Fallacies 18: Appeal to authority

In the last ‘Fallacies’ entry we considered the appeal to popularity. In this entry we’ll look at a similar tactic known as the appeal to authority. This is a common argument used to shortcut any analysis of the issues and jump straight to the conclusion:
“Professor such-and-such thinks this is right so who are we to argue?”

There is some merit in this line of argument, especially when discussing complex issues about which most people know very little. We need to rely upon the judgement and opinions of experts simply because nobody has the time to study everything in enough depth to make informed decisions on all the topics that come up in modern society.

But if we don’t know enough to make our own decisions then we need some way to judge which expert does. This is no easy task.

It’s an old question that was first discussed (to the best of my knowledge) by Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher who covered it in his ‘Discourses’. Plato came to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. He argued that the only way to judge the value of expert opinion is to become an expert yourself.

As we have seen this isn’t really an option. But if we want to make sense of the world we have to try because let’s face it – even experts can be fallible.

We have several basic problems here…

Expert in the right field

An expert in one field isn’t necessarily an expert in another. Indeed – the time and effort required to become an expert in any field means that it’s very unlikely that most people will be able to do it in more than one area of study. But it’s not enough to have a Ph.D. – you need to have the right Ph.D.

For example it is not uncommon for creationists to argue that some (admittedly not all that many) leading scientists deny evolution. But you’d be hard pushed to find an evolutionary biologist (or even a general biologist) to take their claims seriously. This was the crux of the problem with the 2005 school curriculum trial in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Although some members of the community and the school board wanted ‘Intelligent Design’ (the new incarnation of creationism) to be pushed on to the vulnerable minds of children in science classes, those who understood the issues (the teachers) refused. The case went to Court and (of course) the teachers won.

Is your expert authority skilled in the right field?

Is your expert authority skilled in the right field?

It’s not enough to cite an expert – it must be an expert in the appropriate area of study because nobody knows everything.

This was the problem with Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial work on climate change (The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001 and Cool it, 2007). Lomborg is not a climate scientist, he has a Ph.D. in political science. The overwhelming majority of actual climatologists (those who understand climate science) reject his work out of hand and it’s not hard for even a layman to understand why.

His arguments contradict themselves (he can’t even make up his mind whether or not global warming is a good thing) and the evidence he uses to uphold one argument is conveniently ignored when he tries to make a different point without the merest hint of explanation.

None the less climate change deniers and right wing politicians regularly cite his work as an ‘appeal to authority’. This would be like asking someone with a Ph.D. in theology to recommend treatments for psychiatric patients, a ridiculous situation indeed. It isn’t reasonable to expect someone with no knowledge of the relevant field to be taken seriously when they make recommendations. None the less this is precisely what Archbishop John Sentamu did when he suggested in the UK’s House of Lords that exorcism should be available to psychiatric patients on the National Health Service.

Archbishop Jphn Sentamu thinks people with mental health problems should be subjected to (NHS funded) exorcism

Archbishop Jphn Sentamu thinks people with mental health problems should be subjected to (NHS funded) exorcism

Authority in the organisation

There are other types of authority to be wary of though. There’s the authority that comes from organisational structure – the boss.

As we all know people rise through the ranks in organisations for a variety of reasons and they’re not always the best person for the promotion. Managers are promoted because someone owes them a favour, because nobody else wants the job, because they have a good relationship with powerful outside funders or supporters or sometimes even because they know stuff.

Often though they are just in the right place at the right time. That’s not exactly a qualification for the status of expert. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has worked for incompetent managers and spent significant amounts of my time sorting out the messes they created.

The Peter Principle is the phenomenon of promoting people to the level of their own incompetence. The fact that John is a good technician doesn’t mean he will be able to manage other technicians or run a departmental budget. But he gets promoted (because of his technical ability) into a job that requires a completely different skillset – and John just can’t cut it.

But he doesn’t get sacked or demoted back to his former position. He just stays where he is. He’ll never climb any higher because he’s not good at his lower management job so he just stays there – perhaps for decades – making poor decisions and holding back his department’s progress. That’s the Peter principle at work. You’d be a fool to trust John’s judgement about anything to do with management. He’d be great at answering technical questions though. That’s his real area of expertise.

Experts are fallible

Even true experts are fallible. That’s why Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of the theory of evolution) was suckered by spiritism and spent much of his life vociferously supporting fraudulent mediums. He was good at what he did but he was far from perfect – just like the rest of us.

