Some Modern Fallacies (Why Philosophy #XIX)

How many times have you read an article or watched the news and have been frustrated by what was an obviously incorrect argument, but you were at a loss as to what it was or how to reply? Well, wonder no more. Here is your handy guide to several common modern fallacies. While the list is not complete, I have chosen those that seem to be most prevalent today. By naming them, we can begin to see through these errors and call them out.1

1. From the possible to the real is not a valid argument

I devoted an entire article to addressing this error2 so here I will be brief. If something is possible, it is merely possible. It is not a fact. Period. Nothing follows from possibility. Is it possible that God could have created space aliens? Sure. But, in no way, does that mean it is a fact. It makes no difference how many times a person asserts “might have,” “could have,” or any other way of indicating possibility, it never leaves the realm of possibility and becomes a fact. Once the possible thing is proved or shown to exist it moves from possibility to reality. Only then can it be used in a valid argument.

2. Fallacy of the false cause

This fallacy assigns a wrong cause to a certain effect. For example, people who gamble often have a lucky charm while they play their games of chance, falsely assuming that, somehow, the charm will cause the result of the game to go in their favor. An evolutionary biologist will note a certain shaped hip in a cow and claim that a similar-looking bone found near the back end of a whale is the cause.

A variation of this error is the unwarranted passage from probability to certainty. The error basically follows this track: one moves from a probable cause and, without any new evidence, moves to a conclusion asserted to be a certainty. For example, after Fred shows up early for several staff meetings, his boss proudly asserts to a colleague, “Fred is always early for appointments. I can count on him.” Will Fred be early for the next staff meeting? Probably. Is this a certainty? No. In recent years, this error has been used by Evolutionists in an attempt to demonstrate how life came from non-life to begin the process of so-called Evolution. With no evidence to justify their assertion, they list many possibilities. They then claim that, together, the possibilities add up to a probability. Then the Evolutionists try to use this manufactured probability as a proof that life came from non-life rather than from a Creator. This error is very similar to fallacy of arguing from the possible to the real.

Another variation is: After this, therefore on account of this (post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Simply put: The fact that one thing follows another does not prove that the former caused the latter.

For example, just because man follows ape in the succession of primates, it does not mean that man descended from the apes. Or because the Roman Empire fell after the appearance of Christianity, it does not mean that Christianity caused the fall of the Empire. This error is frequent in the physical sciences where multiple causes intermingle to produce a single phenomenon. Just because fruit flies hatch from rotted fruit, it does not mean that the fruit caused them.

3. Fallacy of Ignoring the issue (ignoratio elenchi).

There are many variations of this error. When no solid reasons are advanced for a certain principle, it often manifests itself in appeals to “the people” or to might (threats of dire consequences for those who do not accept the argument), or appeals to pity, shame or ignorance.

In our day, especially in the political world, the most common manifestation of this error is the argumentum ad hominum, appeal to the individual, attacking the character of the opponent. This fallacy heaps abuse or ridicule on a person instead of meeting his arguments. The purpose of the one who employs it is to whittle down someone he considers his adversary, to undermine his good name and thereby his credibility, to win some political advantage. The modern use of this fallacy has nothing to do with logic and much to do with deliberate propaganda technique, and it is knowingly and maliciously employed countless times every day. It is reflected in the daily deluge of lies told by the mass media about the current President.

While it is easy to recognize in such an extreme example, this fallacy is very easy for us to fall into it as well. For example, countless times I have heard the following from Traditionalists: “The Novus Ordo Mass is invalid because it was composed by Anibali Bugnini, who was a Freemason.” While Bugnini may have been a Freemason, it does not necessarily mean that the Mass he fabricated is invalid. Unless we examine the rite of the Mass itself and weigh its merits, we may fall into the error of argumentum ad hominum. If we critique the Novus Ordo solely on the basis of the man who wrote it, we are in danger of this fallacy. In this era of Diabolical Disorientation where heterodoxy and moral turpitude are so deeply entrenched in the Church, it is an easy error to fall into.

4. Fallacy of diversion–sidestepping the original question and substituting a different question in its place

Another trick, a favorite of dishonest newspapers and politicians, is the fallacy of the diversion. Again, if the reader catches any of the news reports, he is bound to detect this fallacy being used many times in a single day. For an obvious example, politicians are asked direct questions about their stand on pro-life issues and they deflect to the weather, a local event, or some meaningless platitude–doing anything to avoid answering the question. Not so obvious is a wholesome, newsworthy event involving good Catholics being relegated to the last page of the paper, while a puff piece about some insignificant event is placed on the front page under a banner headline. Misdirection, the mainstay of magicians and tricky journalists, is the essence of this fallacy.

5. Begging the question (petitio principii)

“It is an argumentation in which the very conclusion to be proved is, in some form or other, assumed to be true; or when the conclusion is proved by a principle whose truth depends on the truth of the conclusion itself.”3 This very common error takes a number of forms. I will discuss three of them: Tabloid Thinking, Reiteration, and Unsupported Conclusions.

