Skip to main content

Fallacy Detection Machines

Marking student papers and engaging with student argumentative logic can sometimes be a depressing chore: the meandering and tangental rhetoric, the lazy arguments, and most importantly the uncritical absorption of bourgeois "common sense" can sometimes be depressing.  More depressing is the fact that, by their second semester, first year philosophy students tend to hide their problematic arguments in nice-sounding philosophy lingo: they inappropriately use the terms validity and soundness just because they think it will make their arguments sound better; they scatter appeals to named fallacies throughout their papers.

This over-abundance of fallacy appeals has caused me again to reflect on the problem of informal logic and how, despite the uses of argumentation theory, it is also a problem when it comes to critical thought.  In our haste to teach students about the errors of lazy thinking, we philosophy instructors have often over-emphasized a list of supposed fallacies in a very mechanical attempt to promote critical thinking.  Unfortunately, and as I have always maintained, turning students into mindless fallacy detection machines does not promote critical thinking or engagement with the content of thought.  Examine this paragraph and find fallacies is pretty much the schooling of informal logic classes––I know because I've had to teach more than one of these classes as an adjunct.

One of many books designed to equate reasoning with fallacy detection (and isn't that in itself "equivocation"?)

The obsession with fallacy hunting has now become a serious problem in argumentative logic.  Not only do student papers degenerate into this obsession––and in this degeneration produce nothing in the least bit critical––but it is a problem that has spilled out into the wider critical left.  Leftist internet forums, for example, are filled with individuals who have become fallacy-machines and, having been taught ten or more fallacy names by an informal logic course they took once-upon-a-time or a wikipedia page they read, use this limited knowledge to muscularize their otherwise pathetic arguments.  Conjuring the names of fallacies is the argumentative equivalent of summoning djinn from some holy lamp of perfect logical knowledge to settle a debate.

Let's be clear: there is nothing scientific about argumentative logic and the fallacies it has named.  Those fallacies your average internet argument expert will tick off in a debate are not entirely universally applicable and thus do not possess the foundations to be treated as scientific knowledge despite their claims to the contrary.  I'll let you in on a little secret, as someone who has a doctorate in philosophy and has witnessed the behind-the-scenes machinations of the discipline of informal logic that has bequeathed us with these innumerable "fallacies": they are pretty much an unscientific invention of our discipline, spread throughout other disciplines, and now even into internet troll heaven; they often have very little connection to formal logic (and if there is a "science" to argumentation that it is best found in formal logic, where arguments are reduced to mathematical algorithms, rather than the informal logical abode of fallacy hunting––and the former, I am sorry to say, has only a marginal connection with the latter) and so are often spurious assumptions; sometimes they produce uncritical (and thus eventually unscientific) thinking.

Indeed, if Marx, Lenin, or Mao were to be subordinated to the fallacy machine they would be found wanting.  And if we were to treat said fallacy machine as some meter of scientific veracity then we would have to say that the key theorists in the development of revolutionary science were quite often unscientific.  But neither Marx, Lenin, nor Mao cared about these fallacies because the conception of said fallacies was non-existent when they were writing, nor does the supposed "discovery" of these fallacies really undermine their contributions to the development of proletarian science––this is because, as much as it pains me to admit it, naming the fallacies of informal logic is ultimately a joke.  It is not scientific in any way shape or form; it is little more than a useful tool that is only useful if it is subordinated to a larger appreciation of logic.  And one does not become a great thinker simply by memorizing the conceptual array of fallacies––all this does is turn one into a master of formal style and a clever rhetorician, much like the sophists of Ancient Greece.  So stop treating your knowledge of these fallacies, and your ability to trot them out in an argument, as some sort of brilliance on your part: we know about them in philosophy, and some of us know that the reduction of arguments into the mathematics of formal logic often has nothing to do with your fallacy naming skills.

