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What is a Logical Fallacy, and How Can We Avoid Them in Discussions?

Updated on September 9, 2014
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Introduction

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.


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The Fallacies

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.


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Conclusion

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.

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I used to play a lot of competitive sports. As i got older I had to make do with friendly games of whatever. It only took me a times to realize that I was much better than most and a lot more experienced. It was then I noticed that I was an asshole. Not enjoying the competition because the clumsy idiots were not on my level. After being trained in Law and Philosophy I saw the same thing, that I was doing in informal debate, I was an asshole, along the lines of why folks hate lawyers.

      I surely suggest you lighten up on amateurs and enjoy the exchange even if it is not at your level. voted up and interesting.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      JMcFarland

      I only have one point, and that is the phrase, A person is Innocent until Proven Guilty. Once a person has been arrested. it is not possible to return to innocence. Although, if a person hasn't been proven guilty, then they should be returned to innocent. The verdict of Not Guilty has attached to it, a component of Guilt. As in, they are really guilty of the crime charged, but the prosecution failed to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      The worst my friend is the shame and the guilt that innocent experiences.

      But to often I felt the guilt myself when the wrongdoer did wrong and was laid free by my voice. But I would have felt far worse had my voice been defeated.

    • JMcFarland profile image
      Author

      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Ericdierker -

      I agree that it's somewhat unfair to complain about someone else's ability to conform to predetermined debate practices that I may follow - at least when they don't profess to be a debater or have a lot of experience. It may seem like I'm an asshole if I beat their heads into the dirt with a logical argument and point out their own inconsistencies.

      I try, throughout my debates on any level, to remain courteous, and I never actively seek to insult the person. I don't see challenging their arguments or beliefs as insulting. I'm not suggesting that you rub their face in their own fallacy, but they seem unable to admit to them, even when pointed out in a logical and civil manner. That's the overall point of the article itself, and to have a foundation point for future discussions. Thanks for the feedback.

      I also agree that the justice system is inherently flawed for those accused of a crime who are not proven guilty. It's often impossible to escape the stigma of a simple accusation, and it's unfortunate that a verdict of not guilty seems to carry the weight on the shoulders of the person who truly may be innocent - but has to live with the consequences of simply being suspected.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Here is a good one to remember. A brilliant Doctor being sued for malpractice, hires a person that is skilled in Logic and persuasion to defend him. Have no doubt he is the expert in the subject matter. But he needs a skilled practitioner of debate.

      So now think of areas of say religion or faith. Followers are not necessarily bright or trained. Now make them to defend their position, not likely going to happen well. For some reason our society equates these powers of debate and persuasion with intelligence, - should they?

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Should they? Not necessarily. I believe that debate is not necessarily limited to those with above average intelligence. It can be studied, but the most convincing debaters I've met have had no formal training in the subject.

      The problem I have with those who choose to debate about religion or faith is not the fact that they may not know much about debating in general. I don't seek out some poor, misinformed follower and start attacking their beliefs. Usually, they come to me. They comment on something that I've posted, or they make a snide remark about a status. When I point out the flaw in their comment, they instantly get defensive - and I find it humorous and not just a little ironic that I tend to know their holy book better (or at least more thoroughly) than they do. I find a lot of atheists tend to know the Bible more than an average follower that actually believes in it. When you start pulling out verses or pointing out inconsistencies that betray their own argument using their own book, it puts them on edge. Then they are in a position to have to excuse or defend immorality in the very source they're claiming, for example, is the foundation of human morality overall. That's the point in which they usually start traveling down the fallacy path, and it doesn't matter if they recognize them or not, they still do them consistently.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      The real aggravation comes, when they stick to logic yet they have none. You would be surprised, but men of faith often run into the same brick wall of ignorance. Like the scientific empirical agnostic who cannot accept that love and faith are real, because they don't have tactile confirmation. To think that logic can prohibit faith, is to miss one of the most driving forces in all history. Also people not trained in logic, do not understant that it is not about absolutes and that each area of inquiry can have it's own logic. They just do not get that applying the logic of Science is not a higher virtue than applying the logic of faith or love. I appreciate and exalt this area of inquiry.

