Two more species of Fallacies

After you’ve become familiar with a variety of stupid political arguments or with spotting pseudo-science, you find yourself making a mental game of it: Name That Fallacy. It’s gratifying to know that there are terms for the sorts of things that used to “make your brain all hurty” because you knew they were wrong. Such terms are a great time-saver in discussions: being able to assign those names means that others know what you’re talking about, and that you don’t have to explain why the fallacious thinking is not correct.

But every now and then I run into something that cannot be easily defined by a term. Such things may be multifactorial in the numbers of cognitive biases and argumentative fallacies; there’s no one reason why the reasoning is bad. But boy, are they off the mark!

Right now, I have two fallacies I would like to discuss. (Maybe there are names for these that I’ve not yet run into — let me know; they could be from fields that I’m not well-versed in.)

~ I ~

I call this first sort of über-fallacy-bias the Prohibition Fallacy. I know that it’s not merely an isolated situational bit of nonsense because we have all seen it numbers of times in history. When people make arguments for laws, rules and other arrangements to ban something, they often use the

Prohibition Fallacy: trying to prevent abuse of something by eliminating the thing or the circumstances where it could occur.

The Prohibition Fallacy has been obviously seen in the domestic laws or religious strictures that led to prohibition of alcohol (in multiple times and places throughout history) simply because some people are alcoholic. Of course, the circumstances resulting in such decrees are really false dilemmas; the solution to the problem is neither wholly allowing nor prohibiting alcohol. Most of us realise that there need to be some limitations on what is considered acceptable usage, and we have repeatedly found that merely prohibiting alcohol does not lead to elimination of issues, but merely drives some of them “underground” where they are less easily addressed.

A Prohibition Fallace is more than just a fallacy of objection, where the presence of opposing arguments is taken to be cause enough to deny something. It also demonstrates a cognitive bias known as the neglect of probability where someone fails to take into account the likelihood of something happening. It is also a hasty generalisation where someone leaps to a conclusion based upon too little evidence, and uses a biased sample that assumes because a few do something, all the others will also do that same thing. This scenario partly stems from an availability heuristic that lends the perception for something to be likely to happen, simply because of the ease at which such a potential problem can be imagined (or recalled from actual events), and because the emotional impact of that bad event lends further weight to the perceived probability. Such claims are also an appeal to fear (as distinguished from avoiding something for rational or prudent reasons), and can involve the slippery slope where a series of worsening situations are assumed to be inevitable, without regard to the likelihood of those really happening.

But unlike its namesake example, the Prohibition Fallacy is not limited to alcohol. The fallacious thinking that “the way to solve or prevent problems is by prohibiting things” is found in a variety of arguments.

I noticed the Prohibition Fallacy again when I read a recent post at Midlife and Treachery that discussed a particular editorial with regards to the (U.S.) ADA Restoration Act. The editorial began with some mention of the Catch-22 issue in the current ADA (which I’ve also blogged about), that you can be simultaneously denied a job or promotion for being “too disabled” to do the job, but you are also not protected against that discrimination because of being “not disabled enough” if you have some means of mitigating the factors that disable you. As pointed out in the M&T blog, that part of the argument from the editorial is fine.

But then the editorial writer does something nonsensical: their first reasonable point is then ignored as they veer off into a protracted bit of nonsense about why the ADA Restoration Act is actually a bad idea. The Prohibition Fallacy is then used, asserting that one must protect against the possibility of employers being falsely taken advantage of by a few unscrupulous individuals claiming discrimination, by completely eliminating the thing that they would abuse (i.e. the amendments to the ADA). This argument ignores the fact that most of the people who would be needing and using these expanded legal protections would be doing so for totally appropriate reasons!

As another example, we see this same kind of fallacy in schools, where rules are sometimes instituted to prevent irresponsibility by a few students. One such rule is disallowing students from leaving the school campus during lunch time. The rationale states that if they go out for fast food they might get back to class late, or that rushing out to get lunch and return in time might seriously increase the potential for dangerous driving, or that they might use the lunch period to sneak off somewhere and have sex, or smoke, or do drugs, or any number of activities. (Conveniently forgotten is that some years back when there were more stay-at-home moms, many students used to leave campus and go home for lunch.) The main selling point is the fear that secondary students will naturally engage in risky behavior, and that we must legislate ways of restricting their activity in order to control them and thus enforce “social standards” (meaning, someone’s narrowly-defined moral framework, as opposed to existing laws).

