Part of figuring out reasons to believe is figuring out reasons to disbelieve.
Previously, I explained how people might structure their thoughts so that they are convincing and reasonable. The problem is that people have the capacity of being convincing without being reasonable. This post will be a short commentary on, and a very basic overview of, how we try to fool each other. It’s about how the argument can be muddled, warped and distorted to suit a not-necessarily sincere purpose. I say “very basic” because there’s too many fallacies to cover in one post, and because – as I wrote earlier – simply learning them by heart won’t make you into a more intelligent or rational person. Nevertheless, if you wish to learn how to recognize proper arguments, you need to see the improper ones.
I remarked that trying to fish out the actual essence of the argument from the text is difficult – what should be added is that it’s sometimes impossible, because there is no argument. What is happening is the speaker is either not making logical sense, or hiding the faults in their reasoning, or both. In a study of what is called a “fallacy“, some like to divide them into two kinds: formal and informal.
First, let’s tackle the formal. In theory logical mistakes should be easy to spot, but since logic is not always intuitive, and everyday language presents us with a lot of leeway, they can be far from obvious. I will give just one example.
Consider these claims: “if you smoke, you will get lung cancer”, “if you drive carelessly, you will have a car accident”, “if you work very hard, you will achieve your goals”. All of those are to some degree accurate – at the very least, their opposites don’t sound plausible. Thus we might be tempted to think that the reason someone had a car accident was that they are a careless driver. This is, however, incorrect. The original implication worked from careless driving to accident, but to reason from the accident to the cause is to invert the implication. Reasoning in this way, we forget that the statement doesn’t work both ways, and thus jump to conclusions. But there are other reasons why someone could have an accident, cancer, or achieve their goals. (In more technical terms, “if” is not the same as “if and only if”) Thus, we can’t make such an assumption unless we know it can’t be any other way.
Another group of fallacies form the informal category. Though some of them have a logical background, they don’t deal as much with logic as they do with our psychology.
For example, whenever someone presents an alternative solution, they can insist that it’s the only possible way. This is usually done while presenting the other option as clearly unacceptable. The fancy term for this is “false dichotomy” – the mistaken view that there’s only two sides. The well-known “either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” is a good example with a long history. And while it is true that in some cases there can really logically be only two options, life is hardly ever so simple, and especially when it comes to politics.
When hiding a fallacy isn’t enough to convince others, a speaker can go straight for the emotional appeal. Stating things in a raised voice, repeating the same claims, trying to scare the audience before giving them a solution are all attempts at circumventing the human capacity to discern nonsense. Stereotyping, appeals to authority, ridicule, diverting attention from the argument, and many others are shortcuts people use to get others to agree.
I could go on, but I wanted to make an observation more than a list. One of the things I find interesting when considering all of the fallacies is the sheer amount of energy that humanity has exhausted on inventing new ways of being wrong and convincing others to agree. Somewhere along the way to intellectual development, our ability and desire to reason go their own way, and we simply choose to learn tricks. And what’s more, we aren’t even always aware of our manipulations – the best-intentioned people can still be wrong, and unwittingly try to steer others towards their mistakes. Perhaps this is our fate – maybe as a species we will never get rid of the way our fallacies can influence us. But is it not worth trying to avoid them?
In trying to understand arguments, we started simple, but things are already getting complicated. Natural language is not only hard to use to get things right, it can be even harder to figure out why one didn’t. By reflecting on the ways we confuse ourselves and each other, we are a bit like people learning to operate heavy machinery. Aren’t we better suited to wielding the language if we know of the treacherous parts?