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Combating Fallacious Reasoning

The logical fallacies that every college student ought to recognize.

August 30, 2022

When I was young, I was transfixed by Ripley’s Believe It or Not! As I viewed and reviewed the drawings that appeared in the newspaper, I learned about a great many jaw-dropping oddities. But of all the shocking and bizarre marvels that I encountered, one curiosity stood out: the fate of Jeremy Bentham, the pioneering reformer and utilitarian philosopher who held that the most ethical policy choice was the one that produced the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

You perhaps recall that Bentham asked that after his death his remains be preserved, dressed in his own clothes. Even today, his mummified corpse remains on display in a glass case in University College London’s student center.

Bentham’s collected works currently consist of 34 volumes out of an anticipated total of 80. Alongside his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and his voluminous writings on criminal justice, political economy, press freedom and sexual morality is an 1824 volume that examines the canards, fallacies, illusions, sophistries, specious arguments, tautologies, technicalities, errors in logic, erroneous beliefs, distorted reasoning, willful falsehoods, word magic and other tactics used by defenders of the status quo to block reform, perpetuate selfish interests and preserve what Bentham called “systematized corruption.”

Bentham identified some 30 fallacies, distortions and other rhetorical strategies used by obstructionists to confuse, delay and alarm the public and obviate any possibility for social betterment. All of those rhetorical stratagems sound unnervingly familiar today:

  • If you attack the government’s policies, then you are attacking the nation.
  • What you propose is without precedent and therefore dicey.
  • Your ideas may be good in theory but will be bad in practice.

Our students, I am convinced, would benefit enormously from understanding the spurious arguments used to deceive, trick and self-justify. Examples of such arguments include:

  • Special pleading, appealing for special treatment and exemption from commonly accepted rules.
  • Setting up a straw man, deliberating misrepresenting an argument by extremely distorting an opponent’s position.
  • Slippery slope arguments that claim that an initial act will inevitably lead to a catastrophic conclusion.
  • Arguments through repetition that involve repeatedly making an assertion without adequate explanation, evidence or proof.
  • Circular reasoning, a tautology or argument that assumes what it is attempting to prove.
  • Appeals to motive, that is, dismissing an argument by questioning the motives of its proponents.
  • Appeals to emotion, arguments that rely on emotional manipulation, including those that exploit people’s anxieties and fears, prejudices, fantasies, or desire for approval or admiration.

For all the emphasis that higher education places on critical thinking, the sad fact is that colleges and universities devote even less sustained attention to cultivating this skill than to preparing students to write well. Instead, the academy parcels out logic, rhetoric and cognitive biases to a variety of departments, including behavioral economics, English, philosophy, psychology and sociology, with the result that few undergrads ever learn systematically how to evaluate arguments artfully or to recognize the fallacies and distortions that thwart effective reasoning.

I think it’s time to follow Bentham’s example and to devote more attention to cultivating students’ capacity to reason rigorously and logically and to identify fallacies in causation, motivation, mistakes in logic and gaps in reasoning.

Let me offer an example of someone who tried to do this.

Big-game hunting is as out of fashion within the academy as it is in the wild. I can’t think of a recent example of junior scholars attempting to make their reputation by savaging a senior scholar.

But earlier in time, a devastating article or review was one pathway to professional prominence. The last (failed) example that I recall was a full-scale attack on the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward’s argument that Reconstruction ended as a result of a clandestine compromise reached in a smoke-filled Washington, D.C., hotel room. Woodward pushed back hard, leaving the critique in the dust.

The most striking example of big-game hunting in my discipline was David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies. Inspired in part by Bentham’s treatise, Fischer’s 1970 book was by turns witty, irreverent, sarcastic, gleeful, brutal and ruthless. Among the 112 fallacies he identifies are those involving formulating a historical argument, substantiating a historical interpretation and drawing conclusions and generalizations.

His named perpetrators of shoddy thinking included many of the history profession’s most towering practitioners, including Henry Steele Commager, David Donald, Don E. Fehrenbacher, Oscar Handlin, Alan Heimert, Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Eliot Morison, David M. Potter and Kenneth Stampp.

Some of the fallacies that Fischer discusses are history-specific. These include:

  • The fallacy of the absurd analogy, the tendency to draw comparisons that are inappropriate, like the recurrent tendency to assume that it is always 1938 and that Western foreign policy is on the verge of appeasing a foreign power.
  • The telescopic fallacy, historians’ propensity to assume that a critical transformation just happens to take place in the period they are studying, rather than to regard this as a long-term development.
  • The fallacy of presumptive continuity, the assumption that only social change needs to be explained while historical continuities can be taken for granted.

But other fallacies that Fischer describes can be found in virtually every discipline that studies human behavior. These include:

  • The pathetic fallacy, the propensity to treat something that is abstract, like capitalism, as if it were animate.
  • The fallacy of misplaced precision, in which a scholar grossly overstates the reliability, exactness or accuracy of a statistic.
  • The idealist fallacy that treating human beings as if they were always rational actors.
  • The fallacy of indiscriminate pluralism, in which a scholar enumerates multiple causes without examining their relative importance.
  • The fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc, assuming that because one thing preceded another, the first thing caused the other.

