Relativist Fallacy

Also Known as: The Subjectivist Fallacy


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  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Red Herring

Also Known as: Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase


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  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Questionable Cause


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  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Post Hoc

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


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)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Poisoning the Well


This sort of “reasoning” involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person. This “argument” has the following form:

1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person A is presented.

2. Therefore any claims person A makes will be false.

This sort of “reasoning” is obviously fallacious.The person making such an attack is hoping that the unfavorable information will bias listeners against the person in question and hence that they will reject any claims he might make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the claims he/she might make. This is especially clear when Poisoning the Well is looked at as a form of ad Hominem in which the attack is made prior to the person even making the claim or claims. The following example clearly shows that this sort of “reasoning” is quite poor.

Example #1

“Don’t listen to him, he’s a scoundrel.”

Example #2

“Before turning the floor over to my opponent, I ask you to remember that those who oppose my plans do not have the best wishes of the university at heart.”

Example #3

You are told, prior to meeting him, that your friend’s boyfriend is a decadent wastrel. When you meet him, everything you hear him say is tainted.

Example #4

Before class

Bill: “Boy, that professor is a real jerk. I think he is some sort of Eurocentric fascist.”

Jill: “Yeah.”

During Class:

Prof. Jones: “…and so we see that there was never any ‘Golden Age of Matriarchy’ in 1895 in America.”

After Class:

Bill: “See what I mean?”

Jill: “Yeah. There must have been a Golden Age of Matriarchy, since that jerk said there wasn’t.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Personal Attack

Also Known as: Ad Hominem Abusive


A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

Not all ad Hominems are fallacious. In some cases, an individual’s characteristics can have a bearing on the question of the veracity of her claims. For example, if someone is shown to be a pathological liar, then what he says can be considered to be unreliable. However, such attacks are weak, since even pathological liars might speak the truth on occasion.

In general, it is best to focus one’s attention on the content of the claim and not on who made the claim. It is the content that determines the truth of the claim and not the characteristics of the person making the claim.

Example #1

In a school debate, Bill claims that the President’s economic plan is unrealistic. His opponent, a professor, retorts by saying “the freshman has his facts wrong.”

Example #2

“This theory about a potential cure for cancer has been introduced by a doctor who is a known lesbian feminist. I don’t see why we should extend an invitation for her to speak at the World Conference on Cancer.”

Example #3

“Bill says that we should give tax breaks to companies. But he is untrustworthy, so it must be wrong to do that.”

Example #4

“That claim cannot be true. Dave believes it, and we know how morally repulsive he is.”

Example #5

“Bill claims that Jane would be a good treasurer. However I find Bill’s behavior offensive, so I’m not going to vote for Jill.”

Example #6

“Jane says that drug use is morally wrong, but she is just a goody-two shoes Christian, so we don’t have to listen to her.”

Example #7

Bill: “I don’t think it is a good idea to cut social programs.”

Jill: “Why not?”

Bill: “Well, many people do not get a fair start in life and hence need some help. After all, some people have wealthy parents and have it fairly easy. Others are born into poverty and…”

Jill: “You just say that stuff because you have a soft heart and an equally soft head.”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Peer Pressure


Peer Pressure is a fallacy in which a threat of rejection by one’s peers (or peer pressure) is substituted for evidence in an “argument.” This line of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Person P is pressured by his/her peers or threatened with rejection.

2. Therefore person P’s claim X is false.

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because peer pressure and threat of rejection do not constitute evidence for rejecting a claim. This is especially clear in the following example:

Joe: “Bill, I know you think that 1+1=2. But we don’t accept that sort of thing in our group.”

Bill: “I was just joking. Of course I don’t believe that.”

It is clear that the pressure from Bill’s group has no bearing on the truth of the claim that 1+1=2.

It should be noted that loyalty to a group and the need to belong can give people very strong reasons to conform to the views and positions of those groups. Further, from a practical standpoint we must often compromise our beliefs in order to belong to groups. However, this feeling of loyalty or the need to belong simply do not constitute evidence for a claim.