Whenever we try to assess the credibility of experts we come up against these sorts of problems and it’s genuinely difficult to know who to trust. It’s almost impossible to make that decision with absolute certainty. But there are some questions we can ask ourselves that may help:

Is this expert skilled in this particular area?
What do the majority of similairly trained experts think?
What does the evidence say?
How often has this person been right/wrong in the past?
If they’ve been wrong before have they been prepared to admit it?
Is this person ideologically driven?
Is this person financially driven to say this stuff?
Are there any other forms of bias you are aware of?
Does the expert use real data as evidence or just rely on stories and anecdote (you can make any point you like in a story)?
If you follow them and they are wrong – will there be a cost?
If you don’t follow them and they are right – will there be a cost?
What research could you do to check out their assumptions?

You see there’s much more to being right than merely being an expert or a boss.

The appeal to authority has merit – in fact it would be impossible to function in the modern world without trusting someone but it’s always a good idea to think carefully about which authority you choose to follow.


We have now reached the end of this blog series as originally planned. However I’ve enjoyed writing it so much I’m sure I’ll be adding to the ‘Fallacies’ blog category as time progresses.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 17: The appeal to popularity

Appeal to popularity
It’s truly remarkable how many different tactics people will use to persuade us of their point of view. One of the most common is the ‘appeal to popularity’ in which we are encouraged to agree simply because a significant number of other people do. It’s an appeal to herd mentality in which reason is seen as less important than populism. This is the argument that would have us believe the Nazis were correct simply because so many people attended the Nuremberg Rally.

Of course that doesn’t mean that popular opinion is always wrong – far from it. But when popular opinion is reasonable it is because, coincidentally it matches the available evidence, not merely because it is popular.

Columbus disagreed with the majority view

Columbus disagreed with the majority view

An interesting aspect of this argument is that it relies solely upon a statistical analysis, an opinion poll if you will, and such statistical perspectives are notoriously misleading. Different populations give different results. Different cultural groups often have predictable opinions and different views are prevalent at different periods in history.

Unless we believe that modern society is infallible we need to be open to the possibility that popular opinion today may be wrong just as it was when most people believed that:

The earth is flat;
The earth is the centre of the universe;
Iron ships can never float;
Erupting volcanoes, failing harvests, infertility and disabilities are the judgements of the Gods.

And then there is the problem of sampling. For example I know a number of people who proudly insist that most people in the world believe in a God or Gods. They’re not usually quite so keen to report that most people the world over do not believe in their particular deity of choice. Nor do they generally like to acknowledge that (with the curious exception of the United States), the more advanced the nation the smaller the percentage of believers.

You see the question you ask about statistics of any kind can easily be used to manipulate the results to make whatever case you like. But that really just makes the very idea of the ‘appeal to popularity’ both meaningless and obsolete.

So what if most people in rural Kenya believe that unprotected sex with a virgin will cure AIDS? Most people who have studied the disease understand how tragic and dangerous such a very popular misconception really is. It results in the widespread rape of young girls who often go on to develop AIDS themselves as a direct consequence. So which statistic matters most?

The reality is that every major advancement in human understanding involved an individual or minority group disagreeing with the majority. This is how we develop as a society.

Will you follow the herd or will you think for yourself?

Will you follow the herd or will you think for yourself?

If the ‘appeal to popularity’ argument had held sway Eddison would never have developed electric lighting, Darwin would never have developed his theory of evolution and Columbus wouldn’t have rediscovered the Americas several centuries after Leif Erikson’s forgotten expedition to ‘Vineland’ (modern Newfoundland).

Dismissing the minority view simply because it is the minority view stymies growth and prevents improvement. It’s far better to judge an idea on its merits than worry about the numbers of supporters it may have. Every good idea was outside the mainstream once upon a time.

Instead of counting heads, ask what the evidence is for new ideas and beliefs. Who cares what the herd thinks? Unless, of course, you’re a sheep.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 16: The Star Trek fallacy (The argument from internal circularity)

wpid-2012-09-01-18-36-52-2057740132.jpeg“Klingons are OK as a species but I wouldn’t want to make one angry.”
“Come again.”
“I said I wouldn’t want to cross a Klingon.”
“It’s a good job they’re not real then.”
“What do you mean? Of course Klingons are real.”
“Oh, come on. What evidence do you have of the existence of Klingons?”
“They’re in the book.”
“What book?”
“The Star Trek annual 1979. My mother bought me it when I was a boy. Klingons are in there. It’s written in black and white.”
“That’s not evidence. It’s just a collection of stories.”
“Well it’s evidence enough for me. I believe in Star Trek & Klingons. I also believe in the Ferengi and the Borg Collective. If it wasn’t true it wouldn’t be in the book.”

