An Introductory Guide to Logical Fallacies

A Basic Guide to Logical Fallacies

 

A logical fallacy is a pattern of reasoning that is rendered invalid by a flaw, either in its logical structure or in its premises. Fallacies, in their various forms, play a significant role in how people think, and in how they communicate with each other. The following article serves as a brief, introductory guide to logical fallacies, which will help you understand the different types of fallacies, and allow you to account for them better.

 

The types of logical fallacies

There are two main types of logical fallacies:

  • Formal fallacies- this type of fallacy occurs when there is a flaw in the logical structure of an argument.
  • Informal fallacies- this type of fallacy occurs when there is an issue with one or more of the premises of an argument.

Therefore, the difference between formal and informal fallacies is that in the case of formal fallacies there is a flaw in the structure of the argument, while in the case of informal fallacies there is a flaw in the premise of the argument.

For instance, the following is an example of a formal fallacy:

Premise 1: If it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy.

Premise 2: The sky is cloudy.

Conclusion: Therefore, it’s raining.

Both premises are valid, but the conclusion is not, since there is a flaw in the logic of the argument. Specifically, premise 1 tells us that if it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy, but that doesn’t mean that if the sky is cloudy (which we know it is, based on premise 2), then it’s necessarily raining. That is, it’s possible for the sky to be cloudy, without it raining.

On the other hand, the following is an example of an informal fallacy:

Premise 1: The weatherman said that it’s going to rain next week.

Premise 2: The weatherman is always right.

Conclusion: Therefore, it’s going to rain next week.

Here, the logical structure of the argument is valid. Specifically, since premise 1 tells us that the weatherman said that it’s going to rain next week, and premise 2 tells us that the weatherman is always right, then based on what we know, we can reasonably conclude that it’s going to rain next week. However, there is a problem with this reasoning, since premise 2 is flawed, because our assumption that the weatherman is always right is in fact incorrect. As such, even though the logical structure of the argument is fine, the use of a flawed premise means that the final conclusion is invalid.

In the next sections, you will learn a bit more about each type of fallacy, as well as about how they are used, and how to counter them.

 

Formal fallacies

As we saw above, formal fallacies involve an invalid argument, where the conclusion does not logically follow from the preceding premises.

An example for this is the masked-man fallacy, where an invalid substitution of two identical entities leads to an incorrect statement. For example:

Premise 1: The citizens of New York know that Superman saved their city.

Premise 2: Clark Kent is Superman.

Conclusion: The citizens of New York know that Clark Kent saved their city.

The conclusion here is invalid, since even though Superman is in fact Clark Kent, the citizens of New York don’t necessarily know his true identity, and therefore don’t necessarily know that Clark Kent saved their city. As such, even though both the premises are true, there is a flaw in the logical structure of the argument, which renders its conclusion invalid.

 

Informal fallacies

As we saw above, an informal fallacy occurs when one or more of the premises in an argument fails to support its proposed conclusion, either because the premises are false, or because they are irrelevant. For example, consider the strawman fallacy, which occurs when a person distorts their opponent’s argument:

Alice: I think we should increase the military budget.

Bob: I disagree, since if we spend the entire federal budget on the military, there won’t be anything left for education or healthcare.

Here, Bob’s argument is valid from a formal, logical perspective: if we spend the 100% of the federal budget on the military, there really won’t be anything left to spend on other things, such as education and healthcare. However, Bob’s reasoning is fallacious, due to his unverified assumption that when Alice suggests increasing the military budget, she actually means that the entire federal budget should be allocated to the military. Essentially, Bob is making a logically-valid argument, but one that is countering an irrelevant point that no one is trying to make.

 

Just because an argument is fallacious doesn’t mean that it’s wrong

Just because an argument contains a logical fallacy, and is therefore not logically valid, does not mean that its overall conclusion is necessarily incorrect. Assuming that this is the case is a fallacy in itself, known as the argument from fallacy (or the ‘fallacy fallacy’). This is because an argument can rely on logically-fallacious reasoning, and still be correct.

For instance, let’s go back to the original example we saw for a formal logical fallacy (which is known as affirming the consequent):

Premise 1: If it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy.

Premise 2: The sky is cloudy.

Conclusion: Therefore, it is raining.

The conclusion here is invalid, since we can’t be sure that it’s true based on the premises that we have. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the conclusion is false. In fact, it’s entirely possible that it is raining, we just can’t conclude this based on the premises that we were given.

The same holds for informal fallacies. For example, consider the following argument:

Alison: it’s amazing how accurate my horoscope is.

John: no it isn’t. Horoscopes are nonsense.

Here, John is using an appeal to the stone (an informal fallacy), by dismissing Alison’s argument as absurd without providing any proof as to why. However, that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong; even though John uses fallacious reasoning, his argument against horoscopes is still right, as shown by research on the topic.

Overall, this shows that an argument can contain faulty reasoning, whether in the form of a formal or an informal fallacy, and yet still lead to a conclusion that is factually correct.

