Tag Archives: Rhetoric

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“.

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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.

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