Tag Archives: New Scientist

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.

Born To Believe?

5 Apr

On the back of the recent discussions around so-called militant secularism, a recent edition of the New Scientist has Justin Barrett discussing why belief in gods is so prevalent and concluded that “religious belief is ingrained into human nature”.

The premise of his argument is that from a young age we understand the concept of agents. An event that creates order must have an agent behind it, or to use a more contentious description: in our minds, a perceived design necessitates a designer. And it’s a good survival trait: if our ancestors saw a movement in a bush, to automatically attribute it to a predator rather than a chance breeze enables us to conclude that running away will decrease the likelihood of us being a tiger’s lunch.

When Barrett’s point is added to our in-built theory of the mind – which means that we are highly prone to anthropomorphism – we see the results: from the man in the moon to imagining ghosts.

Barrett said “the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born“. Couple this “with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, [and you have] children [that are] highly receptive to religion.

While an unfortunate amount of Barrett’s reasoning was nonsense, the conclusion makes sense. (One of the things he said is that “Mozart was a ‘born musician’; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.” Actually his dad was one of the best music teachers of the time and most critics agree that the stuff he wrote before 16 was not exactly top rate. He just had a lot of practice and a good trainer.)

This conclusion – that the presumption of agency leads to a belief in the supernatural – reminded me of a lecture I heard from Lewis Wolpert who discussed why we are biologically predisposed to a belief in gods.

He argued that tool use is uniquely human, though he drew plenty of criticism for that assertion.

But for the sake of his main point we can still say that we are significantly more advanced with our use of tools than any other animal. From cars to computers to factories we are streets ahead of the rest.

And the reason for this is that we have a clear understanding of cause and effect. For example: “The ability to foresee that by creating sharp stones would improve the chances of killing game was the defining mental change that led us to diverge away from our ape ancestors“.

Further, we seem to have a need to know the cause of things. People tend to be distinctly uneasy if they don’t know the ‘why’ of an event. And so when we can’t find a rational reason for something we still need a cause.

Enter the god of the gaps: things we can’t explain or don’t understand get called magic, or are assigned to a supernatural initiator.

The problem is, this means we have a tendency to extrapolate causation from a dangerously small sample size which makes us prone to errors. This results fairly easily in superstitions.

As a result of this very useful cognitive bias, we are predisposed to finding a nice simple cause for things. I would suggest that there’s not necessarily one big reason why people believe. We’re not simple creatures and there are many other influences that affect us – social pressure, childhood inculcation, fear of death, etc. Or as geneticists say: genes can be activated or suppressed by environmental factors. And so although I agree that we are probably biologically predisposed to believe in a god, I suspect that for those that do believe it’s not necessarily the only cause.

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