(1) “Obviously Dick Cheney is a quacking Nazi – John Stewart says so.”
(2) “The Bible says the world was created in six days, and that’s that.”
(3) “Of course we should lecture; lecturing is a time-honoured part of a university education!”
What’s gone wrong here?
In order to understand what’s wrong with these statements, we need to discuss some basic logical concepts.
Let’s look at it this way: the whole class of logical fallacies is composed of clans and families, little groups of fallacies that share enough traits in common that you can categorize them together without much trouble. Today’s honoree, the Genetic Fallacy (capitalized for my convenience), is part of the large clan of “fallacies of relevance” and closely related to the Ad Hominem fallacy, named after the always popular Argumentum Ad Hominem, or “argument against the person,” which we’ll consider in a later post. Knowing which clan and family a fallacy belongs to might help you understand it. That’s my assumption, anyway, and my sycophants tell me I’ve never been wrong before.
To understand a fallacy of relevance you need to understand an argument. We’re not talking about the free-for-all “I throw chairs at you while calling you an evil slut” sorts of arguments, nor the sorts of arguments you see on Bill O’Reilly or Springer. Those, in the philosophical sense of the word, aren’t arguments. They’re fights, quarrels -- sometimes verbal, sometimes physical, sometimes both. The biggest difference between a fight and an argument is that fights aren’t intended to discover truth. The point of a philosophical argument is to discover truth through mutual rational exchange. The point of a fight may be to vent emotions, it may be to humiliate or control or manipulate, it might be to shut the other person up and thus “win”. When Bill O’Reilly repeatedly screams at someone to “Shut up!” he isn’t engaging in the rational pursuit of truth. He’s just being a bully. Both arguing and fighting can be fun, though, so they have at least that in common.
But what’s an “argument,” the noun, the thing? An argument is a collection of statements, one of which (called “the conclusion”) is supposed to be proven by the others (called “premises”). Basically, the premises are the statements that are supposed to support, rationally, the truth of the conclusion by the conscientious use of evidence and logic. Evidence provides the empirical or conceptual reasons to believe the conclusion. Logic, which deals with the relationships between ideas, ties those reasons together.
Before you run away screaming, let’s try to clarify things with some examples. Say you were trying to prove that your cat, Mister Whiskers, smashed an expensive vase to pieces. So your conclusion is going to be: “Therefore, Mister Whiskers broke the vase”.
Now how do you prove it? Say you had some evidence: Mister Whiskers was seen batting the vase off its shelf. Seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t it? So you bring in your witness’ statement for evidence and create a premise: “Mister Whiskers batted the vase off the shelf”. The witness’ statement provides the evidence that justifies this premise. That evidence can be questioned, of course. Maybe your witness is an inveterate liar who’s always hated Mr. Whiskers and has been plotting for months to have him put down. Maybe he’s prone to delusion. Maybe he can’t tell the difference between cats and wombats. Okay. But for now let’s assume he’s reliable.
Now, what connects the premise to the conclusion? We already have a premise that provides evidence. Now we need a logical premise to link the evidence and the conclusion together, something really simple: “If Mister Whiskers batted the vase off the shelf, and the shelf smashed into pieces when it hit the floor, then Mister Whiskers broke the vase”.
Now you assemble these statements into your argument:
P1 - If Mister Whiskers batted the vase off the shelf, and the vase smashed into pieces when it hit the floor, then Mister Whiskers broke the vase.
P2 - Mister Whiskers batted the vase off the shelf.
P3 – The vase smashed into pieces when it hit the floor.
C – Therefore, Mister Whiskers broke the vase.
Game, set, match. If we really want to be pedantic we can nitpick the argument (since the vase only broke when it hit the floor, maybe we should say the floor broke the vase, and we’re assuming that smashing into pieces and breaking are equivalent . . .), but there’d be no point. It’s served its purpose.
Now all of this may seem extremely simple to you -- what could be simpler than the clear-cut case of Mr. Whiskers and the blameless vase? If it seems simple to you: Good. It ought to. Keep that in mind as we progress because critical thinking involves breaking things down into their simplest components. Most apparently complex arguments are really very simple -- all you need to do is break them down into their pieces – that’s what philosophical analysis is all about. It can be fun. But, well, it can also be not-so-fun. That’s life.
One more thing I want to mention: The Mr. Whiskers argument is deductively “valid” – in other words, it’s impossible for the conclusion to be false if the premises are true. Philosophers put this point in several different ways (just choose your favourite): the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion, the premises entail the conclusion, the conclusion is a necessary consequence of the premises. Blah blah blah. The point is: if those premises are true, there’s no way the conclusion can be false.
