Tag Archives: Genetic Fallacy

Responding to an attack posing as an argument

1 Jun

Illogical Lucy – You have no right to say that abortion is wrong!

Logical Joe – Why is that?

Illogical Lucy – You’re not willing to: 

  • adopt an unwanted child
  • take care of babies outside of the womb
  • bring the pregnant mom into your home

The presupposition of Illogical Lucy is that ‘Only prior action legitimizes one to make a belief statement/value judgment’

Is that true?  If it were, then the following convictions held by certain people would not be allowed into the arena of ideas for discussion:

  • The practice of 19th century American slavery was unethical (YOU 21st century American haven’t freed a slave or refused to buy a slave.)
  • Spouse and child abuse is wrong (Have you offered shelter to assault victims?)
  • Common Core curriculum usage should enforced by the federal government (YOU haven’t earned an advanced degree in education.)
  • Smoking is harmful to your health (You haven’t kicked the habit, so who are you to make such a judgment statement since you still smoke!)

The last rebuke of the anti-smoking belief is actually a known fallacy called Tu Quoque – or ‘you too?’  It goes like this:

If you participate in a bad action, you have no ground to stand on in order to claim that smoking is harmful.

Think about it, the person who can’t stop smoking but recognizes its detrimental side effects, is he or she not in an excellent position to call out and publicize the dangers?  I can imagine a man or a woman pleading with a teenager NOT to start smoking:

  • Young man, don’t start on the path of this foul and addictive habit.  I once was your age. Just like you I wanted to fit in, to look manly.  But boy do I regret it.  I’m a pack-a-day guy now and, you hear this cough?  – it’s not good.  My doctor keeps threatening me that I’ll die young from Emphysema like my Pa and his dad. Besides, my mouth stinks, my wife doesn’t like kissing me, my clothes reek, and I spend about $40 a week on this nasty addiction.

Here’s another tactical version of this ‘squash your opponent so his point of view can’t be voiced’:  Since you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be trans or unemployed or stuck with an unwanted pregnancy or hispanic or unemployed then……

  • Your view doesn’t count.  Your belief has no credibility.  Your opinion is wrong out of the gate.

Is that so?  That bullying tactic is actually a version of the Genetic Fallacy.  This maneuver draws strength from the false idea that the origin of the belief can de-legitimize the position.

Logical Joes and Janes KNOW that a premise, that is a belief, position, claim or view must stand or fall on the merits of the reasons backing it up.  It matters not at all WHO is putting forth the argument.  There are only 3 elements that must ‘pass muster’.

  1. Are the terms in each of the premises clear or ambiguous?
  2. Are the premises true or false?
  3. Does the argument or syllogism follow a valid structural flow?

If an argument contains clear terms within true premises, which lead to a ‘rule-abiding’ conclusion, then we say that the argument is both valid AND true and deserving of being considered SOUND.

And a sound argument, my friends, is golden.

Let us stand our logical ground with courage and courtesy and follow the same principles ourselves!

Q: So where are you being bullied in the marketplace of ideas today?





Logical Gal asks: Why are you a liberal? Why are you a Christian?

8 Jul

“You’re just a Christian because you were brought up in a Christian family!”

What are you going to say to THAT marginalization of your belief?

As always, the logical gal or guy takes a deep breath, then formulates questions that soften the smug accuser.

  • So, let me get this straight, you vote the same political party your parents do/did?
  • And you parent your own children they way you were raised? (or you share a love for the same hobbies as your mom and dad?)

You can see the many possibilities this line of questioning offers!

I can almost certainly hear your interlocutor start to backpedal…..

“Well, no….but that’s not the same thing!”

You can then ask:

  • How so? How is it different?

Or, you could gently probe THEIR spiritual background and ask how THEY were brought up and if THOSE experiences have had any influence on their views today.

Likely their responses will be either:

  1. “Yes, my parents were agnostic and so am I!”

(to which you calmly remark:

  • So you have just followed the path they laid out?)
  1. “No! I think for myself!”

(to which you calmly remark:

  • So only agnostics look at evidence and see the most reasonable conclusion?)

Other possible questions:

  • Based on your premise, then all Muslims are followers of their religion solely due to their family and cultural milieu?
  • Why do recent polls in America show an increasing rise in those claiming NO religious affiliation?  Likely some of these ‘nones’ were brought up in Christian homes!
  • What do you think accounts for the striking growth of Christianity in Communist China? Or in Africa?

