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Archive for the ‘logical fallacies’ Category

I am a devil’s advocate by profession. Some articles I sell ask hard questions. Many anticipate the responses to the opinions they express so I can answer them and strengthen the opinion. So when I hear people banning devil’s advocacy, I find their attitude short-sighted and have to struggle not to be offended personally.

The concept of devil’s advocate originates in the canonization process of the Catholic church.  In the debates about whether someone should be recognized as a saint, the devil’s advocate was tasked with asking the hard questions. Is the candidate’s behavior always of the highest? Did the miracles claimed for the candidate really occur? In the struggle to answer such questions, the decision was improved, and the final verdict could be given more confidently.

Never mind that, from my agnostic’s position, the fact that the process involved accepting miracles suggests that it was not applied strictly enough. The decisions were undoubtedly less credulous because a skeptical position was considered and answered. It seems no accident that, when Pope John Paul II wanted to create hundreds of modern saints, he weakened the role of the devil’s advocate so he could hurry the process.

I like to think that the position of devil’s advocate contains a sense of justice, implying that even the devil deserves representation in an inquiry into the truth. Playing devil’s advocate is such a useful exercise that I practice it as regularly in my personal life, as in my profession, deliberately imagining the worst that could be said or happen before making major decisions. From experience, I know that, by challenging my opinions, I round them out, modify them, and, in the end, hold them more thoughtfully and with more confidence because I have freely entertained doubts. I rarely finish playing my own devil’s advocate without being convinced that my opinion is the better for the exercise, and I can only conclude that those who would outlaw it have values very different from mine.

At the very least, those who make the ban appear to value self-esteem over intellectual rigor. Perhaps they believe they already have the truth, so an investigation into it is unnecessary. At the very least, they appear to value personal comfort over truth – which is understandable, because even when devil’s advocacy is an internal debate in someone’s mind, it can be disturbing and unpleasant.

Admittedly, some people have been known to claim they are playing devil’s advocate as an excuse for expressing unpopular opinions. When their opinions are questioned, they retreat by saying they are playing devil’s advocate. In this way, they evade responsibility for their opinions while sniping at other people’s. Still others claim to be playing devil’s advocate when what they really want is to have an argument, and care nothing for the topic. Both these behaviors are disgusting bits of dishonesty which only make me impatient.

However, banning devil’s advocacy because the concept is sometimes abused makes no more sense than banning cars because some drivers have accidents in them. Almost any claim of intellectual effort is open to abuse. An argument, which should be based on logic, can be debased by a couple of dozen fallacies, including appeals to authority, either-or propositions, non sequiturs, and post hoc arguments. A claim to logic can also be a way to avoid examining personal biases and prejudices, especially when made by someone in a position of power. Yet very few would suggest throwing out logic altogether. After all, much of the technology that shapes our lives is based on the application of logic – and part of that application of logic is the consideration and rejection of alternatives such as the ones that devil’s advocacy is designed to eliminate.

Frankly, I am shocked and saddened that anyone would discard devil’s advocacy so lightly. It is such a useful way of arriving at a better approximation of the truth that I am unable to view its outlawing as anything less than anti-intellectualism of the most distorted sort. The fact that idea can be entertained by people whom might otherwise be considered intellectuals only makes it even more tragic.

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I first heard about the concept of dormitive explanation in university. Ever since, it’s been one of my basic tools for errors in logic and thinking more clearly.

The concept has been articulated several times in the last few centuries, but, so far as I can tell, the person who named it was system theorist Gregory Bateson. The name comes from Moliére’s play The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac), in which a doctor claims that opium puts people to sleep “because there is a dormitive principle in it.”

In other words, opium puts people to sleeve because it puts people to sleep. When the statement is reworded, the circular cause and effect is obvious, but an essential part of a dormitive explanation is that the circularity is hidden by changing the word being used. Often, as in Moliére’s play, the change in word involves using a word with a Latin word rather than a Germanic one, or, at the very least, a more impressive, mufti-syllabic word. In any case, the effect is to leave the impression that something has been explained when it has only been renamed.
Or, to explain the concept another way, dormitive explanation is a fallacy, an indicator of an illogical argument that the classical Greek and Roman studies of rhetoric somehow missed.

