Imagine a corporation that produces a chemical called EatIt that hasn't been thoroughly tested. It is widely known that EatIt is hazardous to humans and the environment, though the government does everything it can to suppress the evidence. For this question/example, let's say EatIt is a known hazard, even though its manufacturer won't admit it.

Some food companies respond by putting the following message on their products: "Does not contain EatIt." Some may even raise the price, figuring people will be willing to pay more for healthy produce.

People who promote EatIt fire back by charging that these food companies are exploiting people's fear and paranoia, further claiming that scientists have given EatIt their seal of approval. What they don't mention is that only a subset of scientists, funded by corporations, have endorsed EatIt; most scientists think EatIt is dangerous.

What kind of fallacy is it when you claim that a product that advertises the fact that it doesn't contain something that might be harmful is an example of exploitation? If it isn't a fallacy at all, then what would you call it?

  • As per Grice’s Maxim of Quantity, we usually interpret people as saying something that’s relevant. E.g., if you’re out of gas and I say ‘There’s a gas station around the corner’, you assume I mean the station is open – as my statement is otherwise irrelevant. Similarly for ‘Does not contain EatIt’ (it seems): people assume this statement is relevant, which in turn leads them to assume they should care whether the product contains EatIt. (In your case they really should care; so, I’m not sure it’s paranoia.) – It’s not a fallacy per se, but Gricean pragmatics seem at work here. – MarkOxford Feb 5 '18 at 23:17
  • 1
    It is not a fallacy because it is not an argument. Whether something is "exploitative" or not is a judgment call, and judgment calls can be sound or unsound but not fallacious. In realistic cases it is hard to arbitrate soundness because how many scientists are enough for a precaution to be rational is itself controversial (GMO, gluten, cholesterol, transfat, all different situations). Of course, your stipulation "solves" it, but it also detaches this scenario from reality. – Conifold Feb 6 '18 at 5:00

1 The fallacy of appeal to authority - argumentum ad verecundiam - is involved here. It is an informal or material fallacy, not one of formal logic. The manufacturers of EatIt are appealing to the (supposed) veracity of accredited experts, scientists, to validate their product - to give consumers reliable reassurance (they pretend) that their product is safe. They have not provided any actual evidence - e.g. detailed reports of randomised control trials, the gold standard of clinical trials.

2 There is also the fallacy of secundum quid where you say something that is true under a qualification but omit to state or imply the qualification. 'Scientists have given EatIt their seal of approval' commits this fallacy because only some scientists (we assume they really are scientists) have given EatIt their seal of approval, not all.

So I reckon your manufacturers have committed two informal fallacies.

  • @David Blomstrom. There is a new answer to your question, It suggests two material fallacies by the manufacturers of EatIt . – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 6 '18 at 20:01
  • Wow, I never thought about that. The magic words "scientific consensus" which have almost become a fad are just that. They say there's a scientific consensus without adding any details, like the names of the scientists who gave their consent, their credentials, etc. – David Blomstrom Feb 6 '18 at 23:25

Let me give two actual examples of this to explain the situation further;

1) Permeate
Permeate was featured in Australian current affairs media as an additive in milk about a year ago. Much was said about the quality (or lack thereof) of this additive and it was generally pitched as a bad thing to put in milk. Almost overnight pretty much every bottle of milk on supermarket shelves had 'Permeate Free' or some similar variation printed on it. The other day I went to a shelf and picked up a bottle of milk; I caught myself putting it back because it didn't have 'Permeate Free' written on it.

In this instance, the effect of all those bottles of milk having that written on them was NOT to imply that Permeate was bad; the press had already done that. What effect was had was to make me assume that if the sticker wasn't on the label, then the milk probably DID contain Permeate.

In this case, the label is not a fallacy because manufacturers who are being accused of using a poor quality additive are really just advertising its absence which is within their rights given that the press implied that it was almost global in its use within milk supplies around Australia. It is perhaps a matter of conditioning that one infers by the lack of advertising of an absence that a presence exists, but that is another matter.

2) Fat Free Lollies
Many of the bags of lollies in the supermarkets these days proudly sport a sticker proclaiming them fat free. This is not a lie; the lollies which sport this sticker are almost 100% sugar, the remainder being flavouring and other additives.

The fallacy here is that because fat is bad for you, that if the lollies contain no fat, then they're good for you. My personal view is that this kind of labeling is false advertising because it implies that something is better for you than it really is by focusing on the single bad attribute that the product actually doesn't contain.

I don't know the specific name of this fallacy off hand but the description is 'implying that the absence of something bad makes the object good'.

In the case you mention above, the existence of the fallacy (or not) hinges on whether one would reasonably expect the chemical mentioned to be present in product advertising its absence. I (for example) wouldn't actually buy a loaf of bread with a sticker on it 'Free of Crushed Glass!' because what the hell are they even mentioning crushed glass for in association with bread? That the bread has such a sticker on it means I infer that they think that bread MAY contain crushed glass, and I don't want to buy a product off someone who even thinks that's a possibility. For the same reason, if EatIt has only been associated with (say) fruit juice and I see an 'EatIt Free' sticker on a loaf of bread, then yes, Mark's comment to your OP holds true as it is a question of relevance.

If your EatIt (on the other hand) has been linked to loaves of bread, then advertising its absence is NOT a fallacy for the same reason that advertising a loaf of bread as 'organic ingredients only' isn't a fallacy; it's merely refining the list of what the manufacturer has used as ingredients.

As such, there is no distinct fallacy related to promoting the absence of something in a product, but context may reveal a fallacy in other ways.

