Archive for the ‘Fallacies’ Category

Note: As of this posting, RAIL has adopted the convention of posting the author’s name and institutional affiliation at the bottom of each article.


What do patterns of abusive argumentation reveal?  Feminists maintain that we receive a disproportionate level of abusive responses to our argumentation, and a disproportionate level of abuse, even relative to the level of anger and hatred on the internet.  Because people are skeptical about the prevalence and level of verbal abuse that feminists receive, and because abusive comments are deleted on many websites, feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian AKA “Feminist Frequency” has archived the response to her argument-based request for research support. More details can be found in The New Statesman, and I would add that I (and other feminist instructors) occasionally receive sexist abuse directed at the feminist course content in anonymous comments that are part of our student evaluations of teaching. Anonymity may be a crucial factor in this phenomenon. (more…)

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My but these things are popular. This one comes to us via yourlogicalfallacyis.com and is free to download in three sizes. The graphic is also downloadable as vector art for those saavy and motivated enough to want to work with the image some more. In terms of design I think I like this one the best of all those shared on RAIL so far. (You can see the others here and here.) It also avoids the tricky business of classification and therefore might be more useful for teaching purposes. Below is a (crummy) screenshot. The files available for download are much higher quality.

Who are those three chaps in the middle there?

It is interesting that the fallacies seem to be bubbling up as a meme in the culture at large like this. I wonder if it’s a sign of sorts that people have had enough of the shoddy, transparently shortsighted and self-interested discourse that has come to characterize so much of public life and are starting to crave discourse of a different kind–perhaps more rational, thoughtful, and careful.  That would be nice…and timely too.

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Readers of RAIL might remember this chestnut from two years ago on infographics and visual argument.  That post featured a TED talk by David McCandless. Though I’m tempted, I’ll refuse to commit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy here and simply report that McCandless’s website, Information is Beautiful, now features a very nice-looking infographic on the fallacies, (oddly) titled Rhetological Fallacies.  Clicking on the thumbnail below will take you to the full version at its home site.

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It seems to me that these reasons are not sufficient to prefer men (or white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied, etc. people) over other people. It’s not sufficient because the sorts of impressions addressed here while quite ubiquitous are of minor relevance to what makes a good …. whatever the issue is. Speakers need more than an authoritative voice, and also a social significance that can be parsed in many different ways. Track records can also be assessed in different ways and being established by track record in any case may also indicate entrenchment in outdated approaches and even burnout or over-exposure. The person who attracts an audience is also not necessarily the person who makes the greatest impression on an audience.

Yet it seems argumentation theory ought to be able to provide a clearer means for dismissing these sorts of appeals.  In a hierarchical society hierarchical social categories such as gender and race are sometimes relevant, but how can we show the (severe) limitation of that relevance?  Is generic status ever sufficient reason to promote or prefer a person?

Feminist Philosophers

In a sexist society where there is a very long tradition of women being excluded from a wide range of desirable public roles, we should expect many of the following things to be said of men and these roles:

People expect a man to be doing X.
People associate manliness with important features of this role. (E.g., a male voice has more authority.)
Men have much more of a proven track record at X.
(Some) men will have much more of an audience than any woman does.

So what do we think of appealing to such beliefs as a reason to favor picking only men for such roles? One response is to label it as the ‘Sexism Wins’ strategy, with the implication that the actions are sexist. What would you suggest? Notice that the strategy is different from the frequently false response to the effect that there just aren’t any…

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Rush Limbaugh’s recent dismissal of Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” reminds me of how much more vulnerable women are than men to the abusive ad hominem.  There is a a greater number of abusive words associated with women:  add “whore,” “bitch,” “cunt,” “old maid,” “hag,” “bag,” “jezebel,” “hoochie mama,” etc., as opposed to “prick,” “dick,” and “boy toy.”  Plus the feminine insults tend to be considered so bad that people often won’t actually say them, but only allude to them, for instance in saying “the c-word.”

On top of that, women tend not to be listened to, so the ad hominem may always be more effective against women.  Merely pointing out that a speaker is a woman may act as reason to ignore her. The same would apply to any marginalized people.  One’s very identity can undermine one’s claims and one’s reasons.

Lorraine Code has argued in a few places that the dismissal of women’s reasons for being women’s reasons should be identified as ad feminam.  The vulnerability of women to ad hominem suggests indeed that ad feminam deserves recognition as a distinct category.

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The increasing popularity of on-line discussions has given rise to an argumentative neologism that may be more widely applicable: “trolls.”  Trolls commit an inappropriate move in an argument, saying something unreasonable that derails the discussion.  (I recall analogously in my highschool biology class we learned to ask the teacher, Mr. Houghton, about living through the London Blitz in order to steer the conversation away from the work at hand.)

These unpleasant people are not trolling the web in the sense of carefree fishing, or surfing, but today Mike Elgan, who bills himself as “the world’s only loveable technology writer,” suggests that trolls are seeking something, namely attention.  That quest does not particularly distinguish trolls from the rest of us, but it does explain the behaviour as depending on that exclusive or predominant motivation.

Trolls are argumentative, and they may be either deliberate and malicious or inadvertent and well-intentioned.  Egan’s distinction, borrowed from Matt Honan, between deliberate and inadvertent trolls corresponds to Walton’s distinction between fallacies that are sophisms and those that are paralogisms.

