Bad arguments about animals

Critical Thinking is a relatively new discipline to humans and it’s formalisation and development is still in progress. It has been a subject in schools in the UK since 2008. In South Africa, I am not aware of such a course at school level, although UCT offers one for first-year students and most Universities only deal with the subject under Law and Philosophy.. It is a discipline sorely lacking among the general populace, and refers to the process by which we determine logically what is or isn’t so. I think it should be a mandatory subject for everyone, starting at around age 12, providing the student with a process that they can use throughout their lives and apply to almost any subject or scenario.

In many cases, it is not the ‘content’ or ‘data’ in a statement that renders it untrue; it is the manner in which the argument is constructed that does so. People are often infuriated when I point out that their argument is invalid, irrespective of the fact that the information they have presented is correct. Below are the ten ‘bad’ arguments I come across most frequently in animal welfare and rights circles: .

1. The ‘Over Your Dead Body’ Argument – This is actually not an argument, but a digression to another subject. Also known as the ‘ad hominem’, it refers to the practice of attacking the person rather than their argument. It’s almost always irrelevant. Even if you could prove that I’m a beer-swilling, sexist sociopath, that cannot make what I say untrue or make what I am doing wrong. You have to deal with my argument or action on their merits.

Activists often insult people personally in an attempt to discredit their views regarding animals, and this has two effects: it alienates the person, which is unlikely to get them to consider your viewpoint, and it exposes your own inability to focus on the issue. When someone resorts to insult, it usually means they have run out of rational arguments. It’s also usually the triumph of emotion over reason, and it’s usually used by kids…

“Violence in the voice is often only the death rattle of reason in the throat.” - John F. Boyes

It may be completely appropriate to discontinue the discussion, since people who indulge in personal attacks can seldom be reasoned with, but it may be practical to inform them that your character is not the issue, and that an attack on you is not relevant to the issue under discussion.

2. The ‘Taxi Driver’ Response - “Are you talking to me?” says the character in the movie Taxi Driver, a paranoid delusional who sees himself as the saviour of the hooker character in the movie from the 80’s. The ‘personalisation’ response refers to the inference from the person using it that someone else has attacked them personally, when in fact the other person has attacked their argument. If someone says your argument is ‘simplistic’ and you infer that they are calling you a simpleton, the inference is not theirs, it is yours. Unless you as a person is completely expressed in every statement you make, the notion that any reference to an assertion you have made is a personal attack is entirely absurd. The victim mentality sees every attack on their beliefs as an attack on them personally – there is no need to conflate one’s identity with what one believes, since ‘what one believes’ is not synonymous with ‘who one is’.

This happens more often than you may realise. I have often been accused of making personal attacks when in fact my assertion has targeted the other person’s argument, and it is invariably because they identify ‘themselves’ with their argument to such an extent that any assault on their argument or belief is taken personally – they cannot differentiate a rational rebuttal from a head-butt. It’s emotionally defensive behaviour typical of the insecure, and it’s devoid of rationality in any form. Such people should relax. It’s entirely possible that nobody is out to get them.

When someone responds in this fashion, let them know that your argument is not directed at them personally and that there is no need for them to become defensive.

3. The ‘From Here to Eternity’ assumption – People generalise. Of course, that statement is a generalisation, since I have not qualified it with a ‘some’, ‘many’ or ‘most’, which means that I’m really saying ‘all’ people generalise, which may or may not be true. In most cases, however, generalisation is a bad argument, since it regards an entire population as sharing a given characteristic. So all Indians are dishonest, all Alfa Romeos are unreliable, all redheads have short tempers and all Pit Bulls are dangerous. Generalisation is the basis of most discriminations, including racism, sexism, and speciesism.

There is another form of this fallacy, where someone extrapolates from personal experience or from a limited sample. This happens so often that it is likely to occur within 5 minutes in any social interaction, where people will tell you that they believe something is true because of their own personal experience. The single instance proves nothing; in fact our own experiences can only be used to derive general conclusions if we have had sufficient experiences for the sample to be significant, which is unlikely. Without a peer review or a double blind, our personal experience can only be anecdotal.

 “Crude classifications and false generalizations are the curse of organized life.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

To test whether an assertion is a generalisation, ask yourself whether one can say ‘all’ or whether ‘some’, ‘many’, or ‘most’ may not be more appropriate. This would also be an appropriate response to someone who has argued using a generalisation.

4. The ‘Big Kahuna’ assertion – People love to use Authority as a magical ‘trump’ card, as if the introduction of the Authority settles the argument. It doesn’t. It can only do so if the authority quoted is right every time, or is accepted by everyone as having the final say on an issue, or where the viewpoint of the authority is a reflection of a scientific consensus.