Tabloid Thinking is using labels or slogans without any proof. ‘Vote for Bill. He’s the best!” “The city council is filled with crooks.” “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” “Dash concentrates on cleaning while making suds behave.” It is fun to see the error in old commercials, but how is the fallacy being used today? I just checked the news headlines and, within a few seconds, found this: “Trump’s July 4 Event Makes America Look Smaller.” As you read the article, you soon realize it is simply the writer’s opinion, not objective news.

Here is another example of tabloid thinking. My recent edition of Science News magazine trumpets: “A new member of the human genus has been found in a cave in the Philippines, researchers report.” Without plowing through the entire article, one gets the distinct impression that a new human ancestor has been discovered. The article explains the entire find consists of a few teeth and bone fragments. As I read the piece, it became clear that these bones may not be human at all. Finally, towards the end, the author admits “But some scientists say it’s too soon to declare the fossils a new Homo species.”

Reiteration is the total abandonment of argument and the simple reaffirmation of a proposition until the other side accepts it out of exhaustion. In his book, The Great Heresies, when discussing what he calls the Modern Attack, Hilaire Belloc predicted this parody of argument would become the norm rather than the exception. “The ancient process of conviction by argument and proof is replaced by reiterated affirmation.” We see this everywhere. No longer do we see reasoned debates in which one side attempts to convince the other by logical proofs. Instead we see, especially among liberals and socialists, who, like toddlers throwing a tantrum, repeatedly shout a slogan, hoping they will eventually wear down their opponents and get their way. This is similar to the Big Lie technique of the Communists and Nazis.

The Unsupported Conclusion is more subtle. No evidence is offered as proof, but statements are used such as “most likely true,” “it may be safely assumed,” etc. This technique is a favorite of modern Cosmologists, Evolutionists and Global Warming Enthusiasts.

For example, in the same Science News magazine mentioned above, I found the following article entitled Metal asteroids maybe had iron volcanoes. The article begins, “Imagine an asteroid spewing molten iron.” Other statements include, “Metal asteroids are thought to be…,” “Exposed to space, a naked core would have….” “…iron-rich liquid with dissolved sulfur would have….” Next to the article is an artist’s rendition of a molten disk with the caption, “Long ago, molten iron could have erupted from… researchers suggest.” When reading the article, I found not a single statement which was real except that these speculations will be presented at an upcoming conference. Another headline right next to this one reads Cats may recognize their own names. Again, “may” and “researchers suggest” are the order of the day with this fallacy. If that wasn’t enough, another article on the same page suggests that a fossilized whale “could walk on land” and its “big, possibly webbed feet and long toes would have allowed [it] to dog-paddle or swim freestyle.” It is easy to be fooled in the name of “science.”

Considering all of the traps we can fall into, how are we to recognize and, hopefully, avoid them? While it is difficult for most of us to avoid all fallacies all of the time, here are a few guidelines to minimize their impact on us.

1. We need a standard to which we can compare ideas as we encounter them. It will not matter much how the arguments or ideas are phrased if we can compare them to a set of known truths. After his first four philosophy courses, Brother Francis gives a “Philosophical Platform” of about one hundred ideas that provide such a standard. It is a most worthy and useful endeavor to make the effort to complete these courses.

2. If we have a feeling that something is wrong with a statement, even if we cannot pinpoint why, this is a sufficient reason to investigate further and determine what is causing our uneasiness. More often than not, our feeling will be correct and, if we keep at hand a chart of fallacies, we will very likely uncover the error.

3. If we encounter an argument which seems to be important but that we think may be a fallacy and it does not compare to our standard, investigate it further. If we cannot come up with the error, we should consult with another person whom we trust and, if necessary, check that result with further research on the Internet. If the idea touches the Faith, consult with the Saint Benedict Center. If the topic is unimportant, we may simply ignore it.

4. Fallacies tend to congregate. In the same statement it is not uncommon to detect more than one. It seems, once someone has abandoned logic and the pursuit of the truth, things go down hill quickly. If we find one fatal error in a statement, that is enough. Unless we enjoy searching for fallacies as a hobby, there is no need to see how many more we can locate.

Fallacies surround us. I have identified several of them but the two that are encountered most often in the popular media these days are reiteration, simply repeating something over and over, and argumentum ad hominum, attacking someone personally. Although it would be ideal to avoid all of the errors, chances are that we will fall for one from time-to-time. When that happens, we should try to learn from the experience, figure out what error we missed and add it to our philosophical defenses. Our quest to seek truth and to avoid error does not stop until we quit this vale of tears.

1 The bulk of the information in this article is drawn from The Science of Correct Thinking: Logic, Celestine N. Bittle, O.F.M.Cap., Bruce Publishing, 1950, Ch XXI

2 “It may be Possible but is it real”

3 The Science of Correct Thinking: Logic, ibid., p. 378