Mar 232010

Article 1:  Logical Fallacies (a brief intro)


This is the first article covering a type of informal fallacy in this series.  The Red Herring is probably the most common error made in discussions, arguments, and anywhere one argues for a view.  There are several types of Red Herrings and I’ll try to cover some of them here.  Lets begin by asking, what is a Red Herring?

The Red Herring idea comes to us (as do most logical errors) from Aristotle.  The Latin term is Ignoratio elenchi or, ignorance of refutation.  It is also known as a form of irrelevant argument as it does not relate to the question at hand.  Some think that all logical fallacies (formal and informal) come from an ignorance of how to be logical.  Thus, many other errors in argument may ultimately lead back to a Red Herring in the arguers mind.  It is also worthy of note that many today find Red Herrings to be purposeful as a tactic, and not from ignorance.  It should not matter one way or the other to the opposing logician unless they themselves are looking for an opening to argue illogically by attacking their opponents intelligence or motive, (ad hominem.)  The fallacy should just be dealt with to get back to the subject.  Where does the term come from?

Whether it is historically true or not the idea comes from the training of dogs who hunt by scent, fox hounds etc.  A red herring (fish) stinks.  You drag it across a scent trail to see if it draws the dogs off the trail of their game.  The fish is irrelevant to the pursuit of the goal, in this case a fox.  It has also been called, chasing down rabbit trails.  Therefore anything in argument that pulls you away from (is irrelevant to) the topic under discussion is a Red Herring.  I don’t think it is always purposeful as many topics are interrelated and one can make a connection in their mind that is not “logically” connected to the specific point under debate.

In short, a Red Herring is any argument that is not relevant to the topic and draws the debaters away from the goal of finding the truth of an issue. If successfully employed the perpetrator could win the debate without evidencing their case at all, thus no one really learns anything useful about the original topic.  This may leave people with the false impression that the perpetrator won and his view is correct.  In this case harm has been done to the quest for truth.

Types of Red Herrings

The Straw Man.

When in debate, one sets up a position that is not equal to the position of their opponent and attacks it, they have committed the Straw Man fallacy.  This can be done on purpose because they cannot defeat their opponents stronger argument or accidently, because they wrongly equate the position they make up with that of their opponent’s.  The position created almost always seems weaker, as who would make up a stronger position if they could defeat the one offered in it’s own terms.

Example:  I say, “Christ returned in 70AD to reward the remnant and punish his enemies because Matt 24 said he would return to that generation.” Opponent responds, “That cannot be true because their is still sin in the world.”  They have created a Straw man of my statement by assuming I believe there will be no sin in the world after Christ returns.  I have not made that argument and they have not addressed the one I have made.  That the two issues can be connected in the mind, there is no doubt.  This however was not part of the original proposition and has not been logically connected to it yet.  Therefore they have not addressed my stated position, only denied it while offering an unrelated issue as refutation or as a Red Herring to chase.  I did not say there is no more sin in the world.  This is the Straw Man in my opponents argument.

The Straw Man is very common today and like all fallacies, it proves nothing.  Many times a Straw Man is made because of Equivocation in terms or ideas but that is in a different category of fallacy altogether under Ambiguity.

Genetic Fallacies

These fallacies come from the origin of ones support for an idea.  Almost always it is said that the argument is true or false because of its origins.

Argumentum ad populum, Popular Opinion, Appeal to the Masses, Majority etc…

It’s just what it seems.  Truth is not established by popular vote, no matter who it is that is doing the voting.  The most you can do with this is gain some respect from the audience to at least hear your fuller argument.

Appeal to Authority

Often when studying an issue we are out of our element.  We often find experts in an area that we trust (or any who agree with us) to form an opinion on a matter.  This is a good practice and is done by everyone.  However we must be careful when appealing to their expertise in an argument.  The next thing you know we are appealing to the majority of authorities (Argumentum ad populum,) or “my expert is a bigger expert than your expert.”

Listen to the authorities and give them the respect they deserve but, listen to learn, not to parrot them in an argument.  If you can’t prove the point with your own evidence and reason, then how is the quote from the expert going to help?  Don’t forget to consider the views of other experts in the same field that may disagree with your chosen authority.  Your opponent surely will!  Always be sure the expert opinion is coming from an expert in the field of your specific topic.  Don’t quote an expert legal mind on matters of physics, etc…

If your in a discussion with an “equal” and your both out of your element in the topic seek to find authorities that you both respect.  Even then you may not establish truth but it could foster agreement for further study or discussion.

