Mar 19 2009

How To Argue

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Comments: 64

Arguing is one of those things most people do but few people do well. Many do not understand what a logical argument even is or how to do it correctly. Yet arguing is an essential skill of critical thinking. How we argue reflects how we think, how we evaluate our own conclusions, and how we challenge the beliefs of others.

Even the very purpose of arguing is often misunderstood. I have arguments almost every day. This does not mean I verbally fight with others on a daily basis, but rather I have discussions that involve either attempting to convince another of a specific conclusion, or resolving different conclusions on a factual matter. In most of the arguments that I find myself the other person has staked out a position and they defend it jealously, as if they were a high-paid lawyer defending a client. This adversarial approach, however, is not constructive. Rather, the parties of an argument should be trying to find common ground, and then proceed carefully from that common ground to resolve any differences.

The beauty of a logical argument is that it is, well… logical. It is, in a way, like mathematics. In math 1+1 must =2. If there is a disagreement about this, it can be resolved objectively and definitively. If two people doing the same math problem come up with different answers, how should they respond? Should they each defend their answer at all costs. Or, should they exam each other’s solution to see if one, or both, might contain an error, and then resolve the error to see what the correct answer is?

Likewise, if two people have come to different conclusions about a factual claim, then one or both must be wrong. Both cannot be correct. That means that one or both must have made an error in the arguments they used to come to their conclusions. The two parties should work together to examine their arguments and resolve any errors.

Keep in mind, this only works if the arguments are about factual claims, not subjective feelings or value judgments. There is no objective way to resolve a difference of opinion regarding aesthetics, for example. If you prefer Mozart to Beethoven, there is no way to prove that with facts or logic. It is very helpful, however, to identify when a conclusion contains an aesthetic opinion or a moral choice. It avoids arguing endlessly over an issue that is inherently irresolvable.

An excellent example of this is the abortion debate. Ultimately, all arguments over abortion come down to a personal moral choice: which should have greater value, the mother’s right to make choices regarding her own body, or the unborn fetus’s right not to be killed. All attempts to resolve this objectively have resulted in further arguments that are dependent upon value judgments, for example: at what point at or after conception does an embryo or fetus become a person? Also, how does the fetus’s total biological dependence upon its mother affect their respective rights?

Structure of a Logical Argument

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, our arguments all follow a certain basic structure. They begin with one or more premises, which are facts that the argument takes for granted as the starting point. Then a principle of logic is applied in order to come to a conclusion. This structure is often illustrated symbolically with the following example:

Premise1: If A = B,
Premise2: and B = C
Logical connection: Then (apply principle of equivalence)
Conclusion: A = C

In order for an argument to be considered valid the logical form of the argument must work – must be valid. A valid argument is one in which, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true also. However, if one or more premise is false then a valid logical argument may still lead to a false conclusion. A sound argument is one in which the logic is valid and the premises are true, in which case the conclusion must be true.

Also it is important to note that and argument may use wrong information, or faulty logic to reach a conclusion that happens to be true. An invalid or unsound argument does not necessarily prove the conclusion false. Demonstrating that an argument is not valid or not sound, however, removes it as support for the truth of the conclusion.

Breaking down an argument into its components is a very useful exercise, for it enables us to examine both our own arguments and those of others and critically analyze them for validity. This is an excellent way of sharpening one’s thinking, avoiding biases, and making effective arguments.

Examine your Premises

As stated above, in order for an argument to be sound all of its premises must be true. Often, different people come to different conclusions because they are starting with different premises. So examining all the premises of each argument is a good place to start.

There are three types of potential problems with premises. The first, and most obvious, is that a premise can be wrong. If one argues, for example, that evolutionary theory is false because there are no transitional fossils, that argument is unsound because the premise – no transitional fossils – is false. In fact there are copious transitional fossils.

Another type of premise error occurs when one or more premises is an unwarranted assumption. The premise may or may not be true, but it has not been established sufficiently to serve as a premise for an argument. Identifying all the assumptions upon which an argument is dependent is often the most critical step in analyzing an argument. Frequently, different conclusions are arrived at because of differing assumptions.

Often people will choose the assumptions that best fit the conclusion they prefer. In fact, psychological experiments show that most people start with conclusions they desire, then reverse engineer arguments to support them – a process called rationalization.

One way to resolve the problem of using assumptions as premises is to carefully identify and disclose those assumptions up front. Such arguments are often called “hypothetical,” or prefaced with the statement “Let’s assume for the sake of argument.” Also, if two people examine their arguments and realize they are using different assumptions as premises, then at least they can “agree to disagree.” They will realize that their disagreement cannot be resolved until more information is available to clarify which assumptions are more likely to be correct.

The third type of premise difficulty is the most insidious: the hidden premise. I have seen this listed as a logical fallacy – the unstated major premise, but it is more accurate to consider it here. Obviously, if a disagreement is based upon a hidden premise, then the disagreement will be irresolvable. So when coming to an impasse in resolving differences, it is a good idea to go back and see if there are any implied premises that have not been addressed.

Let’s go back to the transitional fossil example again. Why is it that scientists believe we have many transitional fossils and evolution deniers (creationists or intelligent design proponents) believe that we do not. This would seem to be a straightforward factual claim easily resolvable by checking the evidence. Sometimes evolution deniers are simply ignorant of the evidence or are being intellectually dishonest. However, the more sophisticated are fully aware of the fossil evidence and use a hidden premise to deny the existence of transitional fossils.

