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Logical fallacies: how to recognize them and when to not point them out


Logical fallacies: how to recognize them and when to not point them out

With examples from conversations with paranormal believers.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

Today, inspired by The School of Thought’s awesome Critical Thinking Cards and poster, paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle takes a look at the logical fallacies he runs into when discussing his work.

People love to debate. Anyone who’s a Star Wars fanboy or general comic geek is well aware of this. Each of us presents our side of the argument, usually with the intention of convincing the other person (or people) that our stance is the correct one. After all, people also love being right.

Sometimes these debates go our way, while other times we come to the harsh realization that we – not our opponent – were in the wrong. When debates get “heated, “emotions increase and tempers flare. The ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others, becomes an essential skill. When we find ourselves losing the battle, humans tend to engage in a tactic that, although flawed, can be an effective way to undermine an opponent’s stance while making ourselves appear to be victorious.

I’m referring to logical fallacies, sneaky tactics that can be defined as “common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Fallacies can be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points and are often identified because they lack evidence that supports their claim.” There are dozens of logical fallacies, which use poor or faulty logic to try to damage another person’s argument and distract your opponent and onlookers from the basic fact that you’re losing. And losing sucks, especially when it’s in front of a crowd. Although a lot of people may not realize they’re arguing poorly, sadly, many will purposefully use logical fallacies to make their argument appear more valid than it really is.

Logical fallacies: how to recognize them and when to not point them out

Some logical fallacies come naturally to us, like the ad hominem attack, which is Latin for “against the man.” This is an attack on the character of your opponent, rather than their actual argument. Sometimes, when someone senses they’re losing a debate, they’ll resort to name-calling or pointing out an unrelated character flaw to make their opponent appear weak or insignificant. It can embarrass your opponent as well, which might have an impact on their confidence, and their authority in the eyes of onlookers.

I’ve frequently encountered the ad hominem fallacy while discussing paranormal topics, where my skeptical approach to extraordinary claims tends to ask harder questions then the average believer would. When I offer a logical explanation for an alleged “ghost” appearing in a photograph or video, I’m often met with comments like, “Well, you’re just a skeptic, you don’t believe anything. You’ll say anything so you don’t have to admit it’s a ghost.”

Comments like that are used to elicit an emotional response from paranormal enthusiasts, which is often the (obvious) majority at the paranormal-themed conferences and events I attend. In this case, “skeptic” is meant to paint me as the bad guy and damage my character in the eyes of onlookers, thus discrediting my argument. In the end, the comment adds nothing to the debate subject of whether there was a ghost in a photograph.

Another last ditch defense is often called “moving the goalposts.” The website “Logically Fallacious” describes this as “demanding from an opponent that he or she address more and more points after the initial counter-argument has been satisfied, refusing to concede or accept the opponent’s argument.” Not willing to accept defeat (or a logical answer), some people basically “dig their heels in” and instead continue to add more, often unrelated points. This effectively buries the original argument under several others.

On several occasions, I’ve been presented with a “ghost” photo that I’ve been able to sufficiently explain (such as lens flare or a reflection), and even demonstrate under similar conditions. Rather than accept a well-supported conclusion, a die-hard believer may respond with something like, “Well, Matt got an EMF reading at the same time. How do you explain that?” This “moves the goalposts” further back, forcing me to spend time addressing a different (potentially unrelated) point.

After satisfying why an EMF meter reading is not related to the alleged “ghost” photo, another point is added; “Jenny heard a noise from the room where we caught the ghost. What about that?” This can go on for an excruciating amount of time, keeping an opponent busy addressing “Exhibit B” through “Exhibit Z,” while never having the original argument settled. What’s even worse about this fallacy is that it only takes one unsatisfied point for your opponent to claim, “See, you can’t explain that, so the experience must be paranormal.” From their perspective, they won the argument.

Exactly how a person should respond to a logical fallacy is up for debate itself. Some take the direct approach, calling them out by name, e.g. “Looks like you just committed the Red Herring fallacy. Here’s a link that explains what that means.” This approach is blunt, and you might come across as arrogant. I’ve found this direct approach to be ineffective, since most humans don’t want to engage with anyone who just points out every little fallacy they’re making.

Instead, I prefer a more inquisitive approach, which focuses on why a person used a particular fallacy. In addition to giving me a better understanding of an opponent’s mindset, this approach also allows me to push the attention back onto them. As a bonus, it sometimes turns into an opportunity to provide additional information, or to clear up a misconception.

Take the ad hominem example, where the term “skeptic” was used as a personal attack with the idea that skeptics are bad. Rather than calling out the logical fallacy for what it is, I usually ask why he thinks skeptics would “say anything” to avoid admitting a ghost showed up in a photograph. It’s a valid question, since most skeptics I interact with would love to see solid evidence of a ghost (seriously, that would be freakin’ awesome). This can provide valuable insight into your opponent — perhaps this person is under the impression that skeptics are purely dismissive or out to debunk everything just to be spiteful.

Understanding the “why” lets us form a proper response. I can relate that most skeptics I work with are well-educated on the topics they engage with, and my own personal background in photography, with years focusing on strange anomalies (such as ghosts) allegedly captured by cameras. This approach provides an opportunity to address critical issues and clarify them, even though these additional topics were meant to distract everyone from the original argument. It’s also much less aggressive than pointing a virtual finger at someone and yelling, “Ooh! Ooh! He just used an ad hominem fallacy!”

logical fallacies fallacy

The bottom line is simple: if we participate in debates, we should be familiar with logical fallacies. Don’t rely on them just to (deceptively) win an argument, or likewise rely on calling them out to embarrass your opponent (or feel superior). Utilize your understanding of logical fallacies to make your own arguments stronger (by not using them). When you recognize an opponent using one (or more), utilize the opportunity to get into their heads and maybe clarify a misunderstanding of the topics.

And no matter what, make sure you bring the focus back to the original argument. This part can easily be overlooked amid all of the side discussions you’ve had to endure. Before you walk away from your opponent, get the closure. In the ad hominem example, once I understood and clarified the reasons behind the “skeptic” comment, I would ask, “If we agree that not all skeptics are just out to debunk everything, and I’ve explained my background in photography, can we agree that it’s possible this ‘ghost’ might not really be a ghost?” Sometimes the answer is still no. However, in recent years, the answer has been more like, “Yeah, I can see your point.”

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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