Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spot the Logical Fallacy

What logical fallacy is committed in the following passage? Pedro? Bueller? Bueller?
It is, however, tediously easy for people who write columns, ministers who preach sermons, or those who are generally comfortable with their jobs or finances to look down on the rushing mobs grabbing electronics from Wal-Mart shelves. When it comes to consumerism, there exists a tendency to blame the customers for bad behavior and greed.

Of course, they are greedy people everywhere, those who will do anything to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others—people who live in a soulless world of material possessions. But the oddest thing about the folks in lines at those discount stores: They are mostly poor, working class, or marginally middle class. These are the very people who attend church regularly, express higher levels of belief in God, and are more likely to give a higher percentage of their income to those in need. Indeed, nearly every survey in religion shows that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be both faithful and generous.


  1. I'm guessing you're talking about the fallacy of composition: generally, poorer people are more virtuous; therefore, the specific people who used violence to secure access to a $2 wafflemaker must also be virtuous.

    (Not to derail the thread, but that isn't far off from the line I've heard quite often for the past three years, "Generally, inflation indicates a booming economy. Therefore, if we cause inflation, we will cause a booming economy in the sense that we want.)

  2. Interesting, Silas. I was thinking of a different fallacy. Now I am thinking of the difference between the fallacy of composition and the fallacy of which I was thinking, and how they are related.

    So, good one.

  3. Well, I'm not the most logical person, but I'll guess that you mean the assumption that the poor people are 'financially uncomfortable' and are going to the sales because they are desperate, when they might just be going because they want to. It is kind of a contradiction to imply that they are in desperate need, while noting that they are also giving their own money away.

    Or, in variation of Silas's composition argument, maybe the poor people showing up for the sales aren't the same poor people who are being 'faithful and generous.'

    This blog post generally had a lot of things like that. She also assumes that columnists and ministers who are critical of this behavior are well-paid/financially comfortable compared to the people showing up for the sales. I'll bet a lot of them aren't. And most of them may not even look down on the behavior. There are those kinds of ultra-broad stereotyping all over this thing.

  4. No, wait, I've got it!

    She's trying to understand the people's behavior by characterizing them objectively, through the use of statistics, rather than relating to them subjectively as she should in a question of human motivation. She has confused a subjective question with an objective one, being 'scientific' in the positivistic sense when she should be more 'historical,' so her treatment is logically inappropriate. Poor people are not bacteria in a petri dish.

  5. Scott, if errors those be, they are empirical errors. I'm looking for a standard logical fallacy.

  6. Hmm I guessed the same as Silas..

    Is it the fallacy of division then? I remember them being closely related, but can't remember the precise difference.

    Or is that off track?

  7. Well, Warren, I'm thinking of a formal syllogistic fallacy. But you and Silas don't seem to be wrong here, so I'm also thinking about the relationship of these fallacies.

  8. Let's simplify her argument:

    Major premise: Most of the people rioting at Walmart were poor.

    Minor premise: Most of the poor are more religious/charitable than average.

    Conclusion: The people rioting at Walmart are more religious/charitable than average.

  9. Okay, phrased that way, it looks like a (statistical) illicit minor fallacy. (And boy am I surprised that an article with that title didn't have a disambiguation page!) That is,

    A is usually B.
    A is usually C.

    Therefore, B is usually C.

    Where A = the poor, B = Black Friday hooligans, C = virtuous people.

    And now you're considering how that relates to the fallacy of saying that "this group is usually like X, so this [atypical] member is X too", a statistical fallacy of composition.

    (Btw, I can never keep the fallacies of composition and division straight. Can't we just use the term "composition" where you erroneously equate the whole with the part, irrespective of which direction your inference goes?)

  10. fallacy of the consequent?

  11. I would have said *false cause*, but it doesn't seem to meet that criteria (at least as I understand it).

  12. Wait a minute, I think that this might be a combo with "false cause", Composition/Division", "elicit minor" and "consequent". Whoa!

    Where'd you dig this tripe up again?

  13. Please do a follow up on your thoughts about the fallacy here and its relation to the fallacy of composition. Purty Pleez!

  14. As I framed her syllogism, she has an "undistributed middle": The poor do not appear with any "all" or "none" quantifier in either premise. To be valid, her syllogism would have to run like:

    M) All of the poor riot at Walmart.
    m) All of the poor are very religious.
    C) All of the people rioting at Walmart are very religious.

    *That* is valid. But she has two "some" quantifiers.

    I've been meaning to sit down and see how this relates to the fallacy of composition, which also seems a correct analysis! But I haven't done so.


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Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews