Some New Logical Fallacies

Skeptoid looks at some newer logical fallacies, often used in place of sound arguments.

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #217
August 03, 2010
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One of the most popular Skeptoid episodes ever was my early two-parter, A Magical Journey through the Land of Logical Fallacies. In it, we looked at some of the most common fallacious ways to argue a point; in essence, the use of rhetoric as a substitute for good evidence. Logical fallacies can be deliberately employed when you don't have anything real to support the point you want to make, and they can also be accidentally employed when you mistake compelling rhetoric for a sound argument. Good attorneys and debaters are experts with wielding fallacious logic, as are the most successful salespeople of quack products.

In the adventure of producing Skeptoid, I'm frequently deluged by logical fallacies in emails from those who disagree with me. On the Skeptalk email discussion list, we often have fun identifying such fallacies in news articles or promotions by charlatans. As a result of all this experience, I've compiled a list of some newer logical fallacies we've found most entertaining. Now, admittedly, some of these are pretty similar to the traditional fallacies, but you may be more likely to recognize them in their contemporary guise. Let's begin with:

Appeal to Lack of Authority

Authority has a reputation for being corrupt and inflexible, and this stereotype has been leveraged by some who assert that their own lack of authority somehow makes them a better authority.

Starling might say of the 9/11 attacks: "Every reputable structural engineer understands how fire caused the Twin Towers to collapse."
Bombo can reply: "I'm not an expert in engineering or anything, I'm just a regular guy asking questions."
Starling: "We should listen to what the people who know what they're talking about have to say."
Bombo: "Someone needs to stand up to these experts."

The idea that not knowing what you're talking about somehow makes you heroic or more reliable is incorrect. More likely, your lack of expertise simply makes you wrong.

Proof by Anecdote

Many people believe that their own experience trumps scientific evidence, and that merely relating that experience is sufficient to prove a given claim.

Starling: "Every scientific test of magical energy bracelets shows that they have no effect whatsoever."
Bombo: "But they work for me, therefore I know for a fact they're valid and that science is wrong."

Is Bombo's analysis of his own experience wrong? If it disagrees with well-performed controlled testing, then yes, he probably is wrong. Personal experiences are subject to influences, biases, preconceived notions, random variances, and are uncontrolled. Relating an anecdotal experience proves nothing.

Michael Jordan Fallacy

This one can be used to impugn the motives of anyone in the world, in an effort to prove they are driven by greed and don't care about anyone else's problems:

Bombo: "Just think if Michael Jordan had used all his talents and wealth to feed third world children, rather than to play a sport."

Of course, you can say this about anyone, famous or not:

Bombo: "If your doctor really cared about people's health, he'd sell everything he owned and become a charitable frontier doctor in Africa."

In fact, for charitable efforts to exist, we need the Michael Jordans of the world playing basketball. Regular non-charitable activities, like your doctor's business office, are what drives the economic machine that funds charity work. The world's largest giver, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, would not exist had a certain young man put his talents toward the Peace Corps instead of founding a profitable software giant.

Proof by Lack of Evidence

This one is big in the conspiracy theory world: The lack of evidence that would support their conspiracy theory is due to the evil coverup. Thus, the lack of evidence for the conspiracy is, in and of itself, evidence of the conspiracy.

Bombo: "The passengers on Flight 93 were taken off the plane and executed by the government."
Starling: "But there's no evidence of that."
Bombo: "Exactly. That's how we know it for a fact."

There are certainly things in the world that are true but for which no evidence exists, but these are in the minority. If you want to be right more often than not, stick with what we can actually learn. If instead your standard is that anything that can't be disproven must therefore be true, like Russell's Teapot, you're one step away from delusional paranoia.

Appeal to Quantum Physics

This is a form of special pleading, a scientific-sounding way of claiming that the way your magical product or service works is beyond the customer's understanding; in this case, based on quantum physics. That sounds impressive, and who's qualified to argue? Certainly not the average layperson.

Bombo: "Quantum physics explains why pressure points on the sole of your foot correspond with other parts of your anatomy."

Here's a tip. If you see or hear the phrase "quantum physics" mentioned in a context that is anything other than a scientific discussion of subatomic theory, raise your red flag. Someone is probably trying to hoodwink you by namedropping a science that they probably understand no better than your cat does.

Proof by Mommy Instinct

Made famous by antivaccine activist Jenny McCarthy, this one asserts that nobody understands health issues better than a mom. Mothers obviously have experience with childbirth and with raising children, but is there any reason to suspect they understand internal medicine (for example) better than educated doctors, many of whom are also mothers? Not so far as I am able to divine.

