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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The 8 Year Old's Guide to Logical Fallacies

(Warning: Not intended for use by 8 year olds)

Are you smarter than all the other kids but still find yourself bested in arguments?  Are you constantly on the right side of logic but the wrong side of the crowd?  Are you often belittled in a debate despite being more informed?  Perhaps you’re not as smart as you think, but it might also be explained as a simple lack of familiarity with these logical fallacies.

 #1) Ad Hominem Attack 

This is probably the most often-used playground fallacy and should be easy to spot.  An “Ad Hominem” attack is what nerdy people call it when somebody tries to discredit your argument by discrediting you.  On the playground, it might go something like this:

You: “There’s no way you were a beta tester on Crysis 4… Crysis 2 isn’t even out yet…”
The Bad Guy: “Oh yeah, well your mother is so poor you probably can’t even afford an Xbox!”

(Had this been an actual ad hominem attack much more vulgar things would have been said about your mother)

We can see the fallacy quite plainly.  Specifically, how poor your mother may or may not be has nothing to do with whether or not they were a beta-tester on Crysis 4.  The temptation might be to be drawn into an escalating string of “your mother” jokes, but keep in mind that if he brought them up first he may very well have a larger stockpile than you.

 #2) Ad Ignorantiam 

This is a fancy Latin way of saying, “appealing to ignorance” and it sounds really insulting so calling somebody out for it on the playground has good side effects as well.  It basically means that somebody is acting like not knowing something means that they know something.  When you encounter it, it might take the form of something that is said to be invisible.

For example, your friend Justin (yeah, the one that eats flies) has announced that he has an invisible pet dragon that is present at his side at that very moment.  You reply that he “does not”, to which he counters that he “does so”.  After a few identical volleys of the uh-huh/uh-uh debate tactic, he may challenge you to prove that he doesn’t have an invisible dragon.

This is the logical fallacy and it’s best to recognize it right away.  The burden of proof isn’t on you since you’re not the one making a crazy claim.  It is up to Justin to prove that he does have an invisible dragon and to suggest otherwise is an invocation of the ad ignorantiam fallacy.

If you’re unaware of the fallacy, you might be lured into his trap and step all over the space he claims the dragon is standing on.  He is prepared for that, however, and explains that he is a ghost dragon and anyone can walk right through him.  When you challenge his dragon to incinerate you, he will explain that it is a pacifist.

 #3) Argument From Authority 

This argument is not as common as the ad hominem attack but it is probably more often employed to decisively end arguments.  An argument from authority is a fallacy that occurs when one of the debaters invokes the credential of themselves or the source of their information in an effort to prove themselves right.  This most often comes in the personage of their mom or dad.

When you encounter this one, it might go something like:

You: “No way… my dad would so kick your dad’s ass!”
The Bad Guy: “My dad says that he can bench press 300 pounds with one hand and one time he paralyzed a guy just by ordering coffee from him!”

There are a couple of things wrong with this argument.  The first is that it is a secondhand assertion of what was said and is thus inadmissible in debate, not that you’ll ever make that pop-tart understand something like formal logic.  The issue is that his dad’s not there and can’t corroborate his claim.

What’s more, even if he was there and agreed that he could indeed bench press 300 pounds with one hand and once paralyzed a barista with the sheer force of his patronage, that wouldn’t make it true.

 #4) Argument From Final Consequences 

This is the root of many superstitions.  It is the idea that you can prove an argument is right because the outcome is what the argument suggested.  In other words, if I claimed that if I did a magic dance in the evening, the sun would come up in the morning, I would be lying.  The sun coming up in the morning certainly wouldn’t be evidence that my dance worked.

You’ll most likely encounter this with the first among your group of friends to reach some milestone.  Whether he is the first to kiss a girl, turn 10, fly on an airplane or appear in a TV commercial, he will be happy to dole out advice to everyone else.  The fallacy occurs when he attributes everything he did prior to the outcome as the cause of the outcome.  For example:

The Bad Guy: “And smearing whipped cream all over your lip before you go to sleep helps too.”
You: “Does not.”
The Bad Guy: “Does too.”
You: “Does not.”
The Bad Guy: “Well I did it and my mustache is already coming in…”

 #5) Circular Reasoning 

This is one of those logical fallacies that pretty much everybody notices right away but that don’t make it powerless in an argument.  If a bully cracked a bat over your head every day and stole your lunch money so that he could buy another bat that would be analogous to circular reasoning.

When you’ll more likely encounter it is when someone is digging himself really deep into a lie.  Supposing some kid purported to have a pet alien and happily gave the details of its appearance, diet and rate of flatulence.  After listening to him for a while you grow weary of the nonsensical story and step in to point out that there is absolutely no way that he has a pet alien, and oh by the way, his alien sounds a lot like the alien that dude found in that cartoon that nobody in the crowd would admit to watching unless, you know, they had a little sister they could blame it on.

He glances toward you incredulously and says, “Why would I lie about my alien?”

