The evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin opined that “to kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact”.
This noble duty also applies to the killing of factual and logical errors. It is for this reason that the place of logic is not only high in its disciplinary homes (philosophy and mathematics) but also in every other pursuit of truth.
Last week I highlighted a few of the several fallacies that commonly underlie arguments which often pass unquestioned because of their deceptive surface appeal. I continue from there - with the footnote that this is just a limited selection based on my own experience of the most commonly committed fallacies.
Has someone ever told you that you are too smart to follow or believe in a certain thing? For example, ‘Knowing how intelligent you are, I wouldn’t expect you to be a Marxist. “You are too smart to believe in God”. It might sometimes be the case that one doesn’t expect you to do or choose certain things given what they know you for, but it is common for people to use this as a rhetorical device.
The fallacy is referred to as appeal to flattery. One massages your ego in a bid to manipulate your direction of reasoning to their desire and to shun the contrary that is framed to be below your heights. It is some sort of mental bribe.
Sometimes one argues that something is right or desirable simply because it is new, also known as the fallacy of appeal to novelty or freshness. In Uganda, we often say: ‘it is the in-thing’.
Some might ask: “Where are you from? This is what the entire world is doing now”. Mind-sets hinged on this fallacy could as well manifest through blind pursuit of fashion. A thing does not become acceptable or reasonable simply because it is new, fresh, or trendy; just as another may not become unreasonable by the mere fact that it is old.
This fallacy is closely related to what is called appeal to popularity (argumentum ad populum). The tendency here is to argue for the reasonableness or truthfulness of something on the exclusive grounds of its popularity. The fact that many people believe in something does not necessarily make it right or true. They could all be misguided. When the majority believed that the world was flat, was it the truth?
For the sake of argument, we could say that it was their truth. But by slipping into such absolute relativism on verifiable elements, we dislocate the basis of knowledge. If all knowledge/truth is relative, then relativism is relative too. This way, relativism neither leaves itself with basis for making knowledge claims nor capacity for proving its own legitimacy.
The biased sample fallacy is another very common one. Perhaps the American pragmatic philosopher, William James, had this fallacy in mind when he quipped that “thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices”.
In committing this fallacy, one picks only those samples that support a conclusion they want to make while conveniently ignoring contrary evidence. In research circles, it is known as ‘confirmation bias’.
For example, you could have heard people argue that one does not need formal education to succeed in life. In support of their assertion, they give examples such as Godfrey Kirumira, Gordon Wavamuno, etc.
What they are doing is to cherry pick a few supportive samples out of a population of so many contrary cases. We note also that, while these examples may indeed help to show that one can still become rich (if this is their measure of success) without much formal education, they tell a very small part of the story while ignoring other confounding factors.
Perhaps one of the commonest defects in argumentation, and often getting away with its covers, is the strawman fallacy. It is committed when one misrepresents another’s argument in order to make it easy to refute it.
A typical political example is when Bobi Wine used the Luganda concept ‘twebereremu’ in encouraging people to take part in working for the change they want. His critics strategically turned the message on its head to accuse him of tribally mobilising fellow Baganda to take power for their exclusive interests. If one is not keen to refer to the original sense in order to catch the convoluted argument, the debate could go to an entirely different direction.
It is some form of diversionary tactic that could as well deploy smear methods characteristic of the fallacy of ‘poisoning the well’ (appeal to hate). It could take the form of an ad hominem fallacy where one may come up with tarnishing evidence/claims in order to bias whoever is going to listen to those they disagree with.
This has often been used to silence Ofwono Opondo, by referring to a certain case that has always followed him like a housefly. One may also throw in accusations of being a ‘mole’ against their political opponent in order to make it difficult for others to listen to his/her argument. It is a psychological game of engineering emotions. Bolder forms might involve appeal to force (argumentum ad baculum) as a way of arm-twisting an opponent into agreement.
Lastly, the fallacy of appeal to pity (argumentum ad misericordiam). Here the arguer tries to persuade by evoking the opponent’s feelings of sympathy or guilt where they may be irrelevant to the truth being sought. One might break into tears in the middle of an argument in order to draw away attention from their inability to make their case.
They could as well dwell on their misfortunes as a way of making the opponent feel guilty to push the argument further. The bottom line is that there is often more to an argument than we read or hear.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.