“We read, we wrote, we prayed, we cried, we listened, we screamed, we spoke out, we marched, we helped others in need. But how much did we change for good?” – Matthew McConaughey
2020, an interesting year to the say the least. Buying toilet paper became the new gold rush, black people moved closer to being recognised as a people not as armed and dangerous because of the colour of their skin. Donald Trump fought Covid 19 and won ( I didn’t see that one coming).
There is no one out there that can say they clearly predicted the year 2020 and how the world would be in its aftermath. Though through logic and reasoning, those that have survived have managed to explain in their own way how 2020 was. Now allow me to weigh in on how I viewed 2020 through logic and reason.
See, logic will ask such questions:
“Every time a train arrives at the station, there are many passengers on the platform. You arrive at the station and see many passengers waiting on the platform. Is it necessarily true that a train will arrive soon?”
Pretty much everyone would answer “yes” but then the correct answer is no—just because trains always arrive when there are many passengers does not mean that many passengers will always result in a train arriving. A lot of people find it hard to follow whats going on, struggling to follow the steps in reasoning between “people,” “train,” and “time.”
Despite the confusion, that question is demonstrating some of the most fundamental principles of thinking:
- Just because two things often occur together does not mean that they will necessarily always occur together.
- Just because a line of reasoning is intuitive does not mean it’s correct—logic can often be counterintuitive.
Logic is the bedrock of pretty much all human knowledge. As such, philosophers have killed many trees over the centuries, analysing and determining the principles that define logic and reason. Their ambition has been to determine what we can know to be true and what we cannot know to be true.
What most people don’t realise is that logical fallacies—that is, errors in judgment and reasoning—are incredibly common in day-to-day life. Worse, we’re mostly unaware of how they disrupt and harm our lives, often in profound ways. These fallacies are right in front of our noses, yet we are so comfortable with our own thought processes that we fail to spot them.
In this blog, I will take you through some of the most common logical fallacies I witnessed in 2020. This will teach you how to not only spot them in yourself but also how to spot them in others. Lets Go!
Correlation is Not Causation
Let’s start with probably the most important fallacy to understand—the one you and I and everyone we know messes up with abandon: correlation is not causation. Just because two things regularly occur together does not mean one causes the other.
Let’s pretend for a second that today, I ate some ice cream and you lost your job. And what’s crazier is that the last time I ate ice cream, somebody else lost their job. Would you then say that me eating ice cream causes people to lose jobs? (If so, this would be one strange superpower.) Or would you simply say these are two common occurrences that happen to be occurring together for a short period of time? You’d say the latter.
Yet, you’d be surprised how often this sort of thing gets passed off as “news” in the world. You often see news articles announcing things such as, “Social Media causes anxiety and depression” or that “unemployment is caused by raising the minimum wage.”
Yet, when you dig into the data, you will find correlations—ice cream and job losses—and not causation. Anxiety and depression increased and social media usage increased. That doesn’t mean one caused the other. It could be a coincidence. There could be some mysterious third force causing both to happen. The arrow of causation could point the other direction (e.g., people are becoming more depressed, so they retreat to social media more often to feel better).
Two things occurring together does not tell us much about whether one caused the other.
This is a huge problem in academic research. Scientists frequently present data in a way that suggests causation when all they found is a correlation. And even if they don’t present it that way, journalists will often take correlational data and write about it as if it’s causative. So 2020 had Covid 19, which caused a lot of other things to happen but also was correlated to other things.
You cannot tell me your weight gain is a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, as much as you may want to use it to justify your bad habits, it is not the cause. The fact is, so much stuff happens at the same time and we have no idea why. You could argue that almost any correlation looks like causation if you wanted to. In fact, there’s a website called Spurious Correlations that does just that.
The Slippery Slope
Stop me if you’ve ever heard this line of reasoning before:
“We can’t let teenagers drink alcohol because if they drink alcohol, then they’ll start doing drugs, and if they do drugs then they’ll become criminals. And if they become criminals, then they’ll end up in prison and ruin their lives. Therefore, allowing teenagers to drink alcohol will ruin their lives.”
The slippery slope fallacy is when you take one mild negative consequence and tie it with a similar but extreme negative consequence and then argue that one will lead to the other. You see this fallacy show up in all sorts of places, especially within business organisations, foreign policy, and yes, paranoid society parenting.
The truth is that some but not all kids who drink alcohol do drugs. Some but not all kids who do drugs become addicts. And some but not all addicts become criminals. Also some but not all criminals ruin their lives. Therefore, it is logically inaccurate to compare drinking alcohol with ruining a life.
(Not to mention, the data that shows that teenagers who drink alcohol are X times more likely to do drugs could be another case of “correlation is not causation.”) The Slippery Slope fallacy often messes us up because it generates a lot of unnecessary fear and anxiety. We mess up an assignment at work. The boss gets mad. You start thinking, “Well if the boss is mad, then she’s going to hate me. And if the boss hates me, then I’m going to get fired. And if I get fired, then I’m going to be homeless. OMG I DON’T WANT TO BE HOMELESS!!!” You have blown the whole joker out of proportion.
