Things That are Usually NOT Rational Fallacies

I previously wrote about how the rational fallacies differ from the logical fallacies and how rational fallacies are far more important and more common than logical fallacies.

In this post we are going to consider several rational fallacies that people often accuse each other of that are actually usually not rational fallacies at all:

Inductive Arguments: Calling someone’s argument ‘inductive’ is almost never a fair rational fallacy unless the person is literally using it as a logical fallacy. (I.e. A implies B, B is true, therefore I know A is true.) The mere fact that someone makes a conjecture based on a specific case doesn’t make the conjecture de facto invalid. (i.e. A implies B, given B, it might be the case that A is true because that is at least one known way to get to B.) If this was always a valid rational fallacy it would invalidate a rich source of conjecture.

Evading: This one can be a valid rational fallacy that is more or less the same as refusing the premise or cherry-picking. However, more often than not this claim comes up when the other person didn’t respond to you in a way you wanted them to or when you wanted them to. No one ever owes you a response at all and taking the time to respond to you is an undeserved gift to you. When you treat people like they owe you a response, they are right to ignore you. That’s not an evasion of your argument, it’s a fully justifiable evasion of you.

Claims of Bad Philosophy: This could be a valid rational problem, but more often than not isn’t. The issue here is that people are almost constantly saying phrases about ‘following the evidence’ or the like but don’t actually have in mind anything like empiricism or induction as a philosophy. Likely they have never even heard of these philosophies.

Since, as Popper explained, all observations are theory-impregnated no matter what, it’s a safe bet that people that claim they generalized from observation or that they ‘followed (or weighed) the evidence’ that they actually had theory-impregnated observations or theory-impregnated evidence in mind and therefore had implicit competing theories in mind. (Since no other kind exists!) In other words, they are likely saying something meaningful. See this list of how to convert such phrases to their Popperian equivalents. Save this fallacy for when you’ve actually asked the person to explain what they have in mind and they really and truly believe that observations can be non-theory impregnated.

There are other common variants of this problem. For example: a claim to a theory being useful is not the same as instrumentalism. And a claim to have started with an observation is probably accurate in most cases if that observation was perceived as a problem. (i.e. challenged a previously unstated implicit theory.) Likewise, claims to certainty are rarely claims to absolute certainty and claims to be justified in one’s reasoning are rarely claims to justificationism.

Even referring to science as ‘inductive’ may mean nothing more than that somehow (using Popper’s epistemology!) observations (that were problems!) were generalized into a law. Donald Campbell referred to science as inductive in an article Popper strongly endorsed! Are you going to tell them they were engaging in bad philosophy? (See this post, particularly footnote 1)

Think twice before you start claiming your opponent is using bad philosophy unless they actually are a philosopher defending an actual philosophy or you’ve stopped and asked them enough questions to be sure they really intend to defend a bad philosophy. Many things are just a manner of speaking and I’ve rarely seen this claim used correctly by Popperians. But I have seen several valuable critical discussions come to a standstill over such claims being used incorrectly.

A good alternative here might be to clarify your own use of terms but not insist that others use your terms. Try something like this: “You said science is an inductive achievement. Do you mean literally Baconian induction with generalization from non-theory impregnated observations? Or is that just a term that means ‘scientific achievement’ to you? I ask because I do not believe Baconian induction is a real process. But I have no problem with you saying ‘inductive achievement’ if you just mean ‘scientific achievement.'” This works because clarifying your own usage of terms is always rationally valid while insisting others use your usage of terms never is.

However, this one isn’t entirely wrong and people do use philosophically questionable arguments. Even people that consider themselves Critical Rationalists regularly engage in inductive arguments and then fail to treat them as what they are — wild guesses. [1] It is also unfortunate that both science and statistics use the term ‘inductive’ and other misleading language. That might well be worth calling out. But it is important to remember that nothing of value is based on bad philosophy ever! Science works via Popper’s epistemology, not Baconian induction or empiricism — for there are no such things. Likewise, schools are not based on the bucket theory of knowledge because there is no such thing.


[1] Whether or not something is ‘inductive’ actually depends on context. For example, Dennis Hackethal collects examples of ‘buggy animal behavior’ to “prove” that animals have no understanding and are thus (in his mind) just meat robots. But the only way his approach makes sense is if he is arguing with someone that sincerely believes that all animals understand things more or less like humans. In that case, the ‘buggy animals’ examples can then be thought of as refutations of the universal rule “all animals are intelligent just like humans.” In that context, the buggy animals examples are a correct Popperian response to that universal rule. Though really, just one example would have been sufficient in that case.

But Dennis does not position his arguments as against that idea, he instead positions it as an overthrow of the current scientific worldview. But no current scientific theory about animal intelligence asserts such a universal rule! (i.e. that animals have human-like understandings.) In that context, his ‘buggy animal behavior’ boils down to a simple bad inductive generalization. E.g. A squirrel shows no understanding of its automatic behavior to bury nuts (because it tries to dig on concrete) so we, therefore, generalize to the rule: “all animals everywhere have no understanding ever.” But, when put this way, this is clearly a bad generalization. Why would squirrel intelligence generalize to dog intelligence much less ape intelligence? For that matter, why does the existence of a single predetermined automatic behavior in squirrels prove that all squirrel behavior is predetermined?

The proper Popperian way to address Dennis’ theory (which can be thought of as the universal rule “all animals have only genetically pre-determined automatic behaviors”) would be to look for counterexamples that refute it. Dennis should be looking for examples of animal behavior that cannot be explained by automatic behaviors. In fact, this is precisely the methodology Richard Byrne takes in his books Evolving Insight and The Thinking Ape. So we already have considerable studies and documentation refuting Dennis’ theory. (See Richard Byrne’s books for diverse examples of this.) So, in context, Dennis’ buggy animal collection is really just verificationism. He’s collecting white swans to prove that all swans are white when he should be ignoring the white swans and seeking black swans.

For those interested in the subject of animal intelligence, I highly recommend Richard Byrne’s books. He does a great job of working out which animals have what kinds of intelligence by using correct Popperian epistemology.

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