3.1 Fallacies of Relevance

As we turn to the fallacies of relevance, it is good to remember these fallacies depend on the use of information that may seem relevant to establishing the conclusion but isn’t really relevant after all. They often play on our emotional responses to certain situations and topics and they can be quite effective as means of persuading us. They work so well in getting us to buy into their conclusions in part because of the nature of the human mind – even though we are capable of thinking about things coolly and logically, we often jump to conclusions on emotional grounds and then enlist our cognitive abilities merely to rationalize decisions and conclusions we have already made. Philosophers would encourage us to resist such impulses and to stop and think before jumping to conclusions. This can of course be quite challenging just because of the way in which our brains are wired – the neural pathway between sensory input to motor and cognitive output is shorter in its trip through those parts of the brain that process emotions than it is through our higher cognitive powers. But still, whoever said leading an examined life was the easiest thing to do?

Appeal to authority

My friend who is a scientist insists that global warming is not cause for alarm, and for me that is a good enough reason to accept her conclusion.

This fallacy is also known as “appeal to inappropriate authority.” Appealing to authority is a commonly used way of trying to convince people. But why do we find authorities believable in the first place? Because they are authorities? In this case we may wonder why they are considered authorities at all. On the other hand if they have something to back up their claims, why don’t we just see for ourselves whether they are right or not?

Ad hominem

There is no need to take that animal rights activist seriously.

After all, she also benefits from the use of animals – notice her leather shoes and fur mittens.

The name of this fallacy is a Latin expression meaning “against the person.” It is also known as the “abusive fallacy,” or “personal attack.” This very popular fallacy focuses on the personal inconsistency of the person giving the argument in an attempt to discredit their argument. People who use this strategy don’t respond directly to their opponent’s argument but bring up external reasons not to believe anything he or she says. This is clearly wrong since it is the argument that someone gives and its validity and soundness that should be our concern not the person from whose mouth that argument happens to be coming.

Appeal to force

The reason that we are right is because we have the military might to get rid of any government that disagrees.

However effective force or threats of force may be in getting people to do what we want, we may wonder whether this approach really is attempting to convince anyone of anything. Even though threats may get people to say that they agree with you, this shows nothing about whether or not the conclusion is true or whether they really believe what you are saying.

Appeal to consequences

If astronomers are correct, the earth orbits a relatively insignificant star in a remote corner of one galaxy among billions.

But this conclusion violates our sense of the significance of our own lives and so it must be false.

This fallacy involves rejecting some particular viewpoint, theory or idea based on the consequences to which it leads. These consequences are often emotionally loaded, the kinds of things that we may not want to believe. However, it is often simply irrelevant whether or not we like or want to believe something: the truth may in fact be indifferent to what is pleasing to us. The way to tell what the truth of the matter is, is to examine the evidence rather than reject a theory out of hand because it has unappealing consequences.

The naturalistic fallacy

Women alone are capable of having babies.

So the responsibility of raising and taking care of them is entirely theirs.

Next we have the naturalistic fallacy. We often appeal to nature as if natural things, practices, etc. were automatically good. This is perhaps understandable in a world filled with various artificial substances of dubious safety. But we should be careful of making such appeals since they involve a leap of logic. The problem with the naturalistic fallacy is actually quite a general problem – the attempt to conclude something about what should or ought to be be the case from what simply is the case. In this example, the facts of how human reproduction work entail nothing about who should play what role in raising children. That is a matter of social relations that, us philosophers hope, should be based on a free and open (and rational) discussion between those involved and not on the “facts of life.”

The genetic fallacy

Newspapers are businesses that make profits from selling papers.

So we should distrust what they publish since it is bound to be affected by their desire to make money.

Arguing like this is a more general version of the naturalistic fallacy. We often assume that where something comes from affects its nature in fundamental ways and so we automatically tend to distrust research that is paid for by corporations, we distrust claims made by people who stand to gain from what these claims are about and so on. Although it may seem like wise advice to “follow the money” and keep in mind that those who pay the bills might use their power to determine the content of the conversation, insisting that this must be the case simply does not follow. In the case of the news media, the fact that a large newspaper corporation makes money for its employees doesn’t automatically slant what exactly they are saying in one way or another. This is because one part of their business strategy might also be to maintain high standards of independently verified journalistic integrity. If they are selling their reputation as reliable reporters, and there is an independent way of determining the truth of their claims, there is not necessarily a conflict built into the idea of selling newspapers. Just as in the case of other fallacies of relevance, such as appeal to authority and ad hominem, in this case what matters is not so much who is saying something but what is being said, and we can see for ourselves whether or not it is reliable or slanted in any way.

Red herring

We shouldn’t worry that much about people dying of horrible diseases in Africa.

After all we have problems of our own to deal with.

The name of this fallacy comes from the British method of fox hunting. First a captive fox is released and then a pack of foxhounds follow its scent trail, followed in turn by the hunters. In order to make it a little more difficult for the hounds to follow the fox, a piece of smoked herring (a smelly fish that typically is red in color) is wiped on the ground across the fox’s path and thrown off to the side somewhere. This serves to distract and confuse the hounds and gives the fox a chance to get away. In an argument whenever you bring up something irrelevant in order to draw attention away from the topic at hand you are relying on the fallacy of red herring. The problem with the reasoning in this example, of course, is that there is no mention made of the possibility that both problems in Africa and problems here can be addressed. Besides mentioning something off the topic in no way undermines whatever claims are made about that topic.

Weak analogy

Galileo was ridiculed because of his views, and these views later proved to be correct.
I too am ridiculed for believing that the Pope is a reptilian alien in league with the Freemasons.

Thus I too will have my day and my views will be accepted.

Analogies are comparisons between different things. We reason analogically when we argue that because one object or concept has a certain feature, other objects or concepts that are similar in certain respects will also have that feature. This is an important way in which we make sense of the world. However, it has its drawbacks. If we are not careful we can end up making analogies when they are not really there. This argument is based on a weak analogy because it is just not the case that all views that are ridiculed end up prevailing in the end. Some do, like Galileo’s, but the reason was not inherent in their being ridiculed, but on their being based on good reasoning supported by evidence in the appropriate ways. And by the way, there really are people who believe that the Pope is a reptilian alien, just google it and see.