Tag Archives: new fallacies

Invisible man

Over lunch at La Unica, a friend of mine (also philosophy professor) thought he would try his hand at fallacy schematization.  Inspired by the super-hero theme of the "-man" fallacies–the marvel comics collection of straw, weak, hollow, and iron man, he thought that there ought also to be "invisible man"–if only for the sake of symmetry.

And sure enough it didn't take long to come up with it.  Normally the fallacy name is invented after the phenomenon is identified; in this case, the name was identified and we went in search of the phenomenon.

Here it is:  

One alleges, falsely, that one's argument is strengthened by the fact that people ignore it; their not critiquing your argument is evidence of their inability to critique it.

Thus, you have an invisible man.

Classic example, I think, would the be fringe blogger who complains that the no addresses his super salient points because they are afraid, and therefore he is right.  No real life examples at the moment.  I'll look for them.

One will notice close affinities with the argument from ignorance (the argumentum ad ignorantiam) wherein one argues that the absence of evidence for/against p is sufficient to prove p (when it isn't of course).  

My friend came up with another one.  Maybe tomorrow.

Fun with new fallacies–The ab homine

Here is an interesting item from John Holbo at Crooked Timber:

No, I don’t mean: arguing fair. I think it should be ab homine. A moving (irrationally) away from the man. It’s a fallacy.

Here’s the context. Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have a diavlog in the course of which Chait takes the scrupulous high-road position that, when it comes to charges of racism, you really have to be slow to accuse. He rolls out the standard fair-play-in-debate considerations: if the person is saying something wrong, but not explicitly racist, you can just point out the wrongness, without speculating, additionally, that they said the wrong thing out of racism. There is, he implies, no real loss in not being able to delve into dark motive.

But here’s the problem with that. In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading. It inevitably generates the strong impression that this bad motive – out of the whole colorful range of diseases and infirmities of the mind and spirit – is an especially unlikely motive. Which, in the sorts of cases Chait and Yglesias happened to be discussing, is not true. So, contra Chait, an inconsistent semi-norm against ad hominem arguments encourages an ab homine error that may be less angry (that’s not nothing) but is significantly more confused tha[n] what excessive – but even-handedly excessive! – hermeneutics of suspicion would produce.

I seem to remember talking about something like this before.  I'd call this an error of excessive scrupulousity.  Philosopher types fall prey to this one out of an overabundance of charity: Sure this argument really blows, but maybe there really is a good one in here somewhere.  (Sometimes, I think, philosopher types do not want to trouble their beautiful minds with silly arguments, so they just deny their existence or refuse to discuss them).

Nonetheless, I still think one ought to be especially careful in attributing motives, including racist ones, to other arguers.  In the first place, those motives are hard to know (and therefore easily disputed); second, they are hard to define (and therefore easily disputed); third, and most importantly (and tragically) they are come across as illegitimate ad hominems (and are therefore easily disputed).  The ease of dispute of imputation of racism places a heavy practical burden on the accuser.  Does one really want, in other words, to go through the necessary evidence in order to make a point likely to be only tangentially related to the discussion at hand (even if true)?

So this is mostly a pragmatic objection to Holbo's point.  Unfortunately, what makes these sorts of accusations difficult (even if true and relevant) is the deeply entrenched presence of the fallacy fallacy.  This is the view that the very criticizing of someone else–especially in accusing them of fallacies–is itself a kind of fallacy.  The rules of our dumb discourse prevent legitimate criticism.  The only thing that counts, I still maintain this week, is consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, despite his Hitler apologetics, is constantly on TV.  He's consistent.


I think I might refine the definition of the argumentum ad imperfectionem somewhat today.  As I alleged the other day, ad imperfectionem fallacy occurs when one asserts that the minor errors in someone's argument may be justifiably exaggerated by opponents of that argument.  So, for instance, minor errors in a legal filing undermine one's entire case, not just those particular claims relevant to those errors.  For, after all, if there are a couple of typos, who knows what other kinds of serious errors there could be.  This, of course, is the response of a crazy person.  But not all crazy is the same, so it's worth it to take a closer look at the crazy.   

On this description, the imperfectionem is a variation of the ignoratio elenchi (IE).  The ignoratio elenchi, sometimes called "missing the point" or–get this–"non sequitur", is a kind of a catch-all category of fallacy: any other basic failure of informal entailment gets thrown in here.  Here, for instance, is the way Patrick Hurley puts it in A Concise Introduction to Logic:

Missing the point illustrates a special form of irrelevance.  This fallacy occurs when the premises of an argument support one particular conclusion, but then a different conclusion, often vaguely related to the correct conclusion, is drawn.


but in some ways it serves as a catchall for arguments that are not clear instances of one or more of the other fallacies.

Textbooks will often use examples of IEs with outrageous conclusions where more moderate ones are available.  So, for instance, given the inevitable shortcomings in weather forecasts, one ought not to listen to them at all.  That's dumb, as weather forecasts are predictions, and predictions can be wrong.  Again, the conclusion of a crazy person.  This conclusion, in that particular example, is driven by the idea that any imperfection, however minor, in the assertions of one party are sufficient to create doubt about that party's entire case. 

I think the argumentum ad imperfectionem is focused on the inference from the relatively minor shortcomings of one side to either (a) the truth of the opposite side (in which case it looks like a false dichotomy) or (b) to the conclusion that no one can really claim to know one's conclusion is true (in which case it looks like an appeal to ignorance) or finally (c) to the conclusion that the opposite side is relatively more justified. 

I can think of examples of all three of these.  But for today, here's an example of (a):

(a) in the minds of many, the various quibbles and revisions involved in the science of global warming justify skepticism of the entire thesis.  Here's an example of that from the Washington Post:

"What's happened here is that there's an industry of climate-change denialists who are trying to make it seem as though you can't trust anything that is between the covers" of the panel's report, said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies glaciers. "It's really heartbreaking to see this happen, and to see that the IPCC left themselves open" to being attacked.

That's not an example of an actual argument, as it is a report of someone else's argument.  But people really do make that allegation, unfortunately.

Maybe if I'm motivated I'll find examples of the others later.