Argument from Authority
This is a fallacy that I was guilty of for many years. An appeal to authority is when you take the word of an authority figure as truth because they are an authority. For example; 9 out of 10 doctors prefer trident gum, so trident gum is the best. Can you spot the issue? The key issue here is doctor. There isn’t anything in there that states what kinds of doctors are. It doesn’t say anything about what they prefer it against (maybe it’s trident vs rusty nails). What you see here is that these doctors prefer trident. Because they are doctors it appears to add weight to the claim.
It’s also important to note as to what this fallacy is not. So if you have someone who is an authority in the field in which they are argument, they’re claims do carry more weight. Still, the most important part is that they show their work and how they arrived at whatever conclusion or claim they are qualifying as truth. People are fallible, and can misinterpret things. However, data doesn’t lie. If the work is shown and we can see the data we as a collective can point out possible problems in it. This is why there is a peer review system in the scientific community. I remember hating to have to show my work. It thought it was a pointless exercise that wasted time. If I can do this in my head why do I need to show that I know it? Now, I understand that showing my work displays my understanding in a way that can be verified.
As a christian I spent a lot of time allowing this fallacy to permeate my life. I took those who were older than me and more read on the subject at face value. I thought what they said was true because of their position. I didn’t bother to think on the matter any further. Essentially the Bible was true because they said so. This passage in the Bible means this because they said so. Looking back I really should have turned on the critical thinking.
Definition: A fallacious argument that concludes a proposition to be true because many or all people believe it; it alleges that “if many believe so, it is so”.
Have you ever had your parents say “If everyone else jumped off a bridge would you?” I’m sure that drove you nuts as a kid. I know I did for me. There is some truth to this as well. There is a bit of truth to this however. Just because a lot of people believe something to be true doesn’t make it true. First example I can think of is the shape of the earth. Up until about the time of the ancient Greeks people believed the earth was flat (sorry it was well established that the world was spherical when Columbus sailed). Everyone believed the earth to be a flat plane (because that’s how it appears to us from our perspective), that didn’t change the fact that the world was round.
This fallacy is easy to fall into because we want to belong. We want to be like other people so we can fit in. We’ll sometimes even believe things we know are wrong just so we don’t segregate ourselves from people. I know for me I did this for a long while. This is known as cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to break away from this mindset but in order to believe true things (which has become a new goal of mine) we need to watch for these types of mentalities. Logic and reason are some of the tools that I now use to decipher if what I’m believing is true or not.
Appeal to emotion
An appeal to emotion fallacy is something that most people might already be aware of, with out being aware of it. Those Sarah Mclachlan commercials with the dogs. The ones that make you either cry or want to change the channel are a prime example of an appeal to emotion. What this does is to use imagery or stories that stir up an emotional response in people in order to “prove the point”. Sure these may be examples of what is being argued but just because something elicits and emotional response does not lend it to be a sound argument.
What I’m saying here isn’t that we shouldn’t change things because a fallacy is presented. There may be other arguments in there that are valid. In this example I believe we can agree that the mistreatment of animals is wrong. However it’s not wrong because of the images and stories told. It’s wrong because we shouldn’t cause undue suffering on them. There is a whole separate debate on whether or not it’s right to eat animals but that’s not the argument we’re having here.
If you’re looking for a good resource on logical fallacies I recommend YourLogicalFallacyIs.com It’s been great helping me understand what the difference fallacies are and how they are applied.
An ad hominem fallacy is when you use a personal attack on someone during a debate instead of attacking the argument. Something to the effect of when you put forth a solid argument, well thought out and presented perfectly. Your opponent retorts with something to the effect of “how can you trust someone who smoked pot in college?” It does nothing to address the actual argument but will make a person listening to the debate think lesser of the one being attacked.
I see this often in debates between theists and atheists from both sides. Usually from the theists because they’ve been backed into a corner and can’t find a logical way out. From the atheist side, usually a neck-beard trying to start a fight (yes I realize the irony of that statement). But in all honesty I think that putting down these sorts of attacks is not a productive way to go about debating. I think its ok to make an attempt to see the point of view from the other side of a debate. I think this makes for a better dialog. Also you can understand it with out accepting it.