 

Countering logical fallacies

Being able to counter logical fallacies is important, both when other people use them in discussions, as well as when you rely on them in your own thought process. Each fallacy is countered in a slightly different way, and specific guides for each are available in my posts on logical fallacies. However, the basis for countering them all is to point out the issue with the reasoning that leads to the logical fallacy in the first place.

The appeal to nature, for example, is a fallacy which assumes that something is good because it is “natural”, or bad because it is “unnatural”. The best way to counter it is by giving specific counterexamples which show that things which are “natural” can be bad and that things which are “unnatural” can be good, or by demonstrating the issues with trying to define what “natural” means in the first place.

When you counter fallacies that other people use, it’s important to remember that not every use of a logical fallacy is intentional, and to act accordingly. Specifically, attacking your opponent too forcefully for using a fallacious argument might lead to a backfire effect, where they are not willing to change their mind on the topic, even after you show them the problem with their reasoning. Therefore, where possible, try to assume that the person you are talking to is not using fallacious arguments on purpose, and help them internalize the error in their reasoning, by pointing it out in a non-confrontational manner.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Logical fallacies occur as a result of invalid or faulty reasoning, and play a significant role in people’s thought process and communication.
  • There are two main types of fallacies: formal fallacies, which occur when there is a flaw in the logical structure of an argument, and informal fallacies, which occur when one or more of the premises in an argument fails to support the proposed conclusion, either because the premise is false, or because it’s irrelevant.
  • Example for a formal fallacy: based on the premises that “if it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy” and “the sky is cloudy”, then we conclude that “it’s raining”. Specifically, based on these premises alone, we cannot logically conclude that it’s raining just because it’s cloudy.
  • Example for an informal fallacy: based on the premises that “the weatherman said that it’s going to rain next week” and “the weatherman is always right”, then we conclude that “it’s going to rain next week”. Here, the logical structure of the argument is valid, but the conclusion is not, because one of the premises is incorrect (since the weatherman isn’t always right).
  • It’s important to remember that an argument can rely on fallacious reasoning and still have a correct conclusion. Assuming that a conclusion is incorrect just because the argument used to reach it is invalid represents a logical fallacy in itself, known as the ‘argument from fallacy’.

 


The Principles of Effective Communication

Principles of Effective Communication

 

When you write or talk, you do so with the purpose of conveying information to someone. The better you are at conveying this information, the better you will be able to get your point across. The following article will show you several principles of effective communication, which will enable you to convey information in the best way possible.

 

The maxims of conversation

Paul Grice was an eminent linguist, who researched the way people derive meaning from speech. In his work, Grice outlined the maxims of conversation, which describe how people should communicate when they want to make sure that they are properly understood. Here, you will learn how to use these maxims as guiding principles, which will help you communicate as effectively as possible.

 

Maxims of quantity (be informative)

Make your contribution as informative as is required- provide all the information which is necessary for the purpose of the current exchange; don’t omit critical information.

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required- avoid unnecessary details that don’t contribute to the purpose of the current exchange.

 

Maxims of quality (be truthful)

Do not say what you believe to be false– avoid including information which you believe might be wrong, unless there is some compelling reason to do so. If you do choose to include it, provide a disclaimer which shows your doubts about this information.

Do not say that for which you lack evidence- avoid including information that you can’t back up with evidence. Once again, if you do choose to include it, provide a disclaimer which shows your doubts about this information.

 

Maxim of relation (be relevant)

Be relevant- make sure that all the information you provide is relevant to the current exchange; omit irrelevant information.

 

Maxims of manner (be clear)

Avoid obscurity of expression- avoid language which makes it difficult to identify your main point or to understand it.

Avoid ambiguity- avoid ambiguous language which makes it difficult for your recipient to understand what exactly you’re trying to say.

Be brief- provide the information in a concise manner, that allows your recipient to focus on the key details.

Be orderly- provide the information in an order that makes sense, and makes it easy for your recipient to process it.

 

Implementing these principles

In a way, the maxims of conversation seem almost trivial, since they are all intuitive, and follow what common sense tells us our communication should be like. However, in reality, people often violate many of these maxims without realizing that they are doing so, which leads to miscommunication problems.

Therefore, in order to ensure that your communication is as effective and free of issues as possible, use these maxims as guiding principles, and abide by them when you are trying to convey information to others. Specifically, you should be thinking of these principles as items in a checklist, and try to make sure that you don’t violate any of them in your communication. As such, when communicating with someone, you should always be asking yourself:

  • Am I including all the necessary information?
  • Am I being as concise as possible, by omitting unnecessary details and irrelevant information?
  • Am I certain that everything I am saying is true, and can be backed up with evidence? If not, am I sure that this information should be included, and did I provide a disclaimer showing my doubts about it?
  • Am I using language that is clear and without any ambiguity?
  • Am I presenting the information in a structured, well-organized, and logically-ordered manner?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “no”, then you should adjust your communication accordingly, in order to fix that specific issue.

