The fallacy fallacy is a logical fallacy which occurs when someone assumes that if an argument contains a logical fallacy, then its conclusion must necessarily be wrong.
For example, consider a situation where someone claims that a certain medical treatment is preferable to an alternative simply because it’s perceived as more “natural”, and someone else points out that this reasoning is fallacious, since what matters is whether the new treatment is better in practice, and not whether it’s more natural.
Despite the fact that this is true, since the original argument is in fact fallacious, it would be fallacious to assume here that the conclusion of the original argument was necessarily wrong, since it’s quite possible that the more “natural” treatment is indeed better, even if the argument which is used to support it is flawed.
As such, the fallacy fallacy is an important fallacy to understand, especially if you have an interest in logical fallacies, which could make you more predisposed to using this fallacy yourself. In the following article, you will learn more about the fallacy fallacy, see some examples of its use, and understand what you can do in order to counter its use by others, and avoid using it accidentally yourself.
An explanation of the fallacy fallacy
In order to better understand the fallacy fallacy, consider the following argument:
Premise 1: if it’s raining, then the sky is cloudy.
Premise 2: the sky is cloudy.
Conclusion: it’s raining.
This argument is fallacious, since it has a flaw in its logical structure. Specifically, based on the premises we saw above, we can’t conclude that if the sky is cloudy then it must be raining, because it’s possible for the sky to be cloudy even if it isn’t raining.
However, just because this argument is fallacious, that doesn’t mean that its conclusion is necessarily wrong. Specifically, it’s entirely possible that it is currently raining, despite the fact that we can’t be sure whether or not this is the case based only on the information that we were given above. As such, it’s fallacious to assume that it’s not raining, simply because the argument that is used to suggest that it is raining is fallacious.
Based on this, we can say that the fallacy fallacy has the following basic structure:
Premise 1: if an argument is fallacious, then its conclusion must be false.
Premise 2: argument X is fallacious.
Conclusion: the conclusion of argument X must be false.
Or more formally:
Premise 1: argument X supports proposition P.
Premise 2: argument X contains a logical fallacy.
Premise 3: if a proposition is supported by a fallacious argument, then it’s necessarily false.
Conclusion: proposition P is false.
Accordingly, the fallacy fallacy is a type of an informal logical fallacy, since there is an issue with its initial premise, and namely with the assumption that if an argument is fallacious, then its overall conclusion must be wrong.
You can intuitively understand why this sort of reasoning is problematic, by thinking about the fact that it’s possible to formulate a fallacious argument in support of any possible proposition, regardless of whether that proposition is true or false.
For example, the proposition “dogs usually have a tail” is true. However, it’s possible to formulate an infinite number of fallacious arguments in support of this proposition, as in:
“Dogs usually have a tail because dogs usually have a tail.”
“Dogs usually have a tail because they’re purple.”
This demonstrates why the fact that a certain proposition is supported by a fallacious argument does not mean that that proposition is necessarily false, and why assuming that this is the case is fallacious in itself.
Furthermore, the fallacy fallacy is sometimes also used to refer to cases where people assume that if an argument is fallacious in one aspect, then it must also be fallacious in all of its aspects. This flawed assumption is often mentioned in conjunction with the primary flawed assumption of the fallacy fallacy, and namely with the idea that if an argument is fallacious, then its conclusion must be false.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the fact that fallacious arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily right either, or that there is no value in pointing out logical fallacies in people’s reasoning.
Rather, the importance of understanding the fallacy fallacy lies in understanding that you shouldn’t assume that just because an argument is fallacious then it must be wrong, and in remembering that you shouldn’t become so focused on the logical fallacies in people’s arguments that you ignore everything else that they have to say.
Note: the fallacy fallacy is also known by other names, such as the fallacist’s fallacy, the metafallacy, the bad reasons fallacy, the argument from fallacy, and the argument to logic (argumentum ad logicam).
Examples of the fallacy fallacy
A simple example of the fallacy fallacy is the following:
Alex: this new cake mix contains only natural ingredients, so it’s better for you than traditional cake-mixes.
Bob: it’s fallacious to assume that this cake mix is better just because it contains only natural ingredients, so you’re wrong.
Here, it’s true that Alex is using a logical fallacy in his statement (namely, an appeal to nature), since he assumes that just because the cake mix uses natural ingredients then it must be better for you, and it’s reasonable of Bob to point this out.
However, since Bob goes further, and assumes that Alex is wrong simply because his argument contains a fallacy, Bob ends up using a fallacious argument himself (namely, one with the fallacy fallacy in it). This is a problem, since it’s entirely possible that Alex is right, and that his new cake mix is indeed better than the traditional ones, even if he hasn’t properly articulated the reasons for this.