When a paleontologist speaks of “transitional” fossils, they are referring to species that occupy a space morphologically between two known species. This may be a common ancestor, in which case the transitional fossil will be more ancient than both descendant species; or it can be temporally between two species, the descendant of one and the ancestor of the other. But in reality we often do not know if the transitional species is an actual ancestor or just closely related to the true ancestor. Because evolution is a bushy process, and not linear, most of the specimens we find will lie on an evolutionary side branch (an uncle rather than a parent). But if they fill a morphological gap in known species, they provide evidence of an evolutionary connection, and therefore qualify as transitional. For example, archaeopteryx may not be on the direct path to modern birds, but clearly they occupy a space that is transitional between therapod dinosaurs and modern birds and one of their close relatives is a direct ancestor to modern birds.

When evolution deniers say there are no transitional fossils their unstated major premise is that they are employing a different definition of transitional than is generally accepted in the scientific community. They typically define transitional as some impossible monster with half-formed and useless structures. Or, they may define transitional as only those fossils for which there is independent proof of being a true ancestor, rather than simply closely related to a direct ancestor – an impossible standard.

Another hidden premise in their argument is the notion of how many transitional fossils there should be in the fossil record.  They, of course, can always assume an arbitrarily high number to claim that there isn’t enough.

Logical Fallacies

Even when all of the premises of an argument are reliably true, the argument may still be invalid if the logic employed is not legitimate – a so called logical fallacy. The human brain is a marvelous machine with capabilities that, in some ways, still outperform the most powerful of super computers. Our brains, however, do not appear to have evolved specifically for precise logic. There are many common logical pitfalls that our minds tend to fall into, unless we are consciously aware of these pitfalls and make efforts to avoid them.

Humans also tend to use logical short-cuts, called heuristics. These are thought processes that are not strictly valid in their logic, but are true most of the time and therefore are a useful rule-of-thumb as to what is likely to be true. But they get us into trouble when then substitute for valid logic.

Also because, as stated above, there is a tendency to start with desired conclusions and then construct arguments to support them, many people will happily draw upon logical fallacies to make their arguments. In fact, if a conclusion is not true one must either employ a false premise or a logical fallacy in order to construct an argument that leads to that conclusion. Remember, a sound argument (one with true premises and valid logic) cannot lead to a false conclusion. So in order to avoid using logical fallacies to construct invalid arguments, we need to understand how to identify fallacious logic.

Below I will list the most common logical fallacies, with examples of each.

On a side note, I have found many lists of logical fallacies, and they tend to differ along the “lumper vs splitter” spectrum. Many fallacies are really just specific subtypes of a more general fallacy. I have taken a combined approach, listing the main types of fallacies and giving examples of subtypes where appropriate.

Non-Sequitur
In Latin this term translates to “doesn’t follow.” This refers to an argument in which the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. In other words, a logical connection is implied where none exists. This is the most basic type of logical fallacy, and in fact all logical fallacies are non-sequiturs, but are an identifiable and common type.

Argument from authority
The basic structure of such arguments is as follows: Professor X believes A, Professor X speaks from authority, therefore A is true. Often this argument is implied by emphasizing the many years of experience, or the formal degrees held by the individual making a specific claim. The converse of this argument is sometimes used, that someone does not possess authority, and therefore their claims must be false. (This may also be considered an ad-hominen logical fallacy – see below.)

In practice this can be a complex logical fallacy to deal with. It is legitimate to consider the training and experience of an individual when examining their assessment of a particular claim. Also, a consensus of scientific opinion does carry some legitimate authority. But it is still possible for highly educated individuals, and a broad consensus to be wrong – speaking from authority does not make a claim true.

This logical fallacy crops up in more subtle ways also. For example, UFO proponents have argued that UFO sightings by airline pilots should be given special weight because pilots are trained observers, are reliable characters, and are trained not to panic in emergencies. In essence, they are arguing that we should trust the pilot’s authority as an eye witness.

There are many subtypes of the argument from authority, essentially referring to the implied source of authority. A common example is the argument ad populi – a belief must be true because it is popular, essentially assuming the authority of the masses. Another example is the argument from antiquity – a belief has been around for a long time and therefore must be true.

Argument from final outcome
Such arguments (also called teleological) are based on a reversal of cause and effect, because they argue that something is caused by the ultimate effect that it has, or purpose that is serves. Christian creationists have argued, for example, that evolution must be wrong because if it were true it would lead to immorality.

Post-hoc ergo propter hoc
This is perhaps the most common of logical fallacies. It follows the basic format of A preceded B, therefore A caused B, and therefore assumes cause and effect for two events just because they are temporally related (the Latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this”). This logical fallacy is frequently invoked when defending various forms of alternative medicine – I was sick, I took treatment A, I got better, therefore treatment A made me better. This is a logical fallacy because it is possible to have recovered from an illness without any treatment.

Confusing correlation with causation
This is similar to the post-hoc fallacy in that it assumes cause and effect for two variables simply because they occur together. This fallacy is often used to give a statistical correlation a causal interpretation. For example, during the 1990’s both religious attendance and illegal drug use have been on the rise. It would be a fallacy to conclude that therefore, religious attendance causes illegal drug use. It is also possible that drug use leads to an increase in religious attendance, or that both drug use and religious attendance are increased by a third variable, such as an increase in societal unrest. It is also possible that both variables are independent of one another, and it is mere coincidence that they are both increasing at the same time.

