In the last article, I highlighted six of the most common logical fallacies that I see people making in their day-to-day discussions. The truth is, there are a lot more than six that you’ll come across. In this article, I’ll go through some of the honorable mentions.
I’ll start off with the fallacy known as the false dilemma because I find myself getting tripped up on this one from time to time. This fallacy occurs when someone presents two choices as the only options to a problem or argument, but there are really more. It’s really easy to get caught by this because the person presenting the false dilemma may have given what sounded like a pretty good argument. The false dilemma is meant to force you to make an either/or choice when really there are more options to pick from.
This fallacy is also really easy to get caught by because when we have to make decisions we want simple choices. We love it when it’s an A or B kind of decision. Having to consider an option that isn’t given means more work for us, so we gladly take the two-option version instead.
A good example of a false dilemma is Christianity’s relationship with science. Nowadays, many people feel like science and religion are in conflict. Like you have to pick one or the other. The choices are to believe in science or believe in religion. But, this is a false dilemma because you can be a Christian and also trust in science to describe the natural world around us. The truth is, it was Christians who believed in an orderly world and had a desire to know more about it who were largely responsible for the Scientific Revolution. So, in this case, you don’t have to pick sides.
Begging The Question/Circular Reasoning
In this fallacy, someone making a claim includes the conclusion in the premise as a way to show the conclusion is true. For example, “Bob can be trusted because Bob says he is trustworthy”. The thing someone is trying to prove here is that Bob is trustworthy. But, in order to make his case, he already assumes that Bob can be trusted when he says he can be trusted.
A good example of this is when you are having a discussion with an atheist regarding supernatural events like the universe coming from nothing. You give lots of evidence to show that in order for time, matter, and space to come into existence the source has to be outside of the universe and it has to be timeless, spaceless, and immaterial (among other things). But, the atheist rejects the conclusion that a supernatural cause could have created the universe because supernatural causes don’t exist. This is circular reasoning because what you are trying to prove is that supernatural events do exist and his reason for thinking that supernatural causes don’t exist is that supernatural causes don’t exist!
Christians are not immune to this fallacy either. When someone asks you why you trust the Bible and you respond with “because the Bible says I can trust it”, that’s circular reasoning. Now, of course, we should trust the Bible. There are numerous reasons for doing so. But, when you’re talking with someone who doesn’t trust the Bible, you can’t tell them to trust it because it says to trust it.
A loaded question is one in which no matter how the person answers it they will appear guilty. This tactic is particularly effective as a way to derail the debate. It puts the person to whom the question is being asked on the defensive and forces them to try answer the question in a way that doesn’t implicate them.
For example, if an attorney asks the defendant “did you enjoy murdering your wife” that is a loaded question. The question assumes that the person has killed their wife before it has been established that he did so. If the defendant didn’t kill his wife, the defendant can’t simply say “no” because that would mean he did NOT have fun killing his wife but he did still kill her.
This fallacy occurs when you use double language in order to mislead or misrepresent the truth. Politicians are famous for using this tactic so that when they are asked about what they said later they can say that they technically weren’t lying.
A great example of ambiguity in play is when astrophysicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss says that the universe came from nothing without needing a Creator to get involved. The way Krauss gets away with this claim is by the use of the word “nothing”. Usually, when people use the word “nothing” they mean “the absence of anything” – no thing. Aristotle famously quipped that “nothing is what rocks dream about”. But, Krauss says that nothing is full of stuff and is very active – with things popping in and out of existence all the time. So, in order to make his claim, he has to use the word “nothing” in a way we aren’t expecting.
The best way to get around this tactic is by asking the first question of Greg Koukl’s Columbo technique by asking the person “what do you mean by that”. Before any meaningful discussion can take place, you have to establish the definitions of terms in play. There have been many discussions I have been involved in where I didn’t do this and we were just argueing past each other. Because we were defining words differently.
Now, often times, people make this mistake on accident. In examples like Krauss, they know full well that they are misleading people by using words in unexpected ways. Asking questions will help get past that.
This fallacy occurs when someone uses the popularity of something to establish it as true. In other words, the majority of people holding something to be true makes it true. But, the popularity of an idea has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is true or not.
If we look throughout history, we can easily spot many instances where the majority was wrong. For example, at one point, the majority of the scientific community thought the earth was flat. Or that the sun rotated around the earth.
The popularity of an idea would spell trouble for atheism, too, because in most countries, atheists are in the minority. That would mean that the majority of people in countries hold to some sort of belief in supernatural forces, and because the majority believe in supernatural forces, atheism is false.
I am in no way suggesting we should dismiss the claims of general consensus on things. For instance, the general consensus in the sciences is that the universe began to exist and is not eternal. But, to say that something is true because it’s what most people believe is not a good reason as I have demonstrated. It leaves no room for the correction of wrong ideas. If so, then people like Martin Luthor King, Jr. were wrong for fighting for racial equality because he was going against the majority.
Finally, let’s talk about the fallacy of personal experience over evidence. This is known as the anecdotal fallacy. In this fallacy, someone uses their personal experience as a way to assert something is true in spite of data that may show otherwise.
I find that this fallacy shows up a lot regarding health care issues and what one can and cannot eat/drink/smoke/etc. For example, if you are talking about the health risks of long-term, heavy alcohol consumption and a person responds with “don’t believe all those studies. My Grandma Betty drank 4 bottles of bourbon every day and she lived to be 90”. Now, Grandma Betty may have indeed drunk 4 bottles of bourbon every day. And, she may have indeed lived to be 90. But, just because Grandma Betty could do that doesn’t mean you will be fine doing the same. It also doesn’t make all the studies to the contrary to be false. It just means one person got really lucky.
But wait. There’s more!
These past two articles have been a list of bad habits I have caught myself using when trying to defend my positions. This list certainly isn’t complete. In fact, there are dozens more logical fallacies that one can commit. For an even bigger list, please check out https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/. They give short, easy-to-understand definitions and examples of lots of mistakes we can make when trying to make the case for what we believe.