What we call an “irrelevant conclusion” is an argument that gives the impression of having something to do with an idea it aims to support, but which actually shifts attention to something else.
This fallacy can be produced unintentionally, due to carelessness or the inability to keep up with the logic of the argument, but it can also be a sophism hiding manipulative intent: avoiding a situation which might incriminate the one making the argument, hiding an issue, influencing the audience by appealing to their emotions, or trivialising a crisis.
For a less knowledgeable person, or for someone who does not give themselves the necessary time to reflect on the words others say, the irrelevant conclusion may pass as relevant or even convincing, and lead to bad decisions. There are areas where the wrong decisions can have many negative consequences, both individually and collectively. That’s why it’s worth training our critical thinking. Regardless of our age, social status or education level, we should not let ourselves be fooled by the rhetoric of certain public persons, government officials, and individuals with authority who are not led by good intentions. Here is how we can identify the irrelevant conclusion.
Determining the actual content of the argument
This involves ignoring the rhetorical “wrapping” of the argument, which may appeal to certain emotions, feelings, and values—even using jokes—and thinking about whether what is being said has any real connection with the debated thesis. For instance, when someone declares that he knows the chemical formula for water, and that he knows this because he once gave private chemistry lessons, the argument being used is irrelevant.
The person in question should persuade us to believe him by correctly stating the chemical formula for water, since nobody can check the contents of another person’s mind.
The statement “I gave private chemistry lessons” is irrelevant, because this activity is not a guarantee that the tutor actually knows the chemical formula for water. This move shifts attention away from the matter which requires clarification, and ascribes a high value to the one uttering it, under the pretense that it is a valid argument. It places the person using it in an illusory position of epistemic authority—that of a chemistry expert. The one making the argument relies on the respect reserved for someone who gives private lessons in a subject with which pupils often struggle. Thus, this person may fool a lot of less knowledgeable people (the ones not paying attention to the irrelevance of the argument) because they choose to believe someone who speaks from the point of view of a chemistry tutor.
Not letting ourselves be led by our affections, impulses, or prejudices
To reason means to succeed in using your reason when you have to make a choice, without paying attention to uncontrollable, momentary impulses (such as anger, enthusiasm, and panic), or preconceived opinions, or the strength of irrational emotional reactions (envy, hatred, or the desire for revenge).
In the same way we must also evaluate the way in which someone makes an argument: is he offering something relevant to the idea he supports? Or is he allowing himself be carried away by emotions or impulses, and trusts that we will empathise with him? Does he think he will humour us with a joke, and trick our logical vigilance? Or maybe he knows of the prejudices shared by the people he is talking to, and so presents one of these as an argument.
A case that went down in history as an example of decisions lacking reason and reasoning is the 15th century trial1 of Jan Hus—a famous Christian martyr of Czech descent. This is how some of the noblemen and clerics called to court argued that Jan Hus was guilty of heresy, and how they voted, based on these irrelevant arguments. They wanted him to be sentenced to death by burning at the stake:
The bishop of Brixen: “What’s it to a goose if it’s plucked and roasted? We started plucking it, let’s roast it today too!”
The bishop of Basle: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Let Hus be burned!”
The bishop of Hildesheim: “There is no one who is irreplaceable, that’s why no man is an irreparable loss for the world…”
It’s obvious that these arguments are irrelevant to Jan Hus’s trial, and that they spring forth out of the minds of irrational people filled with prejudice and negative emotions. They appeal either to sarcasm (“hus” means “goose” in the Czech language), or to the irrelevant law of retaliation from the Old Testament, or to a questionable prejudice on the value of human life. By these, they are aiming to trivialise the matter—that is, the life-and-death decision regarding one of their fellow men, in a trial in which they should have reasoned and judged justly.
In a nutshell
The fallacy of the irrelevant conclusion refers to the use of an inappropriate argument to support a thesis, resulting in a shift of attention to a subject that is not being discussed. One form of this sophism is referred to as “the red herring”, as it is meant to distract attention from a particular issue to something more convenient for the one using it, the same way a red herring (a non-existent species) would capture our attention when compared to the regular, silver ones.
“Perhaps X has stolen, but he is not really a thief, because, over time, he gave a lot of money to the poor”. This is a clear example in which the interlocutor shifts the focus from the felony to the philanthropic gestures of the one committing it. Irrelevant arguments can also be picked up in our clichés: “I know better—I wasn’t born yesterday,” or the all-conquering, “Because I say so!”
This might seem like an obvious fallacy, but it can be hard to identify it in the context of high-stakes debates which contain many rhetorical tricks, or when the deciding public is uneducated or easily manipulated. This is why we must focus our attention on the logical connection between the argument, and the actual thesis being defended or argued for.
Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.