Nobody in their right mind would be convinced about the existence of Klingons because of such a ridiculous argument. We need more than words on a page – we need some sort of evidence too. And anyway everybody knows that it’s fiction. The Star Trek stories are fictional metaphors. They’re just parables intended to illustrate aspects of contemporary morality. That’s why the moral messages have developed to reflect changing social values from the 1st episodes in the 1960s to the latest episodes some 40 odd years later.

And nobody would seriously try to justify casual sexism or slavery by referring to the early episodes of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk supported both. Times have changed and a 40 year old TV script neither proves nor justifies anything.

Incidentally, an old book from the bronze age is no better qualified to justify sexism, homophobia, neoliberalism, creationism, racism, murder, eugenics, disablism, capital punishment, anti-abortion legislation, holy war, inequalities of wealth or ethnic cleansing. Nor does the existence of that book prove the existence of a God anymore than a Star Trek annual from 1979 can prove the existence of Mr. Spock.

Believe what you like but if you want to influence society in ways that affect the rest of us you’ll need more than just an argument from internal circularity to get my support.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 15: Correlation = causation

One of the first symptoms of the bubonic plague that caused so much devastation throughout Europe was the sensation of a sweet smell. This was not caused by an actual scent in the air but rather by physical processes related to the illness.

But, because the smell always accompanied the plague (was correlated with it) people assumed that it was the cause. They also likened the sores that appeared on the bodies of victims to flowers because they bore a superficial similarity to them. This is why physicians adopted large beak-like masks which they filled with sweet scented flowers. It was an attempt to ‘fight fire with fire’ and drive away the scent of the illness with sweet scents of their own devising. It also prompted people to carry sweet smelling flowers around in their pockets hence the rhyme:

A ring, a ring of roses,

A pocket full of posies,

Atishoo, atishoo,

We all fall down.

Of course, with the benefits of modern scientific understanding we know that flowers have nothing to do with plague and that carrying roses around in your pocket or donning a beak filled with scent won’t prevent it. It was a pointless exercises but understandable in the circumstances. After all – people didn’t know what else to try. So they relied upon the only correlation they could think of and based their remedies upon the desperate hope that correlation somehow would equal causation. Unfortunately for the many who died, it didn’t – and it still doesn’t.

That’s all very interesting but it’s hardly relevant today. We know that illness isn’t driven off by sweet smelling flowers and the follies of the past don’t really apply to the modern world. Or at least we’d like to think they don’t. In reality the correlation – causation fallacy still persists even though modern examples of it may be different.

thumbnailCA3H80ASA relatively recent illustration of this was the widespread assertion (which appeared to originate with research conducted by the Chinese government) that prolonged internet use caused depression. This conclusion was reached because the researchers had discovered a correlation between depression and time spent on the worldwide web.

For the moment we can leave aside the possible motivation of the Chinese government in claiming that internet use is unhealthy. That may be a factor to consider when evaluating this research but it’s not the focus here. I’m going to assume that the correlation exists just as the researchers claimed.

Based upon this correlation the researchers concluded that the internet causes depression but could there be another explanation?

We know that one of the symptoms of depression is withdrawal.
We know that people who withdraw tend to find things to do that don’t really involve face to face contact with others.
We know that it is very easy to find relatively passive distractions on the internet.
We know that in mild depression people don’t tend to sit around and do nothing – they simply find passive things to do instead.

We can see then that we have a typical ‘chicken and egg’ quandary here. Does the internet use cause depression or does the depression prompt increasing use of the internet as an alternative to real world contact?

Of course it’s also true that increasing isolation can deepen depression but that still doesn’t mean that the internet is the cause. The same thing would probably happen if the depressed person sat and drew pictures or watched TV all day long. The internet may just be incidental.

To be fair I have no way of knowing whether or not the internet is significant. It might be but there isn’t nearly enough information to make a judgement. We have only a correlation and correlation isn’t causation.

We could just as easily claim that since there is a correlation between short-sightedness and wearing glasses that glasses cause short-sightedness. Perhaps using crutches is a clear cause of broken legs too.

Correlation isn’t causation. This is obvious in the two examples above (short-sightedness and broken legs) because we know enough to understand the cause and effect. But when we don’t understand that relationship in advance it’s very dangerous to draw any conclusions. Particularly if all we have is evidence of correlation.

Fallacies 13: Ad hominem

Literally ‘Ad hominem’ means ‘to the man’ although most people today would translate it as ‘about the man’. In truth the meaning probably isn’t significantly different in context but there seems little point in inviting criticism in the light of recent events. So – to be clear – in this blog post the translation we’ll use is ‘about the man’.

