A Guide to Thinking Critically About History
From time to time, we’ll be referring in class or online to argumentative fallacies as we interpret history and the way it’s interpreted by others. I’ll sometimes use the numerical codes below in the comment box for your written work (e.g. RD-1 will refer to Item #1 on the Rear Defogger page). All of us, students and professional historians alike, can easily fall into habits of crooked thinking. In fact, the more people care about a subject, the more likely they are to make questionable leaps of logic or play argumentative games, even if subconsciously. Fallacies, rhetorical fortresses, and cognitive biases transcend political partisanship and aren’t things that dumb people are guilty of as opposed to smart people. They are tire ruts that all of us fall into because our brains resist sound thinking about matters other than those directly related to our own survival. It takes too much energy and burns calories we could otherwise use for useful things like hunting for food and building shelters. Yet, think we must because many of these matters are related to our survival. Intellectual laziness and fallacies are to be avoided as best we can when studying history, just as cognitive distortions are discouraged in behavioral psychology. Understanding these tire ruts enables System 2 Thinking (aka, thinking slow instead of [too] fast). The links and list below can help us defrost the rear windshield, so to speak, as we look behind us (thus the title of our page).
For others — politicians, salesmen, lawyers, professors, journalists, magicians, or anyone putting a spin on things — knowledge of fallacies, framing, and crooked thinking constitute a virtual playbook of how to manipulate their audience without actually lying. For that reason alone, understanding common biases and argumentative fallacies should be a basic part of citizens’ educations as they embark on a world of voting, buying, litigating, learning, posting, and debating. Historical interpretation is an excellent vehicle to acquaint ourselves with these nuts and bolts of argumentation. One can make infinitely bad arguments on behalf of truth, but there are limits to the quality of cases one can make on behalf of a false proposition. At the conclusion of this course, you should be familiar with the habits of mind that it takes to understand history and arguments about history. Today’s media landscape affords the best opportunities ever for gathering good and diverse information, but it’s also flooded with “noise,” misinformation, disinformation, and bad arguments. Scientist E.O. Wilson wrote (optimistically) that “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” I’d offer a bleaker suggestion that the world will continue to be run by people willing and able to manipulate those unable to understand argumentation, as it’s always been, and that historical interpretations are often an ingredient in that manipulation.
Tedious? Perhaps. But, without a long history of philosophers and psychologists unpacking how to argue and think, you’d probably be running around right now trying to kill game with a stick instead of looking at your screen in air conditioning.
Topic Drop Ins (w. numerical codes)
Most of the content below involves history and politics/media, but it occasionally dabbles in UFOs, fringe theories, weather, and nutrition to demonstrate a point. If it seems purely like a list of negative things to avoid, remember that, in each case, the inverse is a positive step toward clearing the rear window and, by extension, the front windshield.
1. Be Wary of Subtext(s)
2. Missing the Big Picture & Broader Historical Context
3. Over-interpretation of Roots or Results
4. False Analogy, False Equivalence or Lack of Perspective
5. False Premise (and debatable premise)
6. Confusing Association/Correlation & Causation, or Cause-and-Effect (post hoc fallacy)
8. Conflation (Lumping Together), Not Distinguishing Nuance, Mixing Apples-Oranges
9. False Dichotomy (false choice)
11. Long Leaps of Logic
12. Anchor Bias
13. Bandwagon Effect
14. Argument From Ignorance & Argument From Authority
15. Confused Terminology
16. Focusing Effect & Reductionism (tunnel vision)
17. Framing Effect
18. Non-Comparative Comparisons
19. Excessive Slippery Slopes
20. Straw Man (or Bogeyman)
21. Selective Observation (including “my side” bias)
22. Shifting Baselines
23. Circular Reasoning
24. No Back-Up or Argument Support
25. Confusing Quantity & Quality of Evidence
26. Teleological Thinking & Determinism
27. Shoehorning or Retrofitting (related to Prophecy)
28. Historians’ Fallacy
29. Fundamental Attribution Error & Actor-Observer Bias
31. Chronological Error / Sequencing
32. Counterfactual History
33. Too Many Contingencies
35. Ad Hominem Attacks & Rhetorical Fortresses
36. Fallacy Fallacy
Is History Written By The Winners? History Today
1. Be Wary of Subtext(s)
There’s usually a story behind the story that is the reason we’re talking about it. The reason is that virtually no one actually cares about history, only how to employ history to make a point about the present and future.
Ex. 1: The most common use of subtext connects to a story’s broader context. In 1980, Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair outside Philadelphia, Mississippi reminding voters during a discussion on education that he’d always admired Southerners’ appreciation for states’ rights. As is often the case in American politics, the subtext behind the code word states’ rights was race. This wasn’t about education (the text); Reagan was telling the audience that he was on their side regarding the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s (against it). When Confederate flags flew in the audience, it wasn’t out of pride for the local schoolhouse. There was already subtext behind the location of the speech. This was subtextpalooza. Philadelphia, Mississippi was where three civil rights workers were killed by the sheriff and Ku Klux Klan in 1964. While Reagan didn’t endorse that violence (he wasn’t that vulgar), the town was a symbolic place to recruit southern, white voters. Reagan’s Neshoba Co. speech manipulated his audiences’ perceived sense of history on behalf of the GOP’s Southern Strategy.
Ex. 2: This one also has to do with race. In the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, the text was the actual murder case but subtexts were race and celebrity. Simpson was a famous African-American football player accused of killing his white wife and another man. The broader context was decades of racial tension between the LAPD and the city’s African-American community, including a recent miscarriage of justice in the trial of Rodney King, in which an all-white suburban jury exonerated officers that illegally beat King up on film.
Ex. 3: In HH 1302 Chapter 4, Margaret Sanger’s reputation and association with eugenics are in the spotlight because of her founding role in Planned Parenthood. The text is Margaret Sanger, but the subtext is whether American taxpayers should fund Planned Parenthood given that they advise and/or perform abortions. No one cares about Margaret Sanger; all of us, pro-life and pro-choice, care about abortion rights going forward.
Ex. 4: Normally, the Secretary of State isn’t held accountable for everyday security matters at embassies around the world. The subtext of controversy surrounding the 2012 Benghazi tragedy was SOS Hillary Clinton’s upcoming run at the 2016 presidency. Republicans wouldn’t have investigated Benghazi ten times if they hadn’t anticipated running against the woman who was Secretary of State at the time (Wiki).
Ex. 5: Cryptocurrency and one’s attitude toward it carry with it a subtext about one’s attitude toward governments and nationalism. Those skeptical of today’s nation-states, or at least their capacity to manage currencies effectively, are more likely to favor cryptocurrencies.
Ex. 6: In Chapter 18 on the Vietnam War, President Diem doesn’t win over many South Vietnamese with his support of Catholicism at the expense of Buddhism. The subtext was the perception among critics that Diem was a western lackey, underscored by his endorsement of the “white man’s religion.” France brought Catholicism when they colonized Vietnam in the 19th century. Catholicism symbolized suspicions that Diem was America’s puppet, just as Bao Dai had been France’s puppet.
Ex. 7: Subtext can also refer to the message one sends beyond the actual text of the message. A student emails his/her professor and asks, “based on my current scores, can I still make a B?” This might be a situation where the student can’t do the math (which is fine and we can work with) or doesn’t understand the grading scale (which can be clarified), but it’s most likely an email with the following subtext: I could probably figure this out on my own but I’m too lazy so I’m just going to have you do it for me because my time is more valuable than yours. Word to the wise: this is not a subtext you want to convey to future bosses on the job.
2. Missing the Big Picture & Broader Historical Context
This is can be connected to Subtexts (as in the LAPD example above), Selective Observation (#21 below), “not seeing the forest for the trees,” and Shifting Baselines (#22 below).
Ex. 1: After the atomic attacks on Japan in 1945, many military leaders in the U.S. voiced their disapproval of nuclear weapons. They may have been genuinely opposed, but it’s worth noting that most of those opposed came from branches of the armed forces that stood to lose funds relative to the Air Force as it branched out of the Army and formed its own wing that included nuclear weapons. That’s one context of the argument, with others being moral, strategic, etc. Later, when the Army and Navy got funding for some of their own nuclear weapons, criticism died down quickly. Always be aware of the motivations and biases of various actors in the historical play, but also understand that motivation alone doesn’t prove guilt. Cui bono (who profits?) is a very worthwhile question to ask, but it’s not enough. That’s why a common plot device in crime mysteries is to have multiple promising suspects.
Ex. 2: When you consider whether aliens from another planet invaded Los Angeles in February 1942, consider the context. Civilians and military on the West Coast were understandably on edge in the months just after Pearl Harbor. The night before the alleged attack, Japanese subs fired on an oil rig just north of Los Angeles, near Santa Barbara. Might these factors have contributed to why the military would overreact to a weather balloon? Weigh that versus the unlikelihood that beings from another planet would visit, coincidentally, right as all this was happening. The same goes in general with the timing of the UFO phenomenon and the early Cold War and humanity’s own explorations into space (more below).
Ex. 3: Archaeologists unearthed human remains beneath Benjamin Franklin’s London home and dated the bones to his stay there (1750s-70’s). Imaginative theories popped up connecting rituals to his membership in the Masons and alleged association with the Illuminati, and even devil worship. Context presents a more likely if boring explanation. Franklin was interested in science and anatomy and, at the time, the only real way to study corpses was to purchase them on a grave-robbing black market. We don’t know for sure how the bodies ended up under his basement, but anatomical research is a far more likely explanation than Satanic worship.
Ex. 4: During the Protestant Reformation, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Leo X might have cracked down harder on Martin Luther’s heresy. However, in the larger context, they were hesitant to alienate local princes like Frederick of Saxony that supported Luther because they needed their support in fending off a potential Muslim invasion. These princes understood this context and leveraged the situation to gain power at the expense of the Catholic Church.
Ex. 5: When Henry VIII appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Pope didn’t refuse him just because Henry was a high-profile king or that the Church believed marriage was for life. The broader context was that Clement didn’t want to alienate the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, the Spanish King Charles V, who was Catherine’s nephew. This led to the English Reformation, which led to English colonization of America, which led to the United States.
Ex. 6: Franklin Roosevelt has been criticized as racist for not wanting African American Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. It’s true that he didn’t want her to, but one of his reasons, along with fear of alienating southern Democrats, was that he feared violence on the part of the KKK. Maybe these reasons still aren’t good enough but, either way, his concerns weren’t as they might’ve appeared on the surface (with politicians, they never are). The context underlying this episode is FDR’s attempt to unite the liberal and southern wings of the Democratic Party to pass New Deal legislation.
Ex. 7: In our textbook (1302: 14) I mention that John Kennedy appears clueless on one recording about the presence of American missiles in Turkey. A reader might interpret that as meaning that my overall interpretation of Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was cluelessness and incompetence, which is not the case — that’s just one incident within a bigger story. Look for bigger, more general interpretations rather than focusing on one sliver of an argument.
Ex. 8: The Russia Hoax Hoax: the idea that since the Steele Dossier was bogus, there were procedural mistakes in initiating the Carter Page investigation, and Hillary’s Clinton’s lawyer shouldn’t have investigated wrongdoings at Alfa-Bank, therefore the whole idea that Donald Trump was working with Russia during the 2016 election was wrong and he was unfairly persecuted. But most journalists never saw these other matters as important trees in the collusion forest and neither did the Mueller Report, which documents two-hundred pages of suspicious collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia and several examples of potential obstruction of justice in the second two-hundred pages. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager during the summer of 2016, seemed incline to auction off eastern Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s aid in the election, and later testified to as much. In Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon said Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower to get dirt on Hillary Clinton was treasonous and unpatriotic. The Russia Hoax Hoax is Exhibit 1A in “missing the forest for the trees.” The most important trees were ones that were in the open, including Trump’s business interests in Russia, the sudden reversal to a pro-Russian foreign policy during the 2016 GOP convention, the glaring fact that the man who led that convention, Manafort, worked for the wrong (pro-Russian) Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovych, Trump’s incessant obstruction of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the election, Trump’s “joke” that Russia should find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails followed hours later by them attempting to do so, and the fact that, at Helsinki, Trump openly sided with Russia against his own country’s intelligence agencies as they tried to investigate Russian involvement in the election, causing Vlad Putin to nearly burst out laughing, though Trump later argued un-persuasively that was a slip of the tongue. Most important is the bigger context that Putin had every reason to help as Trump would hopefully rattle American democracy’s cage. Motive doesn’t prove guilt, but Putin has a long pattern of interfering in other countries and suspected that Hillary had done that in Russia as Secretary of State. Trump didn’t challenge Putin about his interference in the 2016 election, which Republicans, the CIA, and FBI all agreed happened regardless of Trump’s connection to Russia. In their 2010 election, six years before Trump supporters did likewise with Hillary Clinton, Yanukovych supporters chanted “Lock Her Up” toward their rival, pro-western Yulia Tymoshenko (right), co-leader of the Orange Revolution, whom they imprisoned until 2017 on spurious charges after defeating her. Sadly, the editorial staff of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal was all in on this Russia Hoax fallacy. But the Russia Hoax Hoax isn’t just right-wing spin; it’s also the product of the left searching for and not finding hidden secrets and “smoking guns” instead of just connecting dots that they did know about.