Example #1

Bill says that he likes the idea that people should work for their welfare when they can. His friends laugh at him, accuse him of fascist leanings, and threaten to ostracize him from their group. He decides to recant and abandon his position to avoid rejection.

Example #2

Bill: “I like classical music and I think it is of higher quality than most modern music.”

Jill: “That stuff is for old people.”

Dave: “Yeah, only real sissy monkeys listen to that crap. Besides, Anthrax rules! It Rules!”

Bill: “Well, I don’t really like it that much. Anthrax is much better.”

Example #3

Bill thinks that welfare is needed in some cases. His friends in the Young Republicans taunt him every time he makes his views known. He accepts their views in order to avoid rejection.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Misleading Vividness


Misleading Vividness is a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Dramatic or vivid event X occurs (and is not in accord with the majority of the statistical evidence) .

2. Therefore events of type X are likely to occur.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence.

People often accept this sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human mind. For example, if a person survives a particularly awful plane crash, he might be inclined to believe that air travel is more dangerous than other forms of travel. After all, explosions and people dying around him will have a more significant impact on his mind than will the rather dull statistics that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a plane crash.

It should be kept in mind that taking into account the possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making an error in reasoning.

Example #1

Bill and Jane are talking about buying a computer.

Jane: “I’ve been thinking about getting a computer. I’m really tired of having to wait in the library to write my papers.”

Bill: ‘What sort of computer do you want to get?”

Jane: “Well, it has to be easy to use, have a low price and have decent processing power. I’ve been thinking about getting a Kiwi Fruit 2200. I read in that consumer magazine that they have been found to be very reliable in six independent industry studies.”

Bill: “I wouldn’t get the Kiwi Fruit. A friend of mine bought one a month ago to finish his master’s thesis. He was halfway through it when smoke started pouring out of the CPU. He didn’t get his thesis done on time and he lost his financial aid. Now he’s working over at the Gut Boy Burger Warehouse.”

Jane: “I guess I won’t go with the Kiwi!”

Example #2

Joe and Drew are talking about flying.

Joe: “When I was flying back to school, the pilot came on the intercom and told us that the plane was having engine trouble. I looked out the window and I saw smoke billowing out of the engine nearest me. We had to make an emergency landing and there were fire trucks everywhere. I had to spend the next six hours sitting in the airport waiting for a flight. I was lucky I didn’t die! I’m never flying again.”

Drew: “So how are you going to get home over Christmas break?”

Joe: “I’m going to drive. That will be a lot safer than flying.”

Drew: “I don’t think so. You are much more likely to get injured or killed driving than flying.”

Joe: “I don’t buy that! You should have seen the smoke pouring out of that engine! I’m never getting on one of those death traps again!”

Example #3

Jane and Sarah are talking about running in a nearby park.

Jane: “Did you hear about that woman who was attacked in Tuttle Park?”

Sarah: “Yes. It was terrible.”

Jane: “Don’t you run there every day?”

Sarah: “Yes.”

Jane: ‘How can you do that? I’d never be able to run there!”

Sarah: “Well, as callous as this might sound, that attack was out of the ordinary. I’ve been running there for three years and this has been the only attack. Sure, I worry about being attacked, but I’m not going give up my running just because there is some slight chance I’ll be attacked.”

Sarah: “That is stupid! I’d stay away from that park if I was you! That woman was really beat up badly so you know it is going to happen again. If you don’t stay out of that park, it will  happen to you!”

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Middle Ground

Also Known as: Golden Mean Fallacy, Fallacy of Moderation


This fallacy is committed when it is assumed that the middle position between two extremes must be correct simply because it is the middle position. this sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Position A and B are two extreme positions.

2. C is a position that rests in the middle between A and B.

3. Therefore C is the correct position.

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because it does not follow that a position is correct just because it lies in the middle of two extremes. This is shown by the following example. Suppose that a person is selling his computer. He wants to sell it for the current market value, which is $800 and someone offers him $1 for it. It would hardly follow that $400.50 is the proper price.