Dormitive explanations rarely exist in the hard sciences, although at first they might appear to. Explanatory principles like “gravity” or “mass” might act like dormitive explanations for the semi-trained – for example, things fall because of gravity, which is the tendency for things to fall – but the fact that they can be used to calculate other behaviors indicates that they are more than circular causality hidden by a change in terminology.
However, on the fringes of science, dormitive explanation becomes more common.. For instance, consciousness is often described as the capacity for self-awareness. Often, words like “syndrome” or “complex” or “effect” are used, so that feelings of inadequacy become “impostor syndrome”with no attempt to classify symptoms systematically.

Similarly, in many New Age philosophies, explanations are give in terms of “energy,” which – since the term obviously does not refer to any sort of energy recognized by physics – amounts to just another name for a dormitive principle.

In some ways, dormitive explanation can become an appeal to authority, either to the authority of the explainer, or to the force or principle evoked as an explanation. For example, if you say that men have evolved to be better at mathematics than women, not only are you suggesting an evolutionary tendency whose existence is unproved, but you are mentioning evolution in the hopes of presenting an argument that others cannot challenge.

In fact, dormitive explanation is all about authority. It makes the person who gives it sound authoritative, and, if accepted, gives listeners a sense that something that concerns them has been explained. In practice, no explanation has been given at all, but unless the listeners can analyze while someone else speaks, they are unlikely to recognize what is happening until later.

Many, of course, never recognize it all, and have no desire to do so. After all, which would you rather do: suffer from joint pain, or have arthritis? The problem is not that arthritis doesn’t exist, but that it is a generic term that covers dozens of different conditions. That means that being told you have arthritis actually does people little good. Yet, having a scientific-sounding name for their condition is reassuring for many people, even if the name does little to suggest treatment or prognosis.

What makes the concept of dormitive explanation so important to me is the fact that it is generally unrecognized and used to assert authority and give false reassurance. By contrast, by being aware of the concept, you can learn to notice it when you encounter it, and reject the lack of logic behind it. The result can be not only clearer thinking, but a clearer sense of what to do next.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It is meant to be a very basic introduction to the complicated study of logical fallacies. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

For thousands of years, people have been cataloging invalid arguments. These are arguments are invalid largely because they are illogical. That does not mean that they cannot be extremely effective; the associational fallacy, for example, is the basis of a good deal of advertising. But the illogic does mean that they should not be accepted in an essay, which is meant to be the construction of a logical structure of ideas.

Over-Generalization:
Too large a conclusion is drawn from too specific evidence.
Example: Three regional airlines have just gone bankrupt, and many of the larger lines have discontinued flights on certain routes. The North American commercial transporta­tion system is in chaos.
Airlines are not the only form of commercial transportation, and bankruptcies and discontinued routes might not be enough to justify calling the result “chaos.”

Over-Simplification:
Too many considerations are left out for the conclusion to be valid.
Example: Getting a good grade in English is easy. All you have to do is write essays of the required length and repeat the teacher’s opinion.
Grammar and punctuation, structure, and even original thought are also factors in getting a good grade.

Either/Or:
Only two extreme positions are acknowledged, and no alternatives or mixed positions. Sometimes called “the excluded middle.”
Examples:
a.) America: love it or leave it (a statement made by political conservatives in the 1960s)
b.)What do you want: good grammar or good taste? (a slogan once used by Winston cigarettes)

You can criticize your country and still want to live there, and good grammar has no relation to good taste, so it can hardly be its opposite.

Post hoc ergo procter hoc (Latin, “after this, therefore that”)
Because one event occurs after another, it must be caused by the second event.
Example: I carry a gun so I won’t be robbed. It must work. After I was robbed a year ago, I started carrying a gun, and I haven’t been robbed since.
From this statement alone, you can’t be sure of any cause or effect. The speaker may not be going to the same parts of town as before, or maybe they have just been lucky.

Non sequitur (Latin, “it does not follow”)
No logic exists between two parts of an argument
Examples:
a.) “I made the decision myself, because if we listened to experts, we’d have a tyranny of expertise, and then where would we be?” (John Fraser, former Minister of Fisheries)
b.) “I couldn’t have kicked that girl to death. I wear soft shoes” (a murder’s explanation of why he was innocent)

Why should Fraser insist on making the decision when the whole point of experts is to have someone with advice worth listening to? Similarly, you can still kick with soft shoes – or even when you’re barefoot.

