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15 Bad arguments to avoid

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In this article 15 mistakes to avoid in your next argument:

Let’s begin:

Argument by assertion (aka “proof by assertion”, “Ipse dixit”)

“A bare assertion is not necessarily the naked truth.” – George Dennison

The argument by assertion is not an argument at all. It’s a fallacy.

Argument vs assertion

  • An argument is one or more premises in support of a conclusion
  • An assertion is a confident and forceful statement of fact or belief

The argument by assertion is simply an assertion that something is true or false without evidence.

However, anyone can assert anything, but that doesn’t make it true:

“The Bible is the word of God”

“Muhammad is the final prophet”

“Jesus is returning soon”

“The world is run by the illuminati”

“The earth is flat”

“Everyone knows that”

“That’s just the way it is”

“You’re an idiot”

There is a huge difference between an argument and an assertion. That might sound painfully obvious, but if you listen carefully to most people talk, they’re not making rational arguments backed up by evidence, they’re simply making baseless assertions. But an assertion is not an argument. Nor is it evidence or proof or a reason to believe anything.

It doesn’t matter:

  • How confidently or loudly something is asserted
  • How long it’s been asserted for, or how often
  • How many people assert it, or how many people agree with them

All claims need reasons and evidence to support them.

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” – Christopher Hitchens

Self-Sealing Argument (aka “vacuous argument”)

“Heads I win, tails you lose”

“Wherever you go, there you are”

“Everything happens for a reason”

A self-sealing argument is an argument that is unfalsifiable, and setup in such a way that it is impossible to contradict or refute, so that no counterarguments or evidence could possibly be used against it.

Self-Sealing argument example #1

Person A: “All actions are selfish”

Person B: “What about that person who sacrificed their life for others?”

Person A: “They did it for selfish motives. They wanted to die a hero”

Self-Sealing argument example #2

Person A: “Everyone has wounds from their childhood”

Person B: “I don’t think I do. I had a great childhood”

Person A: “Everyone does. You’re just in denial about it”

Self-Sealing argument example #3

Person A: “Everything that happens is Gods will”

Person B: “Even AIDS, cancer, murder, rape, terrorism and war?”

Person A: “Yes”

Conspiracy theorists are often guilty of self-sealing arguments and thinking, in that any counterarguments or denials are seen as evidence in support of the theory, and any ridiculing of far-fetched claims an attempt to cover up and suppress evidence and dissenting voices (e.g. the US government denying that 9/11 was an inside job is part of the cover up “that’s what they would say”)

Circular reasoning (aka “begging the question”, “circular logic”)

Circular reasoning is when an argument assumes what it is trying to prove (I.e. the conclusion is contained within the premises)

Circular reasoning example #1

“The Bible is true, because it says so, in the Bible”

Circular reasoning example #2

“Islam is a religion of peace, because it says it is”

Circular reasoning example #3

“I know he’s not lying, because he said he’s not lying”

Appeal to authority (aka “argument from authority”)

“One of the great commandments of science is, “Mistrust arguments from authority.” Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else.” – Carl Sagan

Appeal to authority is a fallacy that occurs when someone asserts that something is true, simply because an authority or expert said it.

The structure of the fallacy looks like this:

P1: Albert Einstein says X is true

P2: Albert Einstein is an expert

C: Therefore, X is true

However, just because an authority or expert said it, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” – Albert Einstein

Experts can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can also believe bullshit.

“The wisest of the wise may err.” – Aeschylus

Even though experts are more likely to be right than non-experts, even if all the experts agree:

“Even if all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken.” – Bertrand Russell

Also, not all statements made by scientists, are scientific statements. Sometimes a scientist is just giving their own personal opinion.

Often people making an argument from authority are too lazy to think for themselves, and believe whatever the “experts” tell them to believe. These same people will often try to pressure you into accepting an argument from authority, as if you should believe something simply because an authority or expert apparently said it.

“Who knows more: You or Stephen Hawking?”

Appeal to authority example #1

Religious people will sometimes try to convince you of something simply because it’s in the Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita etc.

“The Bible says…”

“The Quran says…”

“The Bhagavad Gita says…”

or

“Buddha said…”

“Jesus said…”

“Krishna said…”

“Muhammad said…”

And if you argue or ask questions you might get:

“Who is smarter: You or God?”

This isn’t good enough. You need evidence and reasons, not just assertions from authorities and experts and so-called “Holy Books”.

Appeal to authority example #2

Stephen Hawking said:

“There is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” – Stephen Hawking

…this maybe true, but it’s not true just because he said it.

Appeal to authority example #3

Warren Buffett said:

“Bitcoin has no unique value, it’s a delusion, a mirage, rat poison squared.” – Warren Buffett

Therefore, bitcoin is a bad investment.

Appeal to authority example #4

You: “Why Mom?”

Mom: “Because I said so!”