The ‘Ad hominem argument’ is a very common tactic that people use when they have no real contribution to make. Instead of commenting upon the issues at hand they will attack the other person as though highlighting what they perceive to be a character flaw or an unappealing personality trait will somehow negate everything that the opposing speaker has said.

Of course it doesn’t take much thought to realise just how silly that approach really is. For example:

The notion that Isaac Newton (reputedly) was less than sociable didn’t take anything away from his genius or from the validity of his insights into the physical universe;
The fact that Enid Blyton had an intense dislike of children didn’t prevent her from writing stories that delighted children everywhere;
The fact that Napoleon Bonaparte was prepared to slaughter men in huge numbers to achieve his goals does not mean that his ideas about universal education or a codified legal system were wrong.

Just as the idea of a single cause can be fallacious, so is the idea that people can be defined by a single character trait or behaviour. The idea that a person can never be correct in anything they say or do is even more ludicrous and yet this is the very assumption that underlies the ad hominem argument.

There may well be a case for questioning a person’s motives based upon their past behaviour. There may well be a case for characterising the person (in context) as a way to help us understand a situation. Indeed I did exactly that myself recently when writing to my ‘troll’ But that wasn’t the only argument I put forward.

People characterise each other on a very regular basis. They question each others’ motives. Sometimes they even get their assumptions about other peoples’ motives right. But that’s not an argument in itself. It may provide context but that’s about all.

An ad hominem argument alone is not worth listening to because without addressing the issues themselves it has no substance. People are complex and everyone is flawed to a greater or lesser extent but that doesn’t mean that our human flaws prevent us from having anything valid to say.

If the only argument that the other person presents is ‘ad hominem’ then it’s generally a good idea to ask yourself why they haven’t said anything more. Why haven’t they addressed the real issue instead of indulging in cheap insults or ad hominem attacks? The answer may well be because there genuinely isn’t a valid argument that they could have made.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 12: The false dichotomy

Anders Breivik

Anders Breivik

The false dichotomy argument (AKA Black & white argument, false dilemma argument, fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses) is a favourite of a range of manipulators from quacks and politicians to clerics and snake-oil salesmen. It is a tactic used to convince the other person that there are only two possibilities when in reality there are more. For example…

The English Defence League claims to defend England from what it regards as the ‘Islamification’ of the Western world. You may have heard that argument before. It’s the one Anders Breivik used to justify his terrorist attacks in Oslo last year.

The argument is depressingly simplistic, allowing for only two possibilities….

‘The Muslims’ will take over the world
We will stop ‘the Muslims’ from taking over the world

It’s not hard to see that there are many, many more possibilities than this. Other possibilities include…

People can learn to live harmoniously together.
Many parts of UK are peacefully integrated.
‘The Muslims’ is no more an homogenous group than ‘The Christians’ is. There are ‘good and bad’ in both religions.
The extremist antics of the EDL and other far-right neoNazi organisations is a bigger threat by far to our society than the presence of people whose creed or colour differs from the stereotypical ‘Aryan Christian’ ideal.
All people, regardless of race, colour or creed have equal rights.

And yet, by creating a false dichotomy this divisive group of neoNazis have managed to convince themselves that standing around in car parks and attacking anyone who looks a bit foreign somehow constitutes defending the nation.

An equally silly false dichotomy involves the political nonsense that led David Cameron and Theresa May to inform us that the UK’s only options were:

Scrap the Human Rights Act
Watch the collapse of the British economy.

Dale McAlpine preaching

Dale McAlpine preaching

It’s true that the British economy isn’t doing particularly well right now but there’s much more to the argument than workers’ rights and a legal system that protects minimum wages and opposes unfair dismissal. Reducing tax for the highest earners, destroying the public sector and using tax payers money to boost private profits might have something to do with it too – not to mention the global financial crisis.

One of my least favourite false dichotomies came from a West Cumbrian, Christian street preacher who kindly informed my autistic, teenage stepson that he had only two options…

Convert to fundamentalist Christianity
Burn in Hell for all eternity

As you may imagine I was sure to point out a range of options to that preacher when I saw him in the street some time later.
And yet the narrow focus of the false dichotomy continues to influence people and can actually sound quite convincing if we accept their assessment of the situation at face value.

