Four more fallacies that aren’t always fallacies

This is a follow up to a previous post highlighting exceptions and false positive identifications of logical fallacies. Identifying logical fallacies is a powerful, if imperfect, tool for separating the truth from the bullshit. Reflecting on false positives can be a useful way of keeping yourself from using a list of fallacies as a substitute for critical analysis.


Moving the Goalpost

What it is:
This is a sportball analogy that likens a shift in an argument to one sportball team getting to change their mind about where their goal is after the opposing team scores a point.

What it looks like in the wild:
A good example of this fallacy is in the tactics of the anti-LBGT rights movement. They will claim that being gay harms the individual who is gay. When this claim is discredited, they shift to claiming that being gay harms children. When evidence is brought to bear disproving that claim, suddenly that was never the focus of their argument. It turns out they were worried about maintaining tradition, not the well-being of kids.

When it isn’t a fallacy:
A claim can have multiple claims nested within it, and sometimes shifting the goals is not a way of punting the criticism, but is in fact a way of accepting the point and moving on to another level in good faith. For example, let’s say that I have a set of criteria that, if met, would be sufficient for my belief in a god. If and when those conditions are met, I would then have further questions that require answering. Such as how to verify the deity’s identity and whether or not the deity is moral or worth following. These questions are separate from the question of existence, but to a believer it could seem to be a moving goalpost.


The same is true of bigfoot. If we found proof that there was a large bipedal mammal in the Pacific Northwest, we’d still have to find out what exactly it is since we couldn’t just take it at face value that it’s a hominid. The stated goals change as they are met. The trick is not to conflate multiple goalposts with a moving goalpost.

The Gish Gallop

What it is:
Overwhelming your opponent with false claims at a rate faster than they can possibly be rebutted. Named after a creationist who would use this technique and then claim to have won the debate because the scientist was unable to debunk all of his claims in the allotted time.

What it looks like in the wild:
“I can’t believe you buy into the ‘official’ version of the 9/11 false flag attack! Let me pull the wool from your eyes, sheeple. *posts 70 links to dubious claims*”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
This happens a lot with conspiracy theorists and creationists because they tend to be very educated. By that I mean that they typically are highly motivated researchers who are very good at soaking up information. As a result, they often have a plethora of resources to share at a moment’s notice. The problem is that their sources are full of it. It bears mentioning that people using accurate sources can also argue in this way. Many of the atheist activists that I know can write several chapters worth detailing why they don’t buy a religious explanation and cram it into one post. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but rather that their opponent won’t be able to address the claims in any meaningful way. I think this is still not the best way to go about conveying information, it is probably more helpful to address one point at a time. But we should be cautious not to assume that this is always meant to rig the game the way Gish did. Often it’s just enthusiasm for the argument getting the better of someone.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

What it is:
This is when someone has defined what is natural as being synonymous with what is good. It is very similar to David Hume’s ought-is problem.

What it looks like in the wild:
“Scientists tampering with genes in the lab are making Frankenfood and playing God!”
THANKS-MONSANTO-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Because skeptics deal with people opposing genetic modification, gay rights, and new technology on the basis of it being unnatural, we have developed a trigger finger for this one. Plenty of “unnatural” things are a boon to humanity, such as vaccines. But just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s bad either. And sometimes what is natural can be preferable by a wide margin. If you have a cat and try to feed them a diet that ignores the fact that they are obligate carnivores, your cat will be in pretty bad shape. It it reasonable to say that because cats evolved the way they did, they should eat food that they have adapted to survive on. This doesn’t mean that in all circumstances we should feel shackled to the constraints of what is “natural” as many ideologically motivated New Agers would have us believe, but rather that the natural world can offer up a track record of sorts that we can and should reference when making decisions.

Argument from Antiquity

What it is:
Popular with alternative medicine proponents and religious conservatives, the argument from antiquity is a subset of the argument from authority which claims that because something is old, it is therefore correct.

What it looks like in the wild:
“People have been using acupuncture for thousands of years, who are you to say it doesn’t work?”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Most tend to think epic failures in history as cautionary tales to those of us modern folk wise enough to learn the lesson. However, the reverse is also true. If something has historically been a success, that should be weighed accordingly when asking if a tradition is worth keeping around. Particularly with political ideas, the proof is in the pudding. You can look back as far as the Roman Empire to see how well progressive taxation works compared to other tax models, or to persistent designs as a clue to what sort of architecture or technology works. Often humanists have to confront harmful traditions when we have a better solution to offer. There are plenty of awful traditions to oppose, and we should never let their staying power dissuade us from taking them on. But neither approach can be a replacement for critical analysis. Eschew all old things and you’ll find yourself reinventing the wheel all the time. Value tradition too highly and you can fall into survivorship bias and all sorts of other flawed conclusions.

Four more fallacies that aren’t always fallacies