Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fallacy (For the Sake of Arugment II)

Yesterday, in For the Sake of Argument, I introduced the basics of formal argument. In quick summary:
  1. The process of arguing is one by which two or more parties move towards agreement by building agreement one step at a time, brick by brick
  2. The process starts with a set of proposed facts or premises (the foundational building blocks upon which the argument rests). Each proposed premise or proposition is either accepted or rejected. To be accepted as a premise, all parties must agree. However, any one party can reject a proposition.
  3. If a proposition is rejected, it makes absolutely no sense to proceed until you have:
    • come to agreement on that proposition, or
    • determined a replacement proposition, or
    • discarded the proposition as not required by the argument
  4. As propositions are accepted as premises, new propositions can be inferred from the accepted ones. These inferences are accepted or not. If accepted, the inference becomes a premise and is added to the foundation. If not, then repeat step 3.
  5. The argument is constructed in the above manner until a final inference is asserted and accepted. This final inference is referred to as the conclusion.
If after reading yesterday's blog, you ran and found your partner shouting, "Hey, let's have a big argument!", and you followed the above outline reasonably well, then you might have discovered that it's not always clear whether or why a proposition is a valid or invalid premise. The reason for this is that most of us use and accept invalid premises pretty much all the time.

In formal argument, invalid premises are referred to as fallacies. Fortunately, the use of fallacy goes back thousands of years and the most common types are well documented. With a bit of education, you can learn to not only spot fallacy, but to quickly identify the type of fallacy.

Below, I've provided some of the more common fallacies that we routinely accept as valid propositions. Becoming familiar with these can help you to create constructive arguments that are well grounded and sound. As you develop your skills, it's not so important that you become expert in identifying specifically which type of fallacy has been asserted, but simply that you identify whether a proposition is valid or not.

Also note that the beauty of structured argument is that you needn't prove that a proposition is flawed in order to reject it. Propositions must be accepted multilaterally (by all parties), but they may be declined unilaterally (by just one listener).
If you are being presented a proposition, yours is to simply say "accepted" or "rejected"; you have no burden of proof.

False Analogy
False analogy involves the comparison of two items that do not have strong enough similarities to predict that what happens in one will happen in the other.
Why should I study hard and finish high school? Look at Tom Cruise. He's rich and famous and he never finished high school.

Berkshire Community College should not require a freshman algebra course. MIT doesn't even offer a freshman algebra course and their students are some of the brightest mathematicians in the world.

It worked for Apple and Steve Jobs, why wouldn't it work for us?
Although a great form of illustration, generally speaking, analogy is a terrible form of argument. So, rather than wasting time deciding whether or not an analogy is false, it might be more useful to simply exclude analogy as you cut your teeth on arguing.

False Premise
To introduce a false premise, you provide a logical statement in which you include (assume) a premise that has not yet been accepted in the argument.
Everyone wants a college degree. Good high school grades are necessary to getting into college. Everyone should work on good high school grades.

All musicians want to be rich and famous. Strong work ethic is required to become rich and famous. It's important that all musicians develop a strong work ethic.
In the above arguments, not one, but two premises are provided. For the argument to stand, both must have been accepted before one can process the inference.

Argumentum ad Baculum (Appeal to Force)
An appeal to force is committed when the arguer resorts to force or the threat of force in order to gain the acceptance of an assertion. The threat may be direct or indirect.
If you don't want to simply take my word on this, then we clearly have no relationship and I'm leaving.

If you don't make the right decision regarding your joining that FaceBook group, then you'll be fired.
Argumentum ad Populum (Appeal to the People)
Argumentum ad Populum attempts to win acceptance of an assertion by appealing to a large group of people. This form of argument is typically characterize by emotional and inflammatory language.
Everyone knows that PCs are for seriously minded business people and Macs are for artsy-fartsy flakes.

If learning to argue well is so important, then why doesn't everyone know how to do it?

By show of hands, who in the audience actually believes that Jonathan knows what he's talking about? Hmmm... not many hands there.
Argumentum ad Verecundiam (Appeal to Authority)
Appeal to authority is used quite frequently among academics and in television commercials. It is a logical shortcut by which logical steps (building blocks) are skipped and a premise is added to the foundation based on a reference to an expert's or famous person's opinion. (Imagine a brick floating in the air just above the foundation.)

There are cases where this form of argument can be valid, e.g., if the authority is in fact an expert on the topic being argued. However, even then, appeal to authority is tenuous as expertise has limits and experts often disagree with one another. Of course, there are cases where the expertise or fame of the person referenced has nothing to do with the premise being asserted.
Omega's are terrific watches. Tiger Woods wears and Omega.

