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Q: I note that the lists of fallacies given by Locke in the Essay, Mill in the System and Whatley in the Elements all differ. I wonder has anyone done a formal history of fallacies?
Dr John S Wilkins
Parkville, Victoria, Australia
A: I hope to include more historical discussion in Fallacy Files entries in the future. Until then, as far as I know there is no book exclusively devoted to the history of logical fallacies. However, C. L. Hamblin's very influential book Fallacies, first published in 1970, includes history as well as criticism of the way that fallacies were treated in textbooks of the time. In addition, Hamblin was also from Australia!
Thanks for the question, John!
- C. L. Hamblin, Fallacies, 1970
- Peter McBurney, "Charles L. Hamblin"
Name That Fallacy!
"The recent spectacular transit of Venus across the face of the Sun may lead to disastrous flooding along China's Yellow River, a leading scientist has warned the local media. While millions were marveling at the celestial show earlier this month, Geng Guoqing, an expert on natural calamities, was more worried about the consequences for China's second-longest river, the Xinhua news agency reported. He compared historical records reaching 2,187 years back and found a clear correlation between Venus transits and serious floods along the river's middle and lower reaches, according to the agency."
Source: "Venus Transit May Cause Serious Flooding Along China's Yellow River: Report", ABC News Online, 6/21/2004
Resource: "Does the Venus Transit Cause Floods?", Bad Astronomy, 6/21/2004
Via: Robert Todd Carroll, "Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter", 43
Bigger, Taller, Stronger, Faster, Smarter!
The most recent issue of Consumer Reports has the following picture of an "action figure"that is, a doll for boyswith an enlargement of the print at the bottom of the package. This is an extreme example of the common advertising ploy of using dangling comparatives to suggest the superiority of products, without being specific. "Brand X toothpaste gets your teeth whiter!" Whiter than what?
I've added a short essay by Julian "Bad Moves" Baggini as a Resource to the Genetic Fallacy file. It's not a recent piece, but I just found it, and it's worth reading.
Check it Out
Ben Fritz of Spinsanity has a lengthy article today criticizing Slate magazine's "Bushism" feature for frequently quoting its subject out of context. I have briefly pointed out such problems with the "Bushisms" in the past, when Eugene Volokh debunked a couple, and more recently in the case of the "hand"-shaking contextomy noted by Fritz's coworker Brendan Nyhan. At a minimum, Slate should do two things to prevent these problems in the future:
- Provide a link to the original source of the quote, so that the reader can check out the quote in context; for an online magazine, there's really no excuse for not doing so.
- Promptly publish a correction when a contextomy has been committed.
Taking these two steps would create a strong incentive for Slate to avoid quoting out of context, as well as avoiding some of the harm of doing so.
Source: Ben Fritz, "Stereotypes Run Amok: Slate's Misleading 'Bushisms' and 'Kerryisms'", Spinsanity, 6/15/2004
The entire Fallacy Files site is! Or, at least, the format is new, and even some of the content is new, as well.
For those interested in the technical details, I have changed the site from one that uses frames to one that gets much the same effect as a frame without using actual frames. There were technical advantages to using a framed site, but there are also technical disadvantages to frames, and the latter had come to outweigh the former, hence the makeover.
I am interested in any comments or suggestions you might have about the new look of the site. Are there any other changes you would like to see? Also, since this was a total renovation, there may be a few protruding nails and patches of wet paint here and there. So, please forgive our mess, and if you find any problemsfor example, links that don't work or which link to the wrong pageplease email me.
I hope that you enjoy the NEW, IMPROVED, frame-free, low-carb Fallacy Files! If you do, please consider showing your support.
Resource: How to Support the Fallacy Files
Source: "Headlines", The Tonight Show
Adam went to sea and disappeared. Everyone who had crossed paths with him was happy. Why?
Update (6/10/2004): Answer to the Puzzle
Logical errors are, I think, of greater practical importance than many people believe; they enable their perpetrators to hold the comfortable opinion on every subject in turn.
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995), p. 93.
The critical consensus on the new movie The Day After Tomorrow seems to be largely negative, except for agreement that the special effects are impressive. So, what's an ad writer to do? Take some adjectives applying to the special effects out of context, capitalize them, then add explanation points, of course. This makes it sound as if the reviewers are raving about the movie itself, not just its effects:
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
- "AWESOME. WONDERFUL!"
Rex Reed, THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
Jack Mathews, DAILY NEWS
Here are the quotes in context:
- "'The Day After Tomorrow' is ridiculous, yes, but sublimely ridiculousand the special effects are stupendous."
