Levi Felton has recently posted a list of logical fallacies, which I think is quite useful in sharpening up debate and recognising flaws in the one’s arguments and those of others. His main target is Brian MacLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, but I think the list has more general application. Here’s the list (mainly in Levi’s words), with a few comments (mainly in my own words):-
1. Argument from Age. It can be assumed that something is good, either because it is (a) old (‘the wisdom of the ages’; ‘tried and trusted’); or (b) because it is new (‘fresh’; ‘contemporary’).
2. Poisoning the Wells. This is where an attempt is made to discredit the sources used by an opponent. They may be dismissed as ‘old-fashioned’; ‘unscientific’; and so on.
3. Correlation mistaken for causation. Because two events are linked chronologically, this does not mean that they are necessarily linked by cause-and-effect.
4. Reifying. This is talking about an abstract thing as though it had a real existence.
5. Needling. This is when an attempt is made to annoy the opponent without addressing the arguments.
6. Straw Man. To attack a ‘straw man’ is to attack a position said to be held by one’s opponent, but which is in fact not held by that person.
7. Argument from Adverse Consequences. This is to argue that ‘if you believe A (let’s say the authority of the Old Testament), then behaviour B will follow (let’s say ethnic cleansing).’ In this way, an attempt is made to discredit belief A.
8. Excluded Middle. This is to assume that only two options are available. Thus, ‘honest doubt’ is contrasted with’blind faith’ in order to celebrate doubt above faith. But this is to exclude options such as ‘honest faith’ and ‘blind doubt’.
9. Special Pleading. This is to select only that evidence and those arguments that support one’s case, and to neglect the (possibily weightier) evidence and arguments that count against it.
10. Argument by Question. This is the oldest trick in the book. The serpent in the Garden of Eden led the first man to sin, not by making a statement about what God had forbidden, but by asking, “Has God said…?” Such a strategy can create doubt in one’s opponent’s mind, particularly, buy forcing him to reply to a question to which he cannot formulate an adequate answer.
11. Argument by Rhetorical Question. A rhetorical question is one which is loaded in such a way as to lead to the answer that the questioner desires. (‘Surely you don’t believe that…?’)
12. Genetic Fallacy. The idea here is that a person who comes from a particular social, intellectual, moral or religious background has or does not have credibility because of that background. A simple example would be ‘name-dropping’: if someone who is respected said or did this, then it must be OK.
13. Argument from Personal Charm. What counts as person charm probably varies from culture to culture. In the UK, at least, the use of self-deprecation is valued quite highly, as is the use of humour.
14. Appeal to Sympathy. If you can persuade others that you have suffered because of your beliefs, or that you are really sticking your neck out in articulating them at all, then you may gain sympathy. The message is, in effect: ‘Others respond venomously, but I’m sure I’ll get a better reaction from you [implied: because you’re a kind, reasonable, intelligent person, just like me]’. A variation on this is to present your views as ‘subversive’: this appeals to the anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian bias that many have.
15. Stolen Concept. This involves using the very thing you are trying to disprove. It is the equivalent in debate of having your cake and eating it. Ad hominen arguments have their place, but if I (a) attack the general trustworthiness of the Bible, and at the same time (b) appeal to the Bible as generally trustworthy, then my reasoning is flawed.
16. Argument from False Authority. The approach here might be, ‘I’m not a trained theologian; I’m just an amateur. But then an amateur is a person who does things for love, rather than money or academic prestige.’
17. Pious Fraud. This could attempt to motivate people by trying to convince them, without adequate evidence, that their particular version of the Christian faith is going from strength to strength and that others should jump on board now if they want to be on the winning side.
18. Inconsistency. At one point, the debater might celebrate seeing things as if for the first times, while at another point celebrate what can be learned from long years of experience.
19. Argument from Prestigious Jargon. Some people are impressed by the use of long words and complicated sentences. The listener or reader is made to feel inadequate, to the point that s/he feels ashamed to ask, ‘What do you mean?’
20. Appeal to Widespread Belief. Expressions such as, ‘Everybody nowadays accepts that…’ should not be accepted without question.
21. Having Your Cake. This can proceed as follows: ‘ Some people believe that…Now, I don’t necessarily believe that myself, but…’ In this way a point can be argued, but if proven wrong or out-debated I can fall back on the original disclaimer of not believing it.
22. Ambiguous Statement. This is related to a number of previously-mentioned fallacies. Regrettably, some good examples of studied ambiguity can be found in the liturgical statements of some denominations, who leave things sufficiently open so as to please (or displease) liberals and conservatives alike.
23. Argument by Laziness. This can take the form of, ‘I’m too busy a person to spend time with the details of my opponent’s argument, and, in any case, his case is very weak, so I’ll only discuss it very briefly.’
24. Internal Contradiction. An example would be where a person argues that we should follow the example of Jesus, but also denies that the Gospel accounts give a reliable account of what Jesus said and did.
25. Argument by Repetition. Repeating the same idea in the same or different words may add emphasis, but does not increase the validity of the argument.
26. Statement of Conversion. This is where the speaker or writer implies that he used to think as other people do but has now moved on and knows better. There is an elitist element to this strategies which implies, ‘When you become mature, as I have, then you will think as I do.’
A Cautionary Note
Helpful as it is to be able to spot all these logical fallacies, life would be terribly dull if everyone talked in syllogisms all the time. There is a place for rhetorical device, as there is a place for the use of figures of speech. Indeed, these devices can often look very similar to some of the logical fallacies noted above. What about hyperbole, personification, rhetorical questioning, and (probably most important of all these days) irony? It is neither wise nor necessary to ban such devices.
I suppose the key point here is there has to be a pact, a mutual understanding, between speaker (or writer) and hearer (or reader). According to that pact, the communicator will use any appropriate communicate device at his disposal, but (a) it will used consistently with his view of the truth and importance of the message, and (b) not be used manipulatively with respect to the recipient.
I say this out of respect for Brian MacLaren. Although I do not agree with MacLaren on many points, I think I understand what he is getting when when he complains that some of his critics just don’t ‘get’ what he is saying. I think if we read a passage from a MacLaren book, and it makes our eyebrows raise, we should at least consider the possibility: Maybe this is irony.