Logic is like a superpower. Without logic, we are like Superman exposed to Kryptonite: vulnerable to attack and without our X-ray vision. But when you begin to acquire skill in logic, you experience the powers natural to a flourishing human being. You won’t see through walls, but you’ll see through manipulative commercial and political advertisements. You can’t bounce bullets off your chest, but emotional appeals without logic will be useless against you.
For example, many “attack ads” exaggerate negatives and omit important details in order to sound more persuasive. Also, most ads for consumer products use sentimentality and humor to give you a warm fuzzy feeling about their product, even though those things are irrelevant to quality or value of the product. Here’s an example I just found:
When you understand basic logic, this sort of manipulation has little effect on you. It’s because you understand that warm fuzzies are not a logical reason to believe in the quality of a product. You can spot distraction and misdirection.
Bad Logic as Exploitation
It’s important to realize that bad logic isn’t always the result of carelessness or ignorance. Sometimes fallacious reasoning is used intentionally to exploit you. I heard a great story on NPR a few years ago about how a man named Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, used Freud’s ideas to pioneer the public relations/advertising industry. Essentially, he learned from his uncle that people aren’t motivated by reason and rational argument, but rather by unconsious, primitive desires and repressed sexual urges. Thus, the way to successfully market a product involved bypassing the rational and appealing to the unconscious, irrational and emotional. Sound anything like today’s TV commercials?
So, if you want to be able to (1) avoid making logical errors that often lead to false beliefs, and (2) resist the manipulation of money-driven media, then read on! (See Part 1 here.)
Eleven Logical Mistakes, #7-11
#7 Traditional Fallacy
X has always been done, so X is true and good
This mistake is grounded in what some call the “Is/ought fallacy.” Suppose we see a blue ball on the ground. Wouldn’t it seem odd to look at that ball and say, “That ball, and in fact all balls, ought to be blue.” You can’t simply look at the way things are and say, “that’s how they should be!”
In the Christian realm, tradition weighs in heavily. But we sometimes become lazy and let tradition become a substitute for thinking. “That’s the way it’s always been done” doesn’t mean it should continue. In the Bible, we often forget the distinction between description and prescription. Actions are often described, in story form, with no intention of condoning or recommending those actions. Sometimes people in the Bible do bad things! One example worth considering is patriarchy. It’s true that nearly the entire Bible is written within the milieu of patriarchy, or male rule. But does the Bible actually teach and command that this is good and right? That’s a tricky question and needs careful analysis. It should never be assumed that, because Abraham and Paul did it that way, that we should do it that way.
#8 Confirmation Bias
Anything that supports my view is good/true.
This mistake held center stage during the recent Brett Kavanaugh confirmation discussions. People who were already for Kavanaugh saw only heroism and persecution. People who were already against Kavanaugh saw only emotional intemperance and evasion. I’m not sure anyone’s viewpoint was affected by the precedings. This is because human beings are naturally disposed to pay almost exclusive attention to what supports their beliefs.
Not only this, but confirmation bias makes us more likely to endorse bad arguments, as long as they support our view. When a Christian hears something like, “Well, billions can’t be wrong!” she should cringe, not applaud. An argument is not good simply because it supports your view.
Even when we seek out additional evidence and research a debate, we tend to latch onto evidence that supports our view and ignore it when it opposes us. We need to be extra vigilant in our thinking and research so that we can avoid this tendency.
#9 Either/Or Fallacy
Claiming there are only two options when, in fact, there are more.
In the “conflict” between religion and science, we often hear only two options. “Either you believe science and reject religious stories, or you reject science and turn off your brain!” In truth, many subtle positions exist in between these two extreme viewpoints.
Christians often portray morality this way: “Either God exists or there is no objective morality and we’ll all become nazis!” Again, there are atheists who are very good people, occupying that middle ground. Pushing people to choose between your view and something ridiculous is manipulation and bullying, not logic.
#10 Bad Appeal To Authority
“Jones said X is true, therefore it is true!” (But Jones is not an expert on X.)
Legitimate appeals to authority can serve as evidence or reasons to believe a claim. “Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg says that this position is unconstitutional.” She is an expert and her opinion can be taken as evidence in favor of that view. But the appeal to authority can go wrong in several ways.
First, it is fallacious to claim that the authority’s word settles the issue. It is only one (weighty) bit of evidence. Not a substitute for thinking and reason.
Second, when the authority quoted is speaking on matters outside his/her expertise. Pastors sometimes make this mistake in speaking authoritatively on science. Similarly, scientists do it when they speak authoritatively on religion. Or if you quote someone else who isn’t an expert in that field, like saying, “Peyton Manning says this camera is the best!”
#11 Straw Man Fallacy
Misrepresenting your opponent’s view in order to mock or easily refute it.
Bill: What are your views on God?
Ted: I don’t believe in any God.
Bill: So you believe we are just products of evolving pond scum and live in a self creating universe?
Ted: I didn’t say that.
(Example courtesy of Colin Burgess.)
In the “old days,” if you didn’t like someone (say, a politician or football coach), you would make a scarecrow, put the person’s name on it, and burn them publicly in effigy. Why? Because it is much easier to burn a scarecrow/straw man than the actual person. Straw men don’t fight back! But this is a sneaky or ignorant tactic to use in a debate. By constructing a flimsy caricature of your opponent’s view, it is much easier to refute it and make it look ridiculous. Instead, try constructing a “steel man” of their view — the best possible version of it — and refute THAT. Then you’ll have accomplished something.
The only way to avoid these mistakes is with humility and vigilance. Humility helps us consider our views and our words more carefully, because we know how prone we are to logical error. Humility helps us focus more on the arguments and ideas, rather than egos.
Vigilance helps us keep our mental eyes peeled so that we can spot the mistakes we make and prevent or correct them. Sometimes when I teach, just to correct for my own biases, I intentionally skew my presentations the opposite way or slightly favor the students who disagree with me.
If you want to build up your logical immune system, read a book on reasoning or visit online resources. I recently enjoyed (and highly recommend) Alan Jacobs’ book, How To Think. One of my favorite go-to websites for building critical thinking skills is the Critical Thinking Web. Leave your own suggestions in the comments below.