This fallacy draws its power from the fact that a moderate or middle position is often the correct one. For example, a moderate amount of exercise is better than too much exercise or too little exercise. However, this is not simply because it lies in the middle ground between two extremes. It is because too much exercise is harmful and too little exercise is all but useless. The basic idea behind many cases in which moderation is correct is that the extremes are typically “too much” and “not enough” and the middle position is “enough.” In such cases the middle position is correct almost by definition.

It should be kept in mind that while uncritically assuming that the middle position must be correct because it is the middle position is poor reasoning it does not follow that accepting a middle position is always fallacious. As was just mentioned, many times a moderate position is correct. However, the claim that the moderate or middle position is correct must be supported by legitimate reasoning.

Example #1

Some people claim that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. Other people claim that God does not exist at all. Now, it seems reasonable to accept a position somewhere in the middle. So, it is likely that God exists, but that he is only very powerful, very knowing, and very good. That seems right to me.

Example #2

Congressman Jones has proposed cutting welfare payments by 50% while Congresswoman Shender has proposed increasing welfare payments by 10% to keep up with inflation and cost of living increases. I think that the best proposal is the one made by Congressman Trumple. He says that a 30% decrease in welfare payments is a good middle ground, so I think that is what we should support.

Example #3

A month ago, a tree in Bill’s yard was damaged in a storm. His neighbor, Joe, asked him to have the tree cut down so it would not fall on Joe’s new shed. Bill refused to do this. Two days later another storm blew the tree onto Joe’s new shed. Joe demanded that Joe pay the cost of repairs, which was $250. Bill said that he wasn’t going to pay a cent. Obviously, the best solution is to reach a compromise between the two extremes, so Bill should pay Joe $125.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Ignoring a Common Cause

Also Known as: Questionable Cause


This fallacy has the following general structure:

1) A and B are regularly connected (but no third, common cause is looked for).

2) Therefore A is the cause of B.

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one thing causes another simply because they are regularly associated. More formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are regularly connected. Further, the causal conclusion is drawn without considering the possibility that a third factor might be the cause of both A and B.

In many cases, the fallacy is quite evident. For example, if a person claimed that a person’s sneezing was caused by her watery eyes and he simply ignored the fact that the woman was standing in a hay field, he would have fallen prey to the fallacy of ignoring a common cause. In this case, it would be reasonable to conclude that the woman’s sneezing and watering eyes was caused by an allergic reaction of some kind. In other cases, it is not as evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a doctor might find a large amount of bacteria in one of her patients and conclude that the bacteria are the cause of the patient’s illness. However, it might turn out that the bacteria are actually harmless and that a virus is weakening the person, Thus, the viruses would be the actual cause of the illness and growth of the bacteria (the viruses would weaken the ability of the person’s body to resist the growth of the bacteria).

As noted in the discussion of other causal fallacies, causality is a rather difficult matter. However, it is possible to avoid this fallacy by taking due care. In the case of Ignoring a Common Cause, the key to avoiding this fallacy is to be careful to check for other factors that might be the actual cause of both the suspected cause and the suspected effect. If a person fails to check for the possibility of a common cause, then they will commit this fallacy. Thus, it is always a good idea to always ask “could there be a third factor that is actually causing both A and B?”

Example #1

One day Bill wakes up with a fever. A few hours later he finds that his muscles are sore. He concludes that the fever must have caused the soreness. His friend insists that the soreness and the fever are caused by some microbe. Bill laughs at this and insists that if he spends the day in a tub of cold water his soreness will go away.

Example #2

Over the course of several weeks the leaves from the trees along the Wombat river fell into the water. Shortly thereafter, many dead fish were seen floating in the river. When the EPA investigated, the owners of the Wombat River Chemical Company claimed that is it was obvious that the leaves had killed the fish. Many local environmentalists claimed that the chemical plant’s toxic wastes caused both the trees and the fish to die and that the leaves had no real effect on the fish.

Example #3

A thunderstorm wakes Joe up in the middle of the night. He goes downstairs to get some milk to help him get back to sleep. On the way to the refrigerator, he notices that the barometer has fallen a great deal. Joe concludes that the storm caused the barometer to fall. In the morning he tells his wife about his conclusion. She tells him that it was a drop in atmospheric pressure that caused the barometer to drop and the storm.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,