BSR: Logical Fallacies in Life and Politics

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A few weeks ago, the BSR discussed issues that I thought would have been beneficial to me if I had learned them earlier. In that BSR I talked about critical thinking skills. I talked about ad hominem, sunk costs, and false equivalence, among other logical fallacies. In the first few weeks of the academic year, when I talk to students who are assigned to me as their academic adviser, I take them through logical fallacies because I want them to critically examine materials that we give them to study. I encourage them to develop critical thinking skills and not to take for granted things that we give them. So, in today’s BSR I extend the same theme and share some of the logical fallacies that we encounter in our daily engagements. To make them relatable, I draw on examples that might be familiar to you. But because the idea is to encourage critical thinking, please do not take these illustrations as conclusive. You can and should challenge them, and I encourage you to think of other examples that make sense to you. 

Confirmation Bias

When we are faced with two different sets of information, one that is consistent with our existing beliefs and another that contradicts them, we are more likely to choose the first set of information. We tend to choose the path that confirms and supports our beliefs. We reject and exclude information that is inconsistent with our beliefs. This is called confirmation bias and it is another type of illogical fallacy. It is a problem when we are emotionally invested in an issue. It is hard to look at the data objectively. 

Social media debates regarding vaccines provide a good example of confirmation bias on either side. Pro-vaccine people almost always pick and share stories that are supportive of vaccination programs. Vaccine sceptics on the other hand almost always share stories that suggest negatives about vaccines. Each side has no appetite to share stories or statistics that might even remotely suggest that their side is wrong. Sometimes, they end up sharing data without any critical scrutiny if it supports their viewpoint. 

Another example from politics is data on polls. The Afrobarometer Report published in July is a very important piece of data that shows public opinion on various issues of national significance. It is not often that we have polls in our political environment so you would expect people to take more interest in what the report says. But the reception was lukewarm. It is more likely that the report had information that contradicted people’s beliefs on the various issues. It was easier to ignore it. We do not like data that is inconsistent with our beliefs.  

One reason for confirmation bias is that it makes the job of processing information easier. We live in a world with so much information and the most efficient way to process it is by choosing what confirms our pre-existing beliefs rather than complicating things with contradictory information. Confirmation bias also massages the ego and reaffirms an individual’s belief in their intelligence. No one wants to know that they are wrong. We are constantly seeking affirmation that we are correct. Therefore, we tend to look for and present information that shows that we were right after all and discards anything that suggests that we are wrong. An individual will go to great lengths to find (and sometimes manufacture) data to prove that they are right. 

The problem with confirmation bias is that people end up making, insisting upon, or defending wrong decisions or arguments. They will only look for information that confirms their decision or argument but ignoring different information means they might end up making the wrong decisions. In an argument whether an opposition party should contest an election, those who believe that it is pointless because elections are rigged will have a confirmation bias towards information that supports their anti-election stance. On the other hand, the pro-elections side will also usually find and present information that points towards participation regardless of the rigging concerns. The problem is that both sides will be motivated by the logical fallacy of confirmation bias. 

It is hard to completely avoid confirmation bias. But one way to minimize it is by stepping back from the situation and not be emotionally invested in the argument. This allows you to give equal treatment to both sides of the argument, including views and information that you oppose. Very few people can do so, and social media has platforms where confirmation bias is showcased on a grand scale.  

The Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect literally stems from the idea that people follow the popular trend. They literally jump onto the bandwagon. This is a tendency among people to conform to behaviour that is common within the group, ignoring the unpopular even though correct path. Behaviours that are common among people are referred to as social norms. An individual might have a different view, but more often they will go along with the social norm. Some psychologists have found that this happens even when people know that the initial decision was arbitrary or that there was no justification for it. 

One reason why individuals follow social norms is to avoid sanctions from the rest of society. There is a fear of punishment if one takes a dissenting view. The costs of dissenting will be greater than the costs of conforming to the social norm. Imagine you are in a small village where 80% of the people support one political party and you are in the minority. Since you live in a close-knit community, there is a risk of losing the cooperation of others if you dissent causing a loss of community-related benefits. You end up going with the flow. 