      But the beauty of what you are talking about is that someday more people will accept the logic of the other's logic.

    • JMcFarland profile image
      Author

      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I agree. Love is real, even if it cannot be easily demonstrated and, although I'm an atheist, I believe in the concept of faith. I have faith in certain things - it's like a heightened sense of trust. I believe that science is important in many various fields, and I believe that proven facts trump the wisdom of a 2000+ year old book, no matter who you are. But I still hold love and faith in high regard. I often respect people of faith although we may fundamentally disagree. Some ideas I may find ridiculous or silly, but I respect the right to have your own beliefs.

      If, however, you want to try to start an argument with me (not you, per-se, but people in general) and start attacking me personally because I disagree or threaten me with some unfounded concept of eternal torture, I reserve the right to respond and challenge those beliefs. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't seem to understand the concept that free speech not only applies to people that hold your position, but those that hold the opposite position as well.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Right on Brother. Within my home family, I asked "is there anything a God cannot do, as opposed to what she will do"? They were dumbfounded. But then I asked them about their God ----- interesting.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Anything involving people is a pseudo science at best.It is more likely the Art of Debating, rather than the Science of Debating.

      Subjective humans are the evaluators of a debate.

      So someone can actually win a debate while being totally wrong in a factual sense. A prosecutor can convince the jurors that the defendant was guilty of the crime based purely on circumstantial evidence. This evidence was merely a story conforming to facts and events in the case, but they were not necessarily the truth. They are shells wrapped around the evidence presented in the case.

      The defendant could have actually been innocent.

    • JMcFarland profile image
      Author

      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      that's actually true, and I never really thought about the unlikeliness of the title. You've actually given me a very good piece of advice, and I will edit the title as soon as this comment is finished.

      I guess I chose science because there are is a distinctive methodology to debating and several steps required in order to achieve the desired result. At least if you're skilled in debating. For the more casual debater, that is not necessarily the case.

      As with any conversation, I'm always pleasantly willing to change my mind if my arguments or statements can be accurately challenged. My hat's off to you, ib radmasters

    • johndnathan profile image

      John D Nathan 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas. USA

      Excellent article, JMcFarland! I often encounter logical fallacies in many parts of life, and even in my own debating. I really try to avoid using them, but sometimes I just spit them out by mistake.

      I also realize that I have some absurd non-verifiable religious beliefs, however I also acknowledge the absurdity of believing in such so somehow that slips by my logic filter. I don't force these beliefs on others, nor do I expect others to believe me. They're just personal and for myself.

    • JMcFarland profile image
      Author

      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Johndnathan - in that case, I would have no problem with your personal beliefs. The people I have a problem with are the ones that are capable of applying logic to every other religion known to man - except for theirs. they refuse to acknowledge that they're being intellectually dishonest, and that's just something I can't stand.

      You acknowledge that your beliefs may sound absurd and that you recognize you're not applying logic to your religion. I respect you for that - not a lot of people are willing to admit the same thing. I do have a problem with faith or personal religion in the sense that in a lot of cases (but certainly not all) it DOES impact others - even if you don't think it does. No one lives in a vacuum. For those who have a personal faith and then turn to that faith to make decisions on voting, social or civil rights, etc, it affects other people and in that regard personal faith or beliefs are causing harm. The fact that you don't try to club people over the head with your religion is respectable, in my opinion. I appreciate the feedback!

    • profile image

      Rad Man 4 years ago

      Thanks for the info. I've read a few of your recent post and thoroughly enjoyed how you handle yourself. I have not been trained to debate and this sometimes gets me in trouble. I've heard all of the above examples from theists and find them incredible frustrating. I have leaned to never debate with a well trained lawyer. A good friend of mine is a lawyer and I stay clear so as to not look like moron even if this moron is right. Thanks for the advice.

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