Logical Fallacies in Politics and Beyond
Logic training to reduce bias
Posted July 5, 2018
Logical people are typically less biased. It makes sense semantically, but I’m also referring to the research. Studies show that participants who score higher on measures of logical reasoning or who receive logic training are less prone to certain cognitive biases, including stereotyping (Schaller et al., 1996; Stalder, 2000).
There are dozens of textbook logical fallacies. Learning how to spot them and avoid them can reduce many forms of bias. Ironically, however, committing logical fallacies can sometimes make a speaker more persuasive, especially when the audience doesn’t catch it.
First, just to be clear, the logic-training studies provide results that are on average. Some who receive the training are still plenty biased. This can help explain how some very smart people with advanced degrees (even judges) can still be so irrational at times. Even Spock made some blunders in his time.
But in general, logic reduces bias.
Ad Hominem Fallacy
In my previous post on political tribalism , I mentioned the ad hominem fallacy—devaluing an argument not on its merits but because of perceived negative qualities of those who proposed it. If you’re watching a debate and one candidate laughs off an argument by calling the other side names, that’s the fallacy. It might sound convincing, especially if we already have negative feelings against the other side. The names can be based on physical appearance, race, gender, past employment, you name it.
Politicians who name-call might have a legitimate counterargument but believe name-calling will get more votes. Or the politicians may be hiding the fact that they cannot actually counter the argument on the facts. In either case (or any case in between), name-calling without presenting a real counterargument justifies the ad hominem label.
If your goal is to get your candidate elected or at least to feel good about your candidate, then taking an ad hominem approach against the other side might help. But if your goal is to reduce the risk of bias, then try to tune out the name-calling. Focus instead on the content of the arguments and the evidence provided. (Of course, if you value the ability of a candidate to out-insult a rival, that is your call as a voter.)
A false dichotomy goes by so many names it’s hard to decide which to use. They include the either-or fallacy, all-or-nothing fallacy, and black-and-white fallacy. A classic example is to say you’re with me or against me.
A recent example in the news is when immigration discussions devolve into “support this immigration bill or you’re for open borders.” There are many in-between positions (Qiu, 2018). Overlooking them can worsen prejudice and hostility between political parties, even if the immigration bill made great sense to you.
Even some profound and sincere pleas for justice may technically fit the all-or-nothing fallacy. A common example is to say that being silent in the face of injustice is as bad as committing the injustice yourself. So either you actively fight the injustice or you are just as guilty as the perpetrators. I’ve seen “silence is betrayal” and even “white silence is violence.”
Silence is one of the hardest things to interpret. It’s very frustrating in the face of injustice, but there can be so many constraints against speaking up. And not all constraints are equally dismissible. Some who are silent are fighting for their own lives or their children’s in other ways.
But I think this is a gray area. Some of the silence-is-betrayal one-liners may be shared out of context. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. more fully said that “a time comes when silence is betrayal” (Scruggs, 2017). The context is that extreme circumstances have been lingering or worsening over time and only in this worst case must we resort to an all-or-nothing approach.
In psychotherapy, both clients and therapists can be guilty of all-or-nothing thinking. A client might say his life will be over if a romantic interest doesn’t return his call. Or a client might think she will “never” succeed in life if she fails at her next job interview. These patterns of thinking may reflect bias toward oneself or the world and can be addressed by a therapist.
But sometimes a client expresses anxiety about a possible outcome without the cataclysmic prediction, and the therapist is the one who says “come on, it won’t be the end of the world.” The client didn’t think it would be.
If you’re feeling anxiety about something and the world-won’t-end phrase makes you feel better, that’s great—feel free to skip to the next paragraph. However, many well-intentioned cognitive therapists bring out that phrase in a false dichotomy, that either the world will end or “life goes on” (Burns, 1999). This oversimplification can inadvertently disparage and silence a client’s valid concerns about the in-between possibilities ( Stalder, 2016 ).
My last example pertains to trigger warnings, which are brief warnings that upcoming content may be emotionally disturbing. It’s a heads-up, particularly for those who have suffered a past trauma. Some educators against these warnings engage in either-or thinking. They argue that trigger warnings reflect a “presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged" (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015).
Why can’t teachers both protect and challenge? Of course they can, but that complexity undermines the argument against trigger warnings ( Stalder, 2015 ).
Reality is usually more complicated than we like to think. So it’s relatively easy to be persuaded by the speaker who oversimplifies, whether to get your vote, help you feel better in therapy, or improve your education. Many logical fallacies and biases are about oversimplifying.
So if the goal is to reduce bias, toward yourself or others or the world, keep your eyes out for these fallacies. Embrace the complexity.
I will cover additional logical fallacies in future posts.
David D. Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook (New York: Plume, 1999).
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Atlantic, September, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/.
Linda Qiu, “No, Democrats Don’t Want ‘Open Borders,’” New York Times, June 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/us/politics/fast-check-donald-trump-democrats-open-borders.html.
Mark Schaller et al., “Training in Statistical Reasoning Inhibits the Formation of Erroneous Group Stereotypes,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22 (1996): 829–44.
Afi-Odelia Scruggs, “Beyond Vietnam: The MLK Speech that Caused an Uproar,” USA Today, January 13, 2017 , https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/01/13/martin-luther-king-jr-beyond-vietnam-speech/96501636/.
Daniel R. Stalder, “Does Logic Moderate the Fundamental Attribution Error?” Psychological Reports 86 (2000): 879–82.
Daniel R. Stalder, “It’s Not the End of the World: Comforting but Illogical,” PARBs Anonymous (blog), February 21, 2016, https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/its-not-the-end-of-the-world-comforting-but-illogical/.
Daniel R. Stalder, “Trigger Warnings in College: Do Individual Differences Matter?” PARBs Anonymous (blog), August 20, 2015, https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/trigger-warnings-in-college-do-individual-differences-matter/.