Ex. 9: The claim that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election due to voter fraud hinges on the believer missing the forest for the trees. The key to believing such claims is to find an isolated case of fraud and assume that can be extrapolated onto a larger scale, when really it was just isolated. When the Associated Press studied such claims over six contested states that Trump lost in 2020, they found only 475 cases (AP). The key to believing in the conspiracy is not knowing that 475 is a small number out of tens of millions of voters and not remotely enough to swing the election, combined with the assumption that those 475 cheated on behalf of Biden rather than Trump combined with not realizing that most elections have scattered instances of fraud.
Ex. 10: We almost take it for granted today that supporters of church-state separation are anti-religious. But a longer view makes one realize that everyone’s beliefs would’ve been outlawed at some point by some government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s idea that complete, uncompromising religious freedom and lack of government interference would actually benefit rather than hinder religion was arguably borne out over the course of American history. No religion maintains any legal preference over any other in the United States and the U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the world. Historically, being religious often made people more likely to favor religious freedom, not oppose it.
Ex. 11: This Civil War blog is an example of missing the big picture and selective observation. The author uses primary sources and is genuinely engaged in trying to understand the Civil War in the context of the times, but he’s over-focusing on one of those contexts, taxation/tariffs, at the expense of many others, including western expansion, the potential conflict between wage labor and slavery, Lincoln’s personal evolution between 1858 and ’65, thousands of soldier’s letters and, most jaw-dropping, the entire history of the 1850s, when the biggest controversies in the country concerned slavery, not tariffs. No Confederate soldiers marched off to war in 1861 saying that they were fighting against tariffs, though many mentioned things other than slavery. The author doesn’t unpack the southern declarations of independence, except to mention them briefly to support of the idea that war wasn’t about slavery because “of the 11 seceding states, only 6 cited slavery as [their] primary cause for leaving the union.” This blog isn’t a reactionary defense of southern heritage and is worth reading for the “trees” about taxes/tariffs, but the author misses a vast forest in arguing that these trees mean the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. South Carolina secessionists and Confederate politicians told us otherwise directly.
Ex. 12: The idea that tearing down Confederate statues is an example of rewriting history is subconsciously premised on the idea that erecting them in the first place was an attempt to accurately portray history or to honor an accurate interpretation of why the Confederacy fought. If putting the statues up in the first place was attempt to mislead the public as to the war’s aims or, more bluntly, just to intimidate African Americans, then it’s harder to sympathize with bemoaning their demise.
Ex. 13: This a modern-day example of missing the big picture.
Someone once told me that he opposed wind power because birds sometimes get killed in the turbines. While we all love birds, and the problems they have in turbines might be one of many factors we think about when considering energy, it’s best to step back and look at our overall energy use. What are the overall percentages of production broken down by coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, etc.? What are the cost/benefit analyses of each type of energy? How important is climate change and how much will it cost? Can we do a better job of protecting birds as we build and run turbines? It might be best to consider all these things before deciding that you oppose all wind power because some birds get killed. The same goes with all the pros and cons of all types of energy and, for that matter, with the pros and cons of any topic.
Always think of the historical context surrounding whatever issue or event it is that you’re studying. Often that sheds new light and will lead you to interpret things in a different way. It’s impossible, for instance, to understand the American Revolution without understanding the broader context of the British Empire and European diplomacy. It’s impossible to understand Nazism without understanding its connection to World War I and historical antisemitism. It’s impossible to understand American race relations without understanding slavery and the Mexican war. Context is why it’s impossible to understand anything well without understanding its history, which is why you’re taking this class.
3. Over-interpretation of Roots or Results
Be wary of judging something based on its long-term historical roots or of judging something historical based on what someone does with it later.
Ex. 1: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a racist and/or dabbled in eugenics. Therefore, people like Hillary Clinton who support Planned Parenthood today are trying to commit genocide against inner-city Blacks. Modern liberals, whatever their other faults, aren’t into genocide, and neither was Sanger.
Ex. 2: Adolf Hitler encouraged the invention of the Volkswagen Beetle, so today’s VW’s should be associated with Nazism.
Ex. 3: Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is wrong because, after his death, people misapplied social Darwinism to racist eugenics or to justify unbridled capitalism (William Jennings Bryan’s critique in the 1926 Scopes trial).
4. False Analogy, False Equivalence or Lack of Perspective
Avoid unwarranted equivocation and what psychologists call “magnification.” And don’t over-rely on whataboutism, the fine art of not addressing an argument by steering immediately to another argument, as in “well, what about….?”
Ex. 1: Should American Christians be intolerant toward Muslims? Well, look at Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father. One of his first acts as President was to send the Navy into battle against North African Muslims. True, but he didn’t do that because they were Muslims, rather because they were pirates. Conveniently flushed down the Memory Hole: Jefferson advocated religious tolerance toward all American citizens, including Muslims.
Ex. 2: The red lights should go on whenever anyone describes the U.S. government as “tyrannical,” even if it is overbearing in a particular instance. Describing any of the democratic countries’ governments as generally tyrannical waters down the term and is likely coming from the mouth or pen of someone unfamiliar with real tyranny or with a warped sense of reality. They’re “magnifying” and over-generalizing from instances where democratic governments really are overbearing. If the majority in a democracy passes a law, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you might not like it, but the law wasn’t passed by a dictatorship against the wishes of the people. There’s a difference. The same goes with the 2001 Patriot Act, which a critical balance of voters supported. Democratic countries like the U.S. experience the advantages and disadvantages of not being tyrannical.
Ex. 3: Americans were just as bad as Germans during WWII because they held Japanese citizens in concentration camps. This is a false equivalent brought on by confusing terminology and a lack of perspective and knowledge of what happened. While it’s true that the U.S. imprisoned innocent Japanese-American citizens and that one could technically call internment camps “concentration camps” because they were set up to concentrate (and cordon off) a particular population, the U.S. crucially didn’t enslave, torture, and murder Japanese-Americans in these camps.
Ex. 4: American eugenicists influenced German Nazis prior to the Holocaust. However, for the most part, they had no agenda to exterminate anyone, only to sterilize “undesirables” before they had children. Thus, we can’t equate the American eugenics movement with the Holocaust. Like the Japanese internment camps, that’s a false equivalent. You can understand that while simultaneously criticizing eugenics and internment camps.
Ex. 5: Dr. Ben Carson argued that since the Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) requires people to purchase health insurance, it’s “worse than slavery.” It’s helpful in today’s media to say provocative things to draw attention to yourself, but the comparison shows a lack of perspective on both issues. Ultimately, this one is a matter of opinion (his assertion isn’t demonstrably false), but most reasonable people would argue that he’s either “magnifying” the downside of the insurance mandate and/or isn’t fully aware of the enslaved experience despite being African-American himself.
Ex. 6: Another example of a false equivalent would be to say, if we mention that the Sun is the center of the Solar System then, to be fair, we should give equal time to the idea that the Earth is actually the center of the Solar System. This one’s not a matter of opinion. The geocentric model doesn’t deserve equal time because it’s wrong. It deserves no time.
Ex. 7: The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol has led to a lot of shaky whataboutism on the part of its apologists. For instance: what about BLM protestors throwing rocks at federal building? It’s a false equivocation because BLM protestors aren’t president of the United States and throwing rocks is an example of vandalism rather than an attempt to overturn an election. It might be a bad thing, but it’s nowhere near being as serious of an issue.
Ex. 8: People often liken giving COVID-19 a Chinese nickname to the erroneous “Spanish Flu” moniker from 1918-19. But that’s a false equivalent as the 1918-19 influenza pandemics really weren’t from Spain, whereas COVID-19 originated in China. The problem with “Spanish Flu,” in other words, isn’t that it’s politically incorrect, but rather factually incorrect. It might be completely unnecessary, or inspired by a cheap appeal to racism, to name COVID-19 after China, but it did originate there. In Spain’s case, since they weren’t involved in WWI their government didn’t censor mention of influenza in their press. Since people first read about it in Spanish newspapers, they mistakenly thought that it originated there. Many countries also nicknamed their version of the flu after their rivals, leading to widespread confusion.
Ex. 9: The state history standards Florida released in 2023 instructed students to learn about violence perpetuated against and by African Americans in riots such as Tulsa, OK and Ocoee, FL in the 1920s. While it’s true that African Americans might’ve fought back, it’s absurd to equate that with white mobs attacking them unprovoked in the first place and burning down their neighborhoods to prevent them form running businesses or voting, etc. That would be like blaming Americans for Pearl Harbor because they fired off some anti-aircraft artillery.
Note: Lack of perspective isn’t really a “fallacy,” but gaining perspective is one of the big advantages of studying history.
Ex. 9: Declinism. It’s helpful when you’re experiencing the near-universal human emotion that the world is going downhill to step back and understand that every era thinks of itself that way. There is virtually no such thing as a civilization that examines itself and pronounces that things are looking up and that people seem to be behaving better. The reason you’re especially aware of the immorality of your own era is mainly that you’re especially aware of your own era to begin with and that your layers of naivete are peeling off like onion skin as you age. Harry Truman was closer to the truth when he said that “there’s nothing new in the world except the history that you don’t know.” We discuss declinism’s close cousin progressophobia in entry #34 below.
Ex. 10: It adds perspective on UFO history to realize that, at every point in history, humans have seen things in the sky that make sense to their own given time period. In the Middle Ages, they saw angels. In the late 19th century, people didn’t see silvery disks but rather “mystery airship” dirigibles powered by pedaling Martians. That’s likely because they were aware of hot-air balloons and bicycles and were on the verge of inventing powered aircraft. In the 1950s, they saw craft similar to what we were trying to build ourselves to get into space and similar to what science-fiction writers imagined. Why no sleek, modern-looking craft in the Middle Ages? Why no pedal-powered dirigibles in the 21st century? Note: your author has gotten more open-minded about this in the 21st century. But, still, the Navy and Customs-Border Patrol saw and tracked high-end drones at the exact point in human history when we’re developing drones.
5. False Premise &/or Debatable Premise
Always consider the assumptions that an argument is based on. Example #2-10 above argues that the idea religious people should favor breaking down the separation of church and state is based on a premise, that involving the government strengthens peoples’ religious faith. That premise isn’t necessarily false, but it is most certainly debatable.
Ex. 1: We’re mystified that children from wealthier families are suffering from a disproportionate amount of asthma. Why is that? Maybe being reared in a clean environment lowers one’s immunity. That argument is premised (rightly or wrongly) on the idea that the poor raise their children in dirty environments. If that’s wrong, the argument falls apart.
Ex. 2: Examine the following phrase: “My mother is someone who, in all respects, should be a Republican. She works hard, is very religious and has strong family values. Yet, because she is a Hindu and Indian-American she votes Democrat.” It’s based on two debatable premises, or assumptions: that Democrats don’t believe in hard work, family or religion, and Republicans are racist. Those sound more like ideas that the respective parties think about each other than how people define themselves.
Ex. 2: The item above about Jefferson and Muslim pirates is premised on the idea that modern Americans should think or act in the same way as the Founding Fathers. That’s not a “false” premise, but it’s a debatable premise one would want to consider when making or hearing out the argument. It’s an appeal or argument from authority. Jefferson had slaves, too. Should we?
Ex. 3: The debate over whether Harry Truman should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan is premised on the reasonable assumption that he ordered the attacks. However, there’s no actual proof of such an order. This lack of proof, in turn, doesn’t prove that he didn’t. That fallacy is known as an appeal or argument from ignorance.
Ex. 4: FOX Commentator Greg Gutfeld explained on C-SPAN that the purpose of conservatives is to make liberals possible. To wit: conservatives take the initiative to create a business (taking risk, going into debt, working long hours, sleeping on the floor, etc.) so that a liberal can come along later and demand higher wages as an employee or benefit from re-distributed taxes. Whatever the argument’s other merits, the premise that job-creators are conservatives is an over-generalization. A 2012 poll of small-business owners, for instance, showed that about 45% identify as Republicans or Tea Partiers and 30% as Democrats with the rest independents. Among larger corporations, much of the cutting-edge entrepreneurship of the last 30-40 years has come from the “bluest” areas like Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest. “Blue Islands” (liberal strongholds) are more prosperous, in general, than “red” areas. Why would that be if they’re filled with unassertive pikers waiting around for job-creators? Moreover, conservative ranchers and farmers in “red states” receive billions each year in government subsidies — far more proportionally than “blue states.”
Ex. 5: Arguments over affirmative action at elite schools are normally premised on the idea that all students are better off at elite schools. Likewise, arguments against affirmative action are often premised on the idea that Whites are disadvantaged by such policies. However, sometimes Whites take spots from Asian-Americans to fulfill informal quotas.
Ex. 6: We often mistakenly assume that history moves uniformly, rather than in stops, starts, and regressions. Haven’t things gotten steadily and gradually better for women and minorities over the course of American history? In the big picture, yes, but not necessarily in any given small picture. Southern Blacks in some areas were arguably better off in the first few years after the Civil War (Radical Reconstruction) than they were in either the South or North a generation later. Women were less likely to work in most careers in the 1950s than earlier in the 20th century. Gains are hard won and often groups have to continue to fight to hang on to what they’ve won. Don’t assume that history progresses uniformly.
Ex. 7: We often bemoan the fact that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas or that it’s become too commercialized or less religious. That’s based on an unspoken assumption or premise that Christmas was traditionally a more religious holiday “back in the good ole’ days.” Here’s a good example of where history sheds a different light because Christmas has gotten more religious over time. Traditional Christmas was a more pagan and unruly celebration. Pagan Christmas celebrations kept the tradition alive for enough centuries that it was later able to take root as the relatively wholesome, religious (if commercialized) holiday. Of course, this whole discussion is premised on the idea that it’s a good thing for Christmas to be more wholesome, not less.
Ex. 8: Donald Trump’s idea that the U.S. was going to pull out of trade deals and diplomatic alliances and, instead, operate in its own best interests, was premised on the idea that the U.S. entered into such deals for the benefit of others rather than itself. But the reason America entered into trade deals and alliances wasn’t charity but rather because it reasoned, rightfully or wrongfully, that it was in its own best interests to create an international framework that played by its rules of democratic capitalism.
Ex. 9: The atomic attacks on Japan were justified because they killed fewer people than a landed invasion would have. That may be true, but it leaves out the possibility of other options. It’s premised on the notion that there were no other options. It’s incumbent on the person making that argument to rule out other options rather than just comparing the first two.
Ex. 10: Since my ancestor who fought in the Civil War didn’t own slaves, the war couldn’t have been about slavery. That’s based on the false premise that the motivations of individuals fighting in a war match those of the political leaders who are enlisting them to fight. They often do not. In this case, most of the soldiers who either volunteered or were drafted to fight for the Confederacy didn’t own slaves, but that doesn’t mean that the CSA didn’t secede from the U.S. to defend and perpetuate slavery. Nor does it necessarily mean that the non-slave-owning soldiers didn’t support slavery. But even if they didn’t, hundreds of letters prove that volunteers on both sides of the Civil War fought for reasons unrelated to bigger political contexts like preserving the Union, slavery or states’ rights, including boredom, showing off for women, honor, religion, etc. Once both sides ran out of volunteers and turned to conscription, then the soldiers’ motivations had even less to do with the political leaders.
Ex. 11: Based on the legislation they support, modern Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that higher voter participation favors Democrats. That’s not necessarily the case according to Shaw & Petrocik’s The Turnout Myth (2020). This may or may not be a false premise, but anyone that thinks or acts on it in either party should at least consider the premise carefully. Trump may have made a similar mistake in the 2020 election by opposing mail-in ballots: because they skew older, Republicans normally benefit from mail-in voting.
Ex. 12: Our first reaction is often to boycott international organizations like the WHO or Olympics (1980) when we oppose something that organization is doing or stands for or the host country. That is premised on the debatable, but not false, premise that boycotts are more effective than engagement.
Ex. 13: One purported appeal of racists is their “integrity” or that they “tell it like it is.” While ostensibly a defiance of undue political correctness, that idea is premised on two things: first, that, in reality but not spin, Whites are superior or claims of modern racism are overblown; and, second, that the people who disagree are not only wrong, but purposely lying about it (otherwise, integrity isn’t a distinguishing factor that sets apart racists). In other words, racially progressive people must agree, deep-down, with racists and are only claiming to think otherwise.
Ex. 14: There’s a school of realpolitik foreign policy theory that labels itself realists. Their quasi-isolationist angle of moderating our diplomatic ambitions and recognizing the potential depravity and bad faith of other actors isn’t necessarily without merit, but their name is based on two premises, the first irritating and the second debatable. First, their name suggests that everyone that disagrees is driven by idealism and insufficiently aware of the real world. But any theoretical school could claim this about other schools, because the reason anyone believes in anything is that they think it’s realistic, whether it is or not. In the case of foreign relations, an idealist could argue that our only realistic hope for long-term survival is total nuclear disarmament, and indeed self-styled realists like Henry Kissinger have argued just that. Realists contrast themselves with interventionist liberals like Woodrow Wilson and modern neoconservatives who thought American global hegemony was necessary for world peace. But whether they were right or wrong, interventionists’ motivation was based on what they saw as a realistic assessment, not to promote idealism (i.e. “look, the only realistic way to maintain stability is if the U.S. acts as world policeman.”). The second premise is more interesting: that idealism is necessarily ineffective. Is it really true? Regardless of what one thinks of organized religion, is it not the case that Jesus and Mohammad changed world history? Didn’t Gandhi and Martin Luther King impact civil rights with their idealism?
Ex. 15: The idea that the U.S. entered into peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese because of the 1968 Tet Offensive is premised on the idea that the battle was an American defeat. However, if the battle was actually a communist defeat, then it’s plausible that the U.S. was already willing to negotiate and it was actually the North Vietnamese who were ready for peace talks because of Tet. This is not only an example of a false premise, but potentially confuses cause and effect, our next topic.
Ex. 16: One of America’s longest and most epic environmental debates was over oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), set aside by Eisenhower’s administration in Alaska’s North Slope in 1960. They started drilling in nearby Prudhoe Bay after 1968, hitting peak production in the 1970s when the state-long pipeline to Port Valdez was built. Everyone on both sides of the debate assumed that, if they opened up parts of the nature reserve, companies would bid to drill there, but only a few did. By the time Trump enabled that in 2017 (as pork in this tax bill), fossil fuel companies were cautious about long-term capital investments in oil since drivers were transitioning to electric and hybrid vehicles.
6. Confusing Association & Causation, or Cause-and-Effect
If A and B are simultaneous, or B occurs just after A, that doesn’t mean that A caused B (though it might have). The Latin term for the fallacy that if B follows A, A must have caused B is post hoc ergo propter hoc, usually just shortened to post hoc fallacy. Also, be wary of attributing an overly-essential relationship between two things that aren’t intrinsically connected (e.g., the New Deal and racism).
A. Pioneers moving onto the Great Plains cleared forests to grow crops.
B. It then rained a lot.
C. Chopping down trees makes it rain.
Unscrupulous real estate agents got a lot of mileage out this one among 19th-century European emigrants.
Ex. 2: Always be skeptical of, “well President so-and-so tried X, and we all saw what happened….” We might not have seen exactly what happened. Are we sure that the president’s action or mere presence in the Oval Office was the only thing acting on whatever phenomenon we’re talking about? Was the president even responsible for it happening in the first place, or was it something Congress passed and he signed (or overrode his veto), or something that happened in society while he/she was president? Also, presidents the impact of one president’s actions might not be felt until subsequent presidents are in office. Reality is complicated and political leaders aren’t Gods.
Ex. 3: Civil rights writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has implied, based mainly on New Deal racism, that there is an intrinsic (essential) connection between progressive, leftist politics and racism — that progressivism is inherently white. However, many minorities and civil rights leaders have been economic progressives, and there’s no reason to think that progressivism and racism are intrinsically linked. There’s no lasting causal relationship between leftist politics and racism, even though progressive Democrats of the 1930s had to forestall civil rights in order to bring Southern Democrats on board for the New Deal. If there is, we need to discover and do something about it.
Ex. 4: For critics of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff, protectionism worsened the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Economist Paul Krugman argues that, while Smoot-Hawley was undoubtedly a moderate net loss (as is all protectionism for the broader population), such an interpretation confuses cause and effect. The decline in trade was even worse before Smoot-Hawley than after and was a result (not just cause) of the worsening recession.
Ex. 5: Issues involving equality of opportunity vs. equality of results/outcome naturally involve questions of cause-and-effect. Unequal hiring outcomes only prove discrimination if the group charging discrimination had the same number of applicants and same qualifications. There may be numerous other reasons why that wasn’t the case. The group being supposedly discriminated against has agency, too, and is acting (or could be acting) as a cause on the results, not just the effect. The EEOC v. Sears (1980-86) district court case is a good example, in which the the plaintiff charged Sears with discrimination because 50% of their sales staff, nationwide, weren’t female. They lost because they couldn’t prove that 50% of the applicants willing to work the long hours required of those jobs were female. The reasons why fewer women wanted to work longer hours is complicated, no doubt involving the demands of child-rearing, etc., but it would’ve been oversimplifying the situation to merely say the whole thing was Sears’ fault or that there’s no other explanation besides discrimination.
Ex. 6: Here’s a sentence with a couple of problems: “I think one of the biggest factors that caused the outbreak of the [Salem Witch] trials is that they were always accused of being women.” First, the fact that victims were often women is an attribute of the Salem Witch Trials, but not necessarily the cause of the trials, though misogyny is worth investigating as a factor. But if misogyny was the lone or primary cause there would’ve been witch trials going on wherever and whenever women have existed, which is everywhere all the time. Second, the problem wasn’t that suspected witches were accused of being women — anyone accused of being a witch rather than a warlock is female — but rather that women were disproportionately accused of being witches.
Ex. 7: Another head-scratcher: “If women gaining the right to vote was such an invaluable accomplishment for equality, then why were we such a better nation during the Early Republic than we are now?” This claim has a few problems. First, it’s premised on the fact that the early U.S. was a better country than the current U.S. That’s a matter of opinion, but one that many historians would contest, so it demands further explanation. Second, it’s one thing to argue that things were better during the Early Republic and quite another to argue that women being disenfranchised was why things were better. There might just be an association between those two phenomena rather than causation.
Ex. 8: Comedian Jon Stewart laid into Jim Cramer, host of MSNBC’s Mad Money, after the 2009-09 Financial Crisis, blaming the crisis partly on America’s obsession with the stock market. Encouraging retail investors to pick stocks on shows like Mad Money may not be sage advice, but the stock market collapse was an effect, not a cause, of the financial crisis, which originated in real estate and its derivative shadow market.
Ex. 9: The political structure of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy has similarities with the U.S. Constitution. And the American Founders (and Montesquieu, who influenced James Madison) were aware of the Iroquois and admired them. But it doesn’t follow that their political system directly influenced the Founders. We know what they were studying and reading about in the run-up to writing the Constitution. They were focused on Rome, Britain, and their own thirteen states, all of whom had their own constitutions. The Iroquois theory is more interesting; it’s just wrong. Indian republics should be appreciated in their own right.
Think through what you’re arguing. Before attributing B to A, analyze the connection between A and B.
The following examples aren’t uniformly true just because they aren’t uniformly false. It’s nitpicky for sure (some might even call it “politically correct”), but if you don’t use adjectives like some or most, you are, in effect, using all. In cases like 1A or 1B, instead of reacting to the claim itself, just look around you.
Ex. 1: In his infamous January 6th (2021) speech, Trump urged his followers to take back their country by arguing “you built America!” Other groups argue the same thing, but no one demographic built America. The fact that lots of people contributed to America’s economy shouldn’t be too challenging to wrap one’s head around. If you’re skeptical about any particular demographic, let me know and I’ll fill you in on the basics.
Ex. 2: Southerners who switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in the late 20th century did so because they opposed the civil rights movement. Some, no doubt, actually opposed New Deal and Great Society liberalism for other reasons, though that’s difficult to believe for those viewing history through a single lens.
Ex. 3: Muslims want to kill infidels. It’s true that some do, but the vast, vast majority don’t.
8. Conflation (Lumping Together), Not Distinguishing Nuance, Mixing Apples-Oranges, non sequitur (Latin: “it doesn’t follow”), Red Herring
This can overlap with #7. Distinguish the various elements and nuance of an argument. Avoid conflating two distinct assertions and “mixing apples and oranges.” To do so deliberately is to “throw a red herring” into the argument.
Ex. 1: Arguing that enslaved workers helped build early America doesn’t mean one is endorsing slavery. Those are two different things.
Ex. 2: Arguing that Nazis built good highways isn’t the same as sanctioning the Holocaust.
Ex. 3: America was founded as a Christian nation because many of the Founders were Christian. The fact that many Founders were Christian does not mean that they legally enshrined Christianity as the official religion of the United States in the Constitution, just as the fact that many Founders were Deists doesn’t mean that they didn’t. The personal faith of Founders and what they enshrined legally in the Constitution are two different things. Both assertions might be true, both might be false, or the first might be true and the second false, or vice-versa; but in any event, they should not be conflated as the same assertion.
Ex. 4: The unfortunate habit of Americans to compare people they disagree with to fascists. What do George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump have in common? All have been likened to Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler. Granted, some Americans might have more fascist tendencies than others (truer now than anytime in the last century), but dare to have the fortitude, emotional restraint, and intellectual insight to consider that someone can disagree with you without being “just like Hitler.” The same is true with the term Nazi. People with no real knowledge of Nazism just know that it’s a really bad word so, if anyone disagrees with them, “they’re a Nazi.”
Ex. 5: In this Yahoo Sports op-ed, the author tears into former NFL sideline reporter and budding Republican politician Michele Tafoya (right) for her opposition to schools teaching her kids that skin color matters. It fails to distinguish between two different, if overlapping, issues. One is Tafoya’s assertion that white people have been working since the Civil War to make sure that skin color doesn’t matter in America. That’s so jaw-droppingly wrong that one suspects she misspoke and intended to say “since the Civil Rights movement….” But, in any event, the context of her remarks was her opposition to her kids were being separated into affinity groups at school, and that the school was holding separate picnics for families of color. On this matter, the author defends these practices by arguing that “Affinity groups exist everywhere and they always have. White people just used to call it legal segregation.” That’s hardly a convincing argument as to why we should segregate kids — if anything, it’s the opposite — but if we’re to assume that there is some constructive, progressive argument for contemporary segregation (e.g. it’s too soon to envision a color-blind society and therefore…), the author needs to spell that out for the reader. The fact that racism still exists doesn’t suffice as a stand-alone argument for racial segregation.
Ex. 6: Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) arguing that trickle-down economics works because he pulled himself up by the bootstraps. The two concepts overlap, sort of. They’re cousins, at least, and both concern economics and class. But people can pull themselves up by the bootstraps without trickle-down economics and effective trickle-down economics wouldn’t necessarily spur people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
Ex. 7: In his Pulitzer-prize winning book on polio, author David Oshinsky argues that some organizations exaggerated the threat in order to raise funds. Some readers have interpreted this as meaning that polio was a hoax. That’s not the case and not what the author argued. People can play up real threats to garner funds. It happens all the time in budgetary fights.
Ex. 8: During the 2016 campaign, we heard that Hillary Clinton was caught on tape saying that she wanted to overturn the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). Two things here: 1. Presidents don’t pass or overturn Constitutional amendments. 2. She never said she wanted to; she said that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment in the D.C. v. Heller (2008) case was flawed, which many scholars agree with.
Ex. 9: Japan was close to surrendering at the end of World War II before the atomic attack because Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Admiral Leahy opposed using the atomic bombs. If you were compiling a list of reasons for and against bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those two items might be in the same column, but A doesn’t follow from B. This is a non sequitur and “mixing of apples and oranges.”
Ex. 10: Some say the Civil War was about slavery but, in fact, the North was racist. That’s lumping together different parts of the issue. The second assertion doesn’t conflict with the first; they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s a non sequitur because A doesn’t follow from B. It’s also a false dichotomy.
9. False Dichotomy
Understand false choices: things that aren’t mutually exclusive.
Ex. 1: Many people are on one side or the other between sympathizing with black victims of police brutality or respecting the police and appreciating the difficulty of their tasks. However, the two ideas of respecting the police and expecting that they do their jobs properly aren’t mutually exclusive. All of you have brains big enough to encompass two ideas at the same time, including respecting police work while also recognizing and condemning police corruption and unnecessary brutality.
Ex. 2a: This example, popular in 2A sanctuaries, is relatively new in American society, as responsible gun-owners and the NRA supported common-sense regulations within living memory: we should arm civilians, including mentally-ill teenage boys, with military-grade weapons because “I like guns” and don’t want to revoke the Second Amendment. We can still allow people to hunt and own guns without selling bumped-up ARs to lunatics. This banks heavily on the slippery-slope theory (#19-3 below), especially considering that we’ve often had regulations before and no one outlawed hunting or, with the rare exception of Washington, D.C. and Chicago (since overturned by the Supreme Court), owning firearms for personal protection. If anything, we need more people hunting deer and wild boars, not less. A common retort is: “but we couldn’t completely stop the wrong people from getting semi-automatic rifles anyway.” True, but the question isn’t whether we would completely stop mass murders, but whether we would increase or decrease them with regulations. Maintaining the current situation of 500 mass shootings per year or zero mass murders is another false dichotomy. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. We don’t have laws in our society so that we can completely eliminate the crime. No is arguing, for instance, that since we still have murders, we should just give up and legalize murder.
Ex. 2b: After the Uvalde shooting in 2022, the Texas GOP said that we should focus on mental health instead of background checks, but those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Guns are false choice-palooza. Mental health could even be part of background checks rather than something we focus on instead of background checks.
The following are edited examples drawn from anonymous papers:
Ex. 3: Many people think of spy work as glamorous but, in real life, it’s often one-sided. One-sided isn’t the opposite of glamorous. James Bond was glamorous, but he still worked for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not UNICEF.
Ex. 4: America was not an imperialist country in the late 19th century because they were trying to expand trade and market access. There’s no contradiction between imperialism and economic growth. In fact, that’s why countries imperialize. It’s like saying “I didn’t beat my neighbor up because he deserved it for stealing my trash can.”
Ex. 5: Did the Americans win the Revolutionary War because of Washington’s tenacity, wit, and courage, or did the British just give up? Couldn’t the British have given up because of Washington’s tenacity, wit, and courage?
Ex. 6: “Many historians think that the battle of Saratoga was a game-changer because it brought the French into the Revolutionary War. Really, though, upstate New York remained contested between Rebels and Loyalists.” The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive; they could both be true.
Ex. 7: Columbus didn’t discover America because he thought he was heading to Asia (and/or still thought he was near Asia while in the Caribbean). Setting aside the fact that no European was first to “discover” America, did Columbus’ intent or geographical misconception really mean that he didn’t discover (from the European perspective) a new continent? No.
Ex. 8: I couldn’t discover anything about the author’s biases (for a book review) because he is still alive. Does an author have to be dead for a reviewer to uncover biases?
Ex. 9: A lot of people tend to think of economics on a left wing-right spectrum, but really a lot of emerging technologies come out of garages, like Steve Jobs’ Apple computer. What does that have to do with left and right?
Ex. 10: This one is a variation on Senator Hatch’s comment above, in #8-6: a student writes that Nancy Eisenberg’s White Trash examines how the class system has always existed in the U.S. even though the popular narrative is that America is a place where anyone can succeed. This is an example of a false dichotomy because someone could work their way up through the class system, and also an example of how one little word can change or nuance an argument. This statement wouldn’t be a false dichotomy if it said the book examines how a rigid class system has always existed in America.
Ex. 11: People credit the Arsenal of Democracy with protecting democracy and winning World War II, but really it was a boondoggle for profiteers. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, so the BUT in the sentence should be an AND.
Ex. 12: I believe that Edward Snowden didn’t undermine national security because the public has the right to know what its intelligence community is doing. Again, not mutually exclusive. A more honest way to support the pro-Snowden thesis (if one were to take it) is to say that some undermining of national security is an acceptable cost for the benefit of more transparency among our intelligence agencies. Whether that undermining was real or hypothetical in this case is another matter.
Ex. 13: The U.S. claimed to expand further in the Pacific because of Manifest Destiny, but really it was unjustified. The idea it was unjustified is separate from whether or not it motivated them or not.
Ex. 14: The text explains the causes of World War I, but the outside article contradicts that by saying the war shouldn’t have happened. Ditto. If the textbook says that someone killed their neighbor because their dog was barking, that doesn’t that it’s arguing that they should’ve killed their neighbor because their dog was barking.
Ex. 15: Some people claim that the U.S. was unsure whether or not Japan would attack the Lower 48 but, in truth, the conditions at internment camps were horrible. The justification for the camps and their conditions are two different things.
Ex. 16: The textbook argues that the U. S. is trying to protect Taiwan, but the author of the article I read argues, instead, that these efforts backfired. Intent and impact are two different things.
Ex. 17: The textbook argues that Prohibition wasn’t properly enforced, but the article I read says that it was popular when they first passed the legislation. It’s popularity and effectiveness are two different things.
Ex. 18: Some say the New Deal hurt the poor via excise taxes, but really customers were protected by the FDIC. Taxes and banking are two different things.
Ex. 19: Roe v. Wade authorized abortions to women as a civil right, but the article contradicts that by mentioning that it should be illegal. Wishing that Roe v. Wade didn’t pass is different than arguing that it didn’t.
Ex. 20: Thomas DiLorenzo argues that the New Deal lengthened the Great Depression. The textbook agrees with that by saying that the Supreme Court ruled the NRA and AAA unconstitutional. The effectiveness of the New Deal is unrelated to whether SCOTUS thought it was unconstitutional.
Make sure to “stay on point.” You don’t have time to meander. This will be important later as you deal with clients, customers, patients, etc.
11. Long Leaps of Logic
If you have to take a running jump, you might not make it over the mud puddle.
A. It’s ridiculous, and even downright arrogant, to suppose we are the only life in the universe. Undoubtedly the case. So far so good.
B. Therefore, aliens with one head, two arms and two legs (just like us) from outer space come here in spaceships to visit and suck blood and marrow from our cattle. Whoa, Nellie. That’s a mighty long way from A to B. It may be that humanoid-like aliens suck cow blood, but for a believer arguing with a skeptic, it doesn’t suffice to retort, “Do you really think we’re alone in the universe?” This is the same issue with Lumping Together and Conflation mentioned in #8. These are two different assertions and the second doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. The existence of money doesn’t mean that you just won the lottery.
Ex. 2: MS-13 is an Hispanic criminal gang, so Hispanics immigrating to the U.S. are criminals.
12. Anchor Bias
I learned it differently when I was young, therefore, you’re wrong now.
Ex. 1: A student raises his/her hand in class and says, “Actually that’s not true because I heard that….” except that they usually only imply and leave out the because I heard that. It’s possible the teacher is wrong but, either way, that has nothing to do with which order the listener hears something in. Why trust the first person you heard something from more than the second?
13. Bandwagon Effect
Believing something because lots of other people believe it.
“Groupthink,” as it’s often called, isn’t irrelevant — there might be a good reason an idea is popular — but the “hive mind” isn’t always right. Once upon a time, the majority thought the Earth was flat. Likewise, the fact that 99% of humans now think the Earth is spherical isn’t necessarily a good reason to agree, even though this time they’re right. Once an opinion gets up into the 99% range, you should at least consider hopping on the bandwagon, but you have every right not to. Either way, examine the evidence.
14a. Argument From Ignorance
Argument from ignorance has two distinct versions: It can assert that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false, or a proposition is false because it has not yet been proven true. Both are false dichotomies, or false choices. The first version often takes the form “If someone else can’t come up with a good explanation, then the answer is no doubt….”
Ex. 1: The master of this fallacy was German pseudo-archaeologist Erich von Däniken, who made a mint selling books like Chariots of the Gods? (1968) that basically argued that anything archaeologists couldn’t explain with down-to-Earth explanations was proof of “paleo-contact” with aliens. Unsurprisingly, he’d served time for fraud and embezzlement. In 2009, the “History Channel” launched a successful series called Ancient Aliens based on his theories. At Erich von Däniken’s conventions, in a renunciation of the scientific revolution, his followers chanted “reason sucks! reason sucks!”
Ex. 2: Regarding the Russia Hoax Hoax above (#2-9), the Mueller Report didn’t find any smoking guns; therefore, the Mueller Report exonerated Donald Trump. Anticipating this fallacy, the Report stated that it did not exonerate Trump, but the GOP spun it as such.
If you have a mystery that another person can’t explain or account for with a logical explanation, that doesn’t mean your highly specific supernatural explanation is right. It’s more likely that there are other options even if neither person is smart enough to suggest them. If you’re dog or toddler doesn’t know that 2+2=4, that doesn’t mean that it equals five.
14b. Argument From Authority
Argument from ignorance has a distant cousin called argument from authority (or appeal to authority), though their main similarities are in their names. See #5-2 above. Authority can mean something (in fact, today we’re too skeptical toward experts), but it’s not enough. Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughter thinks that he signed treaties with Grays (aliens), but her being related to him isn’t enough to overcome her lack of good evidence for such a fantastic claim. Still, as fallacies go, be wary of this one, since as mentioned, it can cut both ways. You really should trust real doctors more than a witch doctors.
15. Confused Terminology
Read questions or analyze problems carefully by making sure what’s under discussion.
Ex. 1: What were some of the costly mistakes the South made during the Civil War? Answer: their army was too small. Their small army wasn’t really a mistake because they didn’t have a choice in the matter; it was more of a disadvantage that they had to cope with. A better example of a mistake would be Robert E. Lee’s decision to invade the North, which was arguably a poor decision (at least in hindsight — see #28 below). Mistakes involve choices.
16a. Focusing Effect & Reductionism
Historical events don’t have to happen for a single reason, so be wary of flattening interpretations by reducing to one factor or seeing things through singular lenses (e.g., economic, political, racial). History usually happens because of multiple forces acting simultaneously. When it comes to lenses, use a Swiss army knife whenever possible.
