One would thin that as we become more sophisticated in our technology, we would also become more sophisticated in our thinking. This is not really the case, and our everyday life reflects this fact, in looking at critical thinking and arguments in daily life.
In this essay we will examine three fallacies that exist in our modern life, even affecting how we gather information. These fallacies are not new, but they have become so common that they could be considered to be second nature to us since news and advertising use them so much.
The first fallacy is ad ignorantiam (argument to ignorance). This is the argument that something is true simply because it hasn’t been proven false (Glen Whitman, 2001). A very good example of this fallacy can be cited from the McCarthy era, when Senator Joseph McCarthy began a “witch hunt” for communists in the United States. He accused many people of being communists or having ties with communism, but he could never prove his claims. Many of those McCarthy accused could not disprove his claims, either. In the meantime, an enormous amount of damage was done by those accusations (Douglas Walton, 1999).
This particular fallacy applies to many parts of our lives, such as belief in God, causes and cures for cancer, and the concept of an afterlife.
Popular belief in things such as ghosts and UFO’s also fall under this fallacy, given that despite many witnesses and documented footage and photographs, neither of these phenomena can be proven, nor can they be disproved. A common argument in favor of the paranormal is to say that since it cannot be disproved, it must be possible.
If we adhered strictly to the statement that nothing is true or false until it has been proven to be so, our lives would be very different; there would be no religion, no mythology, no consideration of what we are beyond the molecules our bodies are composed of.
We can use the current example of global warming warnings being issued for this fallacy; it has neither been proven nor disproved that global warming is the cause of the altered weather patterns around the world; it is a possibility. Yet much is being made of the problem and there is much concern on the part of people and attention on the part of the media discussing global warming.
The most popular and voracious fallacy used in advertising is that of ad verecundiam, or appealing to authority. This fallacy involves invoking the authority of someone famous or important to prove a point, whether or not that person really is an authority.
The most popular example to use for this fallacy is the old “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend this toothpaste…” when in fact the dentists surveyed may only know the brand name without actually recommending it.
Sports figures advise drinking a certain potion for rehydration, superstars advise us on which instant coffee to drink, and hundreds of unidentified mothers recommend a certain child’s aspirin (Dr Madsen Pirie, n.d.).
It is rather ludicrous that we are so ready to override our personal opinions for those of alleged authority when it comes to products used, but sellers thrive on the cash that comes in from using this fallacy to sell anything from tennis shoes to dog food to cars.
This is not to say that we should disregard authority altogether; there are experts who know much more than we do about certain things. For instance, if one has cancer, one doesn’t go to a manufacturer of a pharmaceutical for treatment. Nor does one write to the current movie star advising a breakfast cereal purported to possibly fight cancer. Nonetheless, this fallacy remains the most powerful tool of persuasion for selling products or ideas.
Appealing to authority is useful when choosing a college or university, a replacement part for a broken down car, veterinary advice for a sick pet and other reasonable directions in order to solve a problem or make a decision, but it is wise to refrain from simply taking another’s word for it when making a major decision without investigating for oneself.
Common Belief is another fallacy that has pervaded over eons. This fallacy is easy to understand, but not so easy to spot in our own lives and minds. It is the assumption that just because many people think something is true, it is.
The most frequent use of this fallacy is the concept of “common sense.” This appears on directions of usage, advice on living, and even the sciences. For example: “When working around high voltage electricity, use common sense” (Matthew Westa, 1996).
Common belief is different from culture to culture and appears to be in existence worldwide. While it is not discussed where common belief originated, it would be simple to speculate that it began by something happening, someone telling someone else about it, and the word spread.
Common belief is learned, and it is interesting that experience or proof is not necessary to believe this fallacy. At times it is more prudent to believe it; referring back to the high voltage work, it is not only common belief that electricity can be dangerous, it is a fact. Few people with the experience of being shocked would want to repeat it, much less experience a shock from a high voltage.
It doesn’t seem to take much for a common belief to be integrated into an individual’s life, given that each of us grows up with them. Due to common belief, there are many things we do or avoid doing, such as driving on the wrong side of the road to see what will happen or swallowing an entire bottle of aspirin to cure a headache. But here we are talking about actual probabilities; common beliefs even go beyond that, into the fabric of our psyches.
One good point mentioned by Westa in regard to “common sense” being used in instructions is this: “If saying ‘Use Common Sense’ worked, we wouldn’t need to follow it up with specific warnings.”
Georg Megel (n.d.), who claims that concepts of common belief and knowledge have received any attention for a relatively short period of time, conducted an exhaustive analysis of common belief, using complicated logical equations to demonstrate the differences between common belief, interpersonal belief and common knowledge.
I can recall my own surprise when I once said to a schoolmate, “Everybody knows that grass is green!” When looking at a picture he had drawn with red grass. As it turned out, he was color-blind. I discovered to my shock that the grass is not really green; it is simply a matter of what our rods and cones tell us it is.
While fallacies are pervasive, sometimes damaging and largely illogical or unreasonable, they do make for interesting and lively debates and conversations. They are generated by creative minds borne of a long history of mythos from which to draw our rich stories and perceptions of truth.
Meggle, Georg. (n.d.), “Common Belief and Common Knowledge”, Spinning Ideas. |Online|, available at: http://www.lucs.lu.se/spinning/categories/decision/Meggle/Meggle.pdf
Pirie, Dr Madsen. (n.d.), “Verecundiam, Argumentum Ad”, The Adam Smith Institute. |Online|, available at: http://www.adamsmith.org/logicalfallacies/000665.php
Walton, Douglas. (1999), “The Appeal to Ignorance, or Argumentum Ad
Ignorantiam”, Department Of Philosophy, University Of Winnepeg. |Online|, available at: http://io.uwinnipeg.ca/~walton/papers%20in%20pdf/99ignorantiam.pdf
Westa, Matthew. (1997), “Fallacies Leading to Assumption Of Common Sense”, Longview Community College. |Online|, available at: http://www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/longview/ctac/psychology/commonsense4.htm