The national teachers association recommends that all children complete at least four years of college.

God must exist. Einstein believed in God!
Argumentum ad misericordiam (Appeal to Pity)
Appeal to pity is a technique by which an arguer tugs on the heartstrings of the listener rather than presenting data to support his argument.
How can you convict him of killing his parents, when he's an orphan and has suffered enough.
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam (Appeal to Ignorance)
Appeal to Ignorance shifts the burden of proof from the arguer to the listener by asserting that a proposition is valid simply because it has not been shown to be invalid.
Of course God created the universe. Nobody can prove otherwise.

Of course alcoholism cannot be cured. No one has been able to show that it's curable.
Either/Or Fallacy
Using the either/or fallacy, the arguer implies that only two choices exists (both of which can be invalid).
Either we spend another trillion dollars on the financial industry or our entire monetary system will collapse.

We either make the health care system public or we keep it private.

You're either with me or against me.
Concurrence Fallacy
To use the concurrence fallacy, one implies a causal relationship between two coincidental premises that are unrelated or only loosely related.

Whenever I drink more than three mixed drinks, I meet the most beautiful women. Drinking must make me more attractive.

Circular Reasoning or "Tautological Reasoning."
Circular reasoning involves a proposition that depends upon itself to be true. The circular reasoning may be found within the proposition itself (easy to spot) or may involve a series of propositions that wrap back around to a starting proposition.
Ralph is an impressive speaker because he always touches his listeners deeply.
In the above example, the very meaning of "impressive" includes the idea of touching someone deeply, intellectually, or emotionally. In an argument this is ineffective and absurd, just as "he is handsome because he is good looking" would be.

Equivocation occurs when a key word is used with two or more different meanings in the same argument.
Supporters of the Alpha Institute properly employ the institute's trademarks in all written works referencing the institute. People who do not properly employ the institute's trademarks are not supportive of the institute.
The original premise is true only of ideal supporters. While ideally everyone would properly display the appropriate trademarks, not doing so does not make them unsupportive.

Slippery Slope
The slippery slope argument simply implies that one instance of something will inevitably lead to others.
If we let one student get away with not having done his homework, before you know it, no one will be doing homework.

No, you carnivores cannot order bacon with your steamed greens! Otherwise, everyone would start to request custom orders.
True But Irrelevant
A trait shared by several fallacies is that of being true but completely irrelevant to the argument.

Distraction or "Red Herring"
Distraction involves the introduction of a premise that is valid but irrelevant.
Joe Smith is clearly an honest man, when you talk to him, he looks you straight in the eye.

Taco Kitchen is a great restaurant, their utensils are all brand new, clean and shiny.

If you loved me, then you'd buy me that new car.
You didn't buy that car, therefore you must not love me.
Argumentum Ad Hominem (Against the Person)
Ad hominem involves negative statements regarding the person that are unrelated to the discussion, a Red Herring attached to the person.
George is a terrible lawyer, his hair is always unkempt and he always looks tired.

Fred will never become a great math teacher; he can't even parallel park.
Name-Calling (Genetic Fallacy)
Genetic fallacy is similar to (but different from) ad hominem. Rather than being based on a current observation (ad hominem), genetic fallacy is based on a person's past or their origin.
Ellen Fitzpatrick was a long time radical vegan. Her ideas must be held suspect.

Mark Kaufman has a history of falling asleep in class, therefore his report on what happened today cannot be trusted.

Teflon's father is grew up in Finland which has a high rate of alcoholism. It might be better not to hire Teflon as a website manager.
So What?
One of the great things about formal argument is that it's a partnership by which two or more parties move towards agreement by together building a solid foundation of mutually accepted propositions.

As each premise or inference is proposed, it is the job of the proposer to convince the listener that the proposition is valid. The listener can unilaterally reject the proposition. However, in truly constructive argument, the listener can also offer alternative propositions that she would find acceptable. Multilateral acceptance and unilateral rejection.

By applying what we discussed yesterday and today to everyday disagreements, you'll find that the solutions tend to be much more satisfying for everyone involved and they tend not to fall apart over time.

So, it's Sunday morning. A great exercise today might be sitting down with someone and debating something important. As you do so, pay attention to the method of engagement (i.e., proposing and accepting or rejecting premises), but don't worry so much about whether or not the propositions are faulty or how they're faulty. Then, once you're done, play back the recording and analyze each proposition to determine whether or not it is a fallacy and, if so, why it's a fallacy.

Or better yet, bring a recorder to your next business meeting where you anticipate heated debate! Can you imagine how much you'll have?

Happy arguing!


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