Logical fallacies: weapons in the information wars

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

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

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.

Stupidity and lies: the new standard for online debate?

Hominids

Israel/Palestine. Russia/Ukraine. Brexit. Trump. The quality of online debate has arguably never been lower. Is it time for a reminder of the basics of rational thought?

Hominids
“Of course we knew the £350m was a lie!”

“How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.” – Adolf Hitler

(I’ve got way too much for one post, so part one will deal with “stupidity”, part two with “lies”.)

Humans have been arguing for as long as they could speak. You’d think, given 200,000-odd years of practice – plus all the intervening research into rhetoric, logic and psychology – that we’d have it down to a fine art by now. And yet the vast majority of online debate these days seem to consist of little more than “You lost, suck it up”, “Moron”, “Liar”, and “Fuck you”. What happened?

Some social explanations have been put forward: the phenomenon of deindividuation – when we deal with anonymous avatars rather than real people, we don’t accord them the same respect – and the creation of ever more disparate echo chambers, or bubbles, of people who agree with us, leaving us less able to understand those who don’t.

Part of the problem, I think, is that most people aren’t remotely trained in critical thinking. Half the time, when people think or speak or write – and I include myself in this – they don’t know that they’re committing basic errors of reasoning. So I thought I’d put together a little list of some of the more common ones (and in my next post, some of the rhetorical cheats people use to exploit them), so that you can avoid tripping up when you’re debating – and politely point out when your opponent does.

I’m with stupid

Are Leave voters the dumb ones, or Remain? Do Clinton fans need educating, or do Trumpettes? Who’s the bigger fool: the liberal, or the alt-right fascist?

The uncomfortable fact is, we’re all idiots. Your brain, thanks to your evolutionary past, is prone to all sorts of errors and biases. The model of the world in your head is not an accurate representation of the world in front of you.

Sure, humans can be amazing. We’ve been to the moon, we’ve cured smallpox, we’ve figured out the structure of DNA and made computers that fit on a fingernail. But we also text while driving. We hook up with our exes, we pump industrial waste into lakes, and we laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys. Even Einstein mislaid his keys.

This is because there’s a lot of information coming at us, 24/7. And our brains, while capacious, can’t take it all in – they need to winnow, to precis, to prioritise, often instantaneously. And while we generally think of ourselves as rational beings, all too often, our thought processes are derailed by inbuilt prejudices; emotion, wording, status, looks.

Full disclosure: I’m not the world’s leading authority on this subject. I’ve picked up most of this from reading books and websites (although after 25 years of subediting, I’d like to think my critical thinking skills aren’t a complete disgrace). What’s more, there’s still a lot of disagreement even among the experts about terminology and classification, not least because these areas straddle the separate domains of psychology and logic, and as a result, some of my definitions may be a little fuzzy. But the basic principles are solid enough, and should be of some use to anyone looking to improve the standard of their online discourse.

For a more in-depth, comprehensive and authoritative list of cognitive biases, you could do worse than check out this site.

And please try not to be put off by the big Latin words. I didn’t coin them!

Dunning-Kruger effect

AKA illusory superiority.

Time and time again, studies have shown that most people consider themselves more intelligent than average. Most people also consider themselves better drivers than average, better-looking than average, and nicer than average. Which can’t, obviously, be the case, because statistically speaking, only half of us can make that claim.

Why is this so? Because human self-esteem is a fragile thing. In order to drag ourselves through the daily grind, we have to convince ourselves that we’re in with a shot of happiness, of success, that we can hold our own. Consequently, we think of ourselves as being at least competent at everything. (Those who suffer from depression, though, often report feeling the opposite.)

But there’s a more alarming twist. When you start learning a discipline, you quickly come to realise exactly how much there is that you do not know. Someone who has never studied that discipline, on the other hand, does not have that insight. Instead they tend to assume that their passing acquaintance with the subject, combined with their natural, above-average intellect, qualifies them to have an opinion. In short, amateurs are often more likely to believe that their opinions on a subject are valid than experts are.

“People have had enough of experts.” – Michael Gove

Third-person effect

You believe your opinions are based on experience and evidence and fact, and that people with opposing views are gullible and susceptible to propaganda. In reality, you are probably just as susceptible as they are.

Confirmation bias

Related to: cognitive dissonance

Again, it’s all about self-esteem. People like to build up an image of ourselves – an identity – that is strong and above all consistent. As a result, we tend to seek out information and people and things that support our existing beliefs, rather than sources that contradict or threaten it. This is why Arsenal supporters rarely subscribe to MUTV, and why ardent admirers of Taylor Swift are more likely to follow other Swifties on Twitter than Katy Perry fans.

If we do this for long enough, we create echo chambers around ourselves, filled with people and things that reinforce our world-view. So when we are eventually confronted with evidence or opinions that threaten it, we react with intolerance, or even hostility.

“Hello, I’m a rabid xenophobe. Do you have any copies of the Daily Express?”

