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Appeal to Common Practice
Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings)

The Appeal to Common Practice is a fallacy with the following structure:

  1. X is a common action.
  2. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.
The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as "evidence" to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable.

An appeal to fair play, which might seem to be an appeal to common practice, need not be a fallacy. For example, a woman working in an office might say "the men who do the same job as me get paid more than I do, so it would be right for me to get paid the same as them." This would not be a fallacy as long as there was no relevant difference between her and the men (in terms of ability, experience, hours worked, etc.). More formally:

  1. It is common practice to treat people of type Y in manner X and to treat people of type Z in a different manner.
  2. There is no relevant difference between people of type Y and type Z.
  3. Therefore people of type Z should be treated in manner X, too.
This argument rests heavily on the principle of relevant difference. On this principle two people, A and B, can only be treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference between them. For example, it would be fine for me to give a better grade to A than B if A did better work than B. However, it would be wrong of me to give A a better grade than B simply because A has red hair and B has blonde hair.

There might be some cases in which the fact that most people accept X as moral entails that X is moral. For example, one view of morality is that morality is relative to the practices of a culture, time, person, etc. If what is moral is determined by what is commonly practiced, then this argument:

  1. Most people do X.
  2. Therefore X is morally correct.
would not be a fallacy. This would however entail some odd results. For example, imagine that there are only 100 people on earth. 60 of them do not steal or cheat and 40 do. At this time, stealing and cheating would be wrong. The next day, a natural disaster kills 30 of the 60 people who do not cheat or steal. Now it is morally correct to cheat and steal. Thus, it would be possible to change the moral order of the world to one’s view simply by eliminating those who disagree.

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Appeal to Emotion
Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings) → Distracting Appeals

An Appeal to Emotion is a fallacy with the following structure:

  1. Favorable emotions are associated with X.
  2. Therefore, X is true.
This fallacy is committed when someone manipulates peoples' emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true. More formally, this sort of "reasoning" involves the substitution of various means of producing strong emotions in place of evidence for a claim. If the favorable emotions associated with X influence the person to accept X as true because they "feel good about X," then he has fallen prey to the fallacy.

This sort of "reasoning" is very common in politics and it serves as the basis for a large portion of modern advertising. Most political speeches are aimed at generating feelings in people so that these feelings will get them to vote or act a certain way. In the case of advertising, the commercials are aimed at evoking emotions that will influence people to buy certain products. In most cases, such speeches and commercials are notoriously free of real evidence.

This sort of "reasoning" is quite evidently fallacious. It is fallacious because using various tactics to incite emotions in people does not serve as evidence for a claim. For example, if a person were able to inspire in a person an incredible hatred of the claim that 1+1 = 2 and then inspired the person to love the claim that 1+1 =3, it would hardly follow that the claim that 1+1 = 3 would be adequately supported.

It should be noted that in many cases it is not particularly obvious that the person committing the fallacy is attempting to support a claim. In many cases, the user of the fallacy will appear to be attempting to move people to take an action, such as buying a product or fighting in a war. However, it is possible to determine what sort of claim the person is actually attempting to support. In such cases one needs to ask "what sort of claim is this person attempting to get people to accept and act on?" Determining this claim (or claims) might take some work. However, in many cases it will be quite evident. For example, if a political leader is attempting to convince her followers to participate in certain acts of violence by the use of a hate speech, then her claim would be "you should participate in these acts of violence." In this case, the "evidence" would be the hatred evoked in the followers. This hatred would serve to make them favorable inclined towards the claim that they should engage in the acts of violence. As another example, a beer commercial might show happy, scantily clad men and women prancing about a beach, guzzling beer. In this case the claim would be "you should buy this beer." The "evidence" would be the excitement evoked by seeing the beautiful people guzzling the beer.

This fallacy is actually an extremely effective persuasive device. As many people have argued, peoples' emotions often carry much more force than their reason. Logical argumentation is often difficult and time consuming and it rarely has the power to spurn people to action. It is the power of this fallacy that explains its great popularity and wide usage. However, it is still a fallacy.

In all fairness it must be noted that the use of tactics to inspire emotions is an important skill. Without an appeal to peoples' emotions, it is often difficult to get them to take action or to perform at their best. For example, no good coach presents her team with syllogisms before the big game. Instead she inspires them with emotional terms and attempts to "fire" them up. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, it is not any acceptable form of argumentation. As long as one is able to clearly distinguish between what inspires emotions and what justifies a claim, one is unlikely to fall prey to this fallacy.

As a final point, in many cases it will be difficult to distinguish an Appeal to Emotion from some other fallacies and in many cases multiple fallacies may be committed. For example, many Ad Hominems will be very similar to Appeals to Emotion and, in some cases, both fallacies will be committed. As an example, a leader might attempt to invoke hatred of a person to inspire his followers to accept that they should reject her claims. The same attack could function as an Appeal to Emotion and a Personal Attack. In the first case, the attack would be aimed at making the followers feel very favorable about rejecting her claims. In the second case, the attack would be aimed at making the followers reject the person's claims because of some perceived (or imagined) defect in her character.

This fallacy is related to the Appeal to Popularity fallacy. Despite the differences between these two fallacies, they are both united by the fact that they involve appeals to emotions. In both cases the fallacies aim at getting people to accept claims based on how they or others feel about the claims and not based on evidence for the claims.

Another way to look at these two fallacies is as follows
Appeal to Popularity

  1. Most people approve of X.
  2. So, I should approve of X, too.
  3. Since I approve of X, X must be true.
Appeal to Emotion
  1. I approve of X.
  2. Therefore, X is true.
On this view, in an Appeal to Popularity the claim is accepted because most people approve of the claim. In the case of an Appeal to Emotion the claim is accepted because the individual approves of the claim because of the emotion of approval he feels in regards to the claim.

