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What is a Logical Fallacy, and How Can We Avoid Them in Discussions?
I enjoy debate. It may be a part of my nature. I like discussions and I like learning new points of view. Mainly, I try to focus on social issues, political issues or religious issues. Perhaps because of my background, these topics have always resonated with me. While spur of the moment debates cannot always conform to normal, structured formats, I have recently been overwhelmed by the presence of glaring logical fallacies on the part of people that I otherwise respect and admire. It's like these fallacies are ingrained in certain people, and they seem either unwilling or downright unable to accept the fact that they're not thinking logically - no matter how many times you try it out.
For me personally, the point of a debate is not to change someone's mind or "win". It's to have an honest, open and informative discussion. I don't try to insult people, but I have absolutely no compunction about challenging a specific belief or idea or calling it stupid, irrational or illogical. Needless to say, this tends to offend people, whether or not it was my intention. If you go into a debate with the intent to "win" or beat the other person silly with your arguments until they simply no longer wish to respond, you're going about things the wrong way. The purpose of a debate is not overall victory - and it's rare that a clear victor stands out. No matter how successfully I portray an argument, it's likely that the people who already shared similar beliefs to the position I'm expressing will claim victory, while the people who disagree claim victory on behalf of my opponent. Things are rarely cut and dry, and debates (like many other things) are often a matter of perception, pre-concieved ideas and overal opinion.
If you're going to begin a discussion about a hot-button issue like politics or religion, however, you have to be prepared for the possibility of it devolving into a debate. If you're faced with a debate of an informal nature (as in not pre-arranged, not in front of an audience and without a specific format) you need to avoid the following logical fallacies. If you employ one or more of them throughout the course of the discussion, you are almost guaranteeing that your point will not be taken seriously and your opponent will wipe the floor with you.
Fallacy #1: The Argument from Ignorance
Of all logical fallacies in both formal and non-formal settings, I find this one to be the most annoying overall. Basically speaking, the argument from ignorance combines an individual's personal incredulity over a topic and simply states that if their particular position is not the answer, what else could the answer be? I find this a lot in religious debates when we get down to creation vs. evolution and the beginning of the Universe.
For example, a theist will often come back to me and say "Well if God didn't do it, who did?" Just because they cannot conceive of an alternate explanation does not mean that one doesn't exist. Personal incredulity is no excuse for ignorance, and this fallacy is at the top of my list for things that should be avoided at all costs.
Fallacy #2: No True Scotsman
This fallacy comes up a majority of the time in religiously-based debates as well. It's easy to distance yourself from the actions of others by claiming that they're not really in-line with what you personally believe.
As an example, I often point to a lot of the horrible things that Christians have done to non-believers and even other Christians in the name of their beliefs. The standard response (much to my chagrin) is "well, they're not really Christians." How do you know? What you mean to say is that their behavior does not conform to what you're choosing to believe - so instead of facing the contradiction, you distance yourself from the scenario entirely and claim that YOUR version of your beliefs is the true one - and theirs is obviously wrong. The problem with that logic is simply that it's a cop-out. This is why there are several thousand sects of Christianity alone - and that doesn't take any of the other world-wide religious beliefs into account.
Fallacy #3: Appeal to Authority
When someone wants to make their position or argument more valid than it would be able to claim on it's own merritt, they often appeal to an authority figure, which they point to as evidence of their claim's validity. Not only is this completely irrelevant, it shows a disturbing lack of foundation at the core of their argument to begin with.
Example: "Ray Comfort has proved that Evolution is false" No, no he hasn't. Firstly, Ray Comfort may be a Christian Apologist that often goes to extremes to repeatedly try to prove a point (which he fails at just as often), he has no degree in Biology, Genetics, Microbiology or any scientific field at all. He is not in a position to be able to understand the science of evolution, and appealing to his opinion is no more valid than if I appeal to Santa Clause.
Fallacy #4: Ad Hominem attacks
Attacking the person debating you personally is nothing more than an attempt to cloud the issue that is on the table and draw attention away from the core of the matter as a whole. In a debate setting, whether it's formal or not, the thing that you're debating is an individual's argument - not the person themselves.
For Example: "Jody is in no position to discuss the validity of the Bible - she's an atheist and a lesbian". While both of those statements may be technically true, they're of no importance in the debate itself, and do nothing to improve the perpetrator's standing. It simply feels like a direct attack when you can't come up with anything better to say, and it makes your arguments look cheap. In essence, it's the same thing as performing a magic trick where you make an obvious mistake and instead of starting over, pointing off in the distance and saying "look, what's that?!" You distract your audience from what's actually happening, and by the time they turn around again, you've recovered your composure - except you're not really fooling anyone.
Fallacy #5: Shifting the Burden of Proof
Generally speaking, in a debate setting it is up to the person who is affirming or asserting a positive position that carries the burden of proving their case. It's like a criminal trial in the U.S. There is a judge, a jury, a prosecutor and a defense attorney who represents the accused party. The defense attorney does not have to prove that their client is innocent. The prosecution has to, however, prove that the accused is guilty - beyond a reasonable doubt. Likewise, a jury does not distinguish guilt or innocence. They render a verdict of guilty or not-guilty. Innocence is not considered - nor should it be.
An all-too-common example of this occurs (once again) in religious debates. A Theist, realizing that they cannot simply provide physical evidence to support their claim of a deity will turn the question around onto the atheist and want them to prove that a god doesn't exist. That is not the atheist's position. Granted, if an atheist makes a positive claim like "there are no gods" the burden of proof has shifted, and they will have to provide evidence that can be evaluated on it's own merit.
Debating can be a fundamental joy to those who enjoy rational and intelligent conversation. It can also lead to a lot of backpedaling, defensiveness and name-calling. By learning what should be avoided and sticking to the actual arguments that support or renounce your claim, you can discover a whole new world of topics to delve into and begin to understand the opinions of those who may disagree. Open discussion is the only way that mutually beneficial compromises can be reached by opposing sides, and debating facilitates that process and makes it more profitable for all. When debating sensitive subjects, it's often difficult for both sides to put aside emotion and stick to the subject. In order for productive conversation to occur, however, it is important to do this as much as possible. Knowing not only which fallacious reasoning to avoid is the first part of the battle, as well as knowing when a conversation has turned unproductive beyond redemption. One of the biggest assets to a debater on practically any subject is knowing when enough is enough and to learn to walk away from a deteriorating conversation. When two people can no longer effectively communicate, it's time to shake hands and agree to go their own way. These skills are not difficult to learn, but they can be difficult to put into practice - especially in the world of political, social or religious debates. Nonetheless, if both people decide that integrity and honesty is of utmost importance, learning to adapt, avoid fallacious reasoning and come to an understanding of each other's position can and does occur. Ultimately this mutual understanding is what makes debating worthwhile - even if no one changes their minds in the midst of the immediate conversation.