Tag Archives: Logical Fallacy

Beware Crowds – Logical Fallacy #58

8 Mar

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
– Mark Twain

Argumentum ad Populum, or appeal to the crowd, is a logical fallacy which asserts that a proposition is true because many people believe it.

I most often see this at work in a group of people when someone who has been disagreed with, looks at the rest of the group and simply replies “come onnn“, as if to say, ‘everyone else agrees with me, why don’t you?“.

I’ve seen companies justify poor corporate practice with a similar argument: “you’ve got to understand the market, this is what everyone else is doing right now“. My response is usually of the form: “do you want to follow the crowd, or do you want to stand out from your competitors“?

It’s often used in conjunction with the Appeal To Tradition fallacy which says that because people have believed something for a long time, it’s therefore true.

Socrates spoke about the ills of following the crowd. He said that it’s important to know your own mind and not hold an opinion simply because it’s held by the majority.

For contrarians such as myself, he also warned against the opposite approach, which is disagreeing with something simply because it’s a view held by the majority.

People follow the crowd for different reasons:

  • an assumption that many people can’t be wrong
  • a lack of confidence
  • a conformity that comes out of wanting to fit in
  • apathy
  • a striving for unanimity, i.e. not wanting to rock the boat.

And sometimes it’s simply not possible to find the time to figure everything out for yourself.

While there are some valid arguments for the wisdom of crowds it does not apply in all circumstances; James Surowiecki asserts that a crowd decision is only wise if each individual came to their decision independently after considering the information they have, rather than just following the majority view without considering what they know first.

Also, what we know as a society, even as a species, is built on what our peers and predecessors have learnt – what some call our collective intelligence. However we need to be discerning in what we accept.

While we can follow the crowd consciously, it’s worth being aware of the ways in which we unconsciously follow the crowd. Solomon Asch demonstrated that we do this to a shocking degree.

So it’s worth considering what view you hold on a topic, rather than being concerned about what other people think. After all, the people I most respect are those that hold true to their own well-considered beliefs. It comes down to being true to yourself.

Don’t be a sheep. Make up your own mind.


Logical Fallacies II – Evolved To Be Illogical?

7 Sep

We’re all guilty of flawed thinking because our brains evolved to win others round to our point of view – whether or not our reasoning is logical.
– Dan Jones

Continuing from the previous post on this topic, in a recent New Scientist article ‘The Argumentative Ape”, Dan Jones describes some cognitive biases and argues that they may in fact have evolutionary advantages even though they mean we often make logical mistakes as a result.

He describes the example of  “confirmation bias – the mind’s tendency to pick and choose information to support our preconceptions, while ignoring a wealth of evidence to the contrary“.

He says that we are much better at spotting the flaws in someone elses arguments, but blind to the faults in our own. Though there are ways around this, for example I’ve seen other research that shows if we try to justify something in a second language they we will be less biased in our argument.

This ability to argue back and forth may have been crucial to humanity’s success – allowing us to come to extraordinary solutions as a group that we could never reach alone.

He says this helps us to:

– discern whether to trust someone

– helps us toward more critical thought

– give us an ability to convince others of our point of view

Consider the confirmation bias. It is surprisingly pervasive, playing a large part in the way we consider the behaviour of different politicians, for instance, so that we will rack up evidence in favour of our chosen candidate while ignoring their competitor’s virtues. Yet people rarely have any awareness that they are not being objective. Such a bias looks like a definite bug if we evolved to solve problems: you are not going to get the best solution by considering evidence in such a partisan way.

But if we evolved to be argumentative apes, then the confirmation bias takes on a much more functional role. You won’t waste time searching out evidence that doesn’t support your case, and you’ll home in on evidence that does

In addition to confirmation bias and the framing and attraction effects, [there are] many other seemingly irrational biases that might be explained by our argumentative past, including the sunk-cost fallacy – our reluctance to cut our losses and abandon a project even when it would be more rational to move on.

Jonathan Haidt says “we are simply trying to justify our gut reactions and persuade others to believe our judgments, rather than attempting to come to the most just conclusion. He says ‘Moral argumentation is not a search for moral truth, but a tool for moral persuasion’.

And this fits with what Nietzsche argues in Beyond Good And Evil (reviewed by me here) that philosophers learn not to search for the truth, but to argue more convincingly for their own views.

The idea that we evolved to argue and persuade, sometimes at the expense of the truth, may seem to offer a pessimistic view of human reasoning. But there may also be a very definite benefit to our argumentative minds – one that has proved essential to our species’ success. This means that when people get together to debate and argue against each other, they can counterbalance the biased reasoning that each individual brings to the table.

Studies show that “a group’s performance bears little relation to the average or maximum intelligence of the individuals in the group. Instead, collective intelligence is determined by the way the group argues.

This is clearly argued in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom Of Crowds (reviewed by me here).

