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ERRONEOUS METHODS OF INFERENCE

Approaches to the truth from stated arguments (mostly classical) by forms which often lead to error.

Page Contents

You may read through this page in the order it was written or follow the links below to the topic of most interest to you.

Fallacy of the Appeal to Authority

Argument ad Hominem Fallacy

Inverted Syllogism Fallacy

Fallacious Syllogism/Non Sequitur

Circular Reasoning Fallacy

False Dilemma Fallacy

Slippery Slope Fallacy

Complex Question Fallacy

Prejudicial Language Fallacy

Buzzword Fallacy

Fallacy of the Appeal to Consequences

Fallacy of the Appeal to Force

Fallacy of the Appeal to Popularity

Fallacy of the Appeal to Authority

The appeal to authority is an argument in the form, "The President said it, so it must be true." There are two very obvious problems with arguments in this form in most settings. The first is that the speaker, a fallible human, may be misinformed or may be lying. The second is that a human speaker, even if well informed and totally sincere, has no power to alter the past and very limited power to alter the future to make his or her words true. Thus, those who believe that God is omniscient and truthful recognize Him as the only ultimate authority to whom appeal may properly be made. Others may be recognized as being generally honest and having superior knowledge or expertise in particular fields, and their words on the subjects of their expertise may be received as true most of the time -- indeed, neither the economy nor the community of scholars could function without this type of reference to authority. But the assertion that a statement must be true because Luther said it, or Calvin said it, or Lenin said it, or because an organization said it in a policy or doctrinal statement, is erroneous. A statement is only absolutely assured of truth if God said it. Return to top of page

Argument ad Hominem Fallacy

This fallacy is the opposite of the appeal to authority. Because theologians tend to have some training in classical rhetoric, this fallacy is uncommon in published theologies and in the official publications of major denominations. On the other hand, this is probably the most common classical fallacy separating Christians in ordinary preaching and common discourse. It has two forms, which I will call the "weak" and the "strong" forms. The "weak" form discounts, but does not necessarily deny, the truth of a true statement, because of the character or affiliation of the person stating it. Here is an example of the "weak" form of the argument ad hominem: "Joe says there is a God. Joe is a convicted child molester. Therefore, I will not believe there is a God until someone of better reputation declares Him to exist." On the other hand, the "strong" form of the argument ad hominem denies the truth of any statement attributed to a disqualified declarant, as in this example: "Jane says there is a God. Jane is a Jehovah's Witness. Therefore, there is no God." This argument form is a fallacy because in the field of statements to which it applies -- statements which are objectively falsifiable -- truth is independent of the identity or characteristics of the speaker. Following the examples previously stated, Satan himself could declare that God exists (in fact, he does -- James 2:19) without rendering the statement false.

Of course, in what most of us perceive to be the "real" world of rationed and largely unreliable information mixed with deliberate self-motivated disinformation, ad hominem arguments can be quite useful. For example, the lawyer's technique of impeaching a witness is often an exercise in pure argument ad hominem. Thus, in this example, a lawyer will argue that, because some crime or weakness in the witness' past makes him appear unreliable, the green traffic light he now so clearly recalls seeing must really have been red. But in areas like theology where truth is verifiable by an objective standard (as it is for those of us who accept the Bible as true), the argument ad hominem is entirely inappropriate as a means of determining the truth. Return to top of page

Inverted Syllogism Fallacy

An inverted syllogism infers from the statement "All A are B" the conclusion "All B are A." This kind of argument is frequently seen, for example, raised in support of some of the more extreme forms of Calvinism, thus: "'[All] those whom God predestined He also called.' Romans 8:29-30. Therefore, all those whom He called must also have been predestined." This is an erroneous argument. Return to top of page

Fallacious Syllogistic Argument/ Non Sequitur

Syllogisms generally take as their "major argument" universal statements of the general form "all A are B," and draw inferences about members of the class "A," as demonstrated by the classical example of a syllogism: "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." Arguments by logical implication take as their major arguments statements in the form "if A then B" and from them form arguments in the form "If A then B. A, therefore B." For purposes of the present discussion, logical implication and syllogism behave similarly. Thus, if it is assumed that "if it is raining ('A'), then it is cloudy ('B')" and it is observed that "it is raining ('A')," it is always correct to infer that "it is cloudy ('B')". Valid inferences may also be drawn from the negation of "B" (the "minor argument"): thus, in the classical syllogism example, "God is not mortal" would validly imply that "God is not a man." (This demonstrates, of course, the danger of creating invalid generalizations, like "all men are mortal," since the Son of God isn't mortal — see the separate discussion of Fallacious Generalization). In the second example, "it's not cloudy" would also validly imply "it's not raining."