Remember that Mommy Instincts are no different than anecdotal experiences. They are driven by perception and presumption, not by science.

Argument from Anomaly

This one is big with ghost hunters and UFO enthusiasts. Anything that's anomalous, or otherwise not immediately, absolutely, positively, specifically identifiable, automatically becomes evidence of the paranormal claim.

Starling: "We found a cold spot in the room with no apparent source."
Bombo: "That must be a ghost."

Since the anomaly is, well, an anomaly, that means (by definition) that you can't prove it was anything other than a ghost or a UFO or a leprechaun or whatever they want to say. Since the skeptic can't prove otherwise, the Argument from Anomaly is a perfect way to prove the existence of ghosts. Or, nearly perfect, I should say, because it's not.

Chemical Fallacy

Want to terrify people and frighten them away from some product or technology that you don't like? Mention chemicals. Chemical farming, chemical medicines, chemical toxins. As scary as the word is, it's almost meaningless, because everything is a chemical. Even happy flowers and kittens consist entirely of chemicals. It's a weasel word, nothing more, and its use often indicates that its user was unable to find a cogent argument.

Appeal to Hitler

This one is inspired by Godwin's Law, in which Mike Godwin stated "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." Ever since, such arguments have become known as the reductio ad Hitlerum, or the Appeal to Hitler. It's a garden variety "guilt by association" charge, saying you're wrong because Hitler may have thought or done something similar.

Bombo: "You think illegal aliens should be deported? Sounds exactly like how the Nazis got started."

Starling gives the common reply:

Starling: "The Nazis also owned dogs and played with their children."

For good measure, Bombo comes back with a "straw man on a slippery slope" argument:

Bombo: "Are you saying everything about the Nazis was perfect?"

Proof by Victimization

Beware of claims from those lording their victimization over you. They may well have been victimized by something, be it an illness, a scam, even their own flawed interpretation of an experience. And in many cases, such a tragedy does give the victim insight that others wouldn't have. But it doesn't mean that person necessarily understands what happened or why it happened, and should not be taken as proof that they do.

Bombo: "My neighbor's wifi network gave me chronic fatigue."
Starling: "But that's been disproven every time it's been tested."
Bombo: "You don't know what you're talking about; it didn't happen to you."

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Victimization does not anoint anyone with unassailable authority on their particular subject.

Better Journal Fallacy

It's common for purveyors of woo to trot out some worthless, credulous magazine that promotes their belief, and refer to it as a peer-reviewed scientific journal:

Starling: "If telekinesis was real, you'd think there would be an article about it in the American Journal of Psychiatry."
Bombo: "That rag is part of the establishment conspiracy to suppress psi research. You need to turn to a reputable source like the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. It's peer-reviewed."

And so it is, but its reviewers are people who have failed to establish credibility for themselves, as have such journals themselves. There are actually metrics for these things. The productivity and impact of individual researchers can be described by their Hirsch index (or h-index), which attempts to measure the number and quality of citations of their publications and research. A journal's reputation can be shown by its impact factor, which measures approximately the same thing. Although these indexes are not perfect, you need not ever lose a "my peer-reviewed scientific journal is better than yours" debate. Look up impact factors in the Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports through sciencewatch.com.

Appeal to Dead Puppies

Sometimes tugging at the heartstrings with a tragic tale is enough to quash dissent. Who wants to take the side of whatever malevolent force might be associated with death and suffering?

Starling: "Thank you, door-to-door solicitor, but I choose not to purchase your magazine subscription."
Bombo: "But then I'll be forced to turn to drugs and gangs."

Oh no! What a horrible image. The Appeal to Dead Puppies draws a pathetic, poignant picture in order to play on your emotions. Recognize it when you hear it, and keep your emotions separate from the facts.

Add these new fallacies to your arsenal. And remember to keep an eye out for them: The spotting of logical fallacies in pop culture can be a fun game, like looking for state license plates on the freeway. Learning to spot them also sharpens your critical thinking skills, so be on the lookout.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Albrecht, K. Brain Power: Learn to Improve Your Thinking Skills. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980. 167-183.

Curtis, G. "What is a logical fallacy?" The Fallacy Files. Gary N. Curtis, 21 Feb. 2004. Web. 5 Sep. 2011. <http://www.fallacyfiles.org/>

Gula, Robert J. Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. Mount Jackson, Va: Axios Press, 2002.

