Five Logical Fallacies You Should Avoid
Healthy debate is a naturally mind expanding hobby. Discussing ideas that conflict and contrast with your own engages your brain in a profound way. But as we've seen this presidential election, healthy debate has lost a bit of its refinement.
The reason so many of these recent debates have felt like they don't really challenge ideas or illuminate ideological differences with their discussions is that most often they are full of logical fallacies that completely derail productive discussion.
What are logical fallacies? According to Wikipedia they are "pattern[s] of reasoning rendered invalid by a flaw in [their] logical structure..."
Basically they are common trains of thought that seem valid, but are inherently counterproductive.
So if Hillary says "How can you trust Bernie Sanders' gun control proposals, just look at his voting record on that one bill that one time," then she hasn't really made a statement about Bernie Sanders' gun control proposals. She has made a statement about a separate event, which she would then need to prove conclusively affected the current proposals.
This is why it's important to understand these fallacies and see them for what they are. We all make them from time to time, and they prevent our discussions from illuminating true differences, and prevent us to get at the heart of what we are actually discussing, agreement or no.
These are five major logical fallacies, explained so you can avoid making them next time you get into a heated debate. And remember that if someone uses them on you, immediately call them on it and explain why they shouldn't do it. You're helping them, I assure you.
An attack on the person, and not the argument.
If someone tries to hit you with an Ad Hominem attack, you smack them down. This is when somebody says "Tyler likes the Matrix Trilogy, you shouldn't listen to his explanation of why the Social Network is modern Shakespeare." So what if I like the Matrix trilogy?!
But seriously, attacking the person who makes the argument and not the argument itself is tempting, but incorrect. An argument is an idea, no matter whose mouth it comes out of, and to properly counter an argument, you must engage it directly. Discrediting the mouth it came from does nothing but attack the person and make the debate personal rather than ideological.
Appeal to Authority
Claiming that just because an intelligent or powerful person supports an idea, it must be true or good
The Appeal to Authority is kind of the opposite of the Ad Hominem, and equally useless. Even if Elon Musk is correct to fear artificial intelligence, his fear is not an argument for or against artificial intelligence, it is simply a reaction to it.
Intelligent and powerful people are wrong all the time. And wrong or right, their opinion on the debate you are having is irrelevant. The points they've made about the debate might be relevant, but their opinion is not.
Creating an exaggerated version of the idea, and attacking that idea instead
Straw Man arguments happen all the time, and they're easy to make. Say you're talking about gun control. Yeah, that's right. We're getting controversial up in here.
So we're talking about gun control.
Person A says that carrying guns makes people safer.
Person B disagrees, but instead of engaging a realistic idea of our current state of firearm freedom, they shout "Oh! So we would be the most safe if everyone had a gun on their hip at all times?! You really think that sounds safe?!?!"
Firstly, it doesn't sound safe to me at all. I can agree with Person B on that. But we can all agree that Person A is not proposing that every single person carry a pistol exposed at all times, but instead that our current society is functional, with responsible gun owners publicly carrying firearms that could be used to stop violence.
No matter where you stand on the issue, it's important not to distort the other person's argument. Neither party makes progress at that point, even if it feels like you're carrying the idea to its logical conclusion.
Making the assumption that a step in one direction is always followed by more and more
The slippery slope argument might be the most familiar to us all.
"If men can marry men, soon enough they'll be marrying goats and the undead!!!"
In fact the reason the Straw Man seems so easy to run to as a tactic is because the Slippery Slope fallacy makes you imagine that all ideas eventually wind up at their ultimate extreme.
This is simply untrue. Legalizing abortion does not make everyone get abortions instead of using birth control, as has been proven by history.
The person you engaged in the debate with and their idea are simply that one step. When you start criticizing steps you are assuming they may take afterward, you have stopped engaging the original idea.
Post Hoc / False Cause
Assuming that correlation equals causation
Post Hoc arguments are based in analysis, so they can feel legitimate. For example, many point to the legalization of abortion as the reason crime rates have dropped in the years since.
It is accurate that crime has dropped since the legalization of abortion, but without much more detailed study, we can't assume that this one factor made the change, when many many variables ultimately affected the outcome of crime rates.
People will make huge leaps in debates, claiming causation and trying to behave as though it's factual causation. And often people will let them if it seems logical enough.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled
Sometimes it seems harmless to let a logical fallacy go in a conversation. The other person may be right, but just making the point the wrong way.
I would contend with you that it's important to remind them that they are using fallacy anyway. To truly examine an argument, we must be sure we don't lose track of the subject.
Try to stay honest with yourself about your own tendencies to use fallacies, and keep others honest with theirs. You'll have much more productive discussions.
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