By Dr. Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan's book "The Demon Haunted World"
ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
argument from authority - e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out.
argument from adverse consequences
(e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t,
society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable.
Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty;
otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
appeal to ignorance — the
claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa
(e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth;
therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe.
Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have
the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.)
This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of
evidence is not evidence of absence.
special pleading, often to
rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God
condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced
one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine
of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy
Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery
of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness
and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead:
You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
begging the question, also
called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to
discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the
death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a
technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any
independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have
we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
observational selection, also
called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher
Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A
state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial
statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
inconsistency (e.g., Prudently
plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but
thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re
Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism.
Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
non sequitur — Latin for “It
doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly
every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”).
Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to
recognize alternative possibilities;
post hoc, ergo propter hoc —
Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin,
Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes
[contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear
meaningless question (e.g.,
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there
is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and
excluded middle, or false
dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate
possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always
wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not
part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
short-term vs. long-term — a
subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special
attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and
educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets.
Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant.
Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
confusion of correlation and
causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual
than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or:
Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus;
therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more
massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
straw man — caricaturing a
position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living
things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the
central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and
discarding what doesn’t.
Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
suppressed evidence, or
half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the
assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an
important detail — was it recorded before or after the event?
Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,”
American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just
Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language
for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to
find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the
Dr. Sagan ends the chapter with a necessary disclaimer:
Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.