I recently co-authored a paper — together with Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri — on the topic of so-called “informal” fallacies. These are instances of bad inductive reasoning (as opposed to formal fallacies, which are far fewer in number, and concerning strictly deductive reasoning).
The problem that Maarten, Fabio and I write about is that accusations of informally fallacious reasoning (“ad hominem!”, “red herring!”) are actually too easily hurled around during debates, when in fact many times the alleged fallacy is a pretty reasonable heuristic, or a first approximation at tackling a problem.
For instance, in a court of law, if a defense lawyer points out the notorious unreliability of a witness, technically this is an ad hominem. But in reality it is perfectly reasonable for judge and jury to take into account a given witness’ previous record of reliability before deciding just how much weigh to give to that witness’ current testimony.
Anyway, below is the abstract of the paper, and here is the link to full version:
Philosophers of science have given up on the quest for a silver bullet to put an end to all pseudoscience, as such a neat formal criterion to separate good science from its contenders has proven elusive. In the literature on critical thinking and in some philosophical quarters, however, this search for silver bullets lives on in the taxonomies of fallacies. The attractive idea is to have a handy list of abstract definitions or argumentation schemes, on the basis of which one can identify bad or invalid types of reasoning, abstracting away from the specific content and dialectical context.
Such shortcuts for debunking arguments are tempting, but alas, the promise is hardly if ever fulfilled. Different strands of research on the pragmatics of argumentation, probabilistic reasoning and ecological rationality have shown that almost every known type of fallacy is a close neighbor to sound inferences or acceptable moves in a debate. Nonetheless, the kernel idea of a fallacy as an erroneous type of argument is still retained by most authors.
We outline a destructive dilemma we refer to as the Fallacy Fork: on the one hand, if fallacies are construed as demonstrably invalid form of reasoning, then they have very limited applicability in real life. On the other hand, if our definitions of fallacies are sophisticated enough to capture real-life complexities, they can no longer be held up as an effective tool for discriminating good and bad forms of reasoning. As we bring our schematic “fallacies” in touch with reality, we seem to lose grip on normative questions. Even approaches that do not rely on argumentation schemes to identify fallacies fail to escape the Fallacy Fork, and run up against their own version of it.