Five Common Fallacies—Don’t Be Fooled by Them!
“LET no man deceive you with empty words.” This advice was given nearly 2,000 years ago and still rings as true as ever. Today, we are bombarded with persuasive voices: movie stars peddling cosmetics, politicians promoting policies, salesmen pushing products, clergymen expounding doctrine. All too often the persuasive voices prove to be deceptive—little more than empty words. Yet, people in general are easily mislead by them.
Often this is because people fail to distinguish truth from fallacy. Students of logic use the word “fallacy” to describe any departure from the path of sound reasoning. Simply stated, a fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument, one in which the conclusion does not follow from preceding statements, or premises. Fallacies may, nevertheless, be powerfully persuasive because they often make a strong appeal to the emotions—not to reason.
Attacking the Person. This type of fallacy attempts to disprove or discredit a perfectly valid argument or statement by making an irrelevant attack on the person presenting it.
How easy it is to label someone “stupid,” “crazy,” or “uninformed” when he or she says something we don’t want to hear. A similar tactic is to attack the person with a subtle dose of innuendo. Typical examples of this are: “If you really understood the matter, you wouldn’t have that point of view” or, “You only believe that because you’re told to believe it.”
But while personal attacks, subtle and not so subtle, may intimidate and persuade, never do they disprove what has been said. So be alert to this fallacy!
FALLACY NUMBER 2
Appealing to Authority. This form of verbal intimidation is accomplished by invoking the testimonials of so-called experts or famous people. Of course, for advice it is only natural to look to people who know more about something than we do. But not all appeals to authority are based on sound reasoning.
Suppose your doctor tells you: “You havemalaria.” You reply: “How do you know, doctor?” How unreasonable it would be for him to say: “Look, I am a doctor. I know far more about these things than you do. Take my word for it, you have malaria.” While his diagnosis is likely correct, reasoning that you have malaria simply because he says so is fallacious. It would be far more advantageous for him to discuss the facts: your symptoms, blood-test results, and so forth.
Invalid appeals to authority also abound in advertising, where celebrities commonly give testimonials in fields far removed from their area of expertise. A successful golfer encourages you to buy a photocopying machine. A professional football player promotes refrigerators. An Olympic gymnast recommends a certain breakfast cereal. Many do not stop and think that such “authorities” probably know little or nothing about the products they peddle.
Realize, too, that even legitimate experts—like everyone else—may be biased. A highly credentialed researcher may claim that smoking tobacco is harmless. But if he or she is employed by the tobacco industry, is not such “expert” testimony suspect?
FALLACY NUMBER 3
‘Join the Crowd’. Here the appeal is to popular emotions, prejudices, and beliefs. People generally like to conform. We tend to shrink at the thought of speaking out against prevailing opinions. This tendency to view the majority opinion as automatically correct is used with potent effect in the ‘join-the-crowd’ fallacy.
For example, an advertisement in a popular U.S. magazine showed a number of smiling people, each enjoying a glass of rum. Accompanying the picture was the slogan: “It’s What’s Happening. All across America, people are switching to . . . rum.” This is a blatant appeal to ‘join the crowd.’
But while others may think or do something, does that mean you should? Besides, popular opinion just isn’t a reliable barometer of truth. Over the centuries all kinds of ideas have been popularly accepted, only to be proved wrong later. Yet, the ‘join-the-crowd’ fallacy persists. The rallying cry, ‘Everybody is doing it!’ moves people to take drugs, commit adultery, steal from employers, and cheat on taxes.
The fact is, everybody doesn’t do those things. And even if they did, that would be no reason for you to do so.
FALLACY NUMBER 4
Either/Or Reasoning. This fallacy reduces what may be a wide range of options to only two. The hole in the either/or reasoning is thus a gaping one.
So when presented with either/or reasoning, ask yourself, ‘Are there really only two possible choices? Might there be others?’
FALLACY NUMBER 5
Oversimplification. Here a statement or argument ignores relevant considerations, oversimplifying what may be a complex issue.
Granted, there is nothing wrong in simplifying a complicated subject—good teachers do it all the time. But sometimes a matter is simplified to the point of distorting truth. For example, you may read: ‘Rapid population growth is the cause of poverty in developing countries.’ There’s an element of truth in that, but it ignores other important considerations, such as political mismanagement, commercial exploitation, and weather patterns.
So don’t fall for fallacies. Learn to differentiate between legitimate attacks on what is said and cheap attacks on personalities. Don’t be fooled by invalid appeals to “authority,” urgings to ‘join the crowd’, either/or reasoning, or gross oversimplifications—especially when something as vital as religious truth is involved.
g90 5/22 pp. 12-14 Five Common Fallacies—Don’t Be Fooled by Them!
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