This fallacy, however, has a tendency to be abused, or applied inappropriately, to deny all statistical evidence. In fact this constitutes a logical fallacy in itself, the denial of causation. This abuse takes two basic forms. The first is to deny the significance of correlations that are demonstrated with prospective controlled data, such as would be acquired during a clinical experiment. The problem with assuming cause and effect from mere correlation is not that a causal relationship is impossible, it’s just that there are other variables that must be considered and not ruled out a-priori. A controlled trial, however, by its design attempts to control for as many variables as possible in order to maximize the probability that a positive correlation is in fact due to a causation.

Further, even with purely epidemiological, or statistical, evidence it is still possible to build a strong scientific case for a specific cause. The way to do this is to look at multiple independent correlations to see if they all point to the same causal relationship. For example, it was observed that cigarette smoking correlates with getting lung cancer. The tobacco industry, invoking the “correlation is not causation” logical fallacy, argued that this did not prove causation. They offered as an alternate explanation “factor x”, a third variable that causes both smoking and lung cancer. But we can make predictions based upon the smoking causes cancer hypothesis. If this is the correct causal relationship, then duration of smoking should correlate with cancer risk, quitting smoking should decrease cancer risk, smoking unfiltered cigarettes should have a higher cancer risk than filtered cigarettes, etc. If all of these correlations turn out to be true, which they are, then we can triangulate to the smoking causes cancer hypothesis as the most likely possible causal relationship and it is not a logical fallacy to conclude from this evidence that smoking probably causes lung cancer.

Special pleading, or ad-hoc reasoning
This is a subtle fallacy which is often difficult to recognize. In essence, it is the arbitrary introduction of new elements into an argument in order to jerry rig them, or fix them so that they appear valid. A good example of this is the ad-hoc dismissal of negative test results. For example, one might argue that ESP has never been demonstrated under adequate test conditions, therefore ESP is not a genuine phenomenon. Defenders of ESP have attempted to counter this argument by introducing the arbitrary premise that ESP does not work in the presence of skeptics. This fallacy is often taken to ridiculous extremes, and more and more bizarre ad hoc elements are added to explain experimental failures or logical inconsistencies.

Carl Sagan gave perhaps the most famous example of this fallacy in his “invisible, floating, non-corporeal, heatless, dragon in his garage” argument.  Essentially, he claims that there is a dragon in his garage, and then invents a special reason why each test for the presence of the dragon fails.

Tu quoque
Tu quoque translates to “you too.” This is an attempt to justify wrong action because someone else also does it. “My evidence may be bad, but so is yours.” This fallacy is frequently committed by proponents of various alternative medicine modalities, who argue that even though their therapies may lack evidence more mainstream modalities also lack evidence.

Ad hominem
An ad hominem argument is any that attempts to counter another’s claims or conclusions by attacking the person, rather than addressing the argument itself. True believers will often commit this fallacy by countering the arguments of skeptics by stating that skeptics are closed minded. Skeptics, on the other hand, may fall into the trap of dismissing the claims of UFO believers, for example, by stating that people who believe in UFO’s are crazy or stupid.

A common form of this fallacy is also frequently present in the arguments of conspiracy theorists (who also rely heavily on ad-hoc reasoning). For example, they may argue that the government must be lying because they are corrupt.

The term “poisoning the well” also refers to a form of ad hominem fallacy.  This is an attempt to discredit the argument of another by implying that they possess an unsavory trait, or that they are affiliated with other beliefs or people that are wrong or unpopular. A common form of this also has its own name – Godwin’s Law or the reductio ad Hitlerum. This refers to an attempt at poisoning the well by drawing an analogy between another’s position and Hitler or the Nazis.

Ad ignorantum
The argument from ignorance basically states that a specific belief is true because we don’t know that it isn’t true. Defenders of extrasensory perception, for example, will often overemphasize how much we do not know about the human brain. It is therefore possible, they argue, that the brain may be capable of transmitting signals at a distance.

UFO proponents are probably the most frequent violators of this fallacy. Almost all UFO eyewitness evidence is ultimately an argument from ignorance – lights or objects sighted in the sky are unknown, and therefore they are alien spacecraft.

Intelligent design is almost entirely based upon this fallacy. The core argument for intelligent design is that there are biological structures that have not been fully explained by evolution, therefore a powerful intelligent designer must have created them.

In order to make a positive claim, however, positive evidence for the specific claim must be presented. The absence of another explanation only means that we do not know – it doesn’t mean we get to make up a specific explanation.

Confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable
Because we do not currently have an adequate explanation for a phenomenon does not mean that it is forever unexplainable, or that it therefore defies the laws of nature or requires a paranormal explanation. An example of this is the “God of the Gaps” strategy of creationists that whatever we cannot currently explain is unexplainable and was therefore an act of god.

False Continuum
The idea that because there is no definitive demarcation line between two extremes, that the distinction between the extremes is not real or meaningful: For example, there is a fuzzy line between cults and religion, therefore they are really the same thing.

False Dichotomy
Arbitrarily reducing a set of many possibilities to only two. For example, evolution is not possible, therefore we must have been created (assumes these are the only two possibilities). This fallacy can also be used to oversimplify a continuum of variation to two black and white choices. For example, science and pseudoscience are not two discrete entities, but rather the methods and claims of all those who attempt to explain reality fall along a continuum from one extreme to the other. Reducing all factual claims to either pure science or pure pseudoscience would be creating a false dichotomy.

Inconsistency
Applying criteria or rules to one belief, claim, argument, or position but not to others. For example, some consumer advocates argue that we need stronger regulation of prescription drugs to ensure their safety and effectiveness, but at the same time argue that medicinal herbs should be sold with no regulation for either safety or effectiveness.

