A straw man on a horse

Make Hay, Not Straw Men! A Guide to Recognising and Avoiding False Arguments

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I have previously written about biases and how they can skew our beliefs about what we consider right, correct and truthful. When it comes to how we defend those views, we might find ourselves using or being countered with a logical fallacy.

Read about biases by following this link

Logical fallacies function as unhelpful distractions from the issues at hand. The term ‘logical fallacy’ can be misleading. It doesn’t refer to an error being a logical one to make. Rather, it refers to an error in logic or reasoning.

Logical fallacies are good at ending arguments, but they often worsen conflict. They overlook common ground and shared values, and that makes it very difficult to people to work together to improve understanding or find solutions to problems.

For those reasons, logical fallacies are really bad news for horse welfare, which depends on humans getting along.

In this article, I describe some of the most common logical fallacies so that you can notice when they are being used – by you and by others. That way, you can discuss core issues with being distracted into other unhelpful and irrelevant debates.

You should also become more self-aware of the logical fallacies you might be using. They are a great indication that you are not being open-minded to the information in front of you and/or are clinging onto some beliefs that you aren’t ready to have challenged.

The false dilemma or false dichotomy fallacy

The false dilemma or false dichotomy fallacy turns a conversation into a polarised either/or debate.

The problem with a false dichotomy is that it forces people to double-down on their opinions instead of critiquing them and being open-minded to alternatives, to all the shades of grey and exceptions that always exist.

In Australia, the false dichotomy fallacy can be easily spotted on the first Tuesday in November each year, when people debate the ethics of horse racing.

This year, colleagues and I published the results of a study showing no statistically significant difference between whipping-permitted and whipping-free Thoroughbred horse races according to movement on course, interference on course or race times.

We concluded, therefore, that whip use does not improve steering, safety or speed, and suggested that whipping could be banned without compromising rider safety or racing’s integrity – i.e., the fairness for punters.

Yet, several people on social media accused us of being anti-racing. Their comments moved the discussion unnecessarily and unhelpfully away from a scientific report on what whips do and don’t do, to a polarised debate about racing in which one can be ‘for’ or ‘against’ everyone in the racing and nothing in between.

This achieves little except setting people at loggerheads and it distracts from the fact that it is possible to be concerned about the welfare of racehorses and be pro-racing.

Indeed, in the face of increasing public scrutiny of racing practices, banning the whipping of racehorses may increase the popularity of an industry that relies on a social license to operate.

Also around the time of the Melbourne Cup, some people point out that anti-racing people should invest their time protesting something more worthwhile, such as soring practices for Tennessee Walking horses.

American horse trainers might then tell Australian horse welfare advocates to first look at what’s happening in their own backyard. Then, all of a sudden, we find ourselves being pulled into a debate over which horse welfare cause is most worthy of our attention and why the horses in our own country are more important. At least, that is what will occur if we are influenced by the false dichotomy fallacy which tells us you can only defend this or that practice in this or that country .

If, however, we notice that we are being lured into a false dichotomy, we can thwart it by acknowledging that there is a range of equally worthy horse welfare issues around the world to which we can give as much or little attention as we wish. Better still, we can return to discussing whip use in horseracing instead of defending our  right to care.

The straw man fallacy

The straw man fallacy can be seen when someone re-words your argument or belief in a way which misrepresents your argument as something else which is easier to dismiss and makes you look like shortsighted one. You usually know when it’s being used because you will be thinking (or saying) ‘that’s not what I’m saying at all’ or you may feel that someone is twisting your words.

For example, I might say that I am pleased that the national horse traceability register is moving ahead, to which someone responds ‘so you want the Government to stop us having horses’, or ‘so you want to shut down all the small breeders because they can’t afford any more fees’.

In another example, I might say that I believe all riders should wear helmets, to which someone might invoke the straw man fallacy and say ‘so you’re saying that just because some people are too scared to ride without a helmet that we should have to wear one’. This has the effect of not only undermining my argument, but also undermining my character and suggesting that I am insulting riders who wear helmets.

The correlation/causation fallacy

Most of us know that correlation does not equal causation, but you might see this flawed logic appear in an argument.

For example, I might say that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that horses will copy windsucking behaviours. Someone who disagrees might say rhetorically “well then, why do all the horses at this property windsuck?”

Their use of the correlation fallacy means that they will be unlikely to consider the scientific literature to which I am referring. Equally, my appeal to authority by referring to scientific literature might result in me failing to consider why there is a concentration of horses on one property exhibiting a stereotypic behaviour (incidentally, there is an ‘appeal to authority fallacy’).

By putting aside our logical fallacies, we could have a conversation about the impact of horse management on the formation of stereotypies.

Another simple example comes again from whip use in horseracing.