But maybe we should examine the odd fallacy as critical marxists so as to understand this approach as wanting according to the basis of revolutionary science.  For instance, we marxists understand that social consciousness is dependent on social being… not so with the fallacy machine!  After all, there is a fallacy called the circumstantial ad hominem where it is claimed that it is fallacious to interrogate the social context of someone who is making an argument––that we have to focus on the argument itself and utterly ignore the social position in which the argument has been made.  Thus, the argument of a white supremacist should be abstracted from the fact white supremacism; the argument of a misogynist abstracted from the fact of patriarchy.  Critical philosophers (such as Lorraine Code) have called this fallacy into question and yet still it is part of every informal logic syllabus, treated as scientific even though we should recognize it as parascience.

Or what of the fallacy of poisoning the well?  Fallacy-hunters love to cite this fallacy whenever their enemies produce arguments that forbid them from arguing according to their reactionary plans.  Lenin poisoned the well of argument in his attack on Kautsky; Marx poisoned the well of argument on his attack on Proudhon… Is it unscientific to construct an argument that forbids counter-argument based on bullshit premises?  For it needs to be said: this informal logic fallacy-hunting has little to do with the formally logical construction of premises that leads to a necessary and valid conclusion.

I know this must seem like a boring post, and I apologize for its boringness, but the only reason I am expending so many paragraphs is because I have become extremely annoyed by those people in the internet leftist community who waste their time counting fallacies and imagining they have some sort of universal claim to winning an argument.  They do not and, as much as it is occasionally useful to name fallacies and point out argumentative deficiencies, this practice is not only a far-cry from revolutionary science, but most of the people who practice it don't even understand its philosophical basis from the get-go and, in arguments that cause me to almost tear my hair, apply their "knowledge" of fallacies improperly.

Here's an idea: don't appeal to any fucking fallacy unless you can reduce your argument to sentential or propositional logical symbols.  Oh, am I poisoning the well?  See above!  And see also how this demand is clearly not "unscientific"––anyone who speaks of knowledge of fallacies as "scientific" really needs to study their subject matter.  You can speak of fallacies only if you can reduce arguments to formal propositions and perform logical derivations; otherwise, stop your fallacy-hunting and pretending that you are the guardian of argumentative logic when you are just someone relying on some bullshit names made up by informal logicians with too much time on their hands.

My point here is that, while understanding possible fallacies does teach us how to [sometimes] make our arguments clear and precise––and may indeed be useful in order to occasionally expose the lazy arguments made by our opponents––it also produces an over-reliance on the form of an argument rather than the content.  And though form and content are interrelated, for us marxists it is the content that, in the last instance, should matter the most.  What happens with this obsessive need to concentrate primarily on so-called fallacies is that we end up falling into a type of positivism where our ability to think critically––with a depth of content and insight, with the explanatory dimension necessary for thought to be counted as somewhat scientific––ends up degenerating into a mechanical function where we run an argument through some fallacy machine, crank the lever, and decide whether it is worthwhile based on supposed errors in form.  We generally forget that many of these errors in form, though interesting and perhaps even important to consider, are often debated by various argumentation theorists: indeed, I know of more than one colleague whose work focuses on the problem of informal logic, how it stands in contradiction with intuitive modes of reasoning, how it is not even close to being scientific.

Does this mean I will stop pointing out the possible fallacies in my opponents' arguments?  Probably not: I do think it is important to call attention to the failure in this surface level of reasoning from time to time, if only because it makes me feel like I'm "winning" an argument and thus, hypocritically, feel better about myself.  So in many ways this post should remind me that I cannot rely simply on argumentative form and imagine that I have "scientifically" proved something when all I have done is made the way that someone else has argued a point appear erroneous.


  1. Not being a philospher (I don't even remember taking philosophy in college!) I can only judge impressionistically. But it does seem as though the main influence here is Karl Popper. I gather that Popper is not so highly regarded as a philosophyer of science within the professional community. But then again, neither is Ayn Rand, and it sure seems as though in practice she too has an uncomfortably large following.

    So, when Popper wants to find problems with induction, he devalues the importance of empirical knowledge in favor of formal definitions of scientificity. Instead of the first step to science being the description of what is and generalizations from it, science becomes a sequence of deductions presumably leter falsified. Since the deductions are the logical priors, any set of premises can serve as a starting point. All postulates can be equally scientific, so long as the falsification process is assumed to terminate the process.This is especially true since in practice the conclusive refutation by a single set of experiments is so exceptional. In practice, the accumlations of emprical knowledge (and generalizations from it) is the main road to scientific advancee The same distaste for reality that underlies structural realism or mathermatical Platonism seems to be what makes these views so attractive.