However, even if the major argument of a syllogism is true, speakers all too often attempt to draw conclusions from the negation of the minor argument ("not A") or the truth of the conclusion ("B"). But no valid inferences may be drawn from these arguments. Thus, it is entirely incorrect to argue "If it is raining, then it is cloudy. It is cloudy, therefore it is raining." Moreover, the following example, which combines a misapplied syllogism with the sexist language version of the Cultural Fallacy (discussed elsewhere) potently demonstrates the error of drawing a conclusion from the negative of the minor argument: "All men are mortal. Hillary Clinton is not a man. Therefore, Hillary Clinton is not mortal." QED Return to top of page

Circular Fallacy

This is the familiar error of assuming what one wishes to prove. It can be done blatantly, but is usually done more subtly, by assuming a proposition which contains but does not obviously state the proposition to be proven. Return to top of page

False Dilemma Fallacy

A false dilemma occurs when a speaker invites a conclusion by limiting the range of allowed choices to only two, one of them clearly unacceptable, when in fact other choices exist which the speaker is ignoring. For example, the widely used slogan "God is Lord of all or He's not Lord at all" presents a false dilemma. If the slogan refers to God's work in cosmology or history, a whole range of other possibilities exist which retain Him ultimate control (lordship) over the destiny of His creation while simultaneously allowing some of His creatures (e.g., humans, angels) a measure of real free will. Indeed, some of these approaches even allow God ultimate lordship while also positing the possibility that there are some natural events which He didn't personally cause. On the other hand, if the slogan refers to the life of an individual believer, we should all hope there are other alternatives, because we are all still influenced by the old sin nature, so if the slogan is true, God isn't Lord at all for any of us! Return to top of page

Slippery Slope Fallacy

The Slippery Slope also might well be called the "Appeal to Fear." It shows a proposition to be unacceptable by first stating that acceptance of the proposition will lead to an unacceptable result, then stating that the unacceptable result will in turn lead to an even more unacceptable result. The chain may continue through several steps and will lead to an end result that is very clearly unacceptable. The real problem with the slippery slope is that none of the steps in the chain need to be proven for the argument to persuade most partisans who are looking for a reason to be persuaded; instead, each step merely needs to sound reasonable in isolation. I am indebted to Stephen Downes' web site for the simplest example of a Slippery Slope I've ever read: "If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make an exception for everyone." On the other hand, a Christian example in several steps might state: "You should never drink. If you take one drink, you'll want more. If you drink more, you'll find it hard to stop. Then you'll become an alcoholic and ruin your life." Undoubtedly, in some cases, the scenario stated by this slippery slope actually occurs, since many people have ruined their lives through alcoholism and all of these at some time took their first drink. However, none of the steps is universally true. I was raised in a family that drank moderately, on festive occasions only. While living with my parents, I drank on several occasions, but did not like the way it made me feel. I didn't want more, and haven't had more since I left my parents' house. Moreover, I know many people who are able to drink moderately. So, while taking the first drink is, in a sense, "playing with fire," since one cannot know one's susceptibility to addiction until after the first drink, it is not always the first step on the road to ruin. Return to top of page

Complex Question Fallacy

A Complex Question asks the listener's assent to a proposition which is really two separate propositions joined together with "and." One of the propositions is so obviously true to the target audience that none of them is likely to reject it. The other proposition is more controversial, but, because it is presented in conjunction with the obviously true proposition, as a single proposition to which assent is asked as an undivided whole, the listener is not free to reject the controversial proposition without also appearing foolishly to deny the obvious proposition. Here is an example of an unfair Complex Question: "Do you believe in freedom of conscience and free love?" There are some on the radical fringe opposite mainstream Christianity who believe that freedom of conscience implies the right to live immorally, and therefore believe this to be a valid question. But I suspect that for most Christians, this example pointedly demonstrates the danger of a Complex Question. Unfortunately, the use of such questions is quite common in the Church, particularly when it is thought necessary to build the loyalty of the membership concerning some controversial position taken by the group. Such loyalty-building exercises commonly include large doses of complex questions associating the controversial position in the minds of the membership with as many settled and accepted doctrines as possible. Return to top of page

