This post should probably have come before the immediate past one but I was so convinced that many would find the topic of logic and valid arguments boring. It has come as quite a surprise that the reverse is the case and I’ve been asked by quite a few people to do a full post on fallacies. Apologies, however, if this turns out to be a snooze-inducer. You can blame Mr. Taylor for that (spot the fallacy, if you can).
To understand fallacies better, there are some basic concepts and definitions that need to be stated first.
A fallacy, in the context of logic, is simply an error in reasoning or an incorrect argument. Growing up, I thought ‘argument’ was a synonym for disagreement but this is not the case. My philosophy teachers were quick to point out that Fela was a real African philosopher and, true enough, in his music one will often hear “na my argument be dis” or other references to him making an argument. What, then, is an argument? An argument is a proposition comprising a conclusion in support of which premises are put forward. A couple of examples:
Kemi is a girl’s name. Premise 1.
My intern’s name is Kemi. Premise 2.
Therefore my intern is a girl. Conclusion
My Uncle is a crook. Conclusion
My Uncle is a politician. Premise 1
All politicians are crooks. Premise 2
Another point to note is that while a conclusion may actually be the truth, this is not relevant to the fact of the argument being a fallacy. So while it may be true that Girl X is a snob, to demand that I accept this conclusion on the sole premise that she only carries Hermes bags is a fallacy. That would make everyone who uses only designer apparel a snob and that certainly cannot be the case.
The final point of note is that fallacies do have some form of psychological appeal, otherwise they wouldn’t fool anyone. As my trusty old Introduction to Logic by Irving M. Copi says “…the irrelevance (of the conclusion to the premises of the argument) here is logical rather than psychological, of course, for unless there were some psychological connection, there would be no persuasiveness or seeming correctness.” I will be quoting generously from the book, so please do not assume any original thought here. There’s actually a lot of information on fallacies on the internet and the examination done here is very superficial.
The trick in identifying fallacies is to be able to break down what is being said into premises and conclusions and then to analyse if the conclusions follow logically from the premises.
Bearing all this in mind, let us now take a look at commonly committed fallacies.
Argumentum ad Baculum (appeal to force) – this is committed when the maker of a statement appeals to force or the threat of force to cause acceptance of a conclusion. Many good examples are found in the area of politics.
“Jonathan should not become president otherwise we will make this country ungovernable.”
“You should implement 100% CONMESS in this State otherwise we will go on strike.”
While it may be desirable that the conclusions we are urged to accept in these statements are indeed accepted, the conclusions do not logically follow from the premise of the threat of force or “strong-arm” tactics.
Argumentum ad Hominem – this occurs when the make of a statement, rather than the validity of the statement itself, is attacked. There are two varieties of this type of fallacy – the abusive ad hominem and the circumstantial ad hominem.
“Kathleen wanted to marry a doctor but didn’t succeed. Thus, she has a myopic view of the doctor’s strike.” (This is also ad populum – see below).
“Patience is known to commit frequently grammatical errors, so her opinions on the war in Syria can’t be very useful.”
This is different in that it occurs when Person A, rather than proving that his contention is valid, seeks to establish that Person B should accept it because of Person B’s special circumstance.
“You’re black like me. How can’t you see that John was being racist there?”
“I would have thought, being a Yoruba man yourself, you would immediately agree that Usman was rude.”
“Tunde Bakare is a clergyman. He should stay in the church and leave politics alone.”
“You are not a Nigerian. Please leave the fuel crisis for Nigerians alone to discuss.”
“She is not a doctor so she is ill-equipped to comment on the doctors’ industrial action.”
“Rotimi is a lawyer, so no surprise he agrees with what the SAN said.
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam (argument from ignorance) – this occurs when it is argued that a proposition is true simple because it hasn’t been proved false or is false simply because it hasn’t been proven to be true.
“Ghosts don’t exist; you can’t show me otherwise.”
“There is neither a Heaven nor a Hell; prove they exist and I will change my ways.”
“No breath of scandal has ever touched the Senator. Therefore he must be incorruptibly honest.”
In some circumstances, however, such contentions may not be fallacious. If Abubakar is suspected of fraud, for instance, and the EFCC even after extensive investigations cannot prove a single act of fraud, the contention by Abubakar that “I am not fraudulent, the EFCC couldn’t prove any of the allegations” would not necessarily be fallacious.
Argumentum ad Misericordiam (appeal to pity) – this one is self-explanatory. It occurs when the contention is effectively “you should disregard all the rules and laid down procedure because of my especially pitiful circumstances.” If you watch American law dramas you probably know how the appeal to pity works. The defence attorney catalogues the bad breaks and incidences of hard luck that brought his client into pulling the trigger or selling drugs.
“My client is essentially an upstanding, hardworking citizen who through the bad fortune of a series of unfortunate circumstances is standing before you today. If you return a “Guilty” verdict, you will be condemning him to a life he clearly doesn’t deserve; you’ll abandon him to the hardened criminals in our jails; and statistics show that x% of offenders who come out of that facility are forced to return to a life of crime less than 6 months after they get out. Is that what our society is about?” Surprise, surprise, the jury comes back with ‘not guilty’.
Or, the government rescinding a contract it negotiated and signed with the concessionaire because “the agreement was skewed in favour of the concessionaire.”
The most ridiculous example of the appeal to pity is “it is true I killed my parents. But I should’t be sent to jail because I’m now an orphan.”
Argumentum ad Populum – this fallacy is committed when an “appeal to the gallery” (attempting to win popular assent to a conclusion by rousing or referring to the feelings of “the multitude”) is made. It is a very broad category of fallacies and the same ad populum fallacy can often also be characterised as one of the previously described fallacies.
“Always buy made-in-Nigeria goods. To do otherwise is not to love your country.”
“I know America is the best country in the world because everybody thinks so.”
“Don’t waste your vote on the Conscience Party; everyone is going to vote PDP or CPC anyway.”
Argumentum ad Verecundiam (appeal to authority) – appealing to the the feeling of respect people have for the famous, to win assent to a conclusion (unless of course, the celebrity is an authority in the subject matter of the argument). A good example would be using the opinions of Einstein, a renowned physicist to support one’s beliefs on religion.
“GEJ is clearly a failure. Even [celebrity x] thinks so.”
“Kia makes great 4x4s. Andre Agassi endorsed them.”
Hasty Generalisation – considering exceptional cases and generalising a rule that only fits those exceptions.
“Bode George and James Ibori, both of the PDP, have been convicted of corrupt practices. Therefore the PDP is a corrupt party.”
“Michael Jackson died of a propofol overdose – the drug is clearly unsafe and should be banned.”
“All Nigerians are internet scammers.”
Petitio Prinicipii (begging the question) – circular reasoning; where the proposition and contention (or parts thereof) are basically the same.
“Freedom of speech is a good thing because censorship is evil.”
“I know the Bible is the word of God because it says so inside.”
“The new student says I am his favourite professor. And he must be telling the truth because no student would lie to his favourite professor.”
Ignoratio Elenchi (irrelevant conclusion) – this fallacy is committed when an argument purporting to establish a particular conclusion is directed to proving a different conclusion.
“El-Rufai’s article is the work of a politically frustrated individual. He only accuses us because his party lost the presidential election.”
“Councillors, with their basic educational qualifications earn hundreds of thousands. Therefore it is right for doctors to go on strike to press for higher pay.”
Here’s to valid arguments.