Reductio ad absurdum
In formal logic, the reductio ad absurdum is a legitimate argument. It follows the form that if the premises are assumed to be true it necessarily leads to an absurd (false) conclusion and therefore one or more premises must be false. The term is now often used to refer to the abuse of this style of argument, by stretching the logic in order to force an absurd conclusion. For example a UFO enthusiast once argued that if I am skeptical about the existence of alien visitors, I must also be skeptical of the existence of the Great Wall of China, since I have not personally seen either. This is a false reductio ad absurdum because he is ignoring evidence other than personal eyewitness evidence, and also logical inference. In short, being skeptical of UFO’s does not require rejecting the existence of the Great Wall.

Slippery Slope
This logical fallacy is the argument that a position is not consistent or tenable because accepting the position means that the extreme of the position must also be accepted. But moderate positions do not necessarily lead down the slippery slope to the extreme. This is common in politics. For example, some opponents to embryonic stem cell research have argued that allowing the use of human embryos in research (even those created for IVF that would otherwise be discarded) would inevitably lead to creating embryos specifically for research, a black market in human embryos, or even the forcible extraction of eggs for such research from women.

Tautology
Tautology is an argument that utilizes circular reasoning, which means that the conclusion is also its own premise. The structure of such arguments is A=B therefore A=B, although the premise and conclusion might be formulated differently so it is not immediately apparent as such. For example, saying that therapeutic touch works because it manipulates the life force is a tautology because the definition of therapeutic touch is the alleged manipulation (without touching) of the life force.

The Moving Goalpost
A method of denial arbitrarily moving the criteria for “proof” or acceptance out of range of whatever evidence currently exists. If new evidence comes to light meeting the prior criteria, the goalpost is pushed back further – keeping it out of range of the new evidence. Sometimes impossible criteria are set up at the start – moving the goalpost impossibly out of range -for the purpose of denying an undesirable conclusion.

Conclusion

This list of logical fallacies is certainly incomplete. A thorough treatment of this topic is more appropriate to a rather large book than a blog post. However, applying this basic approach to arguing would, in my experience, vastly improve the arguing style of most people.

Just remember to apply these rules to yourself first and foremost.

Note: This is an updated version of an article I have previously written. The original version is currently inaccessible as the NESS website is being moved to a new host and updated. However, since I have tried to make logic central to NeuroLogica I thought this article should also have a home here. And it was a good opportunity to significantly update the article.

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64 responses so far

64 Responses to “How To Argue”

  1. DevilsAdvocateon 19 Mar 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Great, basic stuff. It’s never a bad idea to return to the 101 courses when the subject is seminal to reason.

  2. thethymeon 19 Mar 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Can you provide recomendations for additional reading regarding logical fallacies. Really enjoyed the post.

  3. unBeguiledon 19 Mar 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Great stuff Steve.

    I’m wondering if “poisoning the well” should properly be called a fallacy. We all do this. For example, you frequently start off a critique of Egnor by labeling him a creationist. Granted, your argument has never been “Egnor’s point must be wrong because he is a creationist”. Nevertheless, I think you would admit that you do this just for the sake of winning debate points.

    Egnor does this as well. I recently saw where Egnor responded to Timothy Sandefur by first calling Sandefur a Darwinist and an atheist. Egnor did this I’m sure knowing how his readers would respond to those labels.

    I use the technique of “poisoning the well” in almost every argument I get into with superstitionists. But my use of pejorative labels does not render my arguments fallacious.

  4. Steven Novellaon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:03 pm

    unBeguiled – that is a complex topic, I only touched on in this review. It is possible to over apply a fallacy, like the false continuum, or those who over apply correlation is not necessarily causation.

    Specifically, what is the demarcation between giving the reader appropriate background and context (full disclosure) vs deliberately poisoning the well as an ad hominem strategy? There is some judgment involved – but that does not mean there is not a real difference.

    If someone brings up a point that is clearly irrelevant and calculated to bias their audience against their target – that is poisoning the well. “BTW – this guy also likes to torture kittens in his spare time.”

    However, if I am talking about someone’s creationist arguments, then pointing out up front that they are a creationist is just setting the stage. It is relevant to the discussion.

    But there is a lot of gray in the middle. If I am discussing the views of an anti-vaccine kook, is it poisoning the well if I inform my readers that they are also a 9/11 truther? Or is this just thorough reporting, important for context? If I withhold that information am I failing to give my readers information they would want to know in forming an opinion? Does the fact that the person in question is a 9/11 truther tell us anything about the value of their opinions regarding vaccines?

    It also depends on what I am discussing – I am just discussing the specific scientific claims, or am I also discussing the anti-vaccine movement as a sociological phenomenon?

  5. Watcheron 19 Mar 2009 at 2:10 pm

    In anyone’s experience, will any of these help when arguing with your wife or any other female for that matter? :D

  6. LarryCoonon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:14 pm

    unBeguiled — Further to Steve’s point, this sort of thing also apples very well to ad hominems. Not every ad hominem represents a commission of the ad hominem logical fallacy — only when the argument is based on the ad hominem is it fallacious.

    Steve can call Egnor a disingenuous douchebag all he wants, but his argument isn’t fallacious unless he claims Egnor is wrong BECAUSE he’s a disingenuous douchebag.

  7. LarryCoonon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Watcher — My wife laid it out for me very clearly when she said, “You can be right, or you can be happy.”

