While this book is written for the layperson, we do need to at least introduce some concepts which may be new to you, but play an important role in reasoning, as well as issue a few warnings, and explain how this book is organized. But first, let’s answer the question, “what’s up with the title?”
In debating claims against the supernatural, I have found that in virtually all situations, what is trying to be passed off as a magically delicious argument, it is actually just logically fallacious -- no magic involved. Using bad logic and fallacious reasoning, one can easily create an argument making some use of “magic” look like the only reasonable conclusion, when in fact, the reasonable conclusion is that the argument is fallacious. Although this book and the examples within extend in all areas where reason is required, the name still works. Besides, the domain name was available.
Humans have the capacity to establish and verify facts, to change and justify beliefs, and in general, to make sense of things. We do this by reason, and the process of doing so is called reasoning. While virtually all healthy humans are capable of reasoning, an alarmingly small percentage of us are actually any good at it. This is due to many reasons which we will be exploring throughout this book.
When we hear the word “argument”, we tend to think of a confrontational argument between two or more people, with bickering, defensiveness, and increased negative emotions. This is only one kind of argument -- not the kind we will be focusing on in this book. In the more general sense, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something by giving reasons to accept a given conclusion. We make and hear arguments every day and often do not recognize them. We are constantly being bombarded with persuasion and led to conclusions, without being consciously aware. Sometimes the persuasion is very subtle, sometimes the reasons are implied, and sometimes the conclusion is assumed. For the purpose of this book, we just need to be able to recognize arguments when we hear them or make them.
An argument is made up of premises and a conclusion. The premises can also be referred to as reasons, supporting evidence, or claims. At times, our examples are just propositions or assertions -- a statement to be accepted.
I use the terms arguer and opponent or audience to represent the one making the argument and the person or persons considering the argument, respectively. Keep in mind that the arguer can be a political candidate, Jehovah's Witness, a spouse, the 17-year-old kid at the returns desk in Walmart, or anyone capable of rational communication, and the opponent/audience can be a police officer, your best friend, your spouse, or anyone capable of rational communication.
Deduction is a form of reasoning and argument in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. Sticking with the classic example:
Premise 1: All humans are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a human.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.
If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. That is what makes an argument deductive. This is also referred to as a formal argument.
Arguments where the conclusion is merely based on probability, not necessity, are considered inductive arguments. These are usually constructed through inductive reasoning, which is the process of making general conclusions from specific instances. For example:
Premise 1: The sun has risen every day so far.
Conclusion: Therefore, the sun will rise tomorrow.
Because the sun could possibly explode tonight, the conclusion is just very probable, therefore this is an inductive, or informal argument.
I will be using these terms throughout the book. If you don’t understand them now, you will very soon.
Sometimes even statements of facts can be considered arguments -- or more precisely, made into arguments. For example:
People need food to live.
Generally this is not an argument because there is no persuasion intended -- it is assumed that they accept the proposition and its implied conclusion. But what if someone says, “That’s poppycock!” First, you should make sure that you didn’t travel back to a time when “poppycock” was actually used, then you might want to rephrase your statement of fact into more of a recognizable argument form, perhaps a bit more personal, with nothing implied. This may be as simple as stating, “If you stop eating, then you will die as a result.” Or you may have to break the argument into many sub-arguments, for example, what “food” exactly is, what it means to “live”, etc.
Arguments are everywhere. You make them everyday, and you hear them everyday. Where you find arguments, you find fallacious arguments. Where you find fallacious arguments, you find fallacious reasoning.
A belief is defined as the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true. Beliefs are formed in many different ways, which is way outside the scope of this book, but it will suffice to say that many beliefs are not formed by reason and critical thinking. For our purposes, we are focusing on two aspects of beliefs: 1) the reasoning we use to form new beliefs and 2) the reasoning we need to evaluate our existing beliefs.
Beliefs can often be stated explicitly as beliefs, stated as opinions, implied, or arrogantly stated as fact. Some examples:
I believe that unicorns exist.
In my opinion (or I think), everyone should remain celibate for life.
Hot dogs are delicious when ground up into powder and snorted.
If you are not baptized as an adult, you are going to Hell!
Beliefs can be wonderful, as in believing that humanity is overall good. Beliefs can be benign, as in believing the Red Sox are better than the Yankees3. And beliefs can be devastating, as in believing your god wants you to fly planes into buildings. But no matter how good a belief makes us feel or how good the potential outcome of a belief can be, it does not effect the truth of the belief. And this book will help you find the truth of beliefs, by examining fallacious reasoning.
Although the term “fallacy” can be used in many ways, I will be using the term in the following three ways, all of which support the main purpose of this book -- to promote better reasoning.
Fallacious Arguments. Arguments that are fallacious contain one or more non-factual errors in their form.
Just like a woman has the right to get a tattoo, she has the right to get an abortion. (weak analogy)
Fallacious Reasoning. When an individual is using erroneous thinking (including bypassing reason) in evaluating or creating an argument, claim, proposition, or belief.
