I suck at logic. I realize that logic is the cornerstone of philosophy, but I’m really bad at it. Really bad. Funny thing is I don’t feel all that bad about it. A few days ago, I looked at a sample problem from one of my old logic texts, and I didn’t even know how to begin to solve the derivation. It felt wonderful. This fact, however, doesn’t stop me from being interested in fallacies and when one’s logic and reasoning goes dreadfully, horribly wrong. A fallacy, plainly put, is an error in one’s reasoning.
There are many reasons why one’s reasoning goes awry, including errors in deduction, ambiguity, irrelevant data, vagueness, etc… The funny thing about fallacious arguments is that they always sound so good, so reasonable — but they’re always wrong. The thing about fallacies that irks so many philosophers is that the sweet sounds of a horribly reasoned argument always sound so good that people are all-too-often swayed by bad arguments rather than by a logically sound argument. The reason is, I think, has to do with the fact that straight logic is boring. It’s hard, and it sucks, and not everyone can do it. Fallacies are fun. More importantly, everyone can do it. Unfortunately for fans of logic, fallacious arguments are far too common in the public sphere.
A particular (or should i say peculiar) breeding ground for fallacious thinking is conspiracy theories. Here are a few of my favorites: I used to take a lot of this 9/11 stuff seriously (I still think a proper investigation is needed) until I heard professional famous people Heidi and Spencer Pratt (collectively known as “Speidi”) on a radio show chanting for the downfall of the New World Order. Now, I’m not saying that they can’t express their opinions, they are American citizens and well within their rights to express whatever nutty (or perfectly sane) ideas that they want. But really, listening to these two people who, so far as I’m aware of, have no discernable reason to be famous, ended my taking 9/11 truthers seriously right at that moment. Hearing those two was like seeing your grandmother naked. Once you’ve seen it all the magic of Nana is gone.
What I was thinking, while listening to “Speidi” was that I was hearing a fallacy at work. The fallacy was this: ARGUMENTUM AD VERECUNDIAM. It wasn’t that we’re supposed to believe that the GOVERNMENT pulled off a false flag operation against its own people because a legitimate source laid out compelling arguments for believing that 9/11 was an inside job. Nope. The argument laid out on this show was nothing more than a celebrity endorsement. “Speidi” might have a level of expertise when dealing with the ins and outs of show business, but their authority to speak on matters concerning politics and the inner working of the Tri-Lateral Commission might be lacking. They were speaking outside of their area of authority, yet made an appeal for something they lacked the authority to speak (about). That’s what argumentum ad verecundium is.
The funny thing about conspiracies is that they’re usually not limited to just one form of bad argument. Most are a cornucopia of bad reasoning and awful arguments. Sure, it’s great that Fear Factor host Joe Rogan knows that the GOVERNMENT attacked itself for the purposes of interning all Americans into FEMA camps, and that I should trust what he says, because he knows that everything we’ve been told about the Illuminati is true, but there’s a more important reason why I should believe what he says– if I don’t I will die. This fallacy is ARGUMENTUM AD BACULUM. This particular kind of bad argument says, if you don’t believe my argument, bad things will happen to you. If I continue to be one of the sheeple and refuse to believe that the Globalists have a plan to exterminate 80% of the world’s population, I will end up pumped full of contaminated water, high fructose corn syrup, aspertame, flouride, and contaminated vaccines that will render me doscile and compliant (it also doesn’t hurt to buy a copy of Loose Change). Speaking of high fructose corn syrup and vaccines being used to create passivity, apathy, and global pandemics, I come to my favorite fallacy and a conspiracy favorite: POST HOC, ERGO PROPTER HOC. Translated, post hoc, ergo propter hoc means “after this, therefore because of this”. The reasoning goes, because A preceeds B, A caused B. Here’s an example: I consumed three Hostess Snowalls right before slaughtering my family. Therefore, the Snowballs caused me to kill my family. Well, as you can see, that’s wrong. The fact that I ate a snack just before committing murder doesn’t necessarily mean that the two events are connected, despite the close proximity of the two events.
Here’s another common one, my child is a genius. I played Mozart while I was pregnant. Therefore, Mozart made my baby a genius. The fact is, is that even though it sounds nice to say that playing classical music to fetuses sounds nice (should be an indicator here), there is no causal connection between a child’s IQ and what kind of music is played while its mother is pregnant. At best, the realationship is correlational. I know that the last paragraph might have upset a few people, especially those who believe that there is a causal relation between certain substances (like vaccines) and decreased health. I’m not saying that people who believe that substances like MSG are bad for your health are wrong. There might be a connection between environmental toxins and lower IQs and other ailments. What I’m saying is that the arguments that are used by proponents of conspiracy theories are often problematic because so many are so poorly argued. Of course, someone who thinks as I do might end up on the recieving end of another fallacy: ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINEM. The tactic of this fallacious argument is tried and true, and unfortunately it has a stunning level of success. Argumentum ad hominem is simply making the other guy look bad. This one you hear on both sides of the conspiracy issue; proponents and naysayers alike. It’s making your argument look good by making the other guy’s argument look bad. Conspiracy theorists call non-believers “sheeple” and shills for the New World Order. Conspiracy theorists are “nuts” and paranoids who listen to Art Bell while wearing their tin-foil hats.
What I mean by writing this isn’t to pick on conspiracy theorists. There are many legitimate reasons to believe that things are not always as they seem to be, and there should be at least a few people who are looking out to see if our government remains the free and open institution that it was designed to be. It’s good to ask questions and look for answers — that’s the essence of philosophy. In his search for truth, Socrates questioned his interlocutors, forcing them to ask questions through dialogue. They rarely arrived at answers — just more questions. Some people don’t really like the idea of not having answers, so they look for answers, even when the connections they draw between events aren’t reasonable or when there is no good reason to believe a particular line of reasoning. Then again, if everybody specialized in logically correct arguments, late night radio would be so uninteresting.