How (stupid) people argue, part 3 (Logical shortcuts)

Discussion in 'Politics & Law' started by fleinn, Nov 30, 2007.

  1. fleinn

    fleinn 101010

    Logical shortcuts.

    Or more correctly, logical fallacies, or pitfalls. Or mistaken reasoning, and false argumentation. And from the outset, I should say that I don't think anyone can manage to go through any day without falling for some of these shortcuts. And that's not really a bad thing. Unless you're a machine, in which case things would be much simpler, but infinitely more boring. And, learning about things like this would be completely unnecessary.

    1. Appeal to authority: Arguably what I'm doing here, or claiming that what I say is true, because I know what I'm talking about. Instead of arguing what I say is true, based on evidence or acceptable reasoning. Also, "most people say..... therefore it is so". But an argument based on authority is usually on the form of: "because some famous guy said up is down, this means it's bad manners to claim otherwise". Therefore, whenever anyone appeals to authority, or someone better at them at for instance history, or whatever - it's a good idea to cite a source. So the information in the source can be questioned, that is - not the authority of the person.. obviously.

    2. The syllogism: easy to spot, but not when you're making it complex. For example: "'Mor lille' cannot fly. A rock cannot fly. Therefore 'Mor lille' is a rock - follows the form: something can do x. Another thing can do x. Therefore the something is the other thing. In this case, 'Mor lille' is definitively not a rock, so it's not a problem spotting whether the syllogism is false. But mix in abstract terms like "terrorist" and specifics like "al- Quida", and we're on our merry way to the point where a syllogism is a necessary and useful simplification. That nevertheless makes us very easily conclude that one thing is another, based on very flimsy and variable evidence suggesting the common properties.

    And in such cases, we can see that the weakness of the syllogism is not the proposition, but the uncritical choice of possible matches. In other words, the syllogism is undoubtedly false whenever it is used to prove something definitively.

    3. Personal attack: You are a douche, therefore anything you say is false. Arguably, it's a difficult sell to suggest that an unflattering characteristic can in any way be used to demean another's argument. But sometimes, it can be relevant. This is not, however, the rule. (Unless you're a politician, obviously, since the have an unescapable personal characteristic: they all lie, always).

    A (slightly) less obviously idiotic form of this argument would be something like: "if you think pesticides approved by the FDA is unhealthy, you are an environmentalist tofu- eating idiot who wants to defeat capitalism and liberty".

    4. Circular reasoning: can be very subtle. But means your conclusion is based on the same proposition as your premise. Such as: "Anyone can stop drinking and sleeping around, if they only have the willpower to do so". Where you probably could argue that if willpower was there to stop, it wouldn't be a problem in the first place (if it actually was a problem). And to complex investigative theories that only are ever drawn up in order to find a presupposed conclusion. Where any evidence is shaped around the conclusion already found for no other reason than to make it sound more plausible. Or maybe even "tentative conclusions" would be involved - a complete travesty both grammatically and logically.

    So, all false reasoning (although arguably all political parties base their entire operation on this one), since obviously anything can be proven with circular reasoning.

    5. Semantic piffle, ambiguity or equivocation: an argument from this position would be something taking a piece of a statement, or a selective portion of a statement, and making a - perhaps - logical point from it. Such as a parsed quote, a quote out of context, or ambiguous grammar. Which means that there is no actual argument made, it's a mistake and a misinterpretation only. Which, of couse, can be difficult to spot, if we're not careful about what kind of words we're using.

    Conversely, it's important to understand that overinterpreting semantic ambiguity is what most politicians will bank on that their audience will fall for. The same for arrogant assholes who think they're clever. So questioning what people say - "what did you mean by that?", and "how come this refers to this and not that" - is important to be able to do. For your own arguments, as well as for arguments others make.

    It's of course also typical that people use different terminology for the same things. And so argue against another position based on different semantic meanings - which is utterly fruitless, and can be avoided very easily.

    6. False dilemmas: The typical false dilemma would be on the form of "If you don't want vegetables, you don't want ice- cream". And to such things as "if you're not with us, you're against us". Which both may be functionally true, but not appreciated as logical constructions. In other words, they are made up constructs. Which, of course, may be a product of meticulous investigation that narrowed things down to only two options - but usually is not.

    7. Questionable cause and effect: "After sun comes rain, therefore sun causes rain". And similar things. Again, the basis of the logical shortcut is easy to explain, but difficult to uncover - most people are not, for instance, capable of spotting that "rise in median income is good news for all american households" is a particular kind of falsification that rests on several others.

    8. Appeal to lack of evidence: "there is no proof of intelligent life in the universe, therefore there is none". Is not really a very good argument. It can be assumed it's true, of course, waiting for the opportunity to be disproven at the point where intelligenct life is found.

    But there are important variants of this one. For instance, I can claim there are cats on the rings of Saturn. And I might claim that as an absolute. But this is a proposition that is ultimately possible to prove - as it is physically possible to check for cats on the rings of Saturn.

    On the other hand, if I was to suggest the existence of an enigmatic flying teapot on the back of the sun, because I cannot observe it - I would be in more trouble. The same would be the case if I claimed a possibility that would be impossible to fulfill. Either through physical or semantic impossibility. And any argument allowing itself the right to be unopposed, or conclusively opposed, based on logic of this kind, is evidently faulty - as no supporting evidence for it can exist.

