Who is to Say?

Description:

This fallacy occurs when a person assumes that asserting “who is to say” (or some variation) ends the need for further consideration of an issue. It is assumed by the person that this tactic “proves” that there is no way to decide whether any position or view is better than another. The person may appear to be asking a question, but they have the answer in mind: no one is to say. The fallacy has the following form:

1. “Who is to say?” or some variation is presented.

2. Therefore there is no way to decide whether any position or view is better or worse than another.

This sort of reasoning is fallacious because the mere fact that someone says or writes “who is to say?” hardly proves that there is no better or worse position on the issue at hand.

It is, of course, possible that there are situations in which it is impossible to show that one position of view is any better than the others. However, this would have to be shown through argument. For example, what people like and dislike when it comes to food is a rather subjective matter-what proof could be given that Rocky Road ice cream is tastier than Heavenly Hash? In this case, it would be reasonable to hold the view that no one is to say what ice cream truly tastes better or worse.

This fallacy is often used as a tactic to simply end discussion or as an easy (lazy) way to avoid taking a position on an issue.

Example #1

Three students are discussing cheating.

Sally: “You know, I saw that Josh was cheating like a crazy monkey on the last test.”

Andrea: “Yeah, he’s like that.”

Bill: “Um, what the heck does ‘cheating like a crazy monkey’ mean?”

Sally: “Whatever, Bill. Anyway, I think cheating is wrong. People should work for their grades.”

Andrea: “Hey, little miss judge, who are you to say what people should do?”

Sally: “What?”

Andrea: “I mean, how can anyone say what is wrong or right? You just can’t.”

Sally: “Whatever.”

Example #2

Some people are discussing evolutionary theory versus creationism

Polly: “You know, the evidence for evolution seems overwhelming. There is the fossil evidence, the genetic data and all kinds of…”

Jim: “That may be. But you can’t just chalk the universe up to chance. I think that God is a necessary factor in explaining the universe.”

Geoff: “Hey guys, lighten up. I mean, no one can really decide who is right here. So, there is no point in fighting. Polly, you can keep on bowing down to Darwin and Rorty. Jim, you can keep on praying to Jesus. See everybody can be happy because no one is right…or wrong.”

Polly: “Heretic. You must be burned.”

Jim: “I’ll get the wood and gasoline.”

Geoff: “Hey, can’t we all just get along?”

Jim & Polly: “No!”

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Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Two Wrongs Make a Right

Description:

Two Wrongs Make a Right is a fallacy in which a person “justifies” an action against a person by asserting that the person would do the same thing to him/her, when the action is not necessary to prevent B from doing X to A. This fallacy has the following pattern of “reasoning”:

1. It is claimed that person B would do X to person A.

2. It is acceptable for person A to do X to person B (when A’s doing X to B is not necessary to prevent B from doing X to A).

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because an action that is wrong is wrong even if another person would also do it.

It should be noted that it can be the case that it is not wrong for A to do X to B if X is done to prevent B from doing X to A or if X is done in justified retribution. For example, if Sally is running in the park and Biff tries to attack her, Sally would be justified in attacking Biff to defend herself. As another example, if country A is planning to invade country B in order to enslave the people, then country B would be justified in launching a preemptive strike to prevent the invasion.

Example #1

Bill has borrowed Jane’s expensive pen, but found he didn’t return it. He tells himself that it is okay to keep it, since she would have taken his.

Example #2

Jane: “Did you hear about those terrorists killing those poor people? That sort of killing is just wrong.”

Sue: “Those terrorists are justified. After all, their land was taken from them. It is morally right for them to do what they do.”

Jane: “Even when they blow up busloads of children?”

Sue: “Yes. “

Example #3

After leaving a bookstore, Jill notices that she was undercharged for her book. She decides not to return the money to the store because if she had overpaid, they would not have returned the money.”

Example #4

Jill is horrified by the way the state uses capital punishment. Bill says that capital punishment is fine, since those the state kill don’t have any qualms about killing others.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Straw Man

Description:

The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.

2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).

3. Person B attacks position Y.

4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Example #1

Prof. Jones: “The university just cut our yearly budget by $10,000.”

