This blog is going to largely focus on the hows and whys of self-education. But let’s face it – there is never going to be a time when everyone in the world will have the desire to analyze Dante’s Inferno or learn how to build their own PC. And that’s fine. Not everyone in the world has to be a stuffy intellectual for us to reap the benefits of a more educated and intelligent society. So, you have no plans on going on to learn linear algebra, but still want to become a more informed person? Or, maybe, you have more ambitious intellectual goals to tackle in the future but need a place to start out? In my opinion the best and most practical tool anyone can have in their arsenal of skills is the ability to critically think about their beliefs and the claims of the people around them.
Critical thinking is really the ability to…well, to think. Critically. It seems like a pretty basic concept, but it’s something that’s taken me quite a while to get down to doing in my everyday life and there are certainly plenty of people out there who could use some help. As the rather obnoxious teenager I once was, I really believed that the mark of an intelligent person was the books they read, whether or not they kept up with politics, and how well they could spell. Now, don’t get me wrong, these things are great, but if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it is perfectly possible to meet all of those credentials and still be a complete ignoramus. Not to mention that even the smartest of people are exempt from the occasional mistake.
Take for example, the comments section of pretty much any newspaper site. These places are awash some of the most asinine and outright dumb commentary similar to what can be found in even the worst of pointless Facebook arguments. Even pruning out the ones that are borderline unreadable or written by those with a broken caps lock key, you’ll never come up short in this treasure trove of stupidity. And these people read. Some quite a bit. A lot of them read these newspapers thoroughly and regularly. Yet they manage to somehow remain completely unenlightened about things that seem to be right in front of them.
Not too long ago I read an article on Huffington Post about a severely autistic man who, while his sister was not watching him, stole food from the hot food buffet at a Whole Foods. The sister apologized to the security guard and offered to pay for the food. In response, the guard allegedly kicked them out of the store and told the sister that her brother would only be allowed back in if he was on a leash. The sister, understandably upset, started a petition for Whole Foods to better train its staff and the security guard resigned.
There were more ignorant and outright hurtful comments than I care to recall but one in particular stood out to me. The commenter wrote something to the effect of “People with disabilities (like myself) are always going on about being treated like everyone else and that’s exactly what he got”. I’m paraphrasing since I was unable to later locate the exact comment again. The man was a registered and regular Huffington Post commenter who described himself underneath his username as a disabled veteran.
The thing that struck me about this comment, as opposed to the blatantly prejudiced comments that accompanied it, was that to someone out there this probably made perfect sense. If you’re not someone who regularly thinks critically this comment has the appearance of logic, even though what it is actually doing is breaking those rules of logic horribly. It completely misinterprets what advocates for the disabled mean by “being treated like everyone else” which is the ability to go through life without their disabilities preventing them from doing everyday things like going into a grocery store without a leash. Under his reasoning we shouldn’t build wheelchair ramps because, hey, people with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else so it’s the stairs for them! He also falsely claims authority on the topic due to the fact that he too has a disability, completely ignoring that his disability obviously isn’t autism and that knowledge of war wounds doesn’t make you knowledgeable of mental handicaps. Finally, he states that the man was treated like everyone else. He wasn’t. No one without a mental handicap would ever be told to only return if they were leashed. Despite this, this comment probably seemed perfectly logical to the man and to others.
Now, I probably didn’t have to tell most of you that this guy is full of shit for you to realize it, but the world is inundated with much more subtle abuses and misuses of logic. For those of you looking for a way to see through half-hearted political rhetoric and avoid spending your last dime on snake oil, I’ve picked out my personal favorite top ten logical fallacies (mostly chosen because I feel like these are the ones I see all the time).