That doesn’t mean the conclusion’s actually true. A valid argument can have a false conclusion. What matters for validity is that IF the premises are true, so is the conclusion. A valid deductive argument that actually does have true premises is called “sound” -- and that’s the ideal for this sort of argument. That’s what you want your arguments to be.
What does any of this have to do with fallacies of relevance? Note that each of the premises in the Mister Whiskers argument was actually pertinent to the conclusion – the truth of those premises actually affected the truth of the conclusion. If either of those premises were false, the conclusion would be in trouble. That means they’re relevant. That’s what “relevant” means in logic. You can tell that a premise is irrelevant if it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false – if its truth or falsity doesn’t actually affect the truth or falsity of the conclusion. An argument with an irrelevant premise can’t be valid, which means it can’t be sound either. Which means that if it’s truth you’re after, the argument isn’t worth your time. Any argument that contains irrelevant premises is worthless and untrustworthy.
Fallacies of relevance occur when something that’s actually logically irrelevant to the truth of the conclusion is smuggled in, deliberately or accidentally, which misleads people into assuming that the argument has some rational merit when it really has none. Irrelevant premises can have psychological appeal despite their irrationality, and the more cynical people among us exploit these psychological weaknesses when they want us to believe something. As a deliberate tactic, fallacies of relevance are used to distract attention away from the weaknesses of an argument, or the strength of an opposing argument, by manipulating our preferences, biases, and prejudices.
The Genetic Fallacy – our fallacy of the day – is the assumption or assertion that something is true or false because of its origin. Let’s look at those examples from the intro once more:
(1) “Obviously Dick Cheney is a quacking Nazi – John Stewart says so.”
(2) “The Bible says the world was created in seven days, and that’s that.”
(3) “Of course we should lecture; lecturing is a time-honoured part of a university education!”
Each of these statements actually contains an implicit argument, it’s just that some of the premises are assumed, or suppressed (not in an evil way), probably because the speaker finds them too obvious to state. But nothing’s too obvious to state in logic! We need to make everything explicit if we’re to understand what’s going on.
The first argument, which we’ll call “The Quacking Cheney Argument” can be set out thusly:
P1 – If John Stewart says something, it’s true.
P2 – John Stewart says Dick Cheney is a quacking Nazi (I actually saw him on TV years ago, quacking as he imitated Cheney’s voice. It was hilarious!).
C – Therefore, Dick Cheney is a quacking Nazi.
The second argument, which we’ll call the “Six Days of Creation Argument” can be set out in a similar format:
P1 – If the Bible says something, then it’s true.
P2 – The Bible says the world was created in six days.
C – Therefore, the world was created in six days.
The third argument, let’s call it the “Unreflective Traditionalist Argument”, might look like this:
P1 – Anything that’s been done in universities for a long time is worth doing.
P2 – Lecturing has been practiced in universities for a long time.
C – Therefore, lecturing is worth doing.
Each of these implicit argument has some psychological appeal if you’re in the right camp. A creationist may find the Six Days of Creation Argument convincing because she’s inclined to believe that statements are true if they’re found in the Bible – that is, she’s inclined to be convinced by the Genetic Fallacy. And if someone believes that John Stewart’s political beliefs are infallible, he might be inclined to accept the first statement. Again, though, what this means is that the Genetic Fallacy can be used to manipulate people.
But whether you’re inclined to accept them or not, it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t make the statements true. Let’s make the point as clear and explicit as we can:
*** The source of a statement is no guarantee of its truth or falsity, and the source of a practice is no guarantee of its worth ***
No matter how much an idiot you believe Ann Coulter is, the fact that she says something doesn’t make it false. And no matter how astute you believe Ann Coulter is, the fact that she says something doesn’t make it true. Whether you think John Stewart is hilarious or politically astute does not mean that everything he says is true. And whatever you might think about the Bible, what it says is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false. The fact that we find obviously contradictory creation stories within the first two chapters of Genesis puts the question of the Bible’s infallibility to rest. And many horrible, ineffective, and silly practices have had long lives in one sphere or another – education is no exception. There mere fact that lecturing has been around for centuries does not suffice to make it acceptable. Slavery has been practiced much longer. Does that make slavery a practice worth continuing?
Recall our earlier discussion regarding relevance. The problem with each of these arguments – the problem with the Genetic Fallacy in general – is that the premises fail in two respects. They fail in providing evidence, and they fail in logically connecting the supposed evidence to the conclusion. Neither John Stewart nor the Bible, nor anything else in the world, for example, has ever proven itself infallible. Nothing. So we’re never justified in assuming that something is true or false just because of its source. The purported evidence, in other words, doesn’t lead necessarily to the conclusion.
