Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Logical Fallacies and Other Debating Errors

Written by johnleemk on 12:58:30 pm Sep 3, 2006.

After spending over five years debating online, one begins seeing patterns in the logical mistakes people tend to make. In cataloguing them, I hope a few people learn a thing or too so I won't encounter as many of these fuck-ups as I might otherwise. Just because you can contort the truth into telling a lie doesn't mean you ought to do it; some day you'll run into a bastard with a stick up his ass like me who'll point out all the flaws in your argument, and it'll collapse like the pile of straw it's made of.

The first and probably most common argument I see is a rebuttal to the statement that X therefore Y. (For instance, I am male, therefore I produce testosterone.) This "stunning" rebuttal typically consists of the statement "But Y does not necessarily imply X!" (Both sexes produce testosterone, except that women produce it in minute quantities.) However, this counter-argument misses the obvious: I never said Y therefore X. I said X therefore Y. I said that males must produce testosterone; I did not say testosterone-producers must be male. This apparently intelligent rebuttal is in reality so weak that it couldn't stand if it was propped up with titanium struts.

The next one is the assumption that correlation implies causation. People see a relation between X and Y, and therefore think that one must cause the other. Take the height of ludicrosity as an example. In one debate with a fundamentalist Muslim, his argument was that Indonesia is a secular state, and has had ethnic cleansing. Therefore, secularism causes ethnic cleansing!

Now, anyone with half a brain can easily object to this argument on the basis that there are a million other factors involved in ethnic cleansing. The debater may also have taken a statistically unrepresentative case; other secular states like the United States have never seen widespread racial genocide. However, all this boils down to one simple thing: correlation does not imply causation.

Take an even stronger example of correlation; states with the largest number of acute medical problems also tend to have the largest number of doctors. Therefore, to cure the disease, is the solution to get rid of the doctors? Common sense would dictate otherwise. Again, correlation should never be taken to imply a causal link between two occurrences.

Now, when it comes to politics, there is another card many love to play, namely the tu qouque (Latin: you too) argument. This rebuttal revolves around insisting that the person condemning X has previously committed X, and therefore the statement is invalid. A good example might be those who claim that Israel has persistently violated UN resolutions, and that therefore Palestine/Lebanon are justified in similarly ignoring the UN. It is obvious that two wrongs don't make a right, but try knocking that into the head of some fanatics.

The last misconception (at least for this round) is the idea that by stretching one's opponent's stance into something absurdly ludicrous, one can disprove the original statement. Take for instance, the statement that not interacting with other cultures tends to cause fanatical intolerance of other cultures. Many will take this to mean that "Not interacting with other cultures will cause one to be fanatically intolerant of other cultures," and then seek to rebutt this strawman by pointing out examples of those who have never interacted with other cultures but yet remain tolerant in their outlook.

Yet again, it is clear that this rebuttal is addressing an argument that has never been made. One cannot discredit a qualified statement by removing the qualifier and pointing out that the new made-up statement is false. Nevertheless, this is what many upon many seem to think is perfectly reasonable.

Compared to many of my past ramblings, this is relatively short. In all probability, it's because I'm sleepy and typing this up at 2AM. Some day, there shall be a part two - some day, I shall summon the neurones to recall just what else peeves me whenever I get into an argument. But till then, dear reader, farewell.

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