We have philosophical discussions every day. People think that philosophy is just abstract, metaphysical (and boring) conversations that lay people don’t have the time and energy for. Perhaps we moderns are too arrogant for our own good when it comes to dispensing with everything philosophical.
When you argue with Uncle John over whether or not you should take the covid-vaccine, or disagree with your friends about what kind of pandemic policy is the most efficient, you are having a philosophical discussion. It is easy to think that it’s simply political, economical or social, but at a foundational level, it is also philosophical.
And you may think, so what? The point is to have the discussion. Yes, I know, we moderns are so eager to have discussions just to prove our point. Maybe that’s what you’re after when you meet uncle John during Christmas and your friends at parties. But if we want productive discussions with the people around us, we should become aware of some of the most common assumptions and justifications in argumentation.
When Hegel was trying to make improvements on Kant’s work, and Kant was improving upon Hume, and Hume was improving upon Locke – this was a huge part of what they were doing. Trying to find the assumptions that are being used as a justification for why something must be the case. This is an integral part of what it means to be conducting philosophy. The justifications that people use in argumentations are commonly known as fallacies.
We all fall prey to these fallacies, maybe now more than ever, due to our rapid, hyper-novel environment. New information is thrown our way much faster than we are able to digest it. Being able to quickly identify the problem at the foundation of an argument that someone you’re discussing with are making, is one of the most powerful skills you can possess.
Becoming aware of these 8 ubiquitous argument fallacies, will create more productive conversations, and you will become a better communicator and a better skeptic. You will be less frustrated, be able to help your friends and family more when they’re confused, and become less susceptible of succumbing to bad arguments.
This article is inspired by episode #73 of the podcast Philosophy This!. I find it utterly necessary in this day and age, so I strongly encourage you to go listen to it.
Disclaimer: The examples used in this article are highly fraught and a source of division, so I have to make it explicit that this should not be taken as my opinions with regards to the covid-pandemic. I’ve tried to use examples from our present moment, as that is on everyone’s mind, and they are used to illustrate argumentations that are, in fact, fallacies. That does not imply that other arguments about the same examples may well be valid and true. If you find yourself annoyed by some of the examples, it might be because they expose a weak spot in your particular position, and that you are too attached to justifications and bad argumentations.
The consequence fallacy is when someone argues for how true or false something is by appealing to how much they like the consequences that arise – if that thing ends up being true. The argument usually goes something like this; if X, then Y will happen. Y is a good outcome – therefor, X is true.
People make the consequence fallacy argument with regards to all-things-covid all the time. “If you take the covid-vaccine (X), we will end the pandemic (Y). Ending the pandemic (Y) is a good outcome – therefor, covid-vaccine (X) is true (and should be mandatory.)”
It’s really easy to muddle up what the truth actually is with what we want the truth to be. This is especially demanding in a complex, novel and confusing time as we’re living through now. But we’re not getting any faster or easier “back to normal” by falling prey to this line of argumentation.
Affirming the consequent fallacy involves justifying a specific outcome on the basis of an occurrence. Just because you know that if something happened, a specific consequence would result from it – you can’t assume that that one thing that would have caused the consequence, actually happened.
A typical example from our present situation: you know that the typical flu-like symptoms will occur if you’ve got Covid-19. You see someone showing signs of these flu-like symptoms, you immediately assume they have Covid-19. Even though you believe in the precautionary principle, which is to be expected during a pandemic – with regards to argumentation, it is a fallacy.
The ignorance fallacy is well known and involves assuming that something is true simply because there is no evidence that has been presented that says it’s NOT true. This line of argumentation comes in many forms and flavors, but one of the most common is the personal incredulity variant; just because something is really hard to understand or doesn’t make sense to you – you assume that it must not be true.
The personal incredulity argumentation is ubiquitous in today’s environment. We’ve seen this line of argumentation not just from lay people, but from medical professionals, science journalists and other highly educated people when dealing with science related questions. An example of this can be found in the discussion of early treatment for Covid-19. If some doctors are finding ways to treat patients with Covid-19, so they don’t end up in the hospital – and that doesn’t make sense to another doctor. The scientific way of responding is by asking questions and participating in rigorous scrutiny to figure out if this should be implemented by more doctors. Not just conclude on the basis that “it doesn’t make sense”, and discard it as not the correct way of treating the virus.
