The media landscape is dotted by landmines of logical fallacy. Don’t be fooled.
At the risk of employing one logical fallacy to support another, it may be only slightly hyperbolic to suggest logical fallacies are destroying lives and society.
It might not even be an exaggeration to say logical fallacies are the one true mortal enemy of mankind, with us from the beginning, our only natural enemy, the only predator we need fear.
Of the different types of conflicts in literature, as in life, “man against man,” is usually an offshoot of a deeper conflict: “man against himself.” In the story of humanity, “man against nature,” mostly sailed away forever sometime between the advent of the internal combustion engine and the invention of the pentium processor.
These days, it’s normally just us against ourselves. We are constantly striving to tame what Buddhists call the, “Monkey Mind,”- that is, our brain’s tendency to spin constantly like a malfunctioning slot machine.
AI might not replace human beings in the workforce as quickly as we fear. AI can’t even produce realistic cat videos, to say nothing of being able to predict the intricacies and vagaries of the human mind. Computer learning algorithms haven’t got a clue; mostly because we humans haven’t got a clue most of the time what our brains are doing or why.
When was the last time your predictive text function preempted you? Do you ever like the music Spotify selects for you, “based on your listening habits?”
Could any computer, however advanced, possibly predict what you might type into Google’s search engine next?
Understanding how we trick ourselves, and how others can trick us, by subverting our own reasoning and logic- and how to stop it- may be the ultimate key to happiness, the secret of the universe.
Logical fallacies are one of the key ways we can fool ourselves and be fooled. Learning to recognize them, and see through them, is a kind of psychological and social kung fu.
In the little-known parthenon of logical fallacies, there are the classics, like “strawman”- misrepresenting the opposing argument to make it easier to attack- and “slippery slope”- if X happens, then Y will happen.
There is the, “gambler’s fallacy,”- our tendency to think after 10 consecutive losses, we must be “due” for a win. In reality, each roll of the dice or roulette wheel spin is statistically identical, independent of whatever comes before or after.
Once we learn to recognize certain common logical fallacies, it’s easy to spot them virtually everywhere from social media posts to well-regarded pieces of Pulitzer-prize winning journalism.
“Ad hominem,” is a logical fallacy, and examples of ad hominem attacks abound on the internet and even in real life. In a debate, to attack ad hominem means to ignore the substance and merits of your opponent’s argument and attack them personally instead- their character or their past, their education or experience, or their personal appearance if you’re in middle school.
This can sometimes be known as, “shooting the messenger.”
A good rule of thumb to avoid falling victim to the persuasion of an ad hominem attack: Just because you detest someone, doesn’t automatically make them wrong.
Obliterating an opponent via ad hominem attack might send them running in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t destroy the merits of their argument, though we sometimes agree to pretend it does.
The, “loaded question,” fallacy shows up everywhere. A loaded question is one for which there is, intentionally, no right or good answer. It looks like this: “So, Congressman, tell us: When did you stop beating your wife?”
There’s the, “bandwagon,” fallacy; the idea that if something is popular it must be valid, true, good, etc.
The logical fallacy, “anecdotal evidence,” is at a worldwide flood level, as usual. It isn’t hard to understand why. Human beings are, Wired For Story, as author Lisa Cron posited in her best-selling book on brain science.
One person’s harrowing tale of loss, injustice and misery penetrates our consciousness more effectively than pages of stats and data sets. A million people is a statistic to our brains. Suffering on that scale is difficult to process. One person is a tragedy we can grasp.
“Cherry picking,” is the logical fallacy by which data manipulators of infinite variety pick and present only evidence to support their position, ignoring and omitting, intentionally or unconsciously, anything to the contrary.
If this were a fireable offense in any number of industries, they would instantly cease to exist.
The strawman logical fallacy might be the most prevalent of all these days, mostly because it involves what is probably the brain’s biggest achilles heel at present: Advertising.
Advertisers don’t just create winning marketing strategies for corporations, new product launches, and ice cream companies anymore. A good PR company can create a marketing campaign designed to push any idea, using branding, repetition, ad-lines, pithy slogans, slick logos, and glossy promo material- all the trappings advertisers have long worked to hone.
A good marketing campaign behind a clever strawman argument can turn a legitimate issue- industrial animal agriculture operations are hard on the environment, absorb natural resources like a sponge (looking at you, California water crisis) and have a huge carbon footprint- into a running joke like, “cow farts.”
Making strawman arguments that are reductive, misleading, and downright dishonest isn’t the sole territory of the right. Calling Florida’s recent bill concerning sex education for public school students K-3 the “Don’t Say Gay,” bill is catchy, but it is also overly simplified aphorism, at best.
When you broach a debate topic, and your opponent drags out a strawman, falling into the trap is easy. It’s like making the obvious joke.
The strawman is much more than a distraction as straightforward as a red herring, another logical fallacy for which we are constantly falling along with hyperbole.
Learning to penetrate the mysteries of this logical fallacy, and its many forms and types, is an invaluable skill in today’s media marketplace wildly oversaturated with tabloid journalism and shoddy arguments.
Armed with knowledge of logical fallacies, how to spot them, and what they mean, news consumers can face the perils of the Information Age without fear of falling victim to clever tricks and manipulation.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)