Prof. Smith: “What are we going to do?”

Prof. Brown: “I think we should eliminate one of the teaching assistant positions. That would take care of it.”

Prof. Jones: “We could reduce our scheduled raises instead.”

Prof. Brown:” I can’t understand why you want to bleed us dry like that, Jones.”

Example #2

“Senator Jones says that we should not fund the attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can’t understand why he wants to leave us defenseless like that.”

Example #3

Bill and Jill are arguing about cleaning out their closets:

Jill: “We should clean out the closets. They are getting a bit messy.”

Bill: “Why, we just went through those closets last year. Do we have to clean them out every day?”

Jill: I never said anything about cleaning them out every day. You just want too keep all your junk forever, which is just ridiculous.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Spotlight

Description:

The Spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. This line of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Xs with quality Q receive a great deal of attention or coverage in the media.

2. Therefore all Xs have quality Q.

This line of reasoning is fallacious since the mere fact that someone or something attracts the most attention or coverage in the media does not mean that it automatically represents the whole population. For example, suppose a mass murderer from Old Town, Maine received a great deal of attention in the media. It would hardly follow that everyone from the town is a mass murderer.

The Spotlight fallacy derives its name from the fact that receiving a great deal of attention or coverage is often referred to as being in the spotlight. It is similar to Hasty Generalization, Biased Sample and Misleading Vividness because the error being made involves generalizing about a population based on an inadequate or flawed sample.

The Spotlight Fallacy is a very common fallacy. This fallacy most often occurs when people assume that those who receive the most media attention actually represent the groups they belong to. For example, some people began to believe that all those who oppose abortion are willing to gun down doctors in cold blood simply because those incidents received a great deal of media attention. Since the media typically covers people or events that are unusual or exceptional, it is somewhat odd for people to believe that such people or events are representative.

For brief discussions of adequate samples and generalizations, see the entries for Hasty Generalization and Biased Sample.
Example #1

Bill: “Jane, you say you are a feminist, but you can’t be.”

Jane: “What! What do you mean? Is this one of your stupid jokes or something?”

Bill: “No, I’m serious. Over the summer I saw feminists appear on several talk shows and news shows and I read about them in the papers. The women were really bitter and said that women were victims of men and needed to be given special compensation. You are always talking about equal rights and forging your own place in the world. So, you can’t be a feminist.”

Jane: “Bill, there are many types of feminism, not just the brands that get media attention.”

Bill: “Oh. Sorry.”

Example #2

Joe: “Man, I’d never want to go to New York. It is all concrete and pollution.”

Sam: “Not all of it.”

Joe: “Sure it is. Every time I watch the news they are always showing concrete, skyscrapers, and lots of pollution.”

Sam: “Sure, that is what the news shows, but a lot of New York is farmlands and forest. It is not all New York City, it just receives most of the attention.”

Example #3

Ann: “I’m not letting little Jimmy use his online account anymore!”

Sasha: “Why not? Did he hack into the Pentagon and try to start world war three?”

Ann: “No. Haven’t you been watching the news and reading the papers? There are perverts online just waiting to molest kids! You should take away your daughter’s account. Why, there must be thousands of sickos out there!”

Sasha: “Really? I thought that there were only a very few cases.”

Ann: “I’m not sure of the exact number, but if the media is covering it so much, then most people who are online must be indecent.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Special Pleading

Description:

Special Pleading is a fallacy in which a person applies standards, principles, rules, etc. to others while taking herself (or those she has a special interest in) to be exempt, without providing adequate justification for the exemption. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Person A accepts standard(s) S and applies them to others in circumstance(s) C.

2. Person A is in circumstance(s) C.

3. Therefore A is exempt from S.

The person committing Special Pleading is claiming that he is exempt from certain principles or standards yet he provides no good reason for his exemption. That this sort of reasoning is fallacious is shown by the following extreme example:

1. Barbara accepts that all murderers should be punished for their crimes.

2. Although she murdered Bill, Barbara claims she is an exception because she really would not like going to prison.

3. Therefore, the standard of punishing murderers should not be applied to her.

This is obviously a blatant case of special pleading. Since no one likes going to prison, this cannot justify the claim that Barbara alone should be exempt from punishment.

