Critical Thinking: Fallacies from Relevance III


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 additional common types of fallacies from relevance, the faulty appeal to envy, the faulty appeal to pity, and the faulty appeal to authority.

Argumentum ad Invidiam (faulty appeal to envy)

An appeal to low passions. An example of this argument is used a great deal in politics.

“We should raise taxes on the rich because they are all wealthy.”

This argument appeals to the envy that less wealthy people might feel toward those with greater net worth. In a capitalistic economy, punishing the wealthy for generating wealth is like punishing students who earn higher grades or handicaping exceptional athletes.  It makes no sense and is not logical.

More commonly, the term is used to describe an argument where one directs points against the personality or moral standing of an opponent instead of addressing his opponent’s conclusions. This is similar to Ad Homenim though it does not directly appeal to prejudice.

Argumentum Ad Misericordiam (faulty appeal to pity)

This fallacy occurs when an appeal is made to pity or to the skeptic’s sympathetic nature.

“The accused is an old, dying man. It is wrong to make him stand trial for alleged offenses.”

Clearly, the health of the accused has no bearing on his guilt or innocence.

“Think of all the poor, starving Ethiopian children! How could we be so cruel as not to help them?”

The problem with such an argument is that no amount of special pleading can make the impossible possible, the false true, the expensive costless, or the guilty innocent.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to point out the severity of a problem as part of the justification for adopting a proposed solution. The faulty appeal to pity fallacy occurs when other aspects of the proposed solution–such as whether it is possible, how much it costs, who else might be harmed by adopting the policy–are ignored or responded to only with more impassioned pleas.

Argumentum Ad Verecundiam (respect, scruple) or Argumentum ab Auctoritate (power, command, authority) is the faulty appeal to authority

This fallacy occurs when someone tries to demonstrate the truth of a proposition by citing some person who agrees, even though that person may have no expertise in the given area. Albert Einstien tended to hold fairly left-wing political views. Some people like to quote Einstein’s political opinions as though Einstein were a political philosopher rather than a theoretical physicist. It is not a fallacy to rely on authorities whose expertise relates to the question at hand, especially with regard to questions of fact that could not easily be answered by a layman — for instance, it makes perfect sense to quote Stephen Hawking on the subject of the Big Bang theory.

In other words, not all appeals to authority are faulty appeals to authority. It is legitimate to consider the opinion of an expert on a particular topic. No one has the time or ability to verify each and every truth claim that has ever been made. We can and very often should rely upon the expertise of others at times. In general, the argumentum ad verecundiam fallacy occurs in three cases of citation.

First, appealing to an expert in an area that is not his area of expertise.

Suppose a middle school biology teacher majored in education and minored in biology. That qualifies him to discuss some of the methodologies involved in teaching minor children and to say something about how organisms function today. However, does knowledge of how organisms function today necessarily imply any knowledge of how organisms came to be? This is a separate question. It is not really a biology question. So, our middle school biology teacher’s opinions on the topic of origins isn’t any more qualified than any other opinion outside of his areas of expertise.

Second, failure to consider the worldview of the expert and how this might affect his interpretation of the data.

Every human being has  a philosophy that guides our understanding of the universe in which we live. This constitutes our world-and-life view.  When we interpret scientific and historical evidence, we use this philosophy to draw conclusions. A muslim, a Christian, and a Darwinist, for instance, might reach radically different conclusions about origins based on identical evidence.

Third, treating a fallible expert as infallible.

Remember that even experts do not know everything. Experts often make mistakes, and most often these mistakes are made in their very own field(s) of expertise. New discoveries may cause scientists to change their minds about something that was once accepted as common knowledge. At best, appealing to an expert yields only probable conclusions. It is fallacious to argue that something definitely must be true simply because any (fallible) expert believes it.

Obviously, if the Expert has knowledge of absolutely everything and never lies, then there is no fallacy in accepting any of His statements as absolute truth. In fact, it would be patently absurd to not do so given those conditions. Therefore, since God’s holy word is an infallible source based on revelation from the Creator who knows everything and cannot lie, there is no fallacy in appealing to Scripture as absolutely authoritative.

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Recognizing truth is an essential survival tool for the mind, and ultimately, for the soul.   It is worth noting anyone who argues that you are making a faulty appeal to authority by claiming the word of God is authoritative is in error, for example.

God thinks logically and enforces laws in the universe, such as the law of non-contradiction. It is incumbent upon believers to emulate our heavenly father in all things, including in the way we think, evaluate arguments, and offer arguments ourselves.

Teaching our children the ability to recognize fallacies, giving them the intellectual skills required to deconstruct arguments, will ensure that the arguments they, themselves, will one day make are valid and thoughtfully arrived upon. It will also assist them to investigate more deeply into 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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