The tradition of debate can be seen throughout history and cultures. The art of rhetoric is venerated in ancient Greece and Confucian China and is still popular today from parliament to university debating societies.

David Pavett gives a good approach to avoiding the pitfalls of this bias saying: “that to make a case for something, the most important thing you have to do is to consider the strongest possible evidence and arguments against it. If one does not do that then one’s argument is essentially worthless – however much the piling up of evidence that is consistent with one’s conclusion may delight those who are keen to see attacks on those they oppose. A scientist or engineer who relied on this technique would not keep his or her job for long“.

Logical Fallacies

25 Aug

We believe that our intelligence makes us wise when it actually makes us more susceptible to foolishness. Puncture this belief, and we may be able to cash in on our argumentative nature while escaping its pitfalls.
– Dan Jones

How we influence each other is something that I’ve been observing and researching for a few years now. The way I am persuaded by others, and the way others are influenced by me is a fascinating subject. There are so many variables including strength of argument, strength of character of the proponent, cognitive biases, our susceptibility to logical fallacies, and so on.

My aim has been to become more aware of how people influence me, to be less influenced by spurious reasoning and to focus more on a rational and logical basis for my views.

Alas this is not an easy thing. Daniel Kahneman has said that for all his knowledge of biases he’s still susceptible to them. In fact he’s done studies which show that even if one is aware of such biases, especially experts in the field, they still struggle to avoid being influenced by them.

I have long been trying to avoid using logical fallacies when I try to convince someone, trying instead to rely on logic and evidence. For me I’ve realised it is something of a moral imperative.

I am aware that I can lose arguments because of my avoidance of fallacious reasoning, particularly appeals to emotion. People are subtly convinced in so many ways by subconscious cues, or emotional aspects of the person making a proposition, that often the logic behind the argument takes second place.

So here are some examples of logical fallacies worth watching our for:

– One fallacy I’ve been discussing recently is the argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam) – assuming that a claim is true because it has not been proven false or cannot be proven false. Bertrand Russell argues this eloquently with his teapot argument.

– The strength of belief of the arguer is a huge influence – people are much more likely to agree with a point of view if they perceive genuine conviction. Inspirational leaders in politics and religion are great examples of this.

– I’ve coined the ivory tower fallacy (argumentum ad turris eburnea) to describe people that dismiss an argument simply because it doesn’t come from a respected or scholarly source.

– Argument by analogy  is a significant issue; this is a very powerful tool and easy to misuse. It makes sense given our use of metaphor to understand so much of the world. It’s arguably how our minds are so adaptable and how humans can focus their understanding on such a variety of diverse areas. Further, linguists show that most, if not all, words originate in a metaphor. So it’s a great tool humans have, though a bias of which to be aware.

– The naturalistic fallacy is one that gets my goat, as I’ve written previously.

– Another is agreeing with a point of view just to keep the peace, perhaps the ‘don’t- rock-the-boat fallacy’.

In conclusion, I think this logical fallacies listing is one of the most useful Wikipedia pages there is. The problem is that we are much better at spotting the flaws in other people’s argument, but tend to be blind to the mistakes we make ourselves. So, if you see me falling for any of them, do call me on it.

Sneering at Wikipedia

6 Jul

Of late I’ve been seeing the attitude that if something has been read on Wikipedia then it’s reliability is questionable, that if someone researched something on the site then it’s not quite as valid as another source.

I have the feeling that part of this attitude is because it’s easier to find information here than from other sources; I’ll call it the ivory tower fallacy, or ‘argumentum ad turris eburnea’. However ease of access is not an argument against the veracity of the information.

Another reason may be that people think it’s unreliable because it’s on the interwebs. The ‘net is full of spotty teenage boys putting up nonsense, therefore anything you read there is nonsense. Again, a non sequiteur.

This attitude ends up as almost an ad hominem fallacy, by attacking the source of the fact rather than the fact itself.

Granted there can be silly page edits sometimes, like when Lukas Rosol beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last week, and five minutes after the match his wikipedia entry said “Rosol injured both of his arms before the game, and had to play on his head using his right foot to grip the racket. He went onto win the game, causing one of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history”. But by the time I refreshed the page, it had been reported and removed.

The number of contributors and editors of Wikipedia (100,000) far outweighs the number at Encyclopedia Britannica (4,400), or at Encyclopedia Americana (6,600) for example, therefore the breadth of expertise and knowledge is greater.

The founders’ aim is “to create a summary of all human knowledge in the form of an online encyclopedia, with each topic of knowledge covered encyclopedically in one article.”. Is it just me or is that properly brilliant?

They are well aware of biases that may affect the authenticity of their work and are open to addressing criticism.

The great thing about Wikipedia is, if you find something you think is inaccurate, then you can prove it and get the article changed.

Nature – It’s Good Isn’t It?