Another example of the fallacy fallacy is the following:
Alex: all foxes have tails. The animal that just ran into the bush had a tail. Therefore, that animal was a fox.
Bob: what you said is fallacious, since just because that animal had a tail, that doesn’t mean that it was a fox. This means that you’re wrong, and that the animal that just ran into the bush wasn’t a fox.
Here, Alex uses fallacious reasoning when deducing that the animal that he saw was a fox, as Bob rightly points out.
However, just because his reasoning is invalid, that doesn’t mean that his conclusion is necessarily wrong, and it’s entirely possible that the animal in question was indeed a fox. Bob’s reasoning is therefore fallacious, because he displays the fallacy fallacy when he assumes that Alex’s conclusion must be wrong simply because the process that he used to reach it is flawed.
How to counter the fallacy fallacy
Once you understand what the fallacy fallacy is, it’s relatively easy to recognize that someone is using it in their argument, since this type of reasoning is generally stated in an explicit manner. Furthermore, a good sign that someone is predisposed to using this fallacy is if they constantly call out the supposed use of various logical fallacies, without explaining why those fallacies invalidate their opponent’s argument.
Once you recognize that the fallacy fallacy is being used, you can respond to it using any combination of the following techniques:
- Explain why this reasoning is fallacious. You can do this by calling out your opponent on their use of the fallacy fallacy, and by then explaining why their reasoning is flawed. However, when doing this, make sure to avoid falling into the same trap, and don’t simply point out their use of the fallacy as if that invalidates their whole argument.
- Provide an explanation that fixes the logical flaw in your argument. In some cases, the best course of action is to simply address the original issue with your own argument, since this ensures that your reasoning is valid, and encourages a productive dialogue. However, this approach can become problematic if the entire dialogue becomes centered on fixing minor issues in your argument, in which case you might be better off demonstrating that these issues are tangential to the discussion.
- Show that the use of the fallacy doesn’t invalidate your main point. There are almost always going to be minor issues that people can pick on in any argument. If the dialogue becomes centered on these issues, it might be better to show that these issues not crucial to the discussion, instead of constantly addressing each and every one of them. To do this, you can shift the burden of proof to your opponent, and ask them to explain why they believe that these minor fallacies are crucial to the discussion.
Note that the fallacy fallacy is often used in conjunction with ad hominem arguments, where the person who uses it attempts to discredit the person they are debating.
For example, this could occur in a situation where one person focuses on an unimportant fallacy that was included in their opponent’s original statement, even if it’s not crucial to the main point that their opponent was trying to make, and even if their opponent has already agreed that they were wrong, or has already corrected the issue.
Furthermore, the fallacy fallacy is also frequently used as part of strawman arguments, in situations where someone distorts their opponent’s argument in order to make it appear fallacious or more fallacious than it originally was, so that it will be easier to attack.
Overall, when your opponent uses the fallacy fallacy, you should generally strive to fix the original flaw in your logic. In cases where the discussion stagnates due to your opponent’s focus on minor logical issues, you could point out the fact that relying on the fallacy fallacy is fallacious in itself, and ask them to justify why they believe that the issues with your argument invalidate your central point.
How to avoid using the fallacy fallacy yourself
Being able to identify various logical fallacies in people’s arguments is an important skill, that can sharpen your thinking and help you debate more effectively. However, in some cases, people who are interested in the topic become so fixated on calling out the use of these fallacies, that they lose sight of the discussion itself.
As such, you should avoid using the fallacy fallacy yourself, and make sure to never assume that someone’s conclusion is wrong just because their argument contains a fallacy. Furthermore, you should make sure to avoid pointing out logical fallacies in your opponent’s arguments, unless doing so serves a productive purpose, meaning that it either helps you get your point across or helps you further the debate along.
Accordingly, before pointing out a logical fallacy that your opponent used, ask yourself whether this fallacy is crucial to the main point that your opponent is trying to make. This is important not only because it prevents you from calling people out unnecessarily, but because it also ensures that if your opponent claims that you’re nit-picking their argument or using the fallacy fallacy, you are ready to explain why pointing out their fallacious reasoning was reasonable on your part.
If you think through things and conclude that it’s beneficial to point out your opponent’s use of a logical fallacy, try to apply the principle of charity and ask yourself whether it’s possible that you’re misinterpreting what your opponent is trying to say, while giving them the benefit of the doubt where possible. Then, point out their fallacy in a non-confrontational manner, and give them a chance to explain themselves, and to correct the issue with their reasoning.