Novella, S. "Top 20 Logical Fallacies." Skeptics Guide to the Universe. SGU Productions LLC, 8 Feb. 2009. Web. 5 Sep. 2011. <http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx>

Shuster, K., Meany, J. On That Point!: An Introduction To Parliamentary Debate. New York: IDEA, 2003. 313-315.

Whitman, G. "Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate." Glen Whitman's Home Page. California State University, Northridge, 29 Jan. 2001. Web. 5 Sep. 2011. <http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Some New Logical Fallacies." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 3 Aug 2010. Web. 19 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4217>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 162 comments

I especially love the "Someone needs to stand up to these experts" (Lack of Authority) accompanied by the "Mommy Instinct."

I have to combat those two all the freaking time.

I once wound up in a debate with Ray Comfort (I feel another one coming on as fall approaches, and he makes his traditional appearance at UCLA), and he used every one of these.

I remember his "Someone needs to stand up to these experts" appeal, where he immediately went into the Appeal to Hitler, followed by the Strawman on a slippery slope, followed by the appeal to dead puppies.

He was pulling them out faster than I could crowd-source the responses (we had laptops and google).

Anyway, his "Someone needs to stand up to these "experts"" was responded to with "Yes, we really need to stand up to all of these "religious" and "Biblical" experts who claim to know the word of God."

He actually used the "I'm just asking questions." bit, too.

It was so painful.

And he's not the only person like that. I am assailed by Vaccine deniers and Alternative Medicine types.

Matthew Bailey, Los Angeles
July 03, 2012 7:38pm

Hi!

I just wanna ask for your permission to translate this whole episode into Spanish for its publication.

In case my petition is granted, I'll send you a copy of the translation somehow before posting it anywhere.

Thanks.

Bernardo Álvarez del Castillo, Mexico City
July 04, 2012 12:05am

I'm not convinced by your Appeal to Hitler argument.
Bombo: "You think illegal aliens should be deported? Sounds exactly like how the Nazis got started."

Starling gives the common reply:

Starling: "The Nazis also owned dogs and played with their children."

Bombo might reply,"Given the difficulty in disentangling the relative importance of starting conditions in complex, real-life situations, it is up to the proposer to establish that the overall situation is different from the last time the proposed change was made. The objector merely needs to indicate that the proposed change was one of the starting conditions that lead to a situation we do not want to repeat. The more unwanted the situation, the stronger the onus on the proposer to show that the new overall starting conditions are sufficiently different."

Bill Birtles, Northampton, UK
July 04, 2012 3:44am

Starling: Did I just hear some kind of superstitious claim?

Bernardo Álvarez del Castillo, Mexico City
July 04, 2012 8:06pm

Don't know if this would be a 'new' fallacy, but lately I've been hearing more and more people say things like, 'well, just because he/she has a degree doesn't mean they know what they're doing/talking about...' I once proudly told my friend that my writing teacher, who had given me high praise, was published. He immediately said, 'That doesn't mean she's any good.'

No, it doesn't. But it also doesn't prove she's no good.

So weird.

Saphron, Alberta
November 01, 2012 2:13am

I think your fallacy is an Appeal to Lack of Authority. They have a degree, so its a piece of authority. They are experts. Hence, we gotta go and shut these experts down and show them who knows what... bleh...

Steven Melendez, Brooklyn, NY
January 11, 2013 2:03pm

No having a degree doesnt mean you are an expert. It means you are hopefully well trained and hopefully on the way to being a valuable member of the field you have studied within.

Possibly a visit to skeptoid blogs may clear this up?

Mud, sin city, Oz
April 10, 2013 3:36am

How about the fallacy that an expert on one subject is an expert on everything. "Mr Bombo is a medical doctor. He believes in ghosts, so they must be real".

Asquid, Halifax N.S.
May 26, 2013 7:20am

'Starling: "Thank you, door-to-door solicitor, but I choose not to purchase your magazine subscription."
Bombo: "But then I'll be forced to turn to drugs and gangs."'

FORCED?!?

The proper comeback to Bombo and others like him is:
"Since when am I responsible for your life choices?"

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
September 09, 2013 9:28am

I love the hitler one. I am in an unusual position as my last name is the same as the last name as hitler's propaganda minister, and in 1 out of every 6 conversations with a conspiriloon, they throw the obvious nazi reference right in my face right away, without even getting into debate..

InkyA, Illinois
September 20, 2013 8:01am

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