Logical fallacies: weapons in the information wars

In the era of Brexit and Trump, it’s more important than ever to be able to tell truth from post-truth

It's Megatron. He's a Decepticon, innit? Oh, come on, it was either this or yet another picture of fucking Pinocchio.
Transformer Megatron
It’s Megatron. He’s a Decepticon, innit? Oh, come on, it was either this or yet another fucking picture of Pinocchio.

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” ― Adolf Hitler

In my last post I talked about cognitive biases, or errors in thinking. Now I want to move on to logical fallacies – errors in communicating. It’s sometimes difficult to see the difference between the two because there’s so much overlap between them. If you believe (erroneously) that all Muslims are terrorists, then you are going to argue that all Muslims are terrorists. But you can also believe something that is true and argue it incorrectly. The truth gets lost somewhere between your brain and your tongue (or tweet).

Very broadly speaking, cognitive biases are stupidity, while logical fallacies are lies, or distortions of the truth. But there’s a complicating factor: lies can be told innocently (you believe them to be true), or maliciously (you know they are untrue but want to persuade other people that they are true). We’ll come to that. It’s probably best if I just crack on.

(First, a note: committing a logical fallacy does not in itself mean your point is wrong. If I claimed that, I would be guilty of the fallacy fallacy. It just means that your argument is invalid, and you’ll have to find another way to support your view. And sorry about all the Latin. I didn’t name these things!)

A priori argument

AKA rationalisation, proof texting.

Starting out assuming something to be true (some pre-set belief or dogma) and then seeking out only arguments – or pseudo-arguments- that support it, and ignoring all those that contradict it.

Usually involves …

Appeal to emotion

Using emotive or loaded words to make your argument instead of neutral ones. People respond more viscerally to emotive terms and are thus more susceptible to persuasion.

“The #TrumpRiot is yet another example of how the alt-left is infinitely more dangerous, violent & intolerant than the alt-right.” – Paul Joseph Watson

Often goes hand in hand with …

Hyperbole

Exaggeration for effect; overstating the case in an effort to be more persuasive.

It is technically cheating, because it’s misrepresenting the truth, but it’s long been an accepted part of discourse (probably because it’s generally quite easy to see through).

“I voted Leave because our prisons are full of Polish rapists.”

“We even had Barack Obama flying in to tell us what to do.” – commenter on Guardian website

(The facts – the president of the US, on a visit to Britain, gave his personal opinion that it would be a bad idea for the UK to leave the EU – have been stretched, so that now it is suggested that Obama was ordering the UK to vote to stay, which is clearly not the case. If he’d threatened to launch ICBMs on London if we didn’t do as he said, well then, yes, that would count as telling us what to do. But my interlocutor has set up a straw man here.)

Cherry-picking

AKA half-truth.

Telling the strict truth, but deliberately minimising or omitting important key details in order to falsify the larger picture and support a false conclusion. Pretty much accepted practice, particularly in the age of the attention deficit, but no less dangerous for it.

The trick can be played with pictures as well as words.

Plain truth fallacy

AKA simple truth fallacy, salience bias, executive summary.

The tendency to favour familiar, or easily comprehensible examples and evidence over that which is more complex and unfamiliar.

“This country’s been going to the dogs ever since we joined the EU. It’s high time we got out.” – commenter on Guardian website

 Appeal to authority

Generally speaking, we would be well advised to heed the opinions of experts, because they know whereof they speak (certainly better than the man in the street). However, when they are talking about something that’s not in their area of expertise, or if their opinion is very much in the minority in their field, we should take their pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

“It must be true. I read it in the Mail.”

Getting a celebrity endorsement – like asking Beyonce and Jay-Z to appear at your rally – is a form of appeal to authority.

Just plain folks

The opposite of the above. The supposition that someone’s opinions are more valid because he is a “plain talker” who “says what’s on his mind”. Usually comes with a free side-dish of ad hominems designed to ridicule or demonise anyone with a heart or a brain: “boffins”, “bureaucrats”, “tree-huggers”, “coddled liberal elite”.

“I’m voting Trump because he tells it like it is.”

Argumentum ad populum

AKA appeal to popularity, bandwagon effect.

“A million customers can’t be wrong!” The assertion that your view must be right because the majority of people share it. But remember, we’re all numpties. The popularity of an idea has no bearing whatsoever on its validity.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.2 billion Christians in this world, and they sure as hell can’t all be right.

False dichotomy

AKA false dilemma; false binary; logical fallacy of the excluded middle.