    Or so it seems to me. Does it seem to you that Popper is so influential outside the academy? Does it seem to you that the emphasis on logical forms, the fallacy hunting, stems from a disdain for crass material reality? Does it seem to you that these attitudes are unreflecting expressions of an idealst outlook?

    1. This post was not at all influenced by Karl Popper. In fact, in a previous post, I pointed out that Popper's definition of science is extremely deficient, designed only to attack communism rather than be a proper definition of science. Within the philosophy of science, though highly regarded or at least respected by some, Popper is disliked by many others. Really, I don't find very much use in much of what he's written and he wasn't in my mind at all when I wrote this.

      While I agree with your point about Popper's problems with induction, the problem of induction is a philosophical problem that precedes Popper (Hume is one of its biggest proponents and that is hundreds of years earlier) and all Popper was trying to do in this context was to answer that problem by attempting to ground induction in some logical foundation. I really don't think there is a problem with trying to do this (after all, deductive mathematics is presumably the "queen of the sciences") but Popper does it in a way that produces a set definition of science that is intended to exclude historical materialism––indeed, this was probably the most important reason for his definition of science. By his own admission he wanted to prove that historical materialism was "not a science" and so everything he wrote in order to define science was designed to exclude something he disliked. It's a bit like someone creating a definition of science that, by its very definition, would exclude biology and then, whenever a biologist tried to argue scientifically with the person who created this definition, said person could say: "well you can't argue scientifically against my definition since I already said you weren't scientific." Somewhat absurd.

      With this in mind, I don't at all think that Popper was trying to find some sort of Platonic justification, nor do I think that formal logic (and mathematics by that token) are "Platonic" (though perhaps unlike Popper I would see them as developing according to a social process of empirical interaction with the world, but this does not necessarily have to do with the problem of induction). This being said, I'm aware that Badiou attempts to make this sort of claim about mathematics and calls it materialism when, at least in my opinion, it is not.

      Also, the entire theory of fallacies is not necessarily the logical basis that Popper was speaking of. In fact, I think Popper would also have slight disdain for any attempt to claim that these named fallacies of argumentative theory are identical to formal logic. They definitely are positivist, and probably stem from that kind of approach (which is its own idealism) that clearly Popper liked, but they are not identical to the hard logic of formal deductive equations anymore than pure economics are identical to mathematics, regardless of what we would like to believe.

  2. Very interesting post. Something to consider: there are different contexts an argument, or indeed a fallacy can be made from! (as you point out in your attack on the "circumstantial ad hominem") A sun news writer deliberately trying to use sophistic tricks and logical/rhetorical manipulations to get the better of a proletarian audience really ought to be exposed. But it's always better to walk through exactly why what they are saying is problematic and doesn't hold together, rather than just quoting a 3-word latin phrase. I'm curious what fallacies marx, lenin, mao are supposedly guilty of?

    1. Well obviously they would be guilty, as I noted, of the circumstantial ad hominem and poisoning the well. Not that these were considered "fallacies" when they were writing. Some have also accused Marx of the "slippery slope" fallacy in his claim that capitalist accumulation necessarily leads to crisis. There's others that I could probably think of if I was going through things they wrote and searching for them.

  3. Please excuse me, "here" in my post was referring to the people fixated not finding logical fallacies instead of confronting the substance (or loack of substance) in claims. I thought your post entirely free of such nonsense, sorrty to give a wrong impression.

    Hume's interest in the problem of induction did not cause him any hesitation in finding that nations each had their own character. This is a very bold induction indeed. So, I suspect that Hume aimed at a goal very similar to Poppers. Hume just substitutes Spinoza for Marx, so to speak. As a moderate Enlightenment figure, Hume seemed to be very interested in carefully limiting the power of reason to criticize social reality. Or perhaps I have read (misread?) too much Jonathan Israel.

