Understanding What A Fallacy Is

Formal logic makes for elegant research. With formal logic there is a right answer and so researchers can be confident that some choices are simply wrong. Unfortunately formal logic has relatively limited application in the real world. (Gigerenzer has argued that some flaws in decision making identified in Kahneman and Tverksy’s experiments may occur because experimental subjects assumed the questions were in everyday, rather than formal, language).

Informal logic is more widespread but it is not possible to be as certain about informal logic. Things may appear not to make sense to you but unless they violate a formal rule of logic we can’t say that they are undeniably wrong. Thus Robert Gula’s book on Nonsense makes lots of points that seem to intelligible in the sense that you know what he means but his ideas are often not well defined.  Given that he criticizes human beings for their imprecise language it only seems fair to do this.

For instance, he defines: “A fallacy is an error in thinking or reasoning. Strictly speaking, it is not an error in fact or belief, it pertains to thought processes.” (Gula, 2007, page 45-6). The problem is that much of what he discussed doesn’t fulfill this criterion. For example, the Appeal to Fear is in the list of Fallacies and Nonsense (Gula, 2007, page 223). He uses an illustration of an unscrupulous mechanic who tells you what will happen if your transmission goes (page 10). If this persuades you change your transmission it isn’t clear whose thought process is wrong and so the Appeal to Fear doesn’t seem like a fallacy. The mechanic made some extra money. (The mechanic is deceitful but clearly not confused). You took the advice of someone you trusted which is often a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You don’t understand cars and given the asymmetric consequences it is typically better to accept the risk of being cheated by an unscrupulous mechanic than of having a horrible accident. Appeals to fear often work because of sensible, not erroneous, decision making.

Overall understanding nonsense arguments is a useful skill and Gula’s book is worth reading but I wouldn’t say that every argument he identifies is always nonsense.

Read: Robert J. Gula (2007) Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic In Our Everyday Language, Axios.