You will likely discover that improving your communication by implementing all these principles takes a lot of work at first. If you want, you can make this process easier by focusing on only a few of the principles initially, and adding the others to your mental checklist later on. However, make sure to stick with it, as you will find that the benefits of abiding by these principles are well worth it, and that it gets much easier to do with practice.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • There are several principles that you should follow in order to communicate as effectively as possible, whether you’re communicating in writing or in speech.
  • Be informative: include as much information as is necessary for the purpose of the current exchange, and no more than that. That is, include all the critical information, and omit all the unnecessary details.
  • Be truthful: include only information which you believe is true, and which can be backed up with evidence. If you choose to include information that you are unsure about, provide a disclaimer regarding your uncertainty.
  • Be relevant: include only information that is relevant to the current exchange.
  • Be clear: avoid ambiguous or obscure language, which makes it difficult for your recipient to understand the point that you are trying to make. In addition, present the information in the best way possible, by being concise, and by structuring it in an order that makes sense.

 


The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment: How Self-Control and Willpower Determine Your Success in Life

The Marshmallow Experiment

 

A person’s self-control plays an important role in determining their success in life, and studies show that this personality trait can be measured at an early age, through a relatively simple experiment. Specifically, testing whether a kid is capable of waiting for a few minutes before eating a piece of candy is a fairly reliable predictor of that kid’s self-control and consequent success later on in life.

In the following article, you will see what research says on the importance of self-control, and learn how you can use a few simple techniques in order to strengthen your own self-control and willpower.

 

The Stanford marshmallow experiment

The Stanford marshmallow experiment is one of the best-known studies on the topic of willpower. The procedure for this experiment was straightforward:

  • A kid was taken into a room and allowed to pick a snack that they would like to eat, such as a marshmallow, a pretzel, or a cookie.
  • The kid was then told that the researcher has to leave the room for a few minutes, and that they can eat the snack during this time. However, they were also told that if they waited until the researcher came back before eating the snack, then they would get another snack of their choice, as a reward.

Even though the experiment was simple, its results had striking implications, as it was able to predict participants’ long-term success in various ways. Specifically, kids who were able to wait longer before eating the snack were found to be:

This ties in with other research on the topic of self-control, which shows that self-control during childhood predicts factors such as financial status, physical health, substance dependence, and criminal offending outcomes at a later age. Furthermore, such research shows that this remains the case even when accounting for background factors, such as intelligence and social class.

Overall, the research on the topic demonstrates the powerful influence of our willpower on our success in life, and shows how easy it is to get an estimate of a person’s willpower through a simple test of their ability to delay gratification. In the next section, you will see how your psychological self-control mechanisms work, and how you can strengthen them using a few helpful techniques.

 

How to improve your self-control

The original study on the topic discovered that several factors affected the kids’ ability to resist the temptation to eat the candy early:

  • Children waited longer when they distracted themselves from the reward, by playing with a toy, or even by just thinking about playing with one.
  • Thinking about “fun things” was significantly more helpful than thinking “sad thoughts”.
  • Thinking about the rewards themselves significantly reduced the children’s ability to delay gratification.

Based on these findings, the researchers suggest that we use two systems when faced with a situation that requires self-control:

  • Hot system- our impulsive, emotional system. “Hot” behaviors, which rely on this system, include things such as fixating on the rewards (e.g. imagining what the marshmallow will taste like). These behaviors undermine our self-control, and make it more difficult for us to resist temptation.
  • Cool system- our rational, emotionally-neutral system. “Cool” strategies, which rely on this system, include things such as successful self-distraction (e.g. playing a game which is unrelated to the rewards). These strategies help us exercise self-control, and successfully delay gratification.

Based on this, we can say that overall, our self-control depends on our ability to inhibit the occurrence of “hot” behaviors, by utilizing “cool” strategies.

This means that you want to avoid obsessing about the rewards, or fixating on the difficulty of resisting the temptation to enjoy them. Instead, as soon as you recognize yourself starting to fall into one of these negative thought patterns, you need to mentally “exit” it as quickly as possible.

You can do this by distracting yourself, and by engaging in unrelated, positive experiences. This can be anything from playing a game, to reading a book, to talking with a friend. The more positive the experience, and the more it can distract you from the potential reward, the more it will help you exercise restraint and self-control.

This may sound difficult to accomplish, but studies show that self-control training can be beneficial in the long term, and that you can strengthen your willpower through the regular practice of small acts of self-control. This is important, since it means that doing something such as reducing your snacking behavior, can later help you exercise self-control in unrelated aspects, such as pushing yourself at the gym, or fighting against your procrastination tendencies when it comes to doing work.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The Stanford marshmallow experiment measured children’s self-control, through their ability to wait a few minutes before eating a piece of candy.
  • The children’s ability to delay gratification in this simple test predicted their success in life in various areas, from improved academic achievement to a better ability to handle rejection.
  • You can improve your own ability to delay gratification by using a few simple techniques, and doing so can improve your self-control in the long run.
  • To do this, focus on using “cool” strategies, such as distracting yourself from the rewards, by engaging in unrelated, positive experiences.
  • At the same time, make sure to inhibit “hot” behaviors, by not fixating on the rewards, and not obsessing about the difficulty of resisting them.

 

If you found this concept interesting, and want to learn more about the topic and about how you can improve your willpower, you can read the book by the psychologist who conducted most of the studies on the topic: “The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success“.