Avoid thee these fallacies!
Debate is fun, it is educational; debate is the crucible in which ideas are tested. However, when debating, online or in person, we tend to get caught up in emotion and are more committed to our ideas than to truth. I thought I would compose a list of fallacies we should avoid stepping in, or to look out for in our opponents arguments. These are known as “fallacies of relevance.” The golden rule of apologetics or in any discussion is to do unto other arguments as we would have others do unto ours. So, let us be aware of these fallacies, so that we may construct strong arguments, and avoid improper responses to our opponent.
SPECIAL PLEADING – This fallacy says, “For some, but not others!” When we are arbitrarily favouring evidence in support of our argument, but not so charitable toward our opponent, it shows we aren’t interested in truth, but supporting our claim at the cost of integrity.
GENETIC FALLACY/POISONING THE WELL – This fallacy says, “I don’t like the source! When we consider the source of the argument, rather than the argument, we are attempting to disprove a conclusion because of its origin. If a 5 year old tells you that you’re wrong and you discredit them because of their age, you miss out on a possible learning opportunity because of a factor that has nothing to do with truth.
AD HOMINEM – This fallacy is related to the previous and it says, “You smell funny!” When we discredit an argument because of the character of the arguer, we conflate an argument with an individual. The individual may have a sketchy past or present, but the arguments truth or falsity is independent of this and someone with a better character can just as easily take up their cause and be just as right as the individual who smells funny.
AD BACULUM/APPEAL TO FORCE – This is reasoning from the barrel of a gun. If two individuals settle a debate by means of a physical conflict, all they have done is demonstrate one is better at boxing than the other, the matter of dispute is still open for discussion, after jaws heal. Using intimidation, physical or otherwise, is no way to prove a point.
AD POPULUM – This fallacy says, “Might makes right, truth is democratic!” Multiplying opinions does not determine truth. One million multiplied by zero invariably equals zero. The world did not become rounder as people believed it was round, and a million people can be wrong about an idea. This type of fallacy is often made in arguing for objective morality.
ARGUMENT FROM IGNORANCE – This fallacy says, “No one knows, therefore (insert claim here)”. The fact is, if we don’t know we don’t know. When the premises fail to prove anything definite, we cannot go drawing specific conclusions.
APPEAL TO AUTHORITY – This argument says, “My dad can beat up your dad!” Fact is, scholars to the left disagree with scholars to the right. We need to be concerned with, not what scholars believe, but why they believe it. Multiplying Ph.d’s is no more valuable than multiplying opinions of the masses.
Similar to the previous,
APPEAL TO AN UNTRUSTWORTHY AUTHORITY – Stephen Hawking is an impressive guy to be able to quote, in a discussion on physics anyway, but when he speaks outside his paygrade on theological or philosophical matters, he can be considered an unreliable source on the matter. This also happens when celebrities speak authoritatively on environmental issues. Ones status does not automatically give ones position credibility.
FAULTY ANALOGY – This fallacy says, “X and Y both have A and B, therefore, X and Y are the same!” This reasoning fails to take into consideration the dissimilarity between X and Y and fails to recognize that analogies break down and are inductive and suggestive at best.
STRAW MAN – This fallacy weakens or exaggerates an opponents point of view and makes it easier to refute, rather than refuting the actual argument. One may misrepresent a point of view, while the real thing is sitting safe and sound, waiting for a rebuttal.
RED HERRING – This fallacy says, “Look, a 3-legged dog!!!” This fallacy attempts to throw the opponent of the trail of the topic in discussion. If this is being made, remind your opponent what is actually being discussed, but mention that if they wish, you may continue their diversion, as a subject, at another time.
APPEAL TO EMOTION – This fallacy says, “Won’t somebody please think of the bunnies?!” Well, not quite, but we’ve all heard of people crying or appealing to people’s emotional side, rather than their intellect, in a discussion. The problem with this fallacy is, emotions are subjective while arguments are objective.
Hopefully we can keep these fallacies in mind, so that we may deal competently with competing worldviews and respect our opponents position. We, as apologists, need to be interested in defending truth, not our dogma, or in attacking people.
For further reading:
A World of Difference – Kenneth Samples.
A Concise Introduction to Logic – Patrick Hurley.
Come let us Reason – Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks.