A "Baloney" Dictionary1


In science, as in our daily lives, we are constantly confronted with people trying to convince us of something. We are urged to buy this product, to believe that hypothesis, to vote for this candidate, etc.

Many of these appeals contain logical or rhetorical fallacies - "baloney" - placed there perhaps carelessly by a well-meaning person (to many people "it's only logical that..." just means "it seems natural to me that ..." which really means "it reinforces my prejudices that ..."), or perhaps cynically and purposefully with intent to mislead and deceive ("Do you want to be happy and popular? Just buy ______"). Not only are we assaulted from without by these fallacies, but we are also quite effective at using them to fool ourselves ("That couldn't happen to me!").

In order to be effective citizens in a technological world, let alone effective scientists, a person must know how to recognize "baloney". Below is a short list of commonly recognized logical and rhetorical fallacies.

ad hominem (Latin for "to the man")
This is a commonly used intimidation ploy - attack the critic rather than the answer the critic's argument.
Examples: "Anyone who would disagree with _____ is a communist!" or "Only a total idiot would believe ______!"
appeal to ignorance
the claim that whatever has not been proven false must be true and vice-versa. Example: "There is no compelling evidence that UFO's are not visiting the earth - therefore UFO's exist." 
argument from adverse consequences
If we do (or don't do) something, all sorts of (probably unrelated) things will happen. This is related to non sequitur and slippery slope. Examples: "The defendant must be found guilty, otherwise it will encourage other people to commit crimes." or "If we allow students to wear hats, pretty soon they'll be running the school!"
argument from authority
Since an expert says it, it has to be true. Examples: "But it says in my book that ..." or "If _____ says so, it must be true." or "How dare you contradict me!" or "Because I said so, that's why."
begging the question (assuming the answer) -
Examples: "We must use the death penalty to discourage violent crime." (Does the rate of violent crime really fall when the death penalty is instituted?) or "The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors." (Is there any evidence that profit-taking causes "adjustment"? What is "adjustment" anyway? Does this statement really mean anything?)
confusion of correlation and causation
This is closely related to post hoc, ergo propter hoc and non sequitur. "Cause and effect" is a very tricky concept. Examples: "Surveys show that the percentage of homosexuals is greater among college graduates than among non-college graduates. Therefore, education causes homosexuality." or, a silly one: "Wind is caused by trees moving their leaves."
counting the hits and forgetting the misses (observational selection)
Being human, we can be very good at remembering our successes and forgetting our errors. Example: "Under my leadership, our state has moved 17,000 people from welfare to work. " True - except that during the same time, 25,000 people moved from work to welfare.
excluded middle (false dichotomy)
People often consider only the extreme cases in a situation that is really a continuum of possibilities. Examples: "America, love it or leave it!" or "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem".
exclusion from special understanding
the critic lacks some special (often mystical) understanding, and therefore cannot appreciate the argument. Examples: "You only criticize astrology because you don't understand the special role of the planets in Free Will." or "My parents just don't understand..." (sorry 'bout that...), or "_________ only works if you believe it will."
based on the idea that if your opponent doesn't get a chance to talk, you win.
Often we find ourselves taking 2 different viewpoints at the same time. Example: Prudently plan for every possible military threat while thriftily ignoring scientific projections on environmental hazards because they are not "proved".
closely related to ad hominem and filibuster. If you can bully your opponent into silence, you win. Example: "Any idiot can clearly see that _____. Any questions?"
meaningless question
Some statements have no meaning whatsoever. Example: "What happens if an irresistible force meets an
immovable object?" If there was such a thing as an irresistible force (there isn't), there couldn't be any
immovable objects (and vice versa), now could there? or "Top Ten Richest Dead People" - Excuse me, do dead
people have money and property? (Yes, this is a real list...)
misuse of statistics
There are just too many ways to misuse statistics to attempt a list here. Just be "on your toes" - if someone is spouting statistics to bolster their position, it's probably baloney. Check it out. Examples: "Two out of three doctors recommends ____" How many doctors did they ask? You might assume this is the result of a survey of large numbers of doctors -but the statement is legally defensible if they asked just 3 doctors - and these doctors may have been employees of the company! or: "One out of 5 people in the world is Chinese, but I know hundreds of people, and none of them are Chinese!" or, President Dwight D. Eisenhower once expressed astonishment and alarm upon learning that fully half of
all Americans have below average intelligence.
non sequitur (Latin for "It does not follow")
Often this is the result of not examining possible alternatives. Examples: "Our nation will win the war, since God is on
our side!" Doesn't the other nation think the same thing? Or, "I can experiment with drugs and alcohol - I won't become addicted. I can handle it." Do you suppose that the millions of people who have become addicted to drugs and alcohol thought that it would happen to them when they first started? Why, exactly, are you different?
post hoc, ergo propter hoc (Latin for "it happened after, so it was caused by)
Many people are quick to assume or imply "cause & effect" - which is actually extremely difficult to establish. Example: "Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons."
slippery slope
A small act will inevitable lead to complete chaos. Example: "If we allow students to do that, pretty soon they will be taking over the school!"
straw man
caricaturing the opponent's position in order to make it easy to attack. This is a very popular ploy. Examples: "Evolutionists claim that living things simply fell together one day just by chance." or "My parents just want to run my life." or "Those darn kids only want to cause trouble!"
suppressed evidence (half truths)
Examples: Two days after the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the media widely quoted and displayed a videotaped "prophesy" that the event would occur. It was startlingly accurate - but it was later shown to have been recorded after the assassination attempt. Or, "Legalizing gambling will raise enormous amounts of money, and every penny will go to education". Yes, and the money currently going to education will be reallocated, so that education gains nothing, or perhaps even loses money.
victory via volume
The one who can yell the loudest wins. Two words: Jerry Springer
weasel words
Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public." Examples: "Its not a new tax, its a revenue enhancement." Or, "Since the President cannot declare war without the consent of Congress, we don't have wars - we have "police actions", "armed incursions", "protective reaction strikes", etc.

1Credits: A great deal of the above came from "Sagan, Carl. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books 1997.", and thanks to Brett Hall for finding the citation for me.

last update November 3, 2003 by JL Stanbrough