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Who is avoiding the Q?

by Hans Bluedorn

I don’t know whether it is the challenge of guessing the fallacy or the free book I give away, but quizzes seem to be popular on the Logic Loop. So here is another one. First, some information to get you started.

Some of you may have already heard the terms “avoiding the question” and “red herring.” Avoiding the question is quite simple. This is when someone avoids the question he is supposed to answer, but tries to sound like he isn’t. You may have had this sort of thing happen to you.

Smith: “Say, Jones, when are you going to give me back the chainsaw you borrowed the other day?”

Jones: “That was a pretty nice chainsaw you lent me, which reminds me of the time my grandpa cut down a tree with his chainsaw and the biggest racoon. . .”

Jones is obviously avoiding the question. Smith probably won’t lend him any more tools. But sometimes avoiding the question can be more subtle.

Politician: “I think a woman has the right to choose an abortion.”

Reporter: “What about the unborn baby. Do you believe that they have any rights?”

Politician: “I know many anti-abortion people like to bring up that issue, but I believe any pregnant woman, if fully informed about her options, is capable of making the right choice about getting an abortion.”

Did you notice how this politician only SOUNDED like he was answering the question? When he says “but I believe. . .,” you expect him to say whether and why he believes the baby has no rights. But instead he talks some more about the mother’s rights. He has avoided the question by introducing a “red herring.” A red herring is an irrelevant point inserted into an argument. He thinks his red herring supports his side, but it doesn’t – it only looks like it does. This politician is using the red herring of the mother’s rights to avoid the real question of the baby’s rights.

Sometimes people will use a statistic to support their side, when in fact that statistic doesn’t support their side. This is also a red herring fallacy.

Environmentalist: “We need to reduce the CO2 emissions coming out of cars – they are causing global warming. Recent studies have shown that the earth has warmed up almost a full degree in the last few years. I find this alarming. If we don’t do something now about our greenhouse emissions, we will all be floating in the ocean.”

This example says: “SUVs are causing global warming because very scientific studies have shown that the earth is warming up.” Unfortunately for the environmentalists, these studies don’t support their view. Their opinion is that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming, but the studies they use only support the view that global warming is happening, not that burning fossil fuels is causing it. This is a red herring.

Someone who introduces a red herring, may be saying something which is true – like in the above example. What makes it a red herring is that their argument does not support their conclusion, instead it supports some other conclusion.

Son: “My friends are going caving tomorrow. Can I go with them?”

Dad: “No, it’s too dangerous. I once went caving, and I fell into a stream and got all wet. I was miserable the whole time. I don’t think you would enjoy it.”

This dad makes a good case that caving is miserable, but says nothing about how it is dangerous. This is a red herring.

You vegetarians will have to forgive me, but I found a good example of a red herring, this time on vegetarianism. On the “People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals” website were several articles on vegetarianism, including this one titled “Keeping a Healthy Heart.” It says:

“. . .many Americans still believe that animal products are necessary for good health. In fact, America's meat habit is causing a tremendous, and unnecessary, health crisis.”

Elsewhere in the article it gives evidence:

“In many studies, researchers have found that higher levels of cholesterol are linked to greater risk of heart attacks. . .

Fortunately, this process can be reversed . . . Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated this fact in his 1990 study of patients with advanced heart disease. Dr. Ornish put a group of patients on a completely vegetarian diet, which was less than 10 percent fat. They were also asked to begin a moderate exercise program, walking a half hour every day, and were taught relaxation techniques. Patients in this group found that their chest pain disappeared and their cholesterol levels dropped . . .

[Their Conclusion:] A vegan (pure vegetarian) diet is the best for reducing cholesterol levels. . .It's never too late to change your habits and improve your health. For breakfast, forget bacon and eggs and enjoy flavored oatmeal, cereals, bagels, or fresh fruit. For lunch, try salads, vegetable-stock soups, or tofu "burgers" and "hot dogs."

This article is not enough reason for you to switch to tofu burgers. In fact the statistic they use does very little, if anything, to support their argument for becoming a vegetarian. PETA claims that if you would eat a vegetarian diet, you would reduce your cholesterol significantly. However, the study done by Dr. Dean Ornish does not say that. He found that people who ate a low fat vegetarian diet, AND exercised daily, AND practiced relaxation techniques, had a good chance of lowering their cholesterol. The study did not give evidence to indicate that ONLY eating a non-meat diet would reduce your cholesterol, which is what the article claims. This is a red herring.

QUIZ TIME!

So, now you should have some idea of what a red herring is. Now it is quiz time. I will mail a free copy of our book “The Fallacy Detective” to the first person to answer ALL of the quiz questions correctly.

Below I have collected some quotes. Some of the quotes contain examples of red herrings, and some do not. For each quote, ask yourself this question: Does what they say support their conclusion? If it doesn’t, but instead supports something else, write below it “RED HERRING!” as loud as you can, and explain why you think it is a red herring. I’m warning you, some of these are tricky.

QUESTION 1. Son: “Can I go to see the movie “Bug Eyed Warthogs From The Deep?”

Dad: “No, definitely not. You would get scared out of your socks and wouldn’t be able to sleep for a week.”

Son: “But, dad, it’s in 3-D.”

QUESTION 2. Mount Everest is slowly growing taller. Geologists have been measuring the mountain for the past few years and have discovered that it increases in height by about one and a half inch per year.

QUESTION 3. Social scientists now believe northern European countries are among the best to live in. This conclusion was reached after a 2001 study of sub Saharan countries. The study found that the average life expectancy for sub Saharan Africa is 55 years.