In many cases, however, the ‘appeal to authority’ may not be obvious to those who are not schooled in critical thinking. When someone says that ‘they’ say that something is true, they are appealing to an invisible, unidentified authority. Ideally, the next question should be: “Who is ‘they’?”. In other cases, an appeal is made to an irrelevant authority, as in, “An NSPCA Inspector says that all strays at a welfare organisation can be removed by the SPCA”, you might want to ask a lawyer for a second opinion, since this is a factually incorrect statement, and Inspectors are not legal experts. The same goes for a diagnosis conducted by an Inspector – they are not vets…

In some cases, the appeal is to an ‘anti’-authority: if a person or organisation that has dubious ethics can be associated with an assertion or action, then it can be discredited in the minds of the ignorant. Thinking people recognise that such an association is both dishonest and logically flawed, since, for example, the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian does not make vegetarianism wrong. (See ‘Poisoning the Well’ below)

“Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence he is just using his memory” ~  Leonardo DaVinci

It’s relatively easy to disable the illegitimate appeal to authority – show that the experts themselves disagree, show that the authority does not exist or is irrelevant.

5. The ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ oversimplification – People use Ockham’s Razor as if it is a combine harvester. It’s often misstated as ‘the simplest explanation is the best’, which itself is an oversimplification of the Razor. Often, we exchange understanding for simplicity, since most things, when examined in context with all the interactions and interdependencies that characterise existence, are incredibly complex. Simple explanations are for simpletons – in the real world, nothing can be regarded in isolation, since the moment you do so you necessarily alter the reality you are examining. Reality is interdependent and as such it is complex. To ignore this is to abdicate intelligence.

The notion that increased animal welfare capacity or improved coordination will solve the companion animal crisis is simplistic; it fails to take into account the fact that the breeding cycle is the biggest single cause of the problem, by a long way, and that while we can increase the capacity of the welfare sector, we cannot increase the number of available homes. Once those two factors are introduced, the strategy necessarily changes.

“It is simplicity that makes the uneducated more effective than the educated when addressing popular audiences” ~  Aristotle

“The propensity to excessive simplification is indeed natural to the mind of man, since it is only by abstraction and generalisation, which necessarily imply the neglect of a multitude of particulars, that he can stretch his puny faculties so as to embrace a minute portion of the illimitable vastness of the universe” ~ James George Fraser

“Actions are always more complex and nuanced than they seem. We have to be willing to wrestle with paradox in pursuing understanding.” ~ Harold Evans

In order to combat the simplistic argument, show that there are additional factors that have no been taken into account, and that once those are included, the scenario changes sufficiently to change the argument.

6. The ‘Straw Man’ diversion – It’s much easier to defeat a scarecrow than a real person. The straw man argument is one directed at a misrepresentation of the opposing argument, usually a weaker form of the argument. It should be obvious that this is illegitimate, since the actual argument is being distorted. In some cases the distortion is one of extension, i.e. interpreting the argument to state a position that goes further than it actually does, for example ‘all’ rather than ‘some’, in others the language of the assertion is distorted by paraphrasing or labelling.

I remember being vilified by someone I hardly knew because I said I thought Capitalism was problematic, this in the 90’s when it was still considered ‘extreme’ to hold that view. His response, instead of asking me why I thought so, was to tell me that I was a ‘pinko’ and that I obviously supported wage equality, which was hopelessly unfair. My actual position was nothing of the sort, but he had misrepresented my position and then successfully defeated the misrepresentation. In fact he also made another logical error, the ‘either-or’ fallacy, since in his mind if you were not for capitalism you were for communism. What I also found astonishing was the heightened emotional state in which he responded, as if this was a life or death situation.

In that instance I told him that he makes too many assumptions, and left. But ideally one should restate one’s position when presented with a straw man argument, so that the other person has clarity in respect of what you are positing. There is no guarantee that they will listen, however. You can lead a human to knowledge, but you can’t make them think…

 7. ‘Poisoning the Well’ ~ Discrediting what someone says or what is published by association with an event, a condition, or another person. When you poison the well, you pre-emptively ‘poison’ the source of the information by creating a bias in the observer’s mind – it should be obvious, however, that no amount of negative association can render an opinion invalid – you must deal with their argument on it’s own merits.

Example: “He owns a 4 X 4, no wonder he supports allowing people to drive on beaches”. The fact that he owns a 4 X 4 is irrelevant. At best it is circumstantial. You would have to find out what his reasons are for supporting driving on the beach.

Poisoning the well is really a dishonest argument because it doesn’t deal with the argument itself, instead attacking either the person who said it or the motives of the assertion or the reliability of it’s source.

Closely related to poisoning the well is the ‘guilty by association’ fallacy, in which an association is created between an irrelevant event, condition, or person and a person or argument with the intention of discrediting it or them.