So I’ll set up a little dichotomous argument of my own. You can judge for yourself whether or not you consider the dichotomy to be a false one……

When you are presented with only two options ask yourself if
there may be more things to consider

Remain vulnerable to these manipulators and their superficial assessments of reality

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 11: Taking offence

If mankind is to progress it is important that we are able to discuss our ideas openly and honestly as part of the progressive process of problem-solving that characterises so many of mankind’s greatest achievements. Only through being able to shine a critical spotlight on our assumptions (and by allowing them to be questioned or opposed) can we refine our own thinking and so develop both collectively and individually.

Discussion and debate is vital to the process of human development. So long as that debate focuses upon the issues themselves and doesn’t get distracted by irrelevancies or ‘closed down’ by those who cannot face that (sometimes painful) process of exploration.

Stephen Fry on 'Taking offence'

Stephen Fry on ‘Taking offence’

It is my belief that any idea should and indeed must be open to critical examination based upon the evidence before us and our own critical thinking skills. Indeed I’ll happily discuss my own beliefs so long as the other person is prepared to listen, to stick to the point, to consider both sides of the argument and to avoid any retreat into point-scoring in an attempt to win at any cost.

That’s why I get irritated when people try to avoid rational arguments by feigning ‘offence’ at the fact that I hold a different opinion from their own and am quite prepared to exercise my right of free speech in expressing that opinion.

Let’s look at what it means to be offended by someone else’s argument..
Being ‘offended’ contributes nothing to the discussion at hand. It’s a description of the other person’s subjective reaction that has nothing to do with the issue under examination. The person has merely chosen to be (or to pretend to be) offended at the expression of an opinion that differs from their own. So much for free speech.

Being offended at another person’s right to express their opinion says much more about the narrow-mindedness of the offended individual than it does about the argument itself. Stephen Fry (pictured) puts it rather more succinctly than I have but I think the point remains the same. But it’s more sinister than that.

It has become fashionable to claim offence (I’m afraid I’m usually far from convinced that such offence is genuine) as a deliberate and cynical tactic. It’s a way to avoid considering the difficult questions that often arise in serious debate. It’s as though the fact that somebody, somewhere might be offended by my opinion somehow takes away my right to express it.

This is a particularly common tactic used by creationists and other theists who complain vigorously that any expression of disagreement constitutes ‘offence’. But as we have seen it says far more about them than it does about the opinion they object to.

If someone is offended by what I have to say they are quite welcome not to discuss it with me. But if they attempt to impose their own views and lifestyle onto me then they need to expect me to object – and to provide them with reasoned arguments to support my objection. If they will find that process offensive then the answer is simple…..

Don’t try to impose your belief system on to me

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 10: The Straw Man argument

wpid-picsay-1344369591.jpgThink back to your schooldays. Remember the people you knew, the classes you took and the exams you sat. Picture your old friends and the arguments you had with your classmates, often over the most trivial of topics. And remember how you used to react when you realised that the other person had a better argument than you.

There are lots of ways that children respond when they find themselves on the wrong side of a debate and they’re not always very pleasant. Sometimes they sulk, sometimes they come out fighting (physically or verbally) and sometimes, just sometimes they resort to the ‘straw man’ argument.

This is because it’s easier. If they can’t beat their actual intellectual sparring partner in debate they construct another one in their head. They create a dummy opponent, a ‘straw man’ whose arguments are easier to refute. Then they simply pretend that the weak arguments of the straw man are all they need to deal with. They triumphantly rail against their made up arguments instead of the real issues for which they have no answer.

It’s a common schoolyard tactic because until they learn to keep their egos under control children are generally far more interested in appearing victorious in debate than in getting to the truth of the matter.

So the child who argues that science class is interesting is accused of saying that children who enjoy sports are stupid. That’s easier for their detractors to argue down. The fact that the ‘sciencey’ kid never said any such thing is irrelevant. The straw man argument works and to the immature mind that’s all that matters.

Unfortunately not everyone outgrows this tendency to try to score points at the expense of honest debate and examination of the arguments. Some adults never get beyond the straw man argument, no matter how silly they look as a result. I remember being accused of supporting child abuse when I objected to the coercive sterilisation of drug users. That was not what I said but arguing against child abuse (the straw man) was easier for Project Prevention than defending their cynical eugenics programme.

I gave an example of a straw man argument in an earlier post when I outlined the Mormon missionary’s objection to Darwin’s beautifully elegant theory of evolution via natural selection. The real theory is far too reasonable for creationists to cope with, especially in the light of modern understanding of genetics and genome mapping, so they construct a straw man argument and oppose that instead. It matters not a jot that no Darwinian evolutionist ever proposed phenotypal limb loss within a single generation. Nor does it matter that individual behaviour has never been proposed by any Darwinian as an evolutionary means of altering the genotype within a single generation. All that matters is the dishonest creation of an artificial playing field upon which they have a chance of victory – or at least the appearance of victory.