Yet Elgan points out that those who are well-intentioned and argumentative (the academy is so full) are not always trolls.  Passionate advocacy frequently may be trying but it need not be ugly, and it is often beautiful and worthwhile.

How then do we identify trolls?  Might this be a species of fallacy that can be identified as deviating from an otherwise acceptable form of argumentation, that is to say forms of advocacy?  Perhaps we could articulate the appropriate critical questions (using the Walton / Tindale model of fallacies) for identifying such trolls.

If the desire for attention is the cause of the misstep, then what is the missing (or side-lined) motivation that would be appropriate?  How ought we to be motivated?  That is a central question of argumentation theory, and answers include resolving disagreement (pragma-dialectics) and developing understanding (epistemology). Fabricated disagreement and errant claims thus would be paradigmatic troll moves, but that is only to say they are fallacious.

If trolls fit no particular pattern of fallacious reasoning, they may nonetheless indicate a new need for fallacy instruction: preventing trolls from derailing discussion.  On-line trolls have made available for instructors a new wealth of examples of fallacies.  Students should also learn that the fallacies approach to argument evaluation may be a good defense against trolls, a way to defuse a diversion by naming the problem.  While this rhetorical power of the fallacies approach can be misused, it can also be valuable in dealing with trolls.

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So-called “climate-gate” involved a number of accusations that concerns about global warming are based on bad and fallacious reasoning.  As the deeper analysis comes in, the email messages from the University of East Anglia turn out to be rather unremarkable if a little protective and no cause to believe that the reasoning behind climate concerns is poor.  However, the initial accusations of “bad science” have given authority to people whose reasoning about the issues is itself manifestly poor, as evidenced by today’s appointment of University of Western Ontario professor Chris Essex as the official climate advisor to the President of the World Federation of Scientists.

Essex’s reasoning on this subject is notably bad.  Not only does he maintain contrary to the considered evidence that the UEA researchers behaved irresponsibly, but he also publicly and repeatedly employs bad analogies to defend his own climate scepticism.  Essex argues that temperatures are like phone numbers, lacking relevance to their means.  From The National Post:

“Many people think that you can make sense out of an average of anything at all. My usual reply is to ask what an average over telephone numbers means. Temperature is like that. When averaged, it does not produce an actual temperature of anything, any more than an average over telephone numbers must be a callable number, let alone a number you might care to call.”

That analogy neglects the manifest empirical relationship between a temperature reading and a climactic situation, compared with the randomness of whether a phone number can be called.  Sure Essex claims to have stumped a statistician with his analogy, but can he actually stump a climate scientist?

I suspect, or at least hope, he couldn’t stump my argumentation students.  I’m quite sure he couldn’t stump my social epistemology students, who have learned a lot about expertise this term.  Mathematicians and physicists seem to have special desire to make general pronouncements about other fields in which they lack expertise.  This is much like the credentials of the “scientists” on creationist websites who are not actually biologists but in abstract fields.

(Thanks to Wayne Myrvold for pointing out this appointment and how terrible it is.)

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I’m pleased to announce here on RAIL that the journal Cogency has allowed open access to it’s first four issues. I’m not sure if they plan to continue this policy, as, for instance, Informal Logic does, but for now it’s a great opportunity to check out what is already a diverse and interesting array of articles by many of the leading scholars in our field. (How they let an article of mine slip into the mix is anyone’s guess!)

Do check it out!

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Here’s a lovely graphical representation of the family of fallacies via The Fallacy Files. (Note: I found out about this infographic first via the Philosorapters blog, which gives advice on job hunting mostly but also occasionally on teaching philosophy.) I think many readers of RAIL will find this way of cutting the cake rather interesting, as the classification of some fallacies is…let’s say novel.  Others represented here are altogether new to me (e.g. the “Texas Sharpshooter”).

Whatever one makes of it, you have to tip your cap to the work that no doubt went into putting this concept map together. I’d love to see some alternatives.  Anyone out there up for it?

I'm a sucker for a nice infographic!

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Well, you've got to admit that it's easy to work with from a theoretical perspective...

Creating explanatory or theoretical models of complicated phenomena is one of the chief intellectual activities of academics in nearly every field.  As we do this, it is salutary to remember that as powerful and helpful as our models can be they can also bewitch us too.  Rather than providing us with a lens that helps us see the phenomena we study more clearly, they can inflict a kind of selective vision on us that shackles us to our grounding assumptions, forces interpretation in their terms and blinds us to important bits of information that lie outside their boundaries.

Sometimes, this can be funny.  For example, I recall a bit of apocrypha about a philosopher who, upon first encountering black swans, rather than admit them as proof of that the conclusions of inductive arguments were underdetermined by their premises insisted instead that those black feathery things serenely gliding around on the water out there couldn’t possibly be swans at all.

Physicists are susceptible to this sort of thing too and they recognize it in this old and much beloved self-effacing joke.  It is funny, but I can’t help but think as well that lurking somewhere in there is a new fallacy patiently awaiting discovery by some intrepid researcher in argumentation theory.  Certainly being in the grips of a model is a common enough cause of poor argumentation to warrant designation as a fallacy of some kind.  I’m willing to start the process if you are.  Post a short description of your candidate for the new fallacy here in the comments section.  Best entry wins…er…let’s say eternal glory. 🙂

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