34 Reflection on the Fallacies

Obviously, we fall prey to more than just those seven fallacies. But seven turns out to be the most popular favorite number, and clearly, it is not any sort of fallacy (such as “wishful thinking”) to believe that our favorite number must be epistemologically significant, right?


These fallacies might be understood as consequences of the lifestyle we evolved to have. For most of our existence, homo sapiens have lived in small hunting and gathering groups. We forge strong bonds with other members of our group and show a certain amount of suspicion, or outright hostility, toward strangers. Life has been precarious with bad weather, food shortages, predators, and disease, so naturally we try to establish a lifestyle that is as predictable, as familiar, and as free of surprises as possible. It has been a matter of life or death for us. And so, the “evolved advice” has been to stick to what is familiar, what has worked in the past, what the rest of our group believes, and whatever encourages us to stay within the group. And on the other hand, we reject what is strange, foreign, new, or comes from groups we don’t know. Most or all of our fallacies can be tied to this mindset.


There is no arguing with success. This evolved advice has worked well for most of our existence. But of course we live in a radically different world now, one that we have not evolved to live in. Our groups are much bigger and spread across the globe; food comes to us from a complicated and intricate supply chain, and medicine is, for many of us, readily available; and our knowledge of the world and of ourselves is enormously more advanced, and many of the problems we face require difficult, scientific and technological thinking. Our survival in today’s circumstances requires that we out-think the ways of thinking burned into us over evolutionary time, which is a hugely difficult challenge. We know better. Now we have to convince ourselves of that fact.


But how are we supposed to do this? How can we slow down or alter a style of thinking we have evolved to use? No simple remedy is available, but I will offer here four questions we might try to habitually ask ourselves to try to diminish the power that these fallacies exert over our thinking.


  1. What is my line of reasoning? Sometimes making our thinking explicit is all it takes to make us realize it is fallacious. “Why am I going back to that same restaurant after just having had three bad experiences eating there?” Answer: “Because it would be really convenient for me to be able to go to that restaurant, and whatever would be convenient for me is likely to be true … oh, right, bad idea!”
  1. Where did I get that idea? This question is useful only if you can be very honest with yourself. Was it from Grandpa? Did you get this idea from something you read? Or someone you had a conversation with? On social media? Or some weird philosophy professor? Is it impossible for that source to be wrong, or for you to have misunderstood what the source said? If you do a little research, can you find better evidence for thinking the idea is wrong or, at least, not obviously right?
  1. How would things look if I were wrong? This is an extremely useful question to ask, and we will discuss it further when we come to Bayesian reasoning. Ask yourself what evidence you would be seeing if what you are insisting on is false. Then, ask yourself if that is, in fact, what you are seeing. So, for example, suppose you have ended up believing that the Moon landing never happened and all the reports and records of it are fake. Now try to imagine what you would be seeing if you were wrong about this, and people actually did land on the Moon. You would be seeing everything you in fact are seeing—video footage, recordings, books, movies, accounts in textbooks, and so on. There may also be some minor inconsistencies in the historical accounts or some fuzzy photographs since these commonly happen in all cases. Would you still also be seeing a small group of people steadfastly refusing to believe that people landed on the Moon? Yes, probably. You can pretty much always count on their being some small group of people denying what’s true no matter the topic. This small exercise in imagination should be enough to lead you to think that there’s a good chance you are wrong.
  1. How does this belief make me feel? This might seem like an odd question to ask, but if you try to answer it honestly, it might reveal what motivates your belief. If the belief you are considering does not really make you feel one way or another, that is probably good news. For when our emotions are not exerting their powers over us, we are more likely to come to an unprejudiced assessment of the evidence. On the other hand, if the belief makes you feel important or sort of thrilled or impassioned or like you are an extremely special person, then watch out! For it may be your desire to feel those emotions that is pulling you toward that belief more than any evidence or line of reasoning. Now, obviously, we can be wrong about emotionally-neutral information, and we can be right about ideas that excite us. But when strong feelings are attached to what we believe, we would be wise to slow down and consider more carefully what our line of thinking really is.


Asking ourselves these four questions will not counteract every line of fallacious thinking, and we may not always be able to ask ourselves these questions or answer them honestly. But they may help us to steer clear of the seven fallacies we discussed, in the following way:

What is my line of reasoning? Where did I get that idea? How would things look if I were wrong? How does this belief make me feel?
Anchoring x x x
Confirmation bias x x x
Dunning-Kruger effect x x
In-group bias x x x
Out-group anti-bias x x x
Availability heuristic x x x
Barnum effect x x x x


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Knowledge For Humans Copyright © 2022 by Charlie Huenemann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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