QUESTION 4.“I think all MIT students are smart. It seems like every one I meet is smart.”

QUESTION 5. “I think the government should reinstate the draft. A ten year study of military research and development expenditures found that 45% of the defense budget went to projects which were later discarded because they didn’t amount to anything–projects such as one called “GFB” where scientists tried to genetically modify people to make them stronger and more ruthless. After 2 billion dollars, the project was scrapped.”

QUESTION 6. “There's little doubt anymore that vegetarianism is going mainstream. In the United States alone, more than 12 million people are vegetarians, and 19,000 more make the switch to a meat-free diet every week. Many others have greatly reduced the amount of animal products they eat.”– PETA website.

QUESTION 7. Son: “My friends are going caving tomorrow. Can I go with them?”

Dad: “No, it’s too dangerous. You always get panicky in tight places. I figure you would have about a 50% chance of surviving with all your body parts in place.”

Son: “But, dad, we would have so much fun. It’s a really neat cave.”

QUESTION 8. “Many researchers believe that vegetarianism is the only way to feed a growing human population. A Population Reference Bureau report stated, "If everyone adopted a vegetarian diet and no food were wasted, current [food] production would theoretically feed 10 billion people, more than the projected population for the year 2050." – PETA website

QUESTION 9. “I’ve noticed over the years that the kind of foods that are healthiest for you generally taste the worst. Oatmeal, grits, and squash all taste bad, but are good for you. So, I figure, if I can find something which tastes the worst of anything, then I’ve found the healthiest food. Yesterday, I was walking though the woods when a leaf blew into my mouth – boy did it taste terrible. I thought “I’ve just discovered the miracle health formula!” Let’s go rake the yard. I’m having milk over leaves for breakfast.”

Happy fallacy hunting,

Hans Bluedorn

LETTERS I HAVE RECEIVED:

ONE:

From: C.H.

In reference to your example below of Slippery Slope Fallacy , I believe it is sound logic to use examples of possible outcomes whether or not you can PROVE that they will certainly happen. It is sound logic to use fear, as long as the warning is reasonable and your are not trying to mislead someone with lies. I agree that we should not react and draw conclusions solely out of fear, but we should consider what someone says and seek the truth. We should not however, completely dismiss what someone says because they do not prove it to us right then and there. When I tell my children that they need to brush their teeth really well because if they don't they may get cavities, may have pain, and may have to go to the dentist and could possibly have their tooth filled or pulled. This could be classified as the Slippery Slope Fallacy if I used your example. However, if I told them that if they didn't brush their teeth that they would get cavities and their teeth would fall out, that would be a SSF. The person in your example does not say that the outcomes will necessarily happen, nor does he have to prove those things will happen because it is logical that they could. It is not uncommon or illogical to use a little exaggeration to prove a point. Anyone who thought he was really serious that he believed for a fact that fluoridation would lead to government approved menus would not be thinking logically.

However, letting the government have such control will and has lead to more of our freedoms being taken away. A little fear based on truth is very good when you need to shake up the ignorant and/or lazy. I would think that a better example of using fallacies are the people that say we need fluoride.

They scare us with lies about rotten teeth if we do not ingest their toxic chemicals. Which has been proven false. They use their trumped-up studies to prove their lies. These falsehoods have been exposed. They have tons of this toxic waste they need to get rid of so why not scare the ignorant puppets of the elite into buying it. They use their superior attitudes and or occupations to belittle those who oppose them. If they can't convince you with all their fallacy tactics and you still oppose them, they have their bullies threaten you. I know that as a fact! A fearful truth about fluoride is that it is dangerous. The American Kidney Foundation warns people to not ingest fluoride as well as other organizations who are concerned with health.

Fluoride is linked to 10,000 cancer deaths yearly. Fluoridation is also responsible for 40 million cases of arthritis, dental deformity in 8 million children and allergic reactions in 2 million people. -Dr. Dean Burke and Dr. John Yiamouyiannis, National Cancer Institute, USA, 1997

Research from St. Louis University, the Nippon (Japan) Dental College and the University of Texas show that fluoride has the ability to induce tumors, cause cancers and stimulate tumor growth rates. -from Spotlight, May 1992

The NTP (National Toxicology Program) tests confirmed what the Burke – Yiamouyiannis tests showed – fluoride is carcinogenic. Fluoride causes bone cancer and increases the rate of oral cancer. -from Spotlight, May 1992

See also: http://www.mercola.com/2001/may/12/tooth_decay.htm Thank you for reading my response. As you can probably tell, forced fluoride ingestion is a hot issue with me.

RESPONSE:

A slippery slope fallacy is simply when someone claims that a dire series of events will occur if something happens, when in fact they have not proven that this is the case. It is true that people can exaggerate a point a little to draw attention to something. A little comic exaggeration does not make an argument a slippery slope fallacy. However, if a person truly uses the fear of exaggerated consequences to support their argument, then they are using a slippery slope fallacy.

Slippery slope fallacies can often be found in every ideological group. Conservatives and Liberals use them. When an environmentalist becomes hysterical over the end of the world because of industrial pollution, this could be a slippery slope. And when someone shouts that there are now foreign troops training in the US, and this could lead to the President of the United States in league with China in a plot to conquer America, this could also be a slippery slope argument.

If any of you logic-loving Logic Loop members ever hear someone use a slippery slope, be assured that pretty soon that person will be trying to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn.

Nathaniel Bluedorn

Copyright February 03, 2003, all rights reserved. 5021 views


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