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I just made up that name for the fallacy, but I'm wondering if there is a more common term for it. The fallacy is basically inferring from an inconclusive set of evidence to a particular explanation because that explanation happens to be a special interest of yours. For example,

There is no way a comedian known for playing the piano with his male organ became president of Ukraine without some hidden influence; therefore, the CIA installed him in the presidency.

This is the sort of reasoning often used by conspiracy theorists. One species of conspiracy theorists are focused on the misdeeds of the CIA, so everything that happens that is hard to explain must have the CIA behind it. Others are focused on racism, so everything bad that happens is blamed on racism.

  • Question 1: Is there a common name for this fallacy, and if so, what is it?
  • Question 2: How does one distinguish this fallacy from inferring to the best explanation (called "abduction" by some authors)?

In both the fallacy of the devil you know and abduction, the best explanation is just the explanation you pick because given your background and interests, explanations of that sort happen to seem plausible to you. How can they be differentiated, if at all?

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    definitely seems more like a a cognitive bias than a fallacy, at least unless you include "i am inteersted in pianos" in your premises.
    – user67675
    Oct 1, 2023 at 15:47
  • does this help? they are listed as inductive fallacies
    – user67675
    Oct 1, 2023 at 15:52
  • I think he pretended to play the piano that way, not actually. Oct 1, 2023 at 18:07
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    I don't think that is a good choice of name. The expression "the devil you know" is usually used when making a choice between options such that one is undesirable but has the merit of being familiar and tolerable, while other options involve more risk and could turn out worse. What you are describing seems to be a combination of conspiratorial thinking and false cause.
    – Bumble
    Oct 1, 2023 at 20:33
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    It is a case of confirmation bias, "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values". The tunnel vision metaphor is a colloquial equivalent, "tendency, habit, or conscious decision to only focus one’s energy or attention on a single particular thing or aspect, without regard for anything or anyone else." Some call it a fallacy.
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2023 at 7:13

3 Answers 3

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This is an interesting question. Conspiratorial thinking whether it is government organizations or pervasive forms of evil is something I've bumped into repeatedly. Clearly, one gets a sense some form of defective reason pervades in the mind of the person recounting how racism is found everywhere.

Before we begin, it is necessary to understand that reason is both an occurrence and a disposition (SEP), and with the use of fallacy, we have both a non-technical sense and technical sense that are themselves referring either to a disposition or occurrence. Technically, a fallacy is often taxonomized as a very limited linguistic construction. Perhaps a few premises which arrive at an erroneous conclusion either through a violation of validity or soundness. This would be occurrent fallacy because it is a very limited occurrence of reason (measured by length and structure of utterance) and would be understood as existing in distinction to dispositional fallacy which is a general bias in reason towards specious conclusion. It's therefore important to understand that taxonomies of fallacy are of the first sort.

When someone has grand explanations of the world that revolve around a repeated conclusion (he is racist because... she is racist because... the government is racist because... history is racist because...), what might appear to be an occurrent fallacy is probably more likely dispositional fallacy, the sort that taxonomies don't apply to because of their complexity. The principle of compositionality asserts that dispositional fallacy is composed of a long sequence of occurrent fallacies. Thus, it might be possible to categorize the "Devil I Know" such as a flavor of hasty generalization, let's say conspiratorial hasty generalization, which might not be canonical nomenclature, but an accurate description of an instance of poor reason, but it might also behoove us to think that when it comes to reason, there are four classes of more and more pervasive and flawed reasoning moving towards a more applicable of characterizing a worldview rather than a syllogism:

Everyone is predisposed to the first class because these are pervasive, but normal errors in thinking. This is the stuff Kahneman explores in this Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is a modern psychological argument for the philosophical position of fallibilism (IEP). I have three books that catalog this sort of thinking: Hamblin's work, Bo Bennett's work which can be found online, and Damer's work Attacking Faulty Reasoning. Part of what makes a fallacy is the limited scope and the criteria by which the reasoning violates good informal reasoning. Usually, one is dealing with several premises and a conclusion that violate acceptable, relevant, and good premises which are persuasive, but can be shown to be erroneous in some immediate way.

