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Humanities Libertexts

9.8: Faulty Appeals to Trust

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  • Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):

    Just as we saw with appeals to emotion, appeals to trust and connection may or may not work. But apart from the question of whether or not they work is the question of whether or not they are legitimate. Here are three questions to ask about the legitimacy of any appeal to trust:

    • Does the attempt to get the reader to trust suggest an idea that is not logical or not true?
    • To what extent is the appeal to trust really relevant to the trustworthiness of the argument?
    • Is the argument asking for more trust than is really warranted? Even if the attempt to gain our trust is logical and relevant, we should ask whether its importance has been exaggerated. Our decision to trust should be based on many different factors. Often appeals to trust imply that we should accept or reject a claim outright when in reality more caution is called for.

    We will see answers to the above questions in each of the following faulty appeals to trust:

    Insincere Appeals to Shared Identity or Values

    Obviously, lying about who we are or what we believe in is not a valid way to build trust. An appeal to a shared identity that is not really shared or an appeal to a shared value that the writer does not really hold is certainly a breach of trust.

    However, referring to an identity that the writer doesn't share can be a legitimate gesture of goodwill, as long as the writer doesn't misrepresent their own background. A white politician who interjects Spanish words into a speech to a largely Latinx audience is signaling that they want to appear friendly and empathetic to a Latinx identity. Of course, the politician's accent may undermine this to some extent by reminding the audience of their different background. Will the audience be glad that the politician is trying? Will they be put off by a sense that the politician is presuming too much or encroaching on an identity that doesn't belong to them? Writers will often try to signal respect and familiarity if they do refer to another group's identity, as in "I know from talking to transgender friends that using a single-gender restroom can feel stressful and dangerous."

    Appeal to Popularity

    An extremely common technique is to suggest that a claim is true because it is widely accepted. Of course, we do legitimately need to refer to other people's opinions as guides to our own at times. An idea's popularity may be a legitimate reason to investigate it further. It might be a reason to consider it influential and thus important to address in a discussion. But it's popularity does not prove its validity. Popularity may be due to the correctness of the idea but it may be due to many other reasons as well.

    Appeals to popularity encourage readers to base their decisions too much on their underlying desire to fit in, to be hip to what everybody else is doing, not to be considered crazy. Imagine that a talk show host introduces a guest as the author of a #1 New York Times bestseller about climate change and the coming apocalypse. But this is a fallacy. We’ve all known it’s a fallacy since we were little kids, the first time we did something wrong because all of our friends were doing it, too, and our mom or dad asked us, “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?”

    Personal Attacks

    We commit this fallacy when, instead of attacking an opponent’s views, we attack the opponent. What makes this a fallacy is the disconnect between the reason and the claim. Logicians call this an ad hominem fallacy, which means "to the person." The opponent may have bad qualities, but these qualities do not make their argument incorrect. They may give legitimate reason to trust the argument less, but they do not invalidate it.

    This fallacy comes in various forms; there are a lot of different ways to attack a person while ignoring (or downplaying) their actual arguments. Abusive attacks are the most straightforward. The simplest version is simply calling your opponent names instead of debating them. Donald Trump has mastered this technique. During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, he came up with catchy nicknames for his opponents, which he used just about every time he referred to them: “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Little Marco” Rubio, “Low-Energy Jeb” Bush. If you pepper your descriptions of your opponent with tendentious, unflattering, politically charged language, you can get a rhetorical leg-up.

    Another abusive attack is guilt by association. Here, you tarnish your opponent by associating them or his views with someone or something that your audience despises. Consider the following:

    Former Vice President Dick Cheney was an advocate of a strong version of the so-called Unitary Executive interpretation of the Constitution, according to which the president’s control over the executive branch of government is quite firm and far-reaching. The effect of this is to concentrate a tremendous amount of power in the Chief Executive, such that those powers arguably eclipse those of the supposedly co-equal Legislative and Judicial branches of government. You know who else was in favor of a very strong, powerful Chief Executive? That’s right, Hitler.

    The argument just compared Dick Cheney to Hitler with only the tiniest shred of evidence. That evidence is not sufficient to make a legitimate comparison: if it were, then any person who favored giving most government power to one leader could be compared to Hitler. Clearly, consolidating power was not the most significant thing Hitler did, nor, in itself, is it the reason we have such negative associations with his name. Those powerful negative associations make comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis a powerful rhetorical strategy which is often used when it isn't justified. There is even a fake-Latin term for the tactic: Argumentum ad Nazium (cf. the real Latin phrase, ad nauseum—to the point of nausea.

    A circumstantial attack is not as blunt an instrument as its abusive counterpart. It also involves attacking one’s opponent, focusing on some aspect of their person—their circumstances—as the core of the criticism. This version of the fallacy comes in many different forms, and some of the circumstantial criticisms involved raise legitimate concerns about the relationship between the arguer and his argument. They only become fallacies when these criticisms are taken to be definitive refutations, which, on their own, they cannot be.

    To see what we’re talking about, consider the circumstantial attack that points out one’s opponent’s self-interest in making the argument they do. Consider:

    A recent study from scientists at the University of Minnesota claims to show that glyphosate—the main active ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup—is safe for humans to use. But guess whose business school just got a huge donation from Monsanto, the company that produces Roundup? That’s right, the University of Minnesota. Ever hear of conflict of interest? This study is junk, just like the product it’s defending.

