The Fallacy Fallacy

The fallacy fallacy, so nice they named it twice! Aside from having a slightly silly name, what is the fallacy fallacy? The fallacy fallacy is simply is when you assume that something is untrue because it has been poorly argued (i.e. you assume that an argument is a fallacy because someone else has presented it fallaciously). For example…

John: Punching a cow in the face is bad because every time you punch a cow in the face a magical pixie fairy dies.

Harriet: This is ridiculous. Everyone knows that magical pixie fairies don’t exist. Therefore your argument is wrong and it is ok to punch a cow in the face

*Harriet then proceeds to punch a cow in the face*

There are several things that are logically wrong here. First of all, John’s argument is stupid – I think we can all agree that magical pixy fairies don’t die when you punch cows. The second logical fallacy is that Harriet infers something inferable whilst rebutting John’s argument. Harriet assumes that because John’s argument is wrong, it is therefore ok to punch a cow in the face – this is a fallacy fallacy.

If I were to map it out in a syllogism (which if you don’t know what one of those are you can read about it on a previous post) it would look something like this:

Major Premise: Every time you punch a cow in the face a magical pixie fairy dies.

Minor premise: Killing magical pixie fairies is bad.

Implied conclusion: Therefore, punching a cow in the face is bad.

Yes, this logical argument is wrong because there is no proof that there is a link between punching cows in the face and the fatality of mythical creatures. However, because there is no proof, does not automatically mean that it is not not bad (i.e. good) to punch a cow in the face.

The fallacy fallacy is quite common in court cases and trials where a defendant presents a weak defence. The judge or jury might assume that because a defendant has a weak or even in some cases fallacious defence that they are therefore guilty. Of course, throughout the history of trials, there have been many genuinely innocent people who have had bad defences.

The fallacy fallacy is also common in politics. You take an argument from the opposition, you argue it is wrong, and then you make a huge unfounded assertion on a greater debate. For example, Brexit…

During the build up to the Brexit referendum people from remain camp often said things like, ‘Brexiteers say that we will lose £350 million a week. This is unproven speculation. Therefore, their argument is wrong and we should remain in the EU.’ Because the Brexiteer argument is wrong, doesn’t mean you can assert that we should stay in the EU (there may be many other arguments that need to be considered).

The Brexiteers also had their silly fallacy fallacies. For example, ‘people from the Brexit remain campaign say that no one will want to trade with the UK if it leaves the EU. Countries will still want to (and in some cases need to) trade with us. Therefore, we should leave the EU’. Again, because the remain supports made a silly argument that is untrue, it doesn’t mean that you can infer that Britain should leave the EU.

As you can see, the fallacy fallacy can be quite dangerous. People go to jail, countries make huge decisions, and Harriet punches cows because of it. Next time you are presented with a weak and illogical argument, don’t assume that it is untrue simply because it has been poorly presented – it might just be another case of the fallacy fallacy. So nice, they named it twice…

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