10 May

What is natural is inherently good or right, and that which is unnatural is bad or wrong. This naturalistic fallacy is the converse of the moralistic fallacy, the notion that what is good or right is natural and inherent.

Naturalistic Fallacy


So I went to the doctors to get my ears syringed as they were bunged up. Before having this done, I had to put some drops in to soften the wax for a couple of weeks. I went back to see the nurse to get the ear wash done and she asked:

“What drops are you using?”

“Brand x” I replied.

“You really shouldn’t be using those. Almond oil is better.” she advised.

“Why is that?”

“Brand x is harsh. You should use almond oil – it’s more gentle.” she asserted.

“What do you mean? What’s wrong with brand x?” I queried, interested as to why the drops the doctor prescribed were potentially bad for my ears.

“It’s a chemical. Chemicals are harsh.”

At this point I was becoming a little exasperated with the lack of detail so asked “what does brand x actually do that almond oil doesn’t do? Has there been some kind of study to show it’s harmful? Is there some evidence that proves it’s dangerous?”

She replied: “almond oil is natural. That means it’s good for you”.

At this point she’d finished the treatment so I thought “in for a penny”.

I retorted “poo is natural, cyanide is natural, AIDS is natural”.

But alas she didn’t have any more justification for her opinion.

This is just a taste of the inane arguments that I have to endure these days. And the problem is, it isn’t just a few people spouting such nonsense: this seems to be a fairly mainstream view, part of the zeitgeist.

The ‘reasoning’ goes: chemical = bad, natural = good. Bollocks. A chemical is simply something that’s derived from what we find in the world, i.e. products of nature. (An alternative definition is a scientific description of what constitutes a material, naturally occurring or otherwise.) One method of producing a ‘chemical’ is refining a product of nature to extract the ingredients that are good for us, while removing those that aren’t. Does this process make something bad for us by definition?

In fact, many plants have defences to stop animals eating them, e.g. chillis contain harmful toxins. As a result we often have to cope with these toxins – that’s why we’ve evolved the liver. Biologists talk about an arms race between plants and animals; it’s not a nicely balanced system or symbiosis.

Again, food that has been ‘processed’ is said to be bad for you. Surely it depends on what the actual process is, rather than simply the fact that something has been changed from what came out of the ground. Bleaching flour removes some of the nutrients. However on the other hand washing the dirt off a potato removes potentially hazardous bacteria. Then we’ve got crushing grapes, and letting them ferment for a few years, or cooking tomatoes which increases antioxidant levelsSome argue that we wouldn’t have brains as big as we do if it wasn’t for our ability to cook food. These are all forms of processing, some beneficial, some less so.

A good example is Aspirin. It is derived from the bark of a willow tree, but I’d prefer not eat bark – the refined end product that makes up the aspirin tablet is rather more effective.

All the “natural remedies” that people are peddling are part of this phenomenon; these – often eastern – nostrums that are usually placebos at best.

Big pharmaceuticals have not helped by often lying about drugs and their side effects. Many do have side effects and many are used by doctors without a full understanding of their effects. But it’s a non sequitur to say we should therefore switch to unproven alternative medicines. There are problems with dishonesty in both big pharma and alternative approaches: some have said vitamin pills cure AIDS, or that chiropractic can stop cot death and cure cancer. Sadly people lie for their own gain regardless of their beliefs in this area. People are people.


This marketing nonsense of putting something in a brown cardboard box, calling it “honest”, “hand-picked” or even “whole” makes no sense to me. It’s meaningless drivel that appeals to victims of the naturalistic fallacy.

As the Mash says, we have to put up with “pictures of craggy-faced farmers in cable-knit jumpers with the accompanying revelation that ‘Paddy knows each one of his cows by name and reads them poetry by moonlight’.”

Radox have a new range of shower gels. They’ve gone all ‘natural’. Here’s a taster:

Feeling a bit shattered? Need to spice up your day? Showering with our mix of black pepper and ginseng will help stimulate your body and mind. Just the thing to give you a bit of get-up-and-go. What’s gone into it? A handful of black peppercorns, some natural ginseng

Pepper? Seriously? What the hell has that got to do with getting you clean?

Or how about “Wake up, with natural eucalyptus and citrus oils” which “Helps awaken your bodyFor those times when you’re feeling tired and worn out“.

This natural idiocy has gone way too far.

Just give me a block of good old sodium stearate (i.e. ‘soap‘). No hand-picked jojoba berries from the foothills of the Andes, or salt distilled from sweat from the butt crack of a Saharan camel.

Women are particularly bombarded with it. They are told they must maintain the natural oils in their hair. That’s just sweat for goodness sake. I mean, come on.

Organic food is another one. If all food was ‘organic‘ then we wouldn’t be able to produce as much as we do. In fact, if we didn’t use fertilisers, etc. then we’d only be able to feed two-thirds of the world population. Would you like to choose which third doesn’t get to eat?