  8. unBeguiledon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:18 pm

    “There is some judgment involved – but that does not mean there is not a real difference.”

    Yes, this is a good point. It is hard to draw a hard line of demarcation between “poisoning the well” and just providing information. But just because we cannot draw that line exactly, it does not follow that there is no demarcation.

    I think I recall in one of your podcasts you openly stated you were poisoning the well, which I greatly appreciated. Acknowledging bias is an important first step to winning credibility.

  9. unBeguiledon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:21 pm

    LarryCoon:

    “Steve can call Egnor a disingenuous douchebag all he wants, but his argument isn’t fallacious unless he claims Egnor is wrong BECAUSE he’s a disingenuous douchebag.”

    . . . did I not say that clearly enough? In case you missed it:

    ‘Granted, your argument has never been “Egnor’s point must be wrong because he is a creationist”.’

  10. artfulDon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I note that virtually every time you bring up logic here you omit any reference to the fact that all logical systems depend on inference.
    Inference involves our ability to make probability assumptions about the accuracy of the premises and in turn about the accuracy of the probability assessments that will result from those assumptions.

    Our brain is in fact an inferential assessment apparatus that logical systems were invented, by that very apparatus, to assist with its learning process and the reliability of its predictions.

    Your inferences and Egnor’s for example are clearly never the same, yet your arguments are never directed to how those differences may be the key to understanding why you two are always at an impasse, yet can’t stop picking at that lock.

  11. artfulDon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Heuristics, by the way, are the product of inference, but they are not the inference process.

  12. unBeguiledon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:03 pm

    artfulD:

    “Your inferences and Egnor’s for example are clearly never the same, yet your arguments are never directed to how those differences may be the key to understanding why you two are always at an impasse”

    I suspect there is some insight in that statement, but since it lacks any examples it’s empty. Care to elaborate?

  13. Thenewyorkdolleyon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:11 pm

    It’s always seemed to me that Egnor and Steve are always at an impasse because Egnor is arguing positions that are not supported by observable reality.

  14. artfulDon 19 Mar 2009 at 4:20 pm

    unBeguiled, the thing about inference is that it tends to furnish us its own examples. And in addition, we then infer on a less than conscious level that others are capable of discovering those same examples just as we were. And if not, they should be. Except that “should” infers that they could, and when you are unable to reach a certain level of abstraction in your thought processes, then of course you can’t and shouldn’t.
    You, for example, can probably furnish your own examples because you are able to conceive there’s a question that begs for one.
    The dolley person, however, would be unable to observe any reality at that level of abstraction.

  15. unBeguiledon 19 Mar 2009 at 4:40 pm

    artfulD:

    That was certainly a dodge. One empty statement followed by another. Are you a theologian? That’s what I infer.

  16. artfulDon 19 Mar 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Well I guess you aren’t as smart as I inferred. I’ll indulge you with an example as to Egnor in particular:
    He clearly draws inferences on an emotional level about the purposes involved in the evolutionary process. But he lacks the acumen to question the accuracy of that inference.
    Example on point: There’s a lot of baloney being published now about a so-called God gene which “tells” us instinctively that nature’s acts are purposeful.
    However, our instincts don’t tell us that nature’s acts are purposeful, they tell us that nature’s acts MAY be purposeful. They tell us to be suspicious of these acts, in case a particular force is directed our way in particular.
    Egnor doesn’t have the ability to grasp the subtle yet all important difference in the inference to be drawn here.

  17. unBeguiledon 19 Mar 2009 at 5:05 pm

    artfulD:

    No, from your perspective I’m not ‘smart’, since ‘smart’ to you seems to mean ‘able to read minds’.

    Thanks for the elaboration. The issue of purpose does appear the heart of the matter. Our Pleistocene brains are hyperactive agent detectors, and are prone to lead us astray. Perhaps mine has done so here, concerning your purpose and agenda.

  18. cuervoon 19 Mar 2009 at 5:09 pm

    “Does the fact that the person in question is a 9/11 truther tell us anything about the value of their opinions regarding vaccines?”

    Ohhh yes.

  19. HHCon 19 Mar 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Watcher, Arguing style is not gender-specific. Male and female attorneys argue well based on facts with respect to issues. But, sometimes people don’t know how to logically argue a point. Or, they can’t get beyond a persons’characteristics to speak to them. How tough would it be for you to carry on an argument with a gay biker on the road?

  20. TheBlackCaton 19 Mar 2009 at 6:58 pm

    @ thethyme: I highly recommend the following site for a very good overview of logical fallacies:

    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/

    It is good for a number of reasons. First, it covers a very large number of fallacies. Second, it generally gives a real-life example, a specific description of the fallacy, a specific hypothetical example (often including a case that is not obviously wrong, followed by one that is), and then a detailed description of the fallacy. Also, Steve discussed the “lumper vs splitter” difference. This site does both, it lists the detailed, specific fallacies but also says if the fallacy is a subset of another category. It even lists the taxonomy of fallacies, showing which fallacies are subsets of other fallacies. It also has a number of different names for the same fallacy, which makes finding the fallacy you want easier but makes the list look a lot longer than it really is.

    It also does something that Steve did not do, which is split things into “formal” and “informal” fallacies. To put it simply, a formal fallacy violates a specific rule of logic, while an informal fallacy does not. An informal fallacy could also be called a deceptive argument strategy. All the fallacies Steve mentioned are actually informal fallacies. A formal fallacy would be one such as “Affirming the Consequent”, which is:

    if a, then b

    b, therefore a.

