someone applies a good general rule to an “accidental” case where the rule does not fit.
For example – a child is punished via a “zero tolerance drug policy” when she brings her prescription medication to class to help control her asthma attacks.
Division and Composition
The two fallacies Division and Composition are related to each other. Division is when someone infers that when something is true of the whole it is true of the parts.
You cannot infer that each individual car part is heavy because the car itself is heavy.
Composition is just the opposite, where someone infers that when something is true of the parts it is true of the whole.
You cannot assume that a machine is light simply because all of its parts are light.
Similar to both Division and Composition, Slippery Slope occurs when someone identifies a range of conditions that are related, and then applies a principle to all of them.
For example – “Do you lie when someone asks how you are, and tell them you are great even if you are not? Do you lie to your wife when she asks you if you liked something she cooked, and you didn’t? Next you’ll be cheating on your income tax, cheating on your wife, and providing false alibis for your criminal relatives!” Not all lies are alike, as this argument supposes, and that’s why this is a slippery slope.
Fallacies of Changing the Point
This fallacy occurs when the premises of an argument do not support the conclusions. A non sequitur argument (Latin for “does not follow”) is an example of this type of fallacy.
For example – “No man will take counsel, but every man will take money. Therefore money is better than counsel.” Obviously, what one will or will not “take” tells us little about its value.
Or perhaps – “Whenever an employee wants a raise, I point out the the company gives part of its profits to starving children. Showing pictures of starving kids I ask how anyone could refuse to do their part in alleviating that suffering.” While everyone should do their part, it has little to do with whether an employee deserves a raise.
Argument Against the Person
This type of fallacy, also called ad hominem, is committed when someone attacks their opponent instead of their opponents argument.
For example – “My opponent has presented a very clever argument. However, his conclusion is disgusting and sounds like something Adolf Hitler would say. In fact, he even looks a bit like Hitler from behind! Would you support Hitler? I know I wouldn’t.”
This fallacy occurs when you distort an opponents argument into something easier to knock down (like turning an opponent in a physical conflict into a straw man).
For example – “You say I shouldn’t be allowed to carry a concealed weapon on campus. But the only reason I carry a concealed weapon is for my own defense. Are you saying that I don’t have the right to defend myself? If someone mugs me, I am supposed to just stand still and let them beat me? In fact, maybe I should just hand them my wallet and keys, apologizing for not having more cash and that my car is almost out of gas. Is that what you’re saying?” In this example, the argument was changed from carrying concealed weapons right away to an argument about self defense, but the way they are linked makes them look the same.
This fallacy involves a question that is more than one question, and any answer will leave you in trouble.
The question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is an example. If you answer “No,” you are saying, “No, I am still beating my wife.” If you answer “Yes,” you are saying, “I beat my wife, but I stopped.” This question combines, “Have you ever beat your wife? Are you beating your wife now?”, to which you could then answer, “No.”
Begging the Question
These are sometimes called “circular arguments.” It is when the point you are trying to prove is assumed as the conclusion.
For example, “I didn’t steal! I’m not a thief!”
This fallacy occurs when an argument provides only two choices, even when there may be more.
For example – “Either wealth is an evil, or wealth is a good. But wealth is not an evil. Therefore it is good.” Wealth may be either, neither, or both, and it may be good at one time and evil at another, or good for one person and evil for another. There are many more than two choices.
As another example – “What is better – an unwanted, unloved child who is neglected, or a fetus that is rejected quickly and probably painlessly before birth?” Here, there are also more options than just the two presented.
The fallacy of equivocation occurs when there are two words with different meaning that are equated.
For example – “Man is the only talking animal. No woman is a man. Therefore, no women talk.” In this example, “man” is used in two different ways (“mankind” and “male”), yet equated.
You could also use this example – “Rare meat is the most delicious. Ostrich meat is the rarest meat I know of. Therefore, Ostrich mean is the most delicious.”
Hopefully this will be helpful. I may refer back to it in the future if appropriate.
Keep in mind that while people may not always use these fallacies on purpose, they are a tactic of modern Scribes and Pharisees to draw people away from searching out the truth. Don’t be manipulated.