Logical Fallacies: Don’t Let Them Fool You

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Sometimes people use bogus arguments in the form of logical fallacies (arguments where the conclusion does not follow from the premises) to oppose facts or viewpoints and, ultimately to bamboozle a discussion. Below you’ll find a nice overview of twenty most often used type of ‘luring’ fallacies. We’re writing this blog hoping that you’ll learn to spot them and kick ’m in the butt instead of letting them fool you (or worse, using them yourselves)!

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Let’s look at some examples.

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Basically, the strawman is an intentionally misrepresented response that’s set up as an easy way to defeat the opponent’s true argument. In other words, the person throwing in the strawman doesn’t respond to the actual point that an opponent makes but to a caricatural version of it.

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In the learning space, there are some common strawmen. For example, in response to the argument that learning styles don’t exist and that there’s no evidence for them, a commonly heard strawman is “Oh, so you’re claiming that we’re all the same and that we all learn the same way?” Which of course has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that there’s no evidence that (1) learning styles actually exist and (2) that someone’s ‘preferred’ learning style will help her or him learn better. Regardless of its worthlessness, this strawman often used.

Another often used strawman is the way ‘progressive’ educators and policy makers attack direct instruction. This strawman argument is that direct instruction is nothing but having a sage on the stage lecture, that the student does nothing but passively listen and that it is directed at skill and drill, isolated rote fact accumulation at the expense of thinking skill development, that it focuses on tests, it’s one size fits all. The problem with this strawman is that direct (or explicit) instruction way more!

What Direct Instruction is What Direct Instruction is Not
Explicit Instruction is skill based, but students are active participants in the learning process. Explicit Instruction is not skill and drill.
Explicit Instruction is holistic. For example, teachers can use Explicit Instruction to teach everything that is included in “literacy” (i.e., decoding, comprehension, spelling, and the writing process) Explicit Instruction is not just used to teach isolated facts and procedures.
Explicit Instruction integrates smaller learning units into meaningful wholes Explicit Instruction does not teach basic skills in isolation from meaningful contexts.
Explicit Instruction is developmentally appropriate. Instruction is tailored specifically to students’ learning and attentional needs Explicit Instruction is not “one size fits all”.
The teacher constantly monitors understanding to make sure students are deriving meaning from instruction. Explicit Instruction is not rote
Explicit Instruction is used in diverse contexts and curricular areas. Explicit Instruction is not basic skills only
Students like it because they are learning! Explicit Instruction is not boring and alienating
Students are cognitively engaged throughout the learning encounter. They have opportunities throughout the lesson to self-monitor and direct their own learning and participation. Explicit Instruction is not all teacher directed

From: Goeke, J. L. (2008). Explicit instruction: A framework for meaningful direct teaching. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Next up…

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Anecdote comes from Greek anekdota “things unpublished”. Anecdotal evidence is based on one specific event of something that an individual has experienced. For example, for some people it doesn’t matter how often it’s been empirically proven that learning styles are nothing but perceived preferences and that they don’t lead to better learning, in conversations (parents and teachers alike) they will continue to respond things like “but for my / this child images work way better than words”. Another example that we encounter a lot is inter-generational differences. Especially organisations love to talk about how millennials or genX, or genY, or ‘genWhatever’ have different needs compared to other generations, despite the fact that research clearly shows that differences within generations are way bigger than those between them. What organisations often do, is interview people who fall into a certain generation and then put up statements like “82% of millennials say that flexibility is their #1 priority”. Like the example below.

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Let’s look at another, if you ask us, cringing example, which is ‘appeal to authority’.

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This is also called argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin for ‘argument out of respect’). We have blogged about this topic specifically here; eminence-based and not evidence-based. The appeal to authority refers to a way of reasoning where the argument leans on the authority or validity of the person who makes the argument, often outside the authority’s special field of expertise.