Believing (or stating) that there are only two opposed approaches or answers, when in fact a range of solutions are possible. Probably the most common example of this is “You’re either with us or against us”, when it’s obvious that you can agree with some of a person’s views and not others. We don’t live in a black-and-white world; the true answer (assuming there is one) usually lies somewhere in the grey.

“You’re either for freedom of speech or you’re not.” – Paul Joseph Watson

Hopefully, even a fool can see that it is perfectly possible to take an intermediate stance. You could approve of freedom of speech under certain conditions, for example, or with certain exceptions (the position that most legal systems in the developed world take).

Personally, I’m for freedom, except where it impinges on others’ freedoms. There’s no contradiction there; it is, however, an ever so slightly complex idea, at least, one that’s evidently too complex for Watson’s followers to grasp.

“Black lives matter.”
“No, blue lives matter.”

Again, there’s no reason to make this an either/or affair. It should be obvious that all lives matter (although there may be certain times when it is appropriate to highlight the fact that one particular group is at disproportionate risk).

Argument to middle ground

In a way, the opposite of the above. We generally think in a linear, binary way. Someone makes a claim, someone else makes a counterclaim, and ultimately, if we are lucky, they agree on a compromise. The Greek terms for this are thesis (proposition), antithesis (negation) and synthesis (reconciliation of the two). Here’s a example: thesis: “Drugs are bad.” Antithesis: “No, drugs are great.” Synthesis: “Some drugs are good and some are bad”/”Drugs are not too harmful in moderation.”

But it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes the thesis is rubbish, sometimes the antithesis is rubbish, sometimes one or the other is indisputably correct, and sometimes they’re both way off, so the answer does not always lie somewhere in the middle. Replace “drugs” with “cigarettes” in the above example and you’ll see what I mean (PS: I’m a smoker).

This faulty logic can have pernicious consequences for debate. When the BBC has a discussion panel on man-made climate change, for example, they’ll generally invite one or two people who are proponents of the idea, and one or two who are rabidly opposed, in the name of “balance”. But if they were to truly reflect the weight of opinion in the scientific community (and the evidence), they would invite 99 climate change believers and one sceptic.

Equally, populating Question Time with one person from the far left, two from the centre and one from the far right is not necessarily a fair representation of the political makeup of the country.

Non-sequitur

Latin for “does not follow”.

Developing an argument by suggesting that one thing automatically follows from another when it clearly does not; implying causality where there is none.

“Donald Trump has been a very successful businessman, so he’d make an excellent president.”

Slippery slope fallacy

Claiming that if X happens, then Y will automatically follow, when there is no evidence to suggest this is true.

“If we let any more Muslims in, the next thing you know, we’ll all be obeying sharia law.”

Moving the goalposts

Asking for a certain degree of proof or evidence, and then, when this is offered, demanding more.

“The EU was going to let Turkey join.”
“They could never have done that as long as the UK exercised its veto.”
“But … they banned our bendy bananas.”
“No they didn’t. They simply proposed a new classification under which straighter bananas were given a higher rating.”
[Half-hour pause while they go on Google]
“But they banned powerful hoovers.”

Shifting the burden of proof

Claiming that the onus is on your opponent to disprove your point, rather than on you to prove it. Your point does not become right simply because someone cannot explain why you are wrong.

“If you visit the Real News Network, you’ll find Clinton was the higher risk of WW3, especially with her support of the dopey Syria No-Fly Zone idea.”
“I’m afraid deranged far-right websites that peddle fake news and conspiracy theories are some way down my list of reputable sources.”
“Instead of mocking my source, how about demonstrating, using logical fact based arguments, why I’m wrong?”

False analogy

The assumption that because two things are similar in one respect, they are similar in others.

“The EU is failing and breaking up, just like the USSR did. In fact, it’s just like the USSR.” – commenter on Independent website

“Humans are tribal animals living in cultural groups. That is what makes us human.”
“We were. Some of us aspire, via education and tolerance and openness, to a better future.”
“A ‘better future’? History is full of ideological madness ending up in bloodshed. Think of the Great Leap Forward!”

“Remember when the right rioted after Obama got in? Me neither.” – Paul Joseph Watson

[Obama was not elected on a platform of hate, he was not openly racist or misogynistic, and he did not threaten to revoke the hard-won rights of millions of American citizens. Also, the numbers of people actually rioting were inflated, as we’ll see below.]

(Tweet posted after Lily Allen went to a Calais refugee camp and apologised to one of the children there on behalf of the UK. The two points aren’t remotely comparable. The UK government could see exactly what was going on in Calais and could have acted to help much sooner. No one in authority knew about the paedophile ring in Rotherham until it was exposed, so no one could have done anything.)