Ex. 1: The stock market dropped by 1% yesterday because of a decrease in new housing starts. More likely the 1% was the cumulative effect of thousands of different things acting on the market at the same time, including (maybe most prominently) news about housing.
Ex. 2: The Great Depression kicked in because of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The crash was an important factor, no doubt, but there was already an ongoing recession caused by saturation of the durable goods market, a real estate slowdown, and erratic monetary policy from the Federal Reserve. Why limit yourself to one factor, as long as they don’t conflict?
Ex. 3: Some historians argue that the Salem Witch Trials happened because of frequent Indian attacks, while others argue they stemmed from economic tension or rivalries between denominations. Others argue they occurred because of the Puritans’ supernatural, fundamentalist worldview. Why ask which one is right? Because you’re trying to sell a book or compete for academic turf, that’s why. But for those interpreting the event, why couldn’t all those factors have contributed at the same time? Do they actually conflict?
Be open, instead, to the concept of the Perfect Storm. Things can (and most likely do) happen because of multiple factors occurring simultaneously. It’s possible as long as the causes aren’t mutually exclusive.
16b. Too Little Focusing: Applying Broad Principles From Specific Examples
Ex. 1: The failure of Prohibition demonstrates that “you can’t legislate morality.” Isn’t this just a catchy phrase our neurons associate with the singular example that the government failed to outlaw alcohol effectively? Turn this around by forgetting alcohol for a moment and asking yourself whether society has any laws that haven’t failed or aren’t unpopular that pertain to morality. “You can’t legislate morality” is far too broad of a claim to apply to all of history and society.
Ex. 2: The “Munich” effect. If the traditional thinking goes that western Allies should’ve confronted rather than appease Hitler in 1938, as they did with the Munich Pact, then we should always intervene without delay in every situation henceforth so as to not create a bigger problem down the road. But all situations are different. If applying historical lessons was as easy as the Munich crowd suggests, we would’ve figured things out long ago.
17. Framing Effect
Consider the angle or spin of how things have been presented to you. What’s been included? What’s been left out? All arts of manipulation are based on framing, including political campaigning, selling, and (especially) marketing. Advertisers, salesmen, and carnies specialize in framing and magicians take it to extremes as it’s their main modus operandi (m.o.). They understand our mental “tire ruts.” Politicians must learn to manipulate voters’ views through framing to win elections. For all these vocations, framing enabled by our gullibility is the key to their livelihood — so much so that the economy might collapse if we wised up. Mark Twain’s fictional Tom Sawyer got his friends to help him paint a fence by framing it as being fun. Consider how the same movie or restaurant recommendation sounds coming from someone you respect versus someone you disrespect. If a doctor prescribes 24 antibiotic pills of the same color, the patient will usually quit taking them when they feel better, even if there are some left. But if the doctor instructs the patient to take 18 white pills first, then finish up by taking 6 blues, they’ll finish the prescription. One study showed that people like an ice cream called Frosh considerably better than the same ice cream when called Frish. Why? Because the o sound is “bigger and creamier” whereas the latter sounds like fish. A 2012 study at Washington University showed that 222 MBA students (45 female) who were shown prospectuses of the same company — except with some examples listing a female CEO and others a male CEO — overwhelmingly described the finances of the company being run by a female as being in worse shape. When a 2015 study asked a group of white Americans how much they think black Americans earn per year on average, the average response was around $29k. However, when the same group was asked later in the same study how much African Americans earned, the figure jumped to $37k. Framing is also important in historical interpretation and lies at the heart of partisan hypocrisy (liberals and conservatives predictably like or dislike policies based on whether it’s coming from the mouth of a Democrat or Republican).
Ex. 1: Andrew Jackson is often criticized for his Indian Removal policy, and justifiably so. The Trail of Tears, which occurred under his successor (Van Buren) but was a direct result of his policy, was unnecessarily cruel. Yet, if you zoom out with the camera and take a longer view, Jackson’s Indian policies were part of a consistent overall policy started by the Founding Fathers continuing on through Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant. Should Jackson be singled out as the president we blame Indian policy on while ignoring the topic altogether when talking about those on Mt. Rushmore like Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln?
As demonstrated in examples #2-5 below, studies show that when Democrats and Republicans are shown various political options and policies, the biggest determining factor in whether they favor or oppose the policy is whether there is a (D) or (R) next to the name of whoever is introducing the idea. Usually, voters will switch their opinions if the idea gets associated with the rival tribe.
Ex. 2: Many Americans who opposed “‘Obamacare” liked the main features of the 2009 Patient Protection & Affordable Healthcare Act. Why, if they were the same thing? Because of how the question was framed. When it was called “Obamacare” the question really concerned whether or not one liked Obama. Conservatives introduced and promoted the idea of mandates and healthcare exchanges, then turned against the bill passed and signed by a Democratic congress and president. Zero Republicans voted for the ACA. At that point, the “market-based solution” they’d promoted in earlier debates transformed into big government-run “socialized medicine.”
Ex. 3: Likewise, in a study by Ariel Edwards-Levy, Republican voters were asked whether the economy had improved between 2008-9 (the height of the financial crisis) and 2016. Most thought it had, but the numbers dropped 20% when they were asked later in the same questionnaire whether the economy had improved during Barack Obama’s presidency (the same years).
Ex. 4: Most liberals and even moderate conservatives would agree that Donald Trump’s staunch opposition to illegal immigration was reactionary. Yet, Bill Clinton (D) proposed cracking down on illegal immigration in a State-of-the-Union address in 1996 and no Democrats objected. Why? We’re complicating things here some by comparing two different times, 1996 and 2016 (see Shifting Baselines, RD #22), but an even bigger difference is that the message is framed differently depending on whose mouth it comes out of, especially if Trump seasoned his message with inflammatory rhetoric, as in the famous 2015 “escalator ride” announcement speech.
Ex. 5: In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s missile defense shield idea (SDI) threatened to undermine the Cold War dynamic of MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. While there were sound arguments against SDI, would Democrats who hadn’t been big fans of MAD previously objected as strenuously if the idea been proposed by John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton? Hint: No.
Ex. 6: Controversies over coal demonstrate framing in a couple of ways. For one, coal advocates have argued for years that they have the technology to produce “clean coal” (coal processed cleanly). Yet, when the government mandates that they produce clean coal, they claim the government is waging a “war against coal.” Coal also overlaps with the earlier issue of gaining broader context. Politicians beholden to coal company executives did a good job of redirecting coal miner’s animosity from management onto Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, whom they claimed were “killing coal.” Those spinning this interpretation could show graphs like this depicting the loss of coal miner jobs during the Obama administration:
While it’s true that the EPA tried to clean up the industry and Obama tried to spearhead a transition toward renewable energy, the primary cause of decline in the coal industry during this era was cheaper natural gas due to fracking. But coal mining was already in a long period of decline in terms of job creation (not production) because of mechanization. While the chart above is perfectly honest and accurate as far as it goes, zoom out and look at the period in that chart in the context of a longer chart (2007-2015 is in the black circle):
Ex. 7: An encounter between three groups of protestors in Washington, D.C. over MLK weekend in 2019 demonstrates how potent symbolic ingredients can be blended into viral online recipes that frame incidents in misleading ways, even if the event itself didn’t add up to much. It happened on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (above) at a time when President Trump was keeping the government shut down to leverage money for a southern border wall from Congress. First, Russian trolls posted a video on Instagram and shared on Reddit showing a Native American man (and ex-Marine) in town for an Indigenous Peoples’ March, face-to-face with a smirking white teenager in a red MAGA hat (Nick Sandmann), in town for a March For Life anti-abortion rally. On Twitter, @2020Fight (against Trump) posted a shortened, edited version, captioned “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native protestor…”. Like-minded progressives with hashtags like #ImpeachtheMF shared it enough to grab the attention of journalists who spun it as an allegory of the times, with the white boy standing in for Trump. The post’s virality, charted in a familiar S-shaped sigmoid pattern, is what old-school newshounds meant when they said a “story has legs.” One post, shared by a man whose previous tags indicated he was Russian, paired the video with an infamous photo of African American Will Brown’s charred remains from Omaha’s courthouse during Red Summer, 1919, with the caption “Those ‘Men’ In The Background, They Did Not Go Away! They Had Children!” The video’s shares accompanied fragmented commentary ranging from the Civil Rights movement and Nazi youth to Euro-American/Indian relations and the nature of tribal society. History communicator Jason Steinhauer wrote that such e-history condenses complex phenomena into digestible bits used to advance political agendas. Few saw what actually unfolded because the short video was taken out of context. Just before, Black Hebrew Israelites confronted the white students from Covington Catholic H.S. in Kentucky, calling them crackers, peckerwoods, incest kids, and future school shooters. The veteran, Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, intervened (maybe), seemingly trying to separate the two groups, resulting in some of the students dancing in unison with his fellow marchers. If you did a handstand and squinted you might be able to generously interpret this as an immature or awkward attempt to bond with Native Americans, but it came across as demeaning. That may not have been clear in their own heads (many are laughing and jeering), just as the smiling but defiant Sandmann appeared to be improvising on the fly. They looked like Atlanta Braves or Kansas City Chiefs fans doing the tomahawk chop. Sandmann said he was smiling to diffuse Phillips. You can see why the full story wouldn’t have appealed to siloed partisans on Twitterati. It was too lengthy and muddled for extrinsic online value, which is to say that neither red nor blue echo chambers would’ve shared it enough to generate advertising revenue. Complexity and ambiguity won’t get you up the S-curve.
18. Non-Comparative Comparisons
When asked to compare and contrast, remember to demonstrate knowledge of all the subjects.
Ex. 1: If someone asked who contributed more to America’s tradition of religious freedom between Roger Williams, William Penn and Thomas Jefferson, it wouldn’t be enough to say, “Thomas Jefferson because he helped James Madison write the First Amendment.” In fact, you could write a long and beautiful treatise on Jefferson and religious freedom and it still wouldn’t be enough. You have to demonstrate knowledge of Williams and Penn.
You’re not the tallest person in the room because you’re 6’3″; but you’re the tallest person in the room if you’re 6’3″ and everyone else is shorter.
19. Excessive Slippery Slopes
Aka the Camel’s-Nose-Under-the–Tent. The slippery slope idea isn’t entirely without merit — indeed, it’s often the strategy of people hoping for more radical change — but beware of its overuse.
Ex. 1: If we extend healthcare insurance it could lead to Nazi-like concentration camps in the U.S. A year after Obamacare passed, multiple books on best-seller lists suggested just that. The argument is that since Nazis further centralized the socialized healthcare system started during the Weimar Republic, and physicians were disproportionately involved in Nazism and the Holocaust, therefore socialized medicine leads to Nazism. The glaring problem with this argument is that fascism is in no way essential or necessary to socialized medicine. After all, the vast majority of countries in the world today have socialized, single-payer healthcare systems and none of them are run by Nazi fascists. It’s a mix-up of causation and correlation, as described in #6. In 1930s Germany, socialized medicine was correlated with Nazism, but socialized medicine obviously doesn’t cause Nazism or fascism. If it did, the whole world outside the U.S. would be fascist. Hitler breathed oxygen, too, but that doesn’t mean that breathing oxygen makes a person fascist. There may be other perfectly sane reasons to oppose socialized healthcare insurance, but fear of Nazism is irrational because fascism isn’t a distinguishing feature of socialized healthcare insurance. The two have no intrinsic connection.
Ex. 2: Almost anything that leads one to believe in vast, organized conspiracies. If the NSA has gotten out of hand and subverted the 4th Amendment in the early 21st century, that doesn’t mean that “the government” as a whole is in a cabal to take over the world and your life. Representative governments are too disorganized, incompetent and, in America’s case, vast to ever collude on such a project. In our government, the “right hand rarely knows what the left hand is doing.” Moreover, they don’t have much motivation to. Moreover, if they did have motivation, that wouldn’t mean they’ve acted on it.
Ex. 3: If convicted felons have to register their guns or if children can’t own semi-automatic weapons, then the government or an incoming president is going to steal everyone’s guns, overturn the Second Amendment and outlaw hunting. The person that wants to overturn the Second Amendment is mostly a “straw man” (see #20) and this connects to the false premise fallacy above (#9-2a). Another note lost on many Americans: presidents can’t pass, abolish or repeal Constitutional amendments.
20. Straw Man (or Bogeyman)
Misrepresenting opponents or opposing viewpoints — Aka the imaginary enemy argument. An occasional variant is “straw dog.”
Ex. 1: Why do Republicans hate poor people?
Ex. 2: Why do Democrats oppose hard work?
Ex. 3: Why do Republicans love war?
Ex. 4: Why are Democrats against business?
Ex. 5: Why do pro-life conservatives hate women?
Ex. 6: Why don’t Christians like to have fun?
