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.
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."
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.