 Reductio ad Hitlerum

The observance of Godwin’s Law; namely, the likening of one’s opponent to Adolf Hitler, or Nazis in general. Liberals (and Remain voters) are often guilty of this. It’s usually hyperbolic and unwarranted, but sometimes, the comparison is apt.

Tone policing

Attempting to dismiss an argument based on the manner in which it is delivered rather than its content. Whether I am screaming, laughing or crying while making a statement has no bearing on its truthfulness.

“More sneering and condescension. Exactly what we’ve come to expect from liberals.”

“Stop whining. You lost!”

 Terror management theory

The exploitation of threat hypersensitivity, which I covered in my last post.

“We have to do something!”

AKA security theatre.

A relatively new fallacy, which maintains that when people are scared, angry or fed up, it is necessary to do something, anything, immediately, regardless of whether it will actually work.

“I’m voting for change!”

Argumentum ad baculum

Latin for “argument from the stick”.

The fallacy of “persuasion” or “proving one is right” by force, or threats of violence. More of a sign of desperation than a logical fallacy, but used increasingly often.

“Give me your address and we’ll see who’s right.” – (Twitter user, to me)

Generalisation

Here we encounter the problem I mention above: the human tendency to generalise is a cognitive bias and a logical fallacy. They’re two sides of the same coin, feeding on and reinforcing each other. I thought I’d cover this under both rubrics because it is, in my opinion, the single greatest cause of misunderstanding.

“The mainstream media tries to portray these ‘refugees’ as a peaceful and freedom-loving people, but that’s just not the case at all.” – Supreme Patriot website

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people say things like “God, Italy’s awful”, based on one subpar holiday, or “I refuse to shop at Tesco since that checkout girl pulled a face at me”. The reverse is almost as common: “Everything David Bowie does is genius”, “Portuguese people are so lovely!” We’re constantly trying to extrapolate from the specific to the universal, and it often leads us to false, and sometimes dangerous, conclusions.

“You voted Leave, so you must be racist.”

(Yes, many who voted leave voiced concerns about immigration, and concerns about immigration often go hand in hand with racism. But one simply does not follow from the other.)

The problem of intent

There’s a fuzzy logic to the order of this list.

I’m going to don my optimist’s hat and speculate that most of the time, when people make logical blunders, they’re doing so in ignorance; they’re simply not aware that they’re obfuscating or mangling the truth. But there’s no doubt that some people commit them deliberately. They know full well what they are saying is wrong, but they say it anyway, because they have an agenda – usually the acquisition of power, or money, or influence. They are using logical fallacies to exploit other people’s cognitive biases, in order to achieve their own ends.

So I’ve listed the fallacies in a sort of “order of innocence”; the further they occur down the page, the more likely it is that they deployed with malicious intent. From hereon in, in the main, we’re no longer talking about Leave or Remain voters, but the campaigners. We’re not dealing with Clinton or Trump fans; we’re dealing with the media, the politicians and their advocates. This is the point where stupidity starts to shade into lies.

The red herring

Responding to a question by changing the subject; a form of non sequitur. I guess point blank refusing  to answer the question would fall under this heading as well.

The romantic rebel

AKA truthout fallacy, brave heretic, iconoclastic fallacy.

The fallacy of claiming validity for your standpoint based solely on the premise that you are heroically standing up to the prevailing orthodoxy, or speaking up for the people, or “sticking it to the Man”. The principal modus operandi of the alt-right. Although they’ll probably have to ditch it now that their views are becoming orthodoxy.

Ad hominem

AKA poisoning the well.

If you can’t win the argument, go for the man. The argumentum ad hominem takes two main forms: first, attacking your opponent’s character (the guilt by association fallacy) – “Why should I listen to Tony Blair’s opinions on the EU? He invaded Iraq” – and second, an attempt to discredit their argument by pointing out their previous failings on this subject: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

Just because someone was wrong once – even if it was on the topic at hand – it doesn’t mean they’re wrong this time, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re wrong all the time. Experts are experts for a reason.

Michael Jackson may not have been your first choice of babysitter, but that doesn’t mean his music wasn’t great. If we were to apply this reasoning rigorously, the only person who would ever be allowed to judge or challenge anyone would be Jesus Christ himself. Oh, except for that time he overturned the moneylenders’ tables.

