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How the Art of Fallacy Recognition Needs to be More Systematic

A sound Art of Fallacy Recognition must involve more than just being familiar with what fallacies are out there. It must involve the skills for distinguishing fallacies from the cogencies, and from each other. And a true manual of Fallacy Recognition needs to have information on the fine details between each fallacy and it’s related cogencies (as well as related other-fallacies).

One area of philosophy that I find to be very neglected is the art of Fallacy Recognition. I go into Google, searching for some beacon of hope, and all I find is link after link after link to pages that reduce Fallacy Recognition to a mere quiz where someone is provided with a fallacious statement and asked to identify the fallacy present within it. In short, the at of Fallacy Recognition has been reduced to a trivia game of “name that fallacy”.

Or, I get some hits that purport to be actual manuals for fallacy recognition – such as Dr. Michael C. LaBossiere’s document, which is among the best resources that I was able to find — but the best of which are really just compendiums of fallacies, lacking something very key to what I would call a true “fallacy-recognition manual”.

So what is this key thing that is missing here? Well, being a compendium, it exposes us to many different fallacies, while letting us be aware that the argument-patterns the reader is exposed to are in fact fallacies. But fallacy recognition is about more than knowing what fallacies are out there. And it certainly is about more than being able to identify which fallacy is being displayed once someone else has sorted the question of whether a fallacy is in play. It’s about being able to sort through arguments and being able to separate instances of fallacious argument-patterns (referred to as “fallacies”) from instances of valid argument-patterns. To my knowledge, there is no concise term for valid argument-patterns – so (after a heated Facebook-thread on the subject) I concluded the best term to use for this purpose is “cogency”.

Fallacy recognition needs to be about more than knowing what fallacies are out there. It needs to enable a reader to distinguish the arguments that are valid from those that are fallacious. Of course, when the fallacies used are thrown around in the most blatant and obvious manner, then simply knowing what fallacies are out there may be all someone needs if they are to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, many times the distinction can depend on a fine detail that these guides simply do not prepare people to look for.

Take for example the Appeal to Consequences fallacy – where someone claims that statement A must be true, because if it isn’t, then statement B must be true. In instances of this fallacy (unless it is being coupled with another fallacy) it is indeed established (either by being proven separately or by being present in the agreed-upon set of premises) that if A is false, then B must indeed be true. However, the problem is that thus-far, the Appeal to Consequences fallacy is no different than the cogency that is behind all inverse proofs (which I will refer to as the “Inverse Proof cogency”). So, in a case of dispute, how do you resolve whether or not the argument is an instance of the Appeal to Consequences fallacy or the Inverse Proof cogency? The key distinction is in whether or not it has been properly established that statement B is in fact false. If statement B is not properly established to be false, then the argument is an instance of the Appeal to Consequences fallacy – but not if statement B is properly established to be false. And if statement B is properly established to be false, but in no way has it been established that if A is false then B must be true – then the argument does fail as an instance of the Inverse Proof cogency, and is indeed fallacious – but it isn’t an instance of the Appeal to Consequences fallacy, but of a different fallacy. Unfortunately, this alternate fallacy is one that I can not name here because it’s name is in itself dependent on it’s context (due to a sloppy system of fallacy-classification that is in itself very closely related to the lack of any systematic approach to fallacy-recognition).

A sound Art of Fallacy Recognition must involve more than just being familiar with what fallacies are out there. It must involve the skills for distinguishing fallacies from the cogencies, and from each other. And a true manual of Fallacy Recognition needs to have information on the fine details between each fallacy and it’s related cogencies (as well as related other-fallacies). Currently, this information is generally provided only to the extent that the person writing the compendium sees it useful in explaining the fallacy — but it needs to be instead made a standard part of each entry in the manual – and not blurred in with the rest, but written in a clear, distinct way – so that one using it can easily vet out what is and isn’t a fallacy.

In the case of the Fallacies of Intimidation (the most pure example of which is the Appeal to Force fallacy) calling out a fallacy is mostly a matter of developing the nerve to do so. However, in the case of the Fallacies of Obfuscation (that is, fallacies that work by disguising themselves as cogencies) it needs to be a matter of familiarity with many argument patterns – not just the fallacies, but the cogencies as well – and in the case of each argument pattern, it must include knowledge of what other argument patterns are closely related to it, and how to spot the subtle differences that can be used to distinguish one from another. For this reason, a good Fallacy Recognition manual needs not just an entry on each fallacy, but also an equally systematic one on each known cogency.

I hope that some time soon, the Art of Fallacy Recognition will be re-organized to deal with these issues — as a first step in bringing logic from the laboratories of a few extensively-trained individuals to the everyday-life of broader society where it is sorely needed.

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