Ex. 7: Why do atheists hate God? Why don’t atheists have a sense of right and wrong? (e.g. Phil Robertson)
Ex. 8: Why are gays against long-term relationships?
Ex. 9: Why do gun control advocates want to repeal the Second Amendment, outlaw hunting, and confiscate everyone’s guns?
Ex. 10: Why do gun rights advocates want to recreate the Wild West and promote violence?
Ex. 11: Mainstream historians celebrate the triumph of white civilization over Indian savages or leave out Native Americans altogether… (true only as long as the textbook you’re reading was published at least sixty years ago, or your teacher is 100 years old).
Ex. 12: Why do historians hate white people?
Ex. 13: Why don’t history textbooks mention that slavery existed in the North? They do; you just didn’t read the textbook. People often complain about what “textbooks leave out” when they haven’t read one. Like institutionalized food, textbooks are a sort of foil standing in for the status quo, company-line blandness that people of all stripes fancy themselves as transcending, though the positive marketing blurb on the back of each claims that, “unlike other textbooks,” it grabs the reader. Be wary of those who sell tidbits of history based on “things they hid from you in the classroom,” “history you didn’t learn in school,” and “things textbooks won’t mention.” Usually, that’s either a marketing ploy or something that teachers are right to leave out.
Ex. 14: The traditional view is that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. But, in reality, war continued in Cambodia and millions of peoples’ lives were disrupted in one of the biggest migrations of the 20th century, out of Southeast Asia. Those things are all true, but there’s no one that cares that doesn’t already know that even if they know that Saigon fell in 1975.
Taking on straw men works well when preaching to the converted but, even then, it’s boring. If you’re interested in how to argue effectively with people you disagree with, as one would in, say, an ideally functioning republic, try the steel [wo]man strategy instead of straw men, known formally as the principal of charity. Argue with the best version of the opposing argument rather than the worst. You may even learn a thing or two yourself. For example, if you’re disputing Christianity, wrestle with C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or St. Augustine instead of some cheesy televangelist. If you think evolutionary theory is crazy, instead of babbling embarrassingly about men being descended from chimpanzees, you should be able to articulate a good account of its strongest arguments, then try to refute those.
Personal misrepresentations are common in today’s media environment. Ilhan Omar (D/FL-MN), right, was everywhere on social media, sometimes for what she actually said or did, but often not. She was catnip for target audiences that social media bots perceive as opposing having a female Muslim in U.S. Congress. That core concern, aimed directly at your brain’s id, supplants the specifics of any real policy positions, however provocative or controversial her actual policy positions were. Likewise, most Founding Father quotes on social media are fake. Here are some fake quotes from Thomas Jefferson, for instance. Remember that many otherwise well-intentioned partisans on the left or right care more about how they can employ history to make a point about the present than they do the accuracy of their history. Or, they’re just very selective about which accurate parts of history they include and which they leave out. Selective observation isn’t so much a fallacy as a cognitive bias, and it’s the most important item on the Rear Defogger list for understanding bias in historical interpretations. It’s impossible to avoid when we interpret history and history isn’t really helpful moving forward without interpretation. But even if we just reduced history to a pile of facts, we’d still make choices as to which facts. Selectivity bias doesn’t lead to outright lies, but rather lies of omission. This bias is one that none of us can ever surmount. Let’s unpack it with some examples.
21. Selective Observation (aka my side bias)
Selective observation, sample bias, selection bias, and my side bias all pretty much mean the same thing. These overlap with the flushing and cherry-picking mentioned in the Memory Hole and often overlaps with #2 above, Missing the Big Picture & Broader Historical Contexts. We’re all guilty of selective bias because of limitations on space or time when we’re writing or arguing. Having said that, try your best to argue fair. In the long run, it’s more persuasive. Pretend you’re in an American courtroom, where each attorney has to share (introduce) evidence that will be introduced in the courtroom. Selective observation is also tied to not having read widely enough on a particular topic to be able to judge it fairly. This sometimes goes by the WYSISWYK fallacy (what you see is what you know), which can lead people to ask what historical lessons they might apply to situation when really they don’t know as much history about that topic as they think they do. Blindspot is a good reminder of how different demographics are exposed to different media, not just different spins on common stories. Even professional historians can see only a slice of the pie. “Do your own research” sounds like good advice, but, online, it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump from D.Y.O.R. to just choosing your own reality from a buffet table of options. Basketball player Kyrie Irving was taught that the world was round, but then was open-minded enough to start doing his own research online…
Ex. 1: In the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump often pointed to a 2012 Pew study showing that many people were registered to vote in more than one state, implying that Democrats only win elections by cheating. What he didn’t mention is that the same study showed there are no more Democrats than Republicans in this circumstance and that neither actually vote in two states.
Ex. 2: Many left-wing commentators view police exclusively through the lens of white officers shooting unarmed African Americans. That happens, and happens at a higher rate than police shooting unarmed Caucasians, which is why wise policies should be aimed at fixing the problem. But that particular scenario doesn’t constitute a big percentage of violence in the U.S. or explain why so many minorities would prefer more police presence, not less, in their neighborhoods. Media coverage also impacts that type of selective observation. When white police shoot white suspects or criminals shoot each other, that’s not on the news because we’re not in the market for that information.
Ex. 3: Various right-wing memes point to the Democratic Party’s racist history and association with Confederacy and KKK, with the presumable implication that, therefore, the modern Democratic Party is more racist than the GOP. The people posting are either ignorant of the 1960s party realignments or hoping that the viewer is, but they’re at least right about old-school Democrats.
Ex. 4: Many Americans appreciate CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden because he revealed that the government was abusing its Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure by filtering citizens’ phone and email metadata under the Patriot Act, post-9/11. That may have been the case but, even if you believe it’s patriotic to reveal classified information — probably not what you’d want to lead with in a CIA interview — that’s a small percentage of what Snowden released. Most of Snowden’s stolen data was sensitive American, British, and Australian military information that he gave to Russia and China, and he was also responsible for the deaths of a handful of allied soldiers in Iraq. Basically, Snowden was a traitor, which is why the Russians granted him asylum.
Ex. 5: FOX News ran a documentary on the history of socialism, in which they tied Soviet totalitarianism to the rise of fascism in Germany under Hitler, implying a connection between leftist politics and fascism, which is usually interpreted as far right. While it’s true that both the Soviet and German systems were totalitarian, they left out that Hitler hated communism and wanted it destroyed. In the Night of the Long Knives, the capitalist faction won out within Nazism and they executed the left-leaning Strasserists.
22. Shifting Baselines
The biggest problem with shifting baselines (changing historical contexts) is that we anachronistically apply modern standards to people of the past when they had no way to imagine the future. We shouldn’t whitewash or censor the past because we need to know what happened and learn from it. But neither should we study history, literature, art, or movies with the main goal of scouring them for imperfections. It’s boring and predictable and, if you’re interested in that, I can save you time and tell you there is no perfection out there if you dig deep enough — not in history, not in the history of your particular zip code, not among even your own ancestors, not anywhere. Give it up. You don’t need history, including your own region’s or family’s history, to have been perfect to be a well-adjusted person or aim toward an improved future. No one hundreds of years ago or even decades ago lived by the standards of however you define perfection in the present, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict that you aren’t perfect yourself by the standards of 2050 (or even now). Does that mean we should dismiss you entirely and everything you believe in and stand for and that you’re an utterly worthless person, just because you’re making a few mistakes by 2050 standards? Instead, strive for historical empathy and understand that even the imperfect people and movements of the past might have something to teach us or even offer, despite changing contexts. Our job is to sift through it all for what’s useful. Learn from everybody and everything.
But, setting general principles aside, shifting baselines and contexts can lead to more specific misunderstandings about the past.
Ex. 1: Often we ascribe things to the past that weren’t so, especially in the case of “tradition.” People think of our contemporary ideas of traditional marriage, for instance, as “the way it used to be.” It wasn’t. The idea of romantic marriage is relatively new and arranged marriages and marrying one’s relative were common in the West, while polygamous marriages were common in some parts of the world. Traditional housewife is another shaky one. Most women prior to the mid-19th century were farm wives and, as anyone can tell you that was raised on a farm, life there is far from the notion of the idealized 1950s domestic housewife or the idealized domestic sphere of the 19th century.
Ex. 2: Not understanding that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply against the original 13 state governments until after the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) leads to all kinds of confusion. Since the First Amendment right to religious freedom, for instance, wasn’t incorporated against the original states until the Fourteenth, people looking to break down the barrier between church and state point to examples of how early states didn’t allow non-Protestant Christians to vote or hold office, etc. But that’s because state governments weren’t operating under the First Amendment to begin with, only the national government was. A key baseline hadn’t yet shifted. Likewise, the author of the Second Amendment, James Madison, supported individual gun rights but no doubt assumed that issue would fall to individual states under the Tenth Amendment, which it naturally did prior to 1868, similar to how abortion does post-Dobbs v. JWHO (2022). The baseline on guns and religion that shifted later was that the Bill of Rights now protects American citizens against both the national and state governments.
Ex. 3: The Broadway musical Hamilton celebrates the protagonist as an immigrant who came from the Caribbean to New York. However, Hamilton was a British subject in both places. His move was no different than an American today moving between states. It’s true that if someone today moved from the Caribbean (other than Puerto Rico) to the U.S. they would be an immigrant, but not in the 18th century.
Ex. 4: Disliking Abraham Lincoln because he wasn’t racially progressive enough. He didn’t live in the 2020s. We should judge historical characters against their contemporaries. Lincoln’s racial views evolved toward the end of his life, never reaching modern standards, but the bottom line is that he ended slavery and gave his life for the cause of post-war civil rights, even if those rights didn’t meet modern standards. He paved the way for us to do better later. He wasn’t the most progressive of his era, but he was far down that spectrum and by far the most effective and influential.
Ex. 5: After the January 6th insurrection, several Republican candidates ran in the Fall 2022 elections on platforms opposed to, or at least in favor of weakening, democracy, hoping to capitalize on a key misinterpretation of the Founders’ opposition to pure democracy as “mob rule.” Rachel Hamm ran for California’s Secretary of State saying “I want to make it hard [to vote]” while Mike Lee (R-UT) said “we’re not a democracy. Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” In Washington state, congressional candidate Loren Culp called democracy “mob rule.” But, while it’s true that America’s Founders created a representative democracy instead of a pure democracy — à la ancient Athens, Greece whereby citizens voted on initiatives directly without politicians as intermediaries — they didn’t mean that within this representative system we should award election victories to losers that wouldn’t accept defeat. Joe Biden didn’t win in 2022 because we reverted to the Athenian model; he won within the system of representative democracy. Opposing modern democracy ignores the two+ centuries after the Founders, during which time the U.S. became more democratic while encouraging democracy globally. Expanding suffrage to minorities and women within that system of representative democracy is the shifting baseline that presumably Hamm, Lee, and Culp opposed. But it’s still a system of representative democracy with politicians as representatives instead of every issue being decided directly by voters through referendums, propositions, etc.; suffrage just expanded. For most of its modern history, including as recently as 2020, most Americans agreed that was a good thing and associated American identity and patriotism with democracy.
Ex. 6: Living, post-Darwin, in an era of conflict between science and fundamentalist religion, we often assume that the Enlightenment philosophers that launched the Scientific Revolution had a purely secular outlook, when really most were religious. In that case, we’re projecting a modern framework onto historical actors anachronistically (see #30 below).
Ex. 7: The modern right’s use of Adam Smith to support laissez-faire, free-market economics. They’re yanking Smith out of the 18th century and employing him to argue against regulations like pollution control, but Smith actually believed in regulating “externalities” in markets to benefit the public good, and his writings about the famous invisible hand in Book IV of Wealth of Nations (1776) were on behalf of free trade as opposed to corporate capture of governments via mercantilism.
Ex. 8: When people consider the wisdom of alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century, they naturally think of alcohol at its current levels, but people drank far more before Prohibition than then do know in an era of driving and other distractions like TV, movies, and video games. Prohibition famously didn’t work for a variety of reasons, but to empathize with why people tried it, we should comprehend how destructive alcohol’s role was in their society, not ours.
Ex. 9: Interpreting the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence as meaning having fun or smiling. Jefferson meant happiness in the classical sense, as promoted by Aristotle, in terms of a meaningful, constructive life and being engaged in the society around you. It’s difficult to interpret quotations across languages, for sure, but it can also be tricky within one’s own language because word definitions evolve.
Ex. 10: When we think of Soviets stealing atomic secrets from Los Alamos during World War II, or Americans helping them, we think of the Soviets as enemies of the United States. While it’s true that some post-war Cold War tensions started earlier and the Americans and British hoped to keep their atomic research a secret from the Soviets, the Soviets were officially allies of the U.S. and Britain during World War II.
Ex. 11: When we think of the Founding Fathers ca. 1775, we imagine that, as Whiggish republicans, they likely supported a stronger Parliament in relation to King George III’s monarchical authority. But many, including John Adams, felt betrayed that George hadn’t been stronger in protecting them from Parliament as part of his covenant with his subjects. Even Thomas Jefferson echoes that line of thinking in the Declaration of Independence.