I have seen a lot of this in 2020, people making wild assumptions that led them to stock piling toilet paper over food. Did you really think toilet paper would save you in the event of doomsday? Really? You are out there right now on the last day of the year overthinking something that will in no way happen just because you got spooked. get your head in the game and think logically not linear…
There are some classes of arguments where there are legitimately only two options. For example, I could say, “There are two kinds of people in this world: people named Mansfield and people not named Mansfield.” This is a true dichotomy (or division of two): you’re either named Mansfield or you’re not.
But a false dichotomy is when a set of options is presented as if only two possibilities exist but in reality, many more exist.
For example, if I said, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: people named Mansfield and idiots.” This is a false dichotomy. Why? Because these two options don’t encompass all potential options.
There are plenty of people not named Mansfield who are also not idiots. Also—and I can tell you this from experience—there are some people named Mansfield who are total idiots.
False dichotomies are used to manipulate people into allying with the speaker. You often hear politicians or other leaders say, “You’re either with us or against us,” as a way to whip people into line. But this is a false dichotomy. You could be indifferent. Or you could be partially with them and partially against them. You could be against everybody. Don’t buy into this bullshit.
But false dichotomies often hurt us when we judge ourselves. We often say things to ourselves like, “If I worked harder, I wouldn’t be such a loser.” You know you can be a loser who works hard, right? You can also not be a loser and not work hard, too. In fact, being a loser and working hard are completely arbitrary things that you just decided to force into a false dichotomy.
Why? To feel bad about yourself. Now, why would you do that? I bet your name is not Mansfield…
When Covid hit in 2020, we where not given many options but the biggest of the options was Lockdown Vs No Lockdown. If you ask me both have their merits and data to prove these merits. Yet as time progressed I began to realise that these weren’t the only options that could have been implemented, a good mix of both could have done many countries some good.
Red Herrings are arguments that seem relevant to an issue but actually are not. For example, we could be arguing about whether being vegan is more ethical than eating meat. Then, in the middle of a perfectly fine argument, I blurt out, “Well, Hitler was vegan! And he surely wasn’t ethical!”
This is a distraction from the real point of debate: whether eating meat is inherently unethical. These kinds of distractions from the argument are known as “red herrings.” And if you—god forbid—spend lots of time watching and reading the news in 2020, you will notice a large proportion of what is said and written is some form of a red herring.
Red herrings are also usually logical fallacies themselves. For example, the assumption that because Hitler was vegan, and Hitler was unethical, veganism must be unethical is known as the Fallacy of Composition—when something that is true for a part is assumed to be true for the whole (i.e., Sam is Zimbabwean and he is short, therefore Zimbabweans must be short). Im sure you all heard Donald Trump say Covid 19 is just another flu (fact) and will soon go away (false). The truth is it is like a flu but it didn’t go away, so what the US President presented was a fallacy of composition.
The ‘Appeals’ Fallacy
When in an argument, it’s tempting to skip the logic and go straight to appealing to some outside source to make your point feel more resonant.
Well, unfortunately, logic doesn’t care about your feelings. A bad argument is a bad argument, regardless of who agrees with you.
There are three common appeals that people make when trying to win points for their side:
- An appeal to authority: “Well, the president said it’s true, so it must be true!”
- Appeal to pity: “I know the data says that social media isn’t the problem, but these poor kids have so much anxiety, we should still get rid of their phones.”
- An appeal to the majority: “Everyone I know says that vaccines are dangerous, so it must be true.”
The hyper-social nature of our species causes us to appeal to outside influences. We all want to belong to a community. We all want to associate with high-status people. And we all want others to know we’re kind and considerate.
The problem is that none of these things have anything to do with logic or truth. If something is true, it’s true whether anyone believes it or not. At the end of the day, Covid 19 doesn’t give a hoot about you or me or anyone else. We care. And because we care we trick ourselves into thinking that these opinions affect the truth when they don’t. A lot of news and facts and stats have flooded our TVs, radios and all in 2020, trying to sway us in whatever direction but the remaining fact is the pandemic is still here and it is dangerous.
The Importance of Sound Reasoning
If you haven’t noticed, we all kinda suck at this logic and reason thing. This list is just a tiny slice of the logical fallacies pie. But probably accounts for a significant portion of what we think and are exposed to each day.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every effort to be better. After all, logic and reason are our life preservers in a vast sea of uncertainty and bullshit. To let go of the life preserver, to cling onto the latest, greatest fad or the next genius who’s currently on your screen… well, that’s intellectual suicide.
Not to mention that a lot of these logical fallacies can turn you into an insufferable prick pretty quickly. Debating with someone over the merits of an idea or argument is already contentious enough. But falling into the trap of these logical fallacies, many of which hinge on making a mockery of the other person’s ideas (or the person themselves), will not make you the biggest hit at children’s parties. Not to mention people won’t exactly be thrilled to talk to you about anything important or meaningful.
At best, fallacious reasoning keeps bad ideas alive. At its worst, it pits us against each other in a hopeless downward spiral of tit-for-tat where nobody really wins and everyone definitely loses.
Logical reasoning isn’t about “winning” an argument. It’s about finding the truth. And inevitably, getting closer to truth requires one to recognise and admit when they’re wrong. And that’s something you and all the Mansfield’s of the world could be a bit better at. As we wrap up 2020 and get ready for 2021, be careful of circular reasoning. Make your own choices, ones that resonate with you, and present you with the best opportunities for the coming year.
Happy New Year, and for the losses we encountered in 2020, may 2021 be kind to you and yours.