The Internet is an amazing resource for the sharing of information, opinions, and ideas. However, the ease with which we can open a browser, make a post, and watch it gain traction from the community makes it dangerously easy for somebody to unknowingly post a completely illogical assertion and share it with all three billion net surfers.
It also makes it very easy for somebody like you or me to see that post and like it, failing to see the break in logic and contributing to the spread of misinformation. Keep these fallacies in mind, you can help make the web a more informative place.
1) Genetic Fallacy
When your friend gives you a disgusted look because your shampoo was made for horses, they are falling victim to the genetic fallacy. This is when the value or worth of creation is tied to the intention of its creator rather than its practical application. In truth, if horse shampoo gives your hair that silky sheen that L’Oréal can only dream about, then it is the shampoo you should use.
Whether or not its creator intended it for your hair is irrelevant; from the pragmatic, and therefore practically logical standpoint, all that matters is whether or not it has the effect you want. Anytime somebody says, “That’s not what ___ was made for,” they are committing this fallacy. This fallacy is rampant—it occurs in discussions about medications, cars, and even homosexuality—and it holds back progress and hampers creative repurposing.
2) Ad Hominem Attack
The ad hominem attack is one of those fallacies that you probably wouldn’t think of until it was explained to you but is hard to miss once you know it. Translating to “to the man,” this is the fallacy we commit when we discredit an argument because of the person who made it.
When your racist aunt talks about how Bernie supporters are wrong because they’re “too young to understand,” or when your hippie friend says that something has to be wrong because “Trump said it, and he’s wrong about everything,” this is the mistake they’re making.
Why is it wrong? Because the validity of an argument is independent of who made it; it is dependent on what evidence it has. An argument made by a five-year-old is not by definition any less valid than one made by a Harvard graduate. It becomes less valid if you look at their evidence and see that the five-year-old is making trivial points while the Harvard graduate has a perfectly formulated case, but the name attached to an idea cannot affect how much truth it holds.
On a related note, it is also not fair to discredit somebody’s point because they don’t abide by it. It is not wrong for a smoker to tell you that you shouldn’t smoke, or for someone who eats meat to tell you that you should be a vegetarian. Sure, it means they’re a jerk, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong; again, ideas are separate from the people who created them. This is called a to queues attack.
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3) Availability Heuristic
This one technically isn’t a fallacy—it’s a psychological effect—but it still leads to incorrect conclusions. The availability heuristic is our tendency to judge the frequency of events by how easily and how often they come to mind. What this means is that we believe that scary events and events that are covered heavily in the media are more frequent than ones that we don’t hear about often or pay much mind to.
A great example of this is terrorism. Between September 11, 2001, and the end of 2014, 3,066 Americans have been killed by terrorist attacks, including the 2,902 from the September 11 attacks. Compare this to the 40,000 Americans killed in car accidents—every year. In the same period, approximately 520,000 people have been killed by cars, by the above statistic.
Reducing the number of US fatal car accidents by 1% would save significantly more lives than completely eliminating US terrorism, but many are still more afraid of terrorists than getting into our cars each morning.
(Disclaimer: I am referring solely to terrorism against United States citizens. I understand that the situation is much worse in other countries, and I don’t intend to minimize that. I am just pointing out that, for United States citizens, terrorism should be a very small concern.)
4) Specific-General Fallacy
This is one of the most annoying fallacies to encounter when you’re trying to make a point. It is committed when somebody tries to disprove a statistic by sharing one exception to it. So when I say, “People who spoke die younger,” and you retort, “My great uncle smoked and he lived to 102!” this is the mistake you’re making. Why is this incorrect? Because all statistics have exceptions.
A single outlier does not disprove studies with thousands of subjects that show a strong relationship between two factors; if this were the case, statistics as a field would not be able to exist. There are always exceptions.
This is also tied into the availability heuristic. Since the people we know well come to mind easily, it is easy to use them as our universal frame of reference. It is important to remember that well-conducted research provides more valid conclusions than our experiences, which are naturally limited and biased.
5) Appeal to Force
The appeal to force is interesting because, unlike the others on this list, it does not involve using deceptive leaps in logic; it involves intimidating somebody into agreeing with you. Since I tried to pick out the post relevant fallacies in today’s society, I almost glossed over it, but I returned it when I realized how sneakily common it is in discussions of religion.
When you hear someone say, “If you don’t believe ___, you’re going to hell,” that is an example of the appeal to force. Why? The punishment for disagreeing with something has no impact on whether it’s right or wrong—again, ideas are abstract and separate from the real-world circumstances surrounding their development.
On the subject of religion, the statement “If you don’t believe in God, you’re going to Hell” is a nice blend of the appeal to force and circular reasoning, which is an argument that depends on itself being true. Think about the responses to this: How do I know I’m going to Hell? “Because God said so.” What if I don’t believe in God? “Then you’re going to Hell.”
6) False causation
Volumes have been written about how wrong this fallacy is (I’m not joking; search for Spurious Correlations on Google), but it persists, even among educated crowds. This is the assumption that, because two things occurred around the same time, one of them must have caused the other. “Gas prices dropped under $3 while Obama was president, so he must have done it!” “People who smoke pot are more likely to develop schizophrenia, so smoking pot must cause schizophrenia.”
These propositions intuitively make sense; what makes them incorrect? Let’s take a simpler example: “When more people go swimming, more people buy ice cream. Therefore, swimming causes people to want ice cream.” Here, there is a clearly ignored variable that explains the connection much more logically—season. In the summer, more people swim than in the winter, and more people eat ice cream than in the winter.
These two increase as a result of a common cause, not as a result of one another. Although these confounding variables are less clear in the examples above, they certainly exist, even if we don’t know what they are. Without controlled experimentation, it is nearly impossible to make a strong argument for causation because there is no way to isolate the influence of outside factors, whether or not we know what they are.