Monday, February 29, 2016

The fallacy fallacy


Black-and-white thinking, which I discussed in my blog last week, is not only a psychological and a sociological phenomenon, but it happens also in philosophy. There it is usually called “false dilemma”, but it goes also by other names, like bifurcation and the fallacy of false choice.
A false dilemma is just one member of the big family of fallacies you can commit in your reasoning. There are at least two questions: what is exactly a fallacy and which fallacies do exist? Since the subject of fallacy is new to me – and that’s just why it made me curious to know more about it – I did some research on the Internet and soon I came to the conclusion that both questions don’t have an answer. A fallacy is a false argumentation, indeed, but is it enough to define this type of mistakes? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( makes clear that it is almost impossible to give a comprehensive definition. As usually, the philosophers disagree. Let me follow what this website (IEP for short) says.
Some researchers define a fallacy, so IEP in section 4, “as an argument that is deductively invalid or that has very little inductive strength.” But if this were true, a false dilemma would not be a fallacy, for it is a correct reasoning in this sense. A second definition says that “a fallacy is a mistake in an argument that arises from something other than merely false premises.” However, a false dilemma does start from false premises, so it wouldn’t be a fallacy according to this definition. What definition would we take then? “Still other researchers”, so IEP, “define a fallacy as an argument that is not good. Good arguments are ... deductively valid or inductively strong, and ... contain only true, well-established premises, but are not question-begging.” But if a scientist rejects an old theory and replaces it by a new one, scientists who developed the old theory would then be fallacious argumentators, which is a rather dubious supposition; not everybody will accept it. So, we should try again another definition: “A fallacious argument [is] ... one that either is deductively invalid or is inductively very weak or contains an unjustified premise or that ignores relevant evidence that is available and that should be known by the arguer.” However, this makes almost every error in argumentation a fallacy. A last try given by the IEP is that “a fallacy is a failure to provide adequate proof for a belief, the failure being disguised to make the proof look adequate.” Maybe this is yet the best one, but I think that also this definition is not flawless.
I’ll stop quoting possible definitions of fallacy. I think that we can endorse the conclusion of the IEP in section 4: “Researchers in the field are deeply divided ...” Or should we conclude that there are no fallacies for the simple reason that it’s impossible to define what a fallacy is? But this looks like a fallacy fallacy: The reasoning that a conclusion is false (as a fact), because the reasoning that leads to that conclusion is false.
Maybe we should look at the practice: Which “recognized” fallacies do we know? Also here we have a problem. The IEP lists 213 fallacies. However, the list is only a partial list. It’s not exhaustive. In view of that, it is to be wondered whether the word “fallacy” is more than a label past at will on an error in reasoning. Only one item in the list actually bears the name of fallacy: the prosecutor’s fallacy (“the mistake of over-emphasizing the strength of a piece of evidence while paying insufficient attention to the context”, so the IEP).
What other fallacies does the list contain? I’ll mention only a few:
- Appeal to emotions: A claim is to be accepted merely because it arouses emotional feelings like anger, fear, grief, love, outrage, sympathy, etc.
- Begging the question: A conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion. 
- Digression: The answer doesn’t really respond to the question asked.
- Hedging: You refine your claim simply to avoid counterevidence and then act as if your revised claim is the same as the original.
- Scapegoating: Unfairly blaming an unpopular person or group of people for a problem.
But does it matter whether a wrong argumentation is a fallacy? What is important is that we see that some argumentations are false and that such a list of so-called fallacies will certainly help us to avoid them. But maybe this is only wishful thinking and maybe such a list functions only as a smokescreen, although I must admit that what I say now looks like a false analogy.

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