Prejudicial Language Fallacy

This fallacy could also be called the "Appeal to Shame." It refers to the attempt to establish a proposition through use of emotionally-charged language. Most commonly, this takes the form of language which implies that those who oppose themselves thereby evidence mental defect, ignorance, laziness, wrong motives or evil character. To use a somewhat extreme example, I have seen web pages which made reasoned arguments advocating nudism as a lifestyle proper for Christians and I have also seen web sites with reasoned arguments on the other side of the issue. However, several of the web sites I have seen which most ardently opposed to the concept that Christians may tolerate nudism dispensed with reasoned argument on the issue, instead starting their presentations with statements which said, in effect, "all persons of sound Christian morals agree that the nudist lifestyle is sinful," followed by a discussion of political actions which the authors believed all true Christians should take to oppose nudism in general. Now the statement that "nudism is sinful" would have been quite acceptable as the conclusion of a reasoned scriptural argument, and, if derived from such an argument, could then properly have been used as the basis for proposed action. However, the authors of these web pages erred by omitting the reasoned argument and instead attempting to win their point simply by using emotional language which implies that anyone who disagrees with them must be a person of unsound or unchristian morals. Reasoned arguments may only validly be answered with reasoned arguments, not with arguments which ignore reason and appeal to the reader's shame. Return to top of page

Buzzword Fallacy

The Buzzword Fallacy might at first be thought to be merely an extreme form of use of prejudicial language. However, the use of buzzwords incorporates two elements not found in mere emotionally-loaded language — deliberate programming of the emotional value of the buzzword through focused propaganda and narrowing of the meaning of the buzzword to a single connotation for those who have accepted the propaganda line. Ordinary people, who do not control any of the means of mass communication, can generally use prejudicial language to their personal advantage only in the manner discussed under the Prejudicial Language Fallacy — i.e., by attempting to associate with their opponents general words or concepts which already have negative emotional value. However, persons who are able to obtain a captive audience of true believers (as in some political organizations, religious denominations and cults), or who are able to obtain substantial access to the means of mass communication, can do something more powerful than this — they can through various deliberate psychological manipulations program the reflex, "knee jerk," reaction their followers will have to certain terms. This reaction can be either positive or negative, and can be made quite strong. Moreover, the creators of a buzzword can also make reasoned debate with their followers almost impossible by "locking" the meaning of a buzzword that has several natural meanings into the single connotation that elicits the desired "knee jerk" reaction.

This buzzword narrowing phenomenon is demonstrated very neatly by the political buzzword pair "pro-life" and "pro-choice." Note that these terms are not even related to each other, if understood according to their natural meanings. The natural meaning of the term "pro-life" is "promoting or favoring life," a meaning that is certainly broad enough to encompass concern for poverty, war, governmental human rights violations and violent crime (all of which inexcusably shorten lives) as well as abortion. On the other hand, the natural meaning of the term "pro-choice" is "promoting or favoring the ability, privilege or right to choose," and is broad enough to encompass the freedom to choose a vocation, the right to choose whether to purchase white, rye or wheat bread at the grocery, the high privilege to choose whether to wear blue or black socks today and the ability to choose to have or forego an abortion. However, most "pro-life" organizations are vehemently single-issue political organizations which basically couldn't care less about poverty, war, crime or human rights of born persons. At least partly because of this narrow focus of the "pro-life" movement, it has been fairly easy for the leaders of the opposing position, through years of carefully-manipulated media coverage, to convince most of their "pro-choice" followers to emotionally regard "pro-lifers" as a severe threat to all of their liberties. Indeed, many ardent abortion advocates speak as if they regard all who oppose their position as the equivalent of "Nazis," "clinic-bombers" and "murderers."

And, for their part, while most Libertarians are "pro-choice," most "pro-choice" organizations and their followers are not Libertarians — generally, they would have no problem with governmental regulation of vocational choices, bread varieties, acceptable sock colors or even regulations forcing women to have abortions under certain circumstances. This latter point was demonstrated by the position some of the leading "pro-choice" organizations took in favor of abortion in several recent widely-publicized court cases in which parents and state welfare agencies compelled unwilling minor girls to have abortions in their own "best interest." No, the one "choice" most of these organizations will fight to preserve against any interference is the right to choose to have an abortion (which is a single option, not a "choice"). Interestingly enough, the programmed "knee jerk" reaction of "pro-lifers" to "pro-abortion" people (what "pro-lifers" call "pro-choice" people) also equates them to "murderers" ("baby killers").