This would be an example of circular reasoning in the fact that the argument basically assumes itself to be true in order for the argument to make any sense.  If your argument is that they don’t have an alien at all this argument actually means nothing.  A simple response like, “Because you’re a liar and your hamster isn’t interesting” should suffice.

 #6) Excluded Middle 

One of the more subversive tricks in the list of logical fallacies, this is an argument in which only two possible answers are offered to a question that actually has a lot of answers.  It’s basically like saying that either somebody hates dogs or French kisses them as though there is no middle ground between.

This one is probably best encapsulated by the notorious and incredulous, “are you calling me a liar?”  It will most likely come after somebody has made an assertion that they might very well believe to be true.

In fact, there are several answers to the question of whether you’re calling them a liar.  You might be calling them mistaken or even stupid and, of course, you might actually be calling them a liar as well.  Be on the look out for this fallacy any time you hear the words, “just answer it; yes or no.”

 #7) Moving Goal Posts 

This one means exactly what it sounds like it means.  Imagine a game of football where every time you gain 10 yards, the end zone moves 10 yards further back.  It doesn’t matter how well you play because nothing you do ever seems to get you any closer to the goal posts.

You’ll probably come across this one when somebody is bragging about their abilities at something.  Whether they’re talking about how good they are at basketball or Bakugan, the time will eventually come to prove it.  Imagine that your friend is always talking about how great he is at Street Fighter IV but he always seems to be offline when you want to play.

Finally, the time comes and he is at your house with Street Fighter IV right there.  You play, you annihilate him and he shrugs it off with something like “yeah, but if I had my controller…”

In the past, he never said anything about having to have some special controller to not suck at the game and it’s not like you just barely squeaked out a win.  You whipped him handily with Vega.  Making any excuse that supposes he could have beat you under different circumstances is an example of moving the goalposts.

 #8) Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc 

So enough with all those names that made sense, let’s get back to obscure Latin phrases.  This one literally means “after this, therefore because of this” but if you just said that you wouldn’t sound pretentious at all would you?  What we’re talking about here is the belief that just because one thing happened and then another thing happened, the first must have caused the second.

As silly as this sounds, it is the root of pretty much all superstition.  Somebody broke a mirror once and had bad luck and so people started saying breaking mirrors caused bad luck.  Somehow they were able to quantify this in years, as well.

You’ll usually find this one framed around a “Well my cousin (violated superstition) and then (terrible consequence) occurred.”  Just because two things are linked in time, doesn’t mean they’re linked in cause.  It might help to remind your opponent that he brushes his teeth every day and he’s an idiot but that doesn’t mean brushing your teeth makes you stupid.

 #9) Non Sequitur 

Again with the cryptic Latin, this one means “does not follow” and it’s simply an argument that has nothing to do with anything.  It’s the equivalent of answering, “the sky is blue” with “it can’t be because dogs are bigger than rabbits.”

You’ll likely encounter this one when you delve into the theoretical world of which fictional character could beat up which other fictional character.  Say you and a friend were discussing whether Master Chief could take out Samus from Metroid and you just made what you thought to be a game-changing point about the fact that Master Chief had nothing in his arsenal to answer Samus’ double jump and Screw-Attack.

Instead of offering up a sensible rebuttal, your friend replies, “But Samus is a girl…”

This has nothing to do with anything.  They are both pixels on a TV screen as well so gender can’t possibly enter into the argument.  Besides, Samus has stuff like freeze beams while Master Chief is generally limited to conventional weaponry.  There is no way he could take Samus.

 #10) Special Pleading 

This one is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s what we call it when somebody tries to set up two different criteria for either side of the argument.  It kind of like having a foot race but forcing one person to text the pledge of allegiance while he was running.

This one usually comes up when someone asserts something that is patently false as eight year olds are wont to do.  Your first encounter with this one might come when a friend claims to have some kind of super power or something.  You will quite reasonably insist on evidence before accepting the notion that the kid who still can’t tie his shoes can fly like Superman.  The exchange will go something like this:

You: “Okay, so fly.”
The Bad Guy: “I can only do it when I really want to…”

 #11) Straw Man 

The straw man fallacy is probably the most abundant in the adult world as at some point we all develop something of an immunity to the “your mother” jokes of the ad hominem attack.  It often sneaks its way onto the playground as well and is usually accompanied by a silly, mocking voice.

“Straw Man” is a term meant to denote a fallacy in which a crude, exaggerated or otherwise unrealistic representation is made of your argument and then this “straw man argument” is torn down.  It’s pretty easy to tear it down, see, because it’s made of straw.

When we first encounter this one, it usually comes along the lines of  “Look, I’m you and I believe everything my mom tells me and I eat barf for breakfast.”  Now that this illusory version of you and your argument is constructed, it will be easy to discredit.  Not only does it eat barf, it probably talks in that kid’s “stupid voice”.

Aaron Davies

Warning: This blog may be harmful or fatal if read while drowning.

For a list of logical fallacies more oriented toward resource than humor, click here.

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