Truth Before Dishonor

I would rather be right than popular

Informal fallacies?

Posted by DNW on 2014/06/02


Strange how the obvious and already known sometimes hits you right between the eyes with a clarity and force originally lacking, or at least not remembered as there, much, much after the fact.

Say, oh, about thirty-plus years after the fact.

I was driving in the car a day or so ago, and for some reason the concept of “informal fallacies” popped into my head, along with an annoyed internal dialog relating to how the concept had expanded, seemingly exponentially, since I was back in school studying logic and rhetoric.

It seems there is a fallacy for every occasion nowadays, and that they have multiplied as fast as do the political polemicists who frantically brandish them about as if their mere mention constituted evidence of intellectual credentials.

Courtier’s reply! Au contraire, No true Scotsman! No! Argument from authority! Blah blah blah

Irving Copi, a genuine expert in affairs logical, in his famous and widely used university level “Introduction to Logic”, usefully observes (after paragraphs of provisional comments) that, “We may divide informal fallacies into fallacies of relevance and fallacies of ambiguity”

This scope obviously has something to do, as he states the issue, ” … with errors in reasoning into which we may fall either because of carelessness and inattention to our subject matter or through being misled by some ambiguity in the language used to formulate our argument.”

It seems to me that one of the main problems with those who like to bandy charges of fallacious reasoning about, is that they often seem not to understand the supposed issue involved in the fallacy itself.

For example, what some people imagine they have in mind when they charge others with an “appeal to authority”, mystifies me. There is nothing wrong with citing, or appealing to a legitimate authority regarding his area of expertise.

A classic and extreme illustration of the real “fallacy” was provided by old cigarettes ads featuring Hollywood or sports figures who were pictured extolling the virtues certain brands for their power to relax and energize without impairing endurance or health.

On the other hand it’s no error in argument, as Copi notes, to cite, say, a recognized authority on Medieval history on some point of common law bearing on our own times.

But I digress into the morass of the fallaciously polemical use of fallacies.

The point being here, that informal fallacies however they are to be construed, are just that: “not-formal” in the sense of “not a violation of form”. They don’t even rise to that level of error.

They are informal not because of some casualness – though this is often a condition of their appearance – but because they are not the end-product violation of a valid deductive argument form.

They, informal fallacies, thus constitute errors in reasoning which unlike formal fallacies, are not the result of errors which violate as Copi says, “valid patterns of inference”. (Of course these valid patterns themselves  only guarantee that the conclusion asserted validly follows from the premisses when the rules are followed; but not that the conclusion is sound in and of itself, nor that the argument “true” in the way we usually think of truth as reflecting our experienced reality.)

But with the general move away from deductive reasoning as a means of convincing political opponents to yield ground, it’s not surprising that the list of informal fallacies has mushroomed.

Those persons who would not know a modus ponens from a modus tollens, and would probably have a problem intellectually grasping their significance if confronted with the same, can nonetheless muster the resources to shout “NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY!” at an opponent on the vaguest suspicions of a “violation”, and most inchoate conception of the idea defining the fallacy itself.

There is something nonetheless kind of interesting about some of the “newer” fallacies. And that is that they don’t fit neatly into errors of relevance or ambiguity or even internal or extrapolative construction as with the fallacy of composition; but rather, seem to be laid against claims of intellectual privilege,  definition, and framing: More as if they are describing rhetorical gambits than strict errors of reasoning or inference.

But then I make no claims of expertise in this area and am just recounting some things that crossed my mind the other day as I was driving.

 

8 Responses to “Informal fallacies?”

  1. Splinters said

    I don’t actually see why No True Scotsman is a fallacy.

    If you’re talking about, say, a Christian rapist, or a totalitarian Libertarian, it seems entirely reasonable to say that their behaviour demonstrates that not only are they not a Scotsman, they were never a Scotsman to start with..

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  2. AOTC said

    Yesterday a friend was retelling a story about how in her youth her family was dysfunctional. she described a manipulative sibling who exploited the father’s violent temper and other vises to achieve his own nefarious ends. Her father, although violent himself, forbid fighting from the children. if they fought, they got beat. Her brother would hit her and scream out for her to stop hitting him, (she wasn’t hitting him) the father would eventually, in a rage of impatient violence, enter the room and beat her. She was completely unable to defend the truth of the matter. the sibling neutralized the truth.

    This fairly describes the MO of modern liberal ideology.

    I don’t know if this story fits any defined tactic as outlined in the above excellent post but I think it surely shows a reliable example of what we are up against. its pure evil.

    Purely evil.

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  3. Foxfier said

    There’s a name for what I think you’re objecting to– the Fallacy Fallacy.

    Where someone thinks that identifying a fallacy means the statement is false, rather than not supported.

    And I coined the “fallacy fallacy fallacy” where the person merrily committing fallacies left and right and claiming to be rational accuses you of committing the fallacy fallacy when you point it out.

    I really wish they’d teach logic in school. I took a college course and it was awesome– but they way it’s applied is more like the mangling of Godwin’s law. (Which is that the longer a conversation goes on, the more likely it is that Nazis will come up. That’s it. It’s not a win condition.) I recently heard of someone accusing another of violating Godwin’s law… when they were talking about 20th century German politics.

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  4. DNW said

    ” From Splinters on Informal fallacies? #

    I don’t actually see why No True Scotsman is a fallacy. If you’re talking about, say, a Christian rapist, or a …”

    Yes, I tend to agree. It’s so trivial that it’s hardly worth the respect and attention lavished on it … mostly it appears, by not very intelligent left-wing polemicists .

