Is Spotting Logical Fallacies a Useful Tool?

Hierophant

Member
The logical fallacy I see used most is false equivalence, most commonly in the form of strawman. Although it's used mainly in the "free speech for nazis", "feminism is cancer", and anti-SJW hysteria crowd that the snake oil salesmen who used to sell loose change dvds are now servicing. For example example a Scottish court fining a youtuber for making jokes about gassing jews is presented as equivalent to a government jailing/murdering a person for expressing an opinion. Or a woman asking to hire more women (thereby reducing the number of hired men) is portrayed as equivalent to removing an ethnicity entirely through genocide. But the people whose entire arguments are based on logical fallacies commonly have prepared tricks to counter people who point out their logical fallacies. For example a youtuber who uses strawmen all the time made a video calling people who accuse him of strawmaning "straw crows", which successfully made his followers totally immune to people pointing out his logical fallacies.
 
I guess the prerequisite is that the person you are having a discussion with is interested in a intellectually honest debate. In many political debates for example it seems like the goal isn't to get closer to the truth but rather to win over the crowd, the debaters aren't even talking to each other they are talking the audience. If you make the mistake of thinking it is a more academic type of debate when the other person is just trying to impress the crowd you are just going to waste your time and in worst case help them further their agenda.

It still might work to point out fallacies (and use formal logic) for example, assuming the intended audience understands what you are talking about. If not (which probably is the most common case) it's probably only counterproductive, as has been pointed out.
 

edby

Member
I guess the prerequisite is that the person you are having a discussion with is interested in a intellectually honest debate. In many political debates for example it seems like the goal isn't to get closer to the truth but rather to win over the crowd, the debaters aren't even talking to each other they are talking the audience. If you make the mistake of thinking it is a more academic type of debate when the other person is just trying to impress the crowd you are just going to waste your time and in worst case help them further their agenda.

It still might work to point out fallacies (and use formal logic) for example, assuming the intended audience understands what you are talking about. If not (which probably is the most common case) it's probably only counterproductive, as has been pointed out.
Agree, although this raises the interesting point of why the 'crowd' are persuaded by one form of dialectic, whereas scientists/academics/scholars are persuaded by another.

The distinction between logic and rhetoric has been recognised since ancient times, suggesting a fundamental fact about human nature.
 

deirdre

Moderator
Staff member
whereas scientists/academics/scholars are persuaded by another.
methinks you are giving the group of 'scientists/academics/scholars' too much credit. There are plenty within that group that fall for rhetoric also.
 

edby

Member
methinks you are giving the group of 'scientists/academics/scholars' too much credit. There are plenty within that group that fall for rhetoric also.
I don't deny that. It is all a matter of degree.

I vividly remember a debate between my head of department and another head, where the main argument of the other head was 'you are childish, and your argument is childish', and so it went on for some time.

That said, that standard of argument would not have survived a peer review process, nor would it have reached a written paper in the first place.
 

deirdre

Moderator
Staff member
That said, that standard of argument would not have survived a peer review process, nor would it have reached a written paper in the first place.
apparently, that too, depends on which journal you are publishing in.
 
Agree, although this raises the interesting point of why the 'crowd' are persuaded by one form of dialectic, whereas scientists/academics/scholars are persuaded by another.

The distinction between logic and rhetoric has been recognised since ancient times, suggesting a fundamental fact about human nature.
We are social beings so it might be that it's more important to agree with the group you identify with than it is to find the truth.

There is a famous psychology experiment called the Asch conformity experiment where a group of people are asked to solve a very simple problem. However, all but one person in the group are actors who will give an obviously wrong answer and the test is really about what the remaining person says. It turns out about 1/3 give the wrong answer in this situation. (If tested one by one less than 1% give the wrong answer.)

Not exactly the same thing but it illustrates that social interactions might trump rational thinking.
 

