Collective work, debates, philosophical thinking and the progress of social sciences and humanities, are commonly disturbed by logical errors called “sophisms” or “logical fallacies”.
Here is a non-exhaustive list:
– Attack the person rather than the ideas.
– Distort the other’s words to attack him or her.
– Confound correlation and causation: it is not because two phenomena occur at the same time that one is the cause of the other.
– Present two possible alternatives, “all black” or “all white” when there may be others, for example consider that one is either “pro-migrant” or racist.
– Believe that an idea is right because a majority of people share it.
– Believe that a good idea is an idea “between two extremes” or “average”, in other words, looking for a compromise rather than the truth.
For example: in Morocco, there are women who go hair free, others wear a veil that covers the hair, others cover their faces. Thus, the “middle ground” for most Moroccans is the veil that covers the hair. Yet in other cultures, the border of decency is different. What we should really be wondering is why a woman should be embarrassed to expose her hair, and why it only concerns women. Are they well protected against sexual harassment? Are they hold responsible for the behavior of men? Do the media encourages the vision of the woman’s body as being sexual?
Another example is the idea that a “reasonable” opinion about differences sometimes observed between men and women in math performance, is to defend an “in-between” position between nature and culture. Thus, in an interview with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), social psychologist Joshua Aronson, who has experimentally demonstrated the effect of the stereotype threat on performance, can not help but specify, without any experimental evidence, that “biological factors may play a role in some math domains”. Knowing the deeply damaging effects of prejudices on women’s motivation and performance (see the article “Role Models“), experts could, at least, express their honest ignorance about the respective part of culture and nature in cognitive differences between genders, instead of prejudging the fact that there “should” be some natural difference.
– Invoke “God”, “nature”, “genetic determination” or any ideology, to prevent criticism. For example: to say that women are not good at mathematics, because it’s in their genes, or that women have to hide because God said it, and who are we to criticize God?
– Believe that an idea is true because it is emitted by experts. Nobody is infallible, so being an expert does not free from having to argue and prove an idea.
– Believe that an idea is true because one can not prove its opposite. For example, God exists because we can not prove that He does not exist.
– Make a single example a generality.
– Assume that the preferred alternative is true when an idea is ambiguous.
– Appeal to emotions, for example using sentimental blackmail or raising the threat of a catastrophe.
– Respond to criticism by another critic, instead of disassembling the criticism itself.
– Believe that an idea is wrong because it uses fallacious arguments. Although the logical fallacies presented here can lead to errors, this does not mean that all the ideas expressed in this way are false. This means that they must be demonstrated with more methodological rigor.
To extend this list to all the phenomena that can alter the efficiency of a debate, we can mention:
– Speaking louder than the interlocutor, and thus give the audience the feeling of being “the strongest”. This does not mean that the idea is more relevant.
– Interruptions: the interlocutor thinks he/she knows the end of the speech of the other or does not worry about his/her ideas, and therefore cuts it. In addition to showing aggression, arrogance and disrupting the focus of the speaker, an interruption may make the meaning of the speech quite different from what it should have.
I was very embarrassed one day when, in a feminist society, I wanted to say, “Women are hurt by ideological pressures to prevent them from aborting, but what about men? Don’t they have a responsibility in those dramas?”, and that one of the feminists cut me off after “but what about the men?”, to say that indeed, it was not fair for her son, whose girlfriends could have an abortion against his will. The other women were so eager to express their revolt that I did not have the opportunity to complete my remark.
These phenomena also handicap the functioning of a democracy, since the latter is based on debates of ideas. Parliamentary debates and other mediated exchanges should ideally be framed to avoid them, for example, by training participants, correct them during debates, cutting the sound of others’ microphones when someone speaks, etc.