Appeal to false/irrelevant authorities

“Don’t assume that because somebody has one intellectual skillset, they have another, that those tools apply to all types of intelligence, thinking or claims. They don’t.” – Steven Novella

Sometimes people will even appeal to false or irrelevant authorities that aren’t even an expert on the matter at hand.

Before you consider any argument from authority ask yourself:

  • Is it an anonymous authority? Often people will use anonymous authorities or “weasel words” to make their arguments sound more persuasive e.g. “experts say”, “studies show”, “scientists say” etc.
  • Is it an outdated authority? e.g. Aristotle or Isaac Newton when centuries of experimentation and research have provided new discoveries
  • Is it a legit authority? e.g. not Ben Affleck on Islam, Jenny McCarthy on vaccines, Seth Macfarlane on politics, or an “expert” ghost hunter
  • Is the claim made within the authorities specific area of expertise? Linus Pauling won a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1954, then later made claims that massive quantities of vitamin C would prevent cancer in humans. This claim was in the field of medicine and thus outside his field of competence
  • Has the authority provided good evidence for their claims? Or are they simply asserting?
  • Do the vast majority of other authorities and experts agree with them? Is their viewpoint in the majority or minority? Or is it a contentious issue with no general consensus?
  • Has the authority been misinterpreted, misquoted, or quoted out of context? Were they making a joke or being sarcastic? A lot of experts are misinterpreted, misquoted and quoted out of context. A lot of quotes are also falsely attributed to intellectual heavyweights like Albert Einstein to make them seem more credible. That’s why it’s important to check sources and not just accept that Einstein said X
  • Is the authority possibly biased? Do they have a potential conflict of interest? Is there some reason they may lie or mislead? This doesn’t mean that you should automatically dismiss anything they have to say (appeal to motive) but it’s worth keeping in mind

I’m not saying we shouldn’t listen to the experts, simply that we need to think critically about any information presented to us, and demand good reasons and evidence, instead of blindly believing and taking things on faith.

“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” ― Albert Einstein

Appeal to credentials

The credentials fallacy is when someone dismisses an argument from someone on the basis that they lack qualifications or achievements in the field being discussed.

However, this is fallacious reasoning, because you don’t need a degree or a PhD or a multi-billion dollar business to make a valid point.

Someone making the credentials fallacy is ignoring my favorite bit of critical thinking advice:

“Examine the statement – not the speaker”

It’s stupid to automatically dismiss an argument or statement just because someone doesn’t have credentials in the field being discussed. A statement is either true or untrue, and an argument is either valid or invalid, regardless of who says it.

There are also lots of autodidact’s (self-taught people) that are incredibly smart e.g. Christopher Langan, Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Matt Dillahunty, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers etc.

Credentials fallacy example #1

You: “I think you should do your due diligence before going into business with someone”

Him: “I’m sorry, are you a business owner? Do you own a business? How many successful start-ups have you been a part of?”

Credentials fallacy example #2

You: “Don’t you think you should spend some time with your kids? Help them with their homework etc.?”

Her: “I’m not going to take parenting advice from someone who has never been a parent”

Credentials fallacy example #3

You: “I’m not convinced we have sufficient evidence to accept string theory”

Friend: “Is that so Einstein! Some of the smartest physicists in the world like Edward Witten, Brian Greene and Michio Kaku accept string theory. Do you think you’re smarter than those guys? Come back and speak to me when you win a Nobel Prize in Physics.”

Just because someone is an authority or expert, has a PhD or a multi-billion dollar business, that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Just because someone lacks qualifications or accomplishments, and has little to no experience, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Remember: Examine the statement – not the speaker.

Exception: It’s obviously reasonable to point out someone’s lack of credentials if they’re giving medical advice without being a doctor or having been to medical school

Appeal to common belief (aka “appeal to the majority”, “appeal to popularity”, “bandwagon fallacy”)

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” – Bertrand Russell

Appeal to common belief is a fallacy that occurs when someone tries to convince you to accept or believe something, simply because many or most people believe it.

“Everyone knows that!”

“Everyone’s doing it!” 

“50 Million people can’t be wrong!”

However, just because a claim is widely accepted, that doesn’t mean it’s justified or true.

If the whole world believes that the earth is flat, or is the centre of the universe, or that slavery or racism or sexism is okay, does that mean it is?

“Everyone” believing something, only proves that a belief is popular, not that it’s true.

For example:

There are 2.4 billion Christians in the world

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world

There are 1.1 billion Hindus in the world.

There are 500 million Buddhists in the world.

There are also hundreds of millions of believers in other religions e.g. Jews, Jains, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists etc.

These religions all make contradictory claims, so they can’t all be true (but they can all be false). This means at an absolute minimum, billions of people have believed bullshit for thousands of years (and continue to). Because Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. can’t all be right, since they’re all making contradictory claims.

Beliefs don’t become popular because they’re necessarily true, it’s often but because of marketing and promotion, mass indoctrination in the schooling and educational system, propaganda and social engineering through the media etc.

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