“There’s nothing you can say that will interest me, you fucking libtard.” [liberal retard]

Backfire effect

The tendency to harden your stance when you come up against evidence that contradicts your position. Widely observed among Remain and Leave voters since the referendum – rather than seeking compromise or to better understand opposing views, many people have “doubled down” and entrenched their positions.

Self-serving bias

On a similar note, most people, when something good happens, tend to believe that it’s a quality within themselves, or within their “ingroup” (people they share an identity with), that was responsible. Any failures, meanwhile, will generally be blamed on outside forces. So if you pass an exam, you’ll probably come away thinking, “Wow, I deserve that because I worked really hard for it”, but if you fail, you might think, “Stupid teacher totally failed to prepare me for that.”

“Wow, Team GB did so well at the Olympics. Isn’t Britain amazing?”

“The NHS is falling apart, and it’s all the fault of those bloody immigrants.”

Choice supportive bias

AKA defensiveness, special pleading.

Sometimes, when you have to make a decision, it’s a bit of a coin-toss. You genuinely don’t know if you will have a better time at the local club or at the bowling alley. So you choose the bowling alley … and it turns out to be a disaster. Brian breaks his wrist and Trish loses her phone. But when someone has the temerity to criticise your choice, you leap to its defence, citing all sorts of reasons in favour of the decision – reasons that you didn’t even think of when you made it. This bias, which again boils down to self-esteem, tends to be more pronounced in older people.

“I voted Leave because I thought the Remain campaign’s predictions of economic problems were just fearmongering.”
“But sterling has tanked and investment is down and food prices are rising.”
“Everyone knows that sterling was hugely overvalued, and anyway, it’ll be great for our exports!”

Cult indoctrination

When you read about cults in the papers, you probably think, “How could any of these people be so weak-minded as to fall for that crap?” But the unfortunate reality is that most people, given impoverished circumstances, some catchy slogans, a big enough crowd and a sufficiently charismatic figurehead, are more than capable of being coopted into a religious or quasi-religious sect. Our innate desire to belong to a group is very strong, rooted in millions of years of tribal culture, as is our propensity to kowtow to authority figures. This often leads us to overlook flaws in authority figures, to fail to question them, and to follow their bidding without question.

“Oh my God, like – like – Gee, I can’t – Paul, Paul Joseph Watson, you are like, like – everything to me, I just …”

“Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Projection illusion

AKA false consensus bias.

While everyone likes to think they’re a bit special, few of us want to be seen as a freak. On the whole, people crave acceptance; we want to fit in, to be liked and understood. So we seem to have an inbuilt predilection for believing that everyone else – at least, everyone else in our little cabal – thinks the way we do. In the absence of any clear signals, we project our own wishes, desires, interests, concerns, ethics and moral code on to others.

If you’ve never taken sugar in your tea, you’ll probably raise an eyebrow when you meet someone who asks for two. And if you’ve grown up in an omnivorous household, your first invitation to a vegetarian dinner party is likely to come as a shock.

“You have no idea why most people who voted to leave did so. Most people voted over the immigration issue” – garyhumble, Guardian website

“Immigration was not the top issue for Leave voters, however much Remainers *want* it to have been” – Daniel Hannan MEP (tweet, now deleted, but still in Google cache)

Good Old DaysNostalgia fallacy

AKA Pollyanna principle, golden age fallacy, positivity bias.

“Thiiiiings … ain’t what they uuuused to be …” It’s been the lament of every older generation since the dawn of time. And yet history shows that broadly speaking, the quality of life has consistently improved for most people the world over. The standard of living in western countries, at least, has followed an almost uninterrupted curve upwards for 2,000 years; life expectancy has improved, rates of crime have fallen, wars and disease and famine have become less common, and technology has made our lives easier. Whence this disparity?

It turns out, it’s because when recalling past events, people have an innate tendency to remember positive experiences and suppress the negative ones. You’ll often hear older people waxing lyrical about the sense of community and the trees and fields and the games of cribbage round the fireplace, while conveniently glossing over the freezing outdoor toilet and the regular beatings from Dad and the cousin who died of polio.

“I know from the days before the common market that we did OK, we did fantastic, and we can go back to that” – May Robson, Sunderland resident

[In the early 1970s, prior to signing up to the EEC, the UK was known as the “Sick Man of Europe”. Its beaches and skies were polluted, wages were depressed, inflation was high, and industry was in decline. During the first 42 years of its membership of the EU, UK GDP grew by almost 250%, outperforming most major world economies.]

Threat hypersensitivity

We’re all going to die. We try not to dwell on it too much, but our fear of mortality informs our every moment. We go to great lengths, consciously or otherwise, to avoid things that might endanger our lives. Some people find religion useful in submerging this fear; some throw their energies into raising a family; others base their hopes for pseudo-immortality on historical fame, or works of art or engineering.

It turns out that even mentions of death can markedly affect our behaviour. When people are reminded of their mortality (say, by a news story about a terrorist attack), they tend to defend their world-view, and people who share that world-view, more strongly. According to terror management theory, reminding people of their mortality tends to shift people’s politics to the right.