Historians’ Fallacies charts an uneasy middle ground between formal studies of logic and rhetoric and the naïve, unsophisticated reasoning and theorizing about motivation, causation, factual significance and generalization that mar all too many history books and articles. Fischer’s volume is therefore vulnerable to the charge that it simply offers a laundry list of examples of slapdash, careless thinking,

Still, his book suggests the kind of course that many beginning college students might benefit from. Such a class would introduce students to the fallacies and misguided modes of thought that lead people into error.

A course like this would not be a substitute for more advanced classes in formal reasoning or cognitive distortions. But by introducing students to errors in reasoning, it might help many undergraduates think and write more self-critically.

What might such a course cover?

1. Fallacies of inquiry: Common research errors include availability bias (the tendency to overvalue evidence that is recent or readily accessible), confirmation bias (the propensity to overvalue evidence that reinforces preexisting beliefs) and sampling errors, selection bias and survivor bias (assuming that those people or things that are sampled are representative of a more comprehensive population or consciously or unconsciously cherry-picking evidence).

2. Fallacies of reasoning: Errors in logic include attribution bias (the tendency to misattribute human behavior to character traits rather than to situational, structural or contextual factors); spurious correlation (relationships that appear causal but are in fact due to chance or a confounding variable); and intentionality fallacy (concluding that the value or meaning of a work or action reveals an actor or creator’s motives).

3. Fallacies of explanation: Flawed accounts of causation, context and consequences include anthropomorphism or reification (assigning human-like traits to a nonhuman entity or abstract concept); bias blind spots (the tendency to ignore the way that prejudice and partiality can influence perception); cognitive dissonance (consciously or unconsciously justifying an earlier attitude or assumption and rejecting or downplaying contradictory evidence); framing effects (in which people’s choices are shaped by the way a question is framed or the options that they are offered); and the genetic fallacy that an idea or concepts origins defines its current meaning

4. Fallacies of generalization: Faulty conclusions might be a product of the following: a false dilemma or dichotomy that artificially limits the available options; the ecological fallacy of ascribing certain characteristics to an individual based on a group’s characteristics; or inductive fallacies, conclusions that are drawn from limited, unrepresentative or biased evidence or that are excessively sweeping.

Scholarship in the humanities and social sciences is an interpretive, question-asking, problem-solving enterprise. It is not simply descriptive or expository. We need to do a better job, I think, in teaching students how to:

  • Read closely. Mortimer J. Adler’s 1940 volume, How to Read a Book, offers four strategies that I still find useful: the elementary (simply reading the book from beginning to end to familiarize yourself with its contents), the inspectional (focusing on the preface, the table of contents, the conclusion and the topic sentences to understand the book’s basic argument and organizational structure), the analytical (to grasp the larger theoretical or conceptual problem that the work is addressing and its methodology and evidence base) and the synoptic (critically comparing one work against others on the same topic).
  • Formulate meaningful research questions. The first step is to enter into a scholarly conversation. That requires a student to grasp existing interpretations and debates and to identify things that are problematic in the previous scholarship. These might include questions, evidence, case studies or points of view that haven’t been adequate considered. A meaningful research question must be researchable and feasible. It might be interpretive, argumentative, predictive, evaluative or comparative, but it must be clear and nuanced and go beyond mere description. Such questions inevitably grew more refined as one researches a topic.
  • Frame and substantiate an argument or interpretation. This requires a student to advance a hypothesis, thesis, argument or interpretation that is specific, relevant and arguable, but that isn’t simplistic or merely commonsense or opinion that can’t be corroborated with evidence and argumentation. Then, typically, the student must review the existing literature, define key terms, adopt and explain an appropriate methodology and conceptual framework, weigh, analyze and interpret evidence and consider counterarguments and opposing points of view.
  • Conclude an argument or interpretation with a bang. An effective conclusion doesn’t simply recap, restate or summarize. It offers provocative insights that go beyond the paper’s earlier arguments and interpretation. It teases out the research’s implications and extracts lessons or generalizations. Much as effective essays typically begin with a punch, a lead that captures a reader’s attention (for example, with a provocative anecdote, quotation or statistic, a snappy metaphor or analogy or a reference to an anniversary), they close with a kicker, a punchy, memorable ending.

Jeremy Bentham may have died in 1832, but just as his mummified corpse endures, so should his ideas about the fallacies and distortions that impair thinking and warp arguments.

Every business or craft has its trade secrets, classified information, proprietary knowledge and secret formulas. But the academy should not be like that. Instructors need to ensure that every student acquires a command of the strategies that professional scholars use to read closely and critically, think rigorously, research meticulously and write persuasively.

Don’t assume that students pick up those skills by osmosis. Make sure your students acquire the toolkit that is essential to academic success.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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