Tag Archives: argument

No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.[1]

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Reblogger’s note: 

[1] This is a fallacy known as false balance.

2 Comments

Filed under Reblogs

The Red Herring Fallacy

The idiom ‘red herring’ is used to refer to something that misleads or distracts from the relevant or important issue.  The expression is mainly used to assert that an argument is not relevant to the issue being discussed.

A red herring fallacy is an error in logic where a proposition is, or is intended to be, misleading in order to make irrelevant or false inferences. It includes any logical inference based on fake arguments, intended to replace the lack of real arguments or to replace implicitly the subject of the discussion.  In this way, a red herring is as much a debating tactic as it is a logical fallacy.  It is a fallacy of distraction, and is committed when a listener attempts to divert an arguer from his argument by introducing another topic.  Such arguments have the following form:

Topic A is under discussion.

Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).

Topic A is abandoned.

This sort of reasoning is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.

For instance, ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ or ‘I have a right to my opinion’ is a common declaration in rhetoric or debate that can be made at some point in a discussion. Whether one has a particular entitlement or right is irrelevant to whether one’s assertion is true or false. To assert the existence of the right is a failure to assert any justification for the opinion.

As an informal fallacy, the red herring falls into a broad class of relevance fallacies. Unlike the strawman fallacy, which is premised on a distortion of the other party’s position, the red herring is a seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant, diversionary tactic.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a red herring may be intentional or unintentional – it does not necessarily mean a conscious intent to mislead.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conventional wisdom has long supposed the origin of the idiom ‘red herring’ to be the use of a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to train hounds to follow a scent, or to divert them from the correct route when hunting; however, modern linguistic research suggests that the term was probably invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, referring to one occasion on which he had supposedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare, and was never an actual practice of hunters.  The phrase was later borrowed to provide a formal name for the logical fallacy and associated literary device.

Although Cobbett most famously mentioned it, he was not the first to consider red herring for scenting hounds; an earlier reference occurs in the pamphlet ‘Nashe’s Lenten Stuffe’, published in 1599 by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, in which he says ‘Next, to draw on hounds to a scent, to a red herring skin there is nothing comparable’.

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.

Make a Donation Button

Leave a comment

Filed under Logical fallacies

Argument from consequences

The Argument from Consequences, also known as (‘Appeal to Consequences’) or argumentum ad consequentiam [1], is a fallacious argument that concludes that a belief is either true or false based on whether the belief leads to desirable or undesirable consequences.  Such arguments are closely related to the fallacies of appeal to emotion and wishful thinking.  They generally have one of two forms:

Positive form

Premise 1: If P, then Q will occur.

Premise 2: Q is desirable.

Conclusion: Therefore, P is true.

 Examples

  • Humans must be able to travel faster than light, because that will be necessary for interstellar space travel.
  • I believe in an afterlife, because I want to exist forever.

Negative form

Premise 1: If P, then Q will occur.

Premise 2: Q is undesirable.

Conclusion: Therefore, P is false.

Examples

  • Free will must exist: if it didn’t, we would all be machines.” (This is also a false dilemma.)
  • Evolution must be false: if it were true then human beings would be no better than animals.
  • God must exist; if He did not, then people would have no reason to be good and life would have no meaning.

Such arguments are invalid because the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises.  The desirability of a consequence does not make a conclusion true; nor does the undesirability of a consequence make a conclusion false.  Moreover, in categorizing consequences as either desirable or undesirable, such arguments inherently contain subjective points of view.

There are two types of cogent argument with which this fallacy is easily confused:

  1. When an argument is about a proposition, it is reasonable to assess the truth-value (whether it is true or false) of any logical consequences of the proposition.  Logical consequences should not be confused with causal consequences; and truth or falsity should not be confused with goodness or badness.
  2. When an argument concerns a policy or plan of action—instead of a proposition—then it is reasonable to consider the consequences of acting on it, because policies and plans are good or bad rather than true or false.

Endnote

[1] Latin for ‘argument to the consequences’

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider making a donation.

Make a Donation Button

Leave a comment

Filed under Logical fallacies

Argument from false or misleading authority

by Tim Harding

Argument from false or misleading authority, or argumentum ad vericundiam, is a logical fallacy which provides an argument from authority, but on a topic outside of the particular authority’s expertise. In such cases, the argument in question is not backed by the required degree of expertise and therefore the conclusion is unreliable.

Examples of this can often be found in the media, where lazy journalists obtain opinions on an issue from a willing and available ‘prominent person’, or worse still a show business or sporting celebrity; despite the prominent person or celebrity having no qualifications or expertise on the topic.

