The mental minefield of logical fallacies

The mental minefield of logical fallacies

The dead-ends, detours, and non sequiturs that riddle arguments: a guided tour of 19 varieties of nonsense

Larry Hickey, FRM, Aneris XTRM, London

France has no friends, only interests," said Charles De Gaulle. Think of this the next time you evaluate the merits of a proposal. The advocate has interests. Rest assured that whatever is being pitched is aligned with those interests. But it may not be aligned with yours.

"You should do this because it will fatten my bonus." Despite being earnest, this heartfelt appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears. So the proponent may be motivated to find alternate reasons to support the same recommended course of action.

Some of these stand-in arguments may lack the rigor and honesty of the original. In fact, they may be completely specious.

Keep a particularly tight grip on your wallet if the pitch contains any of the following terms: synergy, natural, seamless, Keynesian, sustainable, holistic, paradigm, or organic.

Let's take a guided tour through the mental minefield of logical fallacies. We'll focus on the classics and hear how they might sound to a decision-maker involved in oil exploration.

The straw man

Arguing against real people is hard. Their positions are nuanced and you may lose. Why take that risk when you don't have to? Instead, create an extreme but superficially similar version of your opponent's position and argue against that. 'Now some people will tell you that we'll never strike oil again, but I say ...' Really? Who? Who said that? Straw men arguments are often accompanied by certain falsifiers like 'every', 'always' or 'never'. Scarecrows are relatively easy to knock down or destroy.

This is different to when Fox News says 'some people say'. That means 'Fox News says'.

Appeal to ignorance

We assert a claim is true because it has not yet been proven false. "We should drill because there is no evidence it will be a dry hole." This false dichotomy excludes the third option. There may be insufficient information on which to base a decision. 'Do nothing' may be the rational choice.

It's not a gaffe if you're wrong. It's a gaffe if you're accidentally right.

The excluded middle

George Bush famously said, 'You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror.' Hmmmm…what about the vast expanse of humanity who simply couldn't care less? This involves setting up a choice between polar extremes and ignoring the middle ground. 'We should either drill 10 wells or go home.'

The slippery slope

Some course of action will initiate a bad sequence. Think of dominos falling. 'Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile!' "If we don't drill, we'll lose our expertise advantage and never be able to drill again."

Ad hominem attacks

If your opponent has a good argument, ignore it and attack her personally. 'You would say that! You're closed minded!' The objective is to negate her idea by associating something negative with her personally. 'I bet your friend Hitler would say drill there too!'

A good rule of thumb – the first person to mention Hitler loses the argument.

Poisoning the well

A variant of ad hominem that involves the pre-emptive provision of information designed to produce a biased result. The nudge can be positive or negative. Negative information is designed to support the implicit conclusion that this person's claims cannot be relied upon. "The next speaker is a well-known opponent of oil exploration." A variant includes smears against future opponents. "If you do not support this exploration plan, you must want this company to fail."

Ironic

"Thinking outside the box" means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. But it's a cliché. So the person making the request is simultaneously demonstrating his own inability to do so.

Begging the question

Asking a loaded question assumes a conclusion. The classic example is to ask someone if he has stopped beating his wife yet. Implicit in the question is the assumption that he beats his wife. "When will this company write down its proven reserves to reasonable levels?" Any answer starts with the assumption that reserves are overstated.

Appeal to authority

"Dr. Fred says we should drill here." This claim is underpinned by two assumptions: a) that Dr. Fred is an expert, and 2) that there is an expert consensus. In other words, that being expert has meaning. If Dr. Fred is an expert on homeopathic cures, winning lottery numbers, or astrology he would fall at the second hurdle.

Correlation-causation confusion

A is correlated with B. So A must have caused B. Rich people have fancy cars. I want to be rich. So I should buy a fancy car. Exxon is drilling there. We want to be a big company like Exxon. So we should drill there.

Confirmation bias

We know the conclusion. Now we're just looking for supporting facts, even if this involves cherry picking a few positive data points from a sea of negative data. We have a tendency to favor information that affirms our beliefs. This effect is most pronounced for emotionally charged issues. There is a 'yes man' lurking inside us all. 'The results confirm my view that …' So true, and pretty much independent of the actual results.

Special pleading

My argument qualifies for special (i.e. non-critical) consideration. Perhaps we're arguing about military affairs. "Are you a veteran? Well, I am." "Have you ever drilled there before? Well, I have." So my argument should get a pass.

Anecdotal evidence

'Lessons learned' are drawn from a sample size of one. "My Aunt Betsy drank cranberry juice and now her cancer is in remission. So we should drink cranberry juice." It's an attempt to extrapolate the experience of a single person onto a larger population. "A wildcatter did this and later struck oil. So we should do it." The problem is that the single person may not be representative of the larger group.

Observational selection

Watch ads for casinos. See all those smiling winners? For some reason the losers aren't featured. "You will have to agree with me when I say there are lots of winners at casinos." "Today's oil and gas companies have outperformed the indexes over the past 20 years." By definition, 'today's' companies must have survived. In so doing, they would have significantly outperformed the companies that did not. So even if oil and gas companies performed as well as the index on balance, the survivors would have done better.

Non sequitur

The conclusion is totally unrelated to what has preceded it. 'We have had a very good year. So we're going to drill there next year.'

Weasel words

Trying to create the impression that something specific has been said when only a vague claim has been proffered. "If we drill here we will improve profitability up to 50%.'" The statement is true even if there is no improvement at all. A 2009 study found there are three flavors of weasel words. 1. Numerically vague expressions (e.g. 'some people', 'experts', 'many'). 2. Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying a source (e.g. 'it is said'). And 3. Deintensifiers (e.g. 'often', 'probably').

Affirming the consequent

A logical flow that is true in one direction may not hold in the opposite direction. "If the weather is bad, we will have to pay overtime to the rig crew." Let's say this statement is true. The same cannot be said of the converse. "We paid overtime. Therefore the weather must have been bad." Even though bad weather would necessitate overtime, there may be many other reasons.

The red herring

Completely miss the point in your response. "How can people say that drilling is dangerous when it provides employment to so many?" You're prattling on about employment when safety was the topic at hand. It's an intentional distraction.

Proof by verbosity

If there is no quality to your argument, perhaps quantity can carry the day. Present the listener with such a volume of material that the argument sounds plausible, superficially well researched and so difficult to untangle that it will go unchallenged. This is a particular favorite of conspiracy theorists, who may come armed with loads of references.

The bandwagon

An idea has merit because lots of people believe it. "Millions of people believe in astrology, so there must be something to it." Call it a social proof. "Others are drilling in this area, so we should drill there too." Keep in mind that at one time everyone knew that the earth was flat and that a god was dragging the sun across the heavens each day.

"It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it." – Upton Sinclair.

A logical house of cards

Spotting these gems can turn into a fun parlor game. Even more fun is pointing them out and watching the whole shaky edifice collapse. When you start with a conclusion and try to backfill the arguments, hilarity may ensue. The motivated reasoner is capable of extraordinary mental contortions. OGFJ

About the author

Larry Hickey  

Larry Hickey is a managing director with Aneris XTRM and a contributing editor to Oil & Gas Financial Journal. He has spent the past 14 years managing implementations of industry leading ETRM solutions and is frequently called upon to turn around troubled projects.

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