We all know that in real life, some adults use their work lunch periods to do any of those things (legal or otherwise), but their employers don’t try to keep them in the office. Schools are concerned about the students’ actions because the district is responsible for their students’ safety on campus (or at off-campus school functions) simply because the students are legal minors. But schools are not responsible for what the students do off-campus in non-school functions. The real issue is not that most students don’t actually believe in or follow moral and legal guidelines. The real issue is the Prohibition Fallacy that results in all of the students are being restricted because of the fear that a few of them will do irresponsible, dangerous, or illegal things while they slip outside of the realm of the school’s responsibility.

Naturally, most high school students find such a rule to be, “like, totally stupid” and “a real farce” — they can see through the fallacious thinking. But being young and under-developed in critical thinking skills, most of them aren’t articulate enough to pick it apart, beyond arguing against the likelihood of specific examples of misbehavior provided in the rationales. But they know what’s going on and why, and being teenagers, resist being “managed” in such a way. The fact that they resist such management does not make them “bad kids” or “prove” the necessity for such a rule. It simply shows that like anyone else, teens and young adults do not like being subjected to unnecessary restrictions based upon absurd conclusions and fallacious thinking.

~ II ~

The second sort of fallacy is a little more complex to explain. I’m not going to provide a lot of examples, but you can feel free to cite some of your own in the comments discussion. I’m calling it the

Opinionation Fallacy: when someone tries to dismiss corrections to their erroneous “facts” by claiming that their assertions are Opinions, and “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion”.

Well. You cannot claim special exemptions for untrue statements just by calling them “opinions”.

Let’s get this straight: opinions are about subjective things, those that are perceived or phenomenal, such as how we feel about something (that’s “feel” as in emotions, not “feel” as in “would like to believe to be true”), including our particular tastes and preferences, or that are our individual perceptions of sensory information. Subjective things are not very arguable; you cannot, for example, call a synæsthete wrong for the way they perceive things.

In contrast, facts are about objective things that are outside of perception or cognition, those events and objects that are measurable, that can be experienced in common, and that exist independent of our experiences of them. Objective things are arguable; although the accuracy of some facts may be up to debate, there is still some way of verifying if a thing is true or not.

The Opinionation Fallacy is a form of subjective validation, where someone perceives things as being true (real, factual, correct) if it’s personally true or supports their own belief systems. Interpretations for the significance of events are to a degree subjective, and may have some level of debate. But the details of events are objective; either the evidence is there to support the existence of things, or there isn’t.

What a person “believes” to be true does not affect whether or not their statements are correct or false. Merely believing in something does not make it real. When we have knowledge of something that is not first-hand experience (which is most everything we’ve learned in school or through information media), we don’t “believe” [most of] the information to be true, we trust the information to be true.

Because most of us have large bodies of knowledge that we trust to be true, we realise that sometimes what is known about a thing can change over time. More facts are found, which do not make the old facts false if they were truly facts. What can change are the understandings of things, because the new information allows us to re-examine the significance of what we know.

Sometimes the Opinionation Fallacy also involves a bit of the relativist fallacy, where “what’s true for others isn’t true for me”. A person claims that their pet ideas or beliefs should have special exemption from the requirements of proof, just because of who they are, or because of some status they feel they have.

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t change false statements into true ones merely by cloaking them under the ægis of “Opinion”. Nor can you turn subjective beliefs into facts merely by wanting them to be true. Winston Churchill said, “Your right to an opinion does not obligate me to take you seriously.”

Or as my Kid would say, “Epic fail !”


  1. Brendan S said,

    27 March 2008 at 14:30

    Just as a note, what you name the Opinionation Fallacy is close to (but not exactly) Moore’s Paradox. That is anything that takes the general form of ‘P and I believe not P’. For instance: The world is round and I believe it is flat.

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    19 March 2008 at 17:18

    I could have sworn I mentioned that… it was there in my earlier draft. Maybe it got lost when my computer had a power hiccough. But yes, there is a strong element of false dichotomy in the Prohibition Fallacy.


  3. Ettina said,

    19 March 2008 at 16:45

    How about the false dichotomy?
    If not X, automatically Y.
    For example: “If I don’t spank my kids, they’ll get away with doing anything they want unpunished!”
    Or the notorious example in autistic rights:
    “If an autistic child doesn’t get (early) ABA treatment, they’ll have to live in an institution in adulthood!”
    This fallacy is assuming there are only two options, and you must choose between them (with one option usually considered undesirable). When in reality, there are many different options, although some are not moral or reasonable.

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