    This argument is flawed. It doesn’t follow from the fact that the University received a grant from Monsanto that scientists working at that school faked the results of a study. But the fact of the grant does raise a red flag. There may be some conflict of interest at play. Such things have happened in the past (e.g., studies funded by Big Tobacco showing that smoking is harmless). But raising the possibility of a conflict is not enough, on its own, to show that the study in question can be dismissed out of hand. It may be appropriate to subject it to heightened scrutiny, but we cannot shirk our duty to assess its arguments on their merits.

    A similar thing happens when we point to the hypocrisy of someone making a certain argument—when their actions are inconsistent with the conclusion they’re trying to convince us of. Consider the following:

    The head of the local branch of the American Federation of Teachers union wrote an op-ed yesterday in which she defended public school teachers from criticism and made the case that public schools’ quality has never been higher. But guess what? She sends her own kids to private schools out in the suburbs! What a hypocrite. The public school system is a wreck and we need more accountability for teachers.

    This passage makes a strong point, but then commits a fallacy. It would appear that, indeed, the AFT leader is hypocritical; her choice to send her kids to private schools suggests (but doesn’t necessarily prove) that she doesn’t believe her own assertions about the quality of public schools. Again, this raises a red flag about her arguments; it’s a reason to subject them to heightened scrutiny. But it is not a sufficient reason to reject them out of hand, and to accept the opposite of her conclusions. That’s committing a fallacy. She may have perfectly good reasons, having nothing to do with the allegedly low quality of public schools, for sending her kids to the private school in the suburbs. Or she may not. She may secretly think, deep down, that her kids would be better off not going to public schools. But none of this means her arguments in the op-ed should be dismissed; it’s beside the point. Do her reasons back up her conclusion? Are her reasons true? That’s how we evaluate an argument; hypocrisy on the part of the arguer doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to conduct thorough, dispassionate logical analysis.

    A very specific version of the circumstantial attack, one that involves pointing out one’s opponent’s hypocrisy, is worth highlighting, since it happens so frequently. It has its own Latin name: tu quoque, which translates roughly as “you, too.” This is the “I know you are but what am I?” fallacy; the “pot calling the kettle black”; “look who’s talking”. It’s a technique used in very specific circumstances: your opponent accuses you of doing or advocating something that’s wrong, and, instead of making an argument to defend the rightness of your actions, you simply throw the accusation back in your opponent’s face—they did it too. But that doesn’t make it right!

    An example. In February 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly. President Obama, as is his constitutional duty, nominated a successor. The Senate is supposed to ‘advise and consent’ (or not consent) to such nominations, but instead of holding hearings on the nominee (Merrick Garland), the Republican leaders of the Senate declared that they wouldn’t even consider the nomination. Since the presidential primary season had already begun, they reasoned, they should wait until the voters has spoken and allow the new president to make a nomination. Democrats objected strenuously, arguing that the Republicans were shirking their constitutional duty. The response was classic tu quoque. A conservative writer asked, “Does any sentient human being believe that if the Democrats had the Senate majority in the final year of a conservative president’s second term—and Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg’s seat came open—they would approve any nominee from that president?” (David French, National Review, 2/14/16) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he was merely following the “Biden Rule,” a principle advocated by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a Senator, back in the election year of 1992, that then-President Bush should wait until after the election season was over before appointing a new Justice (the rule was hypothetical; there was no Supreme Court vacancy at the time).

    This is a fallacious argument. Whether or not Democrats would do the same thing if the circumstances were reversed is irrelevant to determining whether that’s the right, constitutional thing to do.

    The final variant of the circumstantial attack is perhaps the most egregious. It’s certainly the most ambitious: it’s a preemptive attack on one’s opponent to the effect that, because of the type of person they are, nothing they say on a particular topic can be taken seriously; they are excluded entirely from debate. It’s called poisoning the well. This phrase was coined by the famous 19th century Catholic intellectual John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was a victim of the tactic. In the course of a dispute he was having with the famous Protestant intellectual Charles Kingsley, Kingsley is said to have remarked that anything Newman said was suspect, since, as a Catholic priest, his first allegiance was not to the truth (but rather to the Pope). As Newman rightly pointed out, this remark, if taken seriously, has the effect of rendering it impossible for him or any other Catholic to participate in any debate whatsoever. He accused Kingsley of “poisoning the wells.”

    We poison the well when we exclude someone from a debate because of who they are. Imagine an Englishman saying something like, “It seems to me that you Americans should reform your healthcare system. Costs over here are much higher than they are in England. And you have millions of people who don’t even have access to healthcare. In the UK, we have the NHS (National Health Service); medical care is a basic right of every citizen.” Suppose an American responded by saying, “What you know about it? Go back to England.” That would be poisoning the well. The Englishman is excluded from debating American healthcare just because of who he is—an Englishman, not an American.


    Much of the descriptions of these two fallacies are adapted from Matthew Knachel's chapter on "Fallacies of Distraction" in his book Fundamental Methods of Logic.