Let’s talk logical fallacies. Rather than discussing these from a theoretical standpoint, I selected a Guardian Science Weekly entry- the podcast discussing comparisons between different countries on Covid-19. In it, mathematician Kit Yates talks about how helpful it is to compare the numbers reported by countries. He concludes that right now it is very difficult to compare the countries because they each have their different ways of measuring, and perhaps we’ll be able to make some useful comparisons after the event will have passed and all nations will have reported their numbers in a consistent manner.
At the moment of writing this post, there were 317 comments posted and I sifted through all of them. I found 22 logical fallacies which I grouped below under their respective categories.
This is a fallacy of emotional argument. The speaker will present their opinions by scaring people with a tendency to exaggerate the potential threats well beyond their statistical likelihood.
In this comment Bluedylan uses language that has the intention to scare such as: “disastrous and deeply negligent”, “deaths of innumerable people”. While I don’t deny that the impact of Covid-19 in the UK has been tremendous, we do not know right now if the measures taken are that disastrous as Bluedylan proposes.
In this comment Antoniopirlo suggests that at the end of the pandemic any inquiry that might be carried out in England will not be fair and it will be controlled “by those who have most to fear from a full investigation” and that the governing “class” will ensure they will not face justice. UK is a democracy and Antoniopirlo brings no evidence to suggest that public enquiries are controlled in such an autocratic fashion in this country. His comment seems to use exaggeration to support his scary prediction.
Here KatieL responds to another comment by also employing exaggerating language meant to scare: “media which needs to screech doom and allocate blame prematurely “, “Half the population is yelling that there must be zero risk of catching this because they now think it’s 100% fatal and the other half has barely noticed and is doing whatever they want as normal.”, “we’ve destroyed our society”.
Faulty analogy is a fallacy of logical argument, employing false comparisons.
Psdtue47 compares the Olympics and other competitive events with the global pandemic. This is an obvious faulty analogy: there is great difficulty in putting these overt sporting events with clear objective to win next to a global pandemic.
And here is another faulty analogy example:
The commenter compares NHS, flooding and a global pandemic. Hardly the same categories.
Stacking the Deck
This is a fallacy of ethical argument whereby only one side of the story is shown, the one in the speaker’s favour.
For example, in his comment below, dylanthermos lists several factors which are meant to support the idea that UK is at the top of the death scale in Europe. However, comparing total deaths is just one way of looking at the numbers. If we compare the countries as percentage (deaths by total population), then UK is not the worst, fact which is conveniently omitted from this argument.
Here is another example of the same fallacy within the analysed comments:
Here mrsiegal misses to point out that perhaps precisely the “unjustified” unprecedented action has reduced the death toll significantly. The comment is also missing important details like the fact that excess deaths already show a significant larger number of deaths compared to other years. Furthermore, actions taken such as working from home and online deliveries have this time made it possible to reduce the number of deaths, by comparison with other pandemics in history when the technology was not there to support such mitigating measures.
Another example for stacking the deck which doesn’t include any note about the excess deaths or possible correlation between the lock-down and decreased number of deaths:
Let’s take a look at another example marked by the same fallacy. In addition, this one also includes hasty generalization.
Hasty generalization is a fallacy of logical argument where the conclusions are following insufficient evidence. This is usually basis for most stereotypes about people or institutions. In the case below, this stereotype seems apparent: that countries with right wing governments top all the death and cases charts.
Stacking the deck is also done here by excluding other right wing governments that have very few deaths, such as Austria, Poland or Hungary, or left wing governments which have many deaths, such as Sweden.
Here is another example of hasty generalization. While using the word “many”, the commenter does not include any example:
Red herring is an argument of logical fallacy whereby the author changes the subject abruptly, to throw readers off the trail.
In this example below, TonyFlair bring to the discussion a speculation about the Guardian’s agenda. Since the conversation was about how the different countries compare and whether their numbers should indeed be compared, TonyFlair’s comments seems to be a red herring, diverting the conversation to what agenda the Guardian might have…
Lindseyupnorth’s comment also looks like a red herring, stating that the UK is the worst because of its poor. In fact a few other commenters, such as Hattheory counter this statement with some evidence:
“As far as I can see from this, we are not literally the worst on any measure.”
Eastonhall33 challenges the comment as well:
How many CV-19 deaths are on “poor and rough council estates” compared to £500 per week care homes?
Another red herring example, combined with dogmatism is shown below.
Dogmatism is the assertion that a particular position is the only one that is conceivably acceptable.
For example, Objectivite states below that the only comparison which can be made (dogmatism) is that where the UK is the only country in the world where the entire top level layer caught Covid-19 (“End of comparison”). The comment could also be included in the red herring fallacy, since the debate was not necessarily about this topic.
Other dogmatism examples are shown below.
Snaidhpear2020’s case is pretty obvious: “two words”, “everything else is just noise”:
Mazza1 suggests that their view is the only one that matters:
Below is another example of dogmatism. Furthermore, this following comment is also overly sentimental, another logical fallacy.
Overly Sentimental Appeals
The overly sentimental appeals are fallacies of emotional argument where tender emotions are used excessively in order to distract readers from facts. In Everything’s an Argument, Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz state that “often such appeals are highly personal and individual and force attention on heart-warming or heart wrenching situations that make readers fell guilty to challenge an idea, a policy or a proposal”. Such is the argument below which proposes that death comparisons “only tell you how well the different countries have protected their elderly population from infection” (dogmatism and overly sentimental appeal). We know that the numbers reported by different countries show much more than that. Stevemarson insists by saying that this “shows how countries value and care for their elderly”, making this comment an overly sentimental one.
Similarly, PicardUK uses an oversentimental appeal: “the elderly and infirm have took the brunt of this”, “those who fought WWII” etc.
Non-sequitur fallacies appear when there is no logical connection between the claim, reasons or warrants of an argument.
For example, a population explosion from 1.2b to 8b today does not mean that the globe is suffering a pandemic:
Slippery slope is a fallacy of emotional argument which exaggerates the likely consequences of an action, meant to frighten readers.
Such seems to be the argument below: “England has become a giant petri dish of covid”.
Ad hominem fallacies are arguments that attack the character of a person, rather than the claim they make.
Take a look at pitlad’s comment below: “proven serial liar”, “self confessed weirdo”. Just by adding “I am not insulting anyone”, it doesn’t mean that they truly don’t.
KatieL’s ad hominem attack below is a bit more subtle to notice: her claim is that those who hate the Tories do not need data, therefore they are probably quite foolish:
The next comment contains ad hominem attacks as well, this time against the tories- “tory idiots”; additionally it also contains another fallacy- hasty generalization.
Going through these comments was very insightful. Some commentators present their opinions in a well-argued manner, bringing evidence and examples to support these. By contrast there are others who seem to be very opinionated, employ rather strong language and resort to logical fallacies, in an attempt to distract from the lack of proof. Made for a good read.