A little philosophy can sometimes be worse than none. Critical thinking done correctly requires constraint. Be warned of what I call the fallacy stick.
One of the first things that new philosophy and critical thinking students learn is to recognize fallacies. Fallacies are common errors in reasoning or argument. Students learn to differentiate between passages that merely raise a further question from those that actually “beg the question,” those that commit “straw man” from those that commit “red herring,” and so forth. Learning how to do this improves their reasoning and to be better equipped to detect the fallacious reasoning of others.
Here are a couple of examples. The Daily Show stated in reference to Trump’s campaign slogan: “’Make America Great Again’ begs the question: when exactly was America great?” From The Hill before the last presidential election: “The polls and online markets currently have Clinton running away with the contest, begging the question: If Clinton wins big, what’s it likely to mean for the country?” Both, however, are simply cases of raising a question; neither has nothing to do with the fallacy of begging the question.
It is natural when initially learning about fallacies to start noticing them for the first time. I remember when I first learned of bingo halls. (The Drum and Bugle Corps I played in sometimes stayed overnight in bingo halls.) Before this piece of knowledge, I never noticed them. Now I notice bingo halls in every city I visit. However, it’s not like I start seeing bingo halls even when they are not there, yet this is exactly what happens in the case of fallacies. Students often start to see fallacies everywhere, even where there is none. Take the not uncommon phenomenon of people changing their minds and taking positions they previously rejected. Students often succumb to the temptation to attribute the fallacy of inconsistency to them. Consider the following example:
I used to believe that reproductive human cloning was a terrible idea because it is unnatural and it requires advanced technology, but I’ve since changed my mind, because I have come to realize that cloning really isn’t that far removed from in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is also unnatural and requires a lot of human technology. Our reproductive liberty should extend to both IVF and cloning.
The author here should not be charged with the fallacy of inconsistency, however tempting it may be, since she has explained her change of mind. This is a problem of using the fallacy stick even when there’s no fallacy.
Sometimes a fallacy is “seen” or “charged” because of a misunderstanding of the fallacy itself. This is from a popular website: “Argumentum Ad Populum is an argument by the majority stressing that they are right since they belong to the many” (Mortillero). No, an ad populum argument may occur even if only one person asserts it! Say I argue that the sky is blue because most people believe that the sky is blue. I’m appealing simply to the majority for my conclusion that the sky is blue, and my argument is therefore an “argumentum ad populum,” but it is certainly not an argument given by the majority.
Another problem I want to address is using the fallacy stick without explanation. Unfortunately, it affects even the most experienced fallacy-knower: Charging others with committing fallacies without actually explaining the logical shortcoming.
Two things: First, it’s generally rude. Most people don’t truly understand fallacies. Even the accuser sometimes! I can’t count how many times I’ve seen fallacies applied incorrectly. Labeling or naming a problem is a shortcut for showing why the argument is problematic. Now, after showing why the argument is problematic, why use the label? In a classroom setting, where students are learning fallacies, it makes sense to use labels. But in real life where people are often emotionally invested in what they’ve just asserted and don’t fully understand philosophy and logic, generally avoid such terms. I never tell someone I don’t know, “Hey, you just committed the ad populum fallacy!” Even if I’m on Facebook or Quora. Rather, I explain that in arguing for their point, they referred only to the fact that many people agreed with their conclusion, but this alone doesn’t show that their conclusion is correct, for the majority may in fact be wrong, as history has shown us time and time again. Learning fallacies should not amount to learning how to cudgel people with labels; it’s to recognize errors in reasoning, either in your own arguments or in the arguments of others.
Do you use the fallacy stick? I recommend against it. Teachers, specifically, should create a classroom atmosphere of argument repair and construction rather than argument subversion and destruction.