Arguments or debates are won or lost, not just on the facts presented in those arguments or debates, but also on the way in which presenters go about either convincing people of their point of view or how they attempt to disprove someone else’s point of view.

Often those methods are intentionally misleading. As ethical presenters we can prepare ourselves to deal with them by understanding what those strategies are.

This article, Part 2 of 4, discusses two more of these fallacies.

Number 3. The Ignorance Fallacy

The appeal to ignorance fallacy, also known as ‘argumentum ad ignorantiam’, occurs when one argues that a proposition is true simply because it has not been proven false, or that a proposition is false because it has not been proven true.

This fallacy misuses the absence of evidence as evidence in itself, rather than acknowledging that some claims may not be currently verifiable either way.

This fallacy can take two main forms:

Form 1. Asserting that a claim is true because it hasn’t been disproven

For example, someone might claim that there must be life on other planets simply because no one has been able to prove conclusively that there isn’t.

The burden of proof lies on making a claim for existence, not on disproving every possible claim.

Form 2. Asserting that a claim is false because it hasn’t been proven

Conversely, one might argue that there is no life on other planets because there is no direct evidence supporting it. This disregards the possibility that evidence might exist but has not yet been discovered or recognised.

The appeal to ignorance fallacy is often used in debates about existence or non-existence of entities for which there is no definitive evidence either way, such as in discussions about supernatural phenomena, the existence of extraterrestrial life, religious beliefs, or even complex scientific hypotheses.

A critical aspect of rational argumentation is recognising that the lack of evidence for or against a proposition does not conclusively prove anything about its truth.

Good arguments require positive evidence in support of their claims, rather than relying on the absence of evidence against them.

An Example of The Ignorance Fallacy in Action

The argument from ignorance fallacy in religious contexts often appears in debates about the existence of God or gods. This fallacy can manifest in arguments from both theists and atheists when they rely on a lack of evidence as proof of their position rather than providing substantive support for their claims.

A common theistic use of the argument from ignorance goes something like this: “You cannot prove that God does not exist; therefore, God exists.”

This argument assumes that the inability to disprove the existence of God is equivalent to proof of God’s existence. It shifts the burden of proof away from those claiming God’s existence to those who are skeptical, insisting that the skeptics’ inability to provide definitive evidence against God’s existence is itself evidence for God.

Conversely, an atheistic use of the fallacy might be: “You cannot prove that God exists; therefore, God does not exist.”

Like its theistic counterpart, this argument suggests that the inability to provide empirical evidence of God’s existence is proof of God’s non-existence, overlooking the fact that lack of evidence is not conclusive proof of absence.

In both cases, the argument from ignorance fallacy sidesteps the complex philosophical and theological debates surrounding the existence of a higher power, reducing them to an oversimplified demand for empirical evidence.

It fails to engage with the nuanced arguments and varied definitions of God that exist within religious and philosophical traditions, which often address questions of faith, existence, and the universe in ways that are not solely reliant on empirical proof.

Number 4. The False Dilemma Fallacy (aka False Dichotomy)

The false dilemma, also known as a false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument presents two options as the only possible outcomes, ignoring other viable alternatives.

This fallacy is based on a reasoning error that artificially restricts the range of choices, compelling the audience to choose between them, even when these options do not cover all the possibilities.

False dilemmas are often used in persuasive arguments to force a choice or decision by oversimplifying complex issues into an “either/or” framework.

This can be particularly misleading and manipulative because it excludes consideration of all other options, some of which may be more reasonable or appropriate.

The key to avoiding the false dilemma fallacy is recognising the complexity of most issues and acknowledging that there are usually more than two sides or solutions to a problem.

Critical thinking and a willingness to explore all possible alternatives are essential for overcoming this type of flawed reasoning.

Examples of The False Dilemma Fallacy in Action

1. “You’re either with us, or against us.”

This statement ignores the possibility of neutral or nuanced positions regarding the issue at hand.

2. “Either we ban all cars to reduce pollution, or we do nothing about the environment.”

This overlooks a wide range of potential measures to address environmental concerns without resorting to such extremes.

3. “You must either support free speech or endorse censorship.”

This statement fails to acknowledge that one can support free speech while also advocating for reasonable limits to prevent harm.

An Example of the False Dilemma Fallacy in Action

An example of the false dilemma fallacy in Australian politics can be found in discussions surrounding asylum seeker policies.

The debate has often been framed in terms of a stark choice between two extremes: either strictly detaining asylum seekers who arrive by boat, purportedly to deter people smuggling and ensure national security, or allowing open borders, which opponents argue could lead to uncontrolled immigration and security risks.

This framing presents the issue as a binary choice, ignoring a spectrum of potential policy options that could both humanely address the needs of asylum seekers and maintain national security.

For instance, during various points of the political discourse around this issue, some politicians and media outlets have suggested that the only way to prevent deaths at sea (due to dangerous attempts to reach Australia by boat) is through harsh detention policies for unauthorised arrivals.

This argument overlooks the possibility of creating more comprehensive and compassionate immigration policies that could include increased refugee intake through official channels, international cooperation to improve asylum processing, and investment in the source countries to alleviate the conditions that force people to flee.

By presenting the issue as a choice between “stopping the boats” at all costs or risking national security and social cohesion, the debate around asylum seekers in Australia has often been constrained by a false dilemma that fails to consider a range of more nuanced and humane policy solutions.

CLICK HERE for Part 3

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