Analytical Skills

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Chapter 8

Fallacies are mistakes in reasoning. In this chapter we will be concerned specifically with informal fallacies. In chapter five we already dealt with certain species of formal fallacy, such as denying the antecedent and affirming the consequent. A formal fallacy is an argument that contains a mistake in reasoning because of its structure. In contrast, an informal fallacy involves a mistake in reasoning that goes beyond the structure of the argument and that needs inspection of its content to be recognized.

Informal fallacies are arguments that often seem, at first glance, to be good arguments although they are not. They are bugs in our thinking in the sense that many people find it quite natural to accept and use them even though they are defective kinds of thinking. The capacity to spot fallacies not only helps us to formulate our own reasoning more precisely and correctly; it also helps us to avoid being seduced by the bad reasoning of others and it provides us with valuable means of evaluating reasoning. (Without endorsing their use, we also feel compelled to point out that the deliberate use of certain informal fallacies can be strategically effective—certain politicians and advertisers are notoriously prone to using them, to powerful effect! Nevertheless, they amount to failures in the reasoning process. Do not use your knowledge of fallacies for evil purposes. This power should be used for good. With great power comes great responsibility.)

Fallacies of Irrelevance

In this section we will deal with fallacies of irrelevance, traditionally called ignoratio elenchii—a Latin phrase meaning roughly ‘ignoring the issue.’ These mistakes are committed when someone argues from premises that have no logical relevance to the conclusion but which have some sort of psychological connection to the conclusion, giving the audience the mistaken impression that a logical argument has been made. They often do so by focusing on who, when, why, or how something is said, rather than on the substance of the reasoning.

Appeal to Pity (Argumentum ad misericordiam)

Example 8.1

Your Honour, I admit I declared thirteen children as dependents on my tax return although I have only two. But if you find me guilty then my reputation will be ruined, I’ll lose my job and then my kids will starve. Surely I’m not guilty. Example 8.2

I have suffered deeply in my pursuit of you. I must have written over a hundred letters to you. I have never failed to remember your birthday and to send you flowers. I think about you all the time and it is ruining my capacity to study. So you should agree to go on a date with me.

What do you think is wrong with these arguments?

Arguments of this sort have the following structure:

There is something pitiful in X’s situation.
So something else about X is true (where the pity appealed to is irrelevant to the conclusion).

In example 8.1, the appeal to pity is logically irrelevant to the conclusion. Even if the judge is right to feel pity for the accused, this does not show that the accused is innocent of tax evasion. In example 8.2, the fact that the arguer is suffering from unrequited love does not provide, just by itself, sufficient reason for the beloved to agree to go on a date.

Appeal to Popularity (Argumentum ad populum)

Example 8.3

Of course communism is a poor form of government. Nearly everyone thinks so.

Example 8.4

Most people who followed the recent American Idol TV show voted for Melody Offquay. Therefore she must be the best singer.

What do you think is wrong with these arguments?
In both examples, the arguments have the following structure:

Most (or all or many) people believe that it is true that P. So it is true that P.

Many arguments of this structure fail to support their conclusions, as shown by this example:

Most people believe that the earth is flat.
So the earth is flat.

In the fourteenth century the...
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