Argument from personal incredulity
Essentially this fallicy is that just because you don’t understand something it’s probably not true. For instance, say you travel back in time 1000 years, ignoring the fact you’d die pretty quick from disease, and you try to explain that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, let alone the solar system. You’d probably be called a heratic, among other things, because the people would have no idea how that would even work.
I played into this fallicy hard for a long time. For instance, I couldn’t think of any other way for people to achieve self awareness on our own. God must have made us this way! This is commonly called the God of the gaps argument, we don’t get it therefore god. I would say that science and religion were meant to work together and anything science couldn’t explain must have been god’s doing. I guess I really didn’t understand how science works, but that’s for another post.
Just as a heads up the next few weeks of Definition Friday are going to be dealing with logical fallicies. I’ve been somewhat studying them in my spare time. There is a great resource here if your interested in reading more. I’ll spend a little time defining the fallicies and then give examples from how they’ve had an effect on my life. Anyway on with the show!
Special pleading, sometimes referred to as “moving the goalposts”, is when one puts out a specific set of rules, or premises that apply to everything inside a set and then saying that something inside that same set has a different set of rules. A good real world example of this is nepotism. A company has a set of standards that every applicant must go through in order to be hired. The company’s owner wants his son to work at the company even though he isn’t qualified. The owner tells HR to put him in the job anyway, circumventing the rule that applies to everyone.
Bringing this back around to my atheism, I never realized how much special pleading is used in defense of god. The first that comes to mind is “killing people is wrong, unless god does it. Then it’s ok because it’s his will.” I’ve heard people say that “he created us so he can destroy us.” Really? I created my son does that make it ok for me to kill him? Me thinks no. What kind of mental gymnastics did I go through to think that this was in anyway ok?
I’ve recently come across a bunch of theist vs atheist debates on the youtubes. One of the arguments that I hear time and time again is what’s know as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In a nut shell it states that everything that has a beginning has a cause, the universe has a beginning, therefor the universe has a cause…which must be god. The first time I heard this argument I was lead to follow it. It seemed to make sense. Then I thought, well if the universe had to have a cause, and that cause was god, what caused god. It leads to an infinite regress of “well then who created that?”
Typically the defense that I hear back is where this logical fallacy comes into play. It goes something to the effect of “well god lives out of space and time so this doesn’t apply to him.” There is the special pleading. You can’t have a set of constants and then say that these constants don’t apply to something within that set.
Today’s phrase is cognitive dissonance. Dictionary definition: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
This has a very specific significance to me. After I started questioning everything I was fought to hold on what I was taught to believe and the world that I actually observed. I leaned a lot of personal anecdotal evidence to cling to my religion. Looking back all of those had perfectly natural explainations but I didn’t want to give it up.
For me this came to a head during my wife’s second miscarriage. I tried to stuff it all down. All the conflicting views I held. The biggest being that god loves me and wants the best for me. At the same time hurting me so much. Also “all life is precious” while simultaneously taking this unborn life I already loved away before I had a chance to meet it.
I hurt. I was confused but still played the “good christian” leading the worship service and hating good with every fiber of my being. I didn’t tell anyone about this and figured it was just a problem with my faith that I needed to sort out. I later found out this wasn’t just a me thing that didn’t effect anyone else.
Later on, after I told my wife about my atheism and how I came to this new conclusion, she told me how angry she was with me. Not that I didn’t believe anymore but that I didn’t tell her about my doubts as they came up. She had been feeling the same way too but didn’t think she could lean on me because she thought I thought god was infallible and couldn’t be questioned.
My cognitive dissonance wasn’t just something that was in my own head, it was actively hurting the ones I love.
I’m sorry doesn’t begin to cut it but it’s all I can offer. I denied my own thoughts to hold on to bronze aged fairy tales. I may seem cynical about the who thing but after hearing that from the person I promised to spend the rest of my life with I think I have good reason to be.