“We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” – Donald Trump

“It’s a total disaster, on top of which you have migration which is destroying Europe,” he said at an event in September. “Germany is a disaster now. France is a disaster.” – Donald Trump

“Fix our broken mental health system. All of the tragic mass murders that occurred in the past several years have something in common – there were red flags that were ignored.” – Donald Trump’s campaign website

Correlation v causation

This encapsulates a range of logical snafus, but I’ll confine myself to a couple of examples.

Humans have a habit of drawing conclusions from limited information. Say a football player happens to wear red underpants for a particular match, and his team wins handsomely. Then, in the next match, when he wears his blue strides, they lose. He might conclude, since victory coincided with red-pant-wearing and defeat with blue, that the red pants are responsible, and thus decide to wear the red pants for every match. He’d be a fucking bellend if he did, but this is a mistake people make all the time.

For a more complex example, consider the deadly Mr Whippy. It’s a proven fact that every time ice-cream sales rise in an area, the local murder rate rises too. Could this really mean that Magnums turn people into killers? Well, no, it’s more likely the fact that in warmer weather, people buy more ice-creams – and they also stay out later, drink more, and interact more with other people.

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

Availability heuristic

AKA attention bias, anchoring bias; closely linked to the above.

If you see (or hear about) a particular event, you are more likely to think it is far more prevalent than is actually the case. The classic example of this is fear of flying: many people refuse to get in an aircraft because they are worried that it might crash, but in fact, each time you take off, your chances of carking it are only about 1 in 10 million. The reason we think air disasters are more common than they are is that when they do happen they are, understandably, given extensive coverage.

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

[As of March 2016, there were 965 Polish nationals in British prisons. That’s out of a total Polish population of just over 800,000 — so 0.12% of all Poles here are convicted criminals. The total number of prisoners is around 95,000; about 0.14% of the population as a whole. I can’t find any figures broken down into both ethnicity and crime. So unless Polish rapists are better at avoiding detection than British ones, or the CPS for some reason is softer on eastern European sex offenders, they’re no worse than the natives.]

Generalisation

Possibly the most insidious – and thus the most invidious – of all cognitive errors, generalisation covers a wide range of sins, including the out-group homogeneity effect, illusory correlation, attribution errors, essentialism, the representativeness fallacy and stereotyping. But they all essentially boil down to the same thing: the human mind abhors an information vacuum.

Picture yourself as the alpha male of a savannah-dwelling tribe of hominids around a million years ago. (Ooh, primal!) You’re stalking through a wooded glade with a companion when you spot a spider on his neck. He cries out and brushes the spider off. A few hours later, he’s dead. To avoid a repetition of the tragedy, you forbid the tribe from foraging anywhere where they see a spider. Sadly, this means you can no longer access any of your food sources, so you all starve and die. D’oh!

The fact is, less than 30 of the 43,000 or so species of spider (less than 0.1%) have ever caused a human death. Avoiding every spider is an irrational and costly response to the (exceptionally rare) problem of spider bites. What you’ve done here, Ogg, is generalise, or stereotype, in a most unhelpful way. You’ve (correctly) identified a link between a spider and a death, but you’ve extrapolated the qualities of one spider to all spiders, and consequently stone-tooled yourself in the foot.

Historically, this ability to derive sweeping rules from limited information would often have been useful. Water from little lake bad. Put leaf on wound good. But in the modern world, where life-or-death situations are far less frequent and it’s become almost impossible to judge a book by its cover, the knee-jerk response is rarely the right one.

“Typical Remoaner.”

“You liberals are all the same – patronising, smug and condescending.”

 Default Bias

AKA status quo bias.

Many people (Remain voters, I’m looking at you. I mean us) naturally favour a situation simply because it pertains right now; because it works, more or less, and because they fear that any significant change might jeopardise that. I’d argue that it’s a fairly justified fear when no one actually has any credible idea of what to replace the status quo with.

“If it ain’t broke …”

Nihilism

AKA “Tear it all down!”

Polar opposite of the above fallacy. A blind rejection of what exists in favour of what could be, no matter what the likely cost. A disorder particularly common among infants and psychopaths.

The sunk cost fallacy

AKA argument from inertia.

One of the more personally costly mistakes people make.

You realise, at the end of a trying first year of your university course, that you don’t like your subject. What do you do? If you switch courses, you’ve basically wasted a year of your life. But if you stick it out, you might have wasted three.

We often think, once we have set out on a certain path, that the best course of action is to see it through no matter what. “I can’t back down now,” we say. “I mustn’t lose face.” To give up now would mean admitting that we were wrong, which is harmful to our self-esteem.

Logically speaking, it’s much better to have been a bit wrong in the past than to be massively wrong in the future. It usually makes sense to quit sooner rather than later, and give yourself more time to make a success of your next plan. But no, we still watch crappy movies all the way to the end, we still stay in doomed relationships for far too long, and we persist in pursuing disastrous policies.

“Get used to it. We’re leaving.”

Coming soon: logical fallacies and dangerous, lying bastards.