If you’re like me, (I know you’re not, but humor me), life is just one big mish-mash of ethanol-fueled what-the-what. Effects have no cause, correlation and causation are the same damned thing, and a paradox is something that Noah brought onto the Ark. Eminent scholars (read: people on the internet) disagree with this view, however, maintaining that human reason is constrained by the laws of logic. Since they are likely much sobererer than I am, I concede the point and present the following list of logical cock-ups.
10. Argument From Ignorance
“You can’t prove that aliens DIDN’T build the pyramids.”
“If cold fusion were really possible, scientists would have done it by now. ”
“Ok, so you saw someone else’s lipstick on my dick. So what? How do you know you I didn’t put it there myself? ”
Why it’s wrong:
Arguments from Ignorance occur when we use a lack of evidence against a claim as evidence for the claim, or vice versa. Unfortunately, logical arguments aren’t like gambling. In roulette, a bet on red is the same as a bet against black (barring house wins). The same isn’t true in logic. Logical arguments have to stand on their own merits, not the merits of any other claim, including their counter-arguments. To complicate things even further, the same thing is true in reverse. It’s usually reasonable to withhold belief in a claim until evidence arises to prove it, but a lack of evidence for a claim doesn’t actually prove it to be untrue. Just like the fact that I’ve never slept with your sister doesn’t mean I’m incapable of ever doing it. This caveat is summed up by the maxim, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” which is the kind of thing that sounds really deep when you’re high.
9. Correlation vs. Causation
“Autistic children typically start displaying symptoms within a few months of receiving their 12-month vaccinations. This is proof that vaccines cause autism.”
“Studies have shown that teenagers who display violent behavior are more likely to play violent video games. Obviously, the games are causing the behavior.”
“Nearly all murders are committed by people wearing pants. If we really want to crack down on crime, we should all get naked from the waist down.”
Why it’s wrong
Correlation vs. Causation is actually a whole group of fallacies that I’m far too lazy to name one by one. They all involve an assumption that two related things (your brother and you) must be have related causes (your dad and the mailman, respectively). These assumptions generally fall into one of two categories: 1) assuming that two related things have the same cause and 2) assuming that if two things are related, one must have caused the other.
The first category is exemplified by the Blue-eyed Chopstick Gene. (Stick with me. I’m going somewhere with this.) Imagine that a group of scientists with a massive endowment (dick joke goes here) tested every single person on Earth to see how well they use chopsticks. In their studies, they find that people with brown eyes, as a group, are several times more likely to be proficient with chopsticks than people with blue eyes. We all know that eye color is genetic. Based on the study, should we conclude that the gene that encodes for blue eyes also makes people bad with chopsticks? (Answer: no. That’s stupid.) Obviously blue-eyed people are less proficient with chopsticks because blue eyes are only common in parts of the world that traditionally don’t use them.
A good example of the second category is personal superstition, like athletes who win a game in a new pair of underwear and refuse to wash them for fear of breaking the streak. The Latin term for this particular fallacy (assuming that an event must be caused by something that happened at the same time) is Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. My Latin-American friend has assured me that this translates to “with this, therefore because of this”. You learn something new everyday, huh? I assumed that it meant “fuck-nasty crotch rot logic”.
8. No True Scotsman
“Sure, the Crusades/ witch-hunts/ Inquisition were perpetrated in the name of Christ, but those people were false Christians.”
“Real men don’t eat quiche.”
Why it’s wrong
The No True Scotsman fallacy occurs whenever a person tries to dismiss counter-evidence by claiming that examples used in the counter lack some vague quality of authenticity. The fallacy gains its name from a hypothetical old man who claimed that no Scotsman would ever put sugar on his porridge (sugared porridge being far too flavorful to qualify as authentic Scottish food). When challenged with an example of an actual Scottish man eating porridge with sugar on it, the old bastard qualified his original statement by claiming that no true Scotsman would ever do such a thing. The fallacy is as common as it is moronic, and encompasses nearly all statements with qualifiers like “real Americans”, “true Christians”, “genuine craftsmanship”, and “authentic Asian cuisine” (unless you’re actually in Asia).
“Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.”
“I’m not yelling. I’m just raising my voice.”
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Why it’s wrong
Equivocation occurs when an arguer deceitfully uses a word to mean something other than its commonly understood definition or changes the meaning of a word mid-argument. In its simplest form, equivocation is the basis of all puns, like the syllogism, “Nothing is better than God. A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore, a ham sandwich is better then God.” More subtle uses can be truly insidious, especially when they’re used to affect public policy. For instance, M.A.D.D reports that “About three in every ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives.” To most people reading this, myself included, this sounds the same as saying that 30% of people will get in a wreck caused by a drunk driver. The equivocation here is in the term “alcohol-related”. While most people assume that it means the same a “caused by drunk driving”, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines the term to mean “one driver or nonoccupant (pedestrian or pedalcyclist) involved in the crash has a positive Blood Alcohol Concentration.” A positive BAC is 0.01 or higher, one-eighth the legal limit. Think about all the times you’ve read about an elderly driver, sober as a preacher on Sunday morning, jumping a curb and smashing into a farmer’s market. If one of the unfortunate people on the receiving end of their ’72 Buick had a beer three hours earlier, bingo! You just racked up a dozen “alcohol-related” fatalities. Now, obviously, that’s an extreme example, but the point is clear. “Alcohol-related” is not the same as “caused by drunk driving”. The NHTSA makes a point of defining the term in their reports. M.A.D.D. doesn’t.
“Our audio cables are made of fully annealed 99.999% pure oxygen free copper.”
