Friday, July 25, 2014

The Fallacy Fallacy

I've known about this site for a while, but I decided to go ahead and share it with people now. I think it's...time It's a convenient little web site that provides details for several popular logical fallacies that many people commit:

Social media (and--let's face it--the internet in general) doesn't do a real good job with logic. People in general really aren't good with logic, to be honest. It's not necessarily a fault of our education system or our society; it's just that so much is counter-intuitive and contradicts what we see in our everyday lives that it's often difficult to wrap your head around.

But when it comes to, say, arguing about volatile issues on Facebook or Twitter, things can get...complicated. It's difficult to sound out a logical claim in 140 characters or less, so "debates" on social media tend to be complete messes, reduced down to the bare minimum and sexed up for dramatic effect. Generally speaking, if the entirety of your debate can fit on a bumper sticker (or a tweet, for that matter), chances are you're wrong about something.

And I've been guilty of this, as well. You'll notice that I don't really write too much about actual opinions anymore (aside from the scorched-earth defense I make for capitalism now and then). There's a reason for that--people don't care. There have been a few recent social media firestorms that have erupted over the past few months that basically forced me to stay away. I'm not wading into *that* particularly blood-filled pool, but suffice it to say several recent trending (and highly emotionally charged) hashtags were filled with so much faulty logic and bad statistics that it was like walking into a war zone with no armor and a bulleye. Which sucks, because there's a lot of legitimate discussion that gets drowned out by sensationalistic bullshit.

Anyway, I highly recommend perusing the link above. While it doesn't cover everything, it at least gives decent examples. At the very least, it's hopefully eye-opening for a lot of people to re-examine their thought processes. The highlights that I often see are:

  • Slippery Slope: It's tempting, because in our heads allowing A will also allow B, C, D, and E, and yet that ignores that there are obstacles and logical tests against each one, and while the increment between, say, A and B or B and C isn't great, it often is between A and E.
  • Anecdotal: Again, this is tempting because we believe what we see with our own eyes, but find it harder to believe stats on a cold sheet of paper. It completely ignores the fact that most likely our sample size is skewed--we only observe people in our immediate location, doing our job, and roughly with our same set of background and interests. There's an old quote that gets repeated every election: "I can't believe Romney/McGovern/McCain/Kerry lost! Everyone I know voted for him!" Well, yeah; you generally hang around with people who agree with you or at least have the same demographic background.
  • Strawman: An old favorite: you take an argument, change it, and then argue against that. I see that a lot, everywhere, especially in politics. There are plenty of current examples, none of which I will point out because I like having friends and readers. 
  • Black or White: I find this most often with the...more opinionated individuals I know. You're either with us or against us, as they say, and there's nowhere in the middle for people like me to say "maybe X is right, but it's not unreasonable to keep Y's interests in mind while we work for a solution." This is generally the fallacy where I can divide the "reasonable individuals to work with" and "people who will never get anything done because they're too difficult to reason with, and so I won't even try." Keep in mind that it's difficult to find the balance between this and Middle Ground, although they aren't necessarily diametrically opposed.
  • Appeal to Emotion: To me, this one is the most dangerous. There seems to be a trend (which I'm sure has been happening for 4000+ years now) where people stop caring about facts and figures and reality and base all of their decisions on emotions. There's certainly nothing wrong with compassion and sympathy, but it's very, very difficult to base sound policy on sadness and despair. The fact that many, perhaps most, human beings are (shall we say) selectively less than honest who have no problem playing up appeals to emotion to get things without working for them makes this all the more difficult to tolerate. Sadly, it makes people like me come across as emotionless robots, which to be fair is pretty much a required core class when getting a degree in economics.
As a reminder, just because something falls under one of these logical fallacies doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is wrong...but in order to be useful, it has to not fall under these problems. If you're trying to dissect the reasons why something happens, or what can be done to solve it, you need a valid, working plan as to how to get to that end point, and avoiding logical fallacies is a requirement.

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