The Cognitive Bias Codex warns against many fallacies, including projecting current mindsets and assumptions onto the past:
23. Circular Reasoning
Ex. 1: I’m right because this book says so. Why do you believe in that book in the first place? Because it says to right here in the book.
24. No Back-Up or Argument Support
Support assertions with evidence and/or examples.
Ex. 1: I drove through the LBJ Ranch outside Johnson City with a CD that narrates the tour. At least three times we heard that one can’t understand LBJ or his policies without soaking in the Hill Country landscape. Missing was even a single example or illustration of how LBJ’s policies connected in any way, shape or form to the Texas countryside. We at least heard a pleasant recording of LBJ saying the moon was fuller and the stars were brighter around there than other places.
25. Don’t Confuse Quantity of Evidence With Quality of Evidence.
Unconvincing evidence is like junk food for your brain. Junk food tastes good and you don’t need to avoid it altogether, but you should understand the difference between junk food and nutrition. College is a good time to experiment with real thinking.
Ex. 1: The quantity of “evidence” for the Truther and Birther movements and QAnon is no doubt mountainous — as mountainous as the market demands. But on all three accounts, there isn’t any quality evidence defined, say, as the kind that would stand up in court among a reasonable jury or would change anyone’s mind. Where’s the Obama’s birth certificate? Right where it’s supposed to be. A better question is “why are you asking?”
Ex. 2: There’s a lot of talk that the Federal Reserve exists to make a profit and that it is, in effect, stealing from the public. However, the Fed’s profit goes back to the Treasury (the taxpayers, ultimately) and no one has presented any compelling evidence otherwise. This lack of evidence doesn’t prove necessarily that someone isn’t stealing from the Federal Reserve. Maybe they are and we don’t know it (see the “Fallacy Fallacy” below, #35).
Ex. 3: There is ample evidence for Bigfoot, there just isn’t any compelling, persuasive evidence of the sort that would convince most open-minded skeptics. Skeptics aren’t “haters;” they just have higher standards of belief, that “fantastic claims require fantastic evidence.” Real science requires something along the lines of the Claim+Evidence+Reasoning (CER) framework. During the Enlightenment, this was coined the scientific method. Real scientists aren’t humorless, boring “haters;” they’re just smarter than the rest of us.
Ex. 4: There are mountainous piles of evidence that Trump won the 2020 election over Joe Biden. The problem is that there isn’t any good evidence at all.
26. Teleological Thinking & Determinism
This occurs when interpreters allow the outcome of events to explain their earlier stages. It overlaps with the confusion of cause-and-effect mentioned in #6 (post hoc fallacy). We read history backward when it unfolds forward. The past is a series of choices with unforeseen consequences, not a predetermined script. Teleological thinking presupposes that things are scripted, or destined to go in a certain direction before they happen. It’s related to anachronisms and the mythology of prolepsis, where historical action has to await its future outcome in order to fulfill its true meaning. Teleological thinking rejects or forgets that things could go in multiple directions, contingent on multiple factors. Teleological thinkers believe in inevitability or fate; most historians do not. Most historians don’t think of history as something that has any purpose or goal in mind other than what humans make of it. History doesn’t have a “mind” at all. Teleology is also an excuse for apathy and inaction because if humans can’t impact history, why care about what choices they make? Also, as mentioned in #5-6 above, don’t assume that history progresses uniformly. Neither human history nor biological history (aka evolution) progress in a pre-ordained direction. Physical anthropologists think that, with their bigger jaws, paleolithic humans didn’t have orthodontic problems and likely didn’t snore of have sleep apnea. The good news is that our brains got bigger.
Before we get too fired up about teleological thinking, we should remember that humans have the right to study history from the perspective of whatever present they inhabit, and intervening events might conspire to make certain times or places more interesting retrospectively. It’s also interesting to remind ourselves that the same will be true of our own times.
Ex. 1: The fact that we usually study New England more than the Caribbean in early American history classes is a good case of teleological thinking. We know, in retrospect, that New England became part of the U.S., and that the U.S. grew into a big nation, thereby imparting to the Pilgrims an importance they wouldn’t have understood. From the perspective of the 17th century looking forward, though, the English and French saw the Caribbean as more important than any of their mainland colonies. The reason was that sugar was the most profitable staple crop. Their concern with America was money, not its political future.
Ex. 2-5: Like “Middle Ages,” use of the term “Early American” history isn’t something that would’ve made any sense to people that lived through it. Like us, their only sense of their own place in history was being on the cutting edge of modernity. Likewise, World War I is a teleological term that only makes sense to someone who lived after World War II. People who lived through the “Great War” wouldn’t have understood it and didn’t use the term. If things go well for the United States, future historians might group the early 21st century into their sections on “early America.”
Ex. 6: We often hear opposing sides of debates say that the Founders would’ve agreed with their side and not the other. Undoubtedly, they wouldn’t have agreed with either or even really understood either. The Founding Fathers didn’t found America because they wanted it to evolve in any direction that would make sense to us today. They couldn’t have conceived of the 21st century other than extrapolating late 18th-century trends. As historian Jane Kamensky put it, colonial America can’t be reduced to the “Glorious Cause of the United States…waiting, patiently, in the wings the whole time, ready to burst upon the stage, promising liberty to all comers.”
Ex. 7: The whole notion of naming a chapter or lecture on the 1850s “the coming of the Civil War” or antebellum (Latin for pre-war) imparts a sense of inevitability, or determinism, that wouldn’t have made sense to most people in the 1850s. The antebellum or “coming of the war” ideas are accurate enough in retrospect, but just remember they wouldn’t have made sense to many people living through the 1850s (in that case, some were accurately predicting war, but they were just guessing right).
Ex. 8: Were either the Northern or Southern causes in the Civil War really meaningful enough to justify four years of bloody carnage? That question presupposes that politicians or citizens actually considered that cost/benefit analysis in 1861. Neither side thought anything of the sort. Each side thought their cause justified a quick and easy victory over the other to teach them a lesson. Since only 90 miles separated the respective capitals of Washington and Richmond, it seemed a major battle or two would settle their issues once and for all. If anything, the onset of war was a relief from the political tension and bickering that preceded it.
Ex. 9: American Journalist William Shirer lived in Berlin and wrote a classic, eyewitness account of Nazism called The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich (1960). While the book has a lot of good, thorough information, it relies too heavily on the Sonderweg or “Luther to Hitler” thesis that all of German history was a prelude leading up to the culmination of Nazism. That’s far too deterministic — a classic example of teleological history. Martin Luther degenerated into a rabid anti-Semite in his later years and Hitler may have tapped his works for quotes, but Luther didn’t exist to lay a foundation for Hitler. Four-hundred years of free will existed in between them. Why would Germany have evolved into the Weimar Republic in the 1920s if it was rushing headlong into totalitarianism after World War I with an actual purpose or goal in mind? Why didn’t Beethoven write fascist symphonies? Why did Jews see Germany as enlightened compared to Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century?
Ex. 10: While on the topic of Weimar and Nazi Germany, people sometimes think that the anti-German terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty made World War II inevitable. But too much time elapsed between 1919 and 1939, with WWII depending on too many contingencies. Maybe the Weimar government could’ve cracked down harder after the Beer Hall Putsch and executed Hitler or given him a life sentence. Maybe the German economy that was already turning around for the better in the mid-1920s could’ve continued to improve if the stock market hadn’t crashed in the U.S. Maybe, if Winston Churchill had been Prime Minister instead of Neville Chamberlain, Britain would’ve sided with the USSR to bloc (or try to block) German expansion in 1938. Finally, if you’re unable to conceive of any possible way how any of those things might’ve happened, what if a meteor landed on Germany in 1930 and destroyed European civilization? It’s our job as historians to explain how things like the Versailles Treaty did, indeed, lead to WWII, but that doesn’t mean that the die was cast, or that it set in stone an inevitable chain of events, with no free will or contingencies between 1919 and ’39. The dictionary definition of inevitable is that there is no scenario whereby something could’ve been avoided. That’s rarely true in history because the future hinges on several major contingencies and thousands upon thousands of little contingencies. That’s why we can’t predict the future, no matter how wisely we can guess about the future or explain what did end up happening in the past.
Ex. 11: In Chapter 10, we discuss the process of American states unifying into one country, slowly at first under the Articles of Confederation and, even under the more unified Constitution, struggling with the concept up through the Civil War and beyond. However, it’s not a pre-determined fate for these states to unite as one country and stay that way. Maybe we’ll revert toward decentralization until future teleological historians see unification as a mistaken bump in the road and autonomous states as normal. Or, maybe we’ll go in the opposite direction and unite with Mexico and Canada to form North America and their historians will grapple with understanding the earlier three-country phase.
Ex. 12: The idea that, had the British colonies not gained independence and remained in the British empire, slavery likely would’ve been abolished sooner (suggested in the 1619 Project). It’s true that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and the U.S. in 1863/65, however it doesn’t follow that had Britain held onto the colonies they would’ve abolished slavery there in 1833. History would’ve gone in an entirely different direction, the context of abolitionism would’ve shifted in Britain, and they may have abolished it earlier or later or never. If anything, controlling cotton and sugar plantations in what became the U.S. likely would’ve delayed British abolition, but that’s just a guess.
Ex. 13: Peter Ling’s article “Thomas Jefferson & the Environment” makes a good case that the checkerboard grid pattern imposed on agricultural areas by Jefferson’s Land Ordinance wasn’t optimal for either yield or sustainability when applied to most of the country. However, future generations had plenty of opportunity to change this; they didn’t have to stick to the plan.
Ex. 14: We’ve mostly replaced the term Third World to describe relatively poor countries with developing. That implies that these nations’ goal and eventual purpose is to become like wealthier countries, and that they will.
Ex. 15: A kinder, gentler form of determinism is the idea that one’s ancestors lived and sacrificed to make their lives possible. It’s a touching thought, but it’s more likely that they never considered you. Most people care about their kids and grandchildren, but who thinks ahead five generations?
27. Shoehorning or Retrofitting (related to Prophecy)
This is another form of Hindsight Bias, similar to #26. It’s the preferred technique of those who interpret prophets like Nostradamus. They “shoehorn” or retrofit vague predictions onto specific events only after the fact. It’s also called postdicting, as opposed to predicting. Predictors are always vague, temporarily lucky, or out of a job. Postdictors are creative in their use of Hindsight Bias and make money off a perpetual market of people with an emotional need for the future to have been scripted or to have already unfolded on some dimension. For critiques of Nostradamus’ theories, see this link on his predictions about Napoleon, Hitler, and 9/11, and this link on Hitler, 9/11, and the Kennedy assassination. I encourage anyone who’s interested in how history actually works — or put another way, how reality actually unfolds — to consider the following mind blowing if boring proposition: the future hasn’t happened yet, so there’s nothing for prophets to “see into.” The past is a series of choices with unforeseen consequences, not a predetermined script.
28. Historians’ Fallacy
This, too, overlaps with #26 and #27 as a hindsight bias. The perspective of time benefits historians but hindsight also obscures real motive. People in my profession need to constantly remind themselves that individuals and institutions don’t have the benefit of hindsight or understanding all the factors around them as they move forward, and often didn’t know what we now know (or think we do). They’re making quick decisions based on incomplete knowledge. They’re in the “fog of war” as Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it.
Ex. 1: When Roosevelt issued the infamous Order #9066 to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, he didn’t know nearly as much about Japan’s military or espionage capacity circa 1942 as we do now. It might have still been an overreaction based even on what they knew at the time (the FBI didn’t think there were many Japanese spies in the continental U.S.) but, whatever case, don’t judge FDR assuming he knew what we do or judge his actions in the context of the U.S. winning rather than losing the war.
Ex. 2: Future historians will need to remind themselves that actors during the 2016 election — including H. Clinton, Obama, Putin, probably Trump, all journalists, and most voters and citizens — thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. Their actions and decisions can only be judged in that context. Obama, for instance, didn’t take a stronger stance against Russian interference (though he discussed it with Putin in China in September 2016 and told him to “cut it out”) because he thought that would make it seem like he helping Clinton and she would win anyway, so why bother? Rather than helping Trump win, Putin was likely just trying to stain Clinton’s reputation as much as possible on her way to victory. Trump might’ve played fast and loose with the law because he figured he’d lose anyway and the campaign would help his brand. Rather than thinking of his Russian business interests as a conflict of interest with a presidency, Trump might’ve thought that a failed run at the presidency, during which time he could schmooze Putin with his dislike for NATO and promise to ease sanctions against Russia, would boost his business prospects there after he lost so he could built a hotel.