- Ad Hominem:
The title of this fallacy is Latin for “to the man” and is the fallacy of discrediting the person making a statement as opposed to criticizing the statement itself. The reason this is not logically sound is demonstrated in a little activity I think most of us encountered in grade school at some point or another. The teacher writes out the characteristics of three nameless presidential candidates; two automatically seem rather shady, having had numerous affairs and bad habits such as drinking and smoking. The third seems to stand out as the obvious good guy; he’s an artist, had no known affairs, didn’t smoke and was a vegetarian. Number three always ends up being the land slide winner. Then it’s revealed that the first two repugnant candidates are Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, while the hypothetical president the young class has just elected into office was Adolf Hitler
It speaks to the state of the United States that our politicians have long ago learned that playing on the population’s emotions can be a great way of not having to talk concretely about issues. Political rhetoric is awash with some of the most subtle and sometimes even the most blatant of ad hominem attacks. For those as equally disillusioned with politics as I am, I can only say that as long as we continue responding to such pitiful reasoning and rhetoric from our elected officials, it will be what we continue to get.
- Ad Ignorantiam:
Also known as “appeal to ignorance”. This fallacy works by claiming something must be true simply because you cannot disprove it. This is fallacious because when making an extraordinary claim it is the person making the claim who carries the burden of having to prove their it(burden of proof) and not the listener to disprove the assertion. Bertrand Russell made the famous analogy of “Russell’s Teapot” to demonstrate the faulty reasoning the lies within the ad ignorantiam. He wrote that if he were to claim a celestial teapot was currently in orbit around the Earth, one would not be expected to assume it is true until they could disprove it. Quite the opposite: Russell, making the claim, would have to prove the teapot’s existence before he was taken seriously.
This is a fallacy often used by theists in an attempt to prove the existence of God by virtue of atheists’ lack of ability to disprove such a God exists. While I’m not here to try and bash anyone’s faith, it does remain entirely fallacious to assert that an omnipotent being must certainly exist simply because you cannot disprove it, or more complexly, because there are things in the world that cannot currently be explained. This last example also falls into the realm of The False Dichotomy, which you’ll get a more in depth view of further down.
- Argument from Authority:
This false presentation of authority is a rather common tactic by those trying to sell their alternative healing products. In the absence of empirical data to support their claims, a supposed expert is used to extol the product’s supposed virtues. This tends to have a rather ironic bend as alternative medicine gurus simultaneously attempt to disparage western medicine while claiming academic support from proponents of it. The latter incarnation of this fallacy, making the appearance of agreement among authority figures or, conversely, exaggerating disagreement between such figures, can be seen quite often in climate change deniers. Such people typically take advantage of the lack of scientific knowledge of lay people to try and insinuate that there is a much more torrid debate among climate scientists than there actually is in an attempt to give their position greater validity.
- Confusing Correlation with Causation:
So you’re walking your dog down the street on a sunny Tuesday morning when your dog tragically and inexplicably keels over right in front of you. Aside from your sadness, you’re going to undoubtedly wonder why it happened. It was Tuesday. Could that have something to do with it? Could Tuesdays hold some greater chance of doom striking you than other days? Or the sun! Is it possible your dog developed a sudden and unexpected allergy to it before having walked out the door? These assumptions are obviously fallacious, confusing two things that coincidentally occurred in tangent with one another, with the idea of one having caused the other.
Again, real life examples tend to be much more subtle than the examples I give. Typically, the thing assumed to be a cause has the reasonable possibility that it could in fact be a cause (as opposed to Tuesdays being harbingers of death). The trick is that regardless of how possible it is for a correlating factor to be a cause of a certain outcome, that possibility alone does not constitute good empirical evidence. Still again, this fallacy deserves its own bit of caution. With the increasing popularity of debating topics, particularly scientific ones, by those with a genuine interest in the topic but no formal training (I’m looking at you r/atheism), some people have begun to cry fallacy too soon. Correlation cannot guarantee causation but correlation is quite often the jumping-off point of many decent hypotheses and in-depth questioning. While we certainly can’t verify anything solely based on the correlation of two occurrences, we do have to be aware of when such correlation can be seen as pertinent to further investigation.