When talking about a social justice warrior who believes that racism inheres to everyone's motives, is the lens through which all institutions operate, and is the primary lens for viewing history, that seems to me to be too pervasive to be a fallacy in otherwise reasonable thinking. I would suggest that it might fall into one of the three additional categories in terms of severity.

Extended complexes of reasoning might inhere to just fragmentary reasoning embedded into non-coalescing narrative, it might be broadly apophenic reasoning that forms a coherent narrative, or if it is extensive enough, it is accompanied with strong feelings of anxiety or clinical phobia that manifest not only with a narrative that is conspiratorial, but is also delusional. Some explanation is warranted.

Every makes mistakes in reasoning. We're not computers, and so when we use informal argumentation, we make errors in judgement. If we do that in a pattern, it becomes a bias. Cognitive biases, like fallacies, have been observed in the hundreds and WP has lists of both. Fundamental attribution bias is a fairly common mistake people make often confusing the attributing poorly properties to people (their personality) disregarding what circumstances might play a role in decisions because others' experiences aren't transparent to us.

But the moment one starts seeing the world through such a lens consistently becomes a distortion which is pervasive rather than a one-off experience. Beck's work with depression is a good example. Depressed people tend to see the world in a consistently distorted way, and depressed people tend to make the same errors in black and white thinking. Clinical narcissists and people who manifest a pattern of BPD often face adjustment issues that show consistent distortion. But for the most part people in these classes of behavior are rather reasonable in the narratives of their lives.

Some people who might get along quite well in the world, though, see grand patterns in their narratives that don't quite align with how the world thinks. A typical example is people who are intellectually, but not emotionally invested in paranormal, supernatural, and conspiratorial stories about life itself. Everyone is racist. QAnon is going to destroy the DC. A race of lizard extraterrestrials is running the world. A race war is imminent in the US. Fluoride in the water is toxic and a government plan. Jews are evil and have a space laser.

But the reasoning has to be judged within the context of a person's cultural worldview. If you're a Christian, then it's not so crazy to believe that God is real and Jesus will rise from the dead. But if you start making the claim your neighbor is God and has risen from the dead, they come for you, particularly if you buy guns and start threatening others.

In an extreme form recalcitrant to counter evidence, then you may be dealing with extreme neurological dysfunction, such as is the case with schizophrenia accompanied by auditory hallucinations, for instance. Unlike the three previous classes, people who are paranoid and delusional generally become a problem for others and social institutions deal with them. A few hundred years ago, maybe you were just called possessed and hanged or imprisoned. One hundred years ago, they might lobotomize you. Today, treatment is generally just characterized as illness and you might be medicated.

You ask:

Question 1: Is there a common name for this fallacy, and if so, what is it?
Question 2: How does one distinguish this fallacy from inferring to the best explanation (called "abduction" by some authors)?

These two questions are two aspects of the same greater issue. What is the best way to describe this pervasive failure of reasoning and preoccupation with a particular theme? I wouldn't consider a pervasive conspiratorial theme of a narrative a fallacy. Rather, by the principle of composition, grossly defective explanation is an irrational construction of a story by distortions characterized by fallacy and inappropriate characterization which demonstrate an overarching problem with normativity driven by an emotional preoccupation like fear or hurt.

For social justice warriors, it's usually hurt and vulnerability, for instance. A person who believes racism or "those people" is omnipresent and responsible for the evils in the world isn't just committing a fallacy, they are demonstrating pervasive irrationality driven by fear of others. That means you can identify a host of biases, fallacies, and distortions in their thinking, and cannot boil it down to a simpler linguistic construct, such as ad hominem or an appeal to popularity. Thus, the question is one of the scope of language used, and the pervasiveness of the theme in the worldview of the thinker.

