The Fallacy Fallacy: Why Fallacious Arguments Can Have True Conclusions

The Fallacy Fallacy

 

The fallacy fallacy (also known as the argument from fallacy) is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that if an argument contains a logical fallacy, then its conclusion must be false.

For example, if someone fallaciously claimed that a certain medical treatment is preferable to alternatives because it’s more “natural”, the fallacy fallacy would occur if someone else claimed that this treatment must be worse than the alternatives, because the argument used to support it is fallacious. That’s because even though it’s fallacious to claim that a certain treatment is better just because it’s perceived as more natural, that doesn’t mean that this treatment is necessarily worse than the alternatives, and assuming that it is worse is fallacious in itself.

The fallacy fallacy is an important fallacy to understand, especially if you’re interested in logical fallacies in general, since this interest can make you predisposed to using this fallacy yourself. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the fallacy fallacy, see examples of its use, and understand what you can do in order to counter its use by others and avoid using it yourself.

 

Explanation of the fallacy fallacy

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, its conclusion can’t be drawn from its premises, because it’s possible that it’s not raining, even though the sky is cloudy.

However, just because this argument is fallacious, that doesn’t mean that its conclusion is necessarily false. Specifically, it’s possible that it is currently raining; we just can’t be sure whether this is the case based only on the information in the argument. As such, it’s fallacious to assume that it’s not raining, simply because a fallacious argument was used to suggest that it is raining.

Based on this, we can say that the fallacy fallacy has the following basic structure:

Premise 1: argument A is fallacious.

Premise 2: if an argument is fallacious, then its conclusion must be false.

Conclusion: the conclusion of argument A must be false.

Or alternatively:

Premise 1: argument A supports proposition P.

Premise 2: argument A contains a logical fallacy.

Premise 3: if a proposition is supported by an argument that contains a logical fallacy, then it must 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 premises, and namely with the assumption that if an argument is fallacious, then its conclusion must be false. As one book on the topic states:

“Truth and falsity are features of claims. Fallacies are errors in reasoning, not errors about truth or falsity. That is, if someone has committed a fallacy, then he has made an error in reasoning; but it doesn’t follow that he has made a factual error…

…because the truth or falsity of a claim cannot be inferred solely from the quality of the reasoning, concluding that a claim is false because an error in reasoning (a fallacy) has occurred is itself an error in reasoning.”

— From “Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy

Finally, it’s possible to emphasize the issues with the reasoning behind the fallacy fallacy by considering that it’s possible to formulate a fallacious argument in support of any proposition, regardless of whether that proposition is true or false. For example, the proposition “pigeons can fly” is true (as a general statement). However, it’s possible to formulate an infinite number of fallacious arguments in support of this proposition, such as:

“Pigeons can fly because pigeons can fly.”

“Dogs can’t fly, and pigeons aren’t dogs, therefore pigeons can fly.”

This demonstrates why a certain proposition being supported by a fallacious argument doesn’t mean that the proposition is necessarily false, and why assuming that this is the case is fallacious in itself.

Note: the fallacy fallacy is also known by other names, such as the argument from fallacy, the fallacist’s fallacy, the metafallacy, the bad reasons fallacy, and the argument to logic (or argumentum ad logicam). In addition, 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.

 

Examples of the fallacy fallacy

A basic example of the fallacy fallacy is someone who assumes that because someone else’s argument contained a logical fallacy, such as an appeal to nature, then the conclusion of their argument must necessarily be false. This is illustrated in the following dialogue:

Alex: this supplement contains only natural ingredients, so it’s better than the alternatives.

Bob: it’s fallacious to assume that a supplement is better just because it contains only “natural” ingredients, so you’re wrong—it’s definitely worse than the alternatives.

Here, it’s true that Alex has a logical fallacy in his argument, since he assumes that because the supplement uses supposedly natural ingredients then it must be better than the alternatives, and it’s reasonable for Bob to point this out. However, since Bob goes further, and assumes that Alex is wrong simply because Alex’s argument contains a fallacy, Bob’s argument ends being fallacious itself, since it contains the fallacy fallacy. This is problematic, since it’s entirely possible that Alex is right, and that his supplement is indeed better than the alternative, even if his argument in support of the supplement is fallacious.

In addition, another example of the fallacy fallacy is the following:

Alex: all foxes have tails, and the animal that just ran into the bush had a tail, so it must be a fox.