    1. Thanks for the clarification.

      Hume was not opposed to induction––in fact he was all for it––he just pointed out that there was a logical problem with causation, obsessed over it, and felt it required investigation. I don't think Hume's goals were similar to Popper's since he was writing at the advent of the European Enlightenment, nor do I think he was interested in limiting the power of reason to criticize social reality: he was full of critiques of social reality, though they weren't really the best critiques. (And Jonathan Israel, while a good historian of certain aspects of that period of European History, was not trained in philosophy and so has a very limited understanding of the content of Hume's philosophy, let alone Spinoza's philosophy which he writes quite a bit about. Still, he's not wrong about Spinoza's influence.) I'm not sure what you mean by "Hume just substitutes Spinoza for Marx".

    2. Not being a professional philosopher I don't tend to interpret Hume as a philosopher. (But then, I tend to interpret Aristotle as a scientist.) Nor historically did other philosophers rate Hume very highly. Hume was known primarily as an historian, and essayist on political, economic and moral questions. (I am more familiar with those aspects of Hume's work myself.) He was an Enlightenment thinker, but he was a moderate one. He doesn't really seem to have been interest in clarifying logical problems in induction in those fields. I think if he was he would have been a little more worried about where a national character might reside. But making a generalization about such alleged "facts," even if it is an induction, is not the same thing as allowing inductions about deeper causality.

      Instead, he seems to have interested in simply refuting the philosophical basis for more radical interpretations which regarded society as lawful, by striking at the foundation, induction. Hence, the famous remark about consigning anything that wasn't about quantity or fact to the flames. Notions about determinism and materialism seem to have struck him as Marxist notions about historical materialism or laws of motion of capitalism strike many, a fanatical system of speculative philosophy founded upon fundamental misunderstanding about what we can know. Which is all I meant by Hume substituting Spinoza for Marx.

      Hume's great reputation as a philosopher seems to have arisen more recently as a reputable precursor for skepticism, which seems to be an effort to be a materialist in natural sciences, while denying the possibility of social science, but affirming the relevance of philosophical speculation in morals, politics and esthetics. And by philosophical speculation I mean what you condemn in this post, namely, an obsessive pursuit of purely logical, a prioristic, negative critique that ignores content and context of propositions....and only considers empirical evidence as an afterthought, if then.

      I hope this doesn't seem argumentative about the philosophy. My remarks are really based more on what I know of history, politics, sociology, economics and such than pure philosophy. No doubt I could use a deeper understanding of that aspect. I must admit that the typical philosopher's claims about insufficient understanding usually seem to imply that we lay people should be much more accepting of the cosmological argument, or the coherence of Plato's theory of Forms, or Popper's demarcation principle of falsifiability, or the relevance of propositions about Chinese rooms, brains in vats, zombies and simulations of the universe. I'm sure that's not what you meant of course.

      I suppose in one sense the only cure for my misunderstandings would be some courses in philosophy but that is not possible in my life situation. Nor is it decent to try to inveigle a poor blogger into teaching an online course. My apologies. Farewell.

    3. Oh, okay, I see what you meant by that line. Clears things up a bit.

      (Also, just to correct your reading of Hume, in the eighteenth century Kant saw him as extremely significant and Kant was arguably one of the most important modern philosophers. It is mainly because of Kant's influence that Hume is treated as important, especially since the Critique of Pure Reason would not have existed (at least according to Kant) without Kant having read Hume.)

      Thanks for your comments, though. I have not been arguing that you need a deeper understanding and, generally speaking, I'm in agreement with much of what you've posted here. I also am bothered by the love of anti-materialist speculation that is common in philosophy (although I do like Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment, though mainly because it was turned into a really funny sequence in a movie once). Your "misunderstandings" are not anything clearly substantial or worth taking a course in philosophy over.

  4. Thank you for this insightful article. Having just come out of an irksome argument with a fallacy afficionado, I enjoyed reading it a lot.

    You might find this article interesting:

    In my opinion, this is not a problem specific to internet forums of the critical left, it's spread over all sorts of political denominations.

    1. I agree that it isn't a problem specific to the left, I was just addressing it in that context. Indeed, I've encountered it with liberals and reactionaries who like to name fallacies in order to dismiss arguments. And though it is definitely not limited to the internet (after all, I did mention that students are trained this way) it definitely is prevalent on these forums.


Post a Comment