    And in order for it to even have some plausibility a number of conditions have to be met.

    The commission of the “fallacy” must take place as part of Mr A’s ad hoc defensive response to Mr. B’s (or any occuring) rebuttal of Mr. A’s previously asserted categorical proposition concerning all members of a class. More abstractly it’s an ad hoc reaction to an encounter with a falsifying instance; a reaction which attempts to off handedly exclude the instance.

    Apparently then, calling out the fallacy is a technique intended to be used in order to frustrate those, who after already having made a generalization, subsequently wish to disavow or exclude certain individuals having obnoxious attributes from a class with which they identify.

    As you point out, taking it too seriously results in ridiculous oxymoronic like concepts which are literally contradictory.

    It doesn’t seem to me that the concept has any utility in determining whether any given individual is truly a member of a set, or in what sense, or with what significance.

    Does a true American conspire to destroy constitutional government and the lives and freedom of other citizens, while instituting a totalitarian slave regime in its place?

    Those who argue that all it takes at the outside in order to be an American, is for an alien to take a formal oath of citizenship (whatever his inner reservations or intentions), or to be the product of alien female who gives birth on American soil or territory, might decide to argue that such a person was just as much an American by law as any other citizen.

    But then we get down to what “true” means. And that seems to involve us in matters of fidelity and trustworthiness and other more problematical considerations than mere legal formalisms decide.

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  5. Foxfier said

    If I remember the original, the “true” wasn’t added until towards the end– it’s a modified form of shifting ground tied to argument by special definition. (Starts as “the killer can’t be from Scotland” and ends as “no TRUE Scotsman would do such a thing.”)

    A more modern example is the women females who make nasty accusations that “Men do this!” and then throw a fit when a guy says “not all men”– especially when the facts are “almost no men.”

    She says “men” do this and would ACT like it’s all men, and tries to discredit the very notion that it’s worth clarifying that she’s over-generalizing.

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  6. DNW said

    Foxfier said
    2014/06/03 at 09:08 e

    There’s a name for what I think you’re objecting to– the Fallacy Fallacy.

    Where someone thinks that identifying a fallacy means the statement is false, rather than not supported.

    And I coined the “fallacy fallacy fallacy” where the person merrily committing fallacies left and right and claiming to be rational accuses you of committing the fallacy fallacy when you point it out.

    I really wish they’d teach logic in school. I took a college course and it was awesome– but they way it’s applied is more like the mangling of Godwin’s law. (Which is that the longer a conversation goes on, the more likely it is that Nazis will come up. That’s it. It’s not a win condition.) I recently heard of someone accusing another of violating Godwin’s law… when they were talking about 20th century German politics.”

    The subject of Logic once again commands a great deal of superficial respect – after apparently languishing in the early modern era – but enjoys much less understanding than might be thought; especially among those seem most to enjoy deploying the terminology.

    It takes a good deal less effort to showily accuse someone of an informal fallacy and hope for a score, than to analyze the structure of an opponent’s argument and point out formal errors in inference. And the lefties, who admit they are “waging war by other means”, know it.

    This cost benefit consideration can apply from another angle, to our side as well, especially since so much of what one encounters is so shabbily “argued” in the first place. You look at the garbage you encounter and ask yourself “Why should I rewrite this brainless trollish crap just so that it has enough coherence to refute?”

    The left may be increasingly saving us from this labor, since they no longer appear to be interested in reasoned argument. They announce, they proclaim, they whine, wheedle, and threaten, but they seldom really argue.

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  7. Splinters said

    I was thinking more along the lines that being a Christian or a Libertarian requires someone to have certain opinions and behaviours, and that a person can’t be one if he doesn’t have those, no matter what he may claim.

    Sort of a ‘by definition’ thing.

    Though anything along these lines- by which I mean philosophy and pretty much anything else involved in the ‘intellectual’ fields -ties my mind up in knots.
    Not necessarily the terms used as trying to visualise the connections, and what term is supposed to be connected to which hypothetical person.

    Suppose at least I won’t have to worry about sitting down one day and finding I’ve written six hundred pages of clever sounding gibberish about the Patriarchy or global warming/cooling/warming/cooling/climate chaos. Seems to be something about too much intellectual exercise that some people to massive idiocy.

    There is, I think, a certain purity in form in the quote “argumentum ad baculum” unquote.
    At the very least using it means you won’t have to read page after page of waffle about gendernormative cyst het-nazism.

    [Believe it or not, the word “massive” got this comment caught in the filters. I have enjoyed your comments. Welcome, and hopefully the filters don’t scare you off. — JH]

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  8. DNW said

    Splinters said
    2014/06/04 at 10:52 e

    I was thinking more along the lines that being a Christian or a Libertarian requires someone to have certain opinions and behaviours, and that a person can’t be one if he doesn’t have those, no matter what he may claim.

    Sort of a ‘by definition’ thing.”

    Sure. You can look at it that way if you want to, or if the analysis fits the conditions.

    You would probably agree that as a general matter, people initially come to be called, or identify themselves as, say, “libertarians” or “Christians” because of the opinions they hold prior to the application or acceptance of the label.

    However, in the case of those “born into” the nominal class, say “Roman Catholic” as an example, it becomes a matter of dispute among self-defined members as to just how much heterodoxy or subversion of tradition and received doctrine is allowable before truth or integrity require that the heterodox relinquish their membership label, and whatever privileges and prerogatives come along with it.

    But then, that is just the problem from the subversive’s point of view, isn’t it – the loss of esteem or security or opportunity that comes from forthrightly leaving the club they are undermining.

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