- False Analogy:
An analogy compares two ideas or objects with similar characteristics and can be a powerful rhetorical skill. This skill, however, turns fallacious when the analogy, despite appearances, is not in fact valid. This is probably one of the trickier fallacies to spot simply by virtue of how it’s used: It does the debater creating the fallacy no favors to pick an obviously false analogy (but then again maybe the debater is simply horrible at rhetoric, so I suppose it depends). False analogies are one of many favorites for creationists. Typically their argument can be reduced to finding a complex system somewhere in biology (one is hardly starved for examples), stating that it is analogous with something that requires a creator (famously, a watch) and therefor that biological concept must have a creator as well.
- False Dichotomy:
You see this fallacy a lot in creationist arguments. The false dichotomy can be useful to any person trying to defend a claim that has very little supporting evidence of its own. Basically, when in doubt on your own position, you try to tear down the opposing argument’s validity in the hope that by disproving your opponent’s position your position will then be validated. This is fallacious in any case where you cannot guarantee that one of the two sides must be correct.
The popular creationist version of this is to systematically try to tear down the arguments for evolution. These tear-downs are usually fallacious in and of themselves, but the entire enterprise is itself a false dichotomy. By attempting to validate creationism by “disproving” evolution, the creationist sets up the false dichotomy that the only two explanations for observed phenomena – evolution and creation by a designer – are valid. The truth is, even if evolution were miraculously disproven tomorrow (which would truly be miraculous), this would not prove creationists correct, simply because there could be any number of other explanations that one could propose to explain what evolution previously seemed to. Remember, arguments are only as valid as their evidence so tearing down the evidence of opposing arguments does nothing if your own evidence is lacking.
- No True Scotsman:
The title of this fallacy is thanks to a hypothetical situation developed by philosopher Antony Flew:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.
Basically, this fallacy relies on a meaningless qualifier (what makes a “true” Scotsman, after all?) to justify contrary evidence. This is one of my favorite political rhetoric devices. Turn on any news channel in the United States and you’ll see plenty of statements from politicians and pundits alike about how they are championing for “true” Americans. This totally ignores the true meaning of being an American (simply having American citizenship), by setting up some fuzzy, undefined, idealistic idea of what it is to be an American. Not surprisingly, this idea changes from speaker to speaker and from audience to audience, all conveniently applied to whomever it best suits them to apply it to.
- Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc:
This is related to the correlation versus causation fallacy. The basic premise is the assumption that just because a specific action precluded a specific result that the action actually caused the result.
Regardless of your personal opinion of the TV show The Big Bang Theory, you kind of have to admire the way they’ve brought certain scientific and technological concepts to a general audience. A particular scene demonstrates this fallacy rather well, when the group returns from a research trip in Antarctica. The character Sheldon is shown speaking on the phone with his Bible-thumping Texan of a mother:
“No mother, I could not feel your church group praying for my safety. No, the fact that I got home safely is not proof that it worked. That logic is post hoc ergo propter hoc…No I am not sassing you in Eskimo talk…”
- Straw Man:
The Straw Man fallacy is typically invoked when one cannot attack the argument they are facing. In face of this, the person committing the fallacy constructs a “straw man” argument; an argument that has all of the appearances of the actual argument but is, in fact, much easier to tear to pieces. The best defense against this is also simply just good form when it comes to debating any topic: Know you topic and your position well. Don’t start arguments on topics you’ve simply skimmed Wikipedia articles about (for any reason really) and a straw man argument should be pretty easy to spot from those who would try and beat you with it.
Also known as circular reasoning. This occurs when simply by its construction, an argument proves itself. The Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true, is the most common and obvious of examples, although they can obviously take on more complex forms with a greater amount of intervening steps before the “circle” is fully formed.
This is really a very brief overview of an expansive and complex topic. Undoubtedly, I’ll be writing many more pieces on the subject of critical thinking as this one really only skims the surface. Plus, as I said earlier, critical thinking is truly the most practical skill anyone can hold in an attempt to get through life without being constantly falling victim to those who prey on their ability to simply sound convincing. We are surrounded by smooth talking car salesmen, crooked politicians and a variety of people attempting to discredit things they simply don’t understand. Critical thinking, the ability to question the logic and truth behind the myriad of claims and assertions we encounter every day, is the one way anyone, from the most well-read of doctoral candidates to the blue-collar worker, can protect themselves from those who would try to lead them astray.
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