An acquaintance, hearing someone speculate that some of the advocates of defunding the police may be less than transparent about their motives, asked, “Isn’t that just a conspiracy theory?”  Another fellow I spoke with reacted to someone’s suggestion that not all sexual acts are morally equivalent by demanding, “Isn't that just homophobia?”  And a student responded to the reasoning of a religious author by sneering, “Isn’t that just a religious argument?”

What’s I find interesting is that although all three persons thought they were heading off fallacies, actually all three were committing them.  The kinds they committed were fallacies of distraction.  Each one deflected the question instead of considering it, then considered the deflection a rebuttal.

My acquaintance didn’t inquire into whether the people in question really were concealing their motives -- much less whether someone who suggests concealment is necessarily suggesting cooperation in the concealment – much less whether anyone ever does conceal his motives – much less whether anyone ever does cooperate in the act -- much less whether that could have been happening in the case at hand.

The second fellow didn’t consider whether the motive for making a suggestion automatically disqualifies it – much less whether the only possible motive for making moral distinctions among sexual acts is a pathological fear or “phobia” – much less whether all such acts really are morally equivalent.

And the student didn’t reflect upon whether the religious writer’s argument really was premised on his faith – much less whether an argument might be valid even if it were premised on faith – much less whether the argument at hand was valid.

I sometimes hear that people need more training in formal inference.  Maybe so.  But we have a much greater need to learn about “informal” fallacies, errors that occur not because we violate the rules of inference but because we are distracted from the point we are discussing.  This brings me to one of my pet peeves.  For when we do teach about informal fallacies, we often compound the problem by teaching them – well -- fallaciously.

For example, students are endlessly warned against reasoning ad populum, which is appealing to what most people think.  But taking seriously what most people think is not always a fallacy.  We shouldn’t take seriously the opinions of most people about things they know nothing about, but we should certainly take seriously the opinions of most people about matters of shared experience or inside knowledge.  For example, the only reason that can be given for the proposition that when people do things, they do them for motives, is that all people recognize that they do.

Similarly, students are tirelessly cautioned to think for themselves and take nothing on authority.  But giving special weight to the opinion of someone who knows more than we do about something is not always a fallacy either.  It is one thing to trust someone’s political opinions just because he is a cancer expert, but a very different thing to give weight to his opinions about cancer.

Bad reasoning is pervasive.  We all slip into it at times.  The great thing is to catch ourselves.