Are These Logical Fallacies Affecting Your Thinking? - THINKERS Notebook

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Are These Logical Fallacies Affecting Your Thinking?

I stumbled upon a useful Twitter thread this week.

It was posted by Sahil Bloom, a former college baseball player and the writer of the Curiosity Chronicle newsletter.

The thread covered one of our favorite recurring topics here in the THINKERS Roundup: logical fallacies.

Sahil highlighted "20 common logical fallacies to learn, identify, and avoid."

I encourage you to consider all 20 that Sahil included in his thread.

In this week's newsletter, I'm going to briefly highlight three of them that struck me as particularly timely.

1. The Texas Sharpshooter

Being a resident of the Lone Star State, I had to include this one.

Sahil describes it thusly:

A Texan fires a gun at a barn wall and then paints a target around the closest cluster of bullet holes to create the appearance of accuracy.

Selecting and highlighting evidence that supports the conclusion while ignoring evidence that may refute it.

This one reminds me of the old line, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Of course, statistics derived from adequate data and presented in proper context can be extremely useful. But statistics pulled from small sample sizes or presented with a slanted context can suggest a narrative that doesn't match reality.

You see it in sports a lot. You see it in politics. Basically anywhere people have tribal and/or financial interests, you have to beware of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy coming into play -- either deliberately or unwittingly.

2. Appeal to Authority

Here's how Sahil describes this one: 

The over-reliance on the perspective of an "expert" to support the legitimacy of an argument.

The qualifications of the authority figure in the field of question must be considered.

Their support can be a feature - but not a pillar - of the argument.

It's important to remember that just because someone is on TV (or the radio or YouTube or a podcast or, gulp, writing a newsletter, etc) doesn't mean they are worth listening to.

And yet, try as we might, there is something innate that confers authority to people with a platform, especially if they are wearing a snazzy suit, have a high-paying job, or list a bunch of fancy initials by their name. 

To be clear: sometimes authority figures, whether their authority is official of implicitly conferred, are worth listening to. Not every media talking head is agenda-driven or ill-informed.

But some are.

We have to be careful to not let the heuristics of a brain on auto-pilot lead us to receive information passively when we need to be considering it critically.

The appeal to authority can short circuit the healthy skepticism we need present in our minds to be astute consumers of information in modern day society. 

And finally ...

3. The Straw Man

Here is how Sahil describes it:

The offender ignores the actual argument and replaces it with a flimsy, distorted, easily-refuted argument (a “straw man”).

By replacing a strong argument with a weak one, the offender can create the illusion of an easy, swift victory.

The irony of using straw man arguments as a strategy for persuasion is that they will alienate your interlocutor and only work with the weakest-minded of observers. 

When I notice that someone is presenting a straw man argument, I immediately assume that they either don't fully understand the opposing argument or are obfuscating because they don't actually believe their own side of it.

The way to show true strength in a debate is to offer the strongest and most charitable interpretation of the opposing viewpoint, and then make the most logical and effective arguments against it. 

Again, you should review all 20 of the logical fallacies in the thread. If nothing else, seeing them one more time increases your awareness and makes you a little more likely to avoid their negative impacts down the road.

Below, you will find one helpful link related to each of the three fallacies highlighted above.
Don't overrate small patterns of evidence.

"The reality is that all data will have anomalies and we can hunt for these, but we should not rest our conclusions based on these anomalies, we should rather test our hypotheses about the anomalies on hold-out samples, out-of-time tests or new tests.”

Read: How To Avoid The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy In Data Analysis (Principa)


Does your expert actually have irrelevant, dubious, insufficient, or absent credentials?

"An appeal to false authority (or argument from false authority) is a fallacious argument that relies on the statements of a false authority figure, who is framed as a credible authority on the topic being discussed. For example, an appeal to false authority could involve saying that we should listen to what an uneducated actor has to say when it comes to different types of medical treatments."

Read: False Authority: When People Rely on the Wrong Experts (Wired)

A simplified explanation is not a straw man.

"It’s important not to confuse a strawman argument with a simplified summary of a complex argument. When we’re having a debate, we may sometimes need to explain an opponent’s grounds back to them to ensure we understand it. In this case, this explanation will be by necessity a briefer version. But it is only a straw man if the simplification is used to make it easier to attack, rather than to facilitate clearer understanding."

Read: Bad Arguments and How to Avoid Them (Farnam Street)

Quote of the week

"It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."  

-- Joseph Joubert