Tricks and Fallacies

From: Z net tutorials. Full list can be got here – Znet instructional’s

Before we look at some real examples of reasoning and try to break them down to see the underlying logical forms, let’s look at some common logical tricks and fallacies.
The circular argument

One of the most common:

“People are poor because they’re lazy”

Why do you say that?

“Well, if they weren’t lazy, they wouldn’t be poor, would they?”

How does laziness cause poverty?

“Well it makes sense doesn’t it? They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

1.What is the premise of the argument?What is the conclusion?

2.Why is this inadequate?

The circular argument is used often. It isn’t really an argument. The user of it hopes that by repeating the same thing in different words, it will sound like reasoning is going on when it isn’t.

Shifting the goalposts

This one involves changing premises in mid-argument

“People of color are criminals. They should all be locked away.

” Crime is a social problem caused by poverty and desperation, caused by racism suffered by people of color– if you want to fight it, you should fight its causes, instead of locking everyone up.

“Don’t tell me about poverty and desperation. There are plenty of people of color who suffer so-called racism and don’t turn into criminals. The ones who don’t are just born that way and they’re a danger to the rest of us.

” The first premise, that people of color (meaning all people of color) are criminals, used to justify punitive policies, is changed after the social causes of crime are mentioned to a premise that some people of color are genetically predisposed to crime.

Note here that I wouldn’t have refuted the first point with the social causes of crime, but would have pointed out the absurdity of the conclusion and the premise. Also, the facts could be used at any point to demolish arguments about genetic bases of intelligence, crime, and so on. But even without the facts, it is possible to find these sorts of manipulations and flaws, when they accompany morally and intellectually bankrupt arguments.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper, has an obsession with global warming. Its argument is a perfect example of shifting the goalposts. It goes something like this: “Global warming isn’t happening. And even if it’s happening, it’s not bad. And even if it’s bad, it’s too expensive to society to stop it.” (See the editorial by William Thorsell of Saturday January 22, 2000 for an example)
Appeal to Pity

After the November 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the Wall Street Journal featured opinion pieces saying that opposing trade harms the poor and desperate of the third world. There wasn’t an argument except “the poor need trade.” (We’ll be looking at one of these pieces as an example in a few minutes)

One of my favorite applications of this is to ask, in the middle of any argument, about any subject, “What about the children?” This is sure to gain you the moral high ground.
Good and Bad Magic Words

Sometimes, if you remove all the personal attacks, emotional adjectives and contemptuous descriptions, you’ll find that there’s no argument at all. A quick operation should be done on statements containing a lot of this kind of language to see if there is actually any content. The Wall Street journal article we’ll examine below is a great example of this.
“Smart People said so”

This is an appeal to authority. “A study at the University of Berkeley California has shown X.” Well, whatever X is, it has to be evaluated on its own merits, as an argument– is it valid, are its premises correct. The University of Berkeley label isn’t enough to make it so.
“That’s an outmoded idea”

A favorite of today’s reactionaries– suggest a progressive income tax, and they’ll call you an ‘outmoded socialist thinker’. That’s it. End of argument. Why outmoded? What about it is outmoded? This is very similar to the use of Magic Words or authority.
“It’s far too complicated”

Which means, of course, that “you’re too stupid to understand”. If they’re incapable of explaining their ideas simply, even at great length, there’s a good chance they’re messing you around.

The idea in this case is to avoid the argument by using a personal attack. Then we discuss the merits of the personal attack, whether or not it was fair, who’s at fault, whether or not it’s true, whether or not someone should apologize– anything BUT the issue at hand. Advice: Ignore when possible, stick to the subject, and don’t let the heat rise.
Irrelevant objection

Seizing on a trivial point like grammar or spelling, or even a fact, like in:

The human rights situation in Chiapas is serious. In 1997 paramilitaries killed 43 people at Acteal.

“No they did NOT!” (because they killed 45, not 43)
The Moderate Position

“Mr Nim’s view is that of the extreme left, which, like Mr. Davey’s view of the extreme right, must be rejected in favor of the moderate position of the New York Times”. Everyone loves a compromise. The trouble is that any view can be represented as a compromise, including the most horrendous. A common one is: “Leftists believe the disproportionate numbers of African Americans in prison are the result of systemic racism in the justice system. The right, meanwhile, believes that Africans are inherently criminal. The truth must lie somewhere in between.” We could as easily argue, (as Thouless does in “How to think Straight”) that the extremists of one side would have you believe 2+2=4, the other side 2+2=6, so my moderate view 2+2=5, must be the truth. This is rubbish, as you can see, and there’s no argument form here to examine either.
The Tough Decision

“You either accept the current system of corporate-state capitalism or you have a Soviet style dictatorship.” This has the logical form

A or B

But, this reasoning requires exhaustive alternatives– if there is a C, or D, or both, then it falls. Aren’t there other alternatives here?

1. Bonus question: Name one.


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