Bob: what you’re saying is fallacious, since just because an animal has a tail, that doesn’t mean that it’s a fox, so the animal that 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 points out. However, just because Alex’s reasoning is flawed, that doesn’t mean that the conclusion of his argument is necessarily false, 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 logic that he used to reach it is flawed.

Finally, another example of the fallacy fallacy appears in the following excerpt:

“(1) If Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, then it is in the United States.

(2) Atlanta is in the United States.

(3) Therefore, Atlanta is the capital of Georgia.

This argument illustrates the fallacy of affirming the consequent. As a deductive argument, it is invalid – one cannot draw/infer the conclusion from the premises – and yet the conclusion is true. As such, it should be clear that poor reasoning (committing a fallacy) does not entail a false conclusion. One would not, in the above example, respond reasonably if she were to suggest that, because a fallacy has been committed, it is false that Atlanta is the capital of Georgia.”

— From “Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy

 

How to counter the fallacy fallacy

The first step to countering the fallacy fallacy is to recognize that it’s being used. Often, the use of this fallacy is explicit, when people call out the use of some logical fallacy and claim that it necessarily invalidates the conclusion of the argument that it’s in (e.g. “you used a fallacious appeal to emotion, so what you’re saying is wrong”). However, the use of this fallacy can also be implicit, such as when people simply call out the use of a fallacy in response to someone else’s argument (e.g. “that’s a strawman“).

Once you recognize that the fallacy fallacy is being used, you can respond to it using any combination of the following techniques that’s appropriate given the circumstances:

  • Explain why this reasoning is fallacious. This is the main way to counter the fallacy fallacy directly. You can do this by pointing out the use of the fallacy fallacy and explaining why this reasoning is flawed. In doing so, you can either focus on explaining the issues with this reasoning as they pertain to the present situation, potentially without even identifying the fallacy fallacy by name, or you can also explain what this fallacy is and provide examples that illustrate the issues associated with it. Note that, when doing this, you should make sure to avoid using the fallacy fallacy yourself, which means that you shouldn’t dismiss someone’s argument simply because it involves the fallacy fallacy.
  • Acknowledge and address the logical flaw in the original argument. In some cases, such as when the person who’s using the fallacy fallacy is doing so while pointing out a fallacy in your argument, it can be beneficial to acknowledge and address the fallacy that they pointed out.
  • Demonstrate that the fallacious reasoning doesn’t invalidate the main point of the original argument. In some cases, rather than addressing all the logical flaws in an argument, it can be better to demonstrate that these flaws don’t invalidate its key point. In such cases, you can explain why you believe that these flaws aren’t crucial, and ask the person who’s using the fallacy fallacy to take this into account (e.g. “I realize that there are some minor issues with this argument, but for the sake of discussion, let’s focus on the key point for now”). However, it’s crucial to assess the situation before doing this, to make sure that doing this is reasonable, and isn’t a way of dismissing important and valid criticism.
  • Acknowledge the logical flaw in the argument and retract the argument. This can be appropriate, for example, in a situation where having someone point out a logical fallacy in your argument makes you realize that the argument and its conclusion are completely wrong.
  • If there’s no actual fallacy in the original argument, explain that. In some cases, people might be wrong when calling out the use of logical fallacies. If you believe that this is the case, it can be beneficial to explain why the original argument wasn’t fallacious, even if it being fallacious doesn’t necessarily mean that its conclusion is wrong.

In addition, keep in mind that the fallacy fallacy is sometimes used in conjunction with other logical fallacies, and that when this happens, you may have to take the presence of the additional fallacies into account in your response.

For example, ad hominem arguments, which are personal attacks against the source of an argument, may be used in conjunction with the fallacy fallacy. This can happen, for instance, in a situation where a person uses the fallacy fallacy to mock their opponent in a debate, by focusing on an unimportant fallacy that was included in their opponent’s argument earlier, even if the fallacy wasn’t crucial to their opponent’s main point, and even if their opponent has already acknowledged and addressed this fallacy. When this happens, the person responding to the fallacy fallacy may also need to address the ad hominem argument, for example by demonstrating that the mentions of the fallacy fallacy represent a personal attack rather than a valid criticism of what they’re trying to say.

Finally, when responding to the use of the fallacy fallacy, it’s important to remember that fallacious reasoning is something that should generally be taken into account, and that while the conclusion of a fallacious argument isn’t necessarily false, it’s not necessarily true either. Accordingly, if someone uses the fallacy fallacy while criticizing some argument, that doesn’t mean that the fallacy in the argument isn’t important, or that the argument’s conclusion is necessarily true.

