12 Days of Scepticism: Day 12 – The Fallacy Fallacy

Well this has flown by. It’s already the final day of this series of 12 posts on logical fallacies. I’m pleased to report that they have been well received and people have engaged with them. Hopefully we’ve exterminated some poor reasoning.

By a huge margin the most popular post was the one about Deepak Chopra and detecting bullshit; it has had nearly 20,000 views as I write this so I’m quite pleased with that. Thank you all for reading, even the crazy person who just yesterday explained to me how sad I am for not seeing the abundance of evidence before me that demonstrates the earth is flat and we never went to the moon.

Down to business. The title of this post is the Fallacy Fallacy. Don’t panic, I’m not going to get too meta on you, it’s all very straightforward. It boils down to this: just because someone has used bad reasoning to arrive at their conclusion that doesn’t automatically mean their conclusion is wrong. It is very possible for someone to stumble blindly onto the truth even though they don’t know what they’re talking about. The Fallacy Fallacy applies when you automatically dismiss their conclusion out of hand just because you spotted a fallacy in their argument. It takes the form:

If x, then A

x is fallacious

Therefore A is false

As an example you could say that we should all eat healthy food because a TV personality says so. That argument is ridiculous but the conclusion is sound, we should all eat healthy food.

A real world example from the past would be in the treatment of headaches caused by swelling of the brain. Back in the day people thought that the headaches were caused by demons in the brain and so they drilled holes in the skull to scare them away with light. Clearly the reasoning here is horrifying, but drilling holes in the skull is a legitimate treatment to reduce brain swelling and the commensurate pain.

An common example from our own time would be if there was some kind of government scandal that was then investigated by the government itself. When the report is published it finds no wrong doing and everyone immediately cries ‘foul!’ Of course they didn’t find any wrongdoing, they wouldn’t, would they? I’m afraid that that’s not a good enough argument. It may well be the case that the report is biased, but that doesn’t prove that there was wrongdoing in the first instance.

The moral of the story here is to use your sceptical powers wisely. Arguing is not just about pointing out the flaws in people’s thinking to make yourself feel intellectually superior. If that’s all you’re doing then you’re just being a jerk and the Lord knows we don’t need any more of them knocking about the place.

If you have followed this whole series on logical fallacies then hopefully by now you will have a decent grounding in the basics; there is much more to learn. As you become more familiar with them and start to tune your ear to detecting them you’ll start to notice them several times per day. Pointing each individual fault out often won’t get you far, it normally pays to be a bit more diplomatic than that.

If I wanted to achieve anything with this series it was to make us all more aware of our own thought patterns and reasoning. Let’s all make a start by committing to using fewer fallacies ourselves. I am making no claims as to being perfect here; I can and do still deploy logical fallacies, I know for a fact I still fall foul of the Fallacy Fallacy. If we can all get our own houses in order, however, we can all of us contribute to making the world that little bit more rational.

Happy New Year Everyone!

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4 thoughts on “12 Days of Scepticism: Day 12 – The Fallacy Fallacy

  1. ‘ it was to make us all more aware of our own thought patterns and reasoning.’
    That one is a life times job…..
    Always painful peeling off the layers in ourselves….
    Funny thing is that as soon as you work on that………you see others more clearly.
    That is also painful…..smile

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  2. Excellent post, with equally excellent reasoning….

    The equation used is perfectly demonstrated as fallacious reasoning; I would also add using it as a means of finding the truth is made worse by adding to the equation, “leaps of intuition”, which may bring us to truth, without benefit of reasoning logically, from A to B, or x, or anywhere logic may lead….

    Of course, some might say that is merely our unconscious mind doing the work Either way, it adds evidence to your argument; because a million people believe a lie does’t make it untrue. The converse is also true…

    Nice to see it still being encouraged in places…. Mostly, it’s hard to find any reason in the world of today….

    gigoid, the dubious

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  3. Interesting series.

    I’m skeptical about the form of the fallacy as you’ve outlined it. It seems to me that this sort of mistake happens at least as often without the hypothetical statement as it does with it. So, the relationship of this form to the actual reasoning involved is a bit sketchy.

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