The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 5: More Crimes Against Logic

Finishing our discussion of  Crimes Against Logic …

Begging the Question – Begging the question is assuming (usually in the form of a premise) the conclusion we intend to prove. Here are some examples: “Freedom is good for society because it is conducive to the good of the community.” “Chloroform renders people unconscious because it’s soporific.” “The reason that there is a big demand for a Harvard education is because everyone wants to get into the school.” Or  consider this argument:

  • Abortion is unjustified killing;
  • Unjustified killing is murder;
  • Thus, abortion is murder.

Abortion may be murder, but this argument doesn’t show it because it begs the question—it assumes what it’s trying to prove because in the above argument unjustified killing is just another name for murder. Or try this:

  • The Bible says that Yahweh is the one true god.
  • The Bible cannot be mistaken because it is the word of Yahweh.
  • Thus, Yahweh is the one true god.

Yahweh may be the one true god, but this argument doesn’t show it because it begs the question.

Coincidence – Coincidence, regarding events, refers to the appearance of a meaningful connection when there is none. Humans often see patterns where there are just random fluctuations—just listen to post-game sports analysis. And people often assume that what follows from something caused it—that correlation equals causation. (I wore blue jeans and then it rained, thus my jeans caused the rain.) This is called “post hoc propter ergo hoc.”

The only good way to test the causal connection between, for example, taking a drug and getting better is a scientifically controlled experiment. With two similar groups, we test how quickly persons recover with (test group) and without (control group) the drug. Unless carefully conducted experiments show something works,  there is absolutely no reason believe it does.

In fact, our very existence is coincidental, but most of us think we result from a cosmic plan. We might even conclude that gods exist because the likelihood of human life was so improbable. But this is like saying that all lotteries are fixed. Yes, it is extremely unlikely that anyone wins the lottery, but that doesn’t mean it’s fixed when someone wins. It’s extremely unlikely you make four aces playing poker, but that doesn’t mean you cheated when you get them.

Humans are well-known to have cognitive biases. The list on Wikipedia shows nearly 100 well-known and named cognitive biases. For instance, Thomas Gilovich found that most people thought that the sequence, “OXXXOXXXOXXOOOXOOXXOO” looked non-random, when, in fact, it has several characteristics maximally probable for a “random” stream.

Statistics – Something may be statistically true, but the conclusion you draw from those stats is debatable. Do cancer rates go up because of air pollution, chemicals in food, people living longer, some combination of the above, some combination of the above and something else, or something else altogether? Only scientific experiments can sort this out. Moreover, the statistics you hear are often mistaken. For example, you may have heard that people only use 10% of their brains, yet this is false. Consider the following:

  • That 35% of British children live in poverty vastly overstates the case since most of what they need—education, health care, and housing—is provided to all.
  • Even if the stats accurately report what people say they do, you can’t be sure they would actually do what they say they would do.
  • You need to know the source of the stats so as to avoid sample bias. If we ask members of the US Table Tennis Association how many of them enjoy table tennis, we would probably get a figure close to 100%. If we asked starving children in Africa the same question, we would probably get a figure close to 0%.
  • Stats are often just plain wrong and nobody bothers to check them.

Morality Fever – Moral fervor isn’t a refutation of a position.

  • What’s Wicked is False – Just because it’s bad to believe something doesn’t make that belief false. It may be bad to not believe in the gods, but the gods may still not exist.
  • What’s Beneficial is True – Just because it’s beneficial to believe something doesn’t make the belief true. It may be good to believe in the gods, but the gods may still not exist.
  • The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth – Just because someone is a victim of injustice doesn’t mean their opinions are correct. And just because you feel guilty about something you did doesn’t mean the victims of your actions are virtuous.

Conclusion – “If the matter at hand is something you genuinely care about, then you should seek more than ever to believe the truth about it. And rationality is merely that way of thinking that gives your beliefs the greatest chance of being true.”(156)

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