Another reason for following people is the belief that the choice that everyone else is making is probably the right choice. People want to belong and belonging to a group that is supposedly making the right choice is good. The majority might be completely wrong, but the mere fact that more people are backing a position might give the impression that it is the right thing. The problem with this is quite apparent: the majority might be wrong. The mere fact that more people share a particular position on an issue does not mean that they are correct. The minority might well be right.

Howes and Pryor refer to the “information cascade”, where “norms can snowball from potentially irrelevant starting conditions whenever we are influenced by people’s earlier decisions”. They use the example of choosing a restaurant. If there are two restaurants side by side, one is empty and the other is full, one might think that the full restaurant is better. But what if the people who came before used the same reasoning? As they say, “if everyone before you followed the same thought process, it is perfectly possible that an initial arbitrary decision by some early restaurant-goers cascaded into one restaurant being popular and the other remaining empty.” The same reasoning might apply to political parties. The parties that have the majority’s support are not necessarily the best. 

This is part of the disillusionment with democracy as people get frustrated with ruling parties that would have been elected by majorities, sometimes super-majorities. Democracy is a good way to choose leadership, but it does not guarantee good government. The majority might choose an idiot for president or MP, and this has happened many times in democratic elections. Some of history’s biggest tyrants have been chosen in democratic elections. This is the reason why democracy needs qualifications, such as liberal principles and institutions that provide checks and balances to prevent a tyranny of the majority. This is also why some advocate for a system of proportional representation (PR) which enables even the smallest political parties to be represented in Parliament. The First Past the Post method is a winner-takes-all system, a zero-sum game where the winner takes everything, and the loser goes away with nothing.  

The bandwagon effect is also evident in religious sects where young girls are placed into illegal unions with predatory adult males. If you ask them, they might tell you that it is their way of life, and everyone has been doing it for decades. They regard it as “marriage”, even if it is against the formal laws of the country. It is considered normal in that deeply patriarchal and misogynistic community and is, therefore, a social norm. It is almost impossible for members of that community to take a dissenting view. They might not even see anything wrong with it, but even if they do, they are not prepared for the negative social sanctions that are associated with any dissent. Therefore, they conform to the social norm, thereby perpetuating the injustices towards young girls. 

However, following social norms is not always a bad thing. Social norms can be used to promote good behaviour in society. They can be used to encourage young people to register to vote and participate in elections or to promote peace, co-operation, and non-violence among people in communities. Cultivating social norms can be used to encourage leaders to resign when they fall short of standards or to promote anti-corrupt practices. As Pryor and Howe conclude, “The better we can understand why people conform to social norms, the more able we will be to design behavioural change interventions to address the problems facing our society.” Those who wish to promote social change would do well to design such social interventions that lead people to conform to positive social norms such as the rule of law and promoting the rights of children against predatory adults who force them into illegal unions. 

Causal Fallacy

False cause is one of the most used logical fallacies. This is when a false cause is attributed to an event even if there is no evidence to back it up. When an aircraft crashes, some people might blame a fault in the aircraft as the cause. But it could be human error and nothing to do with the plane. Think of ZANU PF’s favourite argument: the country’s economic problems are because of sanctions. This is a false cause not least because Zimbabwe’s problems pre-date the imposition of targeted sanctions twenty years ago. The economy was already sinking and several factors including the chaotic land reform program, deindustrialization, corruption, and poor economic management are responsible for the economic troubles.  

Another common causal fallacy is post hoc ergo propter hoc (which is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”). This is a logical fallacy that happens where one points to an event as the cause simply because it happened first. When something has happened, people are likely to look for what happened first and to attribute it to the cause. It is appealing to imagine that it is the cause just because it happened first. However, there might well be other causes of the event which have nothing to do with the cited cause. Take for example a line that became very common in the media that Mugabe lost his way after marrying a younger wife, Grace in 1996. This reasoning does not stand critical scrutiny. For a start, by the time Mugabe married Grace the most heinous period of his career, Gukurahundi was already done. It happened under his watch in the 1980s when he was still married to his first wife, Sally. The point is that Mugabe’s failings cannot logically be attributed to the arrival of Grace on the marital scene. 