Tedsson

Member
Argument from authority to some extent is a necessity, you always have to find some common ground from where you can make your deductions. If you push it far enough you end up with cogito ergo sum sort of things and Gödel famously showed that even mathematicians need to take some things on faith, etc.

It is considered too cumbersome/difficult/time consuming to deduce even the "elementary" math we teach in schools from the axioms, so we rely on the authority of books and teachers (and "common sense"). In other subjects it just gets harder. To provide some fairly conclusive evidence for the existence of the Higgs Boson you need a 9 billion USD accelerator to begin with. Most of us, even physicist, will just have to trust the experts when they say they found it.

If your uncle is saying the theory of relativity is a scam, do you trust him or the majority of physicists saying otherwise? I suppose you try and convince yourself by making different experiments (inevitably based on a lot of assumptions you have learned from other authoritative sources), but it is simply to cumbersome and time consuming for most.

We are all forced to take most of what we know on faith from different authorities. It's the only rational and practical approach ("informal logic"). (Although that doesn't mean that they are always right). I think we should be more up front with this unfortunate reality and schools ought spend more time trying to convince people why they should believe what they are being taught (scientific method) at the expense of some of the facts they will have forgotten the next year anyway.

I believe conspiracy theories sometimes come from loosing faith in these authorities, if you start pulling the treads the things we think we know start to unravel. If you don't see a reason why you should believe what your teacher told you about evolution (i.e. the scientific method) but rather just see it as gospel from a preacher, then there is really no reason why you couldn't replace that preacher with another who teaches creationism, or something even less orthodox in another church in the future.

So, yes, while there certainly is a time and place for formal logic and the study of fallacies and such, it makes little or no sense to solely rely on it in informal discussion between laymen.

I do think it is useful to recognise many common fallacies though. Call me paranoid but I too often get the disturbing feeling that quite a few people use fallacies deliberately, in a very Machiavellian way, to spread disinformation and derail debate that isn't going in their desired direction. But that just makes it even more counterproductive to follow their bait down the rabbit hole, it just takes attention further away from the core issue.
I agree with everything you say but with one minor quibble.

I don’t think we need “faith” in accepting science. Rather we need trust (although you did use trust in one sentence).

I have been accused, by various metaphysical and POMO types, of having faith in science so therefore I am just like them (presumably false equivalence!).

I am a bit fed up with having to explain that I do not “believe” in science, or have “faith” in it but I do generally trust the inherent self-correcting process in science and the cumulative body of knowledge, the “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
 
There is a famous psychology experiment called the Asch conformity experiment where a group of people are asked to solve a very simple problem. However, all but one person in the group are actors who will give an obviously wrong answer and the test is really about what the remaining person says. It turns out about 1/3 give the wrong answer in this situation. (If tested one by one less than 1% give the wrong answer.)
So there is some truth in the "Sheeple" thing.
 
I agree with everything you say but with one minor quibble.

I don’t think we need “faith” in accepting science. Rather we need trust (although you did use trust in one sentence).

I have been accused, by various metaphysical and POMO types, of having faith in science so therefore I am just like them (presumably false equivalence!).

I am a bit fed up with having to explain that I do not “believe” in science, or have “faith” in it but I do generally trust the inherent self-correcting process in science and the cumulative body of knowledge, the “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
You are right that faith is not a good word to use in this context. Although faith and trust are synonymous according to the dictionary, maybe faith implies more of an absolute trust, which is a significant difference. Though I deliberately used faith precisely because there are many who doesn't seem to understand the difference, i.e. to some it may superficially look like science is faith in just another authority. Which is why I think they should teach more about why we should trust scientific results (more than other propositions). I.e. at the very least the ins and outs of the scientific method, but preferably a lot more (philosophy of science).
 

MikeC

Closed Account
Also I think "trust" has at least an informal implication that you know something of the methodology and have some evidence to support what you are trusting - eg we may not know what some particular science is about, but we do have some knowledge of what science is, and how it has "worked" in other cases.

To me "faith" lacks that informal rigor.
 
Top