Genetic Fallacy

But the best response to a Genetic Fallacy (you only believe X because of the origin or genesis of the belief) is:

  • You know, you could be right that I’m a Christian because I was brought up in a Christian home.
  • But the MORE important question to consider is this: Does God exist or does He not? For if God does NOT exist, then it really doesn’t matter why I believe what I do. And we are wasting each other’s time discussing it!
  • But if God DOES exist, then Who He is and What He says and What He has done and WILL do are relevant to your life and mine, don’t you think?

Now, more than recently, we must be able to ask discerning questions that gently challenge.  Speaking the Truth while showing compassion toward the other person is the mark of a Christ-follower.  With the Holy Spirit both guiding and restraining us we profess what is True to those whom God has made in His image.  The results are up to Him.

Logical Gal – Can anything good come from Nazareth?

7 Jan

Nazareth Nathanael’s question was that of a skeptic.  Enough occasions of his brother Philip enthusiastically promoting this or that had taught him to balk at this guy’s spontaneous ideas. As an informal Jewish scholar, one who studied ‘ The Law’ because it fascinated him, he questioned everything he heard.  And he had heard plenty about Nazareth.  You didn’t have to dig far to gather reasons for looking down on this Galilean hick village of about 600.  Why even the Romans agreed with respectable Jews about the kind of people who made this community their home.


Voilà my imagination-based embellishment of Nathanael’s reaction to his brother Philip’s announcement.  The 3 lined conversation did take place and is recorded in John 1:46.  Philip passes news on to Nathanael that he and others have ‘found’ the Messiah. Nathanael snorts his cynical reply, dismissing the possibility of anything of value coming from Nazareth.  Philip deftly sidesteps the argument by simply inviting his brother to ‘come and see’.  This historical exchange shows how easily we default to rejecting the content of a claim due to its origins.  Such an error in thinking is called the Genetic Fallacy.  The name points to an error in looking to the source of an argument as a way to vet or discredit what someone is advancing.  Nathanael’s quick retort simply shows how naturally we humans fall into this trap.


Last week my husband and I encountered another example of the Genetic Fallacy, a more insidious incidence than this one committed by one of Jesus’ future disciples.  In order to spend Christmas with our kids, we travelled the better part of 4 days down to Florida and back home.   I enjoy the time journeying by car, in part because we catch up on magazine articles when I read parts out loud to my husband. Usually fruitful discussions ensue.  One selection I shared with Mike was the speech given by Dorothy Sayers in 1947 on how to revamp the British educational system that had been crumbling for decades.  The Lost Tools of Learning. Advocating a return to the classical model, her remarks are worth reading at the link above.  In looking on Google for when she delivered her comments, I stumbled upon a critique of “The Lost Tools” that relied exclusively on the Genetic Fallacy.

The American critic appeared bothered that so many of his fellow Christians, both in the homeschooling movement and in private education, had been swept up in a fervor of a ‘back to the roots’ kind of approach. His whole essay was an attempt to discredit Dorothy Sayers’ thinking by attacking her morals and character.

From what I read in his posting, he did not address a critique of mid-20th century contemporary British primary and secondary education or her many suggestions.   He concentrated his rhetoric and content on her behavior as reported in one biography he cited.

That, my friends, is a blatant AND deliberate example of the Genetic Fallacy.  I wanted to hear his beef with her suggestions!  Human beings all make poor moral choices from time to time, but that’s another issue.   But before we indulged TOO much in some put-downs of this joker, we were quickly treated to a more personal example of how easily even we logical thinkers can fall prey to the same kind of trap!


For some reason, our car discussion turned to GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  Turns out that the default reaction of most people is to condemn food that has been genetically modified.  Who wouldn’t prefer to eat food as nature intended it?  As I’ve been taught to think a bit more critically, I googled pros and cons in the GMO debate.  One of the first websites that came up was a slate.com article by a so-called Hippie in defense of adopting a moderate view of GMOs. Link to article is here.  When I read the source of the post I was about to share with Mike, he snorted and did the Nathanael routine. But we both were quick to recognize our own susceptibility to falling prey to the Genetic fallacy.

It’s a new year.  My hope for us all is that in 2015 we who claim to be logical, clear thinkers would exercise the same restraints as we hope others submit to and treat arguments fairly.




Dodging arguments – Appeals to Authority

17 Dec

I was listening to a radio discussion about correct Bible interpretation.  One of the three men dismissed the entire conversation with this comment:

“There’s something wrong about 3 white guys talking about how to understand the Bible!”