The challenge for critical minds is to be open-minded about causal connections. The moment someone tries to draw a firm conclusion based on the notion that something happened first, be on guard because it is likely to be a logical fallacy. When you are investigating causes, you must go beyond easy attributions. Imagine you had a visitor at your house and later one member of the household says they can’t find their phone. Most people are likely to think that the guest has something to do with it for no other reason apart from the fact that he arrived before the phone went missing.  

Appeal to Authority

This is a logical fallacy where one invokes authority as if it justifies an argument. Usually, authority is being misused to support a weak argument. It is hardly surprising that many people are keen to use their titles. Over the last decade, most professionals invoke their credentials as part of their names. But by far the biggest craze has been to acquire a doctorate so that they are called “Doctor”. Some have gone to the extent of buying doctorates from dodgy colleges just so that they can have the title to their name. The hope is that the title confers an appearance of authority. 

People go to these lengths because of the desire to be regarded as intelligent and for their views to be respected and taken seriously. The stampede to get doctorates and to use professional titles is encouraged by a society that places a high premium on form over substance. Therefore, when Dr. X is speaking, people are likely to listen and respect his views whereas their response to Mr. Y will be lukewarm. 

Appeal to authority also occurs when people cite sources to back up their arguments. This might seem confusing because citation of sources is good practice. But citing authorities is not enough. They must be credible and reliable. The devious ones might even cite fake sources or fictitious statistics just to back up their argument. You have probably argued with someone who says it must be true because they read the story in a newspaper. Or that the story was on the news on television. Lost in this argument is that the media also gets it wrong sometimes and some of it might be propaganda. After all, the media only covers what the editorial team selects but this does not mean what they exclude is not news or relevant. 

Therefore, while it is not a bad thing to cite authorities, one must be careful that they are not being sold weak, discredited, or even fake authorities. A common statement that accompanies the use of authority is that it is “scientific”, which is supposed to give it more credibility and weight. But the irony is that science itself is built upon the admission of ignorance; there is no certainty because today’s scientific truth is liable to be disproved by discoveries. It is also important to give equal treatment to authorities or evidence that challenges existing views. The opposite, where one persistently looks for and invokes authorities that back his views and ignores anything to the contrary, is confirmation bias. 

False Dilemma

False dilemma, which is sometimes called false dichotomy is reasoning that oversimplifies an issue and limits the options to only two when there is a broad range of options. Think of a situation where you are arguing, and the other person limits the options to either you stay or go when in fact there might be a third option. The false dilemma creates a scenario where there are only two options which excludes the multiple options. 

Politics has many dilemmas for political actors, but some of them might be false dilemmas. If political actors appreciated the limiting effects of a false dilemma, they would work to avoid this logical fallacy. Instead, they let it entrap them, and sometimes it leads to poor decision-making because other potential options are not considered. The task of a good conflict-resolution mediator is to open this range of options to the protagonists so that they can find each other. 

A common false dichotomy in politics is framed as “you either with us or with them”. This creates a dilemma for the person. Many are familiar with the binary: either you are ZANU PF or MDC Alliance. It is a classic zero-sum game scenario where you are with one or the other. But this closes off other options. What is you are indifferent? What if there are other options? You do not have to be with one or the other. Instead, you can be on your own and there might be others trapped in those two who might prefer to be with you. When parties are presented with two options, they must look at them closely to see if it is not a false dilemma; if there is a third or more option where they could find each other. 

The challenges that Zimbabwe has faced in the past 20 years have also been characterized by many dilemmas, some of which have been false because there are usually more than the two options that are presented. We have already seen one of these potentially false dilemmas which presents ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance as the only two options. Another false dilemma for the opposition is over elections: to participate or to boycott? But what if there is a third option which we might call ParticipatePlus, where it participates but with a supporting strategy that would make participation more meaningful? And what if there is a fourth option called BoycottPlus, where the opposition boycotts but with a clear backup strategy to make it more meaningful? What, indeed, if there are more options? 

