The most common fallacies in sustainability discussions


Fallacies are arguments, defending a position, but with reasoning mistakes. The tricky thing about fallacies that they seem unrighteously strong and it is not always clear whether they are used or not.

Fallacies make it difficult, and  lot of times impossible to find a solution to a disagreement. Everybody uses them – willingly or unwillingly.

Many politicians and experts use fallacies. The problem with fallacies is that in the short term they do work, you can “win a debate” with them.

But in my opinion, when you are a sustainability professional who wants to find a solution for a pressing issue, you should not enter discussions with winning as a goal. In a discussion you should look objective and rational at the problem, the views and arguments given to find a solution to the given problem.

If you really want to win something, you should’ve become an athlete. 😉

There are dozens of fallacies. Here’s a small selection of the most common fallacies in sustainability discussions of discussions on environment.

* Personal Attack (ad hominem) – You are a… fallacy

You try to bring the position of the other down by pointing out that the behavior of that person is not in agreement with what he says. If for example you call for the abolition of factory farming (bio-industry), but still eat meat from that type of farming, the fallacy can be used as follows: “You eat meat from factory farming, so your arguments for abolition of the bio- industry do not make sense, you do it too.”

The arguments should be judged, not the person. This fallacy points out that someone who is not consistent in words and deeds, cannot be right. And that’s not true, the position itself may still be correct, even though someone can have contradictions in their arguments. But that’s not the same as having contradictions in arguments and behavior.

*    Slippery Slope

In the fallacy of the slippery slope it is wrongly suggested that a certain solution or measure will lead to a doom scenario. It will go from bad to worse. The problem with such reasoning is that it is not certain that these consequences will occur.

There are many slippery slope examples:

If we allow cloning of animals, we will soon allow cloning of people.

If we will legalize marijuana, then more people will try heroin.

If we allow abortion in the first week of pregnancy, that will eventually lead to allowing abortion in the 9th Month.

These arguments suggest a doom scenario, which does not need to happen. One does not necessarily lead to the other.

* Naturalistic Fallacy

When the naturalistic fallacy is used, then the argument for (or against) a certain measure is derived from reality or nature. In discussions on sustainability people often refer to nature to support their position.

That does not sound wrong. The argument “Eating meat is good, because it is natural, just look at our teeth, we are made to eat meat” sounds pretty good, you might think.

But nature has also less positive aspects. We don’t want to deduce measures and standards of how the world should be, from nature. Think of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees kill each other and researchers can find no logical explanation. We don’t want to allow killing.

Another example are natural products. Products made from natural resources are seen as good products because they are made from natural ingredients. But nature also has poisonous plants. Not everything natural is also good.

As you can see, there are enough things in nature that we do not find acceptable. You can not draw conclusions from nature for what measures people should take.

* False Dilemma

In discussions people often present false dilemmas to make someone decide between two actions or measures, of which one is so extreme that it is unacceptable. The other option is usually the one which is advocated. The problem is that there are often plenty of other possibilities.

The most famous example that has had far-reaching consequences, was the judgment of George Bush after 9/11: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Of course you can both condemn terrorism well as the Bush administration. Yet many countries supported the Bush administration to invade Iraq, based on what arguments or fallacies? I assume that politicians didn’t only base their decision on the mentioned fallacy, but such a announcement/message does affect the decision-making, but it certainly affects public opinion.

Recognizing fallacies is very important, because poor arguments can lead to undesirable measures. Measures that you did not really want. The common fallacies were convincing, but put you the wrong track. Fallacies are often difficult to recognize. You have to practice and stay sharp.

Have you’ve heard an argument of which you doubt whether it is a fallacy? Write a comment here and then I will look at it with you.

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