Finally, one thing that you can do in order to help yourself avoid the trap of calling out the use of logical fallacies when it’s inappropriate to do so, is to try and focus on pointing out the flaws in people’s reasoning, rather than on pointing out the exact fallacies that they used.
That is, if you notice someone using a certain type of fallacy, don’t focus on figuring out which fallacy they used exactly, or on calling out the use of the fallacy by name. Instead, focus on understanding the flaw that they displayed in their reasoning, and on why this flaw is relevant to the discussion.
Overall, to avoid using the fallacy fallacy in your own arguments, it’s important to always ask yourself whether calling out your opponent’s use of a logical fallacy is justified and reasonable, and whether it contributes to the discussion or not. Doing this will allow you to mitigate the danger of becoming someone who simply points out logical fallacies senselessly, and will help you engage in more productive dialogues.
We will finish with the following quote, that’s worth taking into account when it comes to avoiding the fallacy fallacy:
“All great historical and philosophical arguments have probably been fallacious in some respect. But it is unlikely that any extended argument has ever actually been fallacious in all respects. Complex theses are great chains of reasoning. The fact that one link in the chain is imperfect does not mean that other links are necessarily faulty, too. If the argument is a single chain, and one link fails, then the chain itself fails with it. But most historians’ arguments are not single chains. They are rather like a kind of chain mail which can fail in some part and still retain its shape and function. If the chain mail fails at a vital point, woe unto the man who is inside it. But not all points are vital points.”
— From “Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought” (By David Hackett Fischer, 1970)
Related logical fallacies
The inverse fallacy-fallacy
The inverse fallacy-fallacy is a logical fallacy which occurs when someone assumes that just because the conclusion of a certain argument is true, then the argument itself must be logically valid and sound.
An example of the inverse fallacy-fallacy is the following:
Alex: dogs have teeth, so they’re mammals.
Bob: that’s not how you determine whether an animal is a mammal.
Alex: I just checked Wikipedia and it says that dogs are mammals, so I was right.
Based on this, the inverse fallacy-fallacy has the following structure:
Premise 1: argument X supports proposition P.
Premise 2: proposition P is true.
Premise 3: if a certain proposition is true, then any argument which is used to support it must be logically valid and sound.
Conclusion: argument X must be logically valid and sound.
That is, just because someone was right overall, that doesn’t mean that their logic is valid or sound. This is an important fallacy to be aware of, since the way someone argues for a certain point can be just as important as whether or not they were right, especially in the long term and in cases where people try to apply the same logic in multiple situations.
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that it’s possible to formulate an infinite number of arguments in support of any true proposition, most of which will be invalid or unsound, and that even random guessing can lead to correct conclusions from time to time.
The fallacy-fallacy fallacy
The fallacy-fallacy fallacy is a specific type of the fallacy fallacy, which occurs when someone assumes that just because their opponent has used the fallacy fallacy in their argument, then their argument must be wrong.
An example of the fallacy-fallacy fallacy is the following:
Alex: your argument contained a strawman, so you’re wrong.
Bob: it’s wrong of you to assume that my argument is wrong just because it contains a fallacy, so that means that you’re wrong, and I’m right.
Based on this, the fallacy-fallacy fallacy has the following structure, which is a specific case of the fallacy fallacy:
Premise 1: argument X supports proposition P.
Premise 2: argument X contains a ‘fallacy fallacy’.
Premise 3: if a proposition is supported by an argument that contains the ‘fallacy fallacy’, then it must be false.
Conclusion: proposition P is false.
As you can imagine, this concept can be extended indefinitely (e.g. the fallacy-fallacy-fallacy fallacy…). Therefore, it’s important to understand that this sort of reasoning is inherently fallacious, and should be avoided entirely.
Summary and conclusions
- The fallacy fallacy is a logical fallacy which occurs when someone assumes that if an argument contains a logical fallacy, then its conclusion must necessarily be wrong.
- For example, though it’s fallacious to assume that a certain medication is better just because it’s more “natural” than the alternatives, it’s also fallacious to assume that this means that the medication must necessarily be worse than the alternatives.
- The fallacy fallacy is sometimes also used to refer to cases where people assume that if an argument is fallacious in one aspect, then it must also be fallacious in all of its aspects.
- When responding to someone who is using the fallacy fallacy, you should explain why this reasoning is fallacious, provide an explanation that fixes the original logical flaw in your argument, or show that the fallacy in your original argument isn’t crucial to your main point.
- To avoid using the fallacy fallacy yourself, you should always ask yourself whether it’s reasonable and beneficial to point out gaps in your opponent’s logic, and if you decide that it is, then you should point out those gaps a non-confrontational manner and explain why they invalidate your opponent’s stance, while giving your opponent a chance to fix the issue with their reasoning.