Another issue that is also presented as a false dilemma is over sanctions. One side argues that the economy is weak because of sanctions while the other argues that the weaknesses of the economy have nothing to do with sanctions. A complex issue is reduced to an “either/or” scenario, motivated by political interests. It is a false dilemma because while indeed sanctions may have an impact, they are not the sole or even most important reasons why the country’s economy is in the doldrums. At most, it is one of several factors impacting the economy but there are even more important factors that require attention. But if the political factors narrow their debate to that single issue, they not only spend a lot of time on a single issue, but they lose track of other important issues that require attention. 

The false dilemma fallacy is inimical to conflict resolution because it is highly polarising. The debate over the Johannesburg Mayor is also another example of a false dilemma. A person with complex identities is reduced to whether he is a national or a foreigner. The father of the mayor was a Zimbabwean immigrant while his mother was a South African. He was born in Soweto, so he is South African by birth. However, in a case of oversimplification, the man is reduced to being a South African or a foreigner. It is a false dilemma because there are many nuances to his identity which do not admit to such reductionism. After all, there are hundreds of South Africans of various ethnicities in a leadership position who trace their heritage to foreign countries but have never been called into question for that reason. The targeting of Mayor Matongo is a case of another logical fallacy: scapegoating. It is also a case of Afrophobia.    

Groupthink

I will complete this article with a word on a phenomenon called groupthink. I do so because it is very common in our socio-political environment and most of the people who are reading this may identify it in themselves. Groupthink is when people strive to reach a consensus within a group, even when they do not agree with the group’s position. It is not very different from the bandwagon phenomenon that we encountered earlier. 

Imagine a situation where you do not agree with the view that the majority in the group has taken. You might just go along with it, censoring your views because challenging the group might cause disharmony. You remain quiet and go along because that is what everyone has agreed to. This is quite common in political parties, political factions and religious and cultural organizations. You know your leader, or your prophet or traditional leader is wrong, but you decide that you cannot challenge it. You silence yourself and secretly do what you want or you just follow unquestioningly because you believe it is your duty to do so. If the leader changes his mind, you still follow that too and find reason to justify it, even though you also had found justification for the leader’s earlier contradictory stance!

Think of the ongoing debate over COVID-19 vaccines. You do not agree with your prophet or preferred expert. But because you are already invested in what the charismatic leader says, you just go along with it instead of challenging it. The contrary position may also be correct. Likewise, you might think voting is pointless because the majority in the group says it is useless. You go along with it because that is what the group thinks.

Imagine a situation where you must answer the question of what two plus two yields. Youthink the answer is four. But if you sense that everyone in the group thinks it’s 5, groupthink means you will abandon your answer and go along with the group’s view. This is an irrational choice motivated by groupthink. Therein lies the problem with groupthink: you end up supporting the wrong answer just to appease the group. Groupthink might promote cohesion and harmony in the group, but it will also lead to wrong choices and outcomes. Many of us are victims of groupthink, both as perpetrators and targets. Since people are afraid of being attacked for expressing different ideas, they go into their shells and remain quiet.

Groupthink therefore leads to suppression of individual opinions and causes self-censorship. The problem is those good ideas get lost in the pursuit of groupthink. There are those who police the perimeter, identifying those who are deviating from the group, making sure they stay within bounds of what is deemed acceptable. It’s important therefore to find ways to challenge and avoid groupthink where it is destructive. The founder of this theory, Irving Janis provided several tell-tale signs of groupthink which I will not get into in this article but you would do well to search for more of his work. Unity and harmony within a group are good qualities, but so is diversity and free expression of ideas. They might just be what the group is looking for.

Conclusion

This BSR is a continuation from a previous BSR in which I wrote about things that I wish I had learned when I was younger. In that BSR I talked about critical thinking skills. I referred to logical fallacies. Many readers said they would like to have more material about logical fallacies. There is a lot of them and even now I have picked a few of them, using examples that I imagine would make sense to readers. But here’s the challenge: you can think of more examples that demonstrate these logical fallacies. You will find, I hope, that few people are innocent of engaging in these logical fallacies. Many of the readers are social media users and social media is fertile ground for these logical fallacies. I hope the BSR challenges you to think about the logical fallacies that you engage in from time to time. 

WaMagaisa