I recently came across an astonishing example of this, and it was directed at me personally as a result of the fact that someone, commenting on a Blog article I wrote, said that I attract ‘all the whack jobs’, The intent was to discredit the article and me, which tactic anyone with intelligence recognises must fail, since the fact that ‘whack jobs’ read and ‘like’ my posts cannot possibly have any impact on whether the article is true or not. This is negative association, drawing attention to something that is completely irrelevant, especially since the number of intelligent people who read it and declined to comment or acknowledge it, is unknown. It’s important to recognise that the term ‘whack jobs’ is a form of labelling, also irrelevant. It’s also typical of adolescents, who use labelling because it’s a convenient way of making the other person look inferior. Someone who would use such a tactic would immediately be suspect, not only in respect of their motive, but also with regard to their rationality. Be careful, there are ‘whack jobs’ everywhere…

When someone attempts to poison your well, show that the association is irrelevant and insist that they deal with the issue on its own merits.

8. ‘Throwing Baby out with the Bathwater’


This occurs in two forms, that of disregarding everything a person has said on the basis that some (or even one!) statements made are not agreed with, or disregarding an entire proposition that has multiple parts on the basis that one part is flawed in the opinion of the person disagreeing. In other cases, people may discredit everything a person does on the basis of one thing they have done or neglected to do.

So when people in welfare do a great job 90% of the time but make ONE mistake, or do ONE part of the job in a manner that does not comply with some people’s notion of perfection, or say ONE thing that is ‘questionable’ they are suddenly public enemy #1 and everything they do is either disregarded or condemned, the people doing the judging are guilty of this fallacy of logic.

Nobody’s perfect. Many Animal Welfare people seem to be unwilling to give credit where credit is due and prefer to condemn those who fall short of their own supposedly objective standard. Perhaps a little understanding coupled with education and investment would be more appropriate than the current ‘long walk off a short plank’ approach. Growth is impossible if everyone who makes a mistake is excommunicated from the AW Insiders ‘Church’…

When someone disposes of baby in this manner, show that there are nevertheless commendable parts of the proposition or behaviour, and that discarding the entire argument or resource would be to exclude a material component or to exclude a valuable contribution.

9. ‘The Domino Effect’, or ‘Post hoc ergo propter hoc’ (after this because of this) – the argument that because something happened after something else, that it was caused by it. Its also closely related to another fallacy, called “Cum hoc ergo propter hoc” (with this because of this), in which one event is seen to have been caused by another or by a condition because there is a correlation between them – the effect and the other event/condition are associated. Correlation is not cause, and in fact there is no relationship between the two ideas. One cannot logically conclude that because an event happened after or with another event, that the two events are causally related. Otherwise we could argue that, due to the fact that the increase in longevity of people in Sweden is closely correlated to the growth of the McDonald’s chain, that McDonald’s food helps people live longer.

In the same way, many bad science publications will argue that certain things cause certain conditions, and base their conclusion on association. While association certainly does give rise for a necessity for further research, one cannot arrive at a conclusion based on correlation. In addition, since normally a single factor is isolated from all the other factors contributing to a given effect, the argument presented in necessarily simplistic.

So the common adage, “where there is smoke there is fire”, implying that where certain conditions are present that a conclusion may be drawn, is logically incorrect, as is any statement which asserts that an associated event is the cause of an effect. It may be, but one cannot argue from the correlation in order to prove itWhen people claim that vaccines cause cancer or autism, or that poverty causes crime, or any other argument based on association, their argument is invalid. One would have to prove the mechanism by which the cause leads to the effect. Always ask someone how they know, since association is not causation.

10. The ‘Common Nonsense’ Claim – The establishment of knowledge is not a democratic process. Merely because there is consensus on a given subject, that does not mean it is correct. So the arguments, ‘most of us agree’, or, ‘everyone says’, or ‘the consensus view is…’ are all fallacious, since it is not the popularity of a viewpoint that makes it true – its veracity rises or falls on its own merits.

It’s basically an appeal to popularity, and given the ignorance and mediocrity of the majority, cannot be regarded as a reliable indicator where truth or success are required. Also often referred to as the ‘bandwagon’ fallacy because people are said to be ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, the fact that most people are doing something is no reason to do the same. This applies equally to the common occurrence where, when someone is heard to have done something not in conformance to the majority ideal, the pack of humans descend upon the prey with all the snarling and viciousness of their wolf cousins. One would think creatures with intelligence would be better than that…

"Even if all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken." ~ Bertrand Russell

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress” - Jeseph Joubert

We don’t need ‘common’ sense – what is common is in many cases nonsense. What we need is the uncommon sense of thinking for ourselves.

When people engaged in animal welfare or as activists resort to dishonest and in some cases unethical tactics, often directed at people who ostensibly have the same objectives in mind and should be regarded as allies, their efforts are counter-productive, effectively destroying what others attempt to build. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. If the energy invested in breaking others down could be invested in building others up, supporting and teaching rather than finding ways to disassociate, we might have a better prognosis for the animals than the current one of failure and the worsening of the crisis.