4.2 The anachronistic fallacy, appeals to inappropriate authority, the populace, nature, force, tradition and vanity and the tu quoque fallacy


The anachronistic fallacy

Everyone will readily agree that we live in a rapidly changing world, especially in terms of technological advances. The devices we use to view and access the web today almost certainly will not be the same devices we will use 10 years from now. Moreover, the changes are taking place so rapidly that at this writing facebook (will it exist in 10 years?) has many popular postings initiated by an older generation asking, "Who remembers this?", and indeed, who among those reading this now remembers a time when watching television was impossible if someone in the family wanted to use the vacuum cleaner or blow dry their hair (since both vacuums and blow driers produced strong radio waves that interfered with television reception)? These changes in time (Greek chronos) can cause errors in reasoning, and when that occurs the resulting fallacy is called an anachronistic fallacy. Consider the following erroneous inferences:

It has been stated that Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919) overcame his serious health issues as a child by embracing a strenuous lifestyle, however this statement is probably propaganda, since modern science has advanced leaps and bounds since the time when evil spirits were thought to be a cause of illness and leeches were given as treatment for disease. In particular, Roosevelt probably benefited greatly from penicillin which certainly saved him from more than one serious case of pneumonia.


My father who finished his PhD in 1978 in Mathematics is always telling me how hard it was to write up his dissertation, especially since he was a terrible speller and was always having to re-write entire pages to correct one error. But this is just an exaggeration, since spell checkers can be programmed to include even advanced mathematical vocabulary and when used, fix the errors in just a few seconds.

When Mary's grandmother heard that she needed a new mouse for her computer, she wondered why such a pesty rodent as that was required for Mary's computer.

The anachronism in the first example results from the fact that penicillin was not discovered for almost a decade after Roosevelt's death, and not put into mass production until the late 1940's. Similarly for the second argument, word processors which use spell checkers were not commonly used until after 1983. Dissertations were typed up using typewriters before that time. The last example might be considered an equivocation fallacy, and indeed it is not uncommon that the same error in reasoning can be classified as being more than one type of fallacy. We include it here since the conceptual error deals with a change in the meanings of the word 'mouse' over time.

anachronistic fallacy

Definition: When an inference is made resulting from the misappropriation of concepts and ideas in time, the resulting fallacy is known as an anachronistic fallacy.

Furthermore, the misplaced idea or object is called an anachronism.


Appeal to inappropriate authority

As noted above the world is rapidly changing. Such changes require further specializations of research areas which were once quite general. The general subject of biology has evolved to include several specializations, including molecular, micro, environmental and human, to name just a few. Even if we ignore such changes, the total number of skills and trades acquired by humans over their long history is so vast it is impossible for a single person to know all humankind's amassed knowledge. Who, for example, knows how to make paper, produce and manufacture antibiotics, send a spaceship into orbit or even weave a carpet? It is simply a matter of fact that we must appeal to authorities in various fields when we wish to learn more about certain subjects. Such appeals are appropriate and necessary - however when one bases an inference on an appeal to someone who does not have an expertise in a given field one commits the fallacy known as an inappropriate appeal to authority. Here are two examples: 


Our local weather man says the recent lull in tropical storms is not due to global warming and that he is doubtful such warming is real, hence global warming is a scam.


Usain Bolt, world record breaker in the 100 meter race said on television that Gatorade is the best drink for an active life-style, hence Gatorade is better than other sports drinks or even water.

People who study the effects of climate and climatic changes over time are known a climatologists - weather is not the same as climate (and arguments that equate them commit the fallacy of equivocation), hence the first example is an appeal to an inappropriate authority.

The Philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer's (1788 - 1860) view on the appeal to inappropriate authority fallacy:

When we come to look into the matter, so-called universal opinion is the opinion of two or three persons;…

We should find that it is two or three persons who, in the first instance, accepted it, or advanced and maintained it; and of whom people were so good as to believe that they had thoroughly tested it. Then a few other persons, … also accepted the opinion. These, again, were trusted by many others, whose laziness suggested to them that it was better to believe at once, than to go through the troublesome task of testing the matter for themselves. Thus the number of these lazy and credulous adherents grew from day to day; for the opinion had no sooner obtained a fair measure of support than its further supporters attributed this to the fact that the opinion could only have obtained it by the cogency of its arguments. The remainder were then compelled to grant what was universally granted, so as not to pass for unruly persons who resisted opinions which every one accepted, or pert fellows who thought themselves cleverer than any one else.

