Informal Logic 101: How to Think and Argue Better, Part 5

Part 5: Facts Over Feelings

“Feelings should never supersede rational thought… so, if you feel that you’ve got the answer, you should think some more.”  — Julie Ann Elliott-Morton

exhausted student with laptop over head on deskUp to this point in the series, we have dealt with the basics. We learned about the fundamental laws of logic, categorical propositions and logical relationships. We were introduced to the mnemonic “TRACK” — Truth, Relevance, Adequacy, Clarity, Knowledge — in order to help make sure our arguments are supported by their premises and to avoid, among other things, committing logical suicide. Then, we examined the three types of reasoning — deductive, inductive, and abductive. This is all groundwork towards thinking critically and for recognizing and building good arguments to make a case or defend a position on a (theological? philosophical? political?) issue.

Now, I want to spend several posts looking at logical fallacies — i.e., the various and sundry ways in which we all, eventually, to one degree or another, violate everything we just learned. We’ll laugh. We’ll cry. We’ll shake our fists at the sky (or computer screens). But, once we know what to look for, we may realize after a conversation where we (or the other guy) went wrong. Heck, if we’re honestly trying to think and argue better, we may even catch ourselves in the act, apologize, and perform a course correction. Then, I’m sure, we’ll go out and commit some other fallacy (or three) and start over with the laughing, crying, and fist-shaking. Here’s to progress!!

Alright! Today’s fallacies invoke emotional appeals in place of facts. The claims or “reasons” may be fallacious or irrelevant, and they sometimes slip by without being noticed, but they have psychological impact. First up is…

Argumentum ad baculum (“argument by an appeal to force”, or more literally, “to the cudgel/stick”)

Sounds rather belligerent, doesn’t it? It certainly can be. This approach is used to “encourage” or coerce one’s opponent to accept a certain conclusion without relevant evidence for its support. Whether explicit or implicit, the threat could be either physical or some other form of “punishment” (e.g., embarrassment, isolation, obstruction of goals, financial difficulty, etc.). A couple examples may help…

Senior Congressman to junior Congressman:

“Sure, you could run with the ‘Life Begins at Conception Act’ proposal, and you might even get a few supporters. But, you won’t get help from me or anyone with any real juice in this town. It’s just too extremist! You don’t want to be labeled an extremist, do you? So early in your Washington career? That one’s a career-killer, kid!”

The reasons given for not promoting the piece of legislation are that it is unpopular in some circles (thus implying ostracization) and it could stifle one’s career goals. These have nothing to do with whether or not there is a logical case for doing so, based on constitutional and moral grounds.

Overzealous theist to non-theist:

“You don’t believe in God? You should! ‘Cuz if you don’t, when you die, you’ll be sent to Hell for an eternity of torment and shame!”

This grossly oversimplified version of the gospel is mere scare tactic — the “fire insurance” approach — and gives no reasons for believing in the existence of God.

A word of caution, though. An ad baculum argument is only fallacious when the punishment is unrelated — logically speaking — to the recommended (coerced?) conclusion.

Next up is…

Argumentum ad misericordiam (“argument by an appeal to pity”)

Professor Samples points out that, while the appeal to force often works for instructors, students more often use the appeal to pity. Evoking sympathy (e.g., in order to obtain leniency) works, because it exploits the other person’s sense of compassion. For example,…

‘Hard-luck case’ student to professor:

“Our neighbor plays the TV really loud all the time, my hamster died, my parents are in counseling, by sister’s pregnant and unemployed, and I’ve had a cold all week, so… can I have a few more days to finish my paper?”

No valid reasons to extend the due-date, but a compassionate prof may have pity on such a student, especially if s/he can personally identify with the psychological toll that one or more of the given “reasons” can take.

coat hanger with blood dropsHere is a more serious one from Samples’ book:

Pro-choice advocate speaking at a pro-abortion rally:

“If abortion on demand is outlawed, then desperate women will seek illegal back-alley abortions with rusty coat hangers, leading to untold harm and thousands of needless deaths.”

Besides the unproven assumption about what might happen, this is clearly an emotional appeal to pity or sympathy and is devoid of actual reason.

Argumentum ad populum (“argument by an appeal to the people”)

In lieu of making a real case for his/her position, it is not uncommon for a speaker/writer to play to people’s psychological/emotional needs. In particular, Samples notes, the need for inclusion, acceptance, and respect — e.g., feeling like part of the in-crowd — can be powerful appeals.

