Poor logic – bad arguments and logical fallacies abound around coronavirus deniers (covidiots)

This one is from that PrayerWorks Facebook group I’ve mentioned before.


Best reply I saw to it went something like this:

If seatbelts work, WHY the airbags? If airbags work, WHY the seatbelts ? If BOTH work, WHY the ROAD REGULATIONS?

Amusing that the original status comment was “critical thinking”. Nope. Sorry. Nope nope nope. That’s not critical thinking and calling it as such doesn’t make the statement true. Actually that’s a textbook example of bad arguments and logical fallacies, except of course there’s no such textbook. Maybe that’s the problem? We’re never taught critical thinking.

I first heard of logical fallacies about ten years ago, because I searched for information about bad arguments after seeing them repeatedly and they struck me as wrong, not because I knew why they were wrong but because I didn’t. The thing about bad arguments is they are a natural product of the way our brains work. Sometimes we might recognize that they’re wrong but not be able to point out why… At least that’s how it was for me. I knew they were wrong, but it was more like what we in software development call “code smell”. It just looks wrong but you can’t necessarily say why until you examine it more closely.

In the example above, the fallacy is of course a false dichotomy, also known as a false dilemma or excluded middle. That’s when a proposition is made that includes only two options as if they are the only options and that they contradict one another, and our brains are tricked into perceiving such a proposition as valid. Meanwhile, two options could, for example, both be true, both be false, or be two of many truths/mistruths. I’ve linked to three different explanations just to show how widely known this type of fallacy is. In the example, it is further being used to set up a straw man argument, because the person making it, who opposes safety measures during a pandemic, is misrepresenting the argument used by her opponents, in that nobody claims this is a simple binary. In reality, when it comes to safety measures, more measures complement each other.

There are many more well known bad arguments and logical fallacies, so many that it would be pointless for me to try listing them. Here’s one example where someone has put together a cute illustrated book about them. If you search for them online, it yields over 7 million results with some great articles on the first page.

An interesting bad argument going around at the moment is around so-called “liberty”. People are claiming that having to wear masks, or stay indoors, infringes on their freedom. Amusingly we can return to the seatbelt rebuttal again, but for a different reason. According to an article on Business Insider, in the 1980s when legislation was proposed to enforce the wearing of seatbelts, 65% of Americans were opposed to it, for reasons similar to the current opposition against safety measures. (“Don’t tell me what to do!”)

So what’s going on here? Well, people are fighting for their rights. But you don’t exist in a vacuum. When your rights affect other people – when your right to do something harms someone else or infringes on the rights of someone else, it becomes less important than the consequences of your actions. Your right to anything thus exists in a broader social context where other people also matter. I have the right to smoke cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean I can smoke them wherever I want, in public places and in other peoples’ homes, because me being reckless about my health doesn’t give me the right to ignore the rights and the health of anybody else.

Likewise when I was a meth addict, I told myself that despite the illegality of drugs, I had the right to choose to use them. But when my use affected my work, when the livelihood of others and other things I don’t want to get into came into play, the consequences of my poor choices made my right to blow my mind quite irrelevant. And this is exactly the same when people refuse to follow safety precautions during a global pandemic. Your “liberty” does not give you the right to risk making other people get sick and possibly die.

To summarize, critical thinking is important. It’s a skill we aren’t taught and one that doesn’t always come naturally. Our brains don’t think rationally automatically. We see patterns where none exist, we impose meaning on the meaningless, make connections where none are to be found, and sometimes bad arguments make sense to us, especially ones like the classic false dilemma, and especially when it makes an argument to support a point of view we are already emotionally invested in. That’s why it is crucial to work on our critical thinking skills, and one way to make a start is to read up on and understand common bad arguments and logical fallacies.

Meh – I wrote this earlier and it isn’t even published yet, but I see the COVIDiots have moved on. Now they are claiming that those of us who actually care about safety measures are acting out of fear. This is a red herring. Another fallacy, and even if fear is a motivator, it has no relevance. I’m adding this as an “aside” because it would otherwise fuck with the flow of the last three paragraphs.

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