Five Common Fallacies—Don’t Be Fooled by Them!
“LET no man deceive you with empty words.”a This advice was given nearly 2,000 years ago and still rings as true as ever. Today, we are bombarded with persuasive voices: movie stars peddling cosmetics, politicians promoting policies, salesmen pushing products, clergymen expounding doctrine. All too often the persuasive voices prove to be deceptive—little more than empty words. Yet, people in general are easily mislead by them.
Often this is because people fail to distinguish truth from fallacy. Students of logic use the word “fallacy” to describe any departure from the path of sound reasoning. Simply stated, a fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument, one in which the conclusion does not follow from preceding statements, or premises. Fallacies may, nevertheless, be powerfully persuasive because they often make a strong appeal to the emotions—not to reason.
A key to avoiding deception is knowing the workings of fallacy. Let us therefore take a look at five common ones, with a view to sharpening our God-given “power of reason.”—Romans 12:1.
FALLACY NUMBER 1
Attacking the Person This type of fallacy attempts to disprove or discredit a perfectly valid argument or statement by making an irrelevant attack on the person presenting it.
Consider an example from the Bible. Jesus Christ once endeavored to enlighten others regarding his coming death and resurrection. These were new and difficult concepts for his listeners. But rather than weigh the merits of Jesus’ teachings, some attacked Jesus himself, saying: “He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to him?”—John 10:20; compare Acts 26:24, 25.
How easy it is to label someone “stupid,” “crazy,” or “uninformed” when he or she says something we don’t want to hear. A similar tactic is to attack the person with a subtle dose of innuendo. Typical examples of this are: “If you really understood the matter, you wouldn’t have that point of view” or, “You only believe that because you’re told to believe it.”
But while personal attacks, subtle and not so subtle, may intimidate and persuade, never do they disprove what has been said. So be alert to this fallacy!
FALLACY NUMBER 2
Appealing to Authority This form of verbal intimidation is accomplished by invoking the testimonials of so-called experts or famous people. Of course, for advice it is only natural to look to people who know more about something than we do. But not all appeals to authority are based on sound reasoning.
Suppose your doctor tells you: “You have malaria.” You reply: “How do you know, doctor?” How unreasonable it would be for him to say: “Look, I am a doctor. I know far more about these things than you do. Take my word for it, you have malaria.” While his diagnosis is likely correct, reasoning that you have malaria simply because he says so is fallacious. It would be far more advantageous for him to discuss the facts: your symptoms, blood-test results, and so forth.
Another example of an intimidating appeal to authority is described at John 7:32-49. There we learn that police officers were sent to arrest Jesus Christ. They were so impressed by his teaching, however, that rather than arrest him, they told their superiors: “Never has another man spoken like this.” In reply, Jesus’ enemies said: “You have not been misled also, have you? Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, has he?” Note that no attempt was made to refute Jesus’ teaching. Rather, the Jewish leaders appealed to their own authority as “experts” in the Law of Moses as the reason to disregard whatever Jesus said.
Interestingly, clergymen today are known to resort to similar tactics when unable to prove from the Bible such teachings as the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, and hellfire.
Invalid appeals to authority also abound in advertising, where celebrities commonly give testimonials in fields far removed from their area of expertise. A successful golfer encourages you to buy a photocopying machine. A professional football player promotes refrigerators. An Olympic gymnast recommends a certain breakfast cereal. Many do not stop and think that such “authorities” probably know little or nothing about the products they peddle.
Realize, too, that even legitimate experts—like everyone else—may be biased. A highly credentialed researcher may claim that smoking tobacco is harmless. But if he or she is employed by the tobacco industry, is not such “expert” testimony suspect?
FALLACY NUMBER 3
‘Join the Crowd’ Here the appeal is to popular emotions, prejudices, and beliefs. People generally like to conform. We tend to shrink at the thought of speaking out against prevailing opinions. This tendency to view the majority opinion as automatically correct is used with potent effect in the ‘join-the-crowd’ fallacy.
For example, an advertisement in a popular U.S. magazine showed a number of smiling people, each enjoying a glass of rum. Accompanying the picture was the slogan: “It’s What’s Happening. All across America, people are switching to . . . rum.” This is a blatant appeal to ‘join the crowd.’
But while others may think or do something, does that mean you should? Besides, popular opinion just isn’t a reliable barometer of truth. Over the centuries all kinds of ideas have been popularly accepted, only to be proved wrong later. Yet, the ‘join-the-crowd’ fallacy persists. The rallying cry, ‘Everybody is doing it!’ moves people to take drugs, commit adultery, steal from employers, and cheat on taxes.
The fact is, everybody doesn’t do those things. And even if they did, that would be no reason for you to do so. The advice given at Exodus 23:2 thus serves as a good general rule of conduct: “You must not follow after the crowd for evil ends.”
FALLACY NUMBER 4
Either/Or Reasoning This fallacy reduces what may be a wide range of options to only two. For example, a person may be told: ‘Either you accept a blood transfusion or you will die.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses often run into such reasoning because of their Bible-based decision to ‘abstain from blood’ in any form. (Acts 15:29) The weakness of this line of reasoning? It excludes other valid possibilities. The facts show that there are alternative treatments, and most operations can be performed successfully without blood. Skilled doctors often operate with a minimal loss of blood. Another possibility is the use of nonblood fluids, plasma volume expanders.b Furthermore, many have taken blood transfusions and died. By the same token, many have refused blood and lived. The hole in the either/or reasoning is thus a gaping one.
So when presented with either/or reasoning, ask yourself, ‘Are there really only two possible choices? Might there be others?’
FALLACY NUMBER 5
Oversimplification Here a statement or argument ignores relevant considerations, oversimplifying what may be a complex issue.
Granted, there is nothing wrong in simplifying a complicated subject—good teachers do it all the time. But sometimes a matter is simplified to the point of distorting truth. For example, you may read: ‘Rapid population growth is the cause of poverty in developing countries.’ There’s an element of truth in that, but it ignores other important considerations, such as political mismanagement, commercial exploitation, and weather patterns.
Oversimplification has resulted in many misunderstandings when it comes to God’s Word, the Bible. Consider, for example, the account at Acts 16:30, 31. There a jailer asked a question about salvation. Paul answered: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will get saved.” Many have concluded from this that simple mental acceptance of Jesus is therefore all that is required for salvation!
This is an oversimplification. True, belief in Jesus as our Ransomer is essential. But it is also necessary to believe what Jesus taught and commanded, to acquire a full understanding of Bible truths. This is shown by the fact that Paul and Silas subsequently “spoke the word of Jehovah to [the jailer] together with all those in his house.” (Acts 16:32) Salvation also involves obedience. Paul later showed this when he wrote that Jesus “became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him.”—Hebrews 5:9.
An ancient proverb says: “Anyone inexperienced puts faith in every word, but the shrewd one considers his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15) So don’t fall for fallacies. Learn to differentiate between legitimate attacks on what is said and cheap attacks on personalities. Don’t be fooled by invalid appeals to “authority,” urgings to ‘join the crowd’, either/or reasoning, or gross oversimplifications—especially when something as vital as religious truth is involved. Check all the facts, or as the Bible puts it, “make sure of all things.”—1 Thessalonians 5:21.
b See the booklet Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.