Here’s a hypothetical…

Community organizer to Black youths:

“You’ve seen the huge crowds at Obama events! Notice how all the Black leaders support the President? You know he’s got to have our best interests at heart! So, his policies must be just what the Black community needs, right? We’ve got to support him. Don’t you want to be part of the change for the better that the Obama administration is bringing?”

Do the size of crowds or support by certain individuals guarantee that an administration’s policies are truly for the best? Isn’t it possible that those people could have been misguided or have personal, ulterior motives for their support? There are no logical reasons to join this particular crowd.

The bandwagon approach is also used in print and online. For example,…

Article by promoter of neo-Darwinian evolution in popular magazine or blog:

“Science has proven God doesn’t exist, and everybody knows it. More people every day, even religious people, are accepting this as reality. Physics, biology, genetics, neuroscience,… every branch of science shows us that God isn’t needed to explain anything. There just aren’t any gaps left for God to fill. All the top experts agree. So, I ask you, how can anyone rationally deny the reality of our evolutionary origins, in the face of clear, scientific evidence?”

OK, so that one had some other fallacies mixed up in it, but I’m sure you can see the unwarranted — or, at least, insufficient — appeal to the supposed consensus of both professionals and laypeople to gain support for the writer’s view. Except, neither science nor philosophy is supposed to be treated as a popularity contest. History has demonstrated that consensus is a fickle thing and does not in itself determine truth.


Genetic fallacy

This one is also a psychological tactic, but its emotional appeal is sometimes more subtle. As you might guess for the use of the word “genetic”, this particular fallacy is concerned with origins — either of (some aspect of) the opponent’s argument, or, more commonly of (some aspect of) the thing being defended. The idea is to undermine the validity or appropriateness of a thing, event, or idea by pointing out how, when, and/or where it first came about. But, even if there is something questionable or disturbing about the origins, focusing on this ignores the thing’s present status (including any changes from the original state or circumstances) and any actual, logical reasons for accepting it as valid/appropriate now.

Two examples:

Religious skeptic to a Christian:

“The Bible is just the ancient scribblings of some 2000-year-old, pre-scientific, Middle-Eastern people, trying to make their tribe sound special. They were just as bloodthirsty and messed up as everyone else around there. Why should I believe anything it says? Why should anyone nowadays “follow” anything in this book or listen to anyone else who does?”

Even if we ignore the attack on the integrity of the Biblical authors — an example of ad hominem, which we’ll address in a later post — and dubious historical claims that the ancient Hebrews were just as nasty as their neighbors, the primary implication is that only “modern” stuff (up to how old?) has anything valuable to teach us, and anyone who tries to live by the teachings of ancient manuscripts is foolish. The Bible is just too old to be taken seriously. (Such chronological snobbery!)

ancient scrollOne Christian to another:

“Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas in any way, because it all started as a pagan holiday. The tree, the ornaments, gift-giving, holiday feast, various decorations, even the date of December 25 — it’s all pagan, and Christians should have nothing to do with it!”

Yes, I’ve actually heard/read these types of arguments, and I addressed this type of thinking in a 2-part blogpost a few years ago. (Look it up!) As I pointed out there, while the origins of various aspects of our modern celebration may indeed have come out of pagan ritual, that has nothing to do with them now. They have been invested with new meaning, and that is what is important.

Another common example of the genetic fallacy that I’ve seen online is when a conservative/theist quotes and/or links to an article at a website and his or her liberal/non-theist interlocutor simply dismisses it with a comment like “LOL!  What a joke!” Not even an attempt at considering the information or argument given. Just an assumption that it is stupid or false and, thus, not worth the time. To be fair, everyone’s time is limited and can’t be expected to read everything on a topic. If you already know the sorts of claims and arguments that a particular site puts forth, you might have a good idea what a specific article would say and decide not to read it. Still, an outright dismissal — accompanied by a virtual sneer — is not an honorable way to treat one’s opponent or his/her position.

So, what have we learned from all of this? According to Prof. Samples, the bottom-line is…

LESSON: “Focus critical attention on backing an argument with solid support (evidence, facts, reasons), and avoid irrelevant emotional appeals.”

That and, uh, logicians like to use a lot of Latin (and there’s more on the way).


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