An instance of this fallacy was in the media coverage of the visit to Australia of the vociferous climate change denier, Viscount Monckton, an hereditary peer from the UK (but who is not a member of the House of Lords). Whilst Monckton may claim some knowledge of mathematics, he is not a climate scientist. (He has an MA in classics and a diploma in journalism studies). It is most unlikely that he would have received anywhere near as much media coverage if he was not a titled member of the British aristocracy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Logical fallacies

What is logic?

The word ‘logic‘ is not easy to define, because it has slightly different meanings in various applications ranging from philosophy, to mathematics to computer science. In philosophy, logic’s main concern is with the validity or cogency of arguments. The essential difference between informal logic and formal logic is that informal logic uses natural language, whereas formal logic (also known as symbolic logic) is more complex and uses mathematical symbols to overcome the frequent ambiguity or imprecision of natural language.

So what is an argument? In everyday life, we use the word ‘argument’ to mean a verbal dispute or disagreement (which is actually a clash between two or more arguments put forward by different people). This is not the way this word is usually used in philosophical logic, where arguments are those statements a person makes in the attempt to convince someone of something, or present reasons for accepting a given conclusion. In this sense, an argument consist of statements or propositions, called its premises, from which a conclusion is claimed to follow (in the case of a deductive argument) or be inferred (in the case of an inductive argument). Deductive conclusions usually begin with a word like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘so’ or ‘it follows that’.

A good argument is one that has two virtues: good form and all true premises. Arguments can be either deductiveinductive  or abductive. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. The term ‘good argument’ covers all three of these types of arguments.

Deductive arguments

A valid argument is a deductive argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, because of the logical structure of the argument. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Conversely, an invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, the validity or invalidity of arguments must be clearly distinguished from the truth or falsity of its premises. It is possible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be true, even though one or more of its premises are false. For example, consider the following argument:

Premise 1: Napoleon was German
Premise 2: All Germans are Europeans
Conclusion: Therefore, Napoleon was European

The conclusion that Napoleon was European is true, even though Premise 1 is false. This argument is valid because of its logical structure, not because its premises and conclusion are all true (which they are not). Even if the premises and conclusion were all true, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the argument was valid. If an argument has true premises and its form is valid, then its conclusion must be true.

Deductive logic is essentially about consistency. The rules of logic are not arbitrary, like the rules for a game of chess. They exist to avoid internal contradictions within an argument. For example, if we have an argument with the following premises:

Premise 1: Napoleon was either German or French
Premise 2: Napoleon was not German

The conclusion cannot logically be “Therefore, Napoleon was German” because that would directly contradict Premise 2. So the logical conclusion can only be: “Therefore, Napoleon was French”, not because we know that it happens to be true, but because it is the only possible conclusion if both the premises are true. This is admittedly a simple and self-evident example, but similar reasoning applies to more complex arguments where the rules of logic are not so self-evident. In summary, the rules of logic exist because breaking the rules would entail internal contradictions within the argument.

Inductive arguments

An inductive argument is one where the premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. While the conclusion of a sound deductive argument is supposed to be certain, the conclusion of a cogent inductive argument is supposed to be probable, based upon the evidence given. An example of an inductive argument is: 

Premise 1: Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
Premise 2: George is a person
Conclusion: Therefore, George is almost certainly taller than 26 inches

Whilst an inductive argument based on strong evidence can be cogent, there is some dispute amongst philosophers as to the reliability of induction as a scientific method. For example, by the problem of induction, no number of confirming observations can verify a universal generalization, such as ‘All swans are white’, yet it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single black swan.

Abductive arguments

Abduction may be described as an “inference to the best explanation”, and whilst not as reliable as deduction or induction, it can still be a useful form of reasoning. For example, a typical abductive reasoning process used by doctors in diagnosis might be: “this set of symptoms could be caused by illnesses X, Y or Z. If I ask some more questions or conduct some tests I can rule out X and Y, so it must be Z.

Incidentally, the doctor is the one who is doing the abduction here, not the patient. By accepting the doctor’s diagnosis, the patient is using inductive reasoning that the doctor has a sufficiently high probability of being right that it is rational to accept the diagnosis. This is actually an acceptable form of the Argument from Authority (only the deductive form is fallacious).

References:

Hodges, W. (1977) Logic – an introduction to elementary logic (2nd ed. 2001) Penguin, London.
Lemmon, E.J. (1987) Beginning Logic. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.

Make a Donation Button

17 Comments

Filed under Essays and talks