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  • It just dawned on me that it would be clearer to state that a fallacy is an occurrence of irrational reasoning, whereas "The Devil You Know", a pervasive and persistent irrational conclusion in explanation and narrative is a disposition. To be clearer on the last claim is to have some familiarity with the metaphysical notion of dispositions (SEP).
    – J D
    Oct 1, 2023 at 14:46
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    This answer seems to go very off track, becoming more about arguing that a particular example is illogical. It come across like it is more about proving that a particular claimed "social justice warrior" belief is illogical rather than addressing the question asked. There is even a debate if that term even describes a legitimate concept, rather than being a nebulous pejorative. An example with so many complications that could generate disagreement is not a good example.
    – trlkly
    Oct 2, 2023 at 19:50
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    @josephh "Referring to someone in these, albeit pejorative, terms is identical to claiming that the person has an unreasonable and fallacious worldview." That's exactly the problem. Making a contentious claim like that does not belong in an Answer. Examples of fallacies should be obviously incorrect, not something that can and would be argued against by a significant portion of people. I was highly tempted to start refuting claims myself. That's no good for an example. It reads like a conservative wanting to shoehorn an attack on SJWs, despite it having nothing to do with the question.
    – trlkly
    Oct 3, 2023 at 3:22
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    @josephh I of course presume that this is not the intent. They weren't trying to push a point of view, but just considered it obvious, and thought it was something readers would agree with. But that is due to my principle of assuming good faith. The inclusion of that as their chosen main example seems bizarre. Though I would also argue that a pejorative is not equivalent to a claim, as a pejorative also implies an attempt to use an emotion-based argument as well.
    – trlkly
    Oct 3, 2023 at 3:23
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    @JD Your personal political beliefs have nothing to do with actually answering the question asked. That's the point. This is not the place for you to be arguing that a group you politically oppose are being illogical. I get that you believe this, but not every reader will, and thus that makes for a bad example. You are instead inviting political argument, inviting people to tell you why they believe your logic is incorrect. Heck, your response to me is political argument.
    – trlkly
    Oct 3, 2023 at 20:08
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There is no way a comedian known for playing the piano with his male organ became president of Ukraine without some hidden influence; therefore, the CIA installed him in the presidency.

I believe this is an argument from incredulity.

Argument from incredulity https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Argument-from-Incredulity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_incredulity

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    +1 This hits the nail in the head.
    – J D
    Oct 2, 2023 at 4:41
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This type of reasoning looks to me like it is primarily based on statistically inadequate application of post hoc testing. In this case the speaker cherry-picks a rare/unusual set of circumstances post hoc after seeing the outcome and then conducts a naive version of a post hoc test. In this test the speaker uses the a priori fact that this specific unusual circumstance would rarely lead to the outcome under normal processes to conclude that the occurrence of the outcome requires some special explanation involving departure from the normal process. This type of reasoning is shown below.

The problem with this approach is that it does not condition on the selection of the post hoc testing procedure itself, which cherry-picked the unusual circumstance after seeing the outcome. This method of inference is regarded as fallacious in statistical theory and it is well known to have extremely strong confirmatory bias (i.e., it often leads to confirmation of the asserted hypothesis, even if that hypothesis is false). As to the particular selection of the CIA in this case as the alleged intervenor, this part is perfectly reasonable if you know anything at all about CIA activities in the Ukraine over the past decade or two.


Unusual circumstance (X): Person X is a comedian who played the piano with his genitals.

Usual process (A): A presidential election with no hidden intervention by a clandestine agency (e.g., the CIA).

Unusual process (~A): Hidden intervention in the election by a clandestine agency (e.g., the CIA).

Outcome (Y): Person X becomes President of a country.

Naive post hoc test: Measured a priori (i.e., without conditioning on the post hoc test procedure), the probability P(Y|X & A) is low but the probability P(Y|X & ~A) is less low. Since X and Y are observed to be true, we infer ~A with high probability.


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  • I think that all reasoning is post hoc, but maybe that's just my bias.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 29, 2023 at 17:07

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