What Most People Get Wrong About Critical Thinking Tools

“Ha! You just made an ad hominem argument. See, that proves you're wrong."

Posted Aug 20, 2015

In support of our positions and against other positions, we make arguments. Some arguments are based on content; others are not. If you’ve had any education in critical thinking, the first thing you learn about is the fallacies, a wonderful list of ways to argue for and against positions that seem significant but aren’t.

Fallacies are weak arguments. People often misunderstand the fallacy concept, largely because "fallacy" implies false. A fallacy is not false; it’s weak or irrelevant.

But there's a fallacy for that on that great list of fallacies:

The Fallacy Fallacy: the assumption that if someone makes a weak argument, it’s a false argument, and that if someone makes a false argument, then the position that argument is supporting is also false.

For example, if you say that Donald Trump is wrong on immigration because he's greedy and mean, you're employing the fallacy known as an ad hominem (against the man) argument: The man is bad, therefore his idea is wrong.

People will often say, “You made an ad hominem argument and therefore the position you’re defending is wrong." This is close to paradoxical, actually, much like saying “You’re discredited because you’re a name-caller,” which is, in fact name-calling. Discrediting people for making ad hominem arguments is an ad hominem argument.

In fact, whether Trump is greedy and mean has no bearing either way on his immigration policy. That’s the real point about the fallacies. Fallacies are undicators. They indicate neither way on the merits of the position being supported.

Sometimes greedy mean people support good positions, sometimes they support bad positions. You can’t tell whether its good or bad simply by judging the arguer’s moral character, and more generally you can’t tell what’s a true or false position based on any weak forms of argument.

I love the catalog of fallacies. To name them is to tame them. If you are able to spot a weak argument in support of a position, you can ignore that argument and get back to evaluating the position by relevant content. Naming the fallacies keeps us from being distracted by them.

We all put rhetorical thumbs on the scale of reason. We elevate our cherished positions and lower opposing positions by means of arguments and gestures that we hope will seem relevant even though they aren't.

Take the rhetorical power of a sigh or eye roll in disgust; powerful background music or sexy people presenting your position. Like mercenaries, these rhetorical moves will go to war for or against any position. You can sigh in disgust about any position. You can make any position sound truer with passionate music in the background.

By all means, get to know the fallacies and respond to them by adjusting the scale so you get a balance that discounts the rhetorical thumbs we put on the scale.

When you bring your frozen yogurt or salad to the checkout to be weighed so you know how much to pay, you'll find that they adjusted the scale so it reads zero when the empty container is on the scale. That's called taring, adjusting a scale for a fair balance, recalibrating the weight so you don’t end up weighing what’s irrelevant.

Managing the fallacies does that for arguments. If someone is going to put their rhetorical thumb on the scale, pushing down or lifting up with some empty rhetorical argument, you want to recalibrate the scale so it reads zero even with their thumbs on it. Managing the fallacies is thumb-weight taring.

We see the fallacies in action in courts of law. A lawyer raises an objection to an argument her opposition is making. The judge decides whether the opposition lawyer is employing an argument that shouldn’t count. When the objection is sustained, the argument is considered inadmissible, irrelevant to the case.

Indulging in the Fallacy Fallacy is different. You see a thumb on the scale, and you bang your whole hand down on it. This would be the equivalent to a lawyer raising an objection, the judge sustaining it and declaring the case is closed in favor of the lawyer who raised the objection, as though the judge said to the objector, “You’re right, your opponent just made a weak argument as though it was strong one, therefore you win the case!”