Mother Nature

These views seem to be based on the premise that nature – this warm, fluffy and cuddly mother nature – is somehow better than us. That we don’t want to upset natural balances. That we are guilty of wrongdoing simply because we’re human, and therefore not natural. But we are a product of nature. Further we are part of nature. Why must people define us as apart from nature, somehow ‘wrong’, morally corrupt, and not ‘in tune’? It’s an arbitrary distinction that seems to come from some kind of catholic style self-loathing.

Nature is cruel. It’s dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. Animals kill and eat other animals. Actually they don’t usually wait for them to die before they start to eat them. When animals die, they will often get injured or reach old age, and be unable to find food and starve to death. So in fact being run over by a car or shot by a hunter may actually be a less cruel death than a ‘natural’ one.

The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – 1919 infected around 500m people (about a third of the world’s population) and killed 1 in 5 of those who caught it. That was not very nice. In fact influenza kills roughly 375,000 people every year. But it’s ‘nature’ that does this.

One species kills another for survival – it’s the way nature really works when people take off their rose-tinted spectacles.

I suspect this is partly influenced by the post-modernist world view that tends to reject rationalism, science and entrenched organisations. Add this to the green movement and you have some possible explanations for these tendencies.

Another justification people use is that approaches that have been around for thousands of years must be good. Appeal to tradition is another logical fallacy, and can be considered a variant of naturalistic fallacy which can be restated: the way that things are – or the way things have been in the past – is good by definition, therefore shouldn’t be changed.

In short, calling something ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it can then be called correct, more healthy, or morally right. So when you next hear an argument put forward with this justification, question it.

A Discussion On Morals

9 Mar
11th Jaunary 2012
A Facebook Thread
  • SR Absolute morals come from religion? Pur-lease: “Assuming that you have taken the Bible as your moral code, it isn’t especially important what moral authority your assuming but that you have assumed one, then by what method have you verified that it is the correct one. The terrorists of 9/11 had just as much reason to believe there moral authority as you have to believe yours. It may seem that total moral authority grants you the right to assume the one you’ve selected is the correct one, but the truth of the matter is, your applying your own moral intuitions to select a moral code that you then claim comes from an absolute. While at this point it may be tempting to claim that God has led you to accepting the Bible I would remind you that he has been rather less personal in his methods with most people (especially the Muslims it would seem). I will repeat the point because it bears repeating; The act of selecting the Bible as an absolute moral authority is an act of personal moral intuition that itself could not have come from an absolute because the selection varies. If more proof of this is necessary then I suggest you take a good hard at some of the morals in the Bible and ask yourself if you believe in all of its tenets. If yes then you’re a person most of us would like to avoid, if no then by what moral authority have you rejected them. In reality we have no method of absolute moral authority and must instead rely on our own moral intuitions and the realization that certain moral norms are necessary in order to maintain a functioning society. In fact very powerful moral codes can be constructed simply by acknowledging that the purpose of morals is not to please a (mildly) benevolent dictator, but to reduce suffering as much as possible.”
  • MS and MH like this.
  • DG Si, where did this come from?

    11 January at 18:37 · Like
  • SR Comment on a Christopher Hitchens video.

    11 January at 18:39 · Like
  • DG Small step from here to terrorist sympathizer. Be careful Si.

    12 January at 11:12 · Like
  • SR Irony I must presume.

    12 January at 11:52 · Like
  • JT The act of selecting the Bible as an absolute moral authority is an act of personal moral intuition that itself could not have come from an absolute because the selection varies. That’s because we have the choice. You also have the choice, and have chosen to reject the message.

    13 January at 20:50 · Like
  • SR The problem is, only a sith deals in absolutes.

    13 January at 22:51 · Like
  • SR I think my seed fell along the path.It’s a shame that some people have missed the point of my post. Neither apostasy nor even terrorism (?!) are the issue. The point is that the frequent claim of believers that morals can only be derived from religion is fallacious. That somehow morals as derived from a religious text are absolute whereas any study of anthropology will show moral relativism to be a more realistic viewpoint. And the corollary that society would somehow descend into anarchy as a result of secularism is asinine.I would surmise that we have evolved as social animals and so working together necessitates an agreed system of rules by which we must interact, albeit a rule-set that varies depending on the group. In fact neuroscience points towards the existence of a bit in the brain that is primarily concerned with fairness. As such I would reverse the flow here, i.e. morals come from humans and hence feed into religion; a source that bodes well for society.He who has ears…

    18 January at 18:43 · Like · 1
  • DCL Well I definitely get the point dude! As soon as you mentioned the Sith you know I was happy ;-).

    18 January at 19:36 · Like
  • SR Or as the emperor Palpatine put it: Good is a point of view

    19 January at 20:25 · Like
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