Ex. 3: When we remember Abraham Lincoln as the “great emancipator” we should remember that he didn’t set out to abolish slavery. He would’ve gone along with a Constitutional amendment to preserve slavery in the Southeast had that prevented secession. Later, events conspired to make the Emancipation Proclamation possible in the context of a war that Lincoln didn’t want. Congress had to talk Lincoln into the proclamation. Yet, the great emancipator Lincoln indeed was, because he saw it through.
For football fans, this one is a little like the difference between a “Monday morning quarterback” (fan or journalist) and the real quarterback in the pocket deciding when and where to throw the ball. It’s one thing to be on the sidelines or watching on TV; it’s quite another when you have two seconds and a gigantic defensive end sneaking up behind you about to snap your collar bones in half and bounce your skull off the turf. The Historian’s Fallacy is similar to “Hindsight is 20/20” and is one version of the Hindsight Bias (aka “knew-it-all-along” or creeping determinism). In real life, no one in important decision-making posts ever seems to “know everything all along.” But at least unimportant people did after it happened.
29. Fundamental Attribution Error & Actor-Observer Bias
Also known to sociologists as the Attribution Effect or Correspondence Bias, this fallacy puts undue focus on internal factors explaining someone’s behavior rather than considering outside effects or relations with others. Some argue that Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory about the inherent inclination toward violence and intolerance in Islam is subject to this weakness. It focuses too exclusively on Islam itself and ignores its interactions with the West. Historians must always keep an eye on context: what is going on around countries, institutions, and individuals. The reverse of this internal emphasis is called Actor-Observer Bias, which ignores internal issues at the expense of outside forces.
Projecting something that didn’t exist then back into history. This is more or less the same concept as Shifting Baselines (#22 above) except more detailed and incidental. It can apply to material items like clothing or technology, but a more common trap to fall into is projecting modern ideas or attitudes onto historical characters. When people say we shouldn’t judge historical actors by modern standards, they are guarding against anachronism.
Ex. 1: Movie buffs are fond of looking for and pointing out anachronisms in historical dramas. If you see Nike Air Jordans on a cowboy in a 19th-century western, that’s an obvious anachronism. A less obvious anachronism would be a cowboy hat in a western set before the late nineteenth century. Derby or bowler hats were more common for most of western history than what we think of as “cowboy hats.” In John Paul Jones (1959), the eponymous sailor visits Virginia in the early 1770s and discovers that his deceased brother has been reading revolutionary literature, including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. However, Paine’s famous pamphlet wasn’t published until 1776 and its content wouldn’t have made sense anyway five years earlier because the context changed. A common anachronism movie directors make is to set a movie in a certain year, say 1975, and have all the cars models from that year. In a movie actually filmed in 1975, many of the cars are older since most people don’t drive brand new cars.
Ex. 2: Celebrating Christopher Columbus as an Italian is an anachronism of sorts because Genoa, his hometown, wasn’t in Italy in his lifetime. In fact, there was no country called Italy during his lifetime, as it formed in 1861.
Ex. 3: In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860, Revere warns “The British are coming!” But, as of 1775, Revere and other rebels still would’ve identified as British themselves, not Americans.
Ex. 4: When a gun advocate suggests that the Founders would’ve wanted the Second Amendment to apply to semi-automatic rifles had they lived to see them, that’s debatable, but it’s not demonstrably wrong or necessarily an anachronism. However, if the NRA argued that the Founders intended to include semi-automatic rifles in the Second Amendment, that would be an anachronism because they had no concept of automatic weapons. As for the first assertion, that they would’ve wanted semi-automatic rifles included had they lived to see them, neither pro-gun or anti-gun advocates have any way of knowing or proving what they would have wanted, as that’s a counterfactual (what if) question. It’s interesting to guess at but we can’t know for sure.
31. Chronological Error / Sequencing
Ex. 1: In the Iraq War of 2003-07, many Americans assumed that the U.S. was there as part of their War on Terror. There ended up being some truth to that, but it’s worth noting that al-Qaeda didn’t come into Iraq in serious numbers until after the U.S. invasion. Also, by mid-2001, months before the 9/11 attacks that triggered the War on Terror, a behind-closed-doors Energy Task Force comprised of various departmental secretaries within George W. Bush’s administration had set a policy that included covetous maps of Iraqi oil fields, with a list of potential foreign firms to develop them. The Bush administration entered office in January 2001 favoring regime change in Iraq. These chronologies, both hinging on only a matter of months, will matter to future historians trying to unravel why exactly the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
32. Counterfactual History
Counterfactual history — what might have happened instead of real history — is not a fallacy, and it can even be useful in reminding historians about the contingencies and factors on which real, factual history depended, but it’s widely discouraged among professional historians. The reasons are that it’s difficult enough as it is to unravel what really happened and that a counterfactual scenario quickly introduces far too many variables to ever accurately assess what would have happened. A similar principle applies to why, so far, we’re only good at short-term weather forecasting rather than long-term. Unless the initial information that forecasters use is absolutely perfect, which it usually isn’t, then small mistakes mushroom or multiply exponentially over time. The same applies to all the contingencies and different crooked paths that history might have taken if we were to go back and change something or imagine what it would’ve been like if we could change something. The same thing applies to our personal lives.
Ex. 1: It’s easy to look at the American Revolution and think that if it hadn’t happened, or if the colonists had lost, the geographical space that became the United States would’ve experienced a fate similar to Canada or Australia — which is to say a prosperous and free country, sovereign within the British Commonwealth of Nations. But maybe the histories of Canada and Australia, and the British Empire in general, would’ve been different had the United States not gained independence in 1781.
Ex. 2: People often assume that if the Union hadn’t won the Civil War, the South would’ve abolished slavery on its own eventually. But the reason that seems so obvious is just that our imaginations are limited by what really happened, and history went in that particular direction. All we really know is that Southern planters ca. 1860 had no such plans in mind.
Counter-factual history can be fun and even instructive (e.g. Philip Dick’s The Man In the High Castle) but keep it in perspective, as it’s subject to similar problems with determinism and teleological thinking that we saw above in #26. Use it to remind yourself of the many contingencies (factors) that determine real history. Ben Franklin had a variation on an old European proverb called “For Want of a Nail.” It’s usually used as a reminder that we’re only as strong as our weakest link, but it’s also a reminder of the many contingencies involved in how real history unfolds:
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
33. Too Many Contingencies
Too many contingencies connects to the problems for long leaps of logic (#11), counter-factual history and determinism (#26), and over-interpreting roots and results (#3). In all these cases, consider at least that nothing is fated and there are a multitude of possible outcomes.
Ex. 1: The QAnon conspiracy theories include far, far too many factors. When it comes to the plausibility of conspiracy theories, less is more. The more contingencies, the more likely the whole house of cards collapses because one part isn’t true. The theory is only as good as the weakest link in the chain. Either way, instead of inventing elaboration theories and then looking for evidence, look for real evidence and work outward carefully from there.
Ex. 2: Woodrow Wilson’s actions at the end of World War I forced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which led eventually to the rise of Nazi fascism (this interpretation always skips over the Weimar Republic, hoping its readers don’t know about it). Therefore Wilson — and, by extension, the American Progressive movement of which he was (kind of) a part — led to the Nazi Holocaust. Ergo: liberalism causes genocide. Subtext: it will again if you vote for a Democrat in the 21st century.
First, Wilson wasn’t personally responsible for the Kaiser’s abdication, though he supported it during the negotiations of early November 1918. The German military had lost faith in the Kaiser and forced him to step down. Second and more theoretically important, this involves too many degrees of separation and is so far out on the counter-factual limb that, by this logic, all of us now alive are guilty of whatever horrible things happen in the next century. Almost any two major events of the 20th century could be connected as easily as Wilson and Nazism.
*That liberalism leads to fascism is also an egregious example of #3 (over-interpretation of roots or results) and #11 (long leaps of logic).
Ex. 3: The idea that Joe Biden caused Hamas’ attacks on Israel in October, 2023. The reasoning goes that Biden’s administration didn’t want to continue the work of Trump’s Abraham Accords in 2021 by extending Israel’s truce with other countries (UAE & Bahrain) to Saudi Arabia to avoid drawing attention to Trump’s accomplishment and, when that prospect arose later, Hamas attacked Israel to sabotage peace talks with Saudi Arabia. One problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t explain why Hamas might not have done likewise in 2021 but, either way, there’s a bigger theoretical problem, which is that it’s too many degrees removed from Biden, coming off as a transparent election-year smear against Biden. Here’s a better culprit for Hamas’ attack on Israel: Hamas.
This is closely connected to the declinism mentioned in RD #4:8 (Lack of Perspective) above, which all connects to a negativity bias we pick up naturally just watching the news, while we don’t notice bad things that have gone away, like great-power wars (knock on wood). Coined by controversial psychologist Steven Pinker and defined by comedian Bill Maher as the “inability of young people to understand that your dorm room in 2021 is better than the South before the Civil War,” progressophobia is the inability to understand that, because things aren’t perfect, that doesn’t mean that they are worse than ever or even (on an item-by-item basis) declining. Unlike declinism, a cognitive bias which afflicts everyone, progressophobia generally crosses the wires of liberal minds. The motivation for this fallacy is connected to fear of a related fallacy: that if we don’t exaggerate the danger of a certain problem or lie about the fact that it’s improving, than people will “take their foot off the pedal” and assume that the problem is already fixed, so they don’t need to worry about it. That fear isn’t without merit, since there are limited amounts of money, energy, and bandwidth or air time for media coverage and the problem in question likely suffers from lack of attention. A good example would be this article arguing that, even though climate change is worsening, death rates from natural disasters are declining because of improved warning systems and preparation. It’s NOT arguing against taking actions to limit or reverse climate change, though it could be misconstrued as such. But calling a modern injustice “worse than slavery,” aside from displaying a profound ignorance of slavery, isn’t likely to win over many converts either and can lead to the boy who cried wolf syndrome. As mind-boggling as it may seem, there is such thing as progress in the world, and we should take note of it — partly to keep things in perspective and not become too despondent and partly so that, in case that problem really does get worse again (which it likely will, btw), we’ll have clues how to fix it. We need to know why violent deaths (in wars and murders) have declined precipitously since WWII. We need to know why deaths from natural disasters have declined even though natural disasters have increased. We need to know why the rate of traffic deaths is 40x lower than a century ago. We need to know why crime rates dropped in the first two decades of the 21st century. In each respective case, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry about war and murder, or pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or start driving recklessly and make less safe cars, or acquiesce in crime. It just means that, as historians, we need to know what we’re doing right and wrong so that we can learn from both.
Ex. 1: Just for fun, tell somebody that you believe in the potential for world peace. They’ll likely roll over laughing in the face of your idealistic naïveté. But peace is definitely possible as we know from the fact that most places on Earth are at peace most of time. Peace is more common in human history than violence, even if the prospects of lasting, universal peace seem like an unrealistic pipe-dream at this point in our development since we don’t have surefire ways of settling fundamental differences in any way other than violence. When we study history, the big problems like wars naturally jump out at us, giving us the impression that human history is unceasing violence.
Those interested in tidbits of good news about the present day should consult the Good News Network.
35. Ad Hominem Attacks & Rhetorical Fortresses
This connects to Circular Reasoning (#23) above. One lazy way to win in argument in your own imagination is with an ad hominem attack on the legitimacy of whomever is disputing your point. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written about how these “rhetorical fortresses” have become more popular in the age of hyper-partisanship and political polarity. For instance, right-wingers and DYOR’s (do-your-own-researchers) dismiss out-of-hand anything spoken by “experts” or mainstream media, and left-wingers take into account a person’s racial and gender identity markers before accepting or disqualifying their views. Ad hominem attacks work well for inter-tribal conversations but aren’t persuasive outside one’s tribe or in the courtroom. You should understand the political orientation, or leanings, of a given media outlet, and how a person’s identities might influence their opinions, but those things alone don’t suffice to override an opinion. Over-reliance on a rhetorical fortress is basically a cheap way to avoid confronting the substance of an argument.
Other rhetorical fortresses include whataboutism (#4), straw-mannism (#20), and minimization.
36. Fallacy Fallacy
Poor reasoning doesn’t necessarily mean a claim is wrong. Maybe there really is a breeding population of unknown primates in North America even if the evidence, so far, is weak and anecdotal. Suspecting or thinking otherwise is fine, but assuming otherwise is an argument from ignorance.
ACC Library Student Skills Workshop: Critical Thinking
Straight & Crooked Thinking Thouless (1932) PDF
Cognitive Biases (Wikipedia)
Common Fallacies (Don Lindsey)
How to Reason & Argue (Duke Univ.)
Common Historical Fallacy
Nizkor Project: Fallacies
Critical Thinker Academy (Kevin deLaplante)
Beware the Fallacy Bully! (Kevin deLaplante)
the Fallacy Fallacy
Von Däniken’s Chariots: A Primer in the Art of Cooked Science (CSI)
The Fine Art of Baloney Detection (Carl Sagan)
Thinking Fast & Slow (Wikipedia)
Civic Online Reasoning (Stanford)