Shopenhauer, Arthur. The Art of Controversy and other Posthumous Papers. trans. T. Bailey Saunders. Swan, Sonnenschein and Co. New York. 1896, p. 38-39.

While it is true that Usain Bolt is a world recording holding sprinter, he is not someone who studies the nutritional needs of the human body or which liquids are best for different human activities, so this too is an appeal to inappropriate authority.

Here we should note that in new areas of study, sometimes the evidence does not clearly point one way or another - in such cases appropriate authorities will often disagree and appeal to appropriate authorities will often result in inconsistent claims. In these cases we just have to wait until the evidence points clearly in one direction or another and allow those who are authorities in the field to come to agreement. However, when appeals to people outside their area of expertise should always be treated with caution.

In some cases, even after the data is in and points to one direction, sometimes appeals to appropriate authority are combined with other fallacies to produce seemingly good inferences. For example, Profesor of Molecular and Cell Biology, Peter Deusberg of U C Berkeley claims that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS. His views are in sharp disagreement with a much larger percentage of experts in the field who dispute Dr. Duesberg's views. Since we are not experts in the field, which authorities do we believe? This is a hard question, but induction gives a good rule of thumb. Once sufficient evidence on a scientific phenomena has been collected and numerous papers and experiments conducted, a scientific consensus about the meaning of the evidence usually begins to emerge, at which point we should ask whether it is more probable than not that the majority census is incorrect and the minority is correct, especially when the minority is a very small percentage of those qualified in the field (here we assume all parties have access to the same set of experimental data and arguments about the data). Induction shows that usually the consensus view stands the test of time. This is not to say that new experimental evidence could not prove the majority wrong - it is not hard to find cases in the history of science where this has occurred. But that is not the context of this examination, where we assumed that all parties have access to all available experiments and all arguments on both sides. Also this is not to say that the consensus view, even under these stated conditions could not be wrong - it is however a statement about the strength of the conclusions drawn. At any rate, clearly examining arguments from both sides is never a bad idea before coming to a conclusion when considering appropriate appeals to authorities which disagree.

appeal to inappropriate authority

Definition: When an inference is made by appealing to someone in a celebrated or respected position on a topic which is not in the expertise of the person appealed to, the resulting fallacy is known as an appeal to inappropriate authority.


Ad populum

For our next fallacy, we revisit the fallacies we introduced in the beginning of this section, namely fallacies which appeal to the people as a means for establishing a conclusion. Below we repeat these examples and and then define these fallacies.


90% of the people in several independent polls report accepting the claim that O.J. Simpson was indeed guilty of the murder of his wife and Ron Goldman, so he must be guilty.


No one believes that Kara is telling the truth, hence she must be lying.


In 1720 almost no one thought that slavery based on race was wrong, hence it must not have been back in 1720.


In early Spring of 1912, everyone believed that the ocean liner RMS Titanic was impossible to sink, hence one could purchase a transatlantic ticket without fear of the ship sinking.


ad populum /appeal to the people fallacy

Definition: When an inference is made on the sole basis of what the majority of people believe or do not believe, then the resulting error in reasoning is known as the ad populum / appeal to the people fallacy.


Naturalistic fallacy

Consider the the following three arguments:

Allowing someone to take lethal medications to end their life prematurely is immoral because such drugs are not natural and one should only die a natural death.

Mammal populations reproduce by sexual intercourse between males and females. Such intercourse is natural and part of how nature made mammals, hence sexual intercourse between people of the same sex is not natural and therefore immoral.

Don't drink anything with artificial colors or sweeteners, they are unnatural and hence unhealthy.


In each case an inference is made based on whether something is natural or not in such a way as to imply that what is natural is good and what is unnatural is bad. This is bad reasoning. Many medicines used to cure or prevent diseases are not natural in the sense that they are man-made, and moreover neither is driving a car or taking a train for that matter – if one assumes that natural means something which is not man-made and could be found in nature without humans. Clearly the second argument does not depend on that definition but it is implied there that what non-human animals do is natural and we should not depart from any such practice. But non-human animals do many things that humans feel we should not do including abandoning their offspring when attacked , eating their offspring's placenta at birth, drinking from rivers or ponds without boiling or filtration and having sex with siblings, to list but a few differences.

While it is true that there are instances where food companies, for example, have added unnatural = artificial ingredients to foods to make them taste better and such additions have been the cause of cancer and other serious health issues, the reason was not that the additions are unnatural but rather the ingredients added have properties which turned out to cause cancer or other health problems in humans.

