Critical Thinking: Fallacies from Relevance II
- By: Hallee
Fallacies from Relevance
A fallacy from relevance occurs when the response to a conclusion or an argument is not relevant to the conclusion or argument. These are fallacies that ignore the point at hand and attempt to derail the argument by bringing irrelevancies into the arena of the debate. In this post, I will discuss two common types of Fallacies from relevance, the Argumentum ad Populum and the Appeal to Tradition.
Argumentum ad Populum: appeal to the gallery, aka appeal to the masses
In logic, an Argumentum ad Populum is a fallacious argument that concludes a proposition to be true because many people, or specific “elite” people, or all people believe it. It alleges, “If many believe so, it is so” or “if certain elite people believe so, it is so.”
The fallacy of attempting to win popular assent to a conclusion by arousing the feeling and enthusiasms of the multitude has several variations including appeal to the masses, appeal to belief, appeal to the majority, appeal to the people, argument by consensus, authority of the many, and the bandwagon fallacy. In Latin, it is called Argumentum ad Populum (“appeal to the people”), Argumentum ad Numerum (“appeal to the number”), and Consensus Gentium (“agreement of the clans”). In english speaking culture, it is most often known as the bandwagon appeal.
In short, this is the “everybody’s doing it, we should too” or “everybody thinks so” argument.
Obviously, whether a majority of people believe something is not relevant to the truth or even the validity of an argument. Equally obviously, whether a specific sector of a particular “elite” group believes something is not ultimately relevant.
This fallacy is often committed while trying to convince a citizenry that certain political maneuvers are either good or bad.
“Seventy-five percent of my constituents oppose the bill, therefore it is a bad idea.”
“Seventy-five percent of my fellow congressmen favor the bill, therefore it is a good idea.”
The mere fact that a belief is widely-held does not necessarily guarantee that the belief is correct. If the belief of any individual can be wrong, then the belief held by multiple persons can also be wrong. The argument that because 75% of people think the answer is F implies that the answer is F fails. If opinion determined truth, there is no way to deal with the discrepancy between the 75% of the sample population that believe the answer is F and the 25% who are of the opinion that the answer is something other than F.
This fallacy is often committed while trying to convince a person that a popular brand is the one that they should purchase.
“Nine out of ten dentists agree that BRAND X is the best toothpaste.”
“Choosy mothers choose BRAND X peanut butter.”
What if brand X toothpaste contains flouride and has a warning label with a toll free number to the Poison Control center in the case of accidental ingestion? Have you read your toothpaste labels recently? I think we may be on the crest of a new discovery. What if brand X peanut butter contains trans fats in the form of hydrogenated soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup for added unnatural sweetness? You can read the ingredients for yourself in a jiffy.
In the above example, we see an appeal to majority coupled with an appeal that a majority of an “elite” group of people believe something. This is very popular in advertising.
This fallacy is often committed while trying to convince a person that a popular theory is true.
“Most people believe the earth is billions of years old, so it must be billions of years old.”
“Most scientists believe that life happened as a result of unguided, undirected, random, natural processes, so that must be the case.”
The first example is a pure bandwagon appeal. In the second example, we see an appeal to majority coupled with an appeal that a majority of an “elite” group of people believe something to the true, therefore it must be true. Both are excellent examples of the ad Populum fallacy.
Not too long ago, the majority of scientists believed that the earth was at the very center of the universe. Likewise, not too long ago, most people believed the earth was flat. Obviously, these majority opinions did not affect the truth.
Appeal to Tradition: appeal to the past
Legend has it that once upon a time at UC Berkely, the sociology department conducted a study. They placed four chimpanzees in a room. In the middle of the room there was a stepladder. Suspended from the ceiling above the stepladder was a bunch of bananas.
When one of the chimps went for the bananas, students of the sociology department took high pressure fire hoses and nailed the remaining three chimps. Big deal, you say. Well, when you’re a chimp and you cannot swim and you have an instinctive fear of water, it is a big deal. The result was that whenever a chimp would go for the bananas, the other three chimps would beat the stuffing out of him.
After about a week, they swapped one of the chimps out for a new chimp. The new chimp said, “Hiya fellas!” Then, “Oh! Cool! Bananas!” But, of course, when he went for the bananas, the other three chimps beat the stuffing out of him. After about a week, they swapped out one of the remaining three chimps for a new chimp and the cycle repeated itself.
In fact, the cycle repeated itself until the room consisted of four chimps who had no concept of why they had to beat the stuffing out of any chimp that went for the bananas. They lived in an artificial environment, with artifically enforced laws, with no clear rationale for why they obeyed those laws. But they continued to violently enforce the “rules” of their artifical domain.
Why? Because they had ALWAYS DONE IT THAT WAY AROUND HERE.
When one argues from a standpoint of tradition, tradition may or may not be valid to the argument. Most often, it is not relevant to the point at hand. Imagine the daddy cannibal speaking to his young son. “Go ahead and eat your dinner! You know we’ve always eaten people.”
Now, while it’s true that cannibals have always eaten people, eating people may not be the best thing to do.
The truth is that tradition has little bearing on the merit or validity of an argument. The argument must be weighed and judged according to its own merit.
Recognizing truth is an essential survival tool for the mind, and ultimately, for the soul. In the case of the two specific fallacies above, both were used to have the Lord Jesus put to death (Mark 15:13-14; John 19:15). It might be especially rewarding to recognize these two fallacies in our own lives.
Teaching our children the ability to recognize fallacies, giving them the intellectual skills to deconstruct these types of arguments, will ensure that the arguments they, themselves, will one day make are at least valid and thoughtfully arrived upon. It will also assist them in investigating more deeply some of the conclusions espoused by those in the world whose motives might not come from love and might not have been very carefully arrived at or well researched.
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