    So, as an example, saying, “If you eat too much, you’ll get sick. Since you are sick, you must have eaten too much.” There are any number of other reasons you could have gotten sick.

    However, this is not a fallacy for:

    if and only if a, then b

    b, therefore a

    Since b can only be true if a is true.

  21. TheBlackCaton 19 Mar 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Here is a nice formal logic puzzle from the website:

    Instructions: Below, you are given two premises and three conclusions. Determine whether the arguments from the premises to each conclusion are valid or invalid. For extra credit, identify the fallacies committed by the invalid arguments.

    Premises: All logic puzzles are logic games. Some logic puzzles are critical thinking puzzles.
    Therefore:

    Conclusions:

    1. Some critical thinking puzzles are not logic games.
    2. No logic games fail to be logic puzzles.
    3. Some critical thinking puzzles are logic games.

  22. artfulDon 19 Mar 2009 at 7:22 pm

    By inference peculiar to my own system, I choose #4, which is that all critical thinking puzzles are logic games.

  23. Skepticoon 19 Mar 2009 at 11:41 pm

    LarryCoon

    My wife laid it out for me very clearly when she said, “You can be right, or you can be happy.”

    Isn’t that a false dilemma?

  24. DevilsAdvocateon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:44 am

    “Isn’t that a false dilemma?”

    To which Mrs. Coon replied, “you can be right, or you can be happy.”

  25. drchipon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:33 am

    Today, on overcomingbias.com, Robin Hanson has a post called “Minchin’s mistake”, in which he states:

    “Sadly, most anti-mystics think their strongest case is medicine. They don’t realize that the vast majority of medical treatments have no better supporting “scientific” evidence than the alternative medicine they deride, nor that modern medicine can only claim credit for a small fraction of our lifespan gains. Someone needs to school them; they make the rest of us anti-mystics look bad!”

    He deleted my comment. I would be pleased if you would weigh in on that thread with your recognized expertise.

  26. catgirlon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:58 am

    In college, I ended up taking a critical reasoning class and a social psychology class, as electives, at the same time. That was really insightful and I recommend it to everyone. In one class I learned what bad arguments are, and in the other I learned why people use them and believe them, and why people will often do anything to defend the opinion they already hold. This applies to everyone (although some more than others) and even skeptics aren’t free from fallacies. But being aware of them makes it happen less often.

  27. weingon 20 Mar 2009 at 11:56 am

    We are all prone to these fallacies. That is the human condition. Some are aware of this tendency and therefore stand a chance of detecting and overcoming it and avoid being manipulated.

  28. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 1:30 pm

    1. Which is more correct:
    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
    Too little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    2. Which of those best describes the content of this post?

    3. Describe how one would answer questions #1 and/or #2 using formal logic.

    4. Do that again without supplying your own inference.

  29. Watcheron 20 Mar 2009 at 1:54 pm

    C’mon HHC, I was making a joke :P

  30. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 1:59 pm

    1. Some critical thinking puzzles are not logic games.
    2. No logic games fail to be logic puzzles.
    3. Some critical thinking puzzles are logic games.

    #1 is a non-sequitur, at least. If critical thinking puzzles are wholly a subset of logic puzzles, for example, they would all be logic games.

    #2 is affirming the consequent. ‘All logic puzzles are logic games’ does not flip around to ‘All logic games are logic puzzles.’

    #3 is valid.

  31. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 2:04 pm

    IanJN,
    Can you determine from the above that all critical thinking puzzles are logic games?

  32. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 2:33 pm

    No. It’s allowed by the premises, but it’s not deducible. (My #1 explanation was a proof by contradiction.)

  33. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 2:38 pm

    (Actually, not technically a proof by contradiction. Forget I said that.)

  34. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Ah, but it IS inferable. And a further step would then be to observe that it’s not only inclusive of #3, it’s not deducible as wrong.

    Which could demonstrate that inference is necessary for the fullest use of logic, and logic fallacies are in actuality inferential fallacies that interfere with that use..

  35. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I said that it was not deducible, not that it was deducible as wrong. In fact, I used “all critical thinking puzzles are logic games” as a counter-example to show the #1 conclusion as invalid.

    The thing to keep in mind about arguments is that you can be right for all the wrong reasons. The purpose in identifying logical fallacies, however, isn’t to disprove an assertion–it’s to dismantle the argument supporting it.

  36. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Ah, again! The counter example you used demonstrates the use of inference that YOU supplied to effect the logical process. It’s not a given that someone other than yourself would or could have supplied it.

    And in stating what you believe to be the purpose in identifying logical fallacies, you infer that this is it’s only purpose. Which demonstrates how inference can also involve the fallacious use of a logical premise.

  37. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I should also point out this demonstrates how the use of logic has supplemented your own cognitive processes, not substituted for them, as Dr. Novella’s version would end up doing by misunderstanding and thereby ignoring the role of inference.

    I kind of like the following that I read somewhere, which attempts to explain a bit about the role of inference that can be understood only by its proper use.

    First of all (in spite of Dr. Novella’s love of what he mistakes as an axiom) 1 + 1 are never more than an approximation of 2 in the material world. We need inference to tell us just how close that approximation will be to exactitude.
    One important reason is because, simply put, there is an inability in formal logic to grasp movement.

    When Zeno claimed that a line could not consist of an infinite number of points, or otherwise Achilles could never catch the tortoise, his “logic” only offered proof, paradoxically, that Achilles could not become one with the tortoise, as he could do no more than touch against it.

