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,
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
- ad hominem (Latin for "to the
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- all Americans have below average intelligence.
- non sequitur (Latin for "It does
- Often this is the result of not examining possible
alternatives. Examples: "Our nation will win the war, since God is
- 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
- 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
- victory via volume
- The one who can yell the loudest wins. Two words: Jerry
- 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",
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