[W]ith a budget to equal the fiscal inventory of Chase Manhattan, [the director]'s out to destroy the human race
, with dopey dialogue, a number of hackneyed subtexts, sensational mind-blowing special effects and a big environmentalist dig at the Bush administration.
But here’s the surprise: For all of its dire premonitions, foreshadowings of horror and easy targets for Jay Leno jokes, The Day After Tomorrow is eye-poppingly awesome and wonderfully entertaining."
- "From the cracking of the antarctic ice shelf in the opening scene, to satellite images of massive storm systems, to the
destruction of major cities and the snowbound aftermath, 'The Day After Tomorrow' is a stunning achievement. Unfortunately, there is a story, an assortment of characters and a batch of contrived relationship crises whose dramatic transparency punctures the visual splendor like pins through birthday balloons."
- Indianapolis Star Weekend, 6/4/2004, p. 5
- Roger Ebert, "The Day After Tomorrow", Chicago Sun-Times, 5/28/2004
- Jack Mathews, "'Day After' a Far from Perfect Storm", Daily News, 5/27/2004
- Rex Reed, "The End Is Nigh
in Technicolor!", New York Observer, 6/5/2004
Check it Out
Spinsanity's report today is a debunking of the claim that gasoline prices are currently at a record high, and Ben Fritz gives examples of both journalists and politicians making it. I pointed this fact out last year when prices spiked in the summer, and earlier this year when the claim first re-emerged. It probably would have been possible to cite an example from the media every day for the last couple of months, but that would get tedious. Hopefully, Spinsanity will have some success getting journalists to stop repeating this fallacy, as well as correcting politicians who use it to try to score political points.
Ben Fritz, "Democrats and Journalists Spout Myth Gas Prices are the Highest Ever", Spinsanity, 6/1/2004
Today, Spinsanity has a report about a recent "Bushism":
"I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein."
Taken out of context, this sounds odd, but since most people are born with two hands, Bush could have shaken the unamputated one. The context of the remark was his meeting with a group of Iraqis who had had their hands amputated and replaced by prosthetic hands, so the "hand" that he shook was apparently a prosthetic one.
There's an interesting equivocation on "hand" concealed in this Bushism: a prosthetic hand is, of course, an artificial hand, and an artificial hand is not a hand. In general, an artificial X is not an X; though there are exceptions to this rule, "artificial hand" is not one of them. In written English, we can mark this distinction by using quotation marks, though not everyone is careful to do so. So, Bush's statement should be written:
"I'm honored to shake the 'hand' of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein."
The quotation marks around "hand" indicate that the word is being used in a non-literal way, that is, that it is not really a hand being shook. In spoken English, there is no good way of indicating this distinction, though intonation may help. So, the moral of this story is that much of the oddity of Bush's statement is the result of the transcription of his statement, rather than of the statement itself.
Brendan Nyhan, "Bush Statement about Amputee Misconstrued", Spinsanity, 6/2/2004
Dana Milbank has an interesting article giving several examples of straw men attacked by President Bush. He goes on to say:
"Bush is obviously not the first politician to paint his opponents' positions in absurd terms.
But Bush has been more active than most in creating phantom opponents
Actually, there's no evidence in the article that Bush is any worse about attacking straw men than any other politician, and I suspect that one could compile just as many examples committed by KerryMilbank gives only one example of a Kerry straw man.
However, a couple of Milbank's examples are more black-or-white fallacies than straw men, that is, arguments based on an inadequate set of alternatives:
"In the typical [stump] speech, Bush explains the prewar intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein had
weapons [of mass destruction], and then presents in [sic] inarguable conclusion: 'So I had a choice to make: either trust the word of a madman, or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America every time.'
Missing from that equation is the actual choice Bush confronted: support continued U.N. weapons inspections, or go to war."
Even Milbank's alternatives are too limited. Similarly, the Kerry example is just as much black-or-white as straw:
"'Honorable people could disagree about the real choice between tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans and health care and education for America's families,' Kerry has said. 'I'm ready for that honest debate.'"
Good way to start an honest debate!
Dana Milbank, "Making Hay Out of Straw Men", Washington Post, 6/1/2004
Spinsanity is on a roll so far this month. Today, Brendan Nyhan debunks an article which quotes critics of the President out of context.
Brendan Nyhan, "Washington Times Quote-Butchering Continues", Spinsanity, 6/4/2004
The "Remove the Frame" button has been removed as it is no longer necessary, since the site is no longer framed.
Answer to the Seasonal Puzzle (6/10/2004):
Adam was a hurricane. Congratulations to Michael Mulhern, who was the first to send in a correct solution to the puzzle!
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