XXVIII. Fallacious Reasoning

A fallacy is an unsound method of reasoning that has the appearance of logic, but is not so, in such a subtle manner that the error is not readily apparent. A fallacy may cause a person's thinking to be flawed - and when a fallacy is offered with the intent of deceiving others, it is called "sophistry."

It therefore is important to understand the nature of fallacy and be able to identify common forms - both to avoid being easily deceived by others as well as to avoid deceiving oneself. A fallacy, like any flaw in logic, becomes the foundation on which a massive structure of incorrect and potentially harmful thinking may be constructed.

Common Fallacies

Atkinson begins by exploring what he considers to be the five most common fallacies and specious rhetorical tactics:

Generalization of Incidental Qualities

The (valid) task of conceptualization identifies the qualifying and necessary characteristics of things that qualify them as a class - from individual observations, we create a set of criteria inductively, then apply them deductively to instances in which the class is invoked.

However, this becomes a fallacy when an incidental quality is applied to a class of things as if it were a necessary quality. To say that all Italians are passionate is an instance in which the quality observed in some is suggested to be universal. It is essentially the same as stating that all birds fly because most species do, but some do not and flight is not a qualifying characteristic but a general one.

Irrelevant Conclusion

This fallacy arises from a flawed syllogism. For example, to suggest that all men are sinful, John is a man, therefore John must be a thief is clearly inaccurate because it implies a connection between "sinful" and "thief" - ignoring that the major premise does not specify what precise manner of sin all men are guilty of.

Another example: all thieves are liars, John is a liar, therefore John is also a thief. In this instance, the major premise maintains that all thieves are liars, but the remainder presumes that all liars are thieves, which is not at all the same.

In general, an irrelevant conclusion arises when a there is a flaw in one of the premises, or where a connection is made that is not explicit to the premises.

False Cause

False causes assume that simply because one thing occurred before another that it was a cause of the second occurrence. The fact that a rooster crows just before sunrise does not mean that its crowing causes the sun to rise. There is nothing but a temporal relationship of before-and-after, which is not sufficient to prove, or even to assume, a causal connection.

Even without chronology, it is often assumed that coincidence implies a causal relationship. If we observe that people in a wealthy society wear more jewelry than those in a poor society, we may make a fallacious connection between jewelry and wealth - while it may be plausible to believe wealthy people own more jewelry because their wealth permits them to afford it, that is not proven, nor is it proven that giving people jewelry to wear will cause them to be wealthy.

Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning is an extended form of the tautology, in which the cause and effect point to one another: we may say that members of a given religion are honest because of their beliefs, and later assert that their beliefs cause them to be honest. Both qualities are attributed to them, but there is never an establishment of whether they have anything to do with one another.

While this seems obvious in two brief statements that are immediately juxtaposed, it can be much more difficult to detect in a more protracted argument or a chain of syllogistic logic.

Begging the Question

Begging the question is more of a rhetorical tactic than a logical fallacy: it presents a truth as being self-evident, or backed by specious evidence. The question that is begged is "is that really true?" and in many instances it simply is not.

For example, when someone firmly asserts something to be "a moral imperative" or suggests that "it has been proven by science" the next thing they say is generally false, but they do not wish the other party to question it.

As a rhetorical tactic, begging the question tends to be far more evident in face-to-face argumentation than in writing, because of the social awkwardness of challenging someone's honesty without proof of the contrary. In writing, when the other party has the opportunity to reflect upon it and do some independent research, the deception is easily revealed and the person discredited.

(EN: There's actually quite a lot of it in writing as well, as my reading notes very often identify those who claim that something is proven, accepted, or backed by research that they do not then present. Sometimes it is because the details are incidental or the author assumes it to be common knowledge, but in other instances it is fabricated evidence for a foregone conclusion that turns out to be entirely false.)

Sophistical Arguments

A sophistical argument is a "dirty trick" that is used for the purpose of deceiving others. Atkinson concedes that this is outside the subject matter of this book, which is about developing a strong mind and avoiding self-deception - but because so much of the information we have is second-hand, we must consider whether the information others present to us is worth consuming.

And so, he presents a list of some of the more common sophistical arguments that are presented:

These tricks and deceptions are fairly easy to recognize: in all cases the deceiver who presents them is plainly attempting to escape the necessity of reasoning by going outside of the subject at hand to create the semblance that an idea should be accepted for reasons other than logic.

(EN: It's also worth considering what a person stands to gain by deceiving others. In some instance, the reason they wish to "sell" their ideas is obvious - though in other instance it is a sort of desperation and lack of self-sufficiency that causes a person to want others to agree with their beliefs, particularly when they suspect that they are entirely wrong about something.)

The General Rule of Inference

Most people go astray by automatically presuming that they are right about everything, and argumentation is merely finding support for their current beliefs - and if the facts do not fit their beliefs, they ignore or distort them. This is how fallacies are born.

A person who is in search of truth shuns this approach, and recognizes that his beliefs must derive from facts - and if he finds the facts do not fit his beliefs, then his beliefs must yield to the facts rather than the other way around.

But even a person who earnestly seeks to discover the truth can often be lazy or prejudiced in his approach. Intellectual laziness consist of seeking the fastest path to resolve an argument, and accepting things as truth quickly without putting sufficient effort into discovering the facts and considering alternatives. Intellectual prejudice is seeking to come to conclusions that correlate to the theories we already accept - whether the choice to ignore the truth is conscious or unconscious.

To stay on the right path, the author suggests two simple rules:

  1. The subject matter of a conclusion must be of the same general kind described by the premises
  2. The facts contributing to the premises must not be fictitious

If either of these two rules is violated, the result will be fallacious reasoning or sophistry, and the reasoning will be invalid - and to habitually accept invalid conclusions leads to "bigotry, intolerance, narrowness, and intellectual astigmatism."