“Why should I listen to a leftie moron like you?”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire, Gary Lineker pushes junk food for a living, and then tries to take high road on migrants” – Jon Gaunt

(Someone just called “House” in fallacy bingo. That’s a hyperbole, an appeal to emotion, an ad hominem, a non sequitur and a false equivalence in one tweet, along with a bonus malapropism. But please don’t look this guy up – he’s a professional hatemonger only doing it for the attention.)

Tu quoque

Latin for “you also”. AKA appeal to hypocrisy.

“You, sir, are drunk.”
“And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.” (Winston Churchill to Bessie Braddock – possibly)

Ducking the question by flipping the accusation around on the accuser; a particularly poisonous blend of red herring and ad hominem, but one that often succeeds in taking the heat off the accused by forcing the accuser on to the defensive.

“Take a look. You look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don’t think so.” – Donald Trump, on one of the women who accused him of sexual assault

“LGBT GARBAGE IS JEWISH BY NATURE. Feminism is Jewish mind poison and almost all feminist icons are Jewish criminals.”
“Fuck off back under your rock, you fascist prick.”
“Not very tolerant for a liberal, are we?”

(There’s clearly quite a big difference between intolerance of different skin colours and cultures and intolerance of hate. NB this is also an instance of false equivalence.)

“I’m sorry, but a lot of people who voted to leave the EU are racist.”
“No, it’s the EU, with its protectionist policies, that is really racist.”

(I think the reasoning here is supposed to be something like this: the EU is a trading bloc of neighbouring states. Those states, which all have majority white populations, are discriminating against all countries who are not part of the bloc, and some of them have majority black populations. Of course, the logical conclusion of this argument is that if you ever talk to, give a gift to, make a deal with, promote or do anything nice to a white person, you’re a racist.)

“The Leave campaign was full of lies.”
“But Remain lied too.”

(I’d argue that while the Leave campaign was riddled with blatant falsehoods [Turkey, the £350m, bendy bananas, EU accounts not signed off for years], the Remainers were guilty of, at worst, empty threats [austerity budget] and inaccurate predictions [immediate recession].)

“Trump is a serial sexual assaulter, a liar, a sexist, a cheat, a quadruple bankrupt … etc”
“But Hillary sent confidential emails through a private server.”

TINA (There is no alternative)

Margaret Thatcher’s catchphrase, which she used to railroad through her pet policies. An attempt to stifle debate by asserting, falsely, that we have no choice but to follow the present course of action. Often accompanied by the argumentum ad baculum.

“Instead of sulking, Remain voters should accept the result” – Daniel Hannan MEP

“Get over it”/”Suck it up”/“You lost.”

Equivocation

Premeditated ambiguity; a deliberate failure to define your terms, or the deliberate use of words that have multiple senses in an effort to mislead.

People seem to be especially susceptible to semantic tricks. Using military euphemisms such as “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” makes the events seem less awful than if you said “We killed our allies” or “We killed civilians”.

Take a tweet by Paul Joseph Watson. Under the message “Anyone who talks about the system being rigged is nuts” – a sarcastic reference to Trump’s suggestion that the US election might have been manipulated – Watson quotes two tweets from senator Elizabeth Warren:

1) “Washington is rigged for the big guys.”

2) “It’s not rigged, @DonaldTrump. You’re losing fair and square.”

Superficially, that looks like a clever observation. But think about it for a second and it falls apart, because the word “rigged” is being used in two distinct senses and contexts. Warren’s first tweet was about the general imbalance of power and lack of social mobility in America. The second refers to Trump’s suggestion that the election (or at least the media coverage) was rigged, against him, which is clearly a different proposition. Watson is comparing apples and oranges.

The straw man

A common fallacy, and one routinely deployed by politicians, especially Boris Johnson (probably picked it up at the Oxford Union debating society). Basically, it’s an attempt to discredit your opponent’s position by restating it in a weakened, exaggerated or distorted way. The name derives from an analogy: instead of attacking the real man, you’re standing up a “straw man” and attacking that instead. The reductio ad absurdum is a form of straw man.

“Self-loathing Brits alert!”
“Or, perhaps, xenophobia-loathing Brits alert?”
“Do you have evidence to suggest 17 million people wanting control of their own country are xenophobic?”

(These were comments under a Guardian article about an anti-racism protest. At no point did I suggest that all 17 million Leave voters were xenophobic.)

“Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured?” – David Cameron
“I don’t think leaving the EU is going to cause world war three” – Boris Johnson

Snow job

Attempting to “prove” your point by overwhelming your audience with mountains of marginally relevant facts, documents and statistics that look impressive when taken together, but don’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny. Basically, you’re counting on your reader or listener not to bother to check any of your facts or sources, which these days seems to be a fairly safe assumption.

