Fallacies of omission

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These errors occur because the logician leaves out necessary material in an argument or misdirects others from missing information.

Stacking the Deck: In this fallacy, the speaker “stacks the deck” in her favor by ignoring examples that disprove the point and listing only those examples that support her case. This fallacy is closely related to hasty generalization, but the term usually implies deliberate deception rather than an accidental logical error. Contrast it with the straw man argument.

‘No True Scotsman’ Fallacy: Attempting to stack the deck specifically by defining terms in such a narrow or unrealistic manner as to exclude or omit relevant examples from a sample. For instance, suppose speaker #1 asserts, “The Scottish national character is brave and patriotic. No Scottish soldier has ever fled the field of battle in the face of the enemy.” Speaker #2 objects, “Ah, but what about Lucas MacDurgan? He fled from German troops in World War I.” Speaker #1 retorts, “Well, obviously he doesn’t count as a true Scotsman because he did not live up to Scottish ideals, thus he forfeited his Scottish identity.” By this fallacious reasoning, any individual who would serve as evidence contradicting the first speaker’s assertion is conveniently and automatically dismissed from consideration. We commonly see this fallacy when a company asserts that it cannot be blamed for one of its particularly unsafe or shoddy products because that particular one doesn’t live up to its normally high standards, and thus shouldn’t “count” against its fine reputation. Likewise, defenders of Christianity as a positive historical influence in their zeal might argue the atrocities of the eight Crusades do not “count” in an argument because the Crusaders weren’t living up to Christian ideals, and thus aren’t really Christians, etc. So, remember this fallacy. Philosophers and logicians never use it, and anyone who does use it by definition is not really a philosopher or logician.

Argument from the Negative: Arguing from the negative asserts that, since one position is untenable, the opposite stance must be true. This fallacy is often used interchangeably with Argumentum Ad Ignorantium (listed below) and the either/or fallacy (listed above). For instance, one might mistakenly argue that, since the Newtonian theory of mathematics is not one hundred percent accurate, Einstein’s theory of relativity must be true. Perhaps not. Perhaps the theories of quantum mechanics are more accurate, and Einstein’s theory is flawed. Perhaps they are all wrong. Disproving an opponent’s argument does not necessarily mean your own argument must be true automatically, no more than disproving your opponent’s assertion that 2+2=5 would automatically mean your argument that 2+2=7 must be the correct one. Keeping this mind, students should remember that arguments from the negative are bad, arguments from the positive must automatically be good.

Appeal to a Lack of Evidence (Argumentum Ad Ignorantium, literally “Argument from Ignorance”): Appealing to a lack of information to prove a point, or arguing that, since the opposition cannot disprove a claim, the opposite stance must be true. An example of such an argument is the assertion that ghosts must exist because no one has been able to prove that they do not exist. Logicians know this is a logical fallacy because no competing argument has yet revealed itself.

Hypothesis Contrary to Fact (Argumentum Ad Speculum): Trying to prove something in the real world by using imaginary examples alone, or asserting that, if hypothetically X had occurred, Y would have been the result. For instance, suppose an individual asserts that if Einstein had been aborted in utero, the world would never have learned about relativity, or that if Monet had been trained as a butcher rather than going to college, the impressionistic movement would have never influenced modern art. Such hypotheses are misleading lines of argument because it is often possible that some other individual would have solved the relativistic equations or introduced an impressionistic art style. The speculation might make an interesting thought-experiment, but it is simply useless when it comes to actually proving anything about the real world. A common example is the idea that one “owes” her success to another individual who taught her. For instance, “You owe me part of your increased salary. If I hadn’t taught you how to recognize logical fallacies, you would be flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s for minimum wages right now instead of taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars as a lawyer.” Perhaps. But perhaps the audience would have learned about logical fallacies elsewhere, so the hypothetical situation described is meaningless.

Complex Question (Also called the “Loaded Question”): Phrasing a question or statement in such as way as to imply another unproven statement is true without evidence or discussion. This fallacy often overlaps with begging the question (above), since it also presupposes a definite answer to a previous, unstated question. For instance, if I were to ask you “Have you stopped taking drugs yet?” my hidden supposition is that you have been taking drugs. Such a question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no answer. It is not a simple question but consists of several questions rolled into one. In this case the unstated question is, “Have you taken drugs in the past?” followed by, “If you have taken drugs in the past, have you stopped taking them now?” In cross-examination, a lawyer might ask a flustered witness, “Where did you hide the evidence?” or “when did you stop beating your wife?” The intelligent procedure when faced with such a question is to analyze its component parts. If one answers or discusses the prior, implicit question first, the explicit question may dissolve.

Complex questions appear in written argument frequently. A student might write, “Why is private development of resources so much more efficient than any public control?” The rhetorical question leads directly into his next argument. However, an observant reader may disagree, recognizing the prior, implicit question remains unaddressed. That question is, of course, whether private development of resources really is more efficient in all cases, a point which the author is skipping entirely and merely assuming to be true without discussion.