The Principle of Relevant Difference

From a philosophic standpoint, the fallacy of Special Pleading is violating a well accepted principle, namely the Principle of Relevant Difference. According to this principle, two people can be treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference between them. This principle is a reasonable one. After all, it would not be particularly rational to treat two people differently when there is no relevant difference between them. As an extreme case, it would be very odd for a parent to insist on making one child wear size 5 shoes and the other wear size 7 shoes when the children are both size 5.

It should be noted that the Principle of Relevant Difference does allow people to be treated differently. For example, if one employee was a slacker and the other was a very productive worker the boss would be justified in giving only the productive worker a raise. This is because the productivity of each is a relevant difference between them. Since it can be reasonable to treat people differently, there will be cases in which some people will be exempt from the usual standards. For example, if it is Bill’s turn to cook dinner and Bill is very ill, it would not be a case of Special Pleading if Bill asked to be excused from making dinner (this, of course, assumes that Bill does not accept a standard that requires people to cook dinner regardless of the circumstances). In this case Bill is offering a good reason as to why he should be exempt and, most importantly, it would be a good reason for anyone who was ill and not just Bill.

While determining what counts as a legitimate basis for exemption can be a difficult task, it seems clear that claiming you are exempt because you are you does not provide such a legitimate basis. Thus, unless a clear and relevant justification for exemption can be presented, a person cannot claim to be exempt.

There are cases which are similar to instances of Special Pleading in which a person is offering at least some reason why he should be exempt but the reason is not good enough to warrant the exemption. This could be called “Failed Pleading.” For example, a professor may claim to be exempt from helping the rest of the faculty move books to the new department office because it would be beneath his dignity. However, this is not a particularly good reason and would hardly justify his exemption. If it turns out that the real “reason” a person is claiming exemption is that they simply take themselves to be exempt, then they would be committing Special Pleading. Such cases will be fairly common. After all, it is fairly rare for adults to simply claim they are exempt without at least some pretense of justifying the exemption.

Example #1

Bill and Jill are married. Both Bill and Jill have put in a full day at the office. Their dog, Rover, has knocked over all the plants in one room and has strewn the dirt all over the carpet. When they return, Bill tells Jill that it is her job to clean up after the dog. When she protests, he says that he has put in a full day at the office and is too tired to clean up after the dog.

Example #2

Jane and Sue share a dorm room.

Jane: “Turn of that stupid stereo, I want to take a nap.”

Sue: ‘Why should I? What are you exhausted or something?”

Jane: “No, I just feel like taking a nap.”

Sue: “Well, I feel like playing my stereo.”

Jane: “Well, I’m taking my nap. You have to turn your stereo off and that’s final.”

Example #3

Mike and Barbara share an apartment.

Mike: “Barbara, you’ve tracked in mud again.”

Barbara: “So? It’s not my fault.”

Mike: “Sure. I suppose it walked in on its own. You made the mess, so you clean it up.”

Barbara: “Why?”

Mike: “We agreed that whoever makes a mess has to clean it up. That is fair.”

Barbara: “Well, I’m going to watch TV. If you don’t like the mud, then you clean it up.”

Mike: “Barbara…”

Barbara: “What? I want to watch the show. I don’t want to clean up the mud. Like I said, if it bothers you that much, then you should clean it up.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Comments (1)  
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Slippery Slope

Also Known as: The Camel’s Nose

Description:

The Slippery Slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).

2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

Example #1

We have to stop the tuition increase! The next thing you know, they’ll be charging $40,000 a semester!”

Example #2

“Europe shouldn’t get involved militarily in other countries. Once the governments send in a few troops, then they will send in thousands to die.”

Example #3

“You can never give anyone a break. If you do, they’ll walk all over you.”

Example #4

“We’ve got to stop them from banning pornographic web sites. Once they start banning that, they will never stop. Next thing you know, they will be burning all the books!”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:06 pm  Comments (3)  
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Relativist Fallacy

Also Known as: The Subjectivist Fallacy

Description:

The Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person rejects a claim by asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for him/her. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Claim X is presented.