    Heraclitis, on the other hand, may have been the first to intuit the concept of infinity in time and space, and in my view was the father of logical inference. He knew that Achilles could catch and eat a tortoise ’til the cows came home, whatever the limitations of his touch.

  38. HHCon 20 Mar 2009 at 6:50 pm

    artful D, In Illinois, licensed pharmacists and licensed pharmacy technicians, better be able to count 1+1= 2. Exact measurements are required. Philosophizing over numerical value and exactitude can impact your clarity of thought when providing basic patient care. I know a nurse that got extremely disturbed when counting out the residents’ pills daily. It took some counseling on my part to give the nurse more knowledge about numbers; the exactitude concept really bothered her to to point of irrationally.

  39. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Ah, again! The counter example you used demonstrates the use of inference that YOU supplied to effect the logical process. It’s not a given that someone other than yourself would or could have supplied it.

    It’s not a given, no, but I didn’t affect the logical process. The conclusion is invalid, as operationally defined by the rules of logic. (If you want to argue that logic is ultimately derived by inference–sure, I agree, but to head down that path is lunacy.)

    Look, artfulD, I’m not trying to mitigate the role of inductive inferences, and I don’t think Dr. Novella is either. Real world arguments are messy, because the majority of deductive premises are predicated on inferences, and as such are defeasible; new discoveries may turn a conclusion on its head.

    All of that is beside the point, however, when assessing arguments in the here and now. You can’t say that all cognitive puzzles are logic games, nor can you say that some cognitive puzzles are flibbittygibbets. With the current information, you can conclude that some cognitive puzzles are logic games, which will remain true no matter what is discovered, so long as the premises hold. This is knowledge.

  40. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:02 pm

    HHC: Your example only points out 1+1 = 2 is a measurement of reliability, not certainty. I doubt if your nurse was bothered by anything like an exactitude concept – more likely it was the uncertainty about her pill counting procedures. I can appreciate however that counseling from someone who doesn’t understand the difference between reliability and certainty could drive her a bit nuts.

  41. HHCon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:23 pm

    artful D, I agree if you counseled her about reliability and certainty, you would drive her nuts. She is a very bright person and was concerned about being exact especially in a county where the John Birch recruited professionals.

  42. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:27 pm

    IanJN, you applied by inference your own definition of critical thinking problems as logic games to reach your logical conclusion. Without that prior knowledge, you might not have solved the problem, or might have had to solve it another way. Whatever the case, you had to resort to inference. Virtually everyone with a biological brain will have to do that.

    You wrote: “If you want to argue that logic is ultimately derived by inference–sure, I agree, but to head down that path is lunacy.”

    But if you agree there’s some truth here, what’s the inference to be drawn from the lunacy reference? That we can’t handle the truth, perhaps? Or that we won’t be able to handle a further dose of uncertainty?

    What I most object to in Dr. Novella’s simplistic recitation of the proper use of logic is that there is virtually no reference to the essential role of inference. Yet such reference will be found in virtually every auhoritative discussion of its definition – and that will apply to all of its forms.

  43. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:38 pm

    HHC, is it that the Birchers are of the opinion that all pils are determined equal by measurement alone? That would be a bit off-putting.

  44. Thenewyorkdolleyon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Artful, this is all starting to sound like a mound of post-modern nonsense to me. I’m no logician, but I’ve seen arguments similar to these made in literature classes to make the most handwaving statements regarding a given piece of work.

    While you’re clearly intelligent, your tendency to proclaim everyone involved in this conversation an idiot is inelegant and trollish.

  45. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:26 pm

    IanJN, you applied by inference your own definition of critical thinking problems as logic games to reach your logical conclusion. Without that prior knowledge, you might not have solved the problem, or might have had to solve it another way.

    I admitted as much. My point was the conclusion is logically invalid, regardless of how (or if) it was solved.

    But if you agree there’s some truth here, what’s the inference to be drawn from the lunacy reference? That we can’t handle the truth, perhaps? Or that we won’t be able to handle a further dose of uncertainty?

    I meant that it’s insane (if not impossible) to have a rational debate about the rules of rationality. If I contend that A cannot-equal Not-A is wrong, how could you ever hope to disprove me?

    What I most object to in Dr. Novella’s simplistic recitation of the proper use of logic is that there is virtually no reference to the essential role of inference.

    It seems like you’re disappointed with the scope of the blog post. Of what is written, though, is there anything you disagree with?

  46. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:51 pm

    IanJN, I object to the failure to label the post as Logic for Dummies.
    But seriously, I object to any authoritative discussion of logic that omits reference to inference, even if the discussion of inference is in itself simplistic (as most often they are).

    Dolleybaby, I don’t think the word idiot was ever used by me, but if you picked that up by inference, this latest comment of yours would confirm its accuracy.
    If you didn’t learn that literature is the art of inferential application of collective wisdom, you clearly weren’t paying attention.

  47. IanJNon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:30 pm

    IanJN, I object to the failure to label the post as Logic for Dummies.
    But seriously, I object to any authoritative discussion of logic that omits reference to inference, even if the discussion of inference is in itself simplistic (as most often they are).

    What would you include?

  48. artfulDon 20 Mar 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inference

    Explore any new insights into the neurological processes involved.

    Explore the philosophical aspects since the category for this post is Logic/Philosophy.

    Explore the process of intuitive discovery, where a talent for inference is all important. Explore whether this is a developable talent.

    Explore the role of inference in instinctive behavior.

    Explore the possibility that inference was the first operative strategy of multicellular life.

    Don’t try this at home, of course.