    9. Slippery slope: Similar to the way circular reasoning works, but instead of presupposing the conclusion, the premises for the argument all contain critical assumptions that lead ambitiously to the next premise. In other words, a potential slippery slope is not always problematic to use as an argument, but each point in the analysis must be possible to justify in detail. Therefore, when making arguments, it's crucial not to be tempted to make, for example, an exception for yourself in order to get one step further in the analysis. For instance, a researcher re- interpreting test- results as being conclusive when they're not, in order to not question the hypothesis. Or a politician unable to accept certain results of their policies in the face of evidence - would both be making use of a slippery slope argument construction to avoid admitting their argument is invalid.

    10. Red herring: a seemingly relevant argument used to divert attention from the actual topic. The trick is to find something subtle and appealing, in order to achieve an apparently irrefutable argument to spearhead the less appealing one. It's not always the case that this is done on purpose. Often, people will make several logical propositions to reach a conclusion, but then mistake a clear and beatiful rationalisation somewhere in the chain for a deduction that leads from the initial premise to the conclusion. While in reality, it's not the case. But this can be very subtle. And rest on very deeply seated perceptions on what something has always meant, etc.

    The strawman is a type of red herring (so to speak). Since it's used to divert attention from the actual argument, in order to make a seemingly logical argument.

    And always remember: nothing can defeat a curious and inquisitive mind.

    next: How (stupid) people argue, part 4 (deductive vs. inductive reasoning)

  2. ExpectantlyIronic

    ExpectantlyIronic e̳̳̺͕ͬ̓̑̂ͮͦͣ͒͒h̙ͦ̔͂?̅̂ ̾͗̑

    This is somewhat misleading, as it seems to suggest that all syllogisms are invalid. That certainly isn't the case. For instance:

    p1: Socrates is a man.
    p2: All men are mortal.
    c: Socrates is mortal.

    Such a syllogism is perfectly sound, as the form of the syllogism is valid, and the premises are true.
  3. fleinn

    fleinn 101010

    (That's what you get when typing too quickly..) Good point.

    The problem is that all valid conclusions like this one will describe a subset that predicts the other premises. So that's the reason the syllogism is sound. The shape of the argument doesn't prove much. And it just means we should be very careful with this kind of arguments. So - at best it can be used to describe an argument and find interpretations for it, to nest up the premises, maybe, or figure out whether it's sound. But the argument isn't sound because of the shape. <- note: probably not what it says in the textbook.

    So...what sort of shortcuts happened here? (One for each of us).
  4. Mad_Michael

    Mad_Michael Registered Member

    On the whole, your listing of the most common logical fallacies is a good one.

    However, this one seems to be questionable.
    Semantic arguments are exactly what most philosophers will use. They are usually quite valid points to raise.

    For example, one might say that attacking Iran is necessary for American national security. A semanatic argument might question the definition of "American security" here. That would not be frivolous.

    But your argument against semantics would have that philosopher's argument dismissed as nothing more than 'semantic bullshit'.

    Many people like to take generic terms and imbue them with very specific meanings for the purpose of their arguments. The art of 'semantics' is all about being able to deconstruct such meanings hidden inside genericly used terms.

    That is to say, semantic arguments rule. They are not a logical fallacy. They are not invalid critiques. Semantic arguments can be used to obfusicate an issue, but so can anything else, so that's not a valid critique against semantics.

    Btw, I might add to your listing the 'demand to prove a negative'. This is a common debate tactic. But logically and rationally speaking, it is impossible by definition to prove a negative assertion. Ergo, this is tactic is highly questionable (but very common).
    This doesn't appear to be valid assertion.

    Apparently, or allegedly, Jesus of Nazareth defied this rule.

    Ergo, that particular syllogism is questionable. ;)
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2007
  5. Kazmarov

    Kazmarov For a Free Scotland

    I assume the smilie means you're aware that Jesus wasn't a man.
  6. danielpalos

    danielpalos Registered Member

    I tend to run into this issue alot. Many people accuse me of making up words instead of using already defined words to illustrate some of the concepts of my arguments. However, some of my concepts have no words already defined, which explain them.
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2007
  7. oxyMORON

    oxyMORON A Darker Knight

    I'm pretty sure I've done most of those at one point or another, especially circular reasoning. I definitely don't do personal attacks. I'm smart enough not to do that. :p
  8. fleinn

    fleinn 101010

    It felt ok to write, at least. But thanks, Michael. :)

    Absolutely. I wanted to add something that was horribly wrong a few places, but I probably just fell for my own cleverness here. I mean, I wanted to say that if you are supposed to defend a defined issue of some sort, you need to relate your argument to the issue in some way that isn't purely based on a construction in language. But I'm really saying: "if an argument makes sense, it makes sense, unless it doesn't", and so on.. Not very valuable.. :D

    Because as you say - good arguments that illustrate and question different ways of thinking are made by using existing language, and are semantic constructions. (I mean, Socrates probably wouldn't be very happy about that point on the list.)

    Still - I suppose there could be a distinction between using existing language, with the baggage it has, to create semantic arguments. And between using new terms and rewritten old ones as the base.
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2008
  9. Ymir-GF

    Ymir-GF Registered Member

    A very good post Fleinn.

    I tend to favor a website called the Nizkor Project. The site was has been invaluable in my continued discussions with Muslim's about all things Islam. Although many religious types fall for logical fallacies as a matter of course, Muslim's have a perculiar penchant for doing so. So much so, that when one points out their error they will usually merrily skip along and say they are not making a logical faux pas. (Usually by making another one, lol.) It's a giggle a minute.

    I think the bottom line about logical fallacies is that we all do them at one point or another. The main thing is to pay attention to what you are saying and understand when you are doing so. Sadly, many folks simply will not recognize a logical fallacy if it smacked them over the head with a 2x4.
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2008
  10. -Mr-Maurice-

    -Mr-Maurice- Registered Member

    I'm great at arguing but waaaaay too slow so i usually lose lol.

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