Don’t be Fooled

Two posters hang on my office wall.  The first poster—titled Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies—lists twenty-four of the most common logical fallacies that people make when constructing or evaluating an argument.  As each of us makes and hears dozens of arguments every day, ignorance of these fallacies opens us to being manipulated and misinformed, as well as to being ‘wrong’ when we are convinced (and are trying to convince others) that we are ‘right.’
An argument is “a reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action, or theory.”  Logical fallacies are “any error in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.”  As the poster states: “A logical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning.  Strong arguments are void of logical fallacies, whilst weak arguments tend to use logical fallacies to appear stronger than they are.  Logical fallacies are like tricks or illusions of thought, and they’re very often used by politicians, the media, and others to fool people.  Don’t be fooled!”
For example, I might tell you: “When I go to church, I feel better.  So go to church; you’ll feel better.”  Although this is an argument, it’s a bad argument because it depends upon anecdotal evidence.  While it may be true that I feel better when I go to church, my claim that you’ll feel better by going to church fails to account for the range of possible experiences that you may have if you go to church.
We commit an anecdotal fallacy when we use “a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a valid argument, especially to dismiss statistics.”  I cite this fallacy because it is a favorite of advertisers.  The advertised benefits of a product may not be supported by any scientific studies or evidence but promotion of the product by ‘personal testimonies’, e.g., by ‘Jennifer from Tacoma’ or by ‘Dr. Charles of HEALTH’, is enough to convince millions of people to purchase the product.
The second poster—titled Know Thyself—lists twenty-four of the most common cognitive biases that make our judgments irrational.  As this poster states: “We have evolved to use shortcuts in our thinking, which are often useful, but a cognitive bias means there is a kind of misfiring going on causing us to lose objectivity.”  ‘Confirmation bias’ is an example of a common cognitive bias and is defined as the automatic inclination to look for, and accept as true, information that supports our beliefs and to miss, ignore, or discount information that contradicts our beliefs.
Typically, we accept information that supports what we believe and reject evidence that contradicts what we believe.  When confronted with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we respond not by adapting our beliefs according to the new information but by creating elaborate rationalizations to justify our existing beliefs.  We do this easily and automatically; and regardless of who we are, how intelligent and educated we are, or what our politics are, we are all vulnerable to it.
Cable news is an excellent example of confirmation bias at work.  Cable news stations target specific demographics and pander to their audiences by presenting the ‘news’ in ways that consistently reinforces what their audiences already believe.  These stations rarely, if ever, present news stories that challenge their audiences’ beliefs.  By exploiting confirmation biases, cable news stations maintain and energize their audiences by making viewers feel informed and justified in their beliefs.
I keep these two posters on my wall to remind me of how easy it is to be misinformed, manipulated, and ‘wrong.’  Using good reasoning and identifying cognitive biases requires energy and commitment.  For me though, the alternative is not an option.  I genuinely desire to be informed, to make good arguments and to spot bad arguments, and to challenge myself to learn the truth, however uncomfortable the truth may be.
If learning about logical fallacies and cognitive biases is interesting to you, you may download these posters for free at: Your Logical Fallacy Is and Your Bias Is.  Another excellent resource is the book (humorously titled): You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney.  I’m also delighted to meet and to talk with you about these subjects in my office, where these two posters are prominently displayed for easy reference.

Copyright © 2017 by The Rev. Russell Bohner, TSSF