“These fine restaurant-quality knives are laser-sharpened to within a tolerance of three microns.”
“I installed a performance body kit, a stainless steel exhaust with doubled aluminum tips, rear brake coolers, and aluminum carbide rims. Now my Corolla puts out five more horsepower!”
Why it’s wrong
Overprecision is basically the art of making a big deal out of inconsequential numbers. Kind of like that guy you know who updates you every week on how much he can benchpress. Mr. “I bench 307” fails to realize that, while regular exercise will improve one’s quality of life, the difference between “good health” and “bad health” can’t be measured in incremental horsepower. Unless he gets pinned beneath a 309lb. girder. In which case, I’ll gladly admit that I was wrong whilst laughing my fool head off.
5. Poisoning the Well
“The FDA claims that homeopathic medicine doesn’t work, but they’re just saying what the drug companies want them to say.”
“Atheists just don’t want to believe in God so they can continue to live sinful lives. You should take all of their arguments with a grain of salt.”
“I would expect an argument like that, coming from YOU.”
Why it’s wrong:
Poisoning the Well is a rather cunning fallacy that involves attacking an arguer’s motivations, rather than their argument. By implying or asserting that an opponent has an ulterior motive, you call his entire argument, including the truthfulness of his premises, into question. This is a pretty common tactic in religious and political debate, and it often takes the form of a preemptive strike. (“I think we need more grape jam in schools, and anyone who disagrees with me hates children!”) The obvious flaw is that the arguer’s motivations have nothing to do with the validity of the argument. Questioning why an argument has been made does nothing to counter the argument itself. In this view, Poisoning the Well is just a subtle Ad Hominem.
4. Arguing From Is to Ought
“If God had meant for men to fly, he would have given us wings.”
“If God had meant for men to eat oysters, he would have given us little hammers on our hands.”
“If God had meant for people to have sex face-to-face, he would have given men big dents in their chests.”
Why it’s wrong:
The Is to Ought fallacy was first identified by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was probably drunk at the time. It is often considered a subfallacy of the broader Appeal to Tradition, wherein one argues for doing something because it’s always been done that way. Is to Ought argues for doing something because that’s the way it’s done right now, which is just circular as fuck. The fact that a certain does condition exists does mean it should exist.
This argument commonly pops up to justify social inequalities (gay marriage, segregation, etc.) and can be seen in Appeals to Law (“Ethically, you should only use low-flow toilets because the high-volume kind are illegal.”) It also forms the basis of every “Things Man Was Not Meant to Know” argument. It’s funny how quickly we, as a society, go from TMWNMTK to “playing god” to “it’s just a fucking sheep.”
3. Weasel Words
“Select items up to 80% off!”
“Mr. President, the claim has been made that you are in fact a transvestite space alien. How do you respond to these allegations?”
“Some scientists believe that Atlantis may still exist in another dimension.”
Why it’s wrong:
Weasel words are not fallacies in and of themselves, but they’re the kind of rhetorical booby-traps that lead to fallacies. In short, they are ambiguous phrases that give the impression of significance without having any actual content, kind of like NutraSweet for words, or CNN. You can make practically any claim if you couch it in enough weasel words. For instance, “Inside sources claim that your mother may or may not be a whore.” Did you see what happened, there? Nothing. Absolutely nothing was stated, but long after you’ve read the sentence, the words “mother” and “whore” will stick in your brain like cheese in a frying pan. This gives the person making the claim deniability, allowing them to escape the repercussions of making false claims while still being able to leave listeners with the desired impression.
2. Unidle Speculation
“I’m not saying that the president is really a squirrel dressed in a human suit. I’m just saying that would explain his affection for ACORN.”
“What if Mormons really are bent on word domination? Wouldn’t it make sense to eradicate them now? I’m just asking questions, here.”
“If I were the kind of person prone to reading into things, I might say that your fixation on banning gay marriage stems from your own sexual insecurities.”
Why it’s wrong:
The Unidle Speculation is yet another of those rhetorical tricks that is not itself fallacious, but is prone to leading others into fallacy. It occurs when a speaker offers a hypothetical scenario with the intent of making the listener believe that scenario to be true. Like Weasel Words, the technique is used to avoid that sticky business of backing up what you have to say. By phrasing accusations as questions or innocent speculations, the arguer avoids the blame of making false accusations. Following from the previous example, “I don’t know if your mother is a whore or not. I’m just saying that if she’s a whore, she’s probably not very good at it, what with her age and the bad hip and everything. She probably barely makes enough to pay for her electrolysis. If your mom’s a whore, that is.”
1. Invincible Ignorance
“It doesn’t matter what you say. You can’t shake my faith.”
“I still think Airwolf is the best damned show that’s ever been on television, and nothing will ever make me change my mind about that!”
“LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU LA LA LA”
Why it’s wrong:
Non Sequitur might be the granddaddy of all fallacies, but Invincible Ignorance is at least the creepy uncle. The term was originally used in Catholic dogma to describe innocence based on a person’s complete inability to know that their actions are sinful, but logicians adopted the term around the 1950’s. Since then, it has come to mean the pigheaded dismissal of any argument counter to one’s own position, regardless of validity. Invincible Ignorance is utterly unassailable on any logical grounds, as it denies logical arguments by simply pretending that they don’t exist. It is my personal favorite fallacy, mostly because it lies at the heart of nearly all tortured logic, rationalization, and cognitive dissonance. If you don’t want to believe something, you really don’t have to, so long as you can convince your brain to ignore the evidence.
That’s what I believe, anyway, and there’s no way in hell you’ll convince me otherwise.