3 men

What struck me was the following thought:  What does the identity of the one(s) advancing the argument have to do with the force of the argument? What about examining the reasons for one’s interpretation of the Bible?   This dodge is simply a reverse of a common fallacy, Appeal to Authority.

Appeals to authority work like this: in lieu of reasoning with care, the advancer of a point of view avoids giving any support for his assertion by informing his audience that So-and-So believes it.  The assumption is:

So-and-So is a well-known authority

Whatever he believes must be right

He shares or has endorsed my point of view

Therefore, my assertion is correct

Back to the three gentlemen discussing the Bible.  The one I quoted tried to weaken the entire discussion by dismissing it before it got off the ground.  In essence he was saying:

  • We can’t possibly come up with a sound and full-orbed understanding of God’s Word due to our gender and race.  Our viewpoint as men is one-sided and incomplete, a priori.

That’s absurd!  That’s akin to claiming that women are incapable of researching and writing with any degree of accuracy about war or likewise men have nothing credible to say about rape.  Dismissing one’s ideas due to one’s identity is faulty!

This reverse of the Fallacy of the Appeal to Authority can sometimes be an example of the Genetic Fallacy.

Genetic Fallacy - red fish This red fish announces that since he is red, he is irrelevant.  The implication is that nothing he might advance has merit because of what he is.

I often hear people marginalize a point of view by this derisory comment:

  • You only say that because you’re a _________!

My experience has been that many of us resort to fallacies when we don’t have a watertight argument OR worse, we have NO facts or evidence for what we believe.   Yet, we desperately want to discredit the other guy’s argument.  So the fight instinct kicks in and we clobber our opponent with a sound byte and then fall back on fallacies because we are bereft of reasons.

What’s the solution?

My advice to this logical gal (me!) is

  • don’t articulate an opinion until I have done a bit of research
  • and when asked my views, resist the temptation to respond by instead asking some clarifying questions  IN ORDER to gain some information

Easier said than done!





Logical Gal – possible explanations that don’t hold water

27 Dec

If you have read any of these logic posts you might have picked up two details about me:

  • I like the tool of making  DISTINCTIONS
  • I’m a slow learner who needs LOTS of repetition

I can’t tell you how many times I have read the caveat that “offering a possible explanation of how something came to be” is not the same as offering an argument for a point of view and then backing it up with reasons.

So the other day, I was delighted to find that I had remembered this distinction and was actually able to apply it to a debate ALL BY MYSELF!

I had heard of a debate about reconciling the book of Genesis to the Big Bang Theory.  I only remembered the name Dr. Hugh Ross as the one arguing for this.  So when I googled it, I didn’t find the debate, but my computer did bring up a response by someone writing for ‘Answers In Genesis’

As I scanned the lengthy counter-argument written to critique Hugh Ross’ point of view, I stopped at a paragraph devoted to EXPLAINING why Ross holds his position.  The author offered that the scientist had fallen in love with astronomy as a boy and read voraciously from age 8 until he arrived at the conclusion that if the universe had a beginning (i.e due to the Big Bang) then someone created it.  (In his later teen years Ross studied all the world’s religious holy books and settled on Christianity being the True account, so he accepted Christ as Lord and savior. )

The Answers in Genesis (AIG) writer further stated that Hugh Ross holds to the Big Bang Theory because his world view was shaped by his astronomy readings at an ‘impressionable young age’  before he became a Christian.

It was at this point that I intuited something fishy.  I read on to see if there were any reasons backing up this accusation.  That’s when it hit me: the AIG post writer had just offered a possible and perhaps plausible scenario to say WHY Hugh Ross holds his worldview. But it was mere supposition.  There were no reasons. He had NO evidence.  He had proffered an explanation, but not an argument.  This explanation is also an example of the Genetic Fallacy – supposing someone believes something due to the influence of their origins.  This huge assumption needs to be substantiated with evidence.

When I shared Hugh Ross’ point of view and the criticizer with my husband, Michael mentioned that all we had to do was find a counter-example, that is: a person who is NOT an astrononer nor scientifically-bent who believes Genesis and the Big Bang do NOT contradict. Such a person would just happen to be a thinking Christian. (gee – what a concept! – I hope we are not such a rare breed after all! If you want to know more about why God gave us a rational mind, see below.) 

Link to order the book

What this whole episode did, above anything else, was ENCOURAGE me.  Given enough repetition, these  logical tools for critical thinking DO stick, even to the middle-aged brain of an average logical Jane!  There IS value in reading, studying and thinking through ways to handle discussions about important issues.

