Let me say at the start that this is not an article on the nuts and bolts of logic. No, this is an article about irrational human behavior that I have witnessed with such frequency and over such a long period of time that it seemed best I start writing about it. I’ll be as brief as possible.
Let’s begin with some brief examples of what does not constitute logical proof.
Things That Do NOT Constitute Logical Proof, Despite the Apparent Belief of Many to the Contrary
- Belief. Some people argue as if believing a thing is evidence of the thing itself. For example, someone challenges, “How do you know this?” and the response is, “I know it because I believe it in my heart.” Here’s a real-life example from a Ron Paul admirer who doesn’t seem to have figured out that things are going poorly for his campaign: “I believe Ron Paul will win, plain and simple. It is a feeling, a vision and a riddance to a passive and unmoving mind. We deserve life and liberty because I SAY IT SO!” Be sure to note the “because” that I highlighted in red. This is a logical argument, stating that the reason for A is B. And look at the B! “…because I say it so”.
- “I’ve always heard…” Persistent rumor, habit, or tradition neither prove a thing nor make a thing true. Conversely, “I’ve never heard that” is not a disproof of a thing. Things can be true whether we’ve ever heard them or not, and things can be false even if we’ve heard them repeatedly.
- Consensus. A thing is no more true if a million people believe it than if zero people believe it. Conversely, it is no less true if zero people believe it than it is if a million people believe it. Going back to #1 in this list, belief has no bearing on reality whatsoever.
- Trust. Trusting in a thing doesn’t make the thing true or prove that it is true. A bridge, for example, may stand up to the stress of a car driving over it whether the driver of the car trusts the bridge to bear the weight or not. Similarly, trusting in a person does not prove that the things the person says are true. For example, someone objects that “The police are conducting an unconstitutional traffic stop on Third Avenue,” and the response is, “Well, I’m sure they wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t have a good reason for it.” Trusting the police does not prove that what they are doing is legal.
- Expertise. Someone having a label as an “expert”, or having an advanced degree in a field does not prove that the things he says or believes are true. Such experts are often wrong. In fact, the entire history of science is more or less the story of improving upon the theories and hypotheses of those who came before.
- Adamancy. Many argue as if being adamant about their positions is itself evidence that those positions are the correct ones. Adamancy, however, is simply an emotional stance and has no bearing on the truth whatsoever. Like the funny line in the song, “I don’t feel tardy”, we should recognize that a state of fact doesn’t necessarily have an associated feelings, and that having a feeling doesn’t necessitate an associated fact. Indeed, one may feel tardy and yet be mistaken. The strength of the feeling or certainty is not the indicator of the truth of the matter; the clock is.
- Might. Having the strength to force one’s way does not prove that one’s way is morally or logically the best way. The classic expression of this flawed idea is “Might makes right”.
- Repetition. Some act as if repeating an unsupported claim is the same as supporting the claim. It is not. For example, someone could claim that you have 13 arms, but it would be no truer after the 100th claim that it is after the first claim.
- Someone Else’s Error. It is a logical fallacy to argue that since the Demublicans are making such a mess of things, the Republicrats are necessarily the right choice in the next election. One’s wrong doesn’t make another right. It is always possible that both are wrong. Similarly, the atrocious things being done at Church A do not prove that Church B is the “one true church”. They could both be in error.
- Lack of a Better Way. Not knowing a better course to take does not prove that the course we are on is a good one. It may well be that more rational thought should be invested in order to find a better way. The faulty assumption is this: “If there were a better way, we’d be aware of it.” This fallacy also comes into play when the tables are turned on a critic of some certain method: “Yeah, well I don’t see a lot of solutions in your post!” (As if not having offered solutions is a disproof of the criticisms offered.)
- Occam’s Razor. Lots of folks, trying to be sophisticated, abuse this axiom: “All things being equal, the simpler explanation is most likely the correct one.” One bad habit here is to assume that “all things [are] equal” in cases where they are not. Another is to replace “most likely” with “surely”. In effect, Occam’s razor is twisted by many into something like this: “Whatever is easiest for me to believe must be the correct belief.”