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Confusing Cause and Effect
AKA Questionable Cause, Reversing Causation

Category: Fallacies of Presumption → Casual Fallacies

Confusing Cause and Effect is a fallacy that has the following general form:

  1. A and B regularly occur together.
  2. Therefore A is the cause of B. This fallacy requires that there not be, in fact, a common cause that actually causes both A and B.
This fallacy is committed when a person assumes that one event must cause another just because the events occur together. More formally, this fallacy involves drawing the conclusion that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are in regular conjunction (and there is not a common cause that is actually the cause of A and B). The mistake being made is that the causal conclusion is being drawn without adequate justification.

In some cases it will be evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a person might claim that an illness was caused by a person getting a fever. In this case, it would be quite clear that the fever was caused by illness and not the other way around. In other cases, the fallacy is not always evident. One factor that makes causal reasoning quite difficult is that it is not always evident what is the cause and what is the effect. For example, a problem child might be the cause of the parents being short tempered or the short temper of the parents might be the cause of the child being problematic. The difficulty is increased by the fact that some situations might involve feedback. For example, the parents' temper might cause the child to become problematic and the child's behavior could worsen the parents' temper. In such cases it could be rather difficult to sort out what caused what in the first place.

In order to determine that the fallacy has been committed, it must be shown that the causal conclusion has not been adequately supported and that the person committing the fallacy has confused the actual cause with the effect. Showing that the fallacy has been committed will typically involve determining the actual cause and the actual effect. In some cases, as noted above, this can be quite easy. In other cases it will be difficult. In some cases, it might be almost impossible. Another thing that makes causal reasoning difficult is that people often have very different conceptions of cause and, in some cases, the issues are clouded by emotions and ideologies. For example, people often claim violence on TV and in movies must be censored because it causes people to like violence. Other people claim that there is violence on TV and in movies because people like violence. In this case, it is not obvious what the cause really is and the issue is clouded by the fact that emotions often run high on this issue.

While causal reasoning can be difficult, many errors can be avoided with due care and careful testing procedures. This is due to the fact that the fallacy arises because the conclusion is drawn without due care. One way to avoid the fallacy is to pay careful attention to the temporal sequence of events. Since (outside of Star Trek), effects do not generally precede their causes, if A occurs after B, then A cannot be the cause of B. However, these methods go beyond the scope of this program.

All causal fallacies involve an error in causal reasoning. However, this fallacy differs from the other causal fallacies in terms of the error in reasoning being made. In the case of a Post Hoc fallacy, the error is that a person is accepting that A is the cause of B simply because A occurs before B. In the case of the Fallacy of Ignoring a Common Cause A is taken to be the cause of B when there is, in fact, a third factor that is the cause of both A and B. For more information, see the relevant entries in this program.

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Red Herring
AKA Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase

Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings)

A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to "win" an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of "reasoning" has the following form:

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.

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Ad Hominem Tu Quoque
AKA "You Too Fallacy"

Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings) → Ad hominems (Genetic Fallacies)

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person's claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of "argument" has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A's actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.
The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true-but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person's claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

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Hasty Generalization
AKA Fallacy of Insufficient Statistics, Fallacy of Insufficient Sample, Leaping to A Conclusion, Hasty Induction

Category: Fallacies of Presumption

This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough. It has the following form:

  1. Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population P.
  2. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
  1. X% of all observed A's are B's.
  2. Therefore X% of all A's are B's.
The fallacy is committed when not enough A's are observed to warrant the conclusion. If enough A's are observed then the reasoning is not fallacious.

Small samples will tend to be unrepresentative. As a blatant case, asking one person what she thinks about gun control would clearly not provide an adequate sized sample for determining what Canadians in general think about the issue. The general idea is that small samples are less likely to contain numbers proportional to the whole population. For example, if a bucket contains blue, red, green and orange marbles, then a sample of three marbles cannot possible be representative of the whole population of marbles. As the sample size of marbles increases the more likely it becomes that marbles of each color will be selected in proportion to their numbers in the whole population. The same holds true for things others than marbles, such as people and their political views.

Since Hasty Generalization is committed when the sample (the observed instances) is too small, it is important to have samples that are large enough when making a generalization. The most reliable way to do this is to take as large a sample as is practical. There are no fixed numbers as to what counts as being large enough. If the population in question is not very diverse (a population of cloned mice, for example) then a very small sample would suffice. If the population is very diverse (people, for example) then a fairly large sample would be needed. The size of the sample also depends on the size of the population. Obviously, a very small population will not support a huge sample. Finally, the required size will depend on the purpose of the sample. If Bill wants to know what Joe and Jane think about gun control, then a sample consisting of Bill and Jane would (obviously) be large enough. If Bill wants to know what most Australians think about gun control, then a sample consisting of Bill and Jane would be far too small.

People often commit Hasty Generalizations because of bias or prejudice. For example, someone who is a sexist might conclude that all women are unfit to fly jet fighters because one woman crashed one. People also commonly commit Hasty Generalizations because of laziness or sloppiness. It is very easy to simply leap to a conclusion and much harder to gather an adequate sample and draw a justified conclusion. Thus, avoiding this fallacy requires minimizing the influence of bias and taking care to select a sample that is large enough.

One final point: a Hasty Generalization, like any fallacy, might have a true conclusion. However, as long as the reasoning is fallacious there is no reason to accept the conclusion based on that reasoning.

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