Question: where have you been encouraged in your growth as a logical person?

Logical Gal and Bulverism, aka Genetic Fallacy

18 Oct

Welcome to another Fallacy Friday!

Have you ever heard of Ezekiel Bulver?  He’s an imaginary 5-year old, immortalized by CS Lewis in brief hypothetical transformative moment of this young man’s life.

” ….. Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.”At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.” (essay read to the Socratic Club at Oxford in 1941)

What CS Lewis describes in story form is none other than the Genetic Fallacy.  Remember that fallacies are often used IN PLACE OF reason, either to make a case OR to attack an opponent’s claim.

This kind of low blow attempts to discredit the speaker by talking about his or her origins.

To wit:

  • What do you expect from someone over 40?
  • You’re only saying that because you’re a conservative!
  • Of course they would argue that way, look at what they have to gain!

Do you see how these retorts are likely to distract the recipient from the merits of the argument in question?   Tactical parries of this sort often lead someone on a fruitless bunny trail away from the meat of the discussion itself.

So, how can we respond?

Calmly acknowledge the partial truth in what your opponent says and then redirect BACK to the claim and the reasons:

  • I may be over 40, but what about my claim that ‘holding on to a car for more than 3 years makes more sense, financially’ ?
  • Yes, I am a conservative; nonetheless, I still maintain that working a job is better in the long run than accepting a government handout.
  • Just because public school teachers want to keep their jobs and thereby have a vested interest in lobbying, what does that have to do with the merits of their argument?

What interesting examples of ‘Bulverism’ have you encountered?

Welcome to Fallacy Friday – the Genetic Fallacy

19 Jul


We’ve been dipping into some initial areas of formal logic by considering terms and propositions.  On Fridays, I’d like to look at what is called ‘informal’ logic.

By the way, ‘Formal’ logic does NOT refer to thinking in fancy dress or tuxedos, but studying the FORM of an argument.  Informal logic refers to poor, lazy thinking, that is to say faulty or fallacious ways of arguing, hence:  “fallacies.”

People often unwittingly resort to fallacies as shortcuts because they don’t want to take the time (or they sense the impatience of their opponent) to present a sequentially thought-out case for why they believe what they do.  Let’s look at a snippet of a typical conversation taking place at a county fair.

Old-timer: Carolina barbecue is the best in the country!

City-slicker:  You’re just saying that because you grew up in Appalachia!

Our Old-timer (OT) just made an assertion and he should be willing to offer proof.  But the City-clicker (CS) is not being fair to assume that the OT has no reasons to back up his claim.  It could very well be that OT DID grow up in Appalachia AND that Carolina barbecue IS the best per some culinary standard.

The likelier case is that neither wanted to take…. the…. time to investigate the reasons.

But the argument regarding the superiority of Carolina-style Barbecue does hang on reasons.  Where our Old-timer grew up is immaterial or irrelevant to his claim.  We should never dismiss an assertion due to the background of the one making the claim.

When we default to that kind of retort or response to a statement/conclusion, we are using the Genetic Fallacy.  Genetic is reminiscent of our word for origins, or ‘genesis.’

Where the person making the claim comes from should have no part in the argument.   They MIGHT be prejudiced toward something related to their background, but they might just as equally have stacked the deck against the very thing.  We have an adage about that, “Familiarity breeds contempt!”

In summary, clear thinking people who correctly use the tool of logic rely on REASONS to support their case and they ask others to show evidence to support their claims as well.

However, as you know, most public conversation we observe barely rises above the swamp of snarkiness. Look at the kinds of retorts that fly back and forth, whether in the Press, on TV or just in every day conversation:

“You’re just saying that because you’re………..

·         a westerner

·         racist

·         a woman

·         against women

·         over 40

·         a teen

·         against the establishment

·         vegetarian

·         an agnostic

·         a Christian

·         against having fun

·         rich

·         Democrat

·         ….and ad nauseum…….”

 All those circumstances MAY be the case, but we need to look at the naked argument.  A claim and its reasons need to stand on their own.  Period.

So what do you do when someone makes what sounds to you like an outrageous claim?  Challenge them gently by asking them why they think that!

See if you can recognize the Genetic Fallacy during the next few days.  Ask yourself, instead of addressing the claim, what accusation are they making against the person advancing a point of view?   Or catch yourself falling into the same rut of laziness argumentation!