In any case, inferences made which claim that what is natural is good and what is unnatural is bad are called naturalistic fallacies.


naturalistic fallacy

Definition: Any inference which makes the claim that what is natural is good and what is unnatural is bad is called a naturalistic fallacy.

Appeal to force 

For our last fallacy in this group we consider inferences based on threats or force rather than reason. Consider the following examples:


If you don't believe that placing an amulet against the evil eye (mal de ojo) on your door protects against the spirits of ill will and bad health, then you will suffer terrible consequences.

You have to accept our position on immigration, otherwise not only you but the nation as a whole will pay a heavy price.

Relevant reasons, rather than force or an appeal to dire consequences should be given to support any claims. To appeal to bad consequences or force the conclusion on someone is to commit the logical fallacy known as appeal to force.

appeal to force

Definition: When force or bad consequences are used to support the truth of a claim the resulting error in reasoning is known as an appeal to force fallacy.

Appeal to tradition

As a species humans have a long history which is replete with traditions and customs. Think about how modern stores prepare for festive holidays like Christmas and Easter or how we have traditionally viewed the value of freedom of speech in the United States. With this is mind it is not surprising that these traditions can be used as justifications for claims even when such facts about tradition are irrelevant to the case. Consider for example the following arguments:


Females have traditionally never been allowed combat roles in the army, but instead have been given roles related to the care of the wounded, hence the proposed policy change to allow females a combat role in the army should be rejected.

For thousands of years, males were traditionally allowed to have more than one wife, hence males should continue this practice in current times.

In the Shamara society sick children were traditionally treated using native herbal medicines and ointments, so modern medicine should be rejected as it was never needed in the past.

When an argument's claim is supported by an appeal to what has always been the case, or traditions and customs, the resulting error in reasoning is known as an appeal to tradition fallacy.

appeal to tradition

Definition: When an inference is based on an appeal to tradition, custom or what has been the case in the past, the resulting error in reasoning is known as an appeal to tradition fallacy.


Appeal to pity

It is simply a known fact that humans do not make decisions based on logic alone. Indeed some decisions we make are entirely illogical. One reason for this is that emotions guide our actions sometimes as much or more than reason itself. A powerful human emotion is that of pity, and many arguments are made by appealing to pity rather than to relevant facts related to the claim at hand. Here is an example:

Homeless people everywhere face the end of each day without a shelter over their heads or a pace to call home. Imagine what that would be like! Hence, if you have any feelings at all of pity or compassion, you should support the Homeless Shelter Organization of America by sending a check or money order to the address you see at the end of this advertisement.

Notice that the claim that you should sent money to a specific organization is supposed to be supported on the sole basis of an emotional appeal. However, that appeal alone is insufficient to support the claim that you should send money. If reasons were given as to how your money helps alleviate the homeless situation and assurances that your money will be used almost exclusively to that end, then the claim that you should send money is made much stronger. When appeals to pity alone are made to support a claim, then the resulting fallacy is known as an appeal to pity.

appeal to pity

Definition: When an inference is made based on an appeal to pity alone the resulting fallacy is called an appeal to pity fallacy.

The appeal to pity fallacy gives a blueprint for many other similar types of fallacies which include appeals to vanity and snobbery, to name a few.


tu quoque

For our last fallacy in this section, consider the following argument:

The speaker of the house just voted for legislation restricting the use of marijuana, but just last week he was cited for using marijuana himself, hence his views against marijuana use is incorrect

Notice that the conclusion that marijuana use is bad is considered to be erroneous because the person coming to the conclusion himself uses marijuana - this type of reasoning is fallacious and is known as the tu quoque fallacy (lat. but you too!). To see this consider the following argument which is very similar in nature:

The speaker of the house just voted for legislation requiring children under a certain age or size to be required to use car seats. However just last week the speaker of the house was photographed with his two-year-old son in his car without a car seat, hence the conclusion that children under a certain age should be required to use car seats is wrong.


The nature of such fallacies rests in observing a certain inconsistency between a claim a person holds and a characteristic or public view possessed by the person holding the claim. In this sense the tu quoque fallacy is a type of ad hominem fallacy, but occurs so often we treat it as a distinct fallacy.

tu quoque fallacy

Definition: When an inference about a claim is rejected because some trait held by the person making the claim is inconsistent with the claim itself, the resulting error in reasoning is known as a tu quoque fallacy.


Now it is time to test your ability to recognize the above fallacies by taking the following quiz:

quiz: fallacies 2


Match the correct fallacy name with the fallacy example.