Let’s not forget, though, that sources do matter. We are justified in trusting some sources more than others. The source of a claim can, and should, affect our confidence in it. For instance, when a psychopath tells us something, we’re justified in treating it suspiciously because psychopaths are notorious liars. And in domains that involve specialized knowledge, we’re justified in trusting people who have that knowledge over people who don’t. For instance, you might have seen the 9/11 conspiracy film “Loose Change,” in which the filmmakers trot out all sorts of sensationalistic arguments intended to “prove” that, for instance, the World Trade Centre did not collapse due to the impact of the jets that hit them, and the subsequent fire. These filmmakers actually commit a reverse Genetic Fallacy: they ignore what structural engineers have to say about the structural integrity of steel at high temperatures under tremendous pressure, but pay avid attention to what people who have no knowledge of structural engineering have to say on the topic.
To reiterate, though, although we’re justified in trusting what a structural engineer says about structural engineering – and even more justified in trusting the consensus of hundreds of structural engineers – their expertise doesn’t necessarily make them right. At best it means that their statements about structural engineering are likely correct, probably correct. If we assumed they were right just because they were structural engineers, we’d still be committing the Genetic Fallacy. We need more than their status – we need evidence and logic. They need to explain their judgments, provide their own arguments.
Similarly, although we’re justified in treating claims made in “Weekly World News” and “Marxists Unite!” with suspicion, the fact that publications of this sort are usually wrong or just plain dishonest does not necessarily make them wrong about everything. Sometimes they get things right. Although Bat Boy probably isn’t really terrorizing rural Arkansas, when the Weekly World News carries a story about a nine-hundred pound woman who hasn’t left her bed in three years, there may be some truth to it. We need to investigate, check it out, before we draw any firm conclusions.
What about that third argument? Aren’t we justified in granting a degree of trust to university instructors who say that lecturing at students is an appropriate way to teach? Not on the basis of their status as university teachers, no, because most university teachers know next to nothing about teaching. Post-secondary education is amateur hour. To defend lecturing, they’d have to provide evidence that lecturing is, say, effective in helping students learn, and connect that information together logically. Mere tradition will not suffice.
Any idiot can be right sometimes, and even the smartest, most knowledgeable people in the world can be wrong. To reiterate, no source in human history has turned out to be infallible, no matter what your local activist or cleric wants you to believe.
Sometimes good ideas come from complete crackpots. Freud is now widely reviled in psychology, psychiatry and philosophy for many reasons: he falsified data, plagiarized ideas, passed tall tales off as case studies, presented unfalsifiable pseudoscience off as science, and was just simply incorrect about a great many things. There are many reasons to deride little old Freud. But he wasn’t all bad. Some of his ideas about the subconscious, for instance, have stood the test of time. In fact, though he didn’t invent the notion of a subconscious, he’s the one responsible for getting other researchers to take it seriously. So it makes no sense to dismiss an idea just because Freud came up with, or endorsed, it.
And sometimes really bright people can be led into bullshit beliefs. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and a pretty intelligent guy, was absolutely simple-minded when it came to spiritualism -- much to the chagrin of friends like Harry Houdini. Mediums, spirit communication, fortune-telling, Doyle was suckered in by all of it, probably because he desperately wanted to believe he could contact his dear, dead mother. Despite Doyle’s high intelligence and vast knowledge, you’d be misled if you accepted his claims about spiritualism.
For the most part I’ve been talking about the epistemological version of the Genetic Fallacy -- which means it’s the version that deals with truth and knowledge. There are other versions, too:
Moral: “How could you possibly think it was okay to parade around naked? That’s the sort of thing savages do.”
Aesthetic: “Obviously this is a world-class painting -- it’s by Picasso.”
Religious: “You can’t believe that everything material is evil – the Gnostics believed that crap.”
Political: “This proposal will solve all of our problems, as it was drafted by a Democratic subcommittee.”
I don’t think you’ll have any trouble coming up with examples of this fallacy in action –it’s everywhere, in all walks of life, in all debates. For example, when I was a creationist I used to dismiss anything that scientists said about the age of the Earth or the evolution of life because they were scientists, and scientists (I was told) were atheists. If an atheist says something, it’s probably wrong – if not a deliberate and malicious attempt to damn your soul to the pits of Hell. That’s the Genetic Fallacy – even if it were true that all scientists were atheists, that wouldn’t make their statements wrong.
The point isn’t that sources don’t matter – it’s that sources don’t settle the issue. At best, well-qualified sources give us reasons to tentatively accept or reject a claim when we don’t have time to investigate the matter. The responsibility to investigate at some point remains with us, nevertheless.