- Lack of Disproof. It is a fallacy to suggest that because a thing cannot be disproved, it must be true. For example, Sally claims she saw an alien in a spaceship last night and nobody can prove that she did not. Sally argues illogically that it must be true because nobody can disprove it. It could be that Sally was dreaming, hallucinating, or mistaken about what she saw. This fallacy is commonly used in promoting absurd (usually conspiratorial) theories to cognitive misers. A bald assertion is made (without the support of fact, logic, or sourcing), and readers are encouraged to believe it is true because nobody can disprove it. Unsophisticated people fall for this.
- Desire. Wanting a thing or wishing it to be true is not a valid proof of the thing. Neither are imagination or “having a vision” for a thing proof of that thing. For example, having a vision of a certain candidate leading the nation to significant political reform is no proof that the candidate will bring about that reform.
- Ad Hominem. Drawing attention to a flaw in the person who is making an argument does not prove his argument wrong. Nor does drawing attention to a flaw in one criticizing a position prove that the thing he is criticizing is right. Read more here.
- “The ends justify the means.” Many seem to believe that having an ultimate motive of doing good is itself a proof in favor of whatever means are employed to get there. An example of this might be stealing money from people in order to support an orphanage. The thief might attempt to prove that the theft is acceptable because, in this case, it was “for a good cause”. A more common example, however, is the manipulating of a child to get him to behave in a better way, or telling a teen a lie in order to get him to make what the parent deems to be a better choice.
- “On a Mission from God”. Much irrationality is excused in the practice of religion in a way that is quite similar to “the ends justify the means”. The fallacious idea is that the tenets, paradigms, or arguments in question are considered proven, not by virtue of a successful logical argument, but by virtue of being directly or indirectly authorized by God himself—or perhaps more commonly, by virtue of being done ostensibly on God’s behalf. An example of this might be the church Halloween party. Someone may pose the challenging question as to why a church devoted to Jesus is celebrating a holiday devoted to all things satanic, but the reply is that the church members need an alternative to worldly Halloween parties, and that the church is providing that service. The entire process of logic is set aside, as if trumped by a greater mission that does not need to be reasonable.
In my observation, fallacious “proofs” of the sort in the foregoing list plague the United States and the subcultures that comprise it. We are riddled with dysfunctional irrationality. That is, we have lost touch with reality in so many ways that it is no wonder when things don’t work for us.
For example, we bemoan the sad job being done by the Demublicans, so we decide that the answer is to hand power back to the Republicrats—the very folks we snatched power away from after their last debacle. If we were reality-based decision makers, we would be adamant that playing this game of partisan leap frog is a stupid and counterproductive idea, yet we gear up for another round of it every couple of years as if all our previous experience is meaningless and a new reality is likely to spring into being just any second now.
Now, this article isn’t really supposed to be about popular fallacies, but I can’t help myself. Since I’m already so close to the topic, here’s a list of four popular fallacies that play a major role in the life of America. These examples demonstrate just how out of touch we are with reality. (In other words, how irrational we are.)
Four Popular American Fallacies
- Borrowing Our Way Out of Debt. Naturally, the more one borrows, the deeper is his debt. We have a rich tradition in America, however, of believing the exact opposite, even though we can readily observe that the more we borrow, the worse our economy gets.
- Spending Our Way Out of Debt. When one owes money, the chief solution to this debt is to repay the lender. In America, however, we believe that it is somehow good for our economy to spend that money on other things instead. We say that this will “stimulate the economy”. Even though we can witness that the economy continues to suffer, we do it anyway.
