The ability or inability to think critically has an enormous impact on our lives. So many logic fallacies are being deployed in current public discourse that we are presented with an embarrassment of riches to use as examples of poor thinking. In this post, we’ll look at two common tactics that get in the way of a clear argument: one that attempts to shift the topic and another using sentence structure to hide the identity of the agent of the action.
One difficulty in identifying fallacies is that they go by many names, which can be confusing. Another issue is that more than one fallacy at a time can appear in a statement, claim or premise. We’re focusing here on the dominant fallacy that is undermining the claim.
And so, the Nominal Fallacy happens when the issue at hand has been re-named with the implication that the re-naming somehow ends the debate or settles the issue. Sentences that try to hide their agent of action usually do so by using the Passive Voice. It’s a change in verb form that scrambles the usual sentence structure. Sentences in the active voice clearly show who or what is the agent of the action (the subject) and what the subject is doing (the predicate). In the Passive Voice the agent of the action is withheld until the end of the sentence or never revealed at all. If the actor is identified, then that info usually appears in a phrase tacked on at the end. Let’s look at some examples:
The government offices were closed today.
Look at the subject of the sentence (usually found at the front of the sentence)—offices. Ask if the subject performed the action named by the verb—were closed. I’m unaware of any offices that close themselves. Offices are usually closed by people, and a passive voice sentence will keep the answer to “Who did it?” very muddy. Here’s another example you may have seen before:
Mistakes were made.
Who made the mistakes? These sentences are frequently used by cowards who won’t accept responsibility for their decisions. The one who made the mistakes is not identified. If a passive voice construction does reveal an agent of action, then that info will likely appear in a phrase at the very end of the sentence:
Mistakes were made by me.
An even better way to write this sentence:
I made mistakes.
No ambiguity here. The actor (agent) and what the actor did are clear and unambiguous.
The Nominal Fallacy gets us to believe we’ve solved a problem simply by naming it. To spot these fallacies look for a certain degree of circularity or redundancy. This can be in the form of re-naming the problem, naming attributes of the problem, and classifying the issue.
Naming and classification can be a real Laff Riot on a cold and lonely night, but those usually are not the goals we’re after in a discussion of a problem. Naming tasks to be done doesn’t complete them and naming projects or plans doesn’t get those plans moving forward. Naming and classification are important activities; but If the discussion has come to the point of simply renaming things, you’re in trouble. Look at these examples and see if you can find the circularity or re-naming:
1. Stanley doesn’t get along with his co-workers because he is uncooperative.
2. Rochelle is intelligent because she gets high grades.
3. Bubba is always fighting because he’s very aggressive.
In sentence 1, the word uncooperative does nothing more than rename the phrase “doesn’t get along with his co-workers” without offering any real reasons for Stanley’s behavior.
Sentence 2 is another pairing of term and definition. “Gets high grades” is by definition an attribute of intelligence but offers no insight into reasons, such as: Rochelle takes handwritten notes, has a tutor and keeps a strict study schedule.
I hope sentence 3 is easy to spot. “Always fighting” and “very aggressive” are pretty much the same thing without showing us any actual reasons.
And so, don’t be led by the nose into accepting the re-naming as an actual reason that supports the claim. Remember, critical thinking is a tool that helps us spot arguments that are irrelevant, arguments that are ambiguous and arguments that are built on unsupported assumptions. Remember, too, that simply pointing out a fallacy is not a refutation of claims. The ability or inability to think critically has an enormous impact on our lives. Keep practicing!