Edit to address changes in OP
As has been explained further, there is the question of the makers of EatIt and their claims that advertising the absence of their additive in other products generates paranoia.

The fallacy there is quite simple; you're calling into question the claim through calling into question the motives, or character, of those making the claim. This is known in the vernacular as Character Assassination.

This is no better than many other forms of personal attack. "You're only saying that because you're biased" is a common catch cry of many who believe that their claims are so axiomatic, that anyone who doesn't believe them must have some failing of intellect or character. The position of EatIt manufacturers attempts to bring this argument to bear against the advertisers in question.

Another real life example; about 30 yrs ago (again in Australia), medical advice was being given to people with cholesterol issues not to eat eggs, because it would exacerbate their condition. The sales of eggs started to plummet as people who'd been eating them all this time thought they were now bad for your health.

The egg companies when to a great deal of trouble to create their own advertising campaigns that explained the role that eggs play in a typical diet and why they didn't actually cause cholesterol issues. They were largely successful.

Instead of attacking doctors or other medical professionals for their comments, they conducted an ethical and informed campaign of public awareness that explained when and when not to eat eggs to maintain a balanced diet.

In my personal experience, character assassination is employed when those objecting to the original statement (in this case contains no EatIt) cannot argue a more articulate case. This may be because the facts are against them, as is likely the case in EatIt, or when something appears so obvious to a person that they have trouble justifying the belief in the first place. Often statements like 'You're a racist' fall into this category. The person being labelled in this manner may very well be a racist, but this labelling as a fait accomplis to end a discussion doesn't actually add any value to the debate, and doesn't inform the alleged racist on why his world view would benefit from modification.

This point however, goes well beyond the scope of the OP. Suffice it to say that there IS a fallacy being conducted by the manufacturers of EatIt, who would be better served by an ethical campaign of public awareness if EatIt is not the monster the public believes it to be.

  • I up voted you answer, which is illuminating. However, it could be argued that this is simply honest advertising. If it's widely known or assumed that EatIt is bad, yet companies aren't required to label their food "Contains Edit," then something similar can be accomplished by companies that do not use EatIt labeling their products "Does NOT contain EatIt." – David Blomstrom Feb 6 '18 at 1:14
  • So I'm most interested in knowing what fallacy THE MAKERS OF EatIt committed. By calling their competitors paranoid fear mongers, they're suggesting that EatIt is safe, when there's growing evidence that it is NOT safe. – David Blomstrom Feb 6 '18 at 1:15
  • P.S. I modified my question a bit to clarify it. I hope the original question didn't lead you astray. Your answer does add an unexpected but interesting dimension to my question. – David Blomstrom Feb 6 '18 at 1:19
  • Thanks for the heads up about the clarification David, I've added extra detail to cover that specific point. Hope it's helpful. – Tim B II Feb 6 '18 at 1:35
  • Interesting. I'm not going to mark it as the correct answer until my question gets more responses. However, you packed a lot of information into your answer. – David Blomstrom Feb 6 '18 at 1:48

This is the dreaded fallacy fallacy. Pointing out a logical fallacy in your oppponent's argument doesn't automatically strengthen your own argument. A silly example:

  • X: I believe in global warming because it seems to get hotter every summer.

  • Y: That's a logical fallacy. It's only your personal unquantified opinion, and it only applies to where you are or have been. It doesn't really qualify as evidence for measurable quantifiable global warming.

  • X: You are correct. My argument contained a logical fallacy.

  • Y: Therefore, my case against global warming is stronger.

  • X: No. My fallacy means my argument for global warming hasn't gotten any stronger, but it doesn't strengthen the counter argument either. As long as there exist some good arguments for global warming, no number of bad arguments can defeat them.

In your case:

  • Al: Our product contains no EatIt. EatIt may be dangerous. Therefore, our product is safer than competitor products that contain EatIt.

  • EatIt: That's a logical fallacy. EatIt isn't proven dangerous, and anything could be dangerous. Your product may contain other ingredients that make it more dangerous than your competitor's products. It's even possible that EatIt may make your product safer and that lack of EatIt makes your product more dangerous. Your statement that EatIt may be dangerous is biased, because it doesn't acknowledge the possibilty that EatIt may make products afer.

  • Al: You are correct. My claim is logically fallacious.

  • EatIt: Therefore, EatIt is safe.

  • Al: No. I've failed to show EatIt is dangerous, but it only takes one good argument to show that. My failed argument doesn't make your counter argument stronger.

Some general thoughts/observations:

  • People seem to dislike the concept of agnosticism (and not just in the religious sense), so the fallacy fallacy is often effective:

    • Flat Earthers: You can't absolutely prove the world is roundish (a somewhat reasonable statement). We have some arguments that the Earth may be flat (true, because the word "may" is involved). Therefore, the Earth is flat (unreasonable conclusion).

    • Racists: You can't show Black people are genetically equal or superior to White people in all ways (true, that would be very difficult to do). We have some arguments that Blacks may be inferior (true). Therefore, Black people are (faulty conclusion).

    • Religion: You can't absolutely prove that God doesn't exist (true). There is some evidence that God exists (true). Therefore, God exists.

  • A good (but seriously annoying) way to "win" arguments is to avoid taking a specific position, ask your opponent to prove their point, and find logical fallacies in their arguments (I believe most people make logical fallacies when arguing). You're effectively showing nothing is "really" knowable, which will seriously frustrate your opponent.

  • On a more serious note, I believe this is the root cause of disagreement among people: if you can't absolutely prove what I'm saying is false, I must be right and you must be wrong. No one wants to say "we have no good way of knowing whether X is true or not, so we should try to work towards a solution that doesn't depend on X's truth value".

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