- “The two-party system will fix it.” The idea, already mentioned above, is that when one party makes a mess of our government, the proper solution is to put the other party back in power. Never mind that we angrily snatched power away from this other party the last time they had it! Instead, we move forward with unswerving confidence that changing the balance of power toward the other party is exactly the right thing to do. (There are many more possibilities, such as breaking the choke-hold that this “two-party system” has on our government.)
- “Jesus will fix it”. Sister Sally says, “Well, I’m not worried about the corruption in our government because I have faith that Jesus will fix it.” She fails to realize that public corruption in the US goes back to the ratification of our Constitution and beyond. For whatever reason, it would seem that Jesus is not fixing American politics and has not ever fixed American politics, yet Sally has not adjusted her beliefs to be in touch with the reality of the matter. Sally also says the same thing about her church’s poor attendance at its Wednesday night meetings: “Jesus will fix it”. And again, she fails to recognize that she has been attending that congregation for 40 years and has never once seen Jesus fix the Wednesday night attendance. Somehow, Sally has got an erroneous idea about what Jesus will do. (This is no slam on Christianity, but merely an observation that something is amiss in Sally’s expectations from her religion.)
In all four instances, an unrealistic (irrational) expectation is indulged and the result is the exact opposite of the (unrealistically) expected solution. Further, because the preferred (irrational) solution is deferred to, no other solutions are attempted. Sally, for example, has practically excused herself from being part of the political solution exactly because she believes that “Jesus will fix it”. She tells herself, therefore, that it’s “not her place” to try to fix things herself and that she needs to “let go and let God” do it. She does not seem to notice that, for whatever reason, God does not seem to be doing it. So whatever her beliefs, they are out of touch with reality on this point.
Similarly, a great many Americans take a passive role as they watch to see what government will do, or what their preferred political parties will do while serving in government. Even though they can directly observe the government’s recent track record, they still entrust our society to that same government and assume a spectator role.
So who benefits in each of these popular and widespread fallacies? In the first case, borrowing our way out of debt, the Federal Reserve Bank wins. The more we borrow, the more they earn. In the second case, spending our way out of debt, the Federal Reserve Bank wins because they profit any time money changes hands. Similarly, those darlings of government with whom government spends stimulus money win. Whether it’s corporate bailouts, state building projects, or any other entitlement or subsidy, the big winners here are the corporate darlings, although every attempt is made to build the perception that the public is the winner.
In the third case, “the two-party system will fix it”, and the fourth case, “Jesus will fix it”, the winners are the Federal Reserve Bank and their darlings, who get to continue business as usual while some number of citizens continue to assure themselves that they need only sit back faithfully in full expectation that someone else “will fix it”.
How interesting it is that the same people profit from all four of these fundamental fallacies. It’s as if they are widely promoted for the very purpose of benefiting the Federal Reserve Bank. And if this is not the case, it certainly presents a remarkable coincidence. But I digress.
The Nudity of Prooflessness
Ask people why they engaged in such fallacious beliefs and arguments and it’s very likely they’ll have no cogent defense. In fact, it is a sign of our times that a great many people don’t think they need a defense for their preferred positions. This demonstrates a dysrationalic paradigm, and the more people who indulge in it, the more clearly we can see our society being weighted toward dysrationalia….just as it is. Indeed, the four schemes detailed above systemic at this point and are fully grown. They have been firmly in place for a very long time.
We are logically “nude”, therefore, for we cannot even remotely begin to cover our irrational behaviors with logical defenses. Nor do most of us seem to bear the natural shame of such nudity. We have forgotten to notice that there’s a problem with unsubstantiated assertions. This is likely attributable to the fact that such dysrationalia is commonplace in our culture. We may marvel at certain African cultures who go about nearly nude, surprised that they do not feel the shame that we would feel if we dressed the same way. Imagine, however, if the citizens of yet another culture looked upon us with embarrassment at our logical nudity as we go out about business without a clue as to how irrational we are.
If we woke up one morning to find that everyone had magically quit engaging such arguments and unrealistic expectations, this nation would be miraculously transformed instantaneously!