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Wednesday, October 30, 2002 ( 3:34 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a funny example to the fallacy of ambiguity file, and made a few minor revisions while I was at it.

Monday, October 28, 2002 ( 12:42 AM ) (Permalink)

Book Review

Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, Basic Books, 2001.

In 1993, historian Deborah Lipstadt published a book entitled Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, in which she identified author David Irving as a Holocaust denier and writer of falsified historical books. When the book came out in England, Irving sued both Lipstadt and her British publishers for libel. In order to win the case under British law, Lipstadt had to prove in court that her defamatory comments about Irving were, in fact, true.

Richard Evans was hired by the defense as an expert witness to develop its case that Irving did, indeed, intentionally misrepresent history. Lying About Hitler is Evans' account of what he discovered in the course of his research. As Evans analyzes it, Irving's work is slanted in favor of Hitler and Nazism. For example, he takes the word of committed Nazis who wish to put Hitler in the best possible light (e.g., Chapter 2, sections II and V), a fallacious appeal to authority.

A pattern of moral equivalence emerges from Irving's version of history, supported by an analogy drawn between the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II and the Holocaust. In order to try to strengthen this otherwise weak analogy, Irving consistently downplayed the numbers of Holocaust victims while exaggerating tenfold the numbers killed in Dresden, so that the two numbers become approximately equal.

While the title of this book is Lying About Hitler, and Evans succeeds in marshaling much evidence of mendacity on Irving's part, it is also a case study in how fallacious reasoning can be used to support tendentious readings of history. Thanks to Evans' objective historical scholarship, documented in this book, Lipstadt won her case.

Friday, October 25, 2002 ( 10:57 PM ) (Permalink)

Argumentum ad Nazium

Matthew Engel complains about weak analogies and guilt by association:

"The problem is the incessant appearance of the words ['Hitler' and 'Nazi'] as a resort to winning arguments about modern politics. … At rock-bottom they are tools of inductive reasoning: 'I like dogs.' 'Hitler liked dogs. You're a Nazi, then!' Since the Iraq dispute began, mild overuse has turned to plague, and both sides have been as bad as each other."

Thursday, October 24, 2002 ( 1:58 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

The fallacy of Emotional Appeal is!

Monday, October 21, 2002 ( 3:43 AM ) (Permalink)

Political Fast Pitch

John Sharp, who is running for Lieutenant Governor here in Texas, is running a television commercial with an endorsement from Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan.

Can you name that fallacy? I knew you could!

Saturday, October 19, 2002 ( 9:23 PM ) (Permalink)

Slip-Sliding Away

"If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination."
(Thomas De Quincey, "On Murder")

Tuesday, October 15, 2002 ( 10:47 PM ) (Permalink)

Quote, Unquote

"When a word like 'control' is introduced and especially when it is conjoined with the term 'government' the standard objection rises almost automatically. Once you introduce any government control, in the end the government will move in to determine or dictate…. I call this the argument of the 'slippery slope'—once you begin, where will you stop? The answer to a question of that sort is: 'You stop where your intelligence tells you to stop, and an intelligent decision proceeds from case to case, from problem to problem.' I actually read a letter in The New York Times a few months ago protesting against the fluoridation of water on the ground that once we begin to introduce poisonous chemicals into drinking water, who knows where we'll stop? Presumably the writer feared we might end up adding potassium cyanide."
(Sidney Hook, Convictions, Prometheus, 1990, p. 302.)

Monday, October 14, 2002 ( 6:31 PM ) (Permalink)


"With so much of our public policy now being done 'for the children', should 'Argumentum ad Proles' be formalized as a fallacy?"
—Dan Terrill

Good question! I'm not convinced that this is common enough to be worth a separate entry in the Fallacy Files, since it may just be a passing fad. However, it is worth noting that it is a species of emotional appeal, specifically "appeal to pity"—AKA argumentum ad misericordiam, in Latin. No doubt it is a powerful appeal, since no one wants to be thought indifferent to the fate of children. So, if one can succeed rhetorically in linking a policy to the welfare of children, it becomes awkward for anyone to oppose it, even on legitimate grounds.

Thanks for the question, Dan!


Sunday, October 13, 2002 ( 9:54 PM ) (Permalink)

Ad Hoc Fallacies

P.D. Magnus writes in:

"I'm personally interested in the way that some authors coin fallacies ad hoc, so as to accuse their interlocutor of having committed them. It is as much a point of rhetoric as one of logic—the logician's aim is to define types of fallacies that recur, but the improvised fallacy is sometimes so specific as to be of use just once. I have a small collection of such improvised fallacies on my site."

Yes, you probably won't be seeing most of these in the Fallacy Files! However, the argumentum ad Gaulum is pretty close to being a real fallacy, since some people seem to think that whenever Americans and the French—or, more generally, Europeans—disagree, it must be we unsophisticated and simple-minded Americans who are wrong, and the wise and worldly French who know best. There is an old American song called "Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong" which expresses this attitude, which seems to be a form of what S. Morris Engel calls the fallacy of "snob appeal" (the name of which is self-explanatory).

Source: S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Third Edition) (St. Martin's Press, 1986), p. 216.

Saturday, October 12, 2002 ( 4:37 AM ) (Permalink)

Interview with Nobel Laureate

Here is a short interview with Daniel Kahneman, which gives some idea of what his work is about. Take the quiz before reading the article, though. Here's a relevant excerpt:

"Kahneman notes that people are also inclined to be irrational about ascribing weight to available information. Greater weight is given to easily remembered information—for example, because 'it said in the newspaper', or due to personal acquaintance with the source of the information—regardless of the reliability of the information. People will be inclined to state that a city has a high crime rate because they are acquainted with a victim of some assault, or because of overly intensive media coverage of an event, even though they are in possession of statistical information showing that the situation is not that bad."

This is a nice, concise description of the badly-named Volvo fallacy.

Source: Ran Dagoni, "Economic Man", Globes Online, 10/29/2002

Wednesday, October 09, 2002 ( 10:56 PM ) (Permalink)

A Prophecy Fulfilled

"Finally, a brief prophecy and a challenge: I am persuaded that, sooner or later, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman will win the Nobel Prize for economics. When on some October day this news reaches the daily papers, readers of this book will be able to say, with a certain self-satisfaction, as their friends and colleagues try to decipher those complicated names: 'Sure, Tversky and Kahneman. You mean you don't know? They are the ones who….'"

(Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds, John Wiley & Sons, 1994, p. xiii.)

The Nobel Prize in Economics for 2002 has just been announced. If Amos Tversky hadn't died in 1996, he probably would have shared this prize with Kahneman for their psychological work on cognitive biases and illusions about probability. See their book:

Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, editors, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Monday, October 07, 2002 ( 1:36 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New, Too?

A "wild" new example on the fallacy examples page.

Sunday, October 06, 2002 ( 12:00 AM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

A reader criticism of an example together with my reply in the entry for the fallacy of Ambiguous Middle.

Saturday, October 05, 2002 ( 2:00 AM ) (Permalink)

Blurb Watch Double Feature

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