This post was originally published on the author's personal Facebook page.
One of the most frustrating parts of watching the many societal debates over the last several months has been seeing people on all sides abandon rational thought in their knee-jerk defense of whatever position they're predisposed to believe. Productive discourse requires both sides of an argument to tone down their emotional reactions and consider the facts in a logical fashion. Acknowledging—or even recognizing—the flaws in an argument supporting one's own position can be difficult, but it's a must for anyone who wants to do more than just tear down the other side and widen the division.
If you truly care about other people and about making the world a better place, then in a spirit of charity and intellectual honesty be careful what lines of reasoning you embrace.
Below are just a few examples of faulty reasoning I've seen repeatedly in my news feed and elsewhere. I've picked examples from both sides of a couple of hot topics. Note that while these are not exact quotes, they do match the tone and (il)logical form of statements I've seen and heard from multiple people. Definitions of the fallacies are adapted from https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/, a helpful introduction to several common informal fallacies.
"People pushing for reopening care more about the stock market than people's lives!!!!!!"
This is an example of the strawman fallacy: misrepresenting someone's argument to make it easier to attack.
Those who want to reopen the economy think that way because of a combination of a belief that the lethality of the virus has been exaggerated and a concern that the shutdown will ultimately prove even deadlier.* But this position is more complex and actually takes some effort to argue against, and nuance is hard to fit in a meme. Whether an argument is right or wrong, oversimplifying it in order to attack it often results in missing the point entirely.
"My friend is a nurse and thinks this whole COVID thing is nonsense, so it's crazy that anyone thinks it's a big deal. "
This is an appeal to authority: saying that because an authority thinks something, it must therefore be true.
For starters, a nurse is not a doctor, though I've heard a few people make a similar argument using their MD friends. In any case, medical training does not magically confer correct opinions on anyone. If it did, everyone with medical training would think the same thing—but it turns out there are actually doctors and nurses on both sides of this issue. It is true that medical professionals have the background to form more educated opinions than most about medical issues; that's why we have them! But a degree does not an argument make.** Doctors and nurses can make mistakes too, so pay attention to the reasoning behind their opinions, not just their credentials. This applies to both sides.
"Systemic racism is a myth. After all, we had a black president!"
Welcome to the anecdotal fallacy: using a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence.
The claims being made about the existence of systemic racism apply to society at large, and single examples can neither prove nor disprove them. A variation of this fallacy is some form, usually implied, of "I don't see racism in this country; therefore it must not exist." Your personal experience is only a small part of reality. If other people are reporting experiences and facts that appear to contradict your experience, it may be worth listening to understand what they're really talking about before you dismiss them out of hand. (See also the straw man fallacy above.)
"If you don't support #BlackLivesMatter, you're on the wrong side of history!"
The phrase "wrong side of history" carries considerable philosophical baggage, but to a first-order approximation we can consider this a form of the bandwagon fallacy: appealing to popularity (or in this case, assumed future popularity) or the fact that many people do something as an attempted form of validation.
Sometimes correct ideas are popular. Sometimes they aren't. The popularity of an idea should not be used as either a positive or negative measurement of its validity. If a movement is worth supporting, one should be able to find better reasons for doing so than its level of approval.
Bonus: Watch out for the fallacy of equivocation. The statement that black lives matter is distinct from the organization that chose the phrase as its name, and there is no contradiction in someone wholeheartedly agreeing with the former while having reservations about the latter.
As you think and dialogue about contemporary issues, be careful to examine your rhetoric for logical coherence. At the same time, beware of the fallacy fallacy: presuming that because a claim has been poorly argued, or a fallacy has been made, the claim itself must be wrong.
* Some have even pointed out that most rhetoric surrounding the shutdown has ignored poorer countries whose inhabitants were barely surviving as it was, and who are now facing starvation as the global economy remains stymied.
** It's also worth noting that just as nurses are not doctors, not all doctors and nurses are public health experts. The fields overlap, but have different emphases.