Fallacies of relevance

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These fallacies appeal to evidence or examples that are not relevant to the argument at hand.

Appeal to Force (Argumentum Ad Baculum or the “Might-Makes-Right” Fallacy): This argument uses force, the threat of force, or some other unpleasant backlash to make the audience accept a conclusion. It commonly appears as a last resort when evidence or rational arguments fail to convince a reader. If the debate is about whether or not 2+2=4, an opponent’s argument that he will smash your nose in if you don’t agree with his claim doesn’t change the truth of an issue. Logically, this consideration has nothing to do with the points under consideration. The fallacy is not limited to threats of violence, however. The fallacy includes threats of any unpleasant backlash–financial, professional, and so on. Example: “Superintendent, you should cut the school budget by $16,000. I need not remind you that past school boards have fired superintendents who cannot keep down costs.” While intimidation may force the superintendent to conform, it does not convince him that the choice to cut the budget was the most beneficial for the school or community. Lobbyists use this method when they remind legislators that they represent so many thousand votes in the legislators’ constituencies and threaten to throw the politician out of office if he doesn’t vote the way they want. Teachers use this method if they state that students should hold the same political or philosophical position as the teachers or risk failing the class. Note that it is isn’t a logical fallacy, however, to assert that students must fulfill certain requirements in the course or risk failing the class!

Genetic Fallacy: The genetic fallacy is the claim that an idea, product, or person must be untrustworthy because of its racial, geographic, or ethnic origin. “That car can’t possibly be any good! It was made in Japan!” Or, “Why should I listen to her argument? She comes from California, and we all know those people are flakes.” Or, “Ha! I’m not reading that book. It was published in Tennessee, and we know all Tennessee folk are hillbillies and rednecks!” This type of fallacy is closely related to the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem or personal attack, appearing immediately below.

Personal Attack (Argumentum Ad Hominem, literally, “argument toward the man.” Also called “Poisoning the Well”): Attacking or praising the people who make an argument, rather than discussing the argument itself. This practice is fallacious because the personal character of an individual is logically irrelevant to the truth or falseness of the argument itself. The statement “2+2=4” is true regardless if it is stated by criminals, congressmen, or pastors. There are two subcategories:

(1) Abusive: To argue that proposals, assertions, or arguments must be false or dangerous because they originate with atheists, Christians, Muslims, communists, capitalists, the John Birch Society, Catholics, anti-Catholics, racists, anti-racists, feminists, misogynists (or any other group) is fallacious. This persuasion comes from irrational psychological transference rather than from an appeal to evidence or logic concerning the issue at hand. This is similar to the genetic fallacy, and only an anti-intellectual would argue otherwise.

(2) Circumstantial: To argue that an opponent should accept or reject an argument because of circumstances in his or her life. If one’s adversary is a clergyman, suggesting that he should accept a particular argument because not to do so would be incompatible with the scriptures is such a fallacy. To argue that, because the reader is a Republican or Democrat, she must vote for a specific measure is likewise a circumstantial fallacy. The opponent’s special circumstances have no control over the truth or untruth of a specific contention. The speaker or writer must find additional evidence beyond that to make a strong case. This is also similar to the genetic fallacy in some ways. If you are a college student who wants to learn rational thought, you simply must avoid circumstantial fallacies.

Argumentum ad Populum (Literally “Argument to the People”): Using an appeal to popular assent, often by arousing the feelings and enthusiasm of the multitude rather than building an argument. It is a favorite device with the propagandist, the demagogue, and the advertiser. An example of this type of argument is Shakespeare’s version of Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar. There are three basic approaches:

(1) Bandwagon Approach: “Everybody is doing it.” This argumentum ad populum asserts that, since the majority of people believes an argument or chooses a particular course of action, the argument must be true, or the course of action must be followed, or the decision must be the best choice. For instance, “85% of consumers purchase IBM computers rather than Macintosh; all those people can’t be wrong. IBM must make the best computers.” Popular acceptance of any argument does not prove it to be valid, nor does popular use of any product necessarily prove it is the best one. After all, 85% of people may once have thought planet earth was flat, but that majority’s belief didn’t mean the earth really was flat when they believed it! Keep this in mind, and remember that everybody should avoid this type of logical fallacy.

(2) Patriotic Approach: “Draping oneself in the flag.” This argument asserts that a certain stance is true or correct because it is somehow patriotic, and that those who disagree are unpatriotic. It overlaps with pathos and argumentum ad hominem to a certain extent. The best way to spot it is to look for emotionally charged terms like Americanism, rugged individualism, motherhood, patriotism, godless communism, etc. A true American would never use this approach. And a truly free man will exercise his American right to drink beer, since beer belongs in this great country of ours.This approach is unworthy of a good citizen.