2. Person A asserts that X may be true for others but is not true for him/her.

3. Therefore A is justified in rejecting X.

In this context, relativism is the view that truth is relative to Z (a person, time, culture, place, etc.). This is not the view that claims will be true at different times or of different people, but the view that a claim could be true for one person and false for another at the same time.

In many cases, when people say “that X is true for me” what they really mean is “I believe X” or “X is true about me.” It is important to be quite clear about the distinction between being true about a person and being true for a person. A claim is true about a person if the claim is a statement that describes the person correctly. For example, “Bill has blue eyes” is true of Bill if Bill has blue eyes. To make a claim such as “ X is true for Bill” is to say that the claim is true for Bill and that it need not be true for others. For example: “1+1=23 is true for Bill” would mean that, for Bill, 1+1 actually does equal 23, not that he merely believes that 1+1=23 (that would be “It is true of Bill that he believes 1+1=23”). Another example would be “The claim that the earth is flat is true for Bill” would mean that the earth really is flat for Bill (in other words, Bill would be in a different world than the rest of the human race). Since these situations (1+1 being 23 and the earth being flat for Bill ) are extremely strange, it certainly seems that truth is not relative to individuals (although beliefs are).

As long as truth is objective (that is, not relative to individuals), then the Relativist Fallacy is a fallacy. If there are cases in which truth is actually relative, then such reasoning need not be fallacious.

Example #1

Jill: “Look at this, Bill. I read that people who do not get enough exercise tend to be unhealthy.”

Bill: “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

Example #2

Jill: “I think that so called argument you used to defend your position is terrible. After all, a fallacy hardly counts as an argument. “

Bill: “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

Example #3

Bill: “Your position results in a contradiction, so I can’t accept it.”

Dave: “Contradictions may be bad in your Eurocentric, oppressive, logical world view, but I don’t think they are bad. Therefore my position is just fine.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Red Herring

Also Known as: Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase

Description:

A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Topic A is under discussion.

2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).

3. Topic A is abandoned.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.

Example #1

“Argument” against a bond measure:

“We admit that this measure is popular. But we also urge you to note that there are so many bond issues on this ballot that the whole thing is getting ridiculous.”

Example #2

“Argument” for a tax cut:

“You know, I’ve begun to think that there is some merit in the Republicans’ tax cut plan. I suggest that you come up with something like it, because If we Democrats are going to survive as a party, we have got to show that we are as tough-minded as the Republicans, since that is what the public wants.

Example #3

“Argument” for making grad school requirements stricter:

“I think there is great merit in making the requirements stricter for the graduate students. I recommend that you support it, too. After all, we are in a budget crisis and we do not want our salaries affected.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Questionable Cause

Description:

This fallacy has the following general form:

1) A and B are associated on a regular basis.

2) Therefore A is the cause of B.

The general idea behind this fallacy is that it is an error in reasoning to conclude that one thing causes another simply because the two are associated on a regular basis. More formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the cause of B simply because they are associated on a regular basis. The error being made is that a causal conclusion is being drawn from inadequate evidence.

The Questionable Cause Fallacy is actually a general type of fallacy. Any causal fallacy that involves an error in a reasoning due to a failure to adequately investigate the suspected cause is a fallacy of this type. Thus, fallacies like Post Hoc and Confusing Cause and Effect are specific examples of the general Questionable Cause Fallacy.

Causal reasoning can be quite difficult since causation is a rather complex philosophic issue. The complexity of causation is briefly discussed in the context of the specific versions of this fallacy.

The key to avoiding the Questionable Cause fallacy is to take due care in drawing causal conclusions. This requires taking steps to adequately investigate the phenomena in question as well using the proper methods of careful investigation.

Example #1

Joe gets a chain letter that threatens him with dire consequences if he breaks the chain. He laughs at it and throws it in the garbage. On his way to work he slips and breaks his leg. When he gets back from the hospital he sends out 200 copies of the chain letter, hoping to avoid further accidents.