Lets not forget that you may consider yourself an authority and appeal to your own expertise.  In doing so don’t just rely on your clout but be prepared to defend your view just like anyone else.

ad Hominem, Against the Man, Personal Attack

This is a genetic fallacy because it asserts that the flaw in the man is the origin of the flaw in the argument.  Anyone who uses ad hominem in an argument must be on very shaky ground if they have to resort to this level of poor reasoning.  Those who make such arguments should be verbally beaten to death!  A retort to ad hominem that describes it well is, “Don’t like the message, kill the messenger.”

Poisoning the Well (a form of ad Hominem)

When we attack the person making the argument, then it doesn’t matter what they say after that.  Their bad so they must be wrong no matter what they say.  This may not always be done against the opponent but may also be done against cited material, experts, or ideas in general.  For instance:  Evolution is wrong and bad, therefore anything an evolutionary scientist or book says is wrong.  The person who puts this argument is attempting to poison all information coming from evolutionist sources, without any real cause.  The well of that information has been illogically poisoned.

Etymological Fallacy

Etymology is the study of the origin of words.  It is not the study of the meaning of words.  We commit this fallacy when we say a word used today in an argument must have the same meaning that it had in its origin.  Hence why this is a genetic fallacy.  In a discussion a word (term) has the meaning that the people involved in the discussion agree to, nothing more and nothing less.  One or both may be mistaken in their understanding of it’s current usage or it’s origin.  Words are place holders for ideas.  As such, you could make up a whole new language if you wanted.  In fact this is how some words have been coined.  Folks were misunderstanding each other because of the use of a particular word so they settled on a new word to represent the idea so they wouldn’t be confused when talking about the ideas.  This new word caught on in the topic and was eventually added to the language.

While etymology is useful for keeping language coherent and systematic, and we should use the best common terms for clarity, don’t argue over etymology.  Instead just negotiate the terms for the discussion and move on.  This fallacy seems related to Equivocation, but with that you have the same word having more than one possible meaning.  With this fallacy the word in question’s original meaning has nothing to do with the way the word is used today, in a particular debate.  Unless of course you are debating the etymology of a word, and not the idea that it currently represents.

Two Wrongs Make a Right

While this is not a genetic fallacy I’ll include it here because it is simple and it is related to the next genetic fallacy.  Since there is not much to be said about this I’ll just add some quips.  Three rights do make a left.  Pot calling the kettle black.  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  All these are frequently used when someone tries to use the argument that two wrongs make a right.  You say I’m wrong, well your wrong too, therefore I’m really right.  Maybe Monty Python could show us how this is logical.

Tu quoque, You too, You also (can be a form of the above or an ad hominem or both)

This is a genetic fallacy under ad Hominem.  You say I’m bad therefore I’m wrong.  Well, your no better or maybe your even worse!  Therefore…of course I’m right after all.  You can’t call me a liar after I’ve proven you lied.  That’s not what you used to believe therefore what you believe now must not be right either.  This fallacy is often used to try to shift the burden of proof.

Weasel Words

I added this one on 04/07/2010 as I ran into it while reading an article.  It falls under Poisoning the Well (above) in this category.  Click it to read my article on it.

Guilt by Association, Association Fallacy

Whether or not this is a form of ad hominem depends on the argument.  It must be personal and negative to be ad hominem.  If it is personal and positive it is sometimes called Honor by Association.  Therefore both of these would be genetic fallacies of a personal type.

However it’s not always people we are talking about when we make associations.  This could still be genetic by coming from the origin of an idea.  One idea is related to another in origins therefore one is true/false merely by being related to the other.

When used personally these familiar phrases often occur:  Hitler thought what you think.  (This is known as playing the Hitler card.)  Well the Apostles did the same things as I am. That’s just like those nuts from PETA, or to be fair, that sounds just like something the NRA would say.

I would be happy to entertain some examples of association fallacy in non-personal ideas.  I can’t think of any that wouldn’t better fit into other categories of logical fallacies.

Appeal to Consequences

Believing that because something appears to have good effects it is true or vice versa.  Let us not confuse true with good and false with bad.

Wishful Thinking

Though it’s obvious that simply wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, Wishful Thinking is usually more subtle that that, and rarely intentional by the offender.  Usually a wishful thinker is one who exaggerates the positive evidence for their case while discrediting the negative without good reason except that they really want the conclusion to be true.  This is akin to the emotional appeal, it’s true because it will make you happy.  Also related to the appeal to experience which is also a form of Appeal to Authority which is a Genetic Fallacy.

Often it is hard to tell which kind of Red Herring is being employed and some arguments blend more than one type.  Be on the lookout for them as you interact with others and don’t be afraid to point them out.  Just remember to be kind as you do because they are sometimes unintentional, and I’m sure you would appreciate the kindness when you commit (and you will) the same errors.  When in doubt about the particular flavor just remember, if it is irrelevant it is some kind of Red Herring.


Article 3:  Appeal to Ignorance

Article 4:  Weasel Words

Article 5:  Ambiguity and Equivocation