And that’s the root of the problem. The more an individual needs to win the more likely they are to construct straw man arguments and the more forcefully they argue against them. This drive to win at any cost often makes them the most vocal and the most insistent of those who seek to influence the rest of us. Their arguments are dishonest and often reckless because the cost to their self-esteem of being seen to be wrong seems far greater than the cost to you of being misled. So they will lie and discredit without the slightest concern for what you or I might think of as the truth. And in many cases they will be relentless.

Fortunately the straw man argument is easy to overcome. We only have to listen and consider both sides of the argument. If you do that and find yourself wondering why someone’s arguing against a point that nobody made then take heed. You may well be witnessing a desperate person demolishing the arguments of their own straw man.

You have been warned

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 9: The ‘single cause’ fallacy

Everyone has a place in the world. They don’t always like it – but they have a place none the less. And everyone arrived ‘where they are’ because of a complex combination of circumstances, choices and characteristics that all contribute to whatever it is that makes us who we are.

For example….

I am occasionally asked why I chose to become a mental health nurse. The usual answer I give (the shorthand version, if you like) is that I find mental health work (either as a practitioner or a trainer) both fascinating and rewarding. But actually there’s more to it than that.

To really understand why I drifted in to mental health care you’d need to know how a number of very different causative factors came together to bring me to that point. These include…

Lincoln YMCA

Lincoln YMCA

Volunteering as a teenager in an elderly care day centre (primarily because I was bored);
Not being talented enough to realise my teenage dream of becoming an actor;
Leaving home in search of a theatrical career and becoming homeless;
Living either on the streets or in hostel accommodation during my early twenties;
Eventually finding employment in the hostel I lived in (Lincoln YMCA);
Being ‘thrown in at the deep end’ with a number of mentally disturbed hostel residents;
Witnessing a woman jump to her death from a multi-storey car park near the hostel;
Subsequently taking a series of care assistant jobs in mental health, elderly care and learning disabilities services;
Meeting and becoming engaged to a care assistant who was about to begin nurse training;
Following her into nurse training (to be together);
Entering mental health nursing (mainly because I didn’t fancy adult nursing).

So you see, although the shorthand answer is that I love mental health work the actual answer includes many more causes than that alone. In truth I drifted into this field as much by chance as anything else. I would never have imagined myself doing anything like this when I was at school. And that’s how it is for most people.

There is no single cause!

Of course we all understand this when we think it through. Almost nothing significant happens because of a single event. There are always other underlying conditions that make it possible. Unfortunately though we all tend not to think it through quite so often as we should.

Continuing for the moment with the theme of mental health I’d like to pose a question….

What causes schizophrenia?

If you were to ask 100 people that question you may not get 100 different answers but you’d find that a number of contradictory themes kept cropping up over and over again. Let’s look at two of these themes….

“It’s a biological brain disease”

This means that schizophrenia (the tendency to experience hallucinations, delusions and thought disorders) is caused by something in the person’s body or brain. Different people will offer slightly different versions of this explanation – some will talk about genes and heredity whilst others will attribute schizophrenia to chemical processes resulting from substance use or dietary processes. What brings them all together is the unifying belief that hallucinations, delusions and thought disorders are caused by physical issues and so physical remedies are required. The ‘single cause’ is assumed to be biology.

That’s why doctors prescribe medications for people diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s a chemical remedy intended to ‘fix’ or ‘manage’ a chemical problem.

“It’s caused by social exclusion”

People who believe this will not focus upon trying to alter the workings of the brain and/or body. They’ll concentrate their efforts upon more social, cultural and environmental variables and try to solve the problems service-users experience through interaction and coping skills development.

There is extremely good evidence for this sort of intervention and it really can work wonders.

The problem with both of these approaches, at least in my opinion is that they are too superficial and self-limiting. They both fall into the trap of the ‘single cause fallacy’ and because of this they are both essentially inadequate explanations. There is more to schizophrenia than just biomedical (nature) or socio-cultural (nurture) causes in isolation and until we abandon single cause explanations and explore the totality of causes we’re doomed to fail . More significantly we’re also doing our service-users a major disservice. I’ve explained more on this topic in my commercial blog:

Why I’m not ‘anti-psychiatry’

But that’s not really the topic of this entry – it’s just an example. Another example comes from the world of politics and the ‘single cause’ explanations that politicians of all stripes would like us to accept. For example…

A little over a year ago the United Kingdom (or at least England) was blighted by riots in several major cities. The reasons for this seem complex and almost certainly include (among other things):

Poverty and alienation;
An increasing sense of hopelessness;
Disregard for the rights and welfare of others;
Lack of cohesion within the larger community;
The psychological need of desperate people to scapegoat ‘the other’.