False Analogy
A poor choice of metaphors or of similar situations.
Examples:
a.) Some people cannot be educated. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
b.) A well-run office is like a machine. You should be able to replace people without disturbing the office’s efficiency, just as you can replace a bolt or a gear in a machine.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because silk isn’t made of pigskin, but it’s not clear that people are that inflexible.
As for an office being like a machine, every organization has an informal organization that compensates for problems with the official organization. For instance, a receptionist may compensate for a company officer’s inability to keep to deadlines. Replace that receptionist, and the office may become disorganized.

Ad Hominem (Latin, “to the person”)
Attacking the person who holds the argument, not the argument itself.
Examples:
a.) People who complain about the conduct of Cabinet Ministers have a vested interest in attacking the government.
b.) Ignore what teachers tell you about writing. They’re all frustrated journalists and novelists who aren’t good enough to compete in the commercial market.

Both these statements may be true or false. But, either way, they do no mean that the attack isn’t valid or that their advice isn’t worth following.

Ad Populum (Latin, “to the population”)
An argument that appeals to popular prejudice or belief.
Examples:
a.) Canadians have worked too hard to see their jobs stolen by recent immigrants, or, even worse, to support them when they go on welfare or unemployment.
b.) Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

The first example tries to appeal to anti-immigration prejudice, the second to the popular wisdom of a cliché. Neither replaces a reasoned argument.

Associational Fallacy
A position is made attractive by who holds it – either a famous person, or people with desirable qualities.
Example: I have no crystal ball. But based on our previous mailings, I’m willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction –
Of all the people who receive this invitation, only a very special group will select accept.
You can easily spot them in any crowd. The young in mind, no matter what their age. Eternally curious. Open to new ideas. Alert to future possibilities. Those fortunate few who didn’t stop growing – intellectually – the day they left school. (a magazine subscription offer in the mail)

The implication is that, if you subscribe, you will prove yourself open-minded and curious, too.

Appeal to Authority
A position must be correct because of who holds it. Alternatively, some greater force such as God or a natural order may be mentioned. Note that this has nothing to do with citing who you got an idea from.
Examples:
a.) Biology is destiny. Women must be dependent on men.
b.) It is historically inevitable that capitalism give way to socialism.

Here, “biology” and “historical inevitability” are represented as greater than human forces with which no one can argue.

Circular Argument
An argument in which the first statement depends on the second, and the second on the first.
Example: There are no drafts of the last half of the poem because Shelley never finished it. If he had finished it, we would have had the drafts.
Besides being faulty reasoning in other ways (the drafts could have been lost), this argument simply goes round and round.

Dormitive Explanation
Similar to a circular argument, the second statement simply repeats the first one – bu tthe repetition is disguised because of a change in wording.
Examples:
a.) Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle.
b.) Ted Bundy killed young girls without remorse because he was a sociopath with a disturbed libido.

“Dormitive” is an adjective that refers to sleep, and a sociopath does things without remorse.

Value Judgment
A position is attacked or defended because of its moral or ethical qualities.
Examples:
a.) That is an evil position to hold.
b.) My plan is simply common sense.

Arguments are supposed to be about logic. The morality or ethics of them are irrelevant.

Equivocation
A word or phrase is repeated, but with a different meaning each time.
Examples:
a.) The law is clear on this point. You can’t argue against it any more than you can argue against the law of gravity.
b.) Since evolution is just a theory, my theory about the origins of life are just as good as any biologist’s.

You can’t argue against gravity because it is a description of how the universe works, but the laws of a country are made by humans and regularly argued. Similarly, a theory is just below a law in science – a position that best explains the evidence – while a “theory” in ordinary conversation is just an opinion.

Confusion of Logical Types
A logical type is a level of organization. For example, a body is of a higher logical type than an organ like the liver, and an organ is of a higher logical type than a cell. You cannot compare or contrast different logical types because they create the absurdity of the parts of something being discussed as equal to the thing itself.
Example:
a.) The needs of the individual are more important than the needs of society.
b.) Ignore the details and concentrate on the larger picture.

Give too much priority to either the individual’s or society’s needs, and you are likely to have trouble. In much the same way, the larger picture is composed of details, so you cannot ignore them.

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