It is easy to see a horse being whipped and assume that the reason why it ran fast enough to be first across the finish line was because it was whipped. However, this view shuts down consideration of what else was going on which may have contributed to (or even jeopardised) the win.

We might even see the causation fallacy in effect when people seek to undermine an argument by pointing out exceptions.

That is, when they deny a correlation. For example, after being told how important whiskers are as sensory apparatuses, someone might say, ‘well, my horse always has his whiskers trimmed and he has never injured himself’.

The tu quoque fallacy

The tu quoque fallacy takes its name from the Latin for ‘you also’. Effectively, this is when someone points out ‘you too’.

It’s kind of like a tit for tat and usually results from someone’s ego being bruised, their inability to accept criticism or a preoccupation with hypocrisy.

An example is if your friend tells you to stop kicking your horse when she has already responded to your leg aid, and you respond with ‘well you do it too’.

In this example, the tu quoque fallacy prevents the rider from receiving advice and improving their riding. It is based on the false assumption that someone has to be perfect to give advice. If that was the case, there would be very few people from which to learn!

If someone responds to you with a tu quoque fallacy, it is a sign that they don’t feel safe or confident enough to accept advice. If you find yourself using the tu quoque fallacy, you might want to do some self-exploration around why the person’s advice was such a trigger for you (such as feeling criticized in other areas of your life). Either way, be compassionate with them and kind to yourself.

The slippery slope fallacy

The slippery slope fallacy can be seen when someone takes a point to an extreme, and usually one which is unlikely, unintended and misrepresents the aim of the original discussion.

I often meet the slippery slope fallacy when I promote voluntary helmet use and someone inevitably says ‘well, let’s just ban horse riding altogether then because it’s simply too dangerous’.

In those instances, people are moving a conversation that was about risk management to an unreasonable conclusion. They are successful when you find yourself arguing why horse riding should not be banned instead of all the good reasons for wearing a helmet.

The case of whip use in racing provides yet another example. In response to suggesting that horses don’t like being whipped, someone might say ‘well let’s stop riding horses altogether then’.

In this sense, there is some overlap with the false dichotomy fallacy. One minute you think you’re talking about improving horse welfare and rider safety, and the next you find yourself in a debate about whether or not we should even ride horses at all!

How do you deal with a logical fallacy without being distracted?

There is no way to avoid someone trying to engage with you via a logical fallacy. It is important to remember that they work when you legitimate them by responding to them, but that means you need to notice when they are being used – by others as well as yourself.

Once you have developed some skills in the ‘spot the logical fallacy game’, you can practice not-responding to them.

First of all, this means taking a breath so you don’t react in a way that legitimates the logical fallacy. Then you need to weigh up whether or not calling someone out on their use of a logical fallacy will help or hinder your ability to continue to engage in a discussion, if indeed you still want to. If you do want to continue the discussion, try as much as possible to ignore the logical fallacy by returning to and reiterating the original discussion. You might simply say ‘for now, let’s get back to the topic of… (improving your riding, the impact of whips on horse speed, the known benefits of wearing a helmet, how the national traceability register will work, what we know about how horses learn, etc).

Disentangling yourself from logical fallacies is not easy, but it gets better with practice. Thankfully, social media in general and horse forums specifically, are not short of discussions with which you can hone your skills in recognising logical fallacies. Try it out!

There are several good articles online that list and explain other logical fallacies not mentioned in this article, such as the ad hominen, appeal to authority and bandwagon logical fallacies.

Further resources:

A website where you can copy links to 24 different logical fallacies and send one to someone you think should know that they just used one of them

Straw Man fallacy depicted by Fed up Fred

‘Is Whip Use Important to Thoroughbred Racing Integrity? What Stewards’ Reports Reveal about Fairness to Punters, Jockeys and Horses’

 

Kirrilly Thompson PhD (Social Sciences)
Dr Kirrilly Thompson

Kirrilly Thompson, PhD, is Participation Manager at Pony Club Australia, Vice Chair of the Horse Federation of SA and a freelance qualitative research consultant. She has more than a decade of experience as an equestrian social scientist and has published over 100 journal articles, chapters and industry reports. Together with Lynda Birke, she is co-author of the book (Un)Stable Relations: Horses, Humans and Social Agency (Routledge Human-Animal Studies Series) which considers the role of horses in human-horse relations.

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2 Comments

  1. Very interesting post!! It is amazing how in the horse world (and today in almost everything, especially in social media), this situation is so common…we really need to improve arguments in discussions instead of discredit people.

  2. This is excellent, thank you, a great read! As someone who is active on social media and promoting improved equine welfare, I think I have experienced nearly all these logical fallacies. I’ve also noticed certain groups can be very predictable in their use of them, down to using the exact words and sentences.

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