Nick cleggThe leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg famously predicted that there would inevitably be riots if the Conservatives won the 2010 general election. He understood the link between the ruthless capitalism of Conservative ideology, widespread poverty and the desperation of the masses all too well.

And yet both during and immediately after the riots (and after he’d led his party into coalition with those same Conservatives) he conveniently forgot all that in favour of the party line about ‘lack of respect’ and ‘mindless yobs’. Even when directly asked to comment upon any other possible causative factors he declined to do so.

Whenever someone tries to convince you of a ‘single cause’ for a serious event ask yourself :

What aren’t they considering?

The more we allow ourselves to be drawn into the ‘single cause fallacy’ the more vulnerable we become to manipulative arguments from others, be they politicians, internet bloggers like me (yes I can fall into the same traps as everyone else) or the bloke ‘holding court’ in your local pub.

So the next time someone tells you that disabled people are all benefit scroungers who don’t want to work or that the global economic crisis was caused by the UK’s previous prime minister stop and think for a moment before you fall victim to their particular brand of superficiality.

What aren’t they telling us?

Of course, as another blogger reminded me earlier this week, ‘We don’t know what we don’t know’. It can be difficult to work out just what the other person isn’t telling us because, by definition, we don’t know. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself that may help:

If this was a debate what would the other speaker have said?
If I had to explain this what would I have said?
Does this explanation fit with what I already know about the world?

The trick, as ever, is to think for ourselves. The single cause fallacy isn’t only widespread – it’s dangerous too.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 8: Some common thinking errors

I think therefore I am.

And all that I am is dictated by my thought.

Thought breeds opinion, opinion belief,

Belief engenders attitude and attitude: behaviour.

Therefore in order to live well

A man must first strive to think well.

His thought must be fluid and well conceived.

It must be as a strong fortress to withstand the onslaughts of derision and dogma

And yet welcoming enough to admit the arguments of reason.

Thought must not be fixed but it’s foundations must be firm.

And thought belongs to us all.

According to the late Albert Ellis (creator of ‘Rational Emotive Therapy’) there are three ‘general’ thinking errors that crop up time and time again in the development of emotional distress. These are much less specific than his famous collection of twelve irrational beliefs and are more to do with thinking ‘style’ than with any specific belief but they are, nevertheless a reasonable place for us to begin this little post on the link between cognition (thinking) and emotion.

The three ‘general thinking errors’ are….

Ignoring the positive

Whether you tend toward anxiety, anger or depression you’ll find it much harder to maintain emotional stability if you ignore the positive aspects of life. Like many of the thinking errors we’ll consider this simple truth is both obvious and depressingly common (pun intended).

Exaggerating the negative

As if ignoring the positive wasn’t bad enough, many people have developed the thinking habit of exaggerating the negative. The net result is that not only do they see the bad in their lives but they also have an even more negative view because they blow things out of all proportion until it seems as though they are overwhelmed by negativity.


This thinking error becomes habitual and remarkably destructive. This is the thinking habit that prompts people to believe that all aspects of their life are unsatisfactory when in fact only a small part of it may be. This is the sort of thinking error that prompts people to expect ‘one of those days’ simply because they spill the milk at breakfast. The misfortune is generalised to include the whole day.

On a related point I often wonder why they choose to generalise only to the whole day. Why not to the whole week or month? Maybe even their whole life. Either one makes as much sense as the others.

Or maybe they could try relating the misfortune to the whole of the time it takes them to clean up the spilled milk and then move on. After all:

There’s no use crying over spilled milk!

Yes – I know. I couldn’t resist that!

Other errors that psychologists have identified include:


An inevitable result of Ellis’ 3 general thinking errors above is the way that people take a minor problem and blow it out of all proportion. This is what happens when a person argues with their partner and then convinces themselves that the whole relationship is over. Most of us have done this at one time or another – especially during our teenage years but by the time we become adult we should have plenty of evidence to show us that it’s not inevitably so. Yet – by ignoring the positive evidence and exaggerating the negative implications of the situation we convince ourselves that the worst is about to happen.

Arbitrary inference

Catastrophisation often relies upon this process of arbitrary inference to make it happen. This is the way we draw conclusions from very limited evidence to support our basic assumptions.