  49. Thenewyorkdolleyon 20 Mar 2009 at 11:10 pm

    “If you didn’t learn that literature is the art of inferential application of collective wisdom, you clearly weren’t paying attention”

    Really? That’s what literature is, the application of collective wisdom? And all this time I thought it was ‘writings in prose or verse ; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest’

    I’d argue that literature more frequently creates our collective wisdom rather than applying it.

    You never use the word ‘idiot,’ but you either directly state or strongly imply that every person you argue with is unintelligent. I’m sorry if you are unable or unwilling to look back at your own posts and see this.

  50. HHCon 21 Mar 2009 at 12:40 am

    When arguing with another party, discrimination can be stated by descriptive category or numerically.

  51. artfulDon 21 Mar 2009 at 1:16 am

    dolleybaby, I defined the nature of the ART, a word that when omitted tends to change the meaning of the whole piece. This was a telling omission, suggesting that the word has no significance in your little world.
    And as to ‘creating’ collective wisdom, your own dictionary definition refers to “expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Which seems a lot more like applying wisdom than creating it.

    You also left out the word INFERENTIAL, which I know makes you uncomfortable, but that’s the key to story telling. All stories make their points by inference. Especially the great or near great satirists such as Voltaire, Swift, Cervantes. Twain, Aristophanes, Horace, Eliot, Wilde, Wolf, Lamb, Chaucer, to name the few I’m familiar with.

    And as to questioning another’s ‘intelligence’ here, what I have generally questioned is their accuracy, and even then it’s in response to their questioning of mine. And a challenge doesn’t have to imply the other party is an idiot, unless of course in your case it would seem to have revealed such.

  52. weingon 21 Mar 2009 at 1:25 am

    I don’t get it, what’s the argument about? Isn’t the post about incorrect inferences, aka fallacies?

  53. artfulDon 21 Mar 2009 at 1:44 am

    The argument is about the failure to identify fallacies as just that, the incorrect application of inference. But it’s also about failure to recognize the role that inference can play in any efective argument.

  54. weingon 21 Mar 2009 at 2:12 am

    And you infer this from….? I inferred that inference was implied. I also don’t understand your use of certainty and reliability. To me certainty is a feeling/sensation that you have of being correct it may or may not be correct. Talk to any creationists, and you will see how certain they are.

  55. artfulDon 21 Mar 2009 at 2:28 am

    Certainty was the goal of formal logic. Reliability is the goal of the inferential process. But, ironically, formal logic doesn’t work without human inference.
    Anyway, I’ve said my piece and I’m done with fending off surrogates.

  56. Thenewyorkdolleyon 21 Mar 2009 at 3:29 am

    “Anyway, I’ve said my piece and I’m done with fending off surrogates.”

    Now this I know to be false based on the sample space of your past claims of being ‘done’ in previous threads on this blog.

    “And as to ‘creating’ collective wisdom, your own dictionary definition refers to “expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Which seems a lot more like applying wisdom than creating it.”

    There is a difference between ‘expressing ideas’ and ‘applying wisdom.’ Art is a feedback system which expresses the current state of a culture while simultaneously subverting and changing it. Of course it relies on inferential processes – getting out of bed relies on them as well. What exactly is your point?

  57. artfulDon 21 Mar 2009 at 4:27 am

    Pass.

  58. tmac57on 21 Mar 2009 at 11:08 am

    To anyone on this blog who thinks they can accomplish anything useful by arguing with artfulD , I have concluded that it is an exercise in futility, as tempting as it may be.
    So my advice is just ignore artfulD’s posts like you would quicksand, and the comments section will be greatly reduced. The pseudonym artfulD should give us all a clue.IMO

  59. weingon 21 Mar 2009 at 11:38 am

    I infer that he’s just poisoning the well. As Steve noted in his reply,
    “If someone brings up a point that is clearly irrelevant and calculated to bias their audience against their target – that is poisoning the well.”
    At least I learned one thing, that I’m a surrogate. Never knew that.

  60. Darwins Teapoton 22 Mar 2009 at 1:38 am

    Fantastic recap of logic and argument. I think it takes a bit of the stigma off of a critical mindset. I liked this part because it restates the most important aspect of critical thinking and being “logical”:

    “In most of the arguments that I find myself the other person has staked out a position and they defend it jealously, as if they were a high-paid lawyer defending a client. This adversarial approach, however, is not constructive. Rather, the parties of an argument should be trying to find common ground, and then proceed carefully from that common ground to resolve any differences.”

    Scott

  61. Emson 11 Apr 2009 at 7:07 am

    Watcher – a key characteristic of jokes is that they are funny. Stating that all females are incapable of logical thought is offensive, without any humorous tempering.

    A little book that covers this are well, if anyone is interested, is Nigel Warburton’s ‘Thinking from A-Z’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Thinking-Z-Nigel-Warburton/dp/0415433711 is a UK link

  62. Emson 11 Apr 2009 at 7:08 am

    Bugger – ‘area’, not ‘are’. Must proof-read.

  63. Huckelbergon 02 Jul 2012 at 12:25 pm

    According to “Confusing correlation with causation”.
    We see events and objects everyday,. But where do we see, or smell, or hear, or taste a causal connections between those events/objects?

    Thanks in-advance.

    - Huckelberg -

  64. wowieboyon 18 Jul 2012 at 3:01 am

    Guys, what kind of fallacy is this:

    “Since you’re against cancer-causing birth pills, therefore you’re against cancer-causing foods.”

    Is this false analogy or RAA?

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