In practice, people often accuse each other of making logical errors, but sometimes the accusation is false. Such an accusation is made by someone who does not understand what logical fallacies are and how they work, or by a manipulative person who takes advantage of the ignorance of those in the first category.

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People who are tempted to consider themselves superior to other participants in a conversation may fall into this trap more easily because they no longer listen carefully and do not give enough credit to their conversation partners. Also, those who tend to be skeptical from the start in any discussion are prone to commit this logical error.

The error of false accusation also occurs when someone, dissatisfied with their illogic being exposed, accuses those who exposed them of an ad hominem argument. The accusation is false because a personal attack presupposes that it is the person, not their arguments, that is criticised. Yet, in the described case, it is not the person, but the erroneous arguments which are rebuked.

If you believe that the person’s argument is sophistical, you must not only identify the sophism, but also argue why you believe that an error of argumentation was committed in that situation. In most cases (except where, objectively, there is no time for argument), the lack of arguments is the first indication that we are dealing with a false accusation of logical error.

The details change the picture

A common situation is that of the Christian accused of wishful thinking because he chooses to believe in God.

However, this accusation is false because the non-existence of God has never been proven and cannot be proved mathematically, and therefore the Christian does not necessarily manifest wishful thinking when he believes – he can have very good and logically valid reasons to believe.

As we have already pointed out, the false accusation of using a sophistry arises when one has an insufficient understanding of the logical structure of the sophisms. This can happen even with the sophistry of false accusation. For example, person X does not know how to argue well enough why he believes in a certain religious doctrine (‘Jesus is not only human but also God’) and appeals to the faith of the majority (‘All Christians believe this, so it is true’). When person Y points out that his argument is deficient, X categorises this assessment as a false accusation of erroneous thinking, because he is sure of the correctness of his religious belief and does not understand how anyone can question it. X confuses Y’s questioning of the argument with questioning of the doctrine. In this case, X makes precisely the mistake that he wrongly attributes to Y. It seems to him that he is being wrongfully accused, while he himself wrongly accuses: while Y pointed out that the argument by appeal to majority is not enough to defend the desired conclusion, he did not necessarily attack the religious belief in question, nor suppress other evidence in its favour.

But if we use a nuanced version of this example, the situation changes a little. Let’s imagine that the person who wants to argue his faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ quotes the apostles or uses the New Testament as a testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. In this case, if the interlocutor accuses him of committing the logical error of appealing to authority, this is indeed a false accusation of using sophistry, because the apostles are truly an authority to be reckoned with on this subject, since they were eyewitnesses of the presence of a risen Jesus. Even if someone else doubted the truth of the apostles’ testimony, the believer who defends his faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ on the basis of the apostles’ testimony does not make any logical error in his argument.

The hunt for sophistry

To avoid making false accusations against someone else’s argument, it is important to remember that sophisms are often identified correctly only in terms of circumstances and context. Thus, (1) not every appeal to the majority is erroneous (for example, a doctor telling the patient that the treatment works on most patients); (2) the error of wishful thinking is not committed every time someone makes a decision based on a belief (beliefs can be based on solid reasons); (3) as we have already shown, there are situations in which the appeal to authority is valid; (4) although correlation does not mean causation, there are cases in which the correlation comes precisely from causality; (5) although some analogies are false, some analogies are perfectly valid (if the similarities are more relevant than the differences); (6) not all dilemmas are false—sometimes we actually have to choose between two options; (7) there are actions likely to cause predictable consequences and, as such, their identification does not contain the slippery slope error (for example, we can predict very accurately what will happen to a person who runs out of air); (8) when someone reveals what lies behind an argument, they do not always make the straw man’s mistake (they may have enough information to validate their analysis, even if they do not have the time or context to argue the position); (9) when someone turns his attention to the character of a person, beyond his arguments, he does not always make the mistake of attacking the person (for example, if a notorious thief argues that he did not steal, it is reasonable to doubt his words); (10) people often mistakenly believe that the expected conclusion did not flow from the premise because they did not understand the argument; (11) a hasty generalisation does not always lack the necessary arguments to be valid; (12) sometimes, in the case of two successive events, the first event caused the second, and so on.

Therefore, in order to avoid the error of false accusation, we must first take the time to understand at least the most common errors of an argument. Then we need to pay close attention to the relevant details and make sure  that we have gathered enough reasonable arguments before accusing a person of using argumentative errors.

At the same time, if the accusation is directed against us, it is necessary to ask for the supporting evidence for the accusation. Sometimes an accusation is generated by a misunderstanding. In cases where there is malicious intent, we need to focus on dismantling the arguments that support the false accusation, but when the falsity of the accusation is obvious to the rest of the participants, it would be a mistake to enter into controversy.

In short

People prone to involuntary logical errors are also prone to the error of falsely accusing their fellow interlocutor of not arguing correctly or logically. However, the error of the false accusation of sophistical thinking can also be used for the purpose of manipulation as efficiently as the most common of the sophisms.

In order not to make this mistake, we must distinguish between evidence of erroneous reasoning, and situations that only seem to indicate the use of sophistry. For example, there are valid reasons that can cause someone to change their previously stated position—perhaps the person changed his opinion or position during the discussion because he has accumulated reasonable arguments in this regard. Such a man cannot be subsequently accused, for this reason, of inconsistency.

At the same time, before accusing someone of using argumentative errors, it is necessary to make sure that we understand the message conveyed, including whether figurative language was used. Metaphor, hyperbole, irony, etc., when misunderstood, can be wrongly considered elements of sophistical argumentation.

When someone accuses us of using false accusations, it is necessary to ask them to explain and argue their position. Then we can unequivocally reaffirm our position, supporting it with solid arguments.

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Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.