The Top Four Logical Fallacies
In nearly 5 years of blogging experience, I’ve run across the same fallacious arguments over and over again. These have been reproduced elsewhere, as lengthy lists of logical fallacies. But there’s really no need for such long and detailed lists, unless you are a serious student of critical thinking. For casual debates, avoiding the top four logical fallacies will suffice. I will elaborate them here for easy reference.
- ARGUMENT FROM RESULT: This is the process of mounting an argument against a point of view, based on what would happen if that point of view were true. EXAMPLE: "If there is no God, then people would have no reason to keep from killing each other." FALLACY: This has nothing to do with the ontological question of theism. They are separate issues. Human laws plus fear of retribution deter murder. Either a deity exists or it doesn’t. Even if lack of belief in a deity could be shown to result in higher murder rates, it would still have no bearing on the question of existence or nonexistence of a deity.
- ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY: This is the process of mounting an argument based on the social station or position of the person who makes the argument. EXAMPLE: "stem cell research is unethical because the Pope says so." FALLACY: People in positions of authority are just as subject to error as anyone else. A person in authority is simply expressing their opinion. A person in authority has the burden of proof, when making an assertion, as anyone else would. This is also sometimes referred to as the "bully pulpit" from the knowledge that many humans simply unquestioningly accept statements made by authority figures. To our example, objectively, stem cell research can be shown to have the potential to cure millions of fully-formed and sentient adult humans at the cost of destroying a few non-self-aware cells. A close corollary of "argument from authority" is argument from "lack of authority." EXAMPLE: "The director of Jihad Watch is a Catholic, therefore he cannot be objective about Islam." FALLACY: Arguments or philosophies of a given organization, or published under a given banner, need to be evaluated individually based on their merits. Objectivity is the only cure for argument from authority or lack thereof.
- ARGUMENT FROM POPULARITY: The process of mounting an argument based on the fact of the number of other people who share the same opinion. EXAMPLE: "atheism is false, because 85% of people believe in God." FALLACY: Nearly 100% of people used to believe in a flat earth. They were all wrong. This seems self evident, yet it’s amazing how many times the argument from popularity is still used. Democracy itself is one big argument from popularity. As we can see, not only can a person win the popular vote and be wrong, they can be spectacularly wrong as we have seen with many disgraced politicians. Government by polls leads to incredible short-term thinking and it is incompatible with either long-term planning, or protection of minority rights. Popularity is subjectivity: depending on your point of view, it can either be "the wisdom of crowds" or "mob rule." Historically, it has been the latter.
- ASSOCIATIVE FALLACY: Also known as "guilt by association." This is an extension of the argument from authority. EXAMPLE: recently, in correspondence, I quoted Karl Marx to make a point. The respondent literally flipped out that I would have quoted Marx at all — ranting on about the "tens of millions of deaths" caused by Marxist philosophy. The quote I used was: "you have nothing to lose but your chains," referring to mental chains of subjectivity, unreason, and lack of critical thinking skills. It was simply a metaphor. FALLACY: Invoking a metaphor popularized by a particular individual should not imply agreement with everything else that individual said or did. The reverse associative fallacy is the error of concluding that correlation proves causation. EXAMPLE: The same correspondent asserted that a number of historical luminaries such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and John Muir should be valued because of their religious belief. FALLACY: As with Newton and Copernicus, religious belief was irrelevant to the achievements of these great human beings. They lived in societies where professions of belief were required in order for them to be politically respected. In almost all cases, the contributions we value from these luminaries fall in to the category of secular principles. Thomas Jefferson in fact, was one of the leading proponents of secular government–he was also a deist, which was as close as you could come in those days to openly declaring yourself an atheist. Jefferson rejected supernatural revelations. Newton and Copernicus were part of creating the framework which established physical causality for events, eliminating the need to use the "divine hand" for explanation. Though both highly religious men, Martin Luther King and Gandhi fought for principles of human equality, which were actually highly antithetical to the hierarchical structures of religion.