Internet discussions certainly don’t abide by the same standards that genuine debates do, but you’ll inevitably encounter various people shouting “Nice use of logical fallacy!” at one another anyway. Interestingly enough, while the arguments are often faulty, they’re not composed of the logical fallacies that many often claim.
Argumentum ad Verecundiam (“Appeal to Authority”)
The “appeal to authority” is one of the most grossly misunderstood, misapplied fallacies out there. From various mommy blogs, to alternative news sites, to this little piece, claims of “appeal to authority” are certainly no rarity. But legitimate cases of this fallacy, ironically, are.
What is this fallacy, and why is it a fallacy? Essentially, “appeal to authority” refers to any argument hinging on or vitally incorporating the notion that if a powerful or influential figure does or claims something, we should all do or believe that something.
A few obvious examples of this fallacy follow as:
“Gwenyth Paltrow uses alternative medicine, so it must be safe!” This leaves us asking “Why?” or “How?” It’s an illogical conclusion to make, as she has no medicinal knowledge from what we’ve been told, nor do we have any reason to believe she is healthy or cares for the safety of others based on what was told.
“Dr. Bob is a professional microbiologist, and he claims that windshield wiper fluid is ineffective and it is best to use mayonnaise instead.” What does being a microbiologist have to do with knowing what is best for a vehicle’s windshield? It’s irrelevant; we’re not told how or why Dr. Bob came to his realization.
A few examples show what is commonly mistaken as an appeal to authority, but is actually logically sound:
“Evolutionary biologist Dr. X claims that genetic mutations are random and spontaneous, which disproves Mr. Y’s claim that all life forms exist as they are for a specific reason.” Evolutionary biology requires extensive knowledge of ecology and changes in genetics. We can infer that Dr. X, whose education is relevant to the topic, understands the material enough to make an accurate statement on the matter.
“Joel Zimmerman, DJ and producer, says that DJs ‘skills’ lie primarily in producing, and that live performances basically boil down to pressing ‘play.'” We can assume that a well-renowned music producer has knowledge about the goings-on of live performances and the difficulty thereof.
It is important to remember that in order to be classified as an appeal to authority, it has to be an appeal to an irrelevant or unqualified authority. Citations of those with first-hand experience, those with an education in a field relating to the topic, those with a career relevant to the topic, etc. are NOT fallacious. “Authority” in this case doesn’t refer to someone arbitrarily perceived ‘higher-ranking’ than you in society, therefore making the argument invalid. Yet people often claim an argument is fallacious in this manner just because someone is taking the words of an experienced person or educated person over a stranger on the internet- that is NOT fallacious; it’s wise.
Argumentum ad Hominem (Personal Attacks)
Probably referenced even more frequently than “appeal to authority,” ad Hominem is another fallacy that is often erroneously claimed and poorly understood.
This logical fallacy consists of attacking the messenger, rather than the message. Instead of providing counterarguments to whatever points may have been made by the other party/ies, if one is using this logical fallacy, they’ll resort to insulting their opponent or otherwise invalidating their claims based on irrelevant information.
“Dr. Barres may be a neuroscientist and the Chair of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine, but he’s transgender, so his research obviously doesn’t count.” There is no clear, logical reason as to why being transgender would invalidate his research. Instead of addressing specific issues that may or may not exist with his research, the statement hinges on something as irrelevant as gender status.
“Most feminists are have short, dyed hair and are grossly obese, so I definitely can’t take you seriously.” No explanation is given for why poor image correlates to poor message content. Is the specific “you” in this statement physically similar to what was described? If so, does said person have any connection to feminism? Is there any inherent connection of feminist ideology with any given physically appearance? Too many loose ends, no substantial content.
“Your voice is unbearable! You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.” There is no correlation between voice tone and rationality. Instead of commenting on the person’s voice, it would be logical to explain how it is apparently obvious that the person doesn’t understand the topic.
Ad Hominem fallacies, because they’re an attack on the person making an argument, cite irrelevant information or subjective statements about the person and therefore frequently align with prejudices or stigmas. This fallacy is more likely to be used against those who may not fit into a conventional idea of physical attraction or those who constitute some sort of minority.
Some examples of what is NOT an ad Hominem fallacy:
“My calculator indicates that 5 plus 5 is 10, not 25. You’re confusing multiplication with addition, dumbass.” Though this comment or reasoning may be callous, it is logically sound. This person isn’t insisting that the person was incorrect because the person was a ‘dumbass,’ but that the person was a ‘dumbass’ for being incorrect. And there is, in fact, a difference between those two scenarios.
“Tomatoes are a fruit, and I hate you for thinking they’re a vegetable.” This isn’t exactly an argument nor a line of reasoning, but the person isn’t insisting that the person incorrect for any particular reason. They’ve merely stated two facts: 1. Tomato is a fruit, and 2. They hate the other person (despite how uncalled for the hatred may be)
And take a look at this as well:
This piece of text is rife with weak generalizations, assumptions, and insulting language. Nevertheless, it isn’t an argument based on the fallacy of ad Hominem. It actually describes what is specifically arguing against and why. It provides counterpoints to the argument that the 1st amendment is invalidated based on historical context. Though clear dislike is expressed of the opposing party, they make no claim that the opposing party is incorrect solely because they’re filthy hipsters or idiots. Rather, that they’re filthy hipster idiots because they disagree. (Text written by Steven Crowder)
Remember that an argument does NOT automatically constitute an ad Hominem just because it incorporates rude language, insults, or expresses clear hatred. It only qualifies when the opponent’s argument is perceived as invalid solely because the opponent is *insert insult/slur/irrelevant description*
Argumentum ad Populum (“Popular Appeal”)
This logical fallacy insists that because a majority supports an argument, the argument must be true/correct. Though generally correctly recognized more frequently than the above, many people still incorrectly label certain arguments as ad Populum. This often ties back to our first example of ad Verecundiam.
“Christianity is the largest religion in the world. That many people can’t be wrong, so Christianity must be the only true religion!” This fails to explain why or how a large number of random people cannot be incorrect on any given issue. It also doesn’t account for the fact that all other positions on religion (including nontheists and those of nonChristian religions) combined account for a larger number of people than that of all Christians combined.
“A lot of celebrities love the xyz diet; it must be super effective!” There is no correlation between celebrities and accurate knowledge of human diet. Why must it be “super effective?” Did every celebrity who followed the diet get the same results in the same amount of time? There isn’t enough information.
Examples of what does NOT fall under this fallacy:
“97 percent or more of climate scientists agree that climate change is largely a result of human activity, so we probably shouldn’t cut the EPA’s already low budget.” This is not an ad Populum, because the people referenced are relevant to the topic and have a clear understanding of the matter.
“All the dentists we’ve gone to said little Johnny has cavities and should brush his teeth more, so we’ve decided to give him a sticker any time he brushes his teeth.” This is logically sound because the people (dentists) that inspired the decision are relevant and have the ability to detect and prevent dental cavities.
“According to VGR, only about 3 percent of the adult US population is strictly vegetarian. Most people in the United States eat meat.” This doesn’t constitute a logical fallacy because it is not even an argument. It is a factual statement based on statistics.
[This post will be continually updated]