I was pro-abortion before, but now that this speaker made me cry by showing me a photo of an aborted fetus, I am against abortion. (appeal to emotion)
Fallacious Tactics. Deliberately trying to get your opponent or audience to use fallacious reasoning in accepting the truth claims of your argument.
All I need to do is show the audience this photo of an aborted fetus, and they will be like putty in my hands. I will get them to bypass their reason and critical thought, while listening only to their emotions. (appeal to emotion)
And perhaps a fourth use of the term: a specific classification of an erroneous argument as in, “Appeal to Authority fallacy.”
Fallacies are dangerous because they are not always easy to spot, especially to the untrained mind, yet they often elude our critical faculties, making them persuasive for all the wrong reasons -- sort of like optical illusions for the mind. Some, however, are as clearly wrong as a pig roast at a bar mitzvah. For example,
“Don’t grow a mustache, because Hitler had a mustache, therefore you will be like Hitler!”
After reading this book, you can probably match about a dozen fallacies with the above argument, the error in reasoning should be apparent -- sharing a physical characteristic with a fascist dictator will not make you a fascist dictator.
Now if I told you that the sun was about 30 miles from earth and the size of a football stadium, I would not be committing a fallacy -- but I would be a moron. Factual errors are not fallacies.
In many cases, fallacies can be committed by either the author of the argument, the audience interpreting the argument -- or both the author and the audience. For example, in the argument by fast talking fallacy, the author (the one doing the fast talking) could simply be a natural fast talker, but you (the audience) can fallaciously reason that to mean he is very smart, confident, and therefore conclude that his claims are true. The arguer might be talking fast purposely, knowing that you will not have enough time to process his claims and construct a counter-argument, and could be accused of fallacious tactics, but not necessarily guilty of fallacious reasoning. And in this case, the argument itself would not even be fallacious.
On Reason and Rationality
If you are a parent, you know exactly what it is like to argue with someone who is unreasonable and irrational. Most attempts at logic and reason end with the parent coming down to the level of the child -- basing arguments on emotion usually in the form of a tasty bribe or smacked bottom, depending on what the circumstances call for. Unfortunately, many people carry these success-repelling traits with them into adulthood. This makes communication, cooperation, and prosperity a real challenge.
As you might have guessed, those who are unreasonable and irrational are either incapable or unwilling to accept that their arguments are fallacious, if in fact they are. In these cases, you can come down to their level, appeal to their emotions, and exploit their cognitive biases -- but this takes some manipulative talent and I would argue that it is not very ethical. You can simply give up and refuse to argue any further, which I have done at times. Or, if possible, you can show how their arguments and beliefs are inconsistent with other beliefs they hold. This is my preferred strategy, because it is not patronizing, nor does it reflect my frustration. One possibility: start by telling them why their argument is fallacious, then, by analogy, give them an example of that fallacy on a different topic. For example:
Simon: Noah’s ark is a real historical event!
Anna: Then how did Noah manage to collect all those animals from all over the world, and get them to cooperate?
Simon: Well, I guess God used his omnipotence to make it happen (ad hoc fallacy)
Anna: (instead of attempting to explain how rationally that makes no sense) Then why didn’t God just use his omnipotence to save all the animals -- not just two of each kind?
Simon: I really don’t know.
When I was a kid I collected baseball cards, now as an adult I collect logical fallacies (what a geek). Fallacies range from the well-known to the obscure, ancient to the modern, clear to the complex. Like astronomical objects, new ones are being “discovered” all the time, and if you discover one, you get to name it. In addition to the over 300 I have collected over the years, I have a few of my own that I am proud to share for the first time. Mine are indicated by a “*” after the name, and are just as valid as is Aristotle’s.
I know of no other collection as complete, so I hope you appreciate all my hard work that went into this book, and you decide that you should have paid much more for this book, and send me a check for the difference.
Being a Smart-Ass
There are two general schools of thought on how to point out a fallacy to your opponent. On the one hand, you can tactfully explain why your opponents reasoning is erroneous (1 smart-ass point), without mentioning the name of the fallacy. On the other hand, you can tell your opponent that his reasoning is fallacious (1 smart-ass point), tell him the name of the fallacy he committed (another smart-ass point), tell him why it is a fallacy (another smart-ass point), then extend his underwear over his head, and conclude with, “by the way, in Latin that fallacy is known as [insert Latin name here].” (10 smart-ass points)! Of course, you could take a path somewhere in between. But what you certainly should be prepared for, is your opponents pointing out your fallacies, and if you know about fallacies, you will be prepared to defend yourself.
I do caution you against correcting fallacies that your opponent might raise. As you will see in this book, fallacies go by many different names, and there are varying definitions for the fallacies. With the exception of a handful of fallacies that have been around since the time of Aristotle, most fallacies are under a continual redefining process that might change the name of the fallacy or the meaning of the fallacy. The bottom line, focus on exactly what error in reasoning you are being accused of, and defend your reasoning -- not a definition or name.
