Why avoiding logical fallacies is an everyday superpower

Ten of the most sandbagging, red-herring, and effective logical fallacies.

  • Many an otherwise-worthwhile argument has been derailed by logical fallacies.
  • Sometimes these fallacies are deliberate tricks, and sometimes just bad reasoning.
  • Avoiding these traps makes disgreeing so much better.

Logical-fallacy traps are all around us, and we get caught in them all the time. They trap us during discussions — okay, arguments — and make our heads want to burst. Sometimes we get derailed while we're trying to sort out important issues, and sometimes it's simply trying to adjudicate day-to-day nonsense.

Nonetheless, getting thrown off course by one of these fallacies is like becoming ensnared in vines from which escape grows ever thornier. What a superpower it would be then, to be able to smash right though these binds — or even better, to learn how to sidestep them in the first place.

There's a chart floating around online from non-profit School of Thought, and it sums up the most pernicious logical fallacies. (You can buy the chart as a wall poster from their shop.) It's a great way to develop your debating superpowers. We thought we'd share 10 of our favorites.

1. Composition/division fallacies

This is a twofer originally courtesy of Aristotle. The Logical Place describes them this way: "The Fallacy of Composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole. Conversely, the Fallacy of Division occurs when one infers that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts."

An example of the Composition form:

  • A is a teacher
  • A has a mustache
  • All teachers have mustaches

For the Division version, if A has no whiskers, all teachers are clean-lipped.

2. The Tu quoque fallacy

You know this one, the equivalent of, "Oh, yeah? Well, you, too." According to the site Logically Fallacious, it's defined as: "Claiming the argument is flawed by pointing out that the one making the argument is not acting consistently with the claims of the argument." What did your parents say about two wrongs?

3. The Texas sharpshooter fallacy

The validity of your argument appears to be based on evidence, but, as Your Logical Fallacy puts it, "You cherry-picked a data cluster to suit your argument, or found a pattern to fit a presumption." Nice try, though.

4. Ambiguity fallacy

Ambiguity's described on Your Logical Fallacy, thusly: "You used a double meaning or ambiguity of language to mislead or misrepresent the truth." The Fallacy Files has a great breakdown of Bill Clinton's denial of sexual congress with Monica Lewinsky, and why it was less than convincing to anyone really paying attention, even though he didn't exactly lie. The moral: Listen to what's being said by politicians and other salespeople very, very carefully.

5. Personal incredulity fallacy

According to Truly Fallacious, this one involves "Asserting because one finds something difficult to understand it can't be true." It's the raison d'être of climate-change deniers, and, yes, flat-Earthers.

6. Genetic fallacy

The Genetic fallacy is the one that causes you to discard, or accept, the validity of an argument due to its source. As far as the former goes, remember, "Even a broken clock is right twice a day." Consider the premise, not its speaker. As far as the latter goes, check out these examples from Soft Schools.

7. Middle ground fallacy

While middle ground — AKA compromise — can often be the solution to an impasse, it's not to say that it reveals some new, truer truth. In fact, it's just an agreement for both sides to live with being a little unhappy in order to move forward. Don't be bluffed out of your position by someone claiming they're meeting you halfway only in order to move you off a correct position you shouldn't abandon.

8. Anecdotal fallacy

"Everyone think this!" What this statement really means is that, in your limited personal experience, something is true. Fallacy Files has a nice way of putting it: "The Anecdotal Fallacy is committed when a recent memory, a striking anecdote, or a news story of an unusual event leads one to overestimate the probability of that type of event, especially when one has access to better evidence."

9. False cause fallacy

Your Logical Fallacy offers this: "You presumed that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other." This is the old correlation-does-not-equal-causation fallacy that's so easy to fall into.

10. The fallacy fallacy

There's a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons and reason that sound good." — Burton Hillis

The perfect place to conclude this list. Remember, just because someone's argument depends on a fallacy doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. As Fallacy Files drily warns, "Like anything else, the concept of logical fallacy can be misunderstood and misused, and can even become a source of fallacious reasoning." Keep an open mind and think about what the other person is saying — you want to glimpse the truth, or not, behind their mental and verbal parlor tricks.

Caution, superperson

"With great power comes great responsibility." This advice is not just for Spiderman. Use your new superpower wisely — other people fall for these tricks, too. Which is to say, play nice.

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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.