The Owl of Minerva and the Fallacy Fallacy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

87000462-3The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. That's a metaphorical way of saying that wisdom is something that arises only at the end of inquiry, always in hindsight. You have to make the errors to learn from them, for sure. But there's more to the Owl of Minerva insight – our learning from the errors creates new capacities for error. And so, the process of learning from our mistakes is an endless task. That's what we call the Owl of Minerva Problem (we've written more about it HERE and HERE).

The fallacy fallacy is a good way to appreciate the Owl of Minerva Problem. The fallacy fallacy occurs when one starts seeing fallacies everywhere. In the same way that the college sophomore taking Abnormal Psychology becomes convinced that everyone in her dorm suffers from some disassociative disorder, students of informal logic frequently become convinced that fallacies are everywhere. That's fine, in a way. There are lots of fallacies and bad reasoning. That's because reasoning well is hard, and humans are regularly pretty bad at it. But once one starts seeing fallacies everywhere, one is tempted to think those who say so many things on the basis of fallacious reasons are thereby wrong about the things they say. But that inference, too, is a fallacy! Here's the basic scheme:

S is committed to p

S gives argument A for p

A is a fallacy

Therefore, p is false

The conclusion does not follow. Just because people have terrible reasons for some conclusion, it doesn't mean that the conclusion is false. Your uncle may believe something on the basis of wishful thinking, but that doesn't make it a false belief. So if he believes that the sun will rise tomorrow because he just can't go on in the dark, he's got a dumb reason, but his conclusion's still right. That's why we evaluate reasons as reasons independently of evaluating the conclusion. That's the whole point of critical thinking – keeping those questions separate.

This point about the fallacy fallacy is important because it provides a case where training in informal logic and fallacy detection actually creates a new kind of error. Nobody could commit the fallacy fallacy if there were no vocabulary of fallacies to begin with. The metalanguage of logic, which is supposed to help make us better reasoners, ends up making possible a particular kind of argumentative pathology. From the project of fallacy correction arises a new fallacy. Now, if that ain't ironic, we don't know what is.

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