Overall, to counter the fallacy fallacy, you should first recognize its use, whether it was explicit or implicit. Then, you can use several approaches to respond, including explaining why this reasoning is fallacious, acknowledging and addressing the logical flaw in the original argument, demonstrating that the fallacious reasoning doesn’t invalidate the main point of the original argument, acknowledging the logical flaw in the original argument and retracting the argument, or showing that there was no fallacy in the original argument.

 

How to avoid the fallacy fallacy

The key to avoiding using the fallacy fallacy yourself is to never assume that an argument’s conclusion is necessarily false just because the argument contains a logical fallacy.

Furthermore, to reduce the likelihood of using this fallacy, you should avoid calling out logical fallacies in people’s arguments unless you’re certain that doing so is reasonable and productive given the circumstances, for example because it invalidates the argument’s main point or makes it highly likely that its conclusion is false. Accordingly, before pointing out a logical fallacy in someone’s argument, ask yourself why it’s important to do so. This will not only help prevent you from calling out logical fallacies unnecessarily, but will also help ensure that you can explain why pointing out the fallacy was reasonable on your part.

When considering whether you should point out fallacious reasoning, it’s worth keeping the following quote in mind:

“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

In addition, to further reduce the risk of using the fallacy fallacy or of calling out logical fallacies unnecessarily, you should focus on pointing out and explaining the fallacious reasoning, rather than on simply calling out the logical fallacy by name. This is especially important for people who are highly interested in the topic of logical fallacies, since they can sometimes become so fixated on these fallacies and on calling them out, that they end up forgetting about the underlying arguments and discussions.

Finally, when deciding whether an argument is fallacious, it’s often beneficial to apply the principle of charity. This principle denotes that you should assume that the best possible interpretation of a statement is the one that the person who made it meant to convey, and that you should therefore avoid attributing things such as logical fallacies to people’s arguments, when there is a reasonable alternative explanation. This means, for example, that if there’s doubt as to whether a certain argument is fallacious or not, it can be beneficial to ask the person who made the argument to explain their reasoning, instead of immediately assuming that the argument in question is fallacious.

All this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in identifying or 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 say.

Overall, to avoid using the fallacy fallacy, you shouldn’t assume that an argument’s conclusion is false just because the argument contains a fallacy. Furthermore, if you identify a logical fallacy in an argument, you should make sure that it’s reasonable and productive to point it out before you do, and if you do point it out, you should explain why you’re doing it, and potentially focus on explaining the underlying flaw in logical rather than on calling out the fallacy itself.

 

Related logical fallacies

The inverse fallacy-fallacy

The inverse fallacy-fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that just because the conclusion of a certain argument is true, then the argument itself must be logically 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 A supports proposition P.

Premise 2: proposition P is true.

Premise 3: if a certain proposition is true, then any argument that supports it is logically sound.

Conclusion: argument A must be logically 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 certain situations, such as when people try to apply the same logic in the long-term across multiple domains.

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 logically unsound, and that even random guessing can lead to true 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 if an argument involves the fallacy fallacy, then the conclusion of that argument must be false.

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 my original argument was right.

Based on this, the fallacy-fallacy fallacy has the following structure, which is a specific case of the fallacy fallacy:

Premise 1: argument A supports proposition P.

Premise 2: argument A contains the fallacy fallacy.

Premise 3: if a proposition is supported by an argument that contains the fallacy fallacy, then its conclusion must be false.

Conclusion: proposition P is false.

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 that occurs when someone assumes that if an argument contains a logical fallacy, then its conclusion must be false.
  • For example, if someone fallaciously claimed that a certain medical treatment is preferable to the alternatives because it’s more “natural”, the fallacy fallacy would occur if someone else claimed that this treatment must be worse than the alternatives, because the argument used to support it is fallacious.
  • To counter the fallacy fallacy, you can explain why this reasoning is fallacious, acknowledge and address the logical flaw in the original argument, demonstrate that the fallacious reasoning doesn’t invalidate the main point of the original argument, acknowledge the logical flaw in the original argument and retract the argument, or show that there was no fallacy in the original argument.
  • To avoid using the fallacy fallacy, you shouldn’t assume that an argument’s conclusion is false just because the argument contains a fallacy.
  • To reduce the likelihood of using the fallacy fallacy, you should make sure that it’s reasonable and productive to point out a logical fallacy in someone’s argument before you do, and if you do point it out, you should explain why you’re doing it, and potentially focus on explaining the underlying flaw in logical rather than on calling out the fallacy itself.