Format and Style of this Book
If you haven’t noticed by now, I like to have fun with both writing and learning. I understand that by using humor that I will inevitably offend someone, which is unfortunate, but a fact of life.
While this book can function as a reference book, I hope you will read this like a novel -- from cover to cover. I define what I feel may be unfamiliar terms to the reader as I progress through the fallacies, in order. Therefore, if you do read the fallacies in order, unfamiliar terms and concepts will be revealed to you as needed -- I do this to keep the book interesting.
While it may seem like a crazy number of fallacies to read through, I have done my best to make it enjoyable and educational. The fallacies that are seldom ever seen or not quite fallacies, and not worthy of a complete entry in this book, are just listed in the back section of this book with brief descriptions.
There have been many attempts to categorize fallacies, some of which may make fallacies easier to understand. But I have chosen to organize all fallacies, alphabetically, by the name for which they are best known. I chose this method because:
- There is no official taxonomy, nor is there even a taxonomy accepted by the majority of those whom classify fallacies.
- The ambiguous nature of most of the fallacies means that many of the fallacies can fit in a variety of categories.
- Focusing on faux-categorical structures distracts from the fallacies themselves.
Fallacy Name(s). Each fallacy begins with the most commonly used name for the fallacy, followed by the latin name (if there is one). I then list all other known names for the fallacy. At times there might be slight differences in the fallacies that go by other names, but unless I feel the differences are worthy of their own entry, I will just list it as another name for the fallacy. Keep in mind that fallacies are named and referred to mostly by common usage. The point of listing every known alias is not so you can memorize them; it’s just so you might recognize them when referred to by these other names.
Description. My descriptions are all short and to the point, giving you the information you need to understand the fallacy, while sometimes adding in some extra commentary.
Logical Form. Some fallacies, especially formal ones, have what are called logical forms, which means that the general fallacy can be represented in symbolic language. I list the logical forms where they apply to help you better understand the fallacy. With informal fallacies, I use a little artistic license to create a logical form -- but only when I feel it will help you better understand the fallacy.
Example(s). I try to include realistic examples, and in fact, many examples are from actual debates of mine (real names protected). I feel that using realistic examples will help you to identify the fallacies when used in real situations -- people aren’t as stupid as they are portrayed in many examples. If the fallacy requires it, I will use an extreme example to make the fallacy clear, then include a second or even third example that is more realistic.
You will find that many of my examples include common creationist arguments. A creationist is someone who believes in the literal interpretation of the creation story in the Bible, Adam and Eve, the talking serpent -- the whole shebang. A young earth creationist is one who believes the timeline suggested in the Bible for the age of the universe is about 6000 years. I use these examples quite often because they are like crack-cocaine for the reasonable thinker looking for fallacies. Let me be clear, maybe the universe is just 6000 years old and I, along with 97% of scientists4 on the planet are dead wrong. For our purposes it doesn’t matter. Fallacies are not necessarily about the truth of the argument; they are about the form of the argument.
Exception(s). Fallacious arguments and fallacious reasoning are more often probability-based than based on an objective fact. Take the following informal or inductive argument, that virtually everyone would consider fallacious:
“Don’t grow a mustache, because Hitler had a mustache, therefore you will be like Hitler!”
Perhaps some phycologist has some data supporting the idea that a mustache, especially a Hitleresque one, can make that individual more susceptible to genocide (I would really like to see the details of that study!) Therefore, one can argue that this argument is not fallacious -- the argument itself is strong and the reasoning that was used to construct this argument was sound. Showing this argument is fallacious can be an argument in itself, where it is all about providing stronger evidence and more sound reasoning to support your claim.
There are some arguments that use a formal or deductive structure and contain fallacies of form that are objective fallacies, that is, they are always fallacious in all situations. For example:
All humans are mortal.
Phil is mortal.
Therefore, Phil is a human.
Actually, Phil is a groundhog. This is an example of a syllogistic fallacy, and it always will be, in all situations. Even if Phil were human, the form of the argument would still commit the fallacy. In formal logic, the truth of the premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion.
The bottom line: never insist that an informal argument is definitely fallacious, and be prepared to defend your arguments against claims of fallacy.
Tip: In 2004, I wrote the book, Year To Success, a book Donald Trump called, “an inspiration to anyone who reads it.” (Yes, I’ll drop the names when I can!) In that book, I explain how success is like a game of chance where you control the odds by continually replacing behaviors that pull you away from success with behaviors that bring you closer to success. When appropriate, I include a tip that is relevant to the fallacy, that will bring you closer to success -- most of which are serious, but some... not so much (you will know the difference).
Variation(s). There are some variations or forms of the fallacies that are listed in the aliases for the fallacy name, but I feel deserve a bit of explanation when it comes to the differences.
Let’s get started!