In general the ignorance fallacy argument often involves trying to win, and doing everything not to lose an argument. Then everything is a zero-sum game, even the things that ought not to be.
The slippery slope fallacy argument makes the case that a certain position is bad because the acceptance of it will bring about not just it, but a sequence of events that will be horrible. An example of this line of argumentation with regards to covid-19 policy, can be something like; …”every effort the government makes with regards to limitations and restrictions, will lead to authoritarian tyranny – like the one’s we’ve seen in the past.”
This line of argument jumps the shark, and justifies comparison of our current pandemic situation to historical events such as Brownshirts and Stalinism. If you’re going to carry out such horrible comparisons, the argumentation needs to be backed by more evidence than just assumptions that it can bring about a horrible outcome. Otherwise you might be doing more harm than good.
The straw man fallacy argumentation takes a persons argument and paints a cartoonish, simplified and ridiculous version of it, in an attempt to have an easy target to attack when they’re arguing. To mischaracterize an idea and make it into a worse argument that is easy to refute, is MUCH easier than actually understanding the issues fully and refuting a more nuanced argument. This is a great way to avoid productive discussions.
We’ve seen, and probably experienced a lot of straw man fallacy argumentations during the course of the covid-19 pandemic. An example is a person that encounters someone that has not taken the covid-vaccine, and immediately starts spouting out claims about “all anti-vaxxers are deranged, insane and mentally disturb – just look at the other things they believe”. In this kind of situation you are asked to justify why you are a deranged, insane and mentally disturb person, not why you have chosen not to get vaccinated. This example could easily be turned around, with the person who have taken the covid-vaccine, being asked to justify their position based on a cartoonish characterization of people who are vaccinated. Either way, they both avoid productive discussions.
When someone uses the ad hominem fallacy argument, the main tactic is to sidestep the discussion of the actual thing you’re having a discussion about. It’s a kind of diversion tactic. Instead of focusing on the topic of the discussion someone will attack you personally in an attempt to discredit the source of the information, so they don’t have to argue against it. If you discredit the source, you don’t have to look at the beliefs honestly and you can ignore everything that comes out of that source.
We are living through a time of information overload. It seems to have lead to mayhem and mania with regards to assessing sources. One side, usually the minority, insists upon everything being false and misleading when it comes out of long-lived institutions and government organizations, while the other side, usually the majority, clings dogmatically to everything that comes out of Big Brother, like the state suddenly became their prominent caregiver.
This makes the ad hominem fallacy argument ubiquitous, and the examples are everywhere. In a landscape where everything can be labeled misinformation if it deviates from the narrative and without an honest look at the informational source, it will become a powerful tool. This line of argumentation often occur when the topic at hand is highly politicized and partisan, and the conclusions are made before the discussion even started.
The fallacy of false equivalence argument involves the goal being to use one or two attributes about a thing and wield those to pretend as though both things are the same. This line of argumentation aims to mask weaknesses in an argument by aligning one property of it with the properties of another that actually is legitimate.
An example of the fallacy of false equivalence can be found with regards to the discussion of covid-vaccines. A typical argument is that the covid-vaccine is just like any other vaccines. “Even though the technology is new, we know, based on the fact that it is a vaccine, that it is just as safe and effective as any other vaccines you’ve taken.” This line of argumentation attempts to use the attributes and legitimacy of traditional, long-lived vaccines, to certify an argument for a new, short-lived covid-vaccine.
Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with whether or not the safety and efficacy of the covid-vaccines is valid. We are talking about this particular line of argumentation being a fallacy.
The bandwagon fallacy argument makes the claim that because a ton of people believe in something, or because the majority of people believe in something, it must be true. How many people think something is the case has nothing to do with whether it actually is the case or not.
A classic example of this is that millions of people used to believe the earth is flat – that didn’t make it true. Today billions of people believe the earth is a sphere. The fact that they believe it doesn’t make it true or not, it is based on empirical data.
With regards to our current pandemic situation, which has lead to a worldwide crisis on almost every level, the bandwagon fallacy becomes a refuge in a time of fear and uncertainty. That doesn’t make what we “all” believe to be true in this moment, true. In the future we “all” might believe that the things we thought were true in the past, are now false. The truth will prevail in the end, no matter what we believe. Time will show.