There are ways to use your bike that will allow you to get where you’re going. Sit on the seat, balance and pedal. Next thing you know — zoop! — you are at your destination. But if you turn your bike upside down and light it on fire, you will get nowhere. Much in the same way, you need to know how to use your brains properly. That is, if you want to find out the truth about life and to get smarter every day. One way to know how to use your brains is to learn what NOT to do. The following article will teach you bad ways of thinking and how to avoid them.
1. Straw Man Fallacy
Misrepresent someone’s view so it is easy to make fun of
In the old days, farmers built “straw men” in order to scare crows away from their crops. But a man made out of straw is not a real man, it just looks like one. Well, when you are debating someone, they get to argue against you but they might repeat your views in a way that is different than what you actually said. It’s as though they are building a fake argument (or an argument “made out of straw”) that might look like what you said but is actually different. Usually, they make your argument look silly so that you look silly… and wrong. Just like it would be easier to fight a man made out of straw instead of a real person, it is easier to defeat an argument that is “made out of straw” and not the real one.
YOU: “I think it is not fair that the government should tax me so much that I can hardly pay my rent or support my family.”
THEM: “I can’t believe you would like to see poor people starving and dying in the streets because you don’t want to help the government take care of these poor souls!”
As you can see the opponent twisted your words and totally changed the subject. Just because you don’t want to be unfairly taxed does NOT mean you enjoy watching poor people die! This is a very common trick used between politicians who argue in front of large crowds. But if it is truth you are after, you should catch your opponent when they are doing this and call them out on it. Also you must avoid doing this to your opponent as well.
2. Appeal to Popularity
Believe something just because most people believe it.
Often people will say something like “everybody knows this is true.” Now they experience a gush of confidence because they feel secure knowing most people agree with their point of view. Unfortunately, this is also a fallacy (a wrong way to use your brain). Just because more people believe something does not make it true. Imagine if you traveled back in time a couple thousand years and found that most people believed that thunder was the sound of an angry god. Then you start trying to explain to them how static electricity and moisture cause energy exchanges in clouds the discharge plasma (i.e.: lightning) and this high level energy moves the air very rapidly causing the sound of thunder. Most people listening to you would look very confused and then would wander away thinking you are a fool. But, even though you were the only person on earth who believed the static electricity theory of thunder you would be the only person who was right!
THEM: “Most experts on this subject agree with what I am saying. Therefore, it MUST be true.”
Well, as you saw in our above scenario with thunder, how many people believe something means nothing. Someone who appeals to popularity is being lazy in their thinking and is avoiding the real hard work of discovering truth.
“Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.” – Mahatma Gandhi
3. Appeal to Authority
Believe something because an important or smart person believes it.
Another lazy way to think is to simply repeat what an important person has said. Many people do this every day. “Don’t you know?” they say confidently, “doctor such-and-such said this on television.” As impressive as the famous doctor may be, you cannot rely on others to think for you because even smart people make mistakes. In the late 1970’s the Surgeon General in the United States recommended people eat margarine instead of butter to protect the health of their heart. Unfortunately many people believed him and followed his advice. Margarine containers were quite literally buckets of pure trans-fats. These types of fats are so bad for your heart that they are illegal for restaurants to use in most states. And as it turns out, we now know that the saturated fats of butter are the healthiest of all fats and it is high sugar diets that promote bad cholesterol. Oops. Guess the head medical practitioner was dead wrong about a very important topic.
THEM: “Professor So-and-so has declared that their is no such thing as black holes. He is a famous astrophysicist so who are you to disagree?”
YOU: “There is plenty of evidence for the existence of black holes. I have read several articles and find the evidence convincing. I will have to disagree with the expert you quoted. Sorry.”
Remember that in the 1700’s and early 1800’s prominent physicians used blood letting to help heal their patients. Blood letting was the practice of literally draining significant quantities of blood from people in hopes of curing them. In his retirement years, George Washington woke up with a sore throat and his physicians practiced a little too much blood letting. Unfortunately the cure proved worse than the disease as they drained nearly 40% of his blood and killed him. Now, if you traveled back in time and argued with President Washington to ignore his prominent physician he would most certainly have ignored you and gone to his death for practicing an appeal to authority!
4. Ad Hominem
Attack the person but leave their argument untouched.
“Ad hominem” is Latin for “to the man.” When someone ignores your argument entirely and then starts pointing out your flaws or making fun of you, they are committing the fallacy of “attacking the man” (i.e. ad hominem). This is both lazy and illogical. They are paying attention “to the man” but not the argument. This makes no sense. Everyone has flaws, just because a person has done something wrong does not mean everything coming out of their mouth is false. If this was true no person in history could ever be correct about anything because all humans have erred at one point in their lives. A scientist who discovers a cure to a disease may also be a thief and a liar, but they still discovered something true.
In order to make it seem logical, someone who is using an “ad hominem” will try and pick a flaw that seems related to the argument of their opponent. As a result, people will fall for this “ad hominem” trick because it will seem logical.
YOU: installing security cameras in our staff lunchroom is a violation of our privacy as employees.
THEM: you were caught stealing last year so of course you don’t like security cameras!
As you can see, it seems to make sense that someone who has stolen is only wanting to remove cameras so they can steal again. However, this is not absolutely certain. If your goal is to think properly you cannot afford to be fooled by bad thinking habits. Even subtle ones. It may very well be absolutely true that it is illegal to put cameras everywhere at work and it does not magically become untrue just because the truth was pointed out by someone who previously stole.
5. Genetic Fallacy
Judging whether or not something is true based only on how the idea was first thought of
Sometimes how you think of something is less than impressive. Or even kind of weird. For example, in the 1800’s German scientist Friedrich Kekulé dreamed of a snake eating its tail. He woke up and sketched this on a piece of paper. It gave him a new idea about a chemistry problem he was working on. He thought of creating a model for a molecule of six carbons based on his dream. After doing the calculations and some experiments, it turned out that this worked perfectly. This ring shape for the six carbon molecule is now known as a benzene ring and has been confirmed to be true by countless experiments. What started out as a dream turned out to be scientifically accurate. Imagine if no one had taken Kekulé seriously just because his idea came from a dream!
KEKULÉ: my fellow scientists, I dreamed that a snake was eating its tail, it gave me an idea that maybe the molecular shape of a 6 carbon chain is in a ring, like the snake in my dream. Let’s do experiments to see if this is true!
OTHER SCIENTISTS: Are you nuts? We are not going to even consider doing experiments based on theories coming from someone’s dreams! Try again Kekulé…
GEORGES LEMAITRE (priest and astrophysicist that proposed the Big Bang in the early 1900’s): hey guys, as a Christian I believe that God created the Universe from nothing. I read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and there is now proof that all of space, time and matter was created instantly at some point in the past.
OTHER SCIENTISTS: Are you nuts? We are not going to even consider doing experiments based on theories coming from someone’s theological beliefs! Try again LeMaitre…
Hope you enjoyed our first installment. More to come in PART 2…