(3) Snob Approach: This type of argumentum ad populum doesn’t assert “everybody is doing it,” but rather that “all the best people are doing it.” For instance, “Any true intellectual would recognize the necessity for studying logical fallacies.” The implication is that anyone who fails to recognize the truth of the author’s assertion is not an intellectual, and thus the reader had best recognize that necessity.

In all three of these examples, the rhetorician does not supply evidence that an argument is true; he merely makes assertions about people who agree or disagree with the argument. For Christian students in religious schools like Carson-Newman, we might add a fourth category, “Covering Oneself in the Cross.” This argument asserts that a certain political or denominational stance is true or correct because it is somehow “Christian,” and that anyone who disagrees is behaving in an “un-Christian” or “godless” manner. (It is similar to the patriotic approach except it substitutes a gloss of piety instead of patriotism.) Examples include the various “Christian Voting Guides” that appear near election time, many of them published by non-Church related organizations with hidden financial/political agendas, or the stereotypical crooked used-car salesman who keeps a pair of bibles on his dashboard in order to win the trust of those he would fleece. Keep in mind Moliere’s question in Tartuffe: “Is not a face quite different than a mask?” Is not the appearance of Christianity quite different than actual Christianity? Christians should beware of such manipulation since they are especially vulnerable to it.

Appeal to Tradition (Argumentum Ad Traditionem; aka Argumentum Ad Antiquitatem): This line of thought asserts that a premise must be true because people have always believed it or done it. For example, “We know the earth is flat because generations have thought that for centuries!” Alternatively, the appeal to tradition might conclude that the premise has always worked in the past and will thus always work in the future: “Jefferson City has kept its urban growth boundary at six miles for the past thirty years. That has been good enough for thirty years, so why should we change it now? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Such an argument is appealing in that it seems to be common sense, but it ignores important questions. Might an alternative policy work even better than the old one? Are there drawbacks to that long-standing policy? Are circumstances changing from the way they were thirty years ago? Has new evidence emerged that might throw that long-standing policy into doubt?

Appeal to Improper Authority (Argumentum Ad Verecundium, literally “argument from that which is improper”): An appeal to an improper authority, such as a famous person or a source that may not be reliable or who might not know anything about the topic. This fallacy attempts to capitalize upon feelings of respect or familiarity with a famous individual. It is not fallacious to refer to an admitted authority if the individual’s expertise is within a strict field of knowledge. On the other hand, to cite Einstein to settle an argument about education or economics is fallacious. To cite Darwin, an authority on biology, on religious matters is fallacious. To cite Cardinal Spellman on legal problems is fallacious. The worst offenders usually involve movie stars and psychic hotlines. A subcategory is the Appeal to Biased Authority. In this sort of appeal, the authority is one who actually is knowledgeable on the matter, but one who may have professional or personal motivations that render his professional judgment suspect: for instance, “To determine whether fraternities are beneficial to this campus, we interviewed all the frat presidents.” Or again, “To find out whether or not sludge-mining really is endangering the Tuskogee salamander’s breeding grounds, we interviewed the owners of the sludge-mines, who declared there is no problem.” Indeed, it is important to get “both viewpoints” on an argument, but basing a substantial part of your argument on a source that has personal, professional, or financial interests at stake may lead to biased arguments. As Upton Sinclair once stated, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Sinclair is pointing out that even a knowledgeable authority might not be entirely rational on a topic when he has economic incentives that bias his thinking.

Appeal to Emotion (Argumentum Ad Misericordiam, literally, “argument from pity”): An emotional appeal concerning what should be a logical issue during a debate. While pathos generally works to reinforce a reader’s sense of duty or outrage at some abuse, if a writer tries to use emotion merely for the sake of getting the reader to accept what should be a logical conclusion, the argument is a fallacy. For example, in the 1880s, prosecutors in a Virginia court presented overwhelming proof that a boy was guilty of murdering his parents with an ax. The defense presented a “not-guilty” plea for on the grounds that the boy was now an orphan, with no one to look after his interests if the court was not lenient. This appeal to emotion obviously seems misplaced, and the argument is irrelevant to the question of whether or not he did the crime.

Argument from Adverse Consequences: Asserting that an argument must be false because the implications of it being true would create negative results. For instance, “The medical tests show that Grandma has advanced cancer. However, that can’t be true because then she would die! I refuse to believe it!” The argument is illogical because truth and falsity are not contingent based upon how much we like or dislike the consequences of that truth. Grandma, indeed, might have cancer, in spite of how negative that fact may be or how cruelly it may affect us.

Argument from Personal Incredulity: Asserting that opponent’s argument must be false because you personally don’t understand it or can’t follow its technicalities. For instance, one person might assert, “I don’t understand that engineer’s argument about how airplanes can fly. Therefore, I cannot believe that airplanes are able to fly.” Au contraire, that speaker’s own mental limitations do not limit the physical world—so airplanes may very well be able to fly in spite of a person’s inability to understand how they work. One person’s comprehension is not relevant to the truth of a matter.

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