So, through the use of buzzwords, both sides in the abortion debate have been trained to emotionally react to those on the other side as murderers, and reasoned conversation has become all but impossible. This situation has been very profitable for both major political parties, numerous political candidates and officeholders, and the sales departments of all major media outlets, none of whom intend to do anything to actually resolve the issue, and for well-funded organizations on both sides of the issue who will not accept compromises or partial solutions. It has been tragic for millions of aborted babies and millions of pregnant teens. It has also proved tragic for quite a number of abortion doctors, clinic personnel, protesters and patients who have been killed or injured in futile demonstrations or terrorist acts. Moreover, it has had devastating consequences for an even larger number of people who have died of causes related to poverty, crime or human rights abuses while the public's attention was focused on the abortion battle. So it is throughout politics today — many issues have been quite deliberately polarized through the use of buzzwords in order to make resolution of those issues impossible.

Unfortunately, buzzwords have also been deliberately created in order to perpetuate the controversy over most of the divisive issues in the Christian church. The function of buzzwords in the church is exactly the same as in the secular political arena — buzzwords lock in a following who will give money and numbers (power) to a leader and will not be swayed by contrary arguments because they are no longer able to think rationally about the issue. Return to top of page

Fallacy of Appeal to Consequences

An appeal to consequences argues that a proposition must be true because otherwise a consequence will follow which is unacceptable for reasons outside the logic of the argument. This example from Stephen Downes' site is perfect:

You must believe in God, for otherwise life would have no meaning. (Perhaps, but it is equally possible that since life has no meaning that God does not exist.)

Return to top of page

Fallacy of Appeal to Force

An appeal to force is a special case of the appeal to consequences in which the speaker makes a threat, promising that other men or deities will bring unacceptable consequences upon the person of anyone who doesn't believe a proposition as a direct result of their unbelief. Unfortunately, the appeal to force has been a very common method of argumentation in the Church. Of course, the threat that all those who don't believe in Christ will be doomed to eternal perdition is an appeal to force, but, at least to those who believe the Bible to be true, it was made by a God who is Himself the definition of the truth and who knows it to be true.

However, it is quite something else to argue that men must assent to a doctrinal proposition because, if they don't, other men, who are also fallible, will cause them to be shunned, excommunicated, exiled or burned at the stake. Such arguments do not prove the doctrinal point they are offered to support. Instead, they prove only that, when Christian leaders become self-protective about their worldly power, they can become positively un-Christlike in their cruelty defending it. Return to top of page

Fallacy of Appeal to Popularity

The only propositions which may be proven true or false by taking a poll are propositions about public opinion. Collective opinion may be a slightly more secure indicator of the truth than my own individual opinion, standing alone, but it is still imperfect. If all of the political and religious leaders in the world and 99.9% of its people believed that the earth is flat and is the center of the universe, this wouldn't make it so. The earth didn't start orbiting the sun when a majority of the world's population came into agreement with Copernicus!

Nevertheless, both in secular settings and in the Church, Christians are constantly exposed to appeals based on collective opinion. We "ought" to believe certain things because "most Christians" do, or because a consensus of our denominational leaders or of "evangelical" leaders do. We "ought" to take certain political positions because "all" of the big name "Christian" political leaders and lobbying organizations do. We "ought" to buy certain products because of their popularity, either in the world or in the Church, or because secular or Christian entertainers endorse them.

Indeed, many Christian organizations formally recognize a form of the appeal to popularity which the world for the most part no longer recognizes: the appeal to historical popularity. That is, if "all true Christians" of past ages have recognized the truth of a proposition not explicitly taught in scripture, then we must also recognize its truth. But there are two problems with this argument. The first is that the phrase "all true Christians" can be (and usually is) defined as including only that subset of Christians who hold to all of the historically-recognized teachings of the Church, resulting in a circular proof. But even if the argument is weakened to assert the truth of anything believed by merely "a large majority" of Christians and Christian leaders in past centuries, the problem remains that the Church has tenaciously clung to some demonstrably false positions. For instance, in 1500, it could have been said that the official position of the organized Church (both Orthodox and Catholic) was that the earth is the center of the universe, and that "all true Christians" had believed this since the First Century. Yet this was false.

This is not to say that the positions adopted by Christians and their leaders throughout the centuries count for nothing. We can learn from them, should give them some deference, and should be cautious in our departures from settled Christian positions. But mere human opinions are no substitute for the truth, even if everyone else in the world holds them and always has. Return to top of page

Common Divisive Fallacies site index.

On another site

The negative inference fallacy explained and applied to common interpretations of Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, Matthew 19:9 and I Corinthians 11:5 by Paul Dixon.

©2000, 2005 by Ian B. Johnson.

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