The problem is compounded by the extremely common habit of inference chaining where a series of arbitrary inferences are linked together to create anxiety, depression, anger or even psychotic states such as paranoia and other delusions. For example:

Joan and David live together and have done for eight years. They are happy and regularly go out as a couple to the local cinema as well as restaurants and other places. They have two small children, Anna and Michael who they adore.

This afternoon David tells Joan that he is planning to go to the cinema with some male friends from work. Joan becomes distressed by this, much to David’s confusion because he doesn’t understand the arbitrary inference chain that has developed in Joan’s head. It goes something like this:

David’s going to the cinema without me

That means he doesn’t want my company

That means he doesn’t love me

That means he will leave me soon

That means I’ll be on my own with two children

That means I’ll never find anyone else. Nobody will want to take on the kids as well

That means I’ll be alone

That means I’m a failure because I couldn’t keep him

That means I’m useless

Obviously this chain of ideas may well be distressing but these thoughts don’t really reflect reality. This thinking style of arbitrary inference is extremely destructive and unnecessary. It often has the feel of predicting the future. Assuming claIrvoyance another of Ellis’ irrational beliefs. One simple trick to get to the bottom of inference chains that therapists use a lot is to keep asking:

If that were true, what would it mean for you?

It is truly amazing to discover the assumptions people make based upon the flimsiest of evidence or the most innocuous of events.


Determinism comes in many forms but they all have the same ‘feel’. This is the assumption that the outcome is inevitable because of some other, often irrelevant, circumstance. Determinism makes us powerless because it tells us that there is no hope. This belief discourages us from trying to improve our situation. Common examples of determinism include:

I’m bad tempered because my parents were Irish;
I failed at school so I’ll never make anything of myself;
I’m unemployed so I must be miserable
I was traumatised as a child so I’ll never be happy;
Of course I can’t look after myself – I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Selective abstraction

This thinking error is very similair to arbitrary inference. The difference is that it’s often a more conscious process of ‘self-censorship’. It’s the process by which people ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with their preferred beliefs and opinions. They acknowledge only the evidence that supports their preconceived notions and so they fail to grow, to develop and ultimately to learn how best to survive in the world. In everyday language this is what we mean when we say that someone is ‘burying their head in the sand’. This is the sort of thinking error that allows:

Racists to ignore the evidence that people from other racial groups are just the same as people from their own;
Politicians to draw different conclusions from the same evidence;
People to blame others for their emotions in spite of their own self-destructive thoughts and behaviours.

Global thinking

This is one of the most common thinking errors. It’s the habit of applying a single principle to a total situation. It’s one of the most destructive thinking habits, especially when people apply it to themselves.

The man who finds himself out of work following a spate of redundancies is not a total failure.
The girl who finds herself taken advantage of after a drunken night out is not a whore.
The woman diagnosed with depression is not completely unable to function in the world.

All of these people may face some very real difficulties but that, in itself, does not negate all the other aspects of their personalities and circumstances that make up who they are. Global thinking, when applied to ourselves or others, is always far too superficial. It’s the sort of thought process that leads people to write off small children as evil and a host of other, equally superficial judgements with no real understanding of the complexity of human beings and their capacity to behave in a variety of ways given the right circumstances.

Dichotomous thinking

Also known as ‘black and white’ thinking, this is the belief in extremes. The world is full of shades of grey but the dichotomous thinker can see only definites. Dichotomous thinking is common among children – in fact it’s a vital stage in cognitive development but it isn’t the end result. Dichotomous thinking gives rise to attitudes such as:

With us or against us
 Good and evil
 Us and them
 Good people and bad people

The reality is much more complex than that.

Magical thinking (the Wizard did it)

Magical thinking is the opposite of the ‘cause and effect’ principle that rationalism is based upon.

Rather than take the time to understand how the world works people assume a magical connection or a guiding force instead. They put their faith in a form of wishful thinking and trust to ‘luck’ or to ‘God’ instead of doing the work needed to make lasting change. The irony is that when they don’t get the job or the advice of the pendulum they swung turns out to be false the same magical thinking provides them with some sort of solace through the belief that:

It wasn’t meant to be.

Magical thinking prevents people from taking responsibility because they attribute success or failure to the magical force of their choice. Consequently they stop trying to understand and ignore the real ’cause and effect’ lessons that would actually help them to achieve their goals.


Some people go through life believing so completely in their own importance that they think everything is about them. The majority of people really aren’t all that important and most people we come across are far too wrapped up in their own lives to devote much attention to us, our characteristics or the state of our hair.

One excellent thing to keep in mind is this:

I’m not special – I’m unique, like everybody else!

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 239 other followers