Sadly today logic is no longer taught in our failed government schools, which turn out millions of people who can’t analyze an argument logically. This leads to absurd contradictions like atheism or other funny-but-sad ideas.
Many of these errors are quickly spotted, and easily avoided. Let’s tackle some common mistakes and you’ll catch on quickly — and be surprised how often these occur in political, science, and other discussions.
1. Red Herring
An attempt to divert attention away from a poorly supported position. The term comes from dogs chasing after a scent; if you drag a stinky old fish across the path, the dogs lose the trail.
When Richard Dawkins was asked about morality and how he determined it, he responded:
The absolute morality that the religious person might profess would include what, stoning people for adultery, death for apostasy, punishment for breaking the Sabbath; these are all things which are religiously based absolute moralities.
That’s a Red Herring — an attempt to divert attention away from the main point (where does atheism get its morality) to another argument (religion’s morality is absurd).
Another example came when we pointed out the illogic of atheism, someone replied “Atheism is illogical but theism isn’t?”.
Both those replies fail to deal with the issue at hand, attempting to drag a stinky old fish (Red Herring) across the path and divert attention away from their failure to address the issue.
2. Argument from Authority
An argument appealing to someone holding “expert” status — meaning their ideas should be automatically accepted. The problem occurs when many of these “experts” turn out later to be wrong — see flat earth, Piltdown man, and so on.
Just because someone has a PhD or “credentials” does not mean they’re right. Their argument should stand or fail on its merits, not their name.
Even university professors make mistakes — if you blindly follow them because they’re “authoritative”, you’ll also be victim to their errors.
3. Argument from Majority
You’ve heard this many times — the majority of scientists hold position “X”, thus it must be right. Right and wrong is never found by polling or popular opinion; truth doesn’t change just because everyone thinks so.
You’ll find this mistake made by global warming proponents, with claims like “the majority of scientists believe in man-made global warming” — it matters not a whit if they all believe it, it matters if it’s true.
Naturally, you can combine this and the previous argument from authority error, as in a famous Camel cigarette ad of long ago…
In a recent survey, we asked “What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor” … and the brand named most was Camel. Yes, according to a nationwide survey, more doctors smoked Camels, than any other cigarette.
Wow, with wonderful arguments like that, it makes me want to run out and buy a pack of … oh nevermind.
4. Argument from Repetition
Some believe if you repeat a mistake long enough it becomes true. Not so, but you will find a repeated error causes many people to accept it — especially if combined with errors one and two above.
For example, how often have you heard of the government “surplus” in the late 90’s? One problem, no surplus existed — a fact easily verified from the governments own reports — or the even falser myth the stimulus created jobs (also note in the comments of an article on the debt some people simply can’t accept the truth when it’s right in from of them, due to falling victim to repetition, argument from authority, and argument from majority errors. A real failure of critical thinking).
It matters not how often the lie repeats, it’s still a lie.
Unfortunately, this tactic usually works. Consider how many people actually believe the myth of the surplus, or the stimulus created jobs (note: those may be Democrat lies and deceit, but most politicians of any party use similar tricks, and you’ll see people of all political positions repeat these false statements).
5. Cliched Thinking / Group-Think / Personal Attacks
Slogan thinking and protester mentality — reducing entire discussions down to something fitting on a sign.
For multiple examples, read a thread on skepticism (actually rebuttals to our “Skeptic Series”) and notice the replies along the lines of “he’s an idiot”, “no proof”, etc. That’s an Ad hominem (Latin for “to the man”) attack, commonly known as attacking the person instead of the argument.
Many of those replies are canned group-think, or simply personal attacks — none of which actually rebut the original article. Epic failure, but funny to read.
In the recent downgrade of the US credit rating, politicians did what politicians do — blame everyone else for their mistakes. Have you heard something like this on the news recently?
All (argument from majority) serious economists (argument from authority) agree we must follow policy “X”. These extremists on the other side (Ad hominem) refuse to follow what economists agree on. We need to focus on investment and what kind of country we want to live in (Red Herring).
Then notice how each political party “stays on message” (argument from repetition). Is it any wonder Washington is broken when the people making decisions on the future of the country can’t even think logically?
Conclusion and Homework
One thing all logical errors share — they don’t add anything to the discussion. Anyone with a background in logic immediately notices these mistakes, and can point out you’re not really addressing the idea. Sadly, logic and debate isn’t taught much anymore, and the longer we go without training, the more people can be fooled by these easily spotted errors.
For your homework, watch some political, religious, or just about any other discussion on the Internet, news, or other media, and see how frequently you see these five errors pop up. For bonus points, see if you can get all five in one comment or interview — sometimes even one sentence!