Some of the more deranged fascist websites, the day before the US presidential election, ran a story linking Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and his brother, Tony, with … wait for it … the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007.

BREAKING BOMBSHELL : Multiple Reports Tie Clinton’s Podesta Brothers to Child Abduction Case of Madeline McCann

Alarm bells should sound immediately: this “story” falls squarely into the realms of what you might call “too bad to be true”. It’s just so horrific and so damaging – surely we’d have heard something about it before?

It only takes a quick glance at the evidence to prove your gut instinct right. Exhibit A is a photo of the Podesta brothers next to two photofits issued by British police in 2013 in connection with the McCann case; B, an email purportedly proving that John Podesta went to Portugal; C, testimony from businessman and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince.

A) Put aside for a moment the questionable resemblance. If you read the original Guardian article from which the photofits were taken, the police e-fits were different portraits of the same man, not two different men. B) If you actually read the email, it was not John Podesta, but Mae, his daughter, who travelled to Portugal … in 2014. C) A quick check on Prince reveals him to be a serial fantasist whose main claim to fame is that his private security firm Blackwater was responsible for the killing of 20 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

This particular snow job melts pretty quickly.

Banners from fake news websites
Oh. *Now* I believe you.

Argumentum ad veritatem

AKA the appeal to the truth; “protesting too much”.

This isn’t a recognised fallacy so much as an observation of my own. In the same way that virtually every sentence that begins “Fact is” generally goes on to offer either opinion, speculation, or bug-eyed fantasy, I’ve noticed that any website that screams “TRUTH!” or “INFORMATION!” at you can reliably be dismissed as a purveyor of unadulterated bullshit.

The more strenuously someone insists that they are telling the truth, the more seriously you should scrutinise their claims.

 Now we come to the ultimate fallacy.

Making shit up

Sometimes, when you want to win an argument, it’s not enough to tinker with the truth, to use misleading words and diversionary tactics and unfairly malign your opponent. Sometimes, you just gotta lie through your teeth.

And lies – from tendentious fibs to full-on fabrications – seem to be the weapon of choice in today’s internet information wars. (Although the Mail and Express have been at it for years.)

Some are fairly easy to see through, such as this “news story” from 2014 about dastardly Muslims demanding that the US army alter its dress code to include, er, turbans (which Sikhs wear).

Others are less easy to dismantle. Take this story about an FBI agent involved in the leak of emails from Clinton’s private server being found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. (There’s no such news organisation as the Denver Guardian, and no evidence that the events described ever happened.)

The doctoring, or repurposing, of pictures and video have now become routine. Several memes doing the rounds that claim to show Democrat protesters in scenes of carnage were in fact taken during the London riots of 2011. This photo and this photo are just two examples of the many fakes doing the rounds; this video, of a man purportedly being beaten up “for voting Trump”, in fact shows an attack after a road rage incident, and this one, of a woman supposedly taking a dump on a Donald Trump placard, actually shows a piece of (disgusting) performance art in Mexico City in July 2012.

I won’t bang on again about the smorgasbord of lies the Leave campaigns cooked up to get their way, but … you know. They lied. A lot.

Then there was this horseshit about Clinton and John Podesta eating babies at satanic rituals, somehow conjured from a single email from a Serbian artist inviting Podesta to a dinner party in 2015. Say what you like about these alt-right types: they certainly don’t lack in imagination.

Fake news is on the rise because it’s working – even some of the more outrageous alt-right confabulations are getting shares in six figures on Facebook – and it’s working because it’s tailor-made to prey on people’s cognitive biases: their fears, their prejudices, their ignorance.

What should you take away from this? I dunno, really; I just want people to have as many tools as possible at their disposal to help them make some sense out of the hurricane of information out there.

But I will say this: next time you’re tempted to share a news story on Facebook or Twitter, stop. Consider the source. Do they have an agenda? Use your critical faculties. Does it seem too good (or bad) to be true? Is it consistent with other, proven stories you’ve read about? Have they committed any obvious logical fallacies?

Keep an open mind. Doubt first, check second, accept third. There are some dangerous bastards out there who think you are stupid.

Prove them wrong.

Author: Andy Bodle

Perennially grumpy middle-aged git with broadly negative views on just about everything. Was intermittently funny once.

2 thoughts on “Logical fallacies: weapons in the information wars”

    1. I don’t wish to imply that the left, or even the centre, are entirely innocent in this respect – but the vast majority of the trickery I’ve seen has been in the service of the Brexit vote and Trump.

      I should probably just spend more time on Lolcats.

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