Examples are people parroting ideas of Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, Amy Chua, and other prominent eduquacks. Those who are copycatting them never seem to wonder what the ideas of those individuals are based on; is there any real evidence for what these so-called experts are expounding? Do they actually have any expertise in the area that they are making their claims about? Robinson, for example has a PhD in drama and literature, Mitra is a PhD in solid-state physics, and Chua, a self-proclaimed expert in child rearing, is a corporate law professor! And that’s, to put it mildly, a real shame. It’s a particular pity, because the claims that these gurus are making, are usually very strong (“Schools kill creativity!” “Knowledge acquisition isn’t necessary”), the nuance is completely lacking, and the message is completely wrong (schools give learners the necessary knowledge and skills to be creative, without knowledge one is incapable of understanding, judging and interpreting information that is on the web, etc.). Sometimes, in advertising, the appeal to authority is used to its advantage, as the (pathetic) example below shows. These people suffer from what we’ve dubbed the “expertise generalisation syndrome”.

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Please, note that this doesn’t mean that using and citing the arguments of authorities is wrong. If the authority has demonstrated the know-how and expertise in the area in question, it can’t be dismissed as being an ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy. As long as the arguments are valid and are based on solid evidence from proper research, then there’s nothing wrong and the debate can continue, as the next example shows.

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(well, a slight variation)

This example of a flaw in one’s reasoning, ad hominum literally means ‘argument on the human’ in Latin and is a logical fallacy that it is an attempt to discredit the argument of the opponent by discrediting her/him. So, it’s an objection that focuses on the person instead of the argument of the person[1]. In Dutch that’s called “playing the man and not the ball”

When it comes to education, sometimes people argue that, because a researcher hasn’t been a teacher, her or his point of view about education can’t be right. Although this might sound logical, it’s actually not…

Take, for example, the following two researchers, Louis Pasteur and Jonas Salk. Pasteur discovered that microbes cause many diseases and he was the inventor of rabies and anthrax vaccines, among others. Jonas Salk was the inventor of the polio vaccine. Both gentlemen have contributed a lot to medicine (and what to think of human health!). However, they were never doctors.

            Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)                        Jonas Salk (1914-1995)

Pasteur studied chemistry and biology. Salk indeed studied medicine, however, he started working as a scholar after he obtained his degree and hence has never worked as a doctor. Now, should their theories and inventions be dismissed because they haven’t been doctors and have never treated any patients? We won’t think so.

The education and learning field is full of these types of people as well. Valuable experts, who have contributed significantly to education by giving insights in what is and isn’t effective for learning), despite the fact that they never have been teachers in their life. Some examples are:

  • Roediger and Karpicke: retrieval practice, or the effects of (self) testing on learning;
  • Richard Mayer: educational psychologist and inventor of the cognitive theory of multimedia learning;
  • Ernst Rothkopf: scholar at Bell Laboratories who clarified (mathemagenic) effects of additional questions to learning. Yes, and even;
  • Jean Piaget: a Swiss psychologist who studied children’s cognitive psychological development

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more logical fallacies (see, for example, http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/fallacy_topics.html) widely used in education such as:

  • Ad Populum: Also known as the bandwagon fallacy is an argument based upon what most or all people think or believe. For example, “Twenty-first century skills must be important because so many people believe it is.”
  • Petitio Principii: A circular argument (begging the question). For example “The teacher is a good communicator because he speaks effectively.”
  • False cause (non causa pro causa: “non-cause for cause” or cum hoc ergo propter hoc: “with this, therefore because of this”): Here, one presumes that a real or perceived relationship between things (i.e., a correlation) means that one is the cause of the other. For example “Every time I study X, it’s not on the exam so there’s no sense studying”.
  • Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: An appeal to ignorance (i.e., a lack of contrary evidence) where a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. For example “Since the class has no questions concerning the topics discussed in class, the class is ready for a test.” or “As there’s no evidence that cheating on the test has occurred, all of the children are trustworthy”.

See this YouTube of Neil deGrasse Tyson:

 

If you’re interested in a fun page to see more fallacies nicely explained, then go to https://thebestschools.org/magazine/15-logical-fallacies-know/  

PLEASE think about all of this and don’t let logical fallacies fool you!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

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