Friday, August 10, 2012

The Top 20 Logical Fallacies

What is a logical fallacy?

All arguments have the same basic structure: A therefore B. They begin with one or more premises (A), which is a fact or assumption upon which the argument is based. They then apply a logical principle (therefore) to arrive at a conclusion (B). An example of a logical principle is that of equivalence. For example, if you begin with the premises that A=B and B=C, you can apply the logical principle of equivalence to conclude that A=C. A logical fallacy is a false or incorrect logical principle. An argument that is based upon a logical fallacy is therefore not valid. It is important to note that if the logic of an argument is valid then the conclusion must also be valid, which means that if the premises are all true then the conclusion must also be true. Valid logic applied to one or more false premises, however, leads to an invalid argument. Also, if an argument is not valid, the conclusion may, by chance, still be true.

Top 20 Logical Fallacies (in alphabetical order)

Ad hominem: An ad hominem argument is any that attempts to counter another's claims or conclusions by attacking the person, rather than addressing the argument itself. True believers will often commit this fallacy by countering the arguments of skeptics by stating that skeptics are closed minded. Skeptics, on the other hand, may fall into the trap of dismissing the claims of UFO believers, for example, by stating that people who believe in UFO's are crazy or stupid.

Ad ignorantum: The argument from ignorance basically states that a specific belief is true because we don't know that it isn't true. Defenders of extrasensory perception, for example, will often overemphasize how much we do not know about the human brain. UFO proponents will often argue that an object sighted in the sky is unknown, and therefore it is an alien spacecraft.

Argument from authority: Stating that a claim is true because a person or group of perceived authority says it is true. Often this argument is implied by emphasizing the many years of experience, or the formal degrees held by the individual making a specific claim. It is reasonable to give more credence to the claims of those with the proper background, education, and credentials, or to be suspicious of the claims of someone making authoritative statements in an area for which they cannot demonstrate expertise. But the truth of a claim should ultimately rest on logic and evidence, not the authority of the person promoting it.

Argument from final Consequences: Such arguments (also called teleological) are based on a reversal of cause and effect, because they argue that something is caused by the ultimate effect that it has, or purpose that it serves. For example: God must exist, because otherwise life would have no meaning.

Argument from Personal Incredulity: I cannot explain or understand this, therefore it cannot be true. Creationists are fond of arguing that they cannot imagine the complexity of life resulting from blind evolution, but that does not mean life did not evolve.

Confusing association with causation: This is similar to the post-hoc fallacy in that it assumes cause and effect for two variables simply cause they are correlated, although the relationship here is not strictly that of one variable following the other in time. This fallacy is often used to give a statistical correlation a causal interpretation. For example, during the 1990s both religious attendance and illegal drug use have been on the rise. It would be a fallacy to conclude that therefore, religious attendance causes illegal drug use. It is also possible that drug use leads to an increase in religious attendance, or that both drug use and religious attendance are increased by a third variable, such as an increase in societal unrest. It is also possible that both variables are independent of one another, and it is mere coincidence that they are both increasing at the same time. A corollary to this is the invocation of this logical fallacy to argue that an association does not represent causation, rather it is more accurate to say that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but it can. Also, multiple independent correlations can point reliably to a causation, and is a reasonable line of argument.

Confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable: Because we do not currently have an adequate explanation for a phenomenon does not mean that it is forever unexplainable, or that it therefore defies the laws of nature or requires a paranormal explanation. An example of this is the "God of the Gaps" strategy of creationists that whatever we cannot currently explain is unexplainable and was therefore an act of god.

False Continuum: The idea that because there is no definitive demarcation line between two extremes, that the distinction between the extremes is not real or meaningful: There is a fuzzy line between cults and religion, therefore they are really the same thing.

False Dichotomy: Arbitrarily reducing a set of many possibilities to only two. For example, evolution is not possible, therefore we must have been created (assumes these are the only two possibilities). This fallacy can also be used to oversimplify a continuum of variation to two black and white choices. For example, science and pseudo-science are not two discrete entities, but rather the methods and claims of all those who attempt to explain reality fall along a continuum from one extreme to the other.

Inconsistency: Applying criteria or rules to one belief, claim, argument, or position but not to others. For example, some consumer advocates argue that we need stronger regulation of prescription drugs to ensure their safety and effectiveness, but at the same time argue that medicinal herbs should be sold with no regulation for either safety or effectiveness.

The Moving Goalpost: A method of denial arbitrarily moving the criteria for "proof" or acceptance out of range of whatever evidence currently exists.

Non-Sequitur: In Latin this term translates to "doesn't follow." This refers to an argument in which the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. In other words, a logical connection is implied where none exists.

Post-hoc ergo propter hoc: This fallacy follows the basic format of: A preceded B, therefore A caused B, and therefore assumes cause and effect for two events just because they are temporally related (the Latin translates to "after this, therefore because of this").

Reductio ad absurdum: These arguments assume that if an argument is valid, it necessarily means that the most extreme example of that argument must also be valid. A UFO enthusiast once argued that if I am skeptical about the existence of alien visitors, I must also be skeptical of the existence of the Great Wall of China, since I have not personally seen either. He therefore tried to take my skepticism to an absurd extreme in order to invalidate any skepticism.

Slippery Slope: This logical fallacy is the argument that a position is not consistent or tenable because accepting the position means that the extreme of the position must also be accepted. But moderate positions do not necessarily lead down the slippery slope to the extreme.

Straw Man: Arguing against a position which you create specifically to be easy to argue against, rather than the position actually held by those who oppose your point of view.

Special pleading, or ad-hoc reasoning: This is a subtle fallacy which is often difficult to recognize. In essence, it is the arbitrary introduction of new elements into an argument in order to fix them so that they appear valid. A good example of this is the ad-hoc dismissal of negative test results. For example, one might point out that ESP has never been demonstrated under adequate test conditions, therefore ESP is not a genuine phenomenon. Defenders of ESP have attempted to counter this argument by introducing the arbitrary premise that ESP does not work in the presence of skeptics. This fallacy is often taken to ridiculous extremes, and more and more bizarre ad hoc elements are added to explain experimental failures or logical inconsistencies.

Tautology: A tautology is an argument that utilizes circular reasoning, which means that the conclusion is also its own premise. The structure of such arguments is A=B therefore A=B, although the premise and conclusion might be formulated differently so it is not immediately apparent as such. For example, saying that therapeutic touch works because it manipulates the life force is a tautology because the definition of therapeutic touch is the alleged manipulation (without touching) of the life force.

Tu quoque: Literally, you too. This is an attempt to justify wrong action because someone else also does it. "My evidence may be invalid, but so is yours."

Unstated Major Premise: This fallacy occurs when one makes an argument which assumes a premise which is not explicitly stated. For example, arguing that we should label food products with their cholesterol content because Americans have high cholesterol assumes that: 1) cholesterol in food causes high serum cholesterol; 2) labeling will reduce consumption of cholesterol; and 3) that having a high serum cholesterol is unhealthy. This fallacy is also sometimes called begging the question.

- The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe -

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