Example #2

When investigating a small pond a group of graduate students found that there was a severe drop in the fish population. Further investigation revealed that the fishes’ food supply had also been severely reduced. At first the students believed that the lack of food was killing the fish, but then they realized they had to find what was causing the decline in the food supply. The students suspected acid rain was the cause of both the reduction in the fish population as well as the food supply. However, the local business council insisted that it was just the lack of food that caused the reduction in the fish population. Most of the townspeople agreed with this conclusion since it seemed pretty obvious that a lack of food would cause fish to die.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Post Hoc

Also Known as: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, False Cause, Questionable Cause, Confusing Coincidental Relationships With Causes

Description:

A Post Hoc is a fallacy with the following form:

1) A occurs before B.

2) Therefore A is the cause of B.

The Post Hoc fallacy derives its name from the Latin phrase “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” This has been traditionally interpreted as “After this, therefore because of this.” This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim.

It is evident in many cases that the mere fact that A occurs before B in no way indicates a causal relationship. For example, suppose Jill, who is in London, sneezed at the exact same time an earthquake started in California. It would clearly be irrational to arrest Jill for starting a natural disaster, since there is no reason to suspect any causal connection between the two events. While such cases are quite obvious, the Post Hoc fallacy is fairly common because there are cases in which there might be some connection between the events. For example, a person who has her computer crash after she installs a new piece of software would probably suspect that the software was to blame. If she simply concluded that the software caused the crash because it was installed before the crash she would be committing the Post Hoc fallacy. In such cases the fallacy would be committed because the evidence provided fails to justify acceptance of the causal claim. It is even theoretically possible for the fallacy to be committed when A really does cause B, provided that the “evidence” given consists only of the claim that A occurred before B. The key to the Post Hoc fallacy is not that there is no causal connection between A and B. It is that adequate evidence has not been provided for a claim that A causes B. Thus, Post Hoc resembles a Hasty Generalization in that it involves making a leap to an unwarranted conclusion. In the case of the Post Hoc fallacy, that leap is to a causal claim instead of a general proposition.

Not surprisingly, many superstitions are probably based on Post Hoc reasoning. For example, suppose a person buys a good luck charm, does well on his exam, and then concludes that the good luck charm caused him to do well. This person would have fallen victim to the Post Hoc fallacy. This is not to say that all “superstitions” have no basis at all. For example, some “folk cures” have actually been found to work.

Post Hoc fallacies are typically committed because people are simply not careful enough when they reason. Leaping to a causal conclusion is always easier and faster than actually investigating the phenomenon. However, such leaps tend to land far from the truth of the matter. Because Post Hoc fallacies are committed by drawing an unjustified causal conclusion, the key to avoiding them is careful investigation. While it is true that causes precede effects (outside of Star Trek, anyway), it is not true that precedence makes something a cause of something else. Because of this, a causal investigation should begin with finding what occurs before the effect in question, but it should not end there.

Example #1

I had been doing pretty poorly this season. Then my girlfriend gave me this neon laces for my spikes and I won my next three races. Those laces must be good luck…if I keep on wearing them I can’t help but win!

Example #2

Bill purchases a new Mac and it works fine for months. He then buys and installs a new piece of software. The next time he starts up his Mac, it freezes. Bill concludes that the software must be the cause of the freeze.

Example #3

Joan is scratched by a cat while visiting her friend. Two days later she comes down with a fever. Joan concludes that the cat’s scratch must be the cause of her illness.

Example #4

The Republicans pass a new tax reform law that benefits wealthy Americans. Shortly thereafter the economy takes a nose dive. The Democrats claim that the tax reform caused the economic woes and they push to get rid of it.

Example #5

The picture on Jim’s old TV set goes out of focus. Jim goes over and strikes the TV soundly on the side and the picture goes back into focus. Jim tells his friend that hitting the TV fixed it.

Example #6

Jane gets a rather large wart on her finger. Based on a story her father told her, she cuts a potato in half, rubs it on the wart and then buries it under the light of a full moon. Over the next month her wart shrinks and eventually vanishes. Jane writes her father to tell him how right he was about the cure.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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