In social media, there is a phenomenon in philosophy/critical thinking enthusiasts called “fallacy bingo”. This is where in an online discussion someone will declare that a fallacy has been committed by simply mentioning the name of the fallacy, typically with no follow up explanation to why the argument qualifies as committing the fallacy mentioned. An example of this would be someone saying “trickle-down economics doesn’t work” and somebody replying “STRAWMAN!” There are an exhaustive number of fallacy terms in existence. In this post, I will focus on five I believe occur rather regularly.
A strawman is when you misrepresent a claim or argument made by someone to make it easier to refute or render invalid. The problem with invoking this fallacy on its own, is that we cannot know whether a strawman has been committed without further information. This is why these are called informal fallacies, because they are bad arguments due to their content, not the logical form of the argument. For instance, the fallacy of affirming the consequent, which is “If p then q, q, therefore p” is a formal fallacy because it is always fallacious, regardless of the content.
No true Scotsman
No true Scotsman is the informal fallacy of making a universal claim, such as ‘all Scotsman wear kilts’ and responding to a counterexample such as ‘Agnus is a Scotsman and he doesn’t wear a kilt’ with ‘well he’s not a true Scotsman’. Once again, the problem is with the content, thus cannot be known by the logic of the argument alone. Contemporary Marxists have been accused of committing the no true Scotsman by claiming that examples of Soviet Russia and Communist China are not examples of real Marxism. However, any introductory reading of Marxism and Socialism will show that they indeed do not reflect the views of Karl Marx, just as Nazi Germany’s interpretation of Nietzsche was misguided (does China seem like a country where the workers control the means of production?). There may be a dispute on who has the burden of proof, but invoking the fallacy alone tells us nothing.
This fallacy is actually not a fallacy at all, but a complaint about making Nazi analogies too often in political debates. The law is that in an argument, the moment someone invokes a Nazi analogy, then the argument is over and the one who invoked the analogy has lost. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically fallacious about Hitler/Nazi analogies. If someone came up and declared they wished to round up and kill Jews, responding ‘where have I heard this before…’ would be completely legitimate. Even Mike Godwin himself, the man who coined the term, has noted that he never intended for it to be treated as a fallacy, but a way to encourage people to be more careful not to be hyperbolic in their analogies.
Similar can be said of the false dichotomy fallacy. This where a claim is made that there are only two options available, when there are actually more. However, many will hear a dichotomy (sometimes called a disjunction) and immediately declare false dichotomy. But as its name entails, in order to be fallacious the dichotomy must be false. Consider the statement ‘I am in Australia or I am not in Australia’. These are the only options. To declare false dichotomy makes no sense. If one is to declare false dichotomy, it needs to be backed up with a third option as a counterexample.
When someone claims that consequence will ultimately occur from an intial event, when it won’t necessarily will, is called a slippery slope. Some arguments against same sex marriage were that it would inevitably lead to animal-human marriages. As we can see, no such events have occured and reasonable people at the time saw that there was no reason to believe that it would. But there will times where a legitimate argument can be made for consequences from initial events. For instance, the logical form of ‘if p then q’ is a conditional claim and can be extended to: p, if p then q, if q then r, if r then s, and so on’. Hence if p is true, and all of the conditionals are true, then s would ultimately have to be true. So, responding ‘slippery slope’ to an argument that assumes a consequence from an event does not give us enough information.
If we understand validity, do we really need informal fallacies anyway?
As we can see, typically informal fallacies are not enough on their own, unlike formal fallacies that always lead to an invalid argument. They need additional information beyond the original argument. The burden of proof on who needs to provide the information may vary, but declaring the fallacy is nonetheless premature in absence of that information.
This raises the question, are knowing the fallacies really needed. All we really need to know, is how arguments can be vaild or invalid, or sound and unsound. With this knowledge, we can discover how Strawmen, no true Scotsmen, Godwin’s laws, false dichotomies and slippery slopes are bad arguments without ever knowing these fallacies existed in the first place.
This is why memorizing all these fallacies can lead to lazy thinking. We will hear an argument that sounds similar to these fallacies, but are not actually fallacious. And from this, a potentially sound argument has been dismissed before the necessary work has been done.This is why I argue is what really matters, is understanding the difference between sound and unsound arguments. And that’s all we need. We don’t need the ‘got ya’ mentality behind playing fallacy bingo.