As human beings, one thing we cannot avoid is argumentation. It is one of the ways through which we engage in conversation and assess opinions in our unending desire to ascertain the truth.
While we may desire to establish the truth, sometimes the intent of an arguer is to bury the same. Some are quite smart at this, to the extent that if one is not keen enough and well equipped with knowledge of logic, they might not be able to discern that seemingly sound arguments are actually flawed.
One of the Ugandans that make so much reference to logic is Mr Tamale Mirundi. Sometimes he does so in dismantling illogical arguments. In other cases, he uses it as a cover for committing his own fallacies with authority.
On closer scrutiny, while he is very articulate in deployment of facts and claims to make well-spiced arguments, he is more of a sophist than a logician.
Sophists mostly aim at winning arguments, not arriving at truths through argumentation. Lawyers come to mind too. Sophists deploy whatever means possible to win, their favorite one being rhetoric.
In the process, they may commit fallacies that can easily pass without detection because of the way they are attractively packaged. It is partly for this reason that I have suggested here before that we should consider integrating critical thinking into our syllabi across levels and disciplines.
Gullibility is one of the serious impediments to development that we take for granted. The more gullible a people are, the higher the chances that they will rely on untruths in making life decisions in education, religiosity, business, politics, social life, marriage, and so on.
Deeper analysis of many of the ills that occupy us will show that many are ultimately linked to gullibility. The masses exploited by crooks hidden behind religion, domestic violence over comprehension-based differences, political manipulation of electorates, limitations in imagination, name it.
People that cannot critically analyse things on their own easily resort to submissiveness, conformism, superstition, and sheepish regurgitation of what is presented to them as truth. Of course the exploiters may want it this way, because critical people are difficult to exploit. This could be one of the reasons behind the political assault on the humanities.
In very simple terms, a fallacy is a defect in argumentation, leading to invalidity or unsoundness of an argument. Elisa Gabbert, an American poet and essayist, referred to fallacies as “those nefariously common pitfalls of the human mind, patterns of thought that we all slip into that are nevertheless dead wrong”.
Several fallacies have been identified and named for easy reference. Interested readers could follow this up for their own reading. They can easily be accessed from open online sources. After learning about these fallacies, carefully read our newspapers, listen to our talk shows, our politicians, policymakers and everyday conversation, and you will realise the mess.
I will not talk about online comment streams where, research indicates, people tend to be approximately 200 per cent dumber than in real life. One of the common fallacies in our everyday talk is ‘appeal to tradition’, also called argumentum ad antiquitam.
The insinuation here is that things should be done in a certain way because that is how they have always been done. The fact that something has always been done in some way in itself is not an argument for its appropriateness, except if one were to link it to effectiveness.
This fallacy is very common in defence of obsolete cultural practices for no purpose beyond the fact that ‘it is our culture’. It is a convenient way of running away from criticism – ‘we have practiced this since time immemorial’.
One other common one is the fallacy of ‘appeal to authority’. It is falsely assumed here that certain people who are considered to be authorities or experts cannot be questioned. This has come out frequently in Covid-19 response debates.
While on one hand we should rely on ‘scientists’ with more faith on matters in their areas of expertise than we rely on those who are not, it does not ipso facto imply that ‘non-scientists’ cannot question their assertions. Something does not become true simply because it was said by an ‘expert’.
Have you sometimes responded to an argument by attacking the person of the one who makes it? The fallacy is called ‘ad hominem’. For example, Bobi Wine raises an otherwise valid issue and someone responds: ‘Who is that weed smoker to talk about governance issues?” Even if it was true that he smokes weed, that is logically unconnected to the merits of his argument. It only serves rhetorical value.
Assess the argument on its own merits, not by using the character or appearance of a person as though it too was a premise in the argument. But this is not to say that character can never be relevant in evaluating one’s argument. Some contexts could necessitate so.
The fallacy of two wrongs is another. It is also known as ‘tu quoque’. This is where one is faulted for doing something and they respond by saying: ‘But you also do it.” “You should stop telling lies” Answer: “But you also tell lies.”
Two wrongs do not make a right. The fact that another person/group does something does not in itself justify my/our doing it. It can be raised as a matter of inconsistency or unfairness in faulting, but not as an argument for rightness or wrongness.
The fallacy of generalisation is perhaps the most frequent. This is where we may rely on a few observations to conclude in general terms about something more complex.
We hold so many general homogenised opinions about groups that are internally diverse. The false impression